A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Full Hand
Scene Two: New Locks
When Denario was ten, he got his first close look at a sequence lock. He noticed it in the midday glow of Master Winkel's office.
Winkel worked at a long, wooden desk, dark with age. Parchments, papers, ledgers, protractors, compasses, straight-edges and a level lay across its varnished surface. Some of the papers were held down by music boxes, which Winkel collected. Others were kept in place by lock boxes.
The biggest lock box sat underneath the desk. Denario knew it was there but he'd never studied it before.
It was a pale, roughly cubical safe that worked by twisting a brass knob. The knob shone like gold. Ever since Winkel's first apprentice had stolen his valuables and run away, Winkel had kept his books, money, and expensive tools – like his transit and theodite – in the safe. Smaller valuables, he kept in his prettiest lock box, a teal and brass contraption that currently did double duty by holding down the account logs of the Paravientar Ship Yard. That one was always closed so Denario had never really looked at it either.
“Are you finished with the farrier account?” Winkel asked him.
“I did that yesterday,” Denario said.
“What are you holding? Is that the surveyor account?”
“Yes, sir. I don't understand how you and the other man got these numbers out of just the chains and transit. It doesn't matter, I guess. The city charges all add up.”
“Surveying, eh? You're old enough to hold up the tripod. Next time I go, I'll take you. Then you'll understand.”
Winkel crouched under his desk. He spun the dial on the safe.
“This is where the surveying log should go,” he said. “Pretty, isn't it?”
The brass knob gleamed. The handle next to it shone in the afternoon light.
“It's different from the smaller boxes,” Denario noticed. He got up from the floor with the surveying log tucked under his arm. “It looks easier than the combination locks on the others. They have four to six dials on them each. This is only one and it faces front. What kind of lock is it called, anyway?”
“That's a funny one.” The master accountant stopped spinning the knob. “The locksmith calls them both combination locks.”
“But that one doesn't use a combination,” Denario protested. He approached the desk. “You dial a sequence.”
“You're right.” Winkel scratched his head and smiled in that indulgent way he had when he thought his apprentice was being clever. “The first lock uses a combination of rotating disks. So that's one is named correctly. But the second one, the single-dial lock, uses a sequence.”
“Anyway, I know you're using square roots to make your sequence.”
“How did you guess that?” Winkel's mouth hung open. He was aghast. “You've only seen the first number.”
“But the first number is fourteen. And the square root of two starts out with one point four, then one four again, then two one. You always use square roots, anyway. You doodle them in the margins of the account books.”
Winkel sighed. “I'll have to change the combination, I suppose.”
After a moment, he laughed. “But I don't think it would do much good against you in any case. You haven't stolen anything, thank goodness. You haven't even seemed interested.”
“Oh, I'm interested. I know you keep books there and I want to read them someday.”
“Those books are special. You haven't tried to peek into them, I hope. Anyway, I'm surprised you think they're important. Think of all the other things you've seen me put in here. And there's money. Aren't you interested in the money? Isn't that more important than the books?”
Denario squinted. “No. Besides, the money belongs to you.”
Winkel hugged him. His maroon robe smelled like curry powder. The fabric was thick, too, so it was like getting smothered in a blanket for just a second, a blanket that had spent time in someone's kitchen.
“What?” said Denario.
“It's nothing,” said the master accountant. He released his apprentice immediately. “You know, you're such an honest young fellow. I think maybe you need to learn from one of my special books soon.”
“More math?” Denario hopped up on his toes.
“No, I'm sorry. It's not math.” Winkel rested his hand on the door of the safe. “It's about people.”
“Oh.” Denario slumped.
“I've got a special record of the bad things people do with math. And I've been adding to it. You see, these are the things that accountants must watch out for.”
“So it's got some math.” He tried to latch onto a bit of hope.
“Yes. It's about ... how can I describe what I’ve written? It’s about the tricks, deceptions, and monsters that I’ve seen crooked people, even other accountants, concoct by misusing numbers. They do bad arithmetic. I'll have to teach you how to look for such things. All accountants should know, I think.”
The boy nodded.
“In the meantime, I have a funny little problem for you. Forget about the surveying log for now. I'll take care of that.” The master accountant accepted the scroll from Denario. Then he reached over his desk. He pulled up the metal box that held down the shipping records.
"See this?” Winkel flashed a clever smile. “It has a combination lock too."
“Yes, sir.” It was a real combination of six dials, not what some locksmith decided to call a combination instead of a sequence.
“I set it to a random number. Because that's safer than using a square root, isn't it?”
“Sure!” Denario set down the surveying log on the corner of his master's desk. His head bobbed in agreement about random numbers. But he stopped agreeing as he thought more about it.
When numbers were close to ideally random, they were hard to guess. But they weren't impossible even then. That's because numbers generated by coin flips or by pulling digits out of a hat weren't really quite random. Or so he suspected.
“So I put a lot of valuables into the lock box. That includes some bits of jewelry, two magical rings, and the keys to our deposit box in Angrili. And guess what?”
“You made a copy of the monster book?”
“Oh, no. Maybe I should do that. Or I should have you do it. You're the apprentice, after all. But no. The important thing is, I forgot the sequence to open the box.”
“I didn't write it down. I memorized it. Very safe.”
“So open it.”
“I can't. I've been trying to remember and dialing odd numbers for weeks now with no luck. None of my guesses work. So this job is for you.” He placed the box in Denario's hands.
“Whoops! It's heavy.” Denario sunk to his knees with the box. It weighed more than any books or scrolls he'd ever carried. For a moment, he thought of the rolls of cloth he'd tried to lift as a slave child. But his master helped him steady himself, which no one had done back then, and together they got the box safely to the floor.
“There.” Winkel tapped the shiny, brass lid. “You figure it out. Tell me the number when you arrive at it.”
“Sure.” Denario laughed. This was going to be easy, he thought. And fun. He spun the tumblers to a combination of all zeros to begin.
Chapter Five, Scene Three