They Gave Him the Gears
October 1920: An accident at a Ford City factory has left a worker and the business in pieces in this unusual Campbell and Laforet tale of industrial sabotage and intrigue. This story took Third Prize at the Scene of the Crime Author's Festival in 2011.
“How are we going to get him out of there?”
“Very carefully,” said Campbell.
He and Laforet were standing over a monstrous cluster of gears and cogwheels about eight feet long and four feet in diameter, the main axis of which was level with the floor. The space it inhabited was caged-in, with just enough room to walk around it. Beneath the opening in the floor was the motor that drove it.
“Now - this group of roller chains running up into that room,” continued Campbell, “is how the engineers control its speed and rhythm.”
“And these other chains running off onto the factory floor power the assembly line and the overhead system of tracks that carry parts from one work area to another.”
“Sort of an oversized auto transmission,” said Laforet.
“You’ve got the idea. Ingenious, isn’t it?”
“I hate machines.”
Before Campbell could respond, his attention was drawn to a burly fellow who had just entered the cage.
“Ah – Collins, this is Dr. Laforet from the coroner’s office. Laforet, this is Collins, the foreman. He discovered the body when he arrived this morning.”
The foreman smiled politely and held up his greasy hands, indicating that a nod would have to do.
“This occurred overnight?” asked Laforet.
“Had to have,” said Collins. “I’m the last one out and the first one in. The way you see him is the way I found him.”
Laforet flipped opened his notepad and began a fresh page with the date, 14 October 1920. Campbell did the same and launched into his questions.
“The victim’s name?”
“Devon Gaunt,” replied Collins.
"And what time was it when you discovered him?”
“Well …by the time I made my way through the front …started turning on the power, made a few checks along the way … it must have been about seven-twenty.”
“Was the machine running when you arrived?”
Campbell looked up from his notepad. “Gaunt may have switched it on but he most certainly didn’t switch it off. Who else was in the building?”
“So how did this machine come to be shut down?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me,” continued Campbell, “what is it you manufacture here?”
“Dodgem cars, sir.”
“You know, those little electric cars you ride around in at theme parks, dodging and bumping one another on what looks like a dancehall floor. They’re all the rage at your Coney Island. Other parks are popping up and people are flocking to them the way they flock to the pictures.”
“And that’s why we won the war,” muttered Laforet.
“What was that?” said Campbell.
“I said, if no one minds I’d like to get started.”
Collins pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped his brow.
“Are you all right?” asked Laforet. “You’re looking a little pale.”
“I’ve just never had to deal with anything like this before.”
“I recommend you start getting used to it,” said Laforet. “Now, if I’m going to see all there is to see of Devon Gaunt, I’d like to start down below.”
“That gap in the floor over there,” gestured Collins, “that’s the stairs.”
“After you,” said Campbell.
The gap was barely wide enough to accommodate their shoulders and the metal staircase clattered and wobbled under the weight of them.
“Do you have to be like that?” said Campbell.
“Like what?” said Laforet.
“Men create these machines and then live under the delusion that they’re the masters of them. It’s foolish.”
“Do you think you could put all that aside for the time being?”
“I’ll try,” said Laforet, “but I’m only human.”
A bare bulb hung in a corner of the room, illuminating a massive electric motor, easily twice the size of a 6-cylinder engine. A heavy roller chain joined its shaft with the main axis of the machine above it. Laforet examined the blood on the motor and the pool of blood on the floor.
“He must have been wrung dry.”
“A flashlight,” said Campbell, crouching down opposite Laforet, “broken lens, deep scratches, blood underneath it and drops of blood on top.” He glanced up at the belly of the machine and could see parts of Gaunt wedged through. “It was briefly caught in the gear works and then dropped here.”
When they finished, they retraced their steps back up to the cage where Collins remained. Laforet pulled his Kodak VPK out of his coat pocket, popped it open and snapped a few frames from where he was standing.
“All right,” said Laforet, “give me a hand.”
Campbell helped the doctor step up onto the machine until, legs splayed, Laforet was steadying himself over the body. He snapped a few more frames and then slung the camera strap around his neck and across his shoulder.
“What do you think?” said Campbell. “Did he stumble or was he pushed?”
“It’s impossible to tell,” said Laforet as he slow-motion extended one foot and then the other to the floor. “But we should get him out of there. Collins, can you throw this thing into a slow reverse - in increments if you can?”
“I’ll try and round up one of the engineers.”
“And don’t tell him anything - just bring him over here.”
