Saturday, May 3, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker," Part 10

Cramwell Fornberg returned from his daily visit to Precinct and remembered to brace himself before entering. It had been quite a shock that morning in the dining hall when he threw the switch on the wall and expected only a dim light from the single chandelier over his end of the table, but instead found a blinding flood pouring from every light fixture in the room. Cramwell never realized how many lamps there were in that dining hall. He had almost forgotten the size of the room as one by one the lamps went out, and he never bothered to replace them. After the shock in the dining hall, he began to notice that the bulbs had been changed in almost every other room in the house—except, of course, the cloister and his own bedroom. As he finished stoking the fire in the library and moved into the cloister, Cramwell caught himself musing how dim the room seemed compared to the rest of the now-brightened house.
            That girl, Miss Mavis; she had been the one to do it.
            “Of course it was her,” Cramwell muttered to the painting of Jelilah standing so stately and gloriously in front of him—in spite of the dim lights beside her. He opened the case and picked up the instrument, “She’s the only one in the house with me now,” he finished, and began to play another heartfelt dirge for his beloved, deceased wife.

            As he played, Cramwell found himself wondering what Miss Mavis looked like. Was she young, like Jelilah? Or was she an old spinster, like Alivia? Was she pretty, like Clarissa, or rather comely, like the latest victim—what was her name, Apple? No—Cherry? The video feed from the CCTVs was always black and white, so he could not discern any colors in her appearance. Surely she could not be a brunette, like Jelilah was! Jelilah…
 Cramwell sniffed at the way he had allowed the compulsory guest to distract him from the only woman who meant anything to him. She was only there because the police had insisted; he certainly could not be found guilty of actually inviting her to stay!
            Cramwell stopped playing and left the library, heading for the kitchen to make his supper—and hers? No! Let her cook for herself tonight. Cramwell nodded his head decisively and stepped into the hallway.
            He stopped. He paled. He clutched his cane so tightly in a cold, sweaty grip that his knuckles whitened.
            He’s here,” he whispered to himself in sheer terror, “he’s come here; he’s found me at last!”
            There, laying deceptively innocent in the middle of the hall, as if dropped from a nonchalant hand, was a small, white, folded paper!
            “Curse the messages!” Cramwell shrieked savagely, snatching the paper up in a sudden fury. Curse the messages, curse the man who left them—curse whatever fiend it was who suddenly had the idea to inflict him and the town of Precinct with all the pain and terror of such a mystery! Cramwell did not even dare to look at his hand as he tucked the diabolical paper into his pocket and proceeded on schedule to the kitchen.
            All during the making of his supper, that paper seemed to burn right through Cramwell’s skin. He felt its heat, every edge of the paper searing his skin like the meat in the pan. Mechanically, Cramwell brought out the dishes for his supper, laid everything impeccably upon a tray, and carried it all to the dining room.
            He squinted as all the light bulbs flashed on at once with a single touch of the switch. As his eyes became more accustomed to the light, it suddenly occurred to him how clean and, as a matter of fact, pleasant-smelling the room was now. He caught himself smiling for the first time in a while; did he enjoy the new atmosphere? Why, yes; he supposed he did.
A part of him reflexively recoiled at the unexpected thought; was it too much? His hand was already heading to the pocket holding the cell phone. Should he reprimand her? Discourage her? He brought his hand back up to pull his chair out from the table. He would say nothing; he could not say it was out of hand just yet. She was still well within the bounds of propriety, a fact that soothed Cramwell’s mind. Miss Mavis was doing splendidly.
            Cramwell took the first bite of his meal before he could muster sufficient courage to pull the paper out of his pocket. His hands shook as he unfolded it, and his mind raced. That pen—it looked like his pen! Was the kidnapper getting bold enough now to come into Cramwell Fornberg’s house and use his pens to leave him messages now? Was the kidnapper actually—
            Cramwell froze; the horror! Could Miss Mavis—Dare he think it? Cramwell shook his head violently, frowning fiercely. Impossible… wasn’t it?
            “Impossible!” he said aloud to Jelilah’s marble face, looking up at him so coquettishly like she used to. In his imagination, Jelilah smiled in assent. Cramwell unfolded the paper and read.

            CLARISSA FORQUIST—Works at café. Always wore red-and-white-striped scarf. Last seen leaving work, estimated time of abduction eight o’clock.
            COLBY MCKEE—Attends Precinct Elementary. Wore red jacket. Disappeared from mother in grocery store. Last seen twelve o’clock just outside grocery store, corner of Square….

