“Unthank, I can hear you in there,” came Wigman’s voice. “What’s going on?” He tried the handle; Joffrey had locked it after he’d let Roger in. “Dammit, man. Let me in.”
Unthank was busy trying to hush Roger’s murmurs of objection as he guided him to the closet door. “Just trust me,” he said. “It’s better that he doesn’t know about you.” The man in the pince-nez finally conceded and allowed Joffrey to shutter him into the closet, surrounded as he was by ink cartridge boxes and cases of Lemony Zip.
Just then the door to the office flew open; Desdemona had, at Wigman’s behest, fetched the key and undone the lock. Unthank turned from the closet and saw the doorway filled—very nearly to capacity—with the broad-shouldered frame of Brad Wigman, Chief Titan.
“Hi, Mr. Wigman,” squeaked Unthank.
Brad’s eyes searched the room suspiciously. “What’s going on in here? Why’d it take you so long to get the door?”
“So sorry. That door tends to get stuck. Been meaning to fix it.” Here Joffrey walked to the door and mimed a careful inspection of the handle. “Jeez,” he said, appearing baffled. “They sure don’t make ’em like they—”
But his cheap explanation was cut short. Wigman walked directly up to him, as he was often wont to do, and stood so close to Unthank’s face that he could smell the Chief Titan’s mouthwash of choice: Sprig O’Cinnamon. “Cut the crap, Machine Parts,” said Wigman. “What are you up to?”
The two of them stood that way, face-to-face—though it was more akin to face-to-clavicle, as Unthank only came up to his boss’s collarbone—for a time. The little droplets of sweat that had appeared on Joffrey’s forehead only moments earlier turned into proper bulbs of perspiration and began dripping down the side of his face. Wigman’s eyes followed one such drop as it traveled from the man’s hairline to his chin. Unthank could only smile.
“Just, you know, working,” was all that Joffrey could manage.
“What are you working on there, Machine Parts?”
“Just, you know, some stuff. Making, you know, machine parts.”
“What kind of machine parts?”
“Bolts,” replied Unthank. “Screws. Spigots. Alternator caps. Crank shaft housings—”
“Actually, I happen to know that you haven’t been making any machine parts, Joffrey. I happen to have that information on good authority.”
“Oh, really?” Unthank was desperately trying to unknot his vocal cords; it felt like a python had curled its way around his throat and was squeezing. He swallowed hard, though it didn’t seem to have much effect.
“Yes, really,” said Wigman. “I had my girl bring up some recent records. It appears that production is down seventy-five percent this week. I asked around; turns out some of your clients haven’t heard from you since last Thursday; they say all their shipments are late.”
Unthank squirmed under Wigman’s glare. How did he know to look? Someone must’ve tipped him off. His
mind searched for answers.
“So,” said Wigman, “I guess I’ve come to do a little recon myself.” With that, he stepped away from Joffrey’s face, releasing him from the cloud of Sprig O’Cinnamon, and walked toward the bookshelf. His eyes wandered over the fanciful names on the bottles that lined the shelves. He knelt down and flicked a finger at one of the white transponder boxes. “You got some weird stuff in here, Joffrey,” he said. “But I’ve never been one to hold a guy’s obsessions against him.” By this time, he’d made it over to Unthank’s desk. Remembering the schematic, Joffrey dove to stand in the way between it and the Chief Titan.
“Listen,” said Joffrey, his voice unknotting slightly, “why don’t we take a walk? I’ll show you the machine shop—it’s been so long since you visited. Maybe go grab a bit of lunch at the Rusty Sprocket? I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.”
“What’s that?” asked Wigman dryly.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Machine Parts,” said Wigman. He jabbed a finger in the direction of the paper stack on the desk. “What’s that blueprint thing?”
Unthank craned his neck to look in the direction of Wigman’s pointing finger. “Oh, that? That’s nothing, really. Just a little something I’m working on in my spare—”
Wigman pivoted and stepped around Joffrey. He grabbed the schematic from the desk and shook it flat. His left eyebrow risen to its most impressive height, Wigman studied the plan. When he’d finished scanning the page, he turned to Joffrey. “If you don’t tell me what this is and what it’s doing on your desk, I swear I’ll—”
“That, sir, is a Möbius Cog.” These words had not come from the quivering mouth of Joffrey Unthank. Instead, they seemed to be issuing from the closet on the far side of the room. Both Joffrey and Wigman turned to see the words’ source.
Roger Swindon stood in the open door of the closet, straightening the lapel of his coat. An aghast silence from Unthank and Wigman had followed his abrupt entrance; Roger chose to fill it with an explanation: “I’ve commissioned your man there to make it for me. The fate of the Wood—your term for the place, I believe, is the Impassable Wilderness—hangs in the balance. The Möbius Cog must be made, Mr. Wigman. It is that simple.”
The schematic drifted from Wigman’s fingers to the carpeted floor as he stared at the man in the closet, trying to make sense of the very strange aura that exuded from him. It was, he reasoned, the pince-nez. The man really knew how to wear a pince-nez.
Procession; Final Performance Tonight!