Saturday, June 14, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker", Part 16

Karthey sat at the booth in miserable silence. Cramwell had seated her at his booth, limped to the counter to pay for his coffee—then her father had walked in, and it was all Karthey could do not to leap into his arms at first sight. She sat as Cramwell had ordered her to, staring at the table, making eye contact with no one, even though she could feel their stares and hear their whispers from across the room. She kept her head bent, and fervently hoped she would not have to endure the pain of her father recognizing her—just in time to hear him cry, “Karthey!”

            Karthey winced; every time she considered looking at him, even acknowledging his presence, her cell phone would buzz. She knew what it said; the same thing Cramwell had been texting her every time he saw her wanting to interact with anyone: “Remember your promise.” Karthey was not about to break her word, for fear of losing the privilege of ever coming to town again. It was becoming harder to do so, even as her father persisted in speaking to her.
            “Karthey! Golly, I miss you! Are you doing well? Why won’t you speak to me? We’ve made progress, Karthey! We’re trying to figure out who the kidnapper is. Your mother misses you, Derrik misses you—we all wish you were back home. Aren’t you going to at least say hello to me?” He leaned forward and grabbed her hand.
            Karthey tensed and tried to get Cramwell’s attention with her eyes, staring at him hard enough that he looked up finally. She begged him with such a pitiful expression that he finally relented only slightly and nodded.
            Karthey looked at her father, “Hi Dad,” she said quietly.
            Her father seemed ecstatic at the reaction. “Oh, Karthey!” He reached with his other arm as if he was going to try and embrace her while she sat in the booth, but just then, Cramwell finished his coffee and cleared his throat.
            Mr. Mavis took the hint and backed away from the table. Karthey felt the pain in her chest as her father left, and knew he must feel the same way about leaving her there.

            Only a bit behind the normal schedule of the day, Karthey and Cramwell went to the library at eleven o’clock. Cramwell went to the Nonfiction section and was elated to discover a new book of codes and ciphers. He read for almost a half-hour, while Karthey amused herself with whatever she could find around her, and proceeded to the front desk to check out the book.
            At the counter, as Cecil helped Cramwell, Taylor approached Karthey with a strange look on his face. Keeping a wary eye on Cramwell, he hurriedly slipped a folded piece of paper across the counter and into Karthey’s hand. Karthey covertly slid the paper into her pocket and wondered what it could be as they walked together to the diner.

            Cramwell walked into the diner and stopped short. Something was wrong; what was it? His white lunch bag stood where it always did, on the counter right behind the register. Cramwell dug the appropriate amount of cash to pay for it and laid it on the counter, but did not touch the bag. Something stopped him.
            Mrs. Preston was not there; had she been there yesterday? He was so used to ignoring her that her boisterous voice had become as natural as the bell that hung over the door and rang when he walked in. He remembered the note he had found amidst the soup cans at the grocery store the day before, warning him that someone he knew would disappear. Had it really been referring to Mrs. Preston, of all people? Cramwell allowed his eyes to scan around the counter; there was no sign of the chatty woman anywhere, and the girl standing behind the counter (Charity Grace; he had seen her in the census) looked nervous enough to confirm Cramwell’s fears. Gruffly, he snatched the bag, waited for Karthey to select a bagel and an orange for herself, and escorted her to the park.

            Karthey was nervous to see Cramwell revert to such a thorny demeanor. She hung back as he marched toward the back of the park out of habit. He sat down on the bench, and motioned for her to do the same. Karthey sat stiffly at the opposite end of the bench. Cramwell was soon absorbed in his lunch, so Karthey found the opportunity to covertly pull the note out of her pocket. Instantly, she recognized the handwriting inside. It was from her father.

Dear Karthey, it read, I wanted to tell you how proud I am of your bravery in remaining where you are. You are safe, my darling. I want to congratulate you, too, on your excellent sleuthing skills. I hope Mr. Fornberg has not discovered our covert operation, but I know you, and I don’t believe he ever will because you are so clever.
I have narrowed the list of suspects down to a handful of people Cramwell knew back in London, who might have reason or motive for serial abductions. A lot of them are still in jail for other crimes; if you find anything that might help narrow down the list, please leave a note for me at the library when you go this afternoon. I love you. –Your father