Laforet took the opportunity to pull the coroner’s wagon – a custom Ford that never made it to Europe - closer and grabbed his oilcloth. By the time he returned, Campbell had just finished briefing the engineer who was now making his way up the winding stairs to the control room.
“All right,” said Laforet. “Collins, grab that leg; Campbell, grab the pockets of his overalls. I’ll try and manage the head and shoulders.”
On Collins’ cue, the engineer reversed the machine one, two sprocket teeth at a time. The trio, in synchronized movements, carefully pulled the broken and twisted remains of Devon Gaunt from the jaws of the machine and laid them down gently on the oilcloth. Collins gave the engineer the signal to cut the power.
Campbell went through Gaunt’s pockets and pulled out a wallet and a key ring. He examined the one piece of identification he found, wiped the sticky bloodstains from the keys and then tested them on the door to the cage. None of them fit.
“Was the cage door open or closed when you arrived?”
Collins thought for a moment.
“Closed – but not locked.”
“Who normally has a key?”
"Me, the factory manager, the chief engineer, and the head of maintenance.”
“And do any of these look like they could have gained our man entrance to the factory?”
Collins looked down at the keys in Campbell’s palm.
“Not even close.”
“What’s this?” Laforet was retrieving one of Gaunt’s stray digits from the machine when he came across something else that looked out of place. Campbell leaned over his shoulder and spotted it: a thin metal band, bent, bloodied and lodged in the gear works. He wiggled it out with some difficulty.
“A hacksaw blade.” Campbell tilted his bowler back and carefully leaned down into the machine.
“What are you looking for?” asked Laforet.
“This – right here.”
Campbell was pointing to a small cut about half an inch deep in one of the smaller axes, flush against a sprocket. Easy to miss unless one were looking for it.
“And here,” said Campbell, letting his eyes wander.
“That would be my guess. Collins, I need to know more about this man.”
Laforet brought Campbell’s gaze back down to Gaunt’s remains, which were now testing the limits of the oilcloth.
“Can we get him out to the wagon first?”
“Yes, of course.”
Campbell and Laforet each grabbed corners of the oilcloth and made their way carefully towards the nearest exit and out to the wagon. This gave Campbell the opportunity to speak candidly.
“…and if Collins wasn’t here, then someone else let Gaunt in.”
“The same person who switched the power on and off the machine?” said Laforet.
“Possibly. What are your thoughts?”
“I’m wondering when exactly Gaunt became trapped in it. Judging by the character of the blood I found and the fact that rigor hasn’t set in yet, I’d say it was less than three hours ago.”
They lifted Gaunt’s body into a cot that was fastened to the floor of the vehicle.
“I’ll check in with you later on this afternoon.”
When Campbell got back to the cage he found Collins overheating from friction with a suit. He reached for his badge.
“I’m Detective Campbell. Who are you?”
“William Cruikshank, factory manager. What’s going on here?”
“We just pulled the remains of one of your employees from this machine.”
“I understand that. This is a restricted area – how did he get in here?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” said Campbell.
“Can you find out while I’m running my factory?
“Why not? The morning whistle will be blowing in, ” Cruikshank checked his watch, “three minutes and I can’t have my workers idling. I have orders to - .”
“This machine’s been tampered with.”
“What do you mean?”
“Several of the smaller axes have deep cuts in them. You can have your men look into it, but my guess is that in this condition, it won’t be able to handle the stress. It could injure someone or collapse on itself, or both.”
Campbell let Cruikshank blow off some more steam before he continued with his questions.
“I told you, I know nothing about him,” said Cruikshank. “Talk to Collins here. I need to telephone our lawyers.”
Campbell waited for Cruikshank to disappear before he turned to Collins and said
“He doesn’t seem particularly shaken by Gaunt’s death.”
“Men like Cruikshank, they have a lot on their plate.”
Campbell started re-examining Gaunt’s key ring. “This key, it looks like it might be for a locker.”
“We all have one; I’ll show you.”
Collins locked the cage behind him and brought Campbell to a common area where the workers ate their meals.
“This one’s his.”
Campbell opened the locker.
“That doesn’t seem right,” said Collins.
“No, it doesn’t.” Campbell turned to Collins. “All right, now what can you tell me about Gaunt?”
“Not much. He’s been on the assembly line for about four months. He had been working at a machine shop in Detroit but got laid off. No family that I’m aware of.”
“Any suspicious behaviour?”
“Well, for a private fellow, he was sure full of questions for everyone else.”
