Down on the other side of Precinct, Karthey looked up as her dad came home from work and pulled off his red silk tie. She smiled as he hung his black jacket over a hook and sank into his favorite red easy-chair. Red was his favorite color. Karthey brought him his slippers, and he squeezed her hand gratefully as he tucked his feet snugly in them.
“How was work today, Dad?” she asked him, pulling a little footstool up by the easy-chair to sit on as she talked with him.
“Nothing out of the ordinary, Karth,” Mr. Mavis replied with a shrug, “Except I didn’t see Cramwell Fornberg at the library this afternoon. Victoria said she saw him coming out of City Hall.”
Karthey stared at the fire as she tried to comprehend what her father was telling her. “Cramwell didn’t stick to his usual schedule?”
Her dad shrugged, “Apparently not; I wonder what he could be doing in City Hall, of all places?”
Karthey’s hazel eyes sparkled and she laid her red head on her father’s knee. “You’re the journalist,” she teased, “You should figure it out.”
Her father shook his head and turned the dial on the radio sitting on the table next to him. “Really, that is far too much thinking for my poor old brain right now. What with the disappearance of the girl from the diner, we’ve just got to wonder what’s going to hit this town next.”
Karthey shivered and pulled her knees up to her chest. “Have the police found anything yet?”
Mr. Mavis shook his head, “Nothing; there’s not even any leads as to who did it; they’ve ruled out the possibility of her running away. Everyone who knew the girl said she wasn’t the type. She was too happy, too content with her situation.”
Mrs. Mavis poked her head into the living room. “Come into the kitchen, everyone! Dinner’s ready!”
Derrik poked his head out of his bedroom door, where he had been deeply ensconced in a bean-bag and sealed from the world behind noise-canceling headphones as he played his video games. “Did somebody say dinner?”
“Come on, son,” Mr. Mavis chuckled. The family gathered at the table, and for a time, the day’s mysteries did not hold such an awful sway over them.
Cramwell woke the next morning with a thrilled sensation that set his heart thumping. He went about his daily routine with unusual energy. He actually smiled at his reflection as he placed his hat squarely atop his head—and did not pull the brim low over his face. He would need a clear field of vision for his reconnaissance mission today!
Cramwell Fornberg kept his head slightly bent as he traveled down the hill toward Precinct, but he did not focus on the ground as he once did. Instead, his quick eyes flicked to the faces he passed by, and every so often, he recognized a face from those he had so painstakingly studied the evening prior. Just on the way to the café, he saw Bernadette Marley, Jason Plattner, and Dorothea McKee and her three children David, Marsha, and Colby.
In the café, Cramwell carefully noted all the staff. He saw Sheriff Zander walk through the doors no less than two minutes after he placed his order and took his booth. He saw Cora, Darla, and the other waitresses Sydney, Mabel, Whitney, and Beth, all moving around the main area taking orders, refilling cups, and clearing dirty dishes. He knew from his studies that since these six were out front, that left five others whom he could not see behind the counter and in the kitchen. Nine-thirty struck much sooner than it usually did (he felt), and once again, as he stood (slower this time than the day before), the woman with the red umbrella came through the door. Cramwell left the café behind her, and set off toward his next customary location. En route, he identified William Bravstein, Timothy Dartmouth, and Jeremiah Morgan—all municipal employees at City Hall. At the library, Cramwell realized for the first time that every time he checked out a book, it was taken, stamped, and returned to him by either Cecil, Taylor, Zack, or Kayla. Cramwell was so intent on recognizing people that he did not once think about the threatening messages and their very real consequences, nor the most recent message, with its victim yet unknown.
Twelve o’clock, he walked over to the diner. Mrs. Preston greeted him yet again with her usual cheery salutation.
“Well, Cramwell Fornberg! My day just wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t see that charming hat of yours breezing through my doors halfway through it!”
Cramwell said nothing, only glanced at her briefly as he grabbed his bag and left. At the park, he passed by Frank Beskitt near the entrance and made for his customary bench. His sandwich tasted better today than it ever had before. Halfway through eating his chips, he heard a voice.
“Colby! Colby! Come here right now, young man! Colby!”
Mrs. McKee wandered into the park with her two older kids firmly in tow. “Colby!” Periodically, she would stop and ask a passerby, “Have you seen my son Colby? I can’t think where he’s run off to!”
Presently, she happened to stop someone near Cramwell’s bench, and he heard every word, though immediately afterwards he fervently wished he hadn’t.
“Have you seen my son, Colby?” Mrs. McKee asked. “I just stopped in at the grocery store, and I must have lost him in another aisle, but when I went to look for him, I couldn’t find him. He must have wandered out and gotten himself lost. Have you seen him? He is only eight years old, about four feet tall, and wearing a red jacket. Have you seen him?”
Cramwell tried continuing to eat as he listened, but as she finished, he found he couldn’t swallow his cookie. His mouth went dry, and the crumbs clung to his gums and clogged his throat. “Now you see him, now you don’t…” He had identified Colby McKee today, had he not? Cramwell was certain the boy would still be missing tomorrow. He knew exactly what had happened to Colby, but nothing would induce him to ever reveal this to anyone. Who knows but such an action would only implicate himself, with the way people were scared of him already!