            Karthey smiled; he had left her plenty of blank paper to write her own note on, and she knew where to find a cup of pens at the library counter. What sorts of things could she pass on to her father, though? Everything she’d discovered in the past few days had to do with Cramwell, not the kidnappings! Yet the more she thought about it as Cramwell finished his lunch and the two of them walked back to the library, the more she reasoned that perhaps what she had learned had more to do with the kidnappings than she realized, or perhaps what she had learned would at least help them narrow down their list of suspects. Since the kidnapper seemed to be so closely connected with Cramwell, perhaps the more her dad knew of Cramwell, the greater their chances of success would be.
            Karthey and Cramwell arrived at the edge of the Square and began to walk across. Karthey kept her head down as Cramwell did, so as not to engage anyone, but she could still see people stop and stare at them, pointing and whispering about her and about him. It made her so uncomfortable she could not restrain an involuntary squirm. She saw Cramwell’s eyes flicker toward her as he saw the movement.
            “The people point and stare a lot,” she explained in a low voice as they entered the library, “it makes me nervous.”
            “That’s the way people always act,” he replied as if they’d been on speaking terms this whole time, “Welcome to my world.”
            Karthey was so mortified at this revelation that she almost forgot to follow him into the Reading Nook. Just in time, she remembered the note to her father. She left Cramwell absorbed in a novel, and meandered her way to the check-out counter, where Zack nodded to her knowingly. Karthey selected a pen from the cup on the counter and drew her father’s note out of her pocket. She tore off the bottom, blank part and thought carefully about what she should write in the limited space. After a minute, she smiled; she knew.
Jelilah drowned.
Cramwell not to blame.
He hates red.
Mrs. Preston gone.
I love you.

            There! Just enough room for that much. Karthey knew her dad could use this information; she just hoped it was help enough for him. She handed the note to Zack and returned to Cramwell.
            He sat just as she had left him, intensely absorbed in his book. She saw his brow furrowed; was he worried about something—did he know she was passing messages behind his back? True to form, however, he never responded to her all the time he read. Karthey saw Zack leave the counter, and Kayla took over for him. Karthey watched the young man slip on a coat and head out the door. Perhaps he was delivering her message? Karthey could only sit and wonder for two more hours. When it was time to leave, Cramwell tucked his book under his arm, stood, and offered his other arm to Karthey. She took it, they proceeded to check-out, and they left the library straight for the grocery store.

            At the grocery store, Karthey followed Cramwell around the bins as he selected foods for the evening and the following day. She wandered behind him, studying the pattern in the weave of his tweed coat, the way he tapped his cane every third step, and the strange shuffling way he—
            Karthey stopped at the end of the canned foods aisle, where a column of stickers and rubber stamps was located. Someone had very deliberately arranged seven alphabet stamps to spell out “K-A-R-T-H-E-Y.” She inspected it closer. There was a note tucked just behind it, from her dad! He must have known Cramwell would be absorbed in choosing his cans, which would give her time to grab the note. Keeping one eye on Cramwell, Karthey pretended to survey the items on display, running her fingers over the rubber stamps and messing them up (in case he might see them), and deftly seizing the note behind them with her fingertips. Quickly, she pushed it into her pocket and continued her perusal as if nothing was out of the ordinary, and she was just as bored as ever.
            Cramwell paid for his groceries, and the pair proceeded toward the foot of Fornberg Hill.
            Just when they had made it out of town, Cramwell erupted abruptly, “What news from your father?”
            Karthey turned her head toward him guiltily; truly? For all she had done to be so clandestine, he had known all along? Or perhaps he was trying to trap her. “I don’t know,” she answered.
            Cramwell huffed, “Miss Mavis, merely because I do not interact with anyone does not mean I am wholly unaware of their movements, particularly of late, and especially of you. Has your father made any progress in working with the police to solve this case? I must have any information he has passed on to you.”
            Karthey thought about the note in her pocket. As Cramwell unlocked the gate leading to Fornberg Hill, she expressed a proposition.
            “What if we were to work on this case together?”
            Cramwell stopped and looked her over dubiously. “Together?” he stuttered, “You want to work with me, and you think that will help solve the case?”
            Karthey rolled her eyes at his apparent prejudice, “Yes!” she sighed, “And I think we ought to do it in person, no more texting like we have been.” Her fear of Cramwell Fornberg was almost completely gone in her enthusiasm to be able to at last make progress and answer the questions that had been bothering her so much for over a week now.
            Cramwell hesitated. Clearly he did not think her capable of such sleuthing; but hadn’t he seen all that she had done over the last week at his house? Didn’t he remember that he had in his desk the very paper that Karthey had written, with all the details of the first four victims?
            “Miss Mavis,” he began, but she stopped him there on his doorstep, ready to be firm with him for once.
            “For the record,” she informed him, “my name is Karthey.”
            “Yes I know,” he replied quickly; she could tell he was still thinking over her offer furiously. “But—Karthey—are you sure you can be an adequate asset? This is a very volatile, highly sensitive situation, and you are only collateral, a temporary guest uninvolved with the case itself.”
            Karthey was unconvinced. She fixed those icy-blue eyes with the same stare from her hazel ones. “I can do it. Will you let me?”
            Cramwell Fornberg sighed heavily. “All right,” he acquiesced, “but we don’t start until tomorrow. Leave me alone for tonight, and we will meet in the morning.”
            Karthey nodded, “All right.”
            Cramwell opened the front door for her and allowed her to step through first. She made for the kitchen as Cramwell went to the library.
            “Cramwell,” Karthey called before she went through the door.
            He had just reached the library door; he paused without turning around.
            “Thank you,” she said.
            He nodded his head.

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