Encyclopedia Brown and the Roll Top Desk

If this story didn’t have a happy ending, I wouldn’t be posting that on the blog.

When Jenny and Elena were in Houston two weeks ago, tragedy struck. They were sharing a room and, as expected, Jenny put Elena to bed and turned out the light. Later, when she wanted to go to bed, she didn’t want to wake the baby and she only had one thing to do–take of her engagement ring and wedding band and put them on the desk before hopping into bed. Somehow, as she gave the rings a little tug to get them off her finger, Jenny lost her grip and the rings went flying. She reasoned that there wasn’t much that could have happened to them, and went to bed with plans of finding them the next morning.

The next morning, the wedding ring was lying in the middle of the room, but the engagement ring was nowhere to be found. During the duration of the stay, Jenny, Matt, and Carrie turned the room inside out and upside down looking for the ring. The room has niether nooks nor crannies, and didn’t even have very much furniture in it. Jenny felt bad asking Matt and Carrie for so much help, because they were so busy and stressed out already. All the more so as they are planning to move to Seattle as soon as possible. At least this gave them time to sort through the guest room and make some preliminary decisions about what to get rid of. Eventually, after they had exhausted all visible search avenues, they gave up. Jenny returned home to a birthday week that took on a more muted tone than it otherwise would have.

We decided to return this weekend to have another look. I found a guy near them who rents out a metal detector, and we picked it up before we got to Matt and Carrie’s house. I set to work looking at the room. I knew that they had thoroughly searched all of the obvious places, and after a brief search of my own to figure out if there might have been any holes in their strategy, I decided that it was unlikely–I wouldn’t find the ring just by going over the same ground. As my thesis advisor once told me: “sometimes, it takes an entirely new idea to make progress on a problem.” It’s required most often when all of the familiar routes have been thoroughly investigated.

After that, I tried to figure out how to use the metal detector. The instructions indicated that the detector coil should be held parallel to the surface being searched (most often the ground), which made my goal of searching the corners and baseboard areas less practical. I put my wedding band on the ground and passed over it several times, to try to discriminate between the different sounds the detector made depending on the type of metal it found. However, I didn’t immediately see how this tool could be put to use in searching an already-searched space, so I took a break from that.

Instead, I picked up an idea from earlier. When we first started searching, Jenny reenacted the incident, indicating her position and the probable escape vector of the rings. She said that she heard a rattling noise when they made contact with the first object in their path, which was a roll top, secretary-style desk against the nearest wall. I decided to take a closer look at it, and finally found something useful. When you open a roll top desk, the top has to roll into something. With this desk, it rolled into an inaccessible slot between the back of the writing area and the back panel of the piece of furniture. Furthermore, the gap into which it rolled was a little bit less than an inch tall. Although it would have to be a million-to-one shot, the ring could have gone into that little slot and slid back into the open area. Furthermore, this would be consistent with Jenny’s description of a rattling noise–a ring that hit the wall and bounced off before landing on the floor wouldn’t rattle the way a ring would if it was dropping in an enclosed area.

I tried shaking the desk back and forth in the hopes that it would sound like something was lodged in it, but didn’t get a very strong indication. Jenny said she thought she heard something, but the sound wasn’t there when I tried it again. Jenny suggested that we try the metal detector, and indeed it picked up a signal from a certain part of the desk that had a different sound than the one given off when it passed over the staples securing the back panel to the rest of the desk. Guided by that, I got some tools and started to pry loose the nearby staples. After I got several of them off, I cracked open the panel, peered in, and saw Jenny’s ring lying there on top of some envelopes that had been lost probably twenty years ago.

I tried to reach in and grab the ring, but in the process the back panel separated from the shelf where the ring was, and it fell down into the lower part of the desk. This part, however, was already completely accessible, so I reached in from the other side, grabbed the ring, and asked Jenny if she would marry me. Luckily, she said yes, and I returned the ring to its proper place on her finger, next to her wedding band.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Encyclopedia Brown and the Roll Top Desk

  1. Carrie

    Way to go Encylopedia Brown. I’m so happy you are able to post about it now. Hooray!

  2. This sounds like it could be on Numbers.
    I wish that you were there to help me find my wedding ring.

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