Saturday, April 26, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker", Part 9

The next morning, Karthey began to realize that Cramwell Fornberg had as much of a routine at home as he did in town. She could practically organize her movements around the house in much the same way the citizens of Precinct organized their movements around town. He would text her at eight o’clock, giving her permission to have breakfast in the kitchen, then again at nine, when he had finished his breakfast and sent his dishes down the dumbwaiter, at which time Karthey discovered he was no longer in the dining room. Based on the evidence of movement she had discovered in the sunroom the day before, he most likely spent time there before getting dressed and going out to Precinct at nine-thirty.
            After she finished washing the dishes and putting them away, Karthey Mavis went back upstairs to retrieve the housekeeping trolley with as many cleaning supplies and tools as she could think of, and then went to the dining room, where she knew she was safe because Cramwell would be in the sunroom, his bedroom, and then he would leave the house. Karthey began by vacuuming the thick, dark carpet, almost enjoying the sight of a canister full of the dust and cobwebs of bygone years. She polished the wood wainscoting and mantel with a clean cloth and some wood polish she had found, removed the hurricane covers of the many lamps and cleaned those till they shone, and finally, washed and opened the windows, shaking the dust and heaviness from the velour floor-length curtains as the fresh autumn wind blew through the windows. Karthey glanced back at the table when she saw movement. The wind had blown the pages of a newspaper Cramwell had left on the table. Karthey seized this shred of the existence of a world she once knew, outside the house that had become her world lately, and eagerly inspected it for news of what went on down in town.


            Karthey read the article with a growing sense of horror, dread, tinged with not a little helplessness. This one hit closer to home than any of the others: the victim was none other than her best friend Cherry. “Seventeen-year-old Cherry was last seen browsing library shelves for an upcoming research paper. She was wearing faded jeans, a white blouse, brown corduroy jacket, and red cherry necklace and earrings.” Karthey smiled at the mention of the jewelry; Cherry had received those from Karthey herself, for her birthday five years ago. Cherry had been so pleased with them that she promised Karthey she would never remove them. Karthey read on.
            “Taylor Nahum was the first to discover evidence of Cherry’s disappearance: a single cherry earring on one of the shelves in the library. The investigation is underway, but police seem left in the dark more and more with each new victim under less-than-predictable circumstances.”

            Karthey peered closely at the photos accompanying the article. One was Cherry’s school photo, taken near the end of the previous year. She still wore the earrings. Also included in the article was a photo of where the earring had been placed—it had to have been placed, Karthey insisted to herself, because Cherry would never take even one earring off, not even under duress. Karthey noticed that the earring was on the third shelf from the bottom, so it wasn’t as if the earring had fallen out in some sort of struggle, either. The titles of the books on either side of the earring caught Karthey’s eye. What with the angle of the photo, most of the titles were cut off, but what she read was Death of and The Girl.
            Karthey’s mind spun: Death of The Girl. How awful! Death of The Girl. Was it some sort of message left behind by the sadistic kidnapper?
            “Come on, Karthey Hendra Mavis!” she chided herself out loud, “You’re being extreme; they’re just two books: Death of A Salesman, perhaps, and The Girl With The Pearl Earring.” Yet the fact that the earring would be placed just so that when the photographer—with eyes only for the trinket—snapped a picture at the best angle to see the location of the earring with respect to its context and unwittingly created a complete sentence was just too—disquieting.
            Karthey gasped a deep breath, but even the wind coming through the open dining room windows was not enough for her. She glanced at her cell phone: 10:43. It was almost time to meet Derrik! A walk was just the thing for her!