            Cramwell Fornberg let out an enormous sigh of relief and let his head fall back against the chair. It wasn’t a threat after all! Rather, it seemed to be a list of all the information about the abductions from the paper. Who had written it? Who but Miss Mavis? Had she been the one to leave it there for him? Why had she made such a list in the first place? Was she attempting to investigate the abductions as well?
            “Why didn’t I think to take such action myself?” Cramwell asked himself aloud. The fact that a young woman had taken a more decisively investigative action while he, Cramwell Fornberg, broke out in a cold sweat at the sight of mere paper fairly rankled the man. He ought to be the most active one in this investigation! After all, he was the one to receive all the warnings.
            Cramwell picked up his fork and resumed eating his supper. After only a few bites, he suddenly stopped, laid down his fork, texted an invitation to supper in the kitchen to Miss Mavis, and resumed his meal. He heard her cautious, measured footstep on the stair. He re-folded the paper and tucked it back in his pocket, where it was more of a shield than a flame.
            He would have to find some way to thank her for that list when this was all over.
            Karthey awoke on the fourth morning since coming to Fornberg House and actually found the will to smile. The sun shone through her window, she could look down upon the gently rolling hills behind the house that were so much more inviting than they ever had been before, and she had officially conquered her fear of Cramwell’s library! She could solve these mysteries! She could do it!
            Karthey sat up, stretched, and immediately checked the cell phone, as was becoming her habit now. As usual, a message awaited her. Karthey opened it.
            She stopped; she blinked. She read it again. Two words confronted her on the screen; two words she never in her entire life expected to “hear” from Cramwell Fornberg.
Good Morning, Miss Mavis.

            Karthey almost checked to see if it was really Cramwell who just sent the text message, but she knew the folly of this lay in the fact that no one else but Derrik could possibly know that she had a cell phone in the first place, and even Derrik would not be able to text because he did not have the number. No, Cramwell Forberg himself had just wished her a good morning. What was the world coming to? Why the sudden friendliness? Karthey suddenly felt incredibly curious about this man. She had always believed he was more than a monster, but something within her had never wanted to confirm this belief, much like the way she never wanted a reason to go into the library, because of her fear. Now that fear of the library was gone; did she have need to fear the master of the house any longer?
            While Karthey was getting dressed, the cell phone buzzed again.

If you have any messages you would like to send, leave them in the basket by the front door, and I will bring them into town.

            Karthey was almost floored; more uncharacteristic kindness! Was Cramwell himself a fearful man, to the same degree that he inspired fear in others, and now that fear seemed to be fading in him as much as it was in her?  She could not think how it could come to pass that Cramwell Fornberg was interacting with anyone in town; now he was volunteering to bring them messages from her! She had nearly given up on any interaction beyond Derrik’s visits—and he wouldn’t know about half the things she wondered about concerning various people in town—with anyone else in town, and what little connection the newspapers provided (was this how Cramwell Fornberg chose to subsist? No wonder the man was afraid!), and now here she had a chance to reclaim that connection!

