Saturday, July 26, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker," Part FINAL

She fell into his arms still running at full-tilt. Father and daughter embraced for the first time in what Karthey felt had been forever. He was laughing with tears in his eyes as he hugged her. It was several minutes before Karthey found her voice, and once she did, it seemed as if she would talk until she ran out of breath.
            “Dad! Oh my word, I don’t believe this! What are you doing here? How did you get in? I missed you so much! I don’t believe it! You’re here! You’re here! I don’t believe it! You’re here! I love you, dad! I missed you so much! How did you get inside the gate? Oh!” she hugged him again, and sobs rose in her throat and prevented her speech.

Mavis pulled his daughter’s head back, saw that those sensitive features had not changed (beyond growing more sensitive) for being in the morose company of Cramwell Fornberg, saw that his daughter was just as beautiful as ever, and spoke the words he’d been waiting for a very long time to say.
            “It’s over, Karthey,” he informed his daughter, “We caught Beric, and it’s over.”
            Karthey felt like wriggling with happiness, “It’s over?” With the pronunciation of the word, a great weight seemed to lift off her mind and heart. “You caught him? No more kidnappings?”
            Mavis nodded emphatically. Karthey could hardly contain the excitement and freedom she felt. She clapped her hands. “I’m so glad!” she cried. Then she remembered the man waiting for his paper at the top of the Hill. “Oh!” she cried, “I’ve got to go tell Cramwell!” She planted a kiss on her father’s cheek. “Will you wait here for me?”
            Mavis nodded, “Of course!”
            Karthey flew lightly up the hill with almost as much speed as she had descended it. She burst in the door of Fornberg House, calling, “Cramwell! Cramwell! Come quick!”
            Cramwell strolled leisurely out of the sitting room, dressed in is usual tweed suit and still bearing his cane. “What is it?” he asked with a tone that suggested he already knew.
            Karthey ignored his tone and babbled excitedly, “It’s over! We did it! We were right! They caught Beric! He’s gone for good! We’re safe now! Everyone’s rescued! Come quick, my dad’s waiting!”
            Cramwell looked at the young woman before him, her hazel eyes alight with joy, her red hair askew from running in the damp air, the wide grin on her face. Her whole appearance seemed to invigorate the soul just from looking at it. Karthey was out the door and running the minute Cramwell moved to follow her, and Cramwell, as he watched her, did not doubt that if Jelilah were alive, she would be running alongside the redhead.
            Cramwell cast his eyes upwards, to where he believed his wife viewed the whole scene laughing heartily as she always did. “You’d probably race her, wouldn’t you?” he asked softly, choosing to follow the young woman who had been his impromptu ward for such a short time—but what a time it had been!—at his own pace.
            Mavis was still waiting at the gate, as he had promised Karthey, when the two of them approached, Karthey with enough time to catch her breath by the time Cramwell approached them.
            The journalist immediately extended his hand as the respectable man approached. “Mr. Fornberg, I want to thank you for your assistance in this case. We would not have been able to solve it without your help. In fact, we would probably still be in the thick of it if you had not demanded that I stay at your house, and accepted Karthey in my place.”

            Cramwell nodded in acceptance and shook Mavis’ hand. Mavis glanced at the quiet, strange man and cleared his throat.
            “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, sir,” he began hesitantly, “Mayor Heartlin, when he heard of how you had been a key figure in this investigation, expressed his desire to thank you personally. Would you consent to join my daughter and I, and come into town with us?”
            Cramwell hesitated momentarily. He dreaded going down into Precinct and risking a glimpse of his old enemy. What would Beric do at the sight of him? What would it be like for Cramwell to make an unscheduled appearance with the Mavises? Karthey and her father patiently waited for his answer. Finally, the strange man tipped his hat firmly on his head.
            “Very well,” he replied quickly. To do it and have done was the better way to go instead of sitting up in his comfort worrying over it.

