Too close to the Trees (a 'Bibliophile' Mystery)

 

The December chill was infiltrating my coat as I walked down Baker Street. I involuntarily looked up hoping to see that fictional window and the eagle nosed silhouette of my favourite detective. I could almost hear the haunting strains of his violin.

 

Instead I saw dark shutters and feeble neons cluttering the facades of buildings. Signs proclaimed Computer peripherals and Chinese restaurants. Sadly my favourite character has been confined to the murals depicted in the walls of Baker street tube station. I sighed and watched my breath coalesce into a cloud. The pavement was carpeted with the muddy slush of the evening’s snowfall.

 

I walked past a couple entwined in a steamy embrace and climbed the few steps that lead to the massive wooden door of  ‘The Bibliophile’. I let myself in with my key and stood wiping my boots on the doormat. I took my coat off and hung it over the already overflowing stand. It was dark in the main hallway. A winding staircase bisected the room. Framed portraits of classic English authors adorned the walls. Dull spotlights barely delineated their features. A heavily moustached Conan Doyle gazed at me sternly as I climbed the stairs.

 

‘The Bibliophile’ was a book lover’s paradise. Part antiquarian booksellers and part library; it has been my haunt for the past two years. Wednesday nights were my favourite. Few of us like-minded bibliophiles met upstairs in the library to spend a pleasant evening soaking in the atmosphere of massive shelves filled with leather bound volumes. Talking about books, books and more books.


I walked into the library and through the aisles into an open area where armchairs surrounded an oblong coffee table. I spotted the corpulent form of William Major, comfortably filling his favourite chair and sipping a brandy. He sported a luxurious moustache stained with pipe-smoke. Bill was a high-ranking official in Military Intelligence. World weary and sarcastic, he often amused us with tales of espionage and exotic spies.


Sitting directly across him was Gerard Buxby. Gerard was a superintendent from Scotland Yard. He was tall and spindly, gaunt faced with piercing blue eyes. Renowned for his scathing views on modern policing and national politics, he presently held a slim volume and was gazing at it adoringly.


Standing in front of the misted window was James Livingstone, a surgeon from Harley Street. James had a very successful practice repairing herniae and stealing appendixes from hapless members of London’s high society. He was tall and distinguished, marred only by a faint scar on his left eyebrow, a reminder of the Falklands war.


I stepped closer and dragged an armchair.


“Hello Martin.” Bill waved from his armchair. “Is it still snowing out there?”


“It stopped. It’s still bloody freezing though.”

James nodded absently and resumed staring through the window. Gerard looked up and smiled,“How’s the novel coming on?”


I shook my head, “Don’t ask”


“Writer’s block?” Bill laughed .


“You can say that. I am still battling with my characters. They seem to have a mind of their own.” I rubbed my hands as James brought me a brandy, “ Cheer up, dear fellow. Why don’t you give them a free reign and see what happens.”


“Last time I did that my editor did her back in trying to lift the manuscript.” I sipped the brandy and relished its warm trail down my throat. “Where’s Moses?”


As if on cue I heard the low hum of the electric wheel chair. I craned my neck around to see Moses expertly negotiating past the bookshelves towards us.


He smiled, his luxurious salt and pepper beard revealing bright white teeth. Moses was the caretaker and Librarian par excellence. He has been working in this place for more than twenty years. He knew every book, and every nook of the building. He lodged here in a tiny annexe.

He stationed his chair between Bill and I. “ We just bought a Lewis Carroll original, Martin.”

 

Gerry lifted the volume up, “Alice’s adventures in underground. The original version of Wonderland.”

 

I was excited, “With the Tenniel illustrations?”

 

“Absolutely,” Bill beamed at me, “now there’s a book which gives me something new every time I read it.”

 

“Wasn’t it the Lewis Carroll centenary in 1998?” I remembered.

 

Moses nodded. “Yes. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson died in 1898”

 

“Bit of a recluse, wasn’t he. I recollect reading how he was surprised at the best-seller status of his little book.”

 

Gerry leafed through the volume and smiled. “ My favourite piece of his is the Jabberwocky .”

 

James nodded from his place. “I love that one. It has a certain anarchic sound.”

