Saturday, March 15, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker", Part 3

             The next day was completely like any other day. Cramwell retired that night thinking that perhaps the napkin and book incident of the previous day had been just a fluke, almost a dream, but certainly not reality! The following morning at eight o’clock, Cramwell awoke as usual, put on his dressing gown, and calmly paced measured steps to the front door to retrieve his morning paper. He tucked it under his arm and headed straight for the kitchen, as he always did.
            Cramwell brought his breakfast to the table and kissed the marble face in front of him.
            “Good morning, Jelly,” he whispered. He unfolded the paper and began to read.

            “HAVE YOU SEEN ME?” The headline screamed. Beneath it was a picture of a young girl with wavy brown hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and freckles. She was smiling.
            “MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OCCURS AT CAFÉ,” the newspaper termed it. “Clarissa Forquist had just finished her shift at the local café, and told her remaining co-workers that she was going straight home, which was about a twenty-minute walk away. Reportedly ten minutes after Clarissa left, friend and acquaintance Darla Munroe noticed that Clarissa had left her favorite scarf—a red-and-white-striped wool knit—hanging in the break room. “I knew she would have been halfway home by then,” Darla says, “So I waited another fifteen minutes or so, and then called her house.” But Clarissa never got the call; authorities have searched the house and found no sign that Clarissa Forquist ever made it home that night. She was last seen on the corner of Summer Street and Fifth, by a passerby on their way to the tavern, just minutes before eight o’clock PM. If you have seen Clarissa at any time within the last twenty-four hours, or if you see her, please don’t hesitate to call the authorities.”

            “Someone will disappear at eight….Where is Jane? Look At The Clock! Where is Jane? Can Dick Find Jane? Where is Jane? Where is Jane?”
            Cramwell pushed his unfinished bowl of oatmeal away. He suddenly had no appetite. His stomach knotted up and twisted inside of him, so wracked with guilt was he. Guilt over what? He had been warned! He knew someone was disappearing, but it had all seemed so petty when people were invisible to him anyhow! The clock struck nine. Cramwell didn’t have the heart to touch the paper again, for every picture was pretty, young Clarissa, so much like his beloved Jelilah! Every headline pestered him, “Have you seen me? Didn’t you see me? Were you even looking? You sit there at the café where I work for half an hour every day, have you ever seen me?”
            Cramwell sat at the table until he heard the clock strike half-past-nine. He mused that he would begin heading down into the town right about now, and the first place he would go would be the café—could he still bear going there, with what he knew now? Cramwell knew he would have to try; what else could he do besides that which he had always done?
            Cramwell got dressed, grabbed his hat, cane, and basket—then upon impulse he grabbed a notebook, too. Who knew if another napkin awaited him in his booth? He would be prepared this time!

            Cramwell found it relatively easy to behave normally in the café. Of course people were whispering all around him, but then, people always whispered all around him. Cramwell checked the stack of napkins immediately upon entering his booth, but none of them bore any markings whatsoever. Perhaps it was just the once, he thought with no small sensation of relief.
            Once the half-hour was up, Cramwell finished the last swallow of coffee and rose from his booth. As he was getting up, one of the waitresses came by to wipe the table and clear his cup; her nametag read “Cora.” Cramwell suddenly realized that Clarissa may have cleared his cup on many mornings, but since he did not know her name, she was “just another person” to him until she disappeared. It gave him a sense of power to be able to name now at least two people in the town of Precinct: Clarissa, and Cora. Cramwell stopped with a whim of perhaps getting a glance of Cora’s face, but just then a woman blustered through the door carrying a bright-red umbrella, and nearly tripped over Cramwell’s cane. Before the woman could react in surprise or inconvenience, Cramwell left the establishment and hurried to his next rendezvous, the library.
            There were still no new codebooks, so Cramwell returned to the Fiction aisles to search for all of Jelilah’s favorite authors.
            He stopped short when he saw his own name—irregular as it was—spelled out clearly on the spine of one of the books. The real title of the book was Cromwell, and it happened to be a book based on the life of Oliver Cromwell, but a piece of paper with the letter “A” had been cleverly affixed over the “O” to spell Cramwell. A sinking, dreadful feeling came over Cramwell as he slowly, reluctantly pulled the book from the shelf.
            Sure enough, taped on the front cover was a piece of paper with another code! This one was full of numbers.


