THE WOODEN BOX
By Martin Hill Ortiz
Engineers in rumpled jackets commingled with stylish socialites. Together, they crowded the foyer at Dwight Hall where they feasted on filet mignon and small talk. The coming presentation promised to be the event of the season.
"I respect Mr. Tesla, but he is quite insane," Professor Mihajlo Pupin said, peering at his rival through slender, slitted glasses. "He possesses fiendishly large hands. He broke my thumb, you know."
The student he told this to laughed; Pupin, in turn, harrumphed. No one took his grievances seriously. Tonight, Nikola Tesla shone as the star and few gave credence to words spoken against the young genius.
In several short years the inventor had risen from off-the-boat immigrant to the rank of inventor-celebrity. He had announced that those attending tonight's demonstration would witness real-life miracles.
This boast contrasted with the placard bearing the dry title of his talk:
Experiments with Alternate Currents of Very High Frequency and Their Application to Methods of Artificial Illumination.
May 20, 1891. 8 p.m., Columbia College.
With his sleek silk shirt and trim swallow-tailed jacket, Tesla looked the part of the maître d' of a gentleman's club. Seemingly as tall as the Tower of Pisa—but possessing better posture—he welcomed each attendee with a modest, stiff bow.
Through each greeting, his smile remained frozen and his eyebrows raised. He addressed by name all those he had met before, even those for whom the encounter had been but a moment.
"Darling, Nikki," Katharine Johnson said, standing nearby and leaning on her umbrella. Her dress cascaded in white ruffles and her corset pinched her figure into the shape of a wasp. "Do tell, how is it you recall the names of so many faces?"
"I merely put to mind a list," Nikola said. After taking a moment to greet another well-wisher, he added, "It is the basest form of intelligence."
She laughed as though he had confided a terrible truth.
A cigar haze hung over the room. Tesla's eyes watered. "I cannot tolerate filth and to violate the communal air is certainly the most unpardonable of crimes." He wrinkled his nose.
"Ah, Nikola," Pupin said as he arrived, "I recognize that sneer. Humankind is too filthy for your tastes?"
"Witness the slaves to the tobacco weed, their hellish eruption of fumes and their ritual cud-chewing while gathered around their polished cuspidors. Spittoons are nothing more than free-standing cisterns. The fecal hue of tobacco is no mere coincidence. In contrast, electricity is a pure, colorless and sterilizing force."
"Then perhaps you should invent the electric bath," the professor said.
Katharine unleashed another one of her high and hearty laughs.
"I already have. Humans are bacterial zoos. Fortunately, every organism, including stubby, round ones—" he glared down at Pupin "—possess magnetic poles allowing us to electrically strip from our skins the corpuscles of contagion."
A hush came over the room: Mr. Samuel Clemens had arrived with his wife, Olivia. He hitched his thumbs in the pockets of his dress jacket, thereby avoiding handshakes while pressing through the crowd and delivering courteous nods.
A ruckus outside the entryway shattered this moment of silence. Everyone turned to look, but no one could see. Tesla was tall enough to scan over the heads of the assembly, but his view through the doorway was blocked by a constricted angle and the presence of a corpulent gentleman wearing a stovepipe hat.
"This is the last time! The last time!" someone outside shouted. The sounds of a scuffle ended.
"I suppose that must have been the last time," Pupin said, tittering at his own remark.
"Such unpleasantness," Mrs. Johnson added with a pout.
A man stormed into the room, looking this way and that. Nearing fifty, but with a prizefighter's build, he jutted out his lower lip and snuffled. He wiped his fingers on a handkerchief which he then stuffed halfway into his vest pocket. When his eyes happened upon Tesla, he began barreling toward him followed closely by the fat man in the top hat.
"I'm unfamiliar with the portly fellow," Tesla stated, "but the peppery one is Richard Croker, Tammany alderman, kingmaker and insatiable gambler. I know him only by reputation and from sketches I've scanned in the Post."
The politician arrived with his hand extended. Tesla considered the offer, then declined to shake.
Croker responded by swinging a mock punch stopping short of the inventor's chin. He barked out a laugh. "Mr. Tesla. I've been told you've got yourself the nimblest noodle in Manhattan. You're just the man I need to settle a wager."
