NaNoWriMo 2011 Story 4 - Day 21

 


“Mother, Father, I’ll be back at the house. I really must finish the air hull designs. Please let Inspector Hew know in case he needs me for anything, and assure him that if I think of anyone who might have relevant input I’ll be sure to ask them.”
“Of course, Archerd.” His father laid a hand on his shoulder and he turned back toward the house, mind racing.
He didn’t think he knew of anyone who’d have anything to say, at least not anyone that Ann wouldn’t already be asking. Stomach churning with the unwelcome feeling of helplessness, he let his feet carry him back home through the still largely empty streets.
The Dolet family home had been in the family for many generations; Archerd’s father had inherited it from an uncle before Archerd himself had been born. It was a large building, and Archerd had several rooms to himself. One of these he used as both office and design studio, and this was where he went now.
The room was a feast for the eyes, covered with carefully hand-drawn maps, diagrams, charts and schematics on the walls instead of art, with piles of books, gadgets and components thereof tucked in alcoves and shelves and on tables everywhere there was space. A large desk occupied one half of the room, while the center was dominated by a draftsman’s drawing table. Large windows overlooked the yards out back, and in front of those windows, a long workbench held more parts in carefully organized disarray.
He stood before the draftsman’s table, breathing in the familiar curious mixture of bookish dusty warmth and metallic tangs of filings and alloys, overlaid with wood and metal polishes and grease. It helped calm his nerves a little. He turned his attention to the plans spread out over the table. At first glance, it looked much like the plans for a locomotive engine. A long, very broad chassis stretched through the virtual space of the paper, with three large stacks rising from it to allow steam pressure to be vented from various parts of the engine assemblies inside.
From there the resemblance grew harder to see, as instead of the great wheels of the track-riding trains, this vehicle was to be outfitted with what looked like outrigger pods connected with a half-dozen braces on each side, and linked to the body again with railed steps for passengers and crew.
It was larger still, both longer, deeper and wider, for unlike a train it would not be hauling anything behind it. It would instead be hauled itself, through the air, kept aloft by … and that was what Archerd was presently considering.
Transports that float through the air had been built before, held always by heated air that buoyed the craft upwards, but he wasn’t convinced that would be sufficient for a craft of the size he was designing.
He was writing notes in a journal of the merits and detriments of various alternative buoyancy mechanisms, including the use of helium or possibly hydrogen gas, when a knock came at the door. A glance at his pocket watch told him that he’d lost track of time, and it was now late in the afternoon. Hours had passed.
Setting aside a brass-handled quill he’d been scribbling sketches with, he answered the door to find himself face to face with Inspector Hew once more. He was dusty and soot-stained, and holding a small leather sack which jangled a bit as he moved.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Dolet. Your father said you’d volunteered to lend your expertise to the investigation if it should be required, and I do rather think it’s required, if you have a few moments.”
“Yes! Yes, of course, please, come in.” He opened the door fully and stepped aside to allow the inspector entrance. “What can I do for you? Please, have a seat.”
The inspector nodded and sat himself on a brass stool at the workbench, there being few other options as Archerd was unaccustomed to guests in his office. “Well, Mr. Dolet, we found the source of the explosion, or rather the pieces thereof. It was an explosive device of some sort, and I have to confess that neither I nor anyone else on the force are knowledgeable about such things. Frankly, nobody’s even heard of such things before, but the physical evidence is hard to dismiss.” He sighed.
“We generally keep to a strict policy regarding civilian involvement in law enforcement matters, Mr. Dolet, but your father has helped us out on several occasions in the past, and he told me that in this particular matter, you’re the expert. Would you take a look at this … wreckage, and see what you can make of it?”
Archerd smiled. “With pleasure, Inspector Hew.” He cleared space on the work table top. “If you would? Let’s see what we’re dealing with here.” His mind was racing with possibilities; he was familiar with explosive devices, though the most common type he knew of were firearms, simple devices that used a controlled, directed explosive compound to drive projectiles at high speed in the desired direction. That hardly seemed to describe what had happened at the school. Something larger, perhaps, without the directional control …
The inspector spread the components out across the table and Archerd immediately threw those thoughts out the window. This was something else entirely, nothing comparable to a firearm or simple bomb; that much he could tell at a glance.
“Well now.” He took a pair of multi-lensed work goggles from the worktable and dragged up another stool. “What have we here …”
He fiddled with the lenses of the goggles, flipping some of the several lenses up then down over each eye until he got the magnification he needed. All of the pieces were of course badly damaged, burnt black in places. There were fragments of what must have been an outer shell or casing of some sort, with thinned edges suggesting seams or perhaps thinner grooves.
“Inspector, could you describe the wreckage of the school to me? What did you learn from examining the remains of the building?”
“Quite a lot, though not enough. First, I learned my early suspicions were correct; whoever set the device met his end there. He was still present when the explosion occurred, though there’s not much left of him now. At least he won’t be setting any more bombs in the future.
“Second, the walls and roof were blasted out; the perpetrator set the bomb inside the building, not outside, and the floor is relatively intact save for where the roof fell on it and where interior furnishings caught fire and burned.”
“Exactly what I was curious about. See these thinned edges on these pieces? This looks to be a casing, and it’s been designed to blow out in a particular way, guiding the blast up and out rather than allowing it freedom in all directions.”
“That would explain much of what I saw at the site. What more can you tell me?”
“I’ll have to spend some more time examining this, I’m afraid. Most of it is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. These pieces almost look like something you’d find as part of a cooling apparatus, but I can’t imagine why that would be of any value in an explosive device, and these—”
