Saturday, May 10, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker," Part 11

Karthey threw on her jacket as she left the door of Fornberg House. She fairly ran down the hill, overjoyed at the sight of Derrik waiting for her at the gate.

            Brother and sister could not embrace because of the bars that separated them, but they clasped hands fervently.
            “How have you been, sister?” Derrik asked urgently, with much concern on his face. “I couldn’t believe it when Dad came home with a letter from you, saying that The Cram had brought them into town. How did you get him to do such a thing?”
            “Derrik!” Karthey chided her brother, “He was the one who made the offer; I merely accepted it. Didn’t you read what I wrote you?”
            “Yeah, about The Cram being a real control freak and forcing you out of his way—“
            “You don’t get it, do you?” Karthey interrupted. “I said that’s how he was at first, but…but maybe he’s changed—or maybe I’ve changed.”
            “Maybe we should get you examined by a doctor,” Derrik suggested teasingly, “because I saw him come into town today, and I followed him around, and there was nothing different about him whatsoever; and if you’ve changed, I have to wonder where all this is going. You’re not going to want to live here forever, are you?” His eyes communicated a deliberate challenge.
            Karthey felt her heart seize and her stomach turn at the thought. “Oh no!” she assured her brother emphatically, “No! Just as soon as this is over, I want to go straight home! This house is much too big, too scary—not so dark anymore, but it still creeps me out. Don’t worry, Derrik, I’ll come back to you. In fact, I’ve brought you something that I found that might help you on the case.”
            Derrik suddenly drew himself up and looked very much interested. “What is it?” he asked.
            Karthey showed him the paper she had been filling out of all the victims, and told him of the messages she found. “By the looks of it,” she explained as Derrik studied her paper, “Cramwell seems to have messages pertaining to all the disappearances. I only found three before I came out to meet you, though I don’t know what the third one said. I don’t even know where the messages came from, because it’s his handwriting on each one, and it’s always in code at the top of the page, and he writes it over and over again, and by the bottom of the page, he’s solved the message. I can’t tell whether he’s making this stuff up himself, or whether he’s gotten it from someone else—“
            “Wait, like the kidnapper will warn The Cram ahead of time, before each victim was kidnapped?” Derrik frowned incredulously, “Why didn’t he go to the police at the very beginning, then? This whole thing could have been over before he got it into his mixed-up brain to have Dad arrested, and you wouldn’t have felt the need to come up here!”
            “But what if Cramwell’s just making this stuff up? It wouldn’t make sense to go to the police then; and if he isn’t, and he had gone to the police, would they have believed it of someone like Cramwell? And if they hadn’t believed him, I would never had found the notes myself, and maybe you’ll accept them from me better than the police would have accepted them from Cramwell.”
            Derrik grudgingly acknowledged the truth in his sister’s words. “Well, all right,” he admitted, “Dad and I will take a look at them; but if he really did get the notes from somewhere else, you should probably find the original notes, so we can analyze the handwriting.”
            “But the fact that there are these messages means something in and of itself, right, Derrik?” Karthey sought to verify her assumption.
            Derrik nodded, “Oh, it definitely means something; we just haven’t figured out what it is yet.”
            Karthey glanced back at the house, “All right; the notes are probably somewhere in his study. He has tons of papers in there. I can check and see what I find.” She turned back to her brother, “Will I see you tomorrow?”
            Derrik winced, “Actually, I won’t be able to come tomorrow; Dad and I have a busy morning ahead of us. But I promise to come visit the next day. I love you, Karthey!”
            “I love you too, Derrik. See you the day after tomorrow, then!”

