Fiction Fiction Issue

The Safe

A junkyard mystery

In an hour the chief’s cruiser pulled up, a black, freshly waxed Oldsmobile with an elaborate gold-leaf badge on the door. Alva saw that even the tires were shiny, and he pursed his lips. The chief was a short, balding man, and with him was Jack Houston, who slowly rose out of the passenger side and seemed so pained by a general arthritis that he stayed bent over, almost in a sitting position, as he walked around the hood.

“Hey, junkman,” Jack Houston said.

“Mr. Houston.” Alva took his soft hand and then the chief’s big paw.

“You say your yellow dog smelled something he didn’t like?” the chief asked.

“It’s unusual for him to get upset.”

The chief hitched up his gun belt. “I’ll listen to a dog’s opinion before that of most people I know.”

Jack Houston looked around and seemed surprised at the big safe sitting upright under the yard’s crane. “That thing ain’t gonna topple over on me, is it?”

“It’s stable where it is. The legs have sunk into the ground.”

“If it fell on me, that’d be a sad end,” he said, moving in his creaky bowlegged stride toward the safe. He pulled out a stethoscope from his baggy khakis. “You say it’s a Sloss?”

“Yessir.”

“Is it marked on the door or the knob?”

They had walked up to the safe by then, and Houston was looking right at the knob. “Well?”

“It’s on the knob there,” Alva said, noticing the locksmith’s milky eyes.

The old man touched the dial. “I need a spray can of brake-parts cleaner.”

“I got some spray lube.”

“Is it got the little plastic squirter?”

“Yessir.”

“Then fetch it,” Houston said, twisting the combination knob back and forth, trying to work the grit from under it. Alva returned with the spray. After Houston used all of it blasting behind the knob, he pitched the can and plugged the stethoscope into his hairy ears. He worked the dial for five minutes or so, then his head came up. “Damn it, turn off the crane engine.” He looked over at the office. “That air condition, too.” After a few minutes he pulled off his earpieces and stuffed the stethoscope into his pocket.

“Give up already?” the chief asked, his tongue fat in his cheek.

Houston chuckled. “Stethoscope’s mostly for show. It don’t tell much.” He cracked his knuckles, clapped his hands, and hung his arms at his sides. “Got to let the blood build up in my fingertips.”

Alva looked around at the other men, who were waiting patiently for something to happen, a treasure or a body to fall out onto the crushed battery casings and muck of the yard. “How’d you learn to crack safes?” For the moment at least, he envied the crippled and near-blind Jack Houston.

“Pressure,” the old man said.

“What kind of pressure?”

“The pressure of eating a sandwich every day. Of paying the light bill. Sometimes more than that.” He looked down, closed his eyes, and allowed only the very tips of his fingers to touch the dial. “One time a little four-year-old girl got in the Moeller safe down at the dime store, and damned if she didn’t pull the door shut on herself. If you don’t think that wasn’t a scene, with me on my knees in the storeroom in August and her mother crying down my back while I’m trying to feel my way through those tamper-proof Moeller tumblers. It took so long we all knew she was dead, a pretty little girl with black hair and violet eyes. The daddy comes in and starts punching me in the back to hurry me up like I’m a balked mule, the Catholic priest is praying in Latin behind the safe, and here comes my young wife to stand to the side and look at me while I worked. The store manager offered me two hundred extra dollars to hurry me up, like a boxcar full of money would of done any good.” He pulled his hand away and brushed his fingertips with a pale thumb.

Little Dickie went into a squat. “Well, what happened?”

“What happened? What you think happened? I got the door open and jerked her body out like a fish and gave her to Doc Prine. She was blue in the face and limp, but after a pretty scary while he brought her around, and when she opened her eyes I went from the stupidest ox in town to some kind of saint. You never heard such noise in your life.”

“That was the Delarco girl?” Snyder Problem asked.

“It was. She grew up and is a school principal over in Pine Oil. Had four children and one of em’s named Houston.” He put his right hand on the dial and began to move it slowly.

“How long’s this gonna take?” Alva asked.

Jack Houston closed his eyes. “Shut up and we’ll see. This big nasty-looking baby was made in the 1800s. It’s simple as a box of crackerjack. I’d as soon put my money in a cigar box behind the piano.”

The men walked over to the entrance gate and stood in a little circle in the shade of a hackberry growing through a rotted tractor tire. “You know,” the chief began, casting a long look around the yard, “I had a call or two about the rats living in this place.”

Alva put a foot on an engine block. “You want me to talk to the rats?”

“No. But you could teach them to work a weed whacker.”

Snyder guffawed. “Chief, you could loan us a couple prisoners to pull up the brush.”

The men went back and forth like this, weaving a meaningless talk just to pass the time. They knew what they were doing, clouding their minds’ eyes to the fact of what might be in the safe—some sign of murder, a crumbling body falling to gray ash as the air reached it, or sign of thievery, a stingy payroll never given out to the perhaps-starving laborers at the factory, or the stale air of nothingness, a sixty-year-old breath of fiscal shame and bankruptcy. They talked and tried not to think for an hour, moving with the ball of shade thrown down by the hackberry. At last, Jack Houston’s voice came around a hill of tire rims: “I’ve got it.”

They all walked slowly, as if toward a grisly diagnosis. Houston beckoned them with his thin arms. He turned to the safe door and spun the wheel that drew out the deadbolts from the frame. “Someone will have to pull the right door open for me. If there’s another thin door inside, I’ll have to deal with that one a few minutes.”

