Saturday, May 17, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker", Part 12

Karthey awoke to the sound of creaking steps as Cramwell descended the stairs just down the hall from her door. She looked at her cell phone. A text awaited her.
            Karthey sat back on the bed as she read it. Now he was requesting her help in the investigation! Karthey thought about the notes she had found. She was certain now that he had received the notes from someone else… the napkin looked like it came from the diner where Clarissa worked… she smirked.
            “But he doesn’t know the territory!” she quoted a line from The Music Man. He didn’t know the people of Precinct; she didn’t know the circumstances around the messages, nor who could have a connection with Cramwell and know the town well enough to be able to make someone disappear so precisely and without witnesses to the actual abduction. Putting their knowledge together, though, they could be an unstoppable team—a team that never met in person.
            Karthey went down to the kitchen, ate her breakfast, and washed all the dishes.  She reached the door at the top of the stairs in time to hear Cramwell returning to his room to get dressed for the day. The dining room was hers—but she dared not cross the entryway. She had seen him, true—but he might still prefer not to see her. Karthey went around the back of the house to reach the dining room. The list Cramwell mentioned was waiting for her. Karthey surveyed the names.

Alivia Rogner
Dorothea McKee
Jason Plattner
Sheriff Michael Zander
Darla Munroe
Cora Bergen
Cherry Macintosh
Gavin Blint
Susan Gardner
Doris Preston
Heather Forquist
Karleen Ludfisch
Mayor George Heartlin
Whitney Bryan
Beth LaMarde

            Karthey was surprised at the number of people Cramwell wanted information on; were they suspects in his mind? Impossible; the Mayor and the Sheriff were on the list—and they were as much in the dark as the victims’ friends and families! Karthey fervently hoped that the information she could provide Cramwell would help solve these baffling cases. She wanted a life not beleaguered by fear as much as Cramwell did.
            Karthey filled in the details of the list as best she could. Everyone on the list associated or crossed paths with someone else: nearly everyone on the list went regularly to the diner where Doris worked, or the cafĂ© where Cora, Whitney, Darla, and Beth worked. Cherry and Karleen all attended the same school. Heather was Clarissa’s mother, who worked with Cora, Whitney, Darla, and Beth; she also worked as the receptionist at City Hall, where the Mayor and the Sheriff had their offices. Dorothea McKee worked at the diner and shopped at the grocery store. Susan Gardner worked at the grocery store and taught classes at Precinct High School, where Cherry and Karleen attended. Gavin had taken positions at both the diner and the grocery store when he had returned from college (after only two years; he did not have the funds for the rest), and he was Clarissa’s boyfriend. These and many other connections filled three whole pages, which Karthey laid neatly, under the original list, on Cramwell’s desk in the study as the clock struck twelve.
            Karthey went to the window at the back of the study and looked out. The sky was not as grey, and the brick building still stood at the end of the gravel path. It had a domed glass top, she noticed. It seemed to invite her to explore what it could possibly hold. It must be a garden; it couldn’t possibly be anything else.

            Karthey searched in the area next to the kitchen for some gardening tools. She found them all, locked away in a closet that was very difficult to open, on account of age. Everything was coated in dust and cobwebs. Why had Cramwell locked this closet? Karthey filled a wheelbarrow with tools and fertilizer and went to the end of the hall, where stood a door she had often wondered about. Opening this door, she found a gently-sloping tunnel that led right underneath the dining room, up to the west side of the house. Karthey made a right-hand turn once she was outside, and crossed behind the back of the house to reach the path to the enclosed garden.

            The door was dark and damp, with cast-iron hinges and handle, and various mosses and lichens growing in the cracks of the boards. Karthey’s hand quivered as she laid it on the ice-cold metal with no idea how long it had been since anyone had touched that door. There was nothing in Cramwell’s daily routine that called him out to this place at all. The curtains of the library had been closed too, so there was not even any rhyme or reason for Cramwell to even look in this direction.
            Karthey searched the key ring for one that would fit in the large, ancient keyhole. All the keys she had were for the modern, small, commonplace locks; none even came close to the size of the hole. Besides, Cramwell had said all the keys were for the doors inside the house (except the cloister); he hadn’t even mentioned the garden. Karthey thought about what she might do, but then she simply lifted the latch. It was nearly rusted in place, she had to pull very hard with both hands, but at last, it moved! Karthey pushed open the door and stepped inside.

            The first sensation that struck her with all the force of a newly-freed prisoner was the heady, thick smell of flowers. It was a garden full of red roses and white rhododendrons! The glass roof had allowed sunlight while keeping out the cold, while the closed door had allowed in the moisture from the atmosphere, which—along with the natural dampness of the earth, had supplied the bushes with moisture. They were by no means well-kept, having grown wild and sprawling ever since the door was locked, but everywhere Karthey looked, she saw thorny stems topped with bright-red blossoms, and the brown branches of the rhododendron bushes with the large white blossoms peeking out to greet her. Karthey almost wept for joy. The sight of the red flowers reminded her of her father. What a beautiful place! She had not expected to see any such thing during her internment at Fornberg House.
            Karthey immediately began cleaning out the dust, the weeds, and the dead vegetation from around the bushes. She raked, she pulled, she brushed, she shook, and finally, the garden began to resemble what it once was. At the very least, she had uncovered the little paved pathway that wound around the small area. She had even discovered a small pool at the center of the garden, with a man and a woman carved out of stone with their arms around each other standing at its edge. The water was green with moss and algae, but Karthey carefully worked until she had gotten every last bit of sludge from the small pond. She found a crank in the corner that proved to be connected by a series of gears to two sections of the glass roof. She opened them, and the wind gratefully swept inside, blowing about the roses as if greeting a long-lost friend. For the first time since coming to Fornberg House, Karthey Mavis laughed for joy.