“Actually, that might indeed be the case. Your sister was most helpful earlier. She led us to several people in different areas of the street who recalled having seen an unusual looking man carrying a large case. One of those witnesses told us he was leaving the residence of a Mr. Bowdyn Creekmore. I understand you know him?”
“Bowdyn? What would he have to do with …” He stopped and frowned. Bowdyn Creekmore was an inventor of sorts, untrained in the sciences formally, but very clever. He’d met the man several times and they had something of a friendly rivalry between them. They’d never been friends, however; Bowdyn always seemed to have just a touch of the careless to him, was just a little too eager to rush to the end result of his work. Archerd knew he could be impulsive himself at times, but his father and the Academy in turn had both trained that out of his work habits, if not necessarily always out of his life entirely.
“Oh Bowdyn. What has he gotten himself into?”
“Can’t know for sure just yet, but since you know him and you’re familiar with his field, that’s the other way you can help, Mr. Dolet. I have men talking to him now, and when they’re done, I’d like you to look over what he had to say. If we need to talk to him again, I’d like you there.”
“Do you suspect him of aiding the saboteur?”
“Right now we have no reason to think so, but it’s really too early to say. I’ll know more when I hear the report from my men.”
“Then I should let you get back to them. I’ll go over this and see what I can learn.”
“Exactly what I wanted to hear, and thank you. I’ll stop by in the morning to hear your conclusions.” Hew stood then, and extended his hand. Rising in turn, Archerd shook it and led him out, then turned back to the strange apparatus with a curious frown.
“And now, what exactly are you?” And he set to work to find out.
He worked until late in the evening, long past the setting of the sun, when the air finally cooled to survivable temperatures and he had to light candles to see. When he did turn in for the night at last, he thought he had a pretty good idea just what it was the saboteur had built.
The next morning Inspector Hew was as good as his word. He turned up at the door shortly after breakfast, just in time for a cup of coffee. Archerd and his father were still at the table.
“The good news is it doesn’t sound like your friend Mr. Creekmore was up to no good yesterday. He says the man stopped in to buy a part, paid for it and left straight away.”
“Good news, certainly,” Archerd said with a touch of relief. “But it doesn’t seem to help us any either.”
“Not that, no. But this does. The man had been in once before, several weeks ago. That’s when he ordered the piece. ”
“He’d been here this long!”
Across the table, Archerd’s father ran a hand over his thinning white hair and sighed. “Here under our very noses. And unless I’m very mistaken, we’d be fools to assume he was alone.”
“Fools indeed, Father.” Archerd wore a grim expression. “I completed my examination of the device last night, Inspector Hew, and while I can’t say what the explosive itself was composed of, the mechanism I can describe in great detail. Whatever the explosive was, it was a solid composition, not a powder nor liquid, and it required a controlled temperature. What’s more, the mechanism used to set it off was designed to be controlled, and I’d guess carefully controlled.”
“You guess? That doesn’t sound very confident.”
“I know, and I apologize, but we are discussing delicate components of an explosive device that was successfully set off. There simply wasn’t much left of that part of the device, and what there was was in dreadful shape. I have had to base my evaluation on the parts that were intact and present for me to examine, and I assure you it wasn’t easy.
“In any event, the controlled trigger looked like it should have been capable of providing enough control for the man to get out in time.”
Inspector Hew nodded. “I’ve been considering two possibilities, but that does add a third. First, he was careless and blew himself up accidentally. Second, he intentionally blew himself up. Or, in light of your examination, perhaps he was set up by someone else and the device was configured to go off earlier than he knew. A bit of a logical leap, I know, but I’ll have to check into it. Thank you for your help, both of you.”
“Perhaps I can still be of some help, Inspector.” Archerd sat forward. “If we’re looking for yet another man, possibly a smarter man, smart enough to have rigged the explosive to go off early, then maybe he’s had dealings with other people in town. Other orders for parts.”
Hew finished his coffee and nodded. “Yes … Yes indeed, an excellent thought. Very well then Altman, I’ll be borrowing your boy if you don’t mind.”
“Gone and found a replacement for me have you?” Altman said with a chuckle. “It’s about time, I’m too old for all that running around.”
“You’ve got some years in you yet, I’d wager. Don’t you worry. I’ll bring him back in one piece. You ready, young Mr. Dolet?”
“Call me Archerd, Inspector. And if I may beg your pardon for a moment longer, I’ll go retrieve something that may be of some use to us.”
Hew nodded and Archerd disappeared upstairs, reappearing moments later with a small hard case. He set this on the table and fiddled with a combination lock on the front, a series of buttons that elicited the sound of turning gears within at each press. Finally a sharp clack sounded and the lock released with a snap.
Opening the case, he withdrew two small devices. “I’m sure you’ve used something like this before Inspector, you likely have one set up at your headquarters.”
“I couldn’t say, why, what is it?”
In response, Archerd handed one of the devices to the inspector, after carefully checking the volume. “It’s for communication,” he said, his voice transmitted perfectly to the matching device in Hew’s hand. The man’s eyes widened.
“Remarkable. Simply remarkable. Altman, you old dog, you’ve been holding out on us, this young man is a treasure! You built this?”
“Designed and built, indeed. It saved my life once too, though I hope it won’t come to that again.”
“And they have the same capabilities as the larger units?”
“Exactly the same.”
“When this is over I’ll have to have a talk with you about building some more.”
“I think that can be arranged, Inspector. But for now, consider it a loan. What frequency do you use on the unit at headquarters? I’ll set your communicator up to send and receive to it. Won’t take more than a few minutes.”
Several minutes later, Archerd had Hew’s communicator equipped with both frequencies, the one for Archerd’s device and the police headquarters’ device set up on switches for the Inspector’s use. Hew delighted in shocking the living daylights out of his man on duty at the desk by calling in; the communicators were used for inter-city communications, not on the level of individuals.


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