            Cramwell Fornberg should not have worried. When they reached the town, everyone was so happy to see the victims returned safely that only a few actually noticed the nondescript man. Cramwell saw a dark, windowless van parked at the east side of the square. Beside it, a shock of dark hair he would know anywhere he saw it made him shudder. The police were just loading Beric Richmond into a squad car. Impulsively, Cramwell lunged forward to get a closer look at his vanquished foe, his incarnate fear.
"They were just loading Beric Richmond into a squad car..."
            What he saw was a man crushed beyond human capacity. He was used to seeing the mental instability in Beric’s face, the vacant expression, but cruelly calculating gleam in his eye. But it was as if every spark of energy in Beric had been completely snuffed out. His eyes were dead, sightless black holes in his head. His head lolled from side to side as the cops almost had to carry him to the waiting car. Beric had no volition of his own. As they guided him down into his seat, Beric’s head raised, and Cramwell’s heart flip-flopped as he and his enemy made eye contact—or should have, at any rate. But Beric held Cramwell’s gaze without giving any sort of recognition. The officer closed the door between them, and it was over. Beric the Red was gone.
            Cramwell turned to his left and was relieved to see that Mavis and Karthey had followed him.
            “What—“ Cramwell tried to form the question that was nagging him since the first sight of Beric, but the words would not come, “…how—“
            Mavis understood, and answered him softly, “We traced Beric through an alias he used to come to the States; apparently all his gall was against you for marrying Jelilah, and evidence seems to suggest that perhaps he thought that in addition to defaming you he could win Jelilah as well.”
            Cramwell shook his head, knowing full well the pain he had carried over the last decade on account of his knowledge of Jelilah’s passing. How much more pain had Beric taken upon himself, thinking she was alive?
            “He didn’t know?” he asked the journalist.
            Mavis sighed and looked somber, “No, sir; he was so fixated in his anger that he had no idea she was no longer alive. He’d been living just an hour away, in a small mining town just across the Rhode Island border, all this time. More than likely he hatched this whole scheme to either make you suffer because he would lose all his friends, or perhaps eventually he hoped you would be incriminated and incarcerated, leaving Jelilah unprotected from his ‘wooing.’”
            Karthey spoke up as her quick mind saw the warped logic in this, “Which might have happened, since all the evidence pointed to Cramwell.”
            “Right, and before you went up the Hill, no one knew enough about him to be able to refute it, nor was he comfortable enough around other people to be able to defend himself, if such a litigation had come to pass,” Mavis nodded, prouder than ever of his daughter. “That van over there is the one he rented in Rhode Island, and he would take his victims when no one was looking, drive across the border, and to a house he owned there, and keep them in the attic. They were never objects of his wrath. He viewed them as mere pawns in his plot against you, Cramwell. Probably if Jelilah had still been alive, he would have been more open about his identity, perhaps found the chance to play the hero when he would ‘find’ the people taken, with the hope of impressing her enough to leave Cramwell, the implicated criminal, and live with him.” Mavis sighed, not wanting to expound further on the horrifying “would-have-beens.” He gestured to the square where numerous reunions were taking place, “But, thanks to you, look at how it all turned out!”

            Cramwell was so unused to witnessing the interactions between the people of Precinct that he was still trying to comprehend the reunions of the victims. Absently, he murmured, “Yes,” and automatically began walking over to where the Mayor stood.

