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Authors: H. F. Heard

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“We've found nothing,” I said. “That is only a chance piece of paper, perhaps with some measuring check points made by the carpenter who made the table and left by him in that secret cleft.”

“No,” said Mr. Mycroft, who had been looking at it through a lens, “that is modern paper, for one thing, and I'd wager that is modern ink, too.” We bent over it together. “Look at it,” said he, handing me another lens. “Don't some of those touches look like bits of letters?”

I bent closer. They certainly did. I passed my eye from one to another, scanning up and down the ribbon of paper. But the marks refused to yield any clew. Gradually, however, as I worked on it, determined to show Mr. Mycroft I could scan as carefully as he, the paper began to curl. I was so close to it that inadvertently I was breathing on it. I put out my hand to smooth it flat again but my hand was held. Mr. Mycroft was not only restraining me, but he too was breathing on the paper and, as he breathed, it began to buckle itself up quite definitely.

“Don't touch it,” he said, and then, chuckling to himself, “Well, Scotchmen are called laconic, and our old Gael was evidently scholar enough not only to know what that word means but how the Laconians capitalized on their speech-parsimony.”

While speaking he had plugged in a small electric kettle; when it began to simmer he brought the spout near the underside of the paper ribbon, which he had turned over so that all the marks were now face down. He lifted it gently and ran the steaming spout along the underside. The curling of the paper became very distinct and, helping it with his finger, the strip began to turn itself into a corkscrew scroll.

“I've got the pitch,” he said, replacing the kettle. And taking up the paper, which was now like a little snake, he slipped it onto a narrow round ruler which lay on his desk.

“It's not a perfect fit,” he remarked, “but, with a little shifting, it's near enough. Look.” And, sure enough, the pitch of the curl brought each little pen touch near enough so that complete words began to be made by them. “It is the old Spartan way of sending code messages. They have to be short. This one is. And they should be on a paper which when untwisted does not retain its curl-torsion. This did. Otherwise, unless you have the exact duplicate of the original stick round which the paper was curled when the message was written on it, you have little chance of reading it.” He took the paper-wrapped ruler to the light. “This, I think, will sound familiar to you,” he remarked, and read out, “‘When the flyer whose flight is not through air, sitting in his cage, stretches his wing to the left.'”

“Of course,” I exclaimed, “it's Intil's clue which I decoded for him.”

“With Miss Brown's help,” he added before I could, which I thought was discourteous.

“She only gave a picture; it was I who found out what it meant.”

Of course it was silly of me to justify myself, but we had been scrambling about and housebreaking and after a heavy dinner the excitement and strain had brought on indigestion and that always makes one touchy. I was cross, I confess, and Mr. Mycroft's slight tone of superiority put a match to my mood. And he didn't let it pass. He actually teased me further.

“Then, no doubt, you'll be able to help with the rest of the message now we have it in its entirety? I have, I think, done my bit and here we enter your field. I can tell you, if you have not followed the track so far, that Samuel Sanderson was remarkable among that remarkable crowd, the prospectors, and, in keeping with their tradition, he kept very quiet about his prospects. The one thing he seems to have feared—as he was getting on—was that he might get forgetful. I am sure he, too—perhaps the first of us—knew that there was something worth finding somewhere in the unmapped desert. He has set the rest of us on this trail. Perhaps he actually found the thing himself, but he had to find it again. If my supposition is true, he couldn't handle it himself, or at least without the most careful preparation. A number of visits would probably be necessary. He carried, then, one clue with him, one verbalized map, I believe it to be. That was taken off him after death. For fear he should lose it he made this duplicate, and not only put it in code, but, using the ancient Spartan method of disguise, having hidden it in a secret place, he was able to make the actual
aide mémoire
look worthless should anyone stumble on it. Yes, we are tracking a ‘verra careful mon' as his cautious compatriots would say. Indeed, had I not combined, with a taste for what you call ill-taste furniture (and a knowledge of its craftsmanship), a good memory for my Thucydides and some of the out-of-the-way information which classical studies give—well, we'd never be where we are now.”

This self-congratulation, all the more because it was true and couldn't really be answered, vexed me further; and when with that badly timed raillery Mr. Mycroft added, “Now all you have to do is to read what I have put in your hand,” I became angrily nervous. I must try, though nervous anger is, of course, the worst of moods in which to try and summon your hunch to start you on a line.