Cramwell hastily tossed his empty sack and half-eaten cookie into the nearest trashcan and rushed off to the library again. The book Cromwell—returned to its original state, sans the extra letters and coded message—taunted him from its shelf, even though Cramwell spent the next three hours in the Nonfiction section. At four o’clock, he went to the grocery store—only to remember again that this was the last place little Colby had been seen. Cramwell was so distracted by the things he so desperately wanted to forget that he bought quite all the wrong things that day. As he perused his basket on his way back up the Hill, he supposed he would have to make the best of the random items he had just purchased. For it was one thing when someone disappeared from a crowd of total strangers; quite another when you knew that someone’s name, out from all the others! And what were daily provisions compared to that? Cramwell miserably dined on steamed cabbage, baked beans, boiled potatoes and fish sticks that night. It had happened again! There was no outsmarting this kidnapper, this insidious, cipher-spouting bogeyman that purported to haunt the citizens of Precinct, but actually made his mark terrorizing the soul of Cramwell Fornberg, the man outside of Precinct and all of its doings! What had he done to deserve such a cruel fate? What would he do now?
The Cramwell Fornberg who wearily stumbled out from under the covers at the eighth chime was quite possibly the polar opposite of the one who had sprung out of bed with such vivacity only twenty-four hours previously. He had not slept very well the previous night. The abductions were beginning to wear on him, to invade his slumber with terrifying nightmares of places where one by one everything and everyone disappeared, and Cramwell was left alone in an empty, swirling void. The solitude, once so comfortable and consistent, was now a constant reminder that someone was stealing people—but not without warning Cramwell first. It swirled about him as he warily picked up the newspaper and completely avoided the first page, which he knew gave the circumstances about the mysterious disappearance of Colby McKee, the eight-year-old in the red jacket who lost his way in the grocery store. Sadly, nothing else in the entire paper seemed to matter. He read every article in the remainder of the paper to Marble Jelilah, but every time he turned the page, her face stared back at him as if catching him in a lie, or keeping secrets; Jelilah always knew when he was keeping secrets. He could never really keep secrets—or keep it a secret that he was keeping a secret—from her. She always knew, that wonderful, wise Jelilah!
He trembled as he ordered his coffee from Whitney, and Beth brought it to his table. Just a few days ago, he had been relieved to see no codes; now everything had a hidden meaning to it! The way Cora moved past certain tables with waiting patrons and stopped at others; the number of patrons using spoons or not; how many ate their meals at the café, and how many stopped in for their morning coffee. Sheriff Zander came in two minutes after Cramwell ordered his coffee, just like he did the day before. Cramwell deduced he must come in at the same time every morning, just as Cramwell himself did. The woman with the red umbrella—her name was Alivia Rogner—came in before Cramwell realized he’d overstayed. How many people watched him leave, he wondered, and which ones actually took note? Was the kidnapper among them?
He rushed outside and started for the library; a man in a black suit and a bright red silk tie brushed past him. Cramwell stopped in his tracks. Red silk tie! He had seen it the first day! He looked up; it was only Mr. Mavis, a journalist for the Precinct Daily. He had been the one to write the missing persons articles that claimed the front-page slot every time. Cramwell mused that he had never seen that name on the front page ever before, yet according to the census, Mr. Mavis had been writing for the paper for a while. Feigning abductions would certainly be a convincing—albeit juvenile—opportunity for fame that is every journalist’s dream, no doubt. Would Mr. Mavis be one to take such an opportunity?
Cramwell traced the direction he saw the man come from; he had just left the diner. Cramwell checked the clock at the top of City Hall; it was nearly noon. He had spent far too long at the diner, and now he had wasted more time standing on the sidewalk thinking. He might as well get his lunch early today.
Cramwell duly marched into the diner. Mrs. Preston was genuinely surprised, but she kept up her sunny banter.
“Well, Mr. Fornberg! Mr. Mavis said he thought you’d be in here a little early today. He left something for ya in your bag. Here it is,” She handed him the white paper sack.
Cramwell took it, staring at it warily. Mrs. Preston laughed, “Don’t be so worried! It’s only a message!”
She meant to reassure him, but her words only made him more concerned. So Mr. Mavis was the one leaving him messages? It made perfect sense; Mr. Mavis could have the coveted front page with the abductions, and he out of everyone else in the town Cramwell could think of would know the habits and affinities of Precinct’s resident recluse. As a writer himself, he would know about books and, very likely, codes, to be able to give Cramwell what he probably intended only to be a good scare, unaware that it would balloon into a wanton terror for the timid man.
Cramwell did not so much as open the bag until he reached his secluded bench in the park. Carefully, he peeked inside. Sure enough, two messages waited in the bag for him, written, he noticed, with the same pen.
The first said,
We Need To Talk. Grocery Store, 4 o’clock.
The second was the old familiar encoded message:
ZIOKR ZODT’L ZIT EIQKD. VOSS ZIOL GFT EGDT ZG IQKD? NGX’BT FGZOETR QSS DN ESXTL. EITEA GXZ ZGDGKKGV’L FTVL.
The Typewriter Cipher! Cramwell wasted no time solving it, and read the result with a sinking heart.
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM.
WILL THIS ONE COME TO HARM?
YOU’VE NOTICED ALL MY CLUES.