“About the factory, the tools, our work …everything.”
“I suppose that in hindsight, the notion of sabotage doesn’t come as a surprise to you then, does it?”
“I suppose not …I don’t know.”
“But why sabotage?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“This factory, where you make your dodgem cars, it’s not very big, and yet this machine, it’s quite complex and seems more suited for, let’s just say more ambitious projects.”
“It’s the owner’s pride and joy - his own invention.”
“Does he keep an office here?”
“Do you have someone that can verify your whereabouts last night, Collins?”
“My brother. We share a place on Wyandotte. You can ask him – I was home all night.”
“You’ve been most helpful. Though I have to say, I’m still wondering who might have been around to turn off that machine.” Campbell let that hang for a moment before asking Collins for Gaunt’s address.
“Now if you could tell me where I might find your chief engineer and head of maintenance, I’d like to speak with them.”
About an hour later, Campbell was walking over to St. Luke Road. It was a balmy October afternoon and he was grateful for the breath of fresh air after the stale atmosphere of the factory.
The house was white but dust-covered, a two-storey clapboard affair just below Edna Street. He gave a knock at the door.
“Just a minute,” came a female voice, older but a little girlish. The door eventually opened.
Campbell pulled out his badge and identification.
“I’m Detective Campbell. May I come in?”
Mrs. Letourneau let Campbell in but he wouldn’t follow her beyond the front hall. After a brief and simple explanation, he was lead upstairs to Gaunt’s room.
It was cluttered with work clothes, machine parts, and tools – including a hacksaw missing a blade. A small table served as a desk. There were letters to Gaunt with no return address but postmarked in cities on both sides of the border. From what he could tell, they were written in three different hands. He sifted through the rest of the place but found nothing of interest. He gathered the letters and went back downstairs to where Mrs. Letourneau was waiting anxiously.
“Not a word to your other lodgers, Mrs. Letourneau and I want Gaunt’s door kept locked until I return.” He pulled a card from his vest pocket. “If anyone comes looking for him, ring me at this number.”
“So, what’s the body telling us?”
Campbell was in Laforet’s lab now, after a late luncheon of coffee and a cigar.
“He was a working man – feel those hands. And as mangled as he is, I have yet to come across any scar tissue or evidence of previous wounds. In other words, no distinguishing marks.”
“You find this odd?”
“A healthy man of his age would have served in the war.”
"Likely,” said Campbell, “but what if he was an engineer? Or never saw battle?”
“All right, how about this: black isn’t his natural hair colour.” Laforet handed Campbell his magnifying glass. “Look at the roots.”
“Ash blonde.” Campbell removed his bowler. “A draft dodger as well as a saboteur?”
Laforet shrugged his shoulders. “Or for some reason he preferred to remain invisible. His identification was authentic?”
“As far as I can tell. I’m having it checked. What about time of death? Were you able to draw any conclusions?”
“I’m certain now that he was dead a little over an hour at the most by the time we arrived.”
At last, thought Campbell, something to build upon.
“Maybe there was a confrontation between Gaunt and Collins. Were they a threat to each other? Was Collins defending the interests of the company? I feel that Collins is hiding something.”
“Whom else did you speak with?”
“The factory manager - he looks at Gaunt’s death largely as an inconvenience; the chief engineer, a quiet fellow who prefers to answer in single-word sentences and has a wife that will vouch for his having spent the night snoring in bed; and Tockliss, the head of maintenance, a chatty drunk who, while he has no alibi, also swears that he was at home.”
Campbell went on to describe the letters he found in Gaunt’s room.
“What do you mean cryptic?”
“On the surface they consist of harmless questions about life in the Border Cities, the weather, Gaunt’s work routine. But they’re written in short, clipped sentences that sometimes don’t feel like they’re following any logical order. I may be jumping to a conclusion but I think Gaunt was selling information about the machine to three different buyers, and that sabotaging the machine sealed whatever deal won out.”
“This can’t only be about dodgem cars,” said Laforet.
“I’m thinking this machine might have other applications. I need to give these letters a closer read.”
Campbell finished his brief with Laforet and then walked over to his apartment on Arthur and got straight to work.
All three sets of letters asked the same sorts of questions and always dealt with numbers and measures - but from seemingly different angles.
How many inches of rain?
Hot? How many degrees? What time did ‘X’ show up for work?
Campbell was now thinking that the letter-writers were being fed complementary sets of information in a sort of code. Only Gaunt and presumably someone further up the chain - once they married together all the bits of information - had the complete picture, and that picture was a schematic, an engineer’s map of the machine.
