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.”
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.”
“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!
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.”
“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…”
Another 'Bibliophile' Mystery
Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2010