A Curious Event Occurs
Charlie shuffled uncomfortably at the desk and set down the letter opener.
“Ehm…I mean,” Charlie stammered, “I was just lookin’ to see if he might’ve had any paperwork. An’ this drawer here was locked…so I thought I could just, ya know, jimmy it open?”
“Gears, Charlie,” Harriet exclaimed, jumping up from her seat. “How many times have I told you not to break locks?”
“This is a common occurrence?” Bentam asked, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” Charlie and Harriet quickly replied. They both exchanged a surreptitious glance to each other.
“Hm,” Bentam grunted, his eyes squinting.
“But, uh, look at this!” He reached inside of the drawer and pulled out a strange book. “Look at this fancy book that was in here!” Tracey sighed, pushing back her annoyance before joining the modest crowd that gathered around Charlie.
In Charlie’s hands was a book unlike anything Tracey, nor anyone else in the room for that matter, had seen before. On its cover was an elaborate design of gear works, inlaid in a thick wooden surface. The pages were gilded, and its spine sported a similar design of gears. The book was locked.
“Is this Mr. Porter’s record book?” Mittie asked.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this book before,” Tracey said. “I don’t even know how to open this!”
“Perhaps you can break this lock as well, hm?” Bentam said, staring harshly at Charlie.
Charlie gulped and shook his head. “I’ve never seen a lock like this, that drawer was a piece of cake in comparison. Really, look at all a’ those gears!”
“Why would Mr. Porter hide this from me?” Tracey said in bewilderment.
“I suppose that even a Keeper has secrets of their own,” Mittie said as she leaned closer to the book. “Maybe we can turn the gears?”
Tracey grappled with the gears to no avail. “They’re not moving,” she sighed.
“Quick question,” Harriet suddenly said from the front of the room. “Were you expecting any motor-mail?”
“No, I only received a combustible note earlier today,” Tracey replied, ignoring the reactions of shock from Mittie, Charlie, and Harriet. “Why?”
“I thought—I just thought you may have missed this piece of mail here,” she stammered, holding up a peculiar brown sachet. “I found it in the motor-mail.”
“May I see it?” Tracey said.
Mittie turned to her. “You got your hands on combustible paper? And ya never thought of mentioning that?”
“I was simply following Bentam’s advice—.”
“He’s in on it too??” Mittie spun to him.
“No, Mittie, she merely informed me of this when she requested a case opening this morning,” Bentam calmly responded. “ It appears as if we’ve gotten off track. Let me continue gathering information for this report,” he said as he began furiously scrawling on the paper.
Meanwhile, Tracey took the sachet from Harriet and examined it. She frowned. “There’s no return address, nor any labeling,” she said.
“Kinda thick for an envelope too, don’t ya think?” Mittie said, her interest flitting back to Tracey and Harriet.
“How do you open it?” Charlie asked as he set down Mr. Porter’s book and joined them.
“It says, ‘rip here’…” Tracey said, straining to read the impossibly small type on the envelope. She tore the sachet.
“What’s inside?” Harriet asked as she tried to crane her head to get a better view.
“A piece of paper…?” Tracey pulled out the small piece of paper. On it was a crudely written note—if it could be called written due to its chicken-scratch nature:
Talk to Williams Matthews. 9 AM. Bank of Mondon. 100 sprigs for more information on your precious Porter.
Tracey gasped and dropped the paper.
“What’s wrong, what is it?” Mittie cried, snatching up the paper. “‘Williams Matthews, 9 AM, Bank of Mondon…100 springs for information on Porter…?’ Tracey this is blackmailing.”
“And the clearest lead yet,” Bentam said, quickly putting down his notepad and rushing over. “Let me see this, I can record it into the case record.”
Bentam took the piece of paper and scrawled the message onto his own sheet. “Now, let me file…,” he suddenly trailed off as he stared at the paper in his hands, his eyes widening.
“Why’s he lookin’ at the paper like that?” Charlie said.
The paper in question seemed to smoke in his hands before suddenly dissolving into smokes. Everyone stared.
“That wasn’t combustible paper…was it?” Mittie nervously asked.
“’The crime for being in possession of or in the presence of combustible paper is immediate imprisonment,” Bentam quoted. “A passage from our Major Felonies coursebook.”
“You mean to say I could still land in the slammers just for standing near one a’ those things? I didn’ even touch it!” Charlie exclaimed.
“I’m too young to go to prison,” Harriet wailed.
Tracey and Mittie stared at each other in shock. Is this really how we’re going to end up? Tracey’s mind raced.
Bentam dusted off the remains of the paper from his hand and cleared his throat. They watched him in tense silence, as he took up the paper containing the case file.
To their surprise, however, he strode over to a set of candles, took up a nearby match, and proceeded to set the paper afire. “Wha—,” Charlie said. “What’s he doin’? He’s burning the paper! Why’s he burning the paper?”
“Isn’t that the case file?” Tracey gasped. “What are you doing?”
Bentam ignored them all, staring at the flames as they licked up the paper, dropping it onto the candle tray as the tounges of flames reached his hand. He rubbed the ashes before turning to everyone. “That parcel never arrived,” he evenly said. “None of us saw that sheet of paper.”
“…beg pardon?” Tracey asked.
“It would be prudent if we were to proceed without the case file,” he continued, walking back to his notepad, and holding it up. “I just burned the case file application. Here are the notes from your testimonies.”
“I don’t know if I should be relieved or afraid,” Harriet said.
“I’d say!” Mittie interjected. “What’s all this ’bout, Bentam?”
“I believe we all realize what sort of predicament we’ve just found ourselves in. If the High Constable catches wind of this paper—let alone the one found earlier by Ms. Higgenbottom—imprisonment is imminent. On the other hand, we cannot turn a blind eye that Mr. Porter is potentially kidnaped by someone who seems to be of questionable connections.”
“All the more reason to give it to the High Constable, this case!” Mittie replied. “I’m sure they’d understand once we explain.”
“They’ll imprison you automatically. Only after they clear you, are you able to leave, and that may be a week or even two later. Do you think that Mr. Porter will still be safe and sound by then? Someone in possession of combustible paper, and with the audacity to send it via motor-mail should not be trifled with. I do not doubt that they will not hesitate to retaliate if we try any sudden or suspicious movements.”
The air hung heavy in the room. “Then what’s the next plan of action?” Tracey finally asked.
“We all go home. They may be watching us as we speak, especially since Mittie has informed us that we’ve already met someone who was here at the time of the crime.”
“And then what?” Mittie asked. “I’ll go back to the ship, you all go to your homes, and…?”
“We do as the paper says,” Bentam said, gathering up his stack of papers to him. Tracey noticed his hands shook as he straightened the stack. “All of us will reconvene tomorrow at the Bank of Mondon. I’ll be there from 8:30 as I have some work balances to deposit.”
Tracey watched as everyone shuffled out from the office, each going off on their own way. As the sun set over the towering buildings of Mondon, she couldn’t help but wonder if the following day would prove to be successful in tracking down Mr. Porter.