“Well,” I said, “the first part runs, ‘At twenty minutes to three o'clock in the afternoon,' or we can say, if we like, ‘At two-forty
'” Then I paused.

“Yes?” said Mr. Mycroft. “Yes, we are agreed about that. And now for the rest.”

It was maddeningly like an old schoolmaster taunting a boy who hasn't had time to prepare his translation.

I read on, “Cloc Friar's Heel. AP. 20111318—3.” That was all. “Short inscriptions are the mischief,” I said.

“Yet even the Etruscan and Hattitic yielded results,” he answered—showing off his learning in order to be able to provoke me more.

“Well, I've done work on the Roger Bacon clues,” I retorted.

“I doubt if they repay study,” was his gratuitous answer. I felt he was trying to show that I was no use. I made a last effort.

“Cloc,” I said. “Well, obviously that has to do with the time-reference which I've already decoded. He left out the
to save space. ‘Friar's Heel,' yes, that's a reference to the old mission trails. You know the Franciscans opened up much of this desert Southwest.”

I looked up. I was doing far better than I had hoped. My hunch
working. The old fellow who thought he knew everything, would have to admit I could be of use, and on my own, without any wise-woman to help or start my native skill. I looked up, but there was no encouragement on his cold old face. Didn't he know how much a gift such as mine depended on the spark not being quenched! He was jealous, that was it. But just to know that didn't help.

I stumbled on: “AP. 20111318 less 3, these of course are bearings. I suggest, just as a line for further research, AP stands for Latin
, ‘near,' or ‘approximately,' or even, broadly speaking, ‘at.' Then some measurements which a little figuring could work out: the total sum or direction to be corrected by three.”

I stopped. I knew I was getting out of my depth. But, hang it all, I had a line and the silly old fool, the jealous old dominie, was just determined I shouldn't score and take from him any of the praise. Pope's bitter but just line flashed into my head: “Bear like the Turk no brother near the throne.” Here, as always, was old crusted authority crushing out young promise.

I struggled with my temper and managed to say, “If, Mr. Mycroft, you will give attention to the suggestions I have been able to make, I feel sure I have been able to provide you with some further information which is pertinent to our search.”

“Codes of this sort,” was his indifferent reply, “don't have spare words in them; if they do, terminal letters are not omitted to save space. ‘Friar's Heel' is not uningenious, I own, just here, but not in its wider context. As for the letter-number references, I own I'm still quite at a loss as to the important ending—minus 3 is especially obscure. But taking into consideration what I have found out already about our man (and codes and men fit like saddles and horses), I doubt if AP is at all what you think. Without knowing something of our late prospector's nationality one might be utterly at a loss. As it is, I have a faint feeling that it might pay me to revive a knowledge that I once had of a book I ceased to study before I took up Thucydides—a book once much loved by riddle-raisers.”

“Riddle-raisers.” At that last, almost openly contemptuous phrase, and the whole out-of-hand dismissal of my consistent suggestions, my patience snapped.

“Mr. Mycroft,” I said, “it is clear that my particular assistance is nothing but a hindrance to a mind set as yours.” I thought of trying to use Dr. Johnson's grand slam, “Sir, I have given you a reason, I cannot give you an understanding,” but I hadn't the nerve quite to venture on that. I would have probably provoked a painful rejoinder. So I simply went on, “I have done my best and given you, I cannot but believe, some useful, essential information. Your attitude, however, persists in being.…” I wanted the sentence to be just, balanced, ironic, final, but it wasn't going any better than the code. “I can't do anything more,” I stumbled on. “I'm tired and I think you're deliberately provoking. I am going, and want to drop this unpleasant business.”

“I apologize,” he said. “I think aloud too much. I have to keep my own mind clear. You were muddling my line of thought.”

A nice apology, to say your colleague is worse than useless!

“Very well,” I snapped. “I can, at least, prevent your clear mind from being further contaminated.” And I walked straight out of the house.