            Karthey hurriedly scribbled down notes to various friends in Precinct who were probably worried sick about her, and others about whom she was worried, herself. Mrs. McKee, her friend Karleen who had been in a study group with Cherry, her father, Darla Munroe, Derrik, Mrs. Preston—Karthey rushed down the stairs with fifteen notes in her hands, and found the basket standing in the entryway (she distinctly remembered no basket the previous evening; Cramwell must have put it there in the morning, a sign of premeditation on his part). She piled the notes in the basket as the clock began to strike quarter-past-nine. She heard the sunroom door creak, and knew that Cramwell would appear at the door to the east hallway within minutes. In that single moment, Karthey experienced two conflicting, compelling thoughts.
            She could stand there and wait for him; she pictured him limping out of the shadows, his tall, lean body, long, garish nose, and queer, staring blue eyes pointed right at her. Karthey shuddered; would she ever overcome her fear of such a person?
            As the thump of his cane drew closer, Karthey also felt the panicked urge to run back upstairs, to continue avoiding him as she had learned to do so comfortably now. For the second time, Karthey saw Cramwell’s hand on his cane appear in the doorway (it wasn’t so gaunt as she remembered it; perhaps he was younger than she thought)—and for the second time, Karthey dove behind the stairwell and into the dining hall. No, she would not face her warden today.
            Karthey went through the dining room and around the back of the house to get to the kitchen stairwell. She heard Cramwell close the door behind him as he left. Once she was finished (and cleaned up his dishes which he had so considerately left in the dumbwaiter for her), she returned to the library, thinking furiously about the four victims. Having lost the piece of paper she wrote on yesterday, Karthey was only mildly put out to have to write it all over again, but this was soon done, and Karthey also began listing all that she knew about the victims, the details about each of them that her father had neglected to mention.
            For example, Clarissa Forquist, before she was kidnapped, had been working full time at the café with the hope of earning enough money to go to the same college in Maine that Gavin attended. Clarissa and Gavin had both been juniors at Precinct High School when Karthey first began attending. She knew them as Derrik’s friends at first, on account of his being a junior as well, but as the years progressed, and Derrik, Gavin, and Clarissa moved on to their senior year while Karthey tumbled into sophomore status, Derrik allowed the company of his younger sister, and the foursome became very close friends. Then Gavin left for college, and Clarissa became engrossed in her work, and Karthey found herself with only Derrik. Not that she minded; she loved her older brother; all the rest of her friends were girls and guys from her class. She was never avoided by the rest of the senior class, but she never felt included, either. One thing Karthey knew for certain: Clarissa and Gavin definitely harbored hope of a relationship with each other someday, but it was a hope that could not be realized yet, and if the police could not find Clarissa, it would never be.
            “I won’t let that happen!” Karthey burst out emphatically to the marble Woman leaning over her as she sat in (perched on the very edge) the armchair Cramwell Fornberg typically used. Karthey resumed expanding her profiles.
            Colby McKee had a vivid imagination, and was not shy to share his musings with complete strangers. Karthey smiled as she remembered the many conversations that had occurred between her and Colby. The young boy was always bursting with facts and fictions about everything he saw. He had the most optimistic view of people out of anyone in Karthey’s acquaintance. She wondered offhandedly if Colby perhaps had ever tried starting a conversation with Cramwell, but did not doubt the possibility of such a thing happening. The young boy was willing to talk to anything that seemed like it could listen to him. He was fearless in action as well; Colby would climb anything he could reach, and walk to the very edge of any precipice. Mrs. McKee was forever dragging him back and holding him tightly. “Gates and fences and guardrails were made for people like him!” she would mutter as she clutched his wriggling body. Karthey made a note as well that Mrs. McKee always went to the café with Colby after dropping David and Marsha off at the Middle School, and after this she brought him shopping—which is where Colby disappeared.
            Alivia Rogner was as much of an enigma in Precinct as Cramwell Fornberg, but for quite opposite reasons. If there was anything to know about anyone, Alivia Rogner knew it. She probably could have solved the kidnappings overnight if she had not been one of the victims herself. A reputable Know-all, Tell-all, See-all, and Hear-all in the town, Alivia made others’ lives her business—but in a good way as much as a bother. In the same way Alivia Rogner would catch two seniors making out behind the diner, she would also notice someone in need of encouragement, or a parent struggling to make ends meet, a widow behind on her rent, or a mother of “too many children” who had almost given up being able to feed and clothe them all. She would notice, and she would not rest until she had helped in any and every way she could. Organizing “secret” drives for toys, clothes, and food; leaving bags of groceries on doorsteps; offering her capable services as a nanny, since all her own children were grown and had flown the coop; stopping by with a cup of coffee or tea to just sit and chat. Karthey noted that she always went to the café about mid-morning, took a brisk walk three times around the Square (unless there was someone who needed her help) before taking her lunch at the diner, and returning to the neighborhood where she lived. Alivia Rogner was as much a part of the daily life of the citizens of Precinct as Cramwell Fornberg was—or wasn’t.
            Lastly, there was Cherry. Cherry was the same age as Karthey. Cherry lived on the same street as Karthey. The girls shared a love of cats, outdoors, and comfortable yet chic clothes. Karthey recalled how she had met her closest and dearest friend (not counting her dad or Derrik): their first day at Precinct High School, the other students interacted and celebrated, while Karthey stood against the wall and felt like the odd one out. She happened to look around the room at the same moment as another girl—standing against the same wall, in the same manner! Cherry and Karthey connected in their disconnectedness, and they remained inseparable ever since that day. Karthey bit her lip as she suddenly imagined how Cherry must have felt the first day returning to school after Karthey had gone up to Fornberg House. It was almost a mercy, then, that she was kidnapped soon after—or had she allowed herself to be taken away on purpose, because she was so heartbroken over the “capture” of her friend Karthey, whom she likely abandoned all hope of seeing again?
            Karthey clenched her jaw and took a deep, shaky breath; no, she would not cry! She would choose to believe that Cherry had not given up hope, and she would purpose not to give up, either! She would stay brave and strong, if only for Cherry’s sake! She would remain alert, for Alivia’s sake! She would keep happiness alive, for Colby’s sake! And by any means, she would persevere, for Clarissa’s sake!
            Karthey looked over the profiles and shook her head morosely.
            “I know what they have in common,” she told The Woman, aware as she did so that it was very “Cramwellian” of her to be speaking aloud to an inanimate object, “They are all very dear to me.”
            But the only people she knew were the ones who lived in Precinct, and how could any of them be a kidnapper? Who would go around kidnapping one’s own neighbors, just to spite the girl who cared about them all?
            The clock struck half-past-ten. Karthey huffed and laid down the page she was writing on. She had been staring at her own handwriting for so long, the letters were beginning to dance before her eyes. Karthey glanced around her immediate surroundings for something else to read.
            Her eye fell on the creepy note she had noticed earlier, the one that said, SOMEONE WILL DISAPPEAR AT EIGHT TONIGHT. Careful not to disturb anything else around it, Karthey pulled out the notebook. She saw the list of letters, lined in a single column; it dawned on her that the same letters all appeared in the message. She saw them mixed around, placed in different orders and alignments. It had been a coded message, she realized, and Cramwell had solved it. But where had the message come from, and why was it sent to Cramwell? Karthey turned the notebook over. On the other side was a series of hyphenated numbers, and then “Now you see him, now you don’t; someone you notice today will not be here tomorrow.” Karthey wondered when he had received that message; had it terrified him? Most likely; a person would have to be dead not to be unnerved by such a definite prediction.
            Karthey mused that the messages seemed to be predictions, warnings ahead of time that the abductions would occur. Or had he fabricated them himself, after the fact, for the sake of having a riddle to solve? She would not put it past a bored, eccentric, lonely man like Cramwell Fornberg to do something of the kind.

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