            Karthey put on a jacket, scarf, and hat and went out into the grey blustery, wet, dismal autumn to try to realign her thoughts with rationality. It didn’t work; all she could think about was Cherry, lying dead in some ditch, with the last cherry earring trampled in the mud next to her while—Karthey couldn’t stand all the horrible images of the various wounds Cherry might receive that flooded into her head at the same moment. She reached the gate early; Derrik wasn’t there. Karthey’s vision clouded over, and she burst out crying before she could help herself. The wind stung her eyes, making them water worse, and the sobs made her shake and shiver worse than the cold did. Suddenly, amid the blur, Derrik materialized. He held his hand through the gate for Karthey. She grabbed it with vehemence.
            “Is Cherry going to die, Derrik?” she choked, “Would the kidnapper really kill her? He hasn’t killed any of the other victims yet—has he?”
            Derrik sighed, “There’s no way to know unless we can get more information on who the kidnapper might be! Till now I don’t think he’s ever left any clues behind.”
            “Except the umbrella at the diner,” Karthey remarked, sniffing and trying to dry her face.
            “Oh yeah, and yesterday we just found Colby McKee’s jacket tossed over the fence in the alleyway beside the grocery store where he disappeared.”
            “And didn’t they find out that the waitress was missing because she left her scarf behind?” Karthey seemed to remember reading something of the sort in that first article.
            Derrik shook his head, “I guess he has been leaving clues: the things each victim were most identified for!” He gazed earnestly at his sister and dropped her hand, “I wish you could be out here helping us investigate, Karth! We could use your keen eyes.”
            “Dad has keen eyes, he always said I got it from him,” Karthey said, “and isn’t the entire Precinct police force working on this, too?”
            Derrik shrugged, “We’ve been over every inch of the locations where the abductions most likely occurred, but nobody can come up with a definitive link that would clue us in to the perpetrator’s MO. They’re all random places: the diner, the library, the grocery store—random people, too. There has to be a link, and I just know you would be the one to find it!”
            Karthey sighed sadly, “But I can’t leave, Derrik! Whatever I discover has to be uncovered here at Fornberg House.”
            “So what have you found out?”
            Karthey thought over the various discoveries she had made during her stay at Fornberg House. “Well, he has a lot of statues and busts and paintings of this one woman; I have no idea who it is, I’m thinking it might be his wife. He seems pretty obsessed with her. The statues are everywhere he goes in the house: the dining room, the library, the sunroom, he probably has some statues in his bedroom—I don’t know for sure because I haven’t been there. I just found the paper about Cherry today in the dining room, but I wonder if he doesn’t have the other papers somewhere else. He has a lot of books on cryptology and codes—“
            “Oh yeah, Cecil says he has checked out pretty much every book from the library, and they can’t collect them from him because nobody wants to go near the house.”
            Karthey frowned in puzzlement, “What could a single, lonely guy want with so many codebooks?”
            Derrik raised an eyebrow, “Remember, this is Cramwell Fornberg we’re talking about, here.”
            Karthey shrugged, “Good point; anyway, I saw a lot of papers with some weird languages on it, and he’s got a bunch of notebooks with a lot of codes. Oh! I even saw one that had a bunch of random words and letters, and then it said SOMEONE WILL DISAPPEAR AT EIGHT TONIGHT. It was creepy.”
            “Eight?” Derrik echoed, looking alert all of a sudden, “That’s the exact time the first victim disappeared! You say there was a bunch of random letters and words on it, too?”
            “Yeah,” Karthey wondered what her brother might be insinuating. “You don’t think that he—“
            Derrik cast a furtive glance up at the house, as if it was spying in the absence of its master, and shook his head, “Oh no; we’ve completely ruled that out. It has to be someone else. That’s weird that he would name the exact time of the abduction, though.”
            “Cramwell Fornberg is so weird it’s freaking me out, Derrik!” Karthey clutched the bars of the gate.
            “Why not just run away, then?” Derrik said. “You can climb the hedge and get out of Precinct before he gets home today. I would help you, and I would never tell where you had gone, even if The Cram tortured me to death.”
            “It’s not just about you, Derrik,” Karthey chided her brother, “Every time I think about running away, I think about Dad: if I ran away from Cram, I’d be safe, yes, but what would he do to Dad? What would my running away do to Dad? At least if I am here Dad knows that the kidnapper would never come up to a lonely house with a lonely man. Cramwell Fornberg is untouchable, and as long as I am with him, I can be, too.”
            Derrik huffed and chewed his lip, a sure sign that he was uncertain about the whole situation. Karthey extended her hand to him.
            “Am I doing a good job being brave, big brother?” she asked softly.
            He looked and saw the fear in her eyes, but saw the firm resolution in her face as well. “You are, little sister,” he admitted genuinely, “You are. Keep using those eyes of yours; maybe with our daily meetings, you can help make your confinement shorter by bringing us closer. See if Cramwell is more involved in this case than people might think. It could be that he knows something that will bring us closer than we’ve ever been before.”
            “Right,” Karthey agreed, “I just need to find it.”
            “Maybe it’s in some of the codes you found, the ones he studies all the time,” Derrik suggested.
            Karthey hesitated. To study the codes meant spending a lot of time in the spooky library, because she couldn’t risk bringing any of the books to her room. Cramwell’s warning of “everything must remain as you find it,” coupled with the fact that he had cameras all over the place and was watching her when she least expected it, all lent themselves to the conclusion that if even one title was faced the wrong way around, Cramwell Fornberg would notice it.
            “I’ll do it,” she promised her brother before her fears could get the best of her, “I’ll go right now, and see how much I can find before he gets back.”
            “You are so brave, little sister,” Derrik praised her, “I hope you won’t have to be locked away here much longer.”
            “Your visits certainly help,” Karthey returned with a smile, “I love you, Derrik.”
            “I love you too, Karthey, and Dad sends his love.”
            “Hug him for me,” Karthey begged, “and Mom, too.”
            “I will; goodbye, Karthey.”
            “Goodbye, Derrik.”