            Karthey and her father watched him go. Then Mavis turned to his daughter.
            “Karthey,” he said, “according to the agreement with Mr. Fornberg, since the kidnapper is caught and the mystery is solved, you are free to come back home!” he smiled happily, “Your mom’s still at home; she doesn’t know I came and told you. We can get home in time for lunch and surprise her! Go back to Cramwell’s house and pack your suitcase, and we can leave it for good! I’ll wait here for you.”
            Karthey was caught up in the enthusiasm of her father, and immediately ran back toward Fornberg Hill. By the time she reached the doorstep, however, the energy dissipated and an odd feeling came over her. She entered the door, trod meekly through the entryway, and did not run, but walked slowly up the stairs. She had almost memorized every inch of this house already. Fornberg House had become in a week almost as familiar to her as her own home—it had been over a week since she’d seen it. As she folded the few articles of clothing she had removed from her bag and replaced them into her suitcase, she felt compelled to take a tour of all the rooms, and bask one more time in the countless memories they now held for her.
            The dining room, where she had been afraid to set foot in while Cramwell was there at first, where she had found the article about Cherry that had inspired her to conduct her own investigation, and where she and Cramwell had ended up sharing meals in the last few days.
            The library, with its “forbidden cloister” and so many reproductions of Jelilah’s likenesses that had scared her so badly at the beginning, but lately she had come to realize its warmth and coziness.
            The study, where she and Cramwell had thought, brainstormed, and eventually hit upon the key elements of the mystery that culminated in its resolution.
            The sunroom, where she had mustered the courage to approach Cramwell on her own, and had received in return the last key to the puzzle that had baffled an entire police force.
            The music room, with its booming clock; the sitting room, where she had frequently thought about spending the day, as Cramwell’s “usual” schedule never took him there; and the kitchen, where she cooked, ate and cleaned almost every day.
            Last of all, Karthey lugged her suitcase out to the garden, the magical garden that had filled her with as much joy as it brought Cramwell grief. She took one turn around the bushes, sad that she had not been able to visit it more than once, basking in the heady scent that still hung around the bushes—
            Karthey stopped her reverie. Cramwell was standing at the gate of the garden, watching her with those keen blue eyes that never failed to pierce her to the quick. She noticed the odd curve of the thin line his lips made; was he smiling? On the one hand, she was unused to looking at any sort of emotion on Cramwell’s face; on the other, that face had become increasingly familiar to her, so that any change was noticeable immediately. Cramwell was still as much of an enigma to her as ever, a complex puzzle with unexpected layers and discoveries waiting for just the right person to unfold and reveal them. Now he was standing before her; had he followed her all this way? Karthey wished him to speak, while at the same time, she wished he wouldn’t so that she could put away the conflicting questions and feelings that had arisen within her and return to her home….where she belonged…she belonged at home, didn’t she? And yet—Karthey shook the inexplicable doubt from her mind and tried to smile congenially at Cramwell.

            “I’m ready to leave,” she told him. The statement felt very brazen, the way it hung in the air between them, very nearly a challenge. Was she really challenging him? Why? Challenging him to what?
            Cramwell nodded slowly; the wild impulse in Karthey immediately jumped to the hypothesis that perhaps he felt the same way she did. “Your father is waiting at the gate,” he said simply. Cramwell stepped aside to allow Karthey to pass him. The impulse and its hypothesis died in Karthey’s mind, and she walked down the path and out of the garden. Her heart suddenly felt weighed down; but what could it mean? Why should her heart feel heavy? She was going home, for crying out loud! Why did she feel so—

            Karthey heard Cramwell call her and immediately obeyed. She stopped and turned back to him, feeling the heaviness in her heart lessen somewhat. She stood at the edge of the path that would take her around to the front of the house and down Fornberg Hill. He was still at the gate of the garden. He would have to raise his voice to talk to her, and she saw that he knew it. He fidgeted with his coat for a moment, and then began making his way toward her, his cane swinging easily at his side.
            Karthey waited for him.
            Cramwell walked until he was right in front of her.
            She looked up into his eyes expectantly, still waiting.
Finally, he spoke, “Karthey, I—“ his voice caught, and Cramwell tried to relieve the tension in his throat by inhaling deeply. “Fornberg House is always open to you,” he said warmly, “whenever you want to visit.” There was that odd turn of the lips again; it must be a smile. “You know where to find me.”
            “Thank you,” Karthey responded gently. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the cell phone. She tucked it into his open hand. “Here, I… won’t be needing it anymore.”
            Cramwell released it and left it in Karthey’s hand. “Keep it,” he said in a strange voice, as if he had something lodged in his throat. “You can text me sometime.”
            Karthey stood, cell phone in hand, and for a moment she completely forgot why on earth she was outside the house with her suitcase packed. She turned back toward the path down Fornberg Hill and remembered. “I’d better—“ she began walking and did not finish the sentence.
            Karthey stopped a second time and turned back to Cramwell. “Yes?” she inquired.
            He pressed his lips, but his blue eyes glimmered brightly as he extended his hand toward her. In it was a bright-red rose. “Thank you,” he said simply.
            Karthey accepted the blossom, reveling in its unforgettable scent. “You’re welcome,” she replied, and made her way down the hill to rejoin her father.

            Standing there at the top of the hill owned by his ancestors, alone yet knowing that as long as Precinct stood below he need never feel quite alone in the world, Cramwell Fornberg really and truly smiled.

<<<THE END>>>


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