The phone rang. It was police headquarters with a message from Mrs. Letourneau.
Campbell immediately drove back to Ford City. It was evening now, about seven, and he was standing once again in the front hall of the boarding house.
“A man was here looking for Mr. Gaunt,” said the old woman, wringing her hands.
“What did he look like?”
“Tall, stooped shoulders …long moustaches …smelled of whiskey.”
“He wanted to see Mr. Gaunt. When I told him Mr. Gaunt wasn’t here, he asked to visit his room. I told him I couldn’t allow that, I have to respect my lodgers’ privacy.”
“Did you tell him about the investigation?”
Campbell decided to pay the head of maintenance a visit at home.
“I’m looking for Adam Tockliss.”
“He’s not here right now,” said a woman that could only have been his wife. “He’s over on Drouillard Road, above the polak butcher’s.”
Campbell was familiar with the address. He got back in his Essex and drove up to Edna and across to Drouillard.
“I’m looking for Adam Tockliss,” he said through a slot in the door.
“Never heard of him.”
“I’m not in the mood for this,” he said, flashing his badge. “I can either turn your blind pig inside out right now or you can give me Adam Tockliss.”
This got Tockliss pushed through the door and Campbell hustled him down the stairs and into his car where they could have their conversation in private.
“You knew Gaunt was dead, so why did you go looking for him at Letourneau’s? – and remember, I can make your friends very unhappy with you.”
“I wasn’t looking for Gaunt. I was looking for my money.”
Pieces were beginning to fall into place.
“You were providing Gaunt with access to the factory,” said Campbell, “and the cage where that machine lives.”
“A little money here, a little money there, and then a big payoff.” Tockliss slumped back in his seat. “But I think they were stringing me along.”
“Gaunt and Cruikshank. It was Cruikshank approached me first. He introduced me to Gaunt.”
“Cruikshank,” said Campbell, turning to the windshield of his Essex.
“The way I figure,” said Tockliss, “he was in the middle, but making it so he didn’t get his hands dirty. Gaunt kept his hands pretty clean too.”
“Did you let Gaunt into the factory last night?”
“I did. I know it looks bad, but I swear – for real this time - he told me not to hang around, and I didn’t. I was upstairs part of the night and then I went home.”
“Did you know what Gaunt was doing?”
“He didn’t tell and I didn’t ask - but I figured he was stealing information.”
“You made yourself a perfect scapegoat, Tockliss.”
“Yeah, I figured that too.”
“Until Gaunt got himself killed. Where’s Collins fit in all this?"
“Collins? He doesn’t. That limey’s thicker than two short planks.”
“Do you have your keys on you?”
Campbell had a strange feeling.
“Give them to me.”
From outside the factory, Campbell saw a dim light in the area of the cage. He quietly entered the door he and Laforet carried Gaunt’s body through.
It was Collins, about to take his first swing at the machine with a sledgehammer.
The foreman turned abruptly. Emotional, and with tears welling in his eyes he shouted
“I never want to have to look at this thing again!”
Campbell entered the cage and gently coaxed the sledgehammer away from him.
“I killed him,” Collins sobbed. “I killed Devon Gaunt!”
The next morning, Campbell was sitting on a stool in Laforet’s lab, bringing Laforet up to speed while the doctor was scrubbing one of his tables.
“After Collins calmed himself down, he explained how the machine ran on its own circuit, but that circuit ran off a larger one powering that corner of the factory. At the end of the day, the chief engineer neglected to cut the machine’s circuit. Collins however cut its power when he started routinely shutting the factory’s systems down.
“When Collins returned in the morning and started switching everything back on again, the machine started running while Gaunt was still tinkering with it. Collins heard Gaunt’s cries but found him dead. When he phoned the police, he left out a few crucial details.”
“What are you going to do with Tockliss?”
“I’m going to put him in a room with Cruikshank and see what happens. Something tells me Cruikshank won’t be hard to crack.”
A phone rang and Laforet’s secretary appeared at the door.
“It’s for Detective Campbell – shall I patch it through?”
“Yes,” said Campbell.
He walked over to Laforet’s desk and picked up the receiver.
“Campbell here …What?…How is that possible?…I’ll be right over.”
He hung up.
“What is it?” asked Laforet.
"Grab your coat. Cruikshank’s been found dead in is car - and that’s not all.”
“That damn machine,” said Campbell, “it’s been stolen.”
copyright Michael Januska, 2011