            Karthey trudged back up Fornberg Hill and entered the big, vacuous house. Tomorrow, she must spend the whole day in the house; how would she manage not seeing Derrik and hearing about the town?
            Karthey remembered what she had told Derrik about checking in Cramwell’s study for the notes. She went upstairs, grabbed a duster, some rags, and a trash bag, intending to do just that—plus perhaps a bit of cleaning and opening of windows on the side.
            The study was just down the hall from the library. The windows, she saw, looked out to a section of Fornberg Hill that was partitioned off by a short brick wall. Karthey saw a gravel path leading to it from the back patio. She wondered what could be out there. A garden? Maybe it was The Woman’s garden. Karthey glanced up to the large painting hanging on the wall over the fireplace. With a jolt she realized that the man standing next to The Woman in the picture must be Cramwell Fornberg himself! He was a good deal shorter than she’d pictured him, not much taller than the woman, by the looks of the painting, with sandy-brown hair and small, unassuming features. Of course the whole tone of the painting was very subdued and solemn, “A lot like the house,” Karthey muttered.
Cramwell and The Woman clasped hands at the center of the painting, and Karthey couldn’t help noticing that they probably had the portrait taken in the library, for she recognized some of the shelves, the green armchair stood off to the side behind Cramwell, and there was still a pile of books on the table behind The Woman and on the floor beside her.
            Karthey regarded the painting with a calculating air. “Well,” she mused aloud, “if he only looks like that, I don’t think I would be afraid of him, exactly—only very, very depressed!”
            She resumed cleaning the study, opening curtains, a window, straightening piles of papers, and dusting everything. She kept a wary eye out for anything that didn’t look like Cramwell’s handwriting (even though she could not identify the handwriting itself very well, but at least it helped that he always used the same kinds of pens, and most of the writing was his anyway), but the clock struck through the quarter-hours till it reached quarter-after-four before she could find anything in the piles on the wide, mahogany, pot-bellied desk.
            To the chimes of the clock, Karthey received a sudden burst of inspiration. She cautiously reached down and pulled open one of the drawers. Inside were many small notes, but none in code. Encouraged, Karthey moved to search the drawer below it. Still more notes presented themselves to her eye, yet none of them were the ones for which she searched. With every drawer, Karthey’s heart pounded harder. What if she made it through the entire desk without finding the notes? What if he didn’t keep them in his study at all, but in some deep, dark place, like his bedroom? These questions hounded her as she pulled open the third drawer, hoping against hope that it held what she sought. What if—

