Saturday, June 28, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker" Part 18

             Karthey and Cramwell stopped first by the park, it being on the north side of town, the side nearest Fornberg Hill. Cramwell tapped his cane on the pavement.
            “Watch carefully the people that walk by, Miss Ma—er, Karthey,” he instructed. “What sort of people do you see?”
            Karthey watched; she saw a couple businessmen and women, a few mothers with their babies, Mrs. McKee, some college students in Precinct for the holidays—it was a clear autumn day, but traffic was moderately light. Karthey pensively studied the block all the way down to Carmichael and Fourth—where Mrs. Preston was when she disappeared.
            “If I was the kidnapper, trying to get the attention of a certain person in town, namely the person I would warn ahead of time,” she spoke her thoughts aloud, “I would get his attention first, then proceed to remove people important to him.”
            Cramwell considered Karthey’s hypothesis, but sighed, “But of everyone in Precinct, Mrs. Preston would be the only person. The rest are just faces and names to me, even now; there’s no other likely victim according to that line of thinking.”
            The pair began walking down the block and around the Square toward the grocery store, passing by the diner and the café on their way.
            Karthey frowned, thinking more, “But if I was a kidnapper trying to get someone’s attention, I wouldn’t go picking random people at random times. There would be a specific reason, a connection between the victims.” She spread the map out in front of her and searched each mark carefully, “There has to be a connection!”
            “’Tis madness, but there’s method in’t’,” Cramwell quoted Shakespeare softly.
            Karthey’s quick ears heard the quote. “Exactly!” she cried, “A kidnapper who bothers not only to write notes ahead of time, but to encode them as well, is not one to just walk by a place and grab the first person he sees—“
            “Because every victim was not the first person the kidnapper would see in each location,” Cramwell finished.
            Karthey was so wrapped up in the puzzle that she failed to realize that this was the first time Cramwell had spoken over her. “Right,” she agreed with him, “based on the window of time in which they disappeared from sight, there was either a lot of people, or the kidnapper would have had to wait while many people passed by him in order to get the victim he went for.”
            Cramwell’s eyes twinkled with a twisted sort of merriment, “In that case,” he mused, “what reason would he have to choose those people above anyone else? What made them stand out as victims above the rest?”
            Karthey frowned in deep thought, careful to take in all the details of the corners as they crossed the street between the diner and the grocery store. Hauser Avenue, one of the streets that led to the residential area where a lot of her friends lived.
            “There’s the mystery we have to solve,” she remarked to Cramwell as they arrived in front of the grocery store.
            Karthey stopped and turned toward it, examining the edifice for any sort of clues. From that point in the sidewalk, she could see City Hall, directly across the street; next to that was a thrift store on one side, and the barber shop on the other. She looked up at the clock, its hands pointing almost to half-past-two. There was the library, dominating the east side of the Square. Karthey turned back toward the grocery store. Next to that was the alley where they’d found Colby’s jacket. Next to the alley was a wide parking area, as the Square itself was largely used for foot traffic. There weren’t any parking spaces in front of the businesses themselves. Precinct was a town small enough that you could walk most places, or if your house was on the far side of the neighborhood, near the schools, you’d drive into town, park in the lot next to the grocery store, and walk to all the places you wanted to go.
            Cramwell watched her turn and scan the area. “Have you found any clues yet?” he asked at last.
            Karthey shook her head, “Let’s head to the library,” she consented.
            Kayla was working at the front desk when Cramwell laid the dusty books on the counter in front of her. Karthey saw her stare bug-eyed at the books, glance up quickly to confirm that it was really Cramwell returning books she did not expect to see unless he had died or something like that, and immediately return her eyes to her work, bringing the books back to a cart behind the counter, where Cecil would re-shelve them.
            Karthey wandered over to the fiction section, scanning the shelves for the place where Cherry had been taken. A morbid curiosity had overtaken her, as seeing the metal and wood shelves of the Precinct Library reminded her of the frightening picture with its two books. She scanned the shelves, alphabetized by author, to see if she could find the exact place.
            Death of A Salesman she knew was written by somebody named Miller; she had no idea who wrote The Girl With A Pearl Earring. Perhaps someone with a last name that began with “M,” considering it had been shelved next to the Miller book. Karthey scanned carefully; Milbrook…Mildred…Adele Miller…Aha! Arthur Miller. There was The Crucible...Ah! Death of a Salesman—but it was definitely on a different shelf than it had been in the picture! What was more, the book The Girl with A Pearl Earring was nowhere to be found. Karthey scanned all the books nearby on that particular shelf, one by one, twice over, and found nothing.
            A cold chill down her spine caused the redhead to shiver. Had the kidnapper set up those two books specifically for the picture, then? Or had it been a coincidence of disorganization that he had simply capitalized on? Karthey ran her fingers over the shelves. This was definitely the place where Cherry had disappeared from; the tall shelves obscured the view to the reading nook, and that particular corner of the library was set just out of view of the entrance to the library. No clear sight in any direction. He could have been waiting just around the corner without Cherry even feeling like she was being watched…
            Karthey started violently when Cramwell approached her from behind.
            “It’s nearly three,” he told her, his eyes shifting back and forth nervously. “We need to stop in for purchases at the grocery store, and then we ought to head back home.”
            Karthey sighed, “All right,” she complied.