He withdrew from the window and sat down with a sigh. He cleared his throat and began reciting:

 

“Twas bryllyg, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

All mimsy were the borogoves

And the mome raths outgrabe

 

“I would stick to Surgery, James. Your recital is like the mome raths outgribe !” quipped Gerry.

 

“ Alright smartass. Tell me what it means.”

 

“That’s easy… ‘It was evening and the slithering badgers scratched like a dog and dug holes on the hillside. All unhappy were the parrots and the solemn turtles squeaked out’ ”

 

Moses was impressed. “ Excellent. That’s how Humpty dumpty explains it to Alice towards the end of Through the looking glass .”

 

Bill lit his pipe and chuffed like a steamer. “There’s a name for those kind of words. I forgot what Humpty called them.”

 

“Oh they were called ‘port-manteau’ words. Like combining slimy and lithe to form slithy,” I volunteered.

 

I took the book from Gerry and admired Tenniel’s artwork. I stopped at the page were the Cheshire cat’s grin hung over the tree. “I love that cat.”

Jabberwock
Jabberwock

 

Bill lit his meerschaum and blue smoke spiralled upwards. “Don’t mention cats. I am sick of them.”He stood up and paced the floor. “You know, I wish Humpty dumpty could explain something to me.”

 

We all looked at him with puzzled expressions.

 

“We have a problem, or rather a confusing message. We can’t make head or tail of it.”

 

“Explain yourself, Bill” James leaned back in his seat.

 

“It’s a long story, Jim”

 

Gerry looked up curiously. “Are you going to give us one of your cloak and dagger tales?”

 

“Its all cloak and no dagger, I am afraid.”

 

“C’mon Bill. You know we like your spy stories.” I looked around for support. Everyone nodded.

 

“Well. We have had a problem in our department for the past few months. We came to realise that someone was leaking clandestine information to a certain foreign power. We have a strong suspect. We have had him under observation for weeks now. We have screened his mail, tapped his telephone and even searched his apartment. Nothing turned up. Not even a scrap of evidence.”

 

Moses cleared his throat. “ How do you know for certain that he is the one?”

“We just know. I can’t give you too much detail. Official Secrets Act and all that.”

 

“Carry on.”

 

“He is a bit of a loner. No contacts, no unusual friends. He doesn’t even own a PC. So we know he is not sending messages through the net. His habits are very regular and nothing out of the ordinary. The only curious thing we found was that he carefully clips out an ad from the personal column of ‘The Times’ every Saturday.”

 

“How did you find that out?”

 

“We go through his waste bin everyday”

 

James laughed. “Some poor soul actually rummages through his rubbish?”

 

Bill nodded solemnly. “ If you think being a spy is all about excitement and intrigue, you have been watching too many Bond films. It needs painstaking legwork and monumental patience. Anyway, this message he clips out, we feel we’ve got something there. Funny thing is it’s the same message every week.”

 

He paused and tapped his pipe in the ashtray. “The ad appears on the Saturday. We don’t know how he replies. If we can figure out what message he actually gets, we can nail him.”

 

Moses stirred in his chair. “What is the message?”

 

Bill dug into his jacket and brought out three crumpled pieces of paper. I picked one up. It was a boxed

white space with a decorative border. There were four words in the middle: ‘Cat got your tongue’. All the pieces had the same message in the same typeface. No more, no less. Everyone had a look at the ad.

 

“I have had a top cryptographer working on that for a week. We even ran it through our code-breaker software. Nothing constructive has turned up. We’ve been in touch with The Times discreetly. They say they get the same message in an unmarked envelope. Instructions are to print it exactly the way it is. Not to change anything.”

 

“Well you can’t change much with a four word message. Are you sure this isn’t some elaborate joke? Is he just leading you up the wrong trail?” Gerry kept looking at the pieces of paper.

 

Bill sighed. “It’s the only lead we have.”

 

I had an inspiration. “Is it some kind of an anagram?”

 

“We have tried that. Trouble is why the same message every week?  Atleast if it was different we would know there are different pieces of information coming through to him. We have looked at all possibilities. Number codes, book references.”

 

“What if it just means ‘keep quiet’. May be when things quieten down he’ll get another message to activate him?” Gerry asked.

 

“There’s a problem with that bit of logic.” Said Moses, scratching his beard. “You see why does he clip out the messages if it just means one thing? Why can’t he just read it in the newspaper and leave it where it is.”