            At last! Karthey stopped to feast her eyes on the crumpled, dirty pieces of paper (and a napkin—plus one of the pieces of paper had tape around the edges) for which she had braved fifteen extra minutes in Cramwell’s study. But how would she get them to Derrik without Cramwell noticing?
            Karthey’s cell phone buzzed, alerting her that Cramwell was on his way home. It also put her in mind of something else. Basking in her own genius, Karthey pulled out her cell phone, quickly snapped pictures of each note, and closed the drawer again. Everything was as she found it; the only thing she took from the room was years of dust, and four pictures, safe on her cell phone.
            Karthey left the east hallway and made it across the entryway to the door leading into the dining room when she heard Cramwell enter the front door just behind her. The left-hand stairwell obscured her from his view, but by leaning very carefully around the door, Karthey found she could get a clear view of Cramwell Fornberg, in person—her first since coming to the house.
            She was stunned by what she saw: he was exactly like the painting: Mild, brooding, very solemn—and completely unapproachable. She watched him leave the basket of letters by the front door where he’d placed the basket that morning, and then he moved straightaway for the east hallway. Karthey, in her turn, made for the basket. She found replies to all her notes, plus a few other people who wanted to express their sympathies, with whom she had not communicated of late. Karthey frowned mildly when she noticed that all the cards were open; Cramwell could have read them all if he were the nosy type. Was he the nosy type? Karthey finally shrugged it off; who cared if Cramwell read the mail he had brought himself? She brought the letters upstairs, returned downstairs quickly when summoned for her supper, and spent the rest of the evening reading the wonderful epistles from the friends and family who had felt so far away for the almost interminable time of four whole days now.
            That night—in her imagination, at least—Karthey Hendra Mavis was home.
            Cramwell Fornberg opened his eyes at half-past-seven the next morning. His mind was spinning like a top that would not fall. Most of the previous day had been a blur. As his mind climbed wearily out of the whirlwind of thoughts that had prevented a peaceful slumber, he remembered the events slowly.
            First had been that awkward text to Miss Mavis. (No, Cramwell reminded himself, she has a name; he’d seen it on the cards he brought to town; her name was Karthey). He remembered typing and sending it, but he could not exactly remember why it had sounded so reasonable. He had never wished her a good morning before; whyever was he doing it now?
            He had immediately regretted it, but as it was sent, there was not much he could do about it beyond ignoring that it had ever happened. But then—still in the wake of the newfound goodwill—he had the audacity to make the offer to be her courier. Two regrettable texts, in the same morning! Why, oh why was Mavis the girl here instead of Mavis the journalist? She absolutely confused him; one minute she was darting out of the room and scared speechless at the thought of him, the next, she was sneaking around, cleaning his house and conducting an investigation as calmly as if she didn’t give a care what he thought of her!
            It was the whole idea of Karthey Mavis being just as good an investigator as her father that intrigued Cramwell the most. He could not see exactly everything she did, because generally the cameras were just far enough away that he could watch her, but could not make out minute details. Reviewing the footage every night before he went to bed, he saw her pulling out the newspapers and writing furiously, flipping through his notebooks to find the messages he’d solved (he was outraged at the sight of this when he first saw it, but as he continued to watch, the sight of her carefully replacing the notebook exactly as he had left it mollified him), and even rooting through his study—for what? She sifted through the papers, she peeked in almost every drawer—what could she be looking for there? But she did everything with admirable tact and thoroughness—almost like a true detective. Somehow Karthey Mavis had the wherewithal to come up with methods of solving the case that Cramwell himself wished he had thought of; but more than her tact or her thoroughness, Karthey had something fully in her grasp that Cramwell was only beginning to understand: she knew the ways of the Precinct townsfolk.
            He had, of course, read all her notes on the way to town. They mentioned movements and interactions that Cramwell had not even begun to realize. Names that he had separated completely from each other were penned in the same sentence. Not just that, but when—after he had delivered the notes to Mr. Mavis—word got around that Cramwell was carrying notes between Precinct and Fornberg Hill to and from Karthey, Cramwell found his old comfortable, lonely places now frequented by people desiring to pass on messages to Karthey. They understood that he did not wish to socialize or speak, but they meekly approached him and dropped a caring message for Karthey in his basket. He read these, too, before he reached his house again in the evening. Once again, he saw names and associations he never dreamed could be. This very thing had troubled Cramwell’s sleep the previous night. He knew now, because of Karthey’s letters and the responses from the people, that Precinct had a network beyond similar employment, which he had been emphasizing so far. Cramwell knew, at seven-thirty the next morning, he probably ought to find out more about this network if he was going to be able to find either the kidnapper, or possibly the next victim. Perhaps a certain connection somewhere got the first victim into trouble, and that same connection meant the disappearance of a lot of people. Perhaps all the victims had a connection, and if Cramwell could figure out what—or who, or where—that connection was, he would also be able to ascertain potential victims. But he could not do all of this alone, not with the limited information or means he had.
            Cramwell sat up, slid his feet into the dark shearling slippers, and put on his deep-blue dressing gown with a firm resolve. He would have to ask Karthey for help—that is to say, information. He needed to know the sort of thing she knew. He needed to glean from her what she knew about the town. Cramwell felt the cell phone in the pocket of his dressing gown. He had just the way to get the information he wanted, too.

            Good morning, Miss Mavis, he texted her, after debating as to the best way to frame his request, I know you are familiar with the habits and movements of the various citizens of Precinct. Ergo, I will leave a list of names on the dining room table. I want you to record as much about them as you have observed before, and leave the paper—feel free to use more than one sheet if you need it—on my desk in the study. Cramwell hesitated, reviewing the instructions carefully; it would work… wouldn’t it? It ought to! Cramwell hesitated, hemmed, hawed, rubbed his forehead, and, on a whim, typed out Thank you and pressed “Send.”
            After the screen confirmed the send, Cramwell mildly berated himself. Why “thank you”? Was he inviting the girl to live there? Did he really seek to make her comfortable enough to stay? Did he want another woman in the house—who wasn’t Jelilah? Perish the thought! But he did need the information she had, and if thank you got it to him, then where was the harm? The sooner he knew enough to apprehend the kidnapper, the sooner he could send her back down the hill and resume life as it had been before—albeit with a cleaner, fresher, brighter house. Satisfied with what he had done, he left his room as the clock struck eight and went downstairs to collect the paper and begin his daily routine.