            As she stood there amidst such beauty and such wonderment, watching the wind blow ripples in the pond and considering the couple standing two feet high beside it, Karthey pondered that perhaps Cramwell Fornberg was indeed as lonely as she had always thought, but maybe the sight of these roses would awaken him again to the love and the joy he had once felt. Perhaps then he would not be so melancholy and withdrawn. He had only those musty, dusty silk plants around his house; there were no fresh flowers. Karthey ventured a guess that there had been no one to put fresh flowers around the house since The Woman had died—but now Cramwell had Karthey at his house!
            Forthwith, Karthey scampered around the garden, trimming back the rose hedges and rhododendron bushes while at the same time carefully clipping blossoms for the house. She drew a little water from the pond in a bucket, and placed the stems she cut in there. Soon the bucket was bursting with red-and-white blossoms, and Karthey returned to the house positively floating on a cloud of elation.
            She found a cupboard full of vases of every size and shape in the kitchen, and filled five of them with the large, gorgeous blooms. Into a sixth vase she put the remaining rhododendrons only, because they had been more plentiful than the roses. Happily, Karthey went around the house to the dining room, the library, Cramwell’s study, the sitting room, and the sunroom, placing vases on tables, putting—in her opinion—a bit of sunshine in each room, making them even brighter than all the new light bulbs and all the cleaning could ever do. The sixth vase she placed on a small table in the entryway. She was sure Cramwell would enjoy coming home to fresh flowers every day. She was beginning to feel sorry for the way he had lived so long before, in the dim, dusty darkness, with nothing but books and statues for company. She may not want to live there at the house herself, but at least she wanted to know that he was comfortable in his own space. He had accepted the level of cleaning she did around the house; after all that, who wouldn’t say “no” to flowers? And it wasn’t like they were bright, gaudy things, either; they were simply beautiful; Cramwell, with all his statues and paintings and whatnot of a single, beautiful woman that he populated his house with, struck Karthey as a man who would accept simple beauty.
            By now it was about three-thirty. Karthey still had an hour before Cramwell returned. She decided to clean the sunroom, the last room downstairs she had observed but not cleaned. The clock began to strike half-past-four just as she finished. Karthey couldn’t help a little wriggle of excitement as instead of returning upstairs as she normally did, she pushed the trolley into the north hallway, down by the corner past the music room. She pulled the door leading to the dining room almost shut, and peeked through the crack to witness Cramwell’s reaction to her “renovations.”
            She heard him open the door. He was muttering to himself. She heard him stop; he had seen the first vase. Then Cramwell went into the library, as he always did. Karthey jumped when she heard him yell out—the first time he had raised his voice in the last five days. Something had agitated him beyond belief. She heard him pace quickly out of the library, down the hall and through another door. This time, she heard a yell and a crash. Had he knocked the vase over? Surely such a thing could be an accident!

            One minute later, her cell phone buzzed.

You are meddling in things you know nothing about, Miss Mavis.
I will take my supper in my room. Please prepare the meal and leave it on a tray outside my door. Then I insist you remove the vases from every room in which you have so foolishly displayed them and see that you never make such a horrendous mistake again.

            Karthey’s heart sank as she read the text. What had she done wrong? She did not understand. She brought the housekeeping trolley into the dining room. Carefully, she placed the vase on the trolley. She exited the room by the side door leading directly to the entryway. He had not touched the vase with only rhododendrons. Why was this? Karthey retrieved the vase of flowers from the sitting room and the library, and went to inspect the damage in the study.
            The white porcelain vase lay shattered at the base of the wall next to Cramwell’s desk. All the roses were smashed and torn, as if trampled savagely underfoot. This was no accident, Karthey concluded somberly; this action was intentional. Cramwell had swept the vase off the desk with his hand and beat the roses till the petals came off their stems. Why had he done this? If the man had roses growing in his own backyard, why did he hate them so much?

            Karthey went down to the kitchen and found Cramwell’s basket of groceries. She fixed him a meal of chicken soup and rolls, and brought it upstairs on a tray. As she ventured down the upstairs east hall—where she had never been before, she heard a sound coming from behind the tall double doors leading to Cramwell’s bedroom. Karthey laid the tray on the dusty carpet and leaned her ear against the door. A pitiful, gasping, weeping sound reached her ear. Cramwell was crying. Every so often, Karthey could make out the word “jelly” repeated, but she could not figure out why a man would be crying and talking about jam at the same time, even a man like Cramwell. Karthey penitently got herself a bowl of the soup and a roll, eating her dinner in her own bedroom, full of sympathetic misery.
            At about seven o’clock, Cramwell left his room and went downstairs. A few minutes later, Karthey heard the wailing music begin again. Cramwell played his instrument for an entire hour, and Karthey thought she could hear him shouting at the same time, though she might have imagined that. The music that night was the saddest it had ever been.
            In Karthey’s dreams that night, she returned to Precinct to find everyone either kidnapped or dead, and all she could do was stand and wail, wail, wail like Cramwell’s music. The garden may have made her happy, but she understood that it meant death, misery, and loneliness to Cramwell Fornberg, and this was something that would not change in the foreseeable future—if ever at all.