 

Bill nodded “That’s what’s bothering me. Why does he do that unless he needs to work on the message?”

 

I looked at it again. “There’s not much to work on here. Cat got your tongue, he can just memorise it. Why cut it?”

 

James stood up and refilled our glasses. We all sat musing for a while.

 

“How about some microscopic dots or something. You know if he magnifies it he might have…no, it’s too dumb.”

 

Gerry laughed. “It’s a newspaper ad. I suppose he just gets his newspaper delivered? Is his paper specially treated or something?”

 

Bill shook his head. “He buys them from a newsagent’s. Nothing funny there. Just any copy.”

 

I sighed. The writer in me tried furiously to conjure up an explanation. I hate being stumped. This was worse than Writer’s block!

cat got your tongue
cat got your tongue

 

I looked at Moses expectantly. He had a way with puzzles. I wondered if his unconventional lateral thinking was a result of his unconventional education. Moses has never been to a school; he started working in this building as a cleaner, used to read the books in his free time. He graduated to book cataloguer and caretaker over the years. Moses was like a library himself.

 

He suddenly leaned forward and grabbed all the pieces of paper. He looked at them, one after another. He smiled.

 

Bill nodded at him, eyebrows raised.

 

“I hate when you smile like that. Have you got anything?”

 

We all looked at him expectantly.

 

He raised his head and frowned. “I have a feeling I just might have something.”

 

“Tell us!”

 

“Well,” he hesitated. “I may be wrong.”

 

“Anything is better than nothing.” Bill exclaimed.

 

Moses slowly spread the pieces of paper on the table. “You know, you all are right. There’s nothing in the message. There can’t be. Bill said his top cryptographer has worked on it. Surely we can’t claim to be smarter than him or her.”

 

Gerry looked at him impatiently. “Are you telling us there is nothing at all there which makes sense?”

 

Moses shook his head and smiled. “I didn’t say that. I just said there is nothing in the message.”

 

“Stop being so damn cocky. C’mon tell us what you think?”

 

"Bill, tell me what the cryptographer worked on?"

 

"What do you mean?" Bill furrowed his eebrows.

 

"What was sent to the cryptographer?"

 

"The message, 'cat got your tongue', what else?"

 

"Did you send him the actual ad clipping?"

 

"No, they are all the same, so we sent the message"

 

Moses shook his head.

 

“ Look at them.” He gestured elaborately, “ They are not the same.”

 

I snorted. “Moses, they are. Same typeface, same lettering, same words.”

 

He leaned back and laughed. “ Maybe. Have you heard of the saying ‘Too close to the trees…?’’

 

Bill was ready to throttle him. “Moses, I am going to bash your head in. This isn’t the time for quoting proverbs. I need an answer.”

 

“Stop playing Holmes and tell us what you know.” James snarled.

 

Moses eased his chair backwards and went towards the cupboard. He came back with a magnifying glass. We all watched as he examined each piece silently. His eyes narrowed in concentration.

 

He laid the glass down.

 

“Do you remember  ‘The Dancing men’?”

 

I nodded. “Of course, the one where Holmes works on a secret message rendered in the form of dancing men. One of my favourites.”

 

Moses leaned forward. “ It demonstrates how anything can be used to give a message. Anything as long as there is a pattern…

 

 “There is something different in each message. I must admit it’s rather clever.

The trouble with us is we all are impatient. We all got too close to the trees; we lost sight of the forest.

 

Why would the man clip all the ads and take them with him?  Like Martin said he could’ve just memorized them. Why, unless there was something to work on. We have established there is nothing to work on in the message. But what about the box around it ?”

 

I quickly grabbed a piece; the surrounding border was an ornamental design. It looked like a continuous squiggle in a squared box. Like a picture frame with carvings. I picked another one up. The same box, but the carvings looked different!

“ Look at the borders, each message has a subtly different border. I won’t be surprised if the border represents a code. There are little squiggles that probably represent alphanumeric characters. I bet if your cryptographers knew where to look, they would have cracked it by now.”

 

Gerry stood up and gestured towards the pieces. “It’s so bloody obvious now! How come you thought of it first?”

 

I grinned. Gerry has delusions of grandeur.

