This is the second part of a mystery serial.

In case you missed it, Part 1 is here

Part three will be along as soon as I can write it. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy it, and please bear in mind that this is a first draft.

Freshly Roast Mystery – Part 2

Embervale

Dan threw his pen down onto the kitchen table and ripped off the top sheet from his A4 pad, crumpling his scribbles into a ball and staring into space. “No, no, no.” He should give up, take a break, but he picked up his pen and started carefully writing the letters of the alphabet down one side.

A knock on the front door interrupted his train of thought, but he ignored it. The only person he knew in the village was Alan, and he wouldn’t be knocking on the door already, would he?

Another knock rang out, this time on the window behind him, and when Dan turned around, Alan was peering in. Apparently, the lack of response at the front door hadn’t been enough to discourage him, so he’d made a swift circuit to the back. Was he always going to be so persistent?

“I wondered how you were getting on,” Alan called out.

Dan shook his head. “Nothing yet. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“What?” Alan cupped his hand to his ear.

“For God’s sake.” Dan jumped to his feet and went to open the back door. “Come in. I need a break, anyway. I’ve been staring at this thing for hours.”

Alan smiled. “How about a cup of tea? I usually find that it helps when I’m tackling the crossword.”

“Which one do you do?”

“The Independent. It’s the only paper I can be bothered with these days. I do the quick one, then I tackle the cryptic.”

Dan raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed.”

“I’m not just a pretty face, you know. I like to keep sharp.”

“I’d have thought with your writing…all those stories. They must take a certain amount of mental effort.”

“Kid’s stuff,” Alan replied. “Do you mind if I sit down?” Without waiting for a reply, he took a seat at the table and pulled the pad toward him. “Did you say something about tea?”

“No, but I’m guessing you’d like some. It’s just a wild shot in the dark.”

Alan sent him a smile. “Milk, no sugar. And if you don’t mind, not too strong. The tannin sets my teeth on edge.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Dan gave the kettle an experimental swirl then filled it up at the sink. “Tea isn’t really my thing. I don’t know Earl Grey from Darjeeling.” He rummaged through the contents of a wall cupboard and pulled out a familiar box. “I do know PG Tips though, so that’s what you’re getting.”

“Fine,” Alan said. “I prefer Yorkshire Tea myself, but I’m not fussy.” He flicked through Dan’s pages of unruly notes while, across the kitchen, spoons and crockery were industriously clunked together.

“There you go.” Dan plonked a mug of tea on the table in front of him, the brown liquid almost overflowing, and Alan took a cautious sip.

“Thanks. That’s very…full.”

“No short measures here,” Dan replied, taking a seat and regarding Alan for a moment. “If you’re expecting me to have solved this already, I’ll have to disappoint you.”

“Not at all, I just fancied taking a look at it myself. You know how it is. You start thinking about a problem, and your mind won’t let it go.”

“Tell me about it.” Dan let out a dry chuckle. “That’s pretty much all I did, back in London. Solve problems. One after another.”

“It sounds quite exciting, the life of a high-tech troubleshooter. It makes me think of the Wild West. The lone sheriff, riding into town, outwitting the locals and outshooting the bad guys.”

Dan smiled. “You’re not far off the mark. There were certainly plenty of showdowns, but they took place in air-condition boardrooms rather than dusty streets. And my weapons of choice were the PowerPoint presentation and the frosty email.”

“Pity.”

“Yes. And ironically, I’m a pretty good shot. I was the top scorer at the corporate clay pigeon shoot.”

“We have the real thing around here,” Alan said. “Pheasants. Every Monday in the season. You should try it. I could introduce you to the chap who runs it.”

“Thanks, but I don’t suppose I’ll be around all that long.” He hesitated. “I have to get back to London at some point, I suppose.”

Alan managed a smile. “It was just a thought.” He took a slurp of tea. “If you’re interested, I did a bit of research into the Saint Sidwell story.”

“Me too. Tell me what you’ve got, and we’ll compare notes.”

“Sure.” Alan sat up straight. “According to the legend, Saint Sidwell, also known as the patron saint of Exeter, was a beautiful young woman called Sativola, and like all young heroines, she was the kind and good-natured type. But her father was a rich man, so when her mother died, along came a stepmother, and of course, she decided to have the girl killed.”

“Enter the grim reaper,” Dan put in.

“Yes. There was a man who came to cut the long grass nearby, and the stepmother paid him to kill the poor girl, possibly while she was outside the city walls.”

Dan nodded. “Interesting detail, that. The café we visited was well within the old walls.”

“You have been doing your research,” Alan said. “There are a few parts of the wall still standing. I could show you if you’re interested.”