            Karthey trudged back up the hill with a heavy heart, but a mind full of determination. She returned to the dining room and picked up the paper. The horrible headline threatened to send her into the depths of despair all over again, but then she saw her father’s name at the top of the article. He knew Cherry as well; she could only imagine how he must have felt writing that article, knowing—or perhaps only hoping—that his daughter would be one to read it, but without his arms to allay her fears for her friend.
            Karthey resolved to be courageous, for Cherry and for her father. She screwed up what resolution she had to the absolute sticking point, and marched straight for the library in time to the great grandfather clock striking twelve.
            Karthey turned on the lights and was pleased to find that there were so few shadows now with the new light bulbs, but she still found herself waiting several minutes before she had the confidence to walk into the room. Once inside, the rest was remarkably easy. Karthey found the basket containing all the newspapers from the previous week. She sifted through them to find the ones that featured all the kidnapping victims. She picked up a blank notebook from the pile next to the armchair, but thought better of it and merely tore out a page, taking care not to leave any shreds of paper behind, just in case. She laid the four papers out in front of her and first folded the paper in half, then on one side she wrote “CLARISSA FORQUIST” at the top, and “COLBY MCKEE” just under the crease. Then she turned the paper over and again wrote “ALIVIA ROGNER” at the top, and “CHERRY MACINTOSH” just below the crease.
            Under each victim’s name, she began listing personal details as mentioned in the newspaper articles. Clarissa worked at the café, she left behind a red-and-white-striped wool scarf, she was last seen at the corner of the block on which the café stood, and the estimated time of abduction was about eight o’clock PM. Colby McKee was a young boy last seen at about twelve o’clock wearing a red jacket, which was recently discovered in the alleyway beside the grocery store where his mother lost him, and she never found him again. Witnesses claim to have spotted him at the corner of the curb that bent around the Square, less than a block away from the grocery store, still wearing the jacket, at about 4 o’clock PM. Alivia Rogner’s last errand was lunch at one-thirty at the diner, and someone reported to have seen her last just before two o’clock, where she just got up and walked away from the table, leaving her red umbrella where Mrs. Preston, the article said, discovered it more than two hours later. Finally, Cherry Macintosh was last seen at the library around three o’clock, wearing her iconic red cherry earrings and necklace, searching for books for a research project for school, and her disappearance went unnoticed until Taylor discovered her earring on the shelf while re-stocking the books after the library closed at six.
            Karthey sat up and surveyed her list. A waitress, a boy, a woman, and a student; what could these people have in common? The grandfather clock struck half-past-one, and she still had not come up with a reasonable explanation beyond the fact that they all disappeared under excessively mysterious circumstances.
            Karthey folded the paper and tucked it in her jeans pocket as she meandered out to the courtyard and swept all the cobwebs, leaves, and dirt from around the various statues and stone urns of dying, bedraggled plants, and quaint benches arranged around a bone-dry fountain. Everything was the same color, the same grey stone. Not even cleanliness could cheer the atmosphere up. Karthey reentered the house through a door that led into the kitchen just as the clock began to strike half-past-four. Cramwell would be returning any second.
            Karthey hastily replaced the gardening tools in their closet in the kitchen and ran upstairs just as the front door creaked open. She landed safely behind her closed door as she heard the front door slam shut behind Cramwell Fornberg. She began to relax as she reached into her pocket for the paper she had been writing on.
            Karthey Hendra Mavis nearly melted on the spot: the paper was gone.

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