 

Moses smiled and rubbed his beard. “ Actually it was something Martin said before. Remember we were talking about port-manteau words. I was looking at the papers and my attention was drawn to the squiggles. You see squiggle is a port-manteau word…squirm plus wriggle. I was smiling at that and it suddenly occurred to me that squiggles can be words too …”

 

Bill slapped his forehead. “ We’ve been looking at the bloody message all along...”

 

Moses nodded in sympathy, “Like I said, too close to the trees…”

 

 

 

 

Cheshire cat
Cheshire cat

 

Copyright   © Mohan Kumar 2010

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Comments 16 comments

Karen Wodke profile image

Karen Wodke 5 years ago from Midwest

This is very very well written!


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK Author

Thank you, Karen. Glad you enjoyed it.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 5 years ago from Deep South, USA

Delicious story for an old Sherlockian such as I am....The atmosphere of the antiquarian bookstore/library, the characters and the puzzle made it a very enjoyable read. I really must find the time to read much more of your work. I can see you are a prolific writer, so that may take me a while. JAYE


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK Author

Thank you so much - nice to find a fellow Sherlockian. This was my very first attempt at writing a mystery and wrote it in my college days.. I have resurrected this with a view to making a series.. I am really pleased you like it and would always welcome your comments on other stories when you find time.


Website Examiner 5 years ago

Docmo, honor is due:

The opening sentence espoused such brilliance that I forgot to drag out my usual skepticism towards first person narrative. Not far had I gone into this first paragraph before I realized that I had indulged myself into a mighty fine piece of writing: One penned with a sense of originality, distinction, and purpose.

The next notable thing, which I found adorable, was that you are unafraid to add elements of the abstract, boldly putting the reader to the test so early on. Then familiarity sets in, we are close to a narrator who has yet barely had the opportunity to introduce himself. I wanted to get to know this man!

Then it gets better… Soon, again amazingly quickly into the story, a theme is taking shape, one which drives our further interest in this story. I am now relieved and slightly excited, as I am getting optimistic that this piece has substance, not merely the fine paint of well-written introductions. The descriptions are round, cozy, yet precise. Your 360-degrees view, where the narrator in a relaxed tone introduces names of various characters to the readers, is highly successful.

The dialog is authentic-sounding: These men want to write novels, they have something in common, but each offers their unique experiences and points of view – like real people do. And no, you have not neglected some description of their appearances.

Eventually, the conversation turns a bit more complicated, it flows freely, and the story takes off with rather theoretical issues being discussed: We are amongst literates, all right. Again, your awareness is obvious with your introduction of the cat: Never allowing this story to become heavy.

Then the plot sets in, espionage is suspected. Here, I had to smile at the contrast between the old-fashioned setting and narrative style, and on the other hand the fact they discuss computers and information technology. Isn’t that ironic how in some ways the world remains old-fashioned even as innovations speed along?

At this point, I was captured, determined to read the story to the end. As such, you had accomplished your goal as a writer. But as I read on, you certainly did not disappoint. The story flows well and gradually becomes even more interesting, as information is being unveiled in a natural and spontaneous manner – a difficult thing to pull off for a writer, but you have done so very well indeed!


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK Author

Oh wow. I think I will retire now.

Is there any other reviewer or critic out there who is going to top this?

This perhaps is my amateur careers best notice thus far and I doubt anyone else is going to take the time or energy to admire my craft as eloquently, sincerely and generously as you've done. I was joking about the penance but you have served it so wonderfully - I am now forever in your debt.

I've never beamed as much as I am doing now! I salute thee, Website examiner, for making this humble scribe so happy!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Although I am not a Sherlockian, or Vulcan, for that matter, I have been told I could be a Bond girl. With that qualified, I learned two new words "Bibliophile" and "port manteau", which is impressive, as although blond, I have an extensive vocabulary. I appreciated the strength in the development of the characters and the juxtaposition in the antiquated, period spelling of certain words, ie herniae, and the humor in the reference to modern living in the PC, along with the irreverence in the use of modern, casual slang, "smartass". The conversation between the characters flowed as in genuine discourse and kept a quick pace, with the reader following on the heels of the author, in anxious anticipation of what was to be discovered. I liked the mention of the pipe smoke stained moustache sported by William Major, and the faint scar over the eyebrow earned in the Falklands by surgeon, James Livingston. The factual descriptions give creedance to the authentic ambiance of this piece, for example, not a pipe, but a Meerschaum pipe, of which I have two. After this excellent piece of writing, I think I'll have a brandy and puff my Meerschaum, I reckon.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Amy, I think you have impeccable credentials to be a 'modern' bondgirl, sassy, dare I say sexy and smart, tough and may even come to the rescue of a macho hero if ever the need arises.