Chapter V

And I found myself back in my well-proportioned life, again busy with problems, neat, adequate, remunerative. Mr. Mycroft made no motion to reopen our acquaintance. To close the matter definitely, I even returned his check, though I felt I had really more than earned it. There was no reply. For all I knew he had left the country, having failed to find a real clue. After all, even that old dead fellow—well, one was always seeing in the papers about some hobo found dried up in a gully after wandering off and getting lost. The Indians often put a few stones on top of them and don't tell anyone, not wanting to be pulled into court and questioned. I'd had pointed out to me several such cairns when I visited Death Valley and Cactus Park. And as to all that tooth business—I've always had my doubts about all this fingerprinting. The patterns are too simple not to be repeated pretty often; and tooth-rings—well, they're even more unreliable, I should wager. About the clue hidden in the table's secret drawer? That was odd—at least that it should start with the very words I had decoded. But then, who knows, there might be some silly-solemn confraternity Ku-Klux-Klanning round these desert states and playing at being hooded, barefoot friars—all that New Mexico “Penitente” business taken up as a new thrill by whites from the Indians and the Mexicans. Anyhow, I was determined to dismiss the whole story, and as I was judge, dismissed it was.

Once again the whole matter was shelved. When, right into my office, right past my secretary, without check or warning, in walked—Intil! Of course I had made up my mind that Mr. Mycroft was foolishly wrong. Therefore, of course, I had no reason for being startled at seeing a man, suspicions about whom I had decided were groundless. Yet he had undeniably behaved very oddly with me and Miss Brown. I could and would take a stand on that—demand an explanation.

“Well, sir,” I got in first, and threw myself back in my chair—always a strong position with a fine desk in front of you, “your behavior needs no little explaining. I give you a perfectly successful reading and then you bolt off without a thank you!” It was just on the tip of my tongue to add, “The rest of the passage is obscure but I believe …” when caution suddenly said “Wait.”

He took my attitude, which was, I flatter myself, quite magisterial, very well. That was clearly the right way to deal with this sort of excitable creature. Anyhow I should pocket that long-overdue fee. I was right here, too.

“I have come to pay what I fear has been unpaid very long.”

It was perhaps not the real reason for such a return, but a good enough one as a start, for me. And it would also give me a nice little opportunity to test his sincerity.

“As I gave you to understand,” I went on, not asking him to sit down as yet, “I don't charge for a mere interview. Unless I obtain clear results I expect nothing. But when they are obviously obtained and a second opinion has made the finding undeniable,” (I was acknowledging Miss Brown's assistance, which in my mind, whatever Mr. Mycroft might imagine, I had never minimized) “then an adequate remuneration is certainly due. The professional fee”—that always sounds better than “my charges”—“is fifty dollars.”

I had named a fairly big price mainly to see his reaction. Again I was pleasantly surprised.

“Very moderate,” he remarked, “Very. And may I add a similar sum as due to your assistant?”

Again I allowed him. I wanted to be sure that Mr. Mycroft was wrong, and here, in a most pleasing and substantial way, my belief in human kind—as being if not good at least not dangerous—was being established against the detractor.

“Very well,” I agreed, with a judicious attitude toward the whole thing. “I think that may settle quite satisfactorily all outstanding claims.”

He paid the notes straight onto my desk. I own I was thawed, and thaw may always lead to a little gush. I couldn't now bow him straight out.

“Well, is there anything further I can do?” I asked. It was little more than putting “your obedient servant,” as lawyers used, when signing their letters. Though it still seemed odd that he should have called, I really never quite thought he would reopen the old question. After all, whether he was a Kluxer or a New Penitente or just an eccentric on his own—though I had decided that Mr. Mycroft was wrong—yet this man was hunting something; he'd never have bought that equipment and somehow furnished himself with a couple of burros if he hadn't been out after something other than a hike. These thoughts had run through my mind. Nevertheless I was more than a little surprised when, after he had turned back and shut the door, which was still standing open between the office and my sanctum, he picked up the “interviewee's” chair, put it on the right side of my desk, sat down, and spread a scrap of paper in front of me. A glance, and my surprise took on a keener edge. There was no doubt about it. Here was the full clue—as I had seen it when Mr. Mycroft put it together. This one was, however, copied out straightforwardly on a sheet of paper the length of a bank check. It was, I felt sure, a copy of some original, an original—I could not rule out this one supposition, though there could, fortunately, be ones less disconcerting—which had been possibly on the body of a man when he had been killed. And for which he had been murdered? That question was too unpleasant, in my actual immediate situation. Anyhow, I must and would gain time. And certainly, when I sidelongly looked at the little fellow beside me, he didn't look dangerous—not in a comfortable office with a competent secretary within call.

BOOK: Reply Paid
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