Robert Osbourne

Robert Osbourne leaned over his desk, his white sleeves rolled up so as not to interfere with his meditation. His head remained nearly motionless but his eyes darted between the slide rule in his left hand and the pencil in his right. He scratched symbology in graphite on 1cm blue-gridded paper, steadily filling it from left to right, edge-to-edge with no margin. The pencil’s light touch and barely-legible shorthand were among his body’s concessions to economy that helped his work to keep up with his mind. Bob’s slide rule was smooth from overuse, but he had no trouble interpolating between the barely-legible markings with uncanny precision. Bob’s mind was running a marathon on autopilot, but his body stood half-bent In the cool, dark solitude of the hangar.

Bob used a focused light when meditating on theory, just enough to see what was on the desk in front of him. His “workspace” was a ten-by-ten square painted on one end of the cement floor of a large steel aircraft hangar. It was nearly noon, but the glass windows set high on the structure had been covered in black paint. Bob’s square contained a mahogany desk, sterile steel filing cabinet, steel trash can, and a swiveling stool that he rarely used. Free of distractions. A faint screech of automobile brakes caused him to pause for a millisecond, but the brief distraction allowed his writing to catch up a bit.

The creek of mildly rusted steel and sudden illumination announced a visitor, causing the engineer’s thoughts to pause once again while his hand continued to scribble. Bob didn’t need to look up to know that the visitor wore a large black overcoat over his shoulder holster and a Homburg hat. The accompanying odor was faint, but distinct from the old motor oil scent resident in the hangar.

“Do you oil your holster every day?”

“Not every day.” the Homburg answered. But he had oiled it today.

“Last time I insisted that I wasn’t going anywhere without some specific answers, Agent Fallon,” Bob stated, his decision already made.

“I hope this puts your doubts to rest.”

The hope was genuine. The FBI agent sniffed inside his heavy coat as he opened it to retrieve an envelope from his pocket. The clean, solvent and oil smell of his Browning Hi-Power was comforting, like a security blanket for a Special Agent. He had freshly cleaned and oiled that today as well.

Bob opened the envelope with the pen knife that he always kept clipped to his shirt and retrieved the undersized note it contained. The paper itself was approximately ten centimeters square and held a centered triangle of what appeared to be random characters, like someone had taken a monkey’s typing and racked it on a pool table. Bob lifted his eyes to the agent’s face, sifting it for clues. Fallon was a blank slate.

Setting to work, Bob tore the top page from his pad, folded it into fourths, and inserted it into his top desk drawer through the slit between the front panel and desk top. Flattening the square next to his work pad, Bob picked up his mundane charms and resumed meditating. His visual focus autonomously scanned like a typewriter head between the slide rule and the ciphertext. After a few seconds his right hand began to write. This time, though, the result was plain English – one character per grid cell starting at the top left.

Bob’s expression changed from perturbed to puzzled after fourteen words. His deciphering speed had doubled by twenty-five words in, and the remainder of the message had been inferred shortly after, although his hand had only been able to print halfway through the thirty-fifth word. Bob dropped the slide rule, ripped the page from the pad, and crumpled it in his hand. Decoding complete, now it was time to consider the deeper meaning. Bob held the paper ball in his fist and stared at Agent Fallon’s shoes.

“You OK?,” the FBI agent asked.

Bob finished processing approximately 2.51 seconds later. Fishing the Ronson out of his pants pocket, Bob ignited his handiwork and dropped it in the trash can. He did the same with the envelope and the enciphered note on his desk. The smoke wafted into the ribs of the arched hanger.

“I’ll have to pack”.

Agent Fallon looked up at the smoke and then over his shoulder at the door. Bob hadn’t noticed another black hat and overcoat standing in the doorway. The figure stepped inside the corrugated steel structure and held up an olive drab duffel bag. Bob blinked at the midday light streaming into his den.

“We took the liberty,” the shadow said.

Robert Osbourne

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