            Cramwell pondered what the numbers could mean. A simple book code, perhaps? The typical pattern for such a code, he knew, very often followed the “page-line-word” form. He turned to the fifteenth page of Cromwell, and sure enough, the third line began with the word, “Now.” The book was his key! Cramwell flipped madly back and forth through the book, writing the designated words out in his notebook. Finally, the page before him displayed the entire message:

            Now you see him, now you don’t; someone you notice today will not be there tomorrow.”

            Cramwell rubbed his furrowed forehead in consternation. Another warning! How would he prevent the abduction this time? Besides, the kidnapper had upped his game already: he had addressed Cramwell by name. Whoever it was knew Cramwell, knew his love for codes—but did not know how few people Cramwell actually noticed, evidently. This time, Cramwell had a plan. He jumped up from his chair with alacrity and promptly stumbled over a long, straight object. A child’s red umbrella; Cramwell kicked it aside with a sneer and walked out the door.
            After picking up his bag of lunch at the diner, he set out to the City Hall instead of the park. He kept his head down and his eyes averted as he requested from the receptionist the most recent town census records.
            Danielle, the receptionist, found this sort of request extremely odd and totally abnormal; but, then again, this was Cramwell Fornberg, widely regarded as the oddest and most abnormal person in town, if not the whole country. In addition, the Fornberg Estate had funded a large part of the businesses and establishments in the town. Cramwell Fornberg was not one to be refused much of anything in a town like Precinct. She scanned a copy of the census records, carefully bundled it all in an envelope, and handed this packet to Cramwell.
            He accepted it without acknowledging her, and departed to the park to eat his lunch.

            Cramwell was moderately pleased with himself. Armed with this list of names, he would be able to know every resident without having to notice them personally. So far that day, the only person he had actually noticed was Cora, the girl at the diner. Would the kidnapper take another diner waitress? Surely not! Cramwell was nearly confident that this would be a kidnapping the perpetrator would want him to assume was totally random. Cramwell picked up his daily groceries and returned to his house. He feasted on roast chicken and rice, fully assured of the success of his plan.

            After dinner, Cramwell settled into the library with a map of the town, and the census records. He made a list of all the places he visited during the day (since the kidnapper seemed to have prior knowledge of Cramwell’s daily habits, to leave him clues where Cramwell could find them), and referenced that with all the names on the list of people who worked in those establishments.
            No less than fourteen individuals worked at the café, twenty at the library, twelve at the diner, and six at the grocery store. The rest could likely be seen at any time during his walk through the Square or during lunch at the park. He looked carefully at the pictures accompanying the names of most of the people (predominately the adults, not so much the children). Every face was completely unfamiliar to him, but he made a point to match each name with the face, so he would know whom to expect without having to see them. He would outwit this kidnapper at his own game!
            As he charted out the people he would need to expect in each place he visited, Cramwell thought about the kidnapper. Why would anyone just begin abducting people? Was it someone who had lived in the town for quite some time now? How long had he lived there before he began this terrifying onslaught of not only absconding with innocent, everyday people but at the same time spooking the living daylights out of the town’s most reclusive resident with the mysterious, eerily specific, cleverly encoded messages?

            Cramwell thought about the message: “Now you see him, now you don’t…” Of course! The message always contained a hint about the gender of the victim. This time, it would be a male! Cora was safe, Cramwell was sure of it. He resumed his careful studies, determined that none should slip by him the next day.

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