And, in the grand tradition of 'naughty' bondgirl names what would you like yours to be, Ms Becherer? ( Shaid in a Shean Connery ackshent, no lesh, Mish Moneypenny)

Glad you liked the story and I plan to write a sequel with another mystery....


Website Examiner 5 years ago

And so Docmo, I took the liberty of featuring this story on the Fiction Readers Club newsletter. Let us hope some members will stop by to comment.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Well done Docmo!

You took us by the hand, put us in that library, introduced everybody, and then allowed us to eavesdrop.

Wonderful!


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK Author

@WE- thank you so much for the privilege- much appreciated. And it is timely too as I am just finishing a sequel - another 'Bibliophile' mystery!

@WillStarr- much appreciated , thanks for dropping by.


Pixienot profile image

Pixienot 5 years ago from Clarksville, Indiana

Dear Docmo

I will tell you that when I first spied your story I thought I might be a little bored, as I am not a great story teller, but a reader. And the English are not my favorite folks to read about. Boy was I wrong.

When you described each individual, they actually came to life for me. I could even hear the wheelchair moving into the room.

Your talent to take the "ordinary" and bring it to life and make it definitely "not ordinary" is a gift all writers wish they had.

When the mystery came into the story, even I took a magnifying glass to the screen to peruse the border to see if there were messages in there that I could understand. A task in futility. Of course, I would not know a cryptic message if I ever saw one.

However, I did laugh at myself for using the magnifier. This is a tribute to you and how deeply you had me in the story.

I so am ready to read the next mystery, without skepticism.

You are a fantastic, talented writer. Thank you.

Voted up and awesome.


marshacanada profile image

marshacanada 5 years ago from Vancouver BC

This is another well written stylized story Docmo. I like the irony,characters, setting and plot.

A cold brooding mood is set, there is some building tension as the protagonist enters the library. We meet classic characters who are well drawn. Their conversation is natural and consistent with the story.

However the tension stops and the plot dragges a little bit for me around the middle of the discussion of the "Alice in Wonderland" book.I think this part could be shortened a bit.

The plot picks up at "We have a problem..." And the puzzle and problem solving is brilliant.

Some picky details: ..."carpeted with muddy slush"-Is this a contrast of "carpeted with flowers"? When you introduced the characters I wondered at two of your choices and location of words: 'sat' rather than 'sitting', paralled with 'stood' rather than 'standing' I could not figure out your reason for this.


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK Author

Dear Pixienot and marshacanada - Thank you so much for dropping by. I am deeply indebted to Website Examiner for featuring this story- which I must admit - was my exercise is writing a 'mystery series' linked to books and book collecting. The link is rather tenuous but I wanted to include some information of collectible items and then link it to the plot such as the 'Cheshire cat' and the 'port manteau' words.

I fell in love with the mystery format of a cosy English club setting where a tale is told and a mystery solved all around the comfort of a fire and a glass of brandy.I am glad the characters work - this is a very early story I wrote when in College- I am actually penning a sequel to this called 'Lost in translation' I will publish this here soon.

I have written more 'serious' stories and my favorites are 'Family tree' and 'Stone mermaid' both of which have been published. The Stone mermaid was broadcast on BBC radio four after winning an international story competition. If you get a chance I would appreciate your opinions on them and if you like reading- there are others too, like 'The collector', 'The Wanderer' and 'Stories of the wind'.

Sorry for the shameless plug but the more readers and more feedback the better I can refine my craft.

Thank you all very much for taking the time, your useful critique and feedback. Really appreciate your visit!


ltfawkes profile image

ltfawkes 5 years ago from NE Ohio

Terrific story, Docmo. Nice work.

L.T.


Becky Katz profile image

Becky Katz 5 years ago from Hereford, AZ

I am now officially hooked on your work. I have been the reader here for so long and keep finding some amazing writers. I read everything they write and then keep watching for more. I am reading them all now.

Your characters have life, firm and personality. Your plot is functional and interesting.

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