"Was this wager with your son?" Tesla asked.
"My son?" Croker's eye twitched. "You know my son?"
"You were just now arguing with him outside the lobby. You almost came to blows before you agreed to write him a check."
"You could see that from here?" the flustered alderman said.
"Observation, but not from seeing through walls. I have a particular disdain for filth and I noted a fresh smudge of ink between your thumb and forefinger when you offered to shake my hand. Furthermore, there are the slight creases in your fingertips that came from recently pinching the nub of a fountain pen. I say fountain pen because the stain on your fingers has run and is clearly a water-based ink which would not have been used with a dipping pen."
"But," Croker asked, "how could you know I wrote a check—to my son?"
"Along with your handkerchief, you have a lead pencil peeking from your vest pocket. The pencil would have been the more convenient and less sloppy choice if you were composing a mere note. Therefore, you were clearly performing a task for which ink is required. I suspect that a man with your many concerns carries a capped fountain pen at all times for signing documents and for check-writing. The firmness by which you held the nib told me you urgently filled out the check over an improvised surface. As for the argument, everyone in the foyer heard a portion of that, thanks to Mr. Twain quieting the room. How did I know the recipient was your son? That was conjecture. You are of the proper age to have a young adult for a child. You would not have shouted so harshly in public at someone of the fairer sex. The fury of your words and your pitched agitation are of the variety we reserve for family."
"Please tell Tesla, he's wrong," Pupin said. "He is sufficiently insufferable without validating his whimsies of cerebration."
"He is correct on most points," the corpulent man in the top hat said in a smooth and sonorous voice. His cologne was the sort that could be used to knock out and shanghai sailors; his breath fared no better. "You erred on one detail. My friend, Richard, made the bet with me. Bill Morris, pleased to make your acquaintance." A boozy smile spread across his face as he tipped his hat.
"Yes," the alderman said. "I set a wager with Bill as to whether someone of my choosing could determine, without peeking, the identity of an item placed inside a hollow wooden box. Naturally I sought out the most brilliant thinker in Manhattan."
"A black box experiment," Pupin noted. "That is a question for a science-philosopher. Mr. Tesla is a tinkerer, not a thinkerer."
"I am an engineer," Tesla countered, clicking his heels, "the same as you."
"No one is the same as Nikki," Katharine said. "Of course, he can meet your challenge."
"You will be compensated for your efforts," Morris said, smirking, "regardless of your failure."
"No." Tesla shook his head. "No, I decline compensation. Overcoming the challenge is, in itself, sufficient reward."
Croker broke into a toothy grin and extended a flat palm displaying a three-inch cube made from walnut panels. The edges were fastened by slender dowels. The lid was a thin sheet of balsa set inside slotted runners and shut tight.
"How specific must my identification be?" Tesla asked.
"Most very specific," Morris said. "Richard and I agreed you must name the object, not merely indicate its size or shape."
Tesla took possession of the box raising it to eye level. Gliding his fingers along a surface and sniffing he noted that the panels had been recently been polished with tung oil. No odor came from the object inside.
He shook the box and its contents clattered: a single item. He pinched two of the box's corners between his thumb and index finger and slowly rotated it. When the steepness of its angle overcame inertia, the item inside slid and then thunked against a wall. When the box tilted 45 degrees, he rocked it. No sound.
He proceeded to rotate the box along a different axis until the unseen object slid and rapped a wall once more, this time to a slight degree more loudly.
"Mr. Croker," Tesla said, "if I may ask. Did you select and place this item in the box shortly before entering this room?"
"Why, yes, but. . ."
"Dice. Excuse me, the singular form is 'die.' If, upon opening the box, the upper face of the die reads six, then your son's life is in danger."
"Is that some sort of fortunetelling?" Croker said, sputtering. "A poorly contrived joke?"
"It is pure ratiocination, I assure you."
"Pay my fellow Serb no mind," Pupin said. "He is subject to fits of delusion."
Tesla slid back the lid and presented the contents for all to see. The die face displayed two neat rows each with three pips.
"Nikki . . .?" Katharine shuddered.
"But how could you know?" Croker asked.
"Must I explain my analysis?" Tesla said, his voice quaking. "It will steal valuable time which you should spend in pursuit of your son."