“Maybe. In the meantime, google maps is a wonderful thing. But back to the story. The reaper took his money and duly chopped off young Sativola’s head.” It was Dan’s turn to furrow his brow. “Damned tricky, I’d have thought.”

“I don’t know. A heavy, agricultural scythe in the hands of a skilled labourer, his muscles hardened by years of hard work.”

“I don’t know,” Dan said. “A certain amount of hacking must’ve been involved.”

“This isn’t CSI,” Alan protested. “Legends are full of people cleaving each other in twain. But anyway, one way or another, poor Sativola was killed, and where she fell, a miraculous spring appeared. There are some references to her ghost standing on the spot, head under one arm and scythe in the other, but I don’t think we need to go into that.”

“Quite. My disbelief is suspended pretty much to its limits already.”

“In that case, you definitely won't like the next bit. People drank from the spring, and their illnesses were cured, the lame walked, the blind could see, and so on.”

Dan grunted under his breath, but Alan carried on. “The well was said to be a gift from God, and Sativola’s name goes from Latin to English, becoming Sidwell. She’s declared a saint, and a church was built dedicated to her name. It’s still there.”

“You’ve, er, you’ve done a good job,” Dan admitted. “You’ve found a few details I missed.”

“All those years in the classroom. When you have to teach a topic to a room full of thirty kids, you need to get a grip on the subject pretty quickly.”

“But you forgot the underground passages.”

“I’ve taken the tour,” Alan replied, “but I don’t see what they’ve got to…” He frowned. “Ah, yes, I see what you’re getting at. The passages were dug hundreds of years ago to take fresh water into the city. Did they run from Saint Sidwell’s spring?”

“They did, indeed. So the location of the well has been known for a long time. It’s very much on the map.”

Alan stared down at the table. “So you were right. Deborah lied about her well.” He looked up. “But maybe she just made a mistake. She seemed like such a nice person.”

“Pretty big mistake. Most people, on finding a hole full of water under their floor, don’t suddenly leap to the conclusion that it’s something from an ancient myth. And if, as she claims, local historians visited the site, they must’ve told her that it was nothing to do with the saint, unless they were staggeringly inept. In fact, I’m surprised that the residents of Exeter aren’t up in arms about it. Isn’t the place teeming with retired colonels and schoolmasters: the kind of people who write long letters to The Times, complaining about litter and the low moral fibre of the nation’s youth?”

Alan laughed. “That’s the problem with Londoners. They think everyone outside the M25 is some kind of character from a 1950’s costume drama, but we have all kinds of people living and working in Devon, from bricklayers to orthopaedic surgeons and all points in-between. I’ve met quite a few folks who’ve come here specifically to escape from the city of your birth, and by all accounts, they enjoy the quality of life, the fresh air and the rolling hills. You won’t admit it, but it’s a nicer pace of life here. You’ve only been here a week, and I reckon you’ve got a bit of colour in your cheeks already.”

“It’s warm in here, that’s all.” Dan nodded toward the A4 pad. “Now we’ve agreed that the well is a fake, I ought to have another go at solving this damned cipher.”

“Why bother? You’ve untangled Deb’s story, but it’s a harmless enough lie. I expect she just wanted to attract a few tourists. Certainly, her regular clients wouldn’t be interested in her Roman bits and bobs. They’ll dash in for their caffeine fixes and then be on their way, scuttling back to their offices.”

Dan gasped. “Of course. That could be important.”

“What? The local office types?”

“No. The Roman artefacts. She said that they’d belonged to her great grandfather. And the stone slab was Edwardian. Could the two have been contemporaneous?”

Alan tilted his head from side to side. “Edward the Seventh was 1901 to…to…”

“Come on, come on. What kind of teacher doesn’t know this stuff?”

“I taught primary. The kids in my class were ten or eleven. King Edward did not feature heavily in our curriculum. The Victorians, on the other hand, were a big hit. Who doesn’t love a ride on a steam train and a trip down a coal mine?”

“People with asthma?” Dan offered. “Anyone who suffers from claustrophobia?”

“Give me that pen,” Alan growled, holding out his hand. Dan passed him the plastic biro, and Alan started writing, jotting down dates and then crossing them out. “Of course, we don’t know old Deb is. We can make a guess, but we also don’t know how old her father was when she was born, nor how old her grandfather was when her father was born.”

“I’d put her in her late forties,” Dan said. “As for the rest, assume the parents were around twenty. Back then, people tended to have children earlier than they do now.”

“I’d already thought of that. Hang on.” Alan scribbled out a date and tried again. “Yes, I can make it so that her great grandfather was born in 1901, but I think Edward died in 1910. If this person was nine years old at the time, it’s not likely that he’d go around carving messages into slabs.”