            All the way home, Karthey berated herself in her thoughts. They’d spent nearly an hour in town, and still had come no closer to solving the case than they had been that morning, save the fact that the kidnappings definitely had something to do with Cramwell.
            Together, they prepared dinner: tri-tip steak, mashed sweet potatoes, asparagus tips, and sourdough bread. Karthey tried multiple times to engage Cramwell in conversation, but most of the talking ended up coming from her end, while the strange, timorous man never offered replies of more than a few sentences. Certainly he never answered her questions about his past with more than vague evasions. Karthey and Cramwell ate dinner in the brightly-lit dining room, washed the dishes (Cramwell washed and Karthey dried), and withdrew to the dining room for the remainder of the evening.
            Karthey glanced to a shelf of books beneath a Grecian bust of Jelilah. She saw Cramwell fidgeting nervously, and desired to give him something else besides the kidnappings to think about.
            “Would it be all right with you if I read one of these books aloud?” she requested.
            Cramwell stared at her for several moments, “Hm? Oh, yes,” he nodded, “that would be fine.”
            Karthey selected a title and pulled a low-backed, blue-cushioned armchair up next to Cramwell’s green one to read by the light of the lamp. It was a very romantic novel, she noticed at once. A wide ribbon of black silk marked the page where she began reading.

            “’I love you,’ she said. ‘I know this must come as something of a surprise, since all I’ve ever done is scorn you and degrade you and taunt you, but I have loved you for several hours now, and every second, more. I thought an hour ago that I loved you more than any woman has ever loved a man, but a half hour after that I knew that what I felt before was nothing compared to what I felt then. But ten minutes after that, I understood that my previous love was a puddle compared to the high seas before a storm. Your eyes are like that, did you know? Well, they are. How many minutes ago was I? Twenty? Had I brought my feelings up to then? It doesn’t matter,’ she still could not look at him. The sun was rising behind her now; she could feel the heat on her back, and it gave her courage. ‘I love you so much more now than twenty minutes ago that there cannot be comparison. There is no room in my body for anything but you. My arms love you, my ears adore you, my knees shake with blind affection. My mind begs you to ask it something so it can obey. Do you want me to follow you for the rest of your days? I will do that. Do you want me to crawl? I will crawl. I will be quiet for you or sing for you, or if you are hungry, let me bring you food, or if you have thirst and nothing will quench it but Arabian wine, I will go to Araby, even though it is across the world, and bring a bottle back for your lunch. Anything there is that I can do for you, I will do for you; anything there is that I cannot do, I will learn to do. I know I cannot compete with the Countess in skills or wisdom or appeal, and I saw the way she looked at you. And I saw the way you looked at her. But remember, please, that she is old and has other interests, while I am seventeen and for me there is only you. Dearest…’”

            Karthey’s voice faded after she had read on for several pages, for right about that time, she saw out of the corner of her eye that Cramwell’s chin rested on his chest, and his eyes were closed, and his body was completely relaxed. He had fallen asleep to the sound of her voice.
            Brimming with sympathy, Karthey searched the room until she found a cedar chest full of soft, ample blankets; one of these she chose and spread over the slumbering master of the house, making sure that her movements did not disturb him. The clock in the music room struck eight times, and Karthey decided that now would be the best time for her to go to bed. On her way out, she caught sight of a small slip of paper sticking out of a book on one of the many end tables scattered around the library. She stopped and read the title of the book: The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. It was the same book Cramwell had just checked out from the library the day before. Karthey shook her head that a man of his constitution would actually read such an author as Poe in light of the current situation, but she gently and silently opened it to see what the paper said.
            It was very obviously placed between the end of one story and the beginning of the next. A few of the final sentences in the story were very distinctly underlined in bright-red pen, all talking about death, and pestilence. What was more, it was another note from the kidnapper, this time not in code at all:

Last chance, Cramwell.
Look down, look up; has something changed?
One day, two day, three day—BOO!
Hide and Seek, ready or not, come find me!

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