"I will require an explanation if I am to warrant an urgency to my actions."
"Well enough. The item slid along the first floor and fit snugly against the corner. It repeated this action along the second floor. That meant it had at least two sets of perpendicular faces. The length of each transit indicated dimensions of one-half inch. I concluded it was a solid cubic item with a resonance suggesting the density of ivory or bone. I recognized at that instant it was a die."
"That much has been established, sir, but how did you know it would read six? And what of the danger to my son?"
"At the end of the die's second transit, it made a perceptibly more forceful strike. This occurred because one side is heavier than the other. That indicates a loaded die. I have read that the typical means for rigging a die is by drilling through the side with a single pip, hollowing out a space beneath the face, and filling it with lead. With the side displaying the one pip weighted, the opposite side, that with six pips, appears more often. When gambling, it is tossed with a normal die. The combination prevents what are called 'snake eyes' and allows the gamesman to bet on higher numbers. This type of playing the long odds does not take place in street corner games; instead it indicates high-stakes gambling.
"Mr. Croker, you wrote your son a check to pay off his gambling debts. Do I need to explain how I determined this?"
Croker remained mute.
"You declared that you had placed this object inside the box just before you entered the lobby. I assert your action came from impulse after seeing this die in your son's possession. Gaming is in your blood and its consuming fever has been passed on to your child. He is a gambler and this weighted die shows that he is a willfully crooked one. Furthermore, he is a failed gambler. You swore to him this instance would be the last time—the last time you would bail him out. But you are not the sort of man who would pay up for trivial reasons. You did so because your son informed you his moneylenders were threatening him. Your son, however, has no intention of paying off his gambling debts and then ending his behavior. He possessed a rigged die and was heading off to use it to cheat the roughnecks and that, sir, is a very dangerous game. Need I go on?"
"There's more?" Croker asked.
Tesla was prepared to continue but Katharine grabbed his sleeve and sizzled a shush.
Croker's brow knotted. His eyes lit with fear. "My son had a sporting jacket slung over his shoulder with the pocket parted open. When I saw that instrument of his addiction inside, I seized hold of it."
"And you placed that die inside this box to satisfy the compulsion of your own petty wager."
"It is not petty!"
Morris brayed with laughter.
Croker looked to Tesla, Katharine and Pupin for sympathy. His face blanched. For a moment, he seemed unable to breathe.
"Go!" Tesla commanded.
The alderman staggered, turned and then began to shove his way through the crowd, gaining momentum until he broke into a trot.
"You rattled that man the way you rattled the box," Pupin observed.
Tesla bowed his head. "And I found what was hidden inside him. Love for his son."
"Still, a dreadful business," Katharine said.
The fat man brayed again. "Delightful! The way ole Richard's face went white. The blood drained from him quicker than out of a headless hog on a butcher's hook. I have you to thank, Mr. Tesla, for the most entertaining wager I've ever lost. I shall call upon you the next time I have need for the most brilliant man in Manhattan." He took a cigar from his vest pocket and bit off the nub. "My box?"
Tesla handed it over. In exchange, the fat man slipped a twenty dollar gold piece into the inventor's cupped palm.
Morris turned and hocked the nub of his cigar into a nearby spittoon. He bowled through the crowd, heading for the exit.
Tesla studied the gold piece. Liberty's face was smudged with grime. "There's a reason they call it filthy lucre." He rolled the coin around the rim of a cuspidor. When it lost momentum, it toppled, tumbling inside. He pinched his jacket by its lapels and gave them a tug downwards, removing the slack from its shoulders.
"Madam." With a nod to Mrs. Johnson, he headed into the lecture hall.
Pupin hung back, remaining in the foyer as the crowd poured through the doors to find seats. At last alone, he dug out the coin.
Martin Hill Ortiz has had a score of short stories in print magazines, anthologies and online journals. He is the author of three novels, A PREDATORY MIND (Loose Leaves Publishing, 2013), NEVER KILL A FRIEND (Ransom Note Press, 2015), and A PREDATOR'S GAME (Rook’s Page Publishing, 2016). He lives in Ponce, Puerto Rico with his wife and son.
Copyright © 2016 Martin Hill Ortiz. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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