Dan pulled a phone from his pocket. “Damn. I keep forgetting that there’s no signal in here. And there’s no router in this house. Can you believe it?”

Alan nodded, smiling. “Yes, but before you say anything, we are not in the Stone Age. This must be the only house in the village without reasonable broadband. You should have a word with your sister. She needs to get this place up to date. Most holiday cottages have wifi these days.”

“I’ll tell her the next time she deigns to phone. But somehow, I don’t think that my lack of Internet is likely to bother her while she’s swanning around San Francisco.”

Alan took out his own phone. “I can just about get my wifi from here. What did you want to check?”

“The Edwardian dates. You didn’t sound too confident.”

Alan raised an eyebrow, but he began tapping on his phone’s screen. “Yes, 1910. I thought so. But it does say this: The period is sometimes extended in both directions to capture trends from the 1890s to the First World War.” He lowered his phone. “I’m not sure how that helps.”

“It helps because it puts the carving of the slab firmly in the same period as Deborah’s Roman-obsessed great grandfather, yes?”

“I don’t know about firmly, but I’d say we were on a steady wicket.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Dan said smoothly, “but let’s take my theory and run with it. Can I take a look at your timeline?”

Alan pushed the pad towards him. “Bit messy. Sorry.”

“Oh dear. Stay behind and copy it out a hundred times.”

“Huh. I don’t know what kind of school you went to, but that kind of inane punishment went out of fashion long ago.”

“I attended a very expensive school. I won a scholarship. And to save you the time of jumping to conclusions, yes, it was riddled with ridiculous traditions and run by certifiable masters, most of them spicing up their lessons with psychological bullying and barely restrained violence.”

“My God,” Alan breathed. “Teachers like that should be locked up.”

“Some of them have been. A good thing too.” Dan smiled. “As you can see, though, I have emerged unscathed: a productive member of society. Until recently, anyway.” He sat back, running his hands through his hair. “I don’t know what I’m still doing here, really. I only came for a few days. But here I am, a week later, mucking around with codes. It’s displacement activity, I suppose.”

“Taking your mind off things,” Alan suggested. “Nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs a break now and then.” He shifted awkwardly in his seat. “Listen, I know it’s none of my business, but I think you came here for a reason. You wanted a change, but you’re not the type to sit and do nothing. So, now that we’ve started on the puzzle, we may as well see it through to the end.” He hesitated. “Do you have the original message written out?”

Dan sighed. “I did have it, but I threw it out…accidentally.” He pulled out his phone and swiped the screen. “Here. We’ll have to copy it out again.”

“Thanks.” Setting the phone down carefully, Alan began writing out the message, zooming in on the image to check each character. “Do I have to include all the dots? Are they punctuation or something?”

“I didn’t bother with them,” Dan replied. “I thought they were just there for the look of the thing, but then I didn’t get anywhere, so maybe we should try keeping them in.”

“Will do.” Alan sat back to admire his work:

IO··NE·EE·B··SERNRCKGLBRNSYFOES.·YYE·OR··O·OFNS·M·RNAVOTTOTL·S··EOIN·ETAONHLAEW·MFLIBDHKO·EY·LA·

“Not much to go on,” Alan concluded. “Do you think the word spacing has been kept?”

“I thought so to begin with. But there are three letters that stand on their own, each different, and the only one-letter words I can think of are I and a.”

Alan pursed his lips. “They could be digits. But let’s backtrack a second. Why did you think the great grandfather’s interest in the Romans was relevant?”

“Partly intuition,” Dan replied, “and partly because I thought he might have used a Caesar cipher. It’s a substitution cipher. Each character is represented by another.”

“Yes. I made those once with a bunch of Year 5s. You shift the alphabet along a few places, so A becomes E, and B becomes F. Great fun.”

“A codeword makes it harder to break,” Dan said. “You pick a word that only uses each letter once. For instance, Alan is no good, but Daniel would work. You write down the codeword, then you fill in the rest of the alphabet, omitting the letters of the codeword.”

Alan nodded. “So if I used Daniel, that would cover the first six letters of the alphabet, then I’d start with B, C, and…F?”

“That’s right. It’s better if the codeword uses at least one letter from later on in the alphabet, so crazy would be a good one. That way, you scramble the alphabet more thoroughly.”

“Without the codeword, where would we start?”

Dan drummed his fingers on the table. “So far, I’d been counting the numbers of letters and trying to work from there. That should help with a Caesar cipher because it’s a straight substitution, and we know that in written English, e is the commonest letter, followed by t, a, o, and i.”

“And in our message?” Alan asked.

“I wrote it down somewhere.” Dan started picking through the crumpled sheets of paper scattered across the table. “Here it is. O is the commonest, then e, n, s, and