I had a lot of stuff I needed to do to get ready to release a new book this week, but last week I got sidetracked by a mystery I had to solve. Let’s call it The Case of the Mysterious Beep. If you follow me on Twitter you may have been able to follow the case in real time, and I’ve also mentioned it on Facebook, but here’s the full story.
Sometime last week, I heard an electronic beep in my office. My first thought was that a smoke detector was telling me its battery was running low, but it didn’t sound like it was coming from the smoke detector, which is closer to the foot of the stairs. Plus, it’s the kind with a built-in ten-year battery and is less than a year old, so unless something had gone wrong, it shouldn’t be beeping at me. The next time I heard the beep, I thought it sounded like it was coming from my Internet router. I looked it up online, and there was a mention that it might beep if the backup battery was running low, but then I looked up the manual for this router, and it gives you the info about a low battery in a different way. The battery indicator on the router should have been red, and there was no light at all. I got into the control panel for the router, and it said there was no battery installed and the audio alerts were disabled. One possibility was that there was an intermittent power issue, and it was beeping when coming back online. The surge protector it was plugged into was pretty old, so I figured I’d get a new one. I shut the office door when I went downstairs at the end of the workday so the sound wouldn’t bother me.
But then I still heard the beep downstairs that evening. It sounded like it might be coming from the thermostat, which has a battery backup to hold the programming in case of power outage. I found the manual, and it said there’s a low battery indicator on the screen, not a beep.
I heard the beep in the office again the next day, and it seemed to be coming from a different direction. I changed the battery in the little clock on my desk. Still, there was another beep about an hour later. I wondered if maybe there was something in the box with my old desk toys/trade show swag. I remembered that when I worked at the advertising/PR firm, we cleaned out a supply closet and found some cards the firm had done for a former client that had a sound chip that played the sound of a ringing phone when you opened them. Instead of throwing those out, we saved some and used them for office pranks — wait until someone leaves the office for a meeting, then open a card and slide it into a folder in the filing cabinet so they had a ringing phone sound until they found it or the card died (it only lasted a few hours of constant play). I did a lot of work for telecom companies, so I have all kinds of little gadgets relating to phones, and maybe one of them was giving out dying wails. But I heard the beep while going through that stuff and it came from a different place.
It was weird how it sometimes sounded like it was coming from the office, and sometimes I didn’t hear it downstairs, but sometimes it seemed to be coming from downstairs. Friday evening, I remembered that there’s another smoke detector, one I’d bought but not installed (I realized I wouldn’t be able to easily reach the detector to change batteries, since it was over the stairs, so I got the ten-year kind). I hadn’t thought it came with a battery, but I decided to check, and it did come with a battery installed. It was on the loft outside the office, so that explained why I heard it in the office and downstairs. I ripped the battery out, and problem solved.
Except not. I heard the beep again the next morning. Now I was getting frantic. It was one beep every hour or so, so it wasn’t that annoying, but I was concerned about what might be going wrong with the thing that was beeping. Usually that kind of intermittent beep is a sign that there’s a problem. I started noticing that the beep happened exactly every hour, and just a couple of minutes after the top of the hour, like it was chiming the hour on a clock that was a minute off. I started checking everything that had a clock in it. I changed or removed batteries in clocks, the digital camera, the weather radio. I unplugged just about everything that made a sound. As I neared the top of each hour, I’d go stand next to a suspect to see if I heard the beep coming from it. I’d bought a new surge protector and I put the router on it, then waited for the beep and not only didn’t hear anything coming from it, I didn’t hear the beep at all.
And then I was downstairs for the next hour and heard the beep. I was starting to contemplate moving and leaving everything behind to escape it. It was like that Edgar Allan Poe poem about The Bells, only it was The Beep. I’d ruled out two smoke detectors, the thermostat, the router, everything in the kitchen, and the phone.
The answer came to me at about five the next morning when I was lying awake, fretting about this. It really did seem like a digital watch that chimed the hour, but I don’t have a digital watch. And then I remembered that I do — the stopwatch I use to time writing sessions. It has a clock mode. That would explain everything. It’s on my desk on work days, but it gets moved around and is sometimes under notebooks or papers, so the sound would move around my office. I generally bring it downstairs with me in the evenings if I’m doing research or brainstorming. That was why the sound followed me around the house. I was literally carrying it with me, but since it was just one beep per hour, I was never next to or holding the watch when it went off. When I was checking the router and didn’t hear the beep, the watch was downstairs and had fallen between sofa cushions.
As it approached the next hour, I got the watch and held it — and it beeped at the top of the hour! I must have hit the wrong button while carrying it and activated the hourly chime. I pushed buttons until I figured out how to turn it off, and I was free of the beep. And greatly relieved that I didn’t have to move to escape it.
I don’t want to think about the number of hours I spent tracking that down. I got almost nothing accomplished on Saturday from tinkering with things and then running to stand next to something every hour. I still get a bit twitchy when I hear a beeping sound. The sound my electronic toaster oven makes when food is done is similar to The Beep (for a while, I thought it might have been the culprit), and I flinch when it tells me my toast is ready. Squeaking truck brakes on the road outside sometimes make me think The Beep is back.
At least now all my devices have new batteries and have been reset.