Snyder stepped up and muscled open the squalling door, an antique and sweet air gliding past his face and on into the universe. He worked a lever and swung wide the other door. He saw no inner barrier, just a system of low metal shelves that stopped halfway up and then what appeared to be a large pile of sacks wedged into the remaining space. Snyder seemed disappointed. He cocked his head and stepped back. “I guess the dog was smelling those hemp sacks.”

Little Dickie looked back at the office. “He got a snootful and thought he was in for a big buzz. Thought it was hashish.”

Alva walked up and felt around in the sacks, which were whispery as dry hay. He turned to the men. “Something’s inside the pile.” He and Snyder pulled the sacks away, revealing a maple crate with dovetailed corners. The men slid it off its shelf and carried it into the office, where they placed it on the gray metal desk. The lid was nailed on, and Alva pried it up with a small crowbar. Inside the box he saw a layer of thick burgundy velvet cloth, which he unfolded as the men gathered around.

“Hey,” the chief said, “it’s made out of thick glass, whatever it is.”

Snyder picked up the desk lamp and held it high. “It’s a big glass dome with a handle on top. Kind of shaped like a suitcase. What’s that in it?”

“Let’s see.” Alva pulled up on the handle, which was textured and also glass, and he raised something—what, he couldn’t tell—out of the enveloping cloth. It was too close to see for a moment, heavy, two feet long and a foot wide. Snyder moved the crate to the floor with a wheeze, and Alva set the object on the desk where the crate had been. He stepped back.

The locksmith adjusted his glasses and leaned in. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “Will you look at this.”

The men bent down at the waist, hands on knees like schoolboys, and studied the oblong cut-glass dome etched with the emblem of the Wiewasser Sewing Machine Company, a logo shaped like a shield, with a waterfall in the middle surrounded by alternating stars and lightning bolts and fine, careful crosshatching. All over the glass beyond the emblem’s borders were hand-cut leaves, little women in Grecian dress walking up a mountain path leading to a tunnel formed by the leafy limbs of trees, and on the other side of the dome the etched water of a rock-studded stream ran before a long temple whose fluted pillars framed the figures of goddesses, their hands aloft to a sun crosshatched white. With a forefinger Alva traced the handle, a glass dolphin. On the two long sides, near the bottom, four gold-plated latch hooks swung on golden rivets in the glass. Inside the dome, the men began to comprehend an elegant sewing machine, antique, with a hand crank on the wheel. Alva slid the latches through their bright arcs, lifted off the dome, and placed it in the hollow place under his desk.

Little Dickie whistled. “Man, they coulda sewed a suit for the pope on this thing.”

The base of the machine was shaped like a fiddleback, made of intricately cast and clear-lacquered brass. The edges stepped down in a triple ogee to four detailed turtle feet, each cast toenail bearing an amber jewel the size of a small kernel of corn. The feet planted themselves on a dark sub-base of burled rosewood, showing a carved border of miniature ocean surf. “I know they didn’t make them like this to sell,” Alva said.

“Not hardly.” The locksmith’s face brightened in the machine’s glow. “In the old days, there were international machinery expositions. Factories would make up special exhibit versions of their products. They’d go all out trying to best the other makers, no matter what it was they manufactured, even putting together fancy locomotives and giant mill engines, steam gauges that looked like religious items off an altar. This thing’s gotta be a hundred years old.”

“They used to crank them by hand?” Alva touched the flywheel’s bone-white handle. “This an early plastic?”

The locksmith’s eyes swam and focused. “Ivory. Do you see a pattern?”

Alva looked closer. “Little shallow fish scales. Helped you grab it, I guess.”

Snyder straightened up and laughed. “It’s a tree.”

“Damned if it ain’t,” Little Dickie said. The machine’s bright gildings placed star points in his eyes. “The whole body of the thing’s like a bent-over tree.”

Alva was gradually disheartened by the cleverness of the design. The main body of the machine was gold plated, indeed rising like a tree trunk and then leaning into an arch that ended in the machine’s head, a flattened mass of bunched metal leaves. The presser foot and needle protruded from the bottom. The bark pattern Alva knew well—water oak, like the big one in his yard—but this metal tree showed sinewy ridges of gold. Out of the machine’s leaf pattern stared the embedded garnet eyes of birds, squirrels, and toads hiding in the foliage. The casting and fine engraving showed the handiwork of what must have been the factory’s most talented worker. Near the flywheel was the maker badge, a repeat of the design on the glass cover, but here the stars were inlaid with small diamond-cut rubies, and the lightning bolts were coated with alternating layers of gold and silver. The flywheel itself was gold plated and scalloped along the rim, with a serpentine row of hyacinth inlaid with ivory dyed apple green.

Alva felt belittled by the apparatus, as though his life were suddenly small and beside the point. He knew the feeling would pass after a while, but really, who could make this? He hardly understood how to look at it. Every surface was a surprise of coherent innovation. The men pointed and stared for fifteen minutes before the police chief motioned toward a small wishing well protruding from the lower frame of the machine, exclaiming, “The little crank and shaft for the well bucket is the bobbin winder!”

It was a good while before anyone thought about value, which even to the scrap men seemed beside the point. Little Dickie pushed back his hair and straightened up. “What’s something like this worth?”

Snyder Problem closed one eye. “Even if someone would bust it up into scrap and jewelry, it’d bring a good bit.”

Alva put two fingers on the flywheel handle and turned it around through a cycle. The machine made no sound, and the motion was as smooth as water pouring from a teapot. “Mr. Houston, who could appraise something like this?”

“Oh, everybody knows everything nowadays because of that Internet. Just get your wife to take a picture and e-mail it around to some antique dealers. You’ll get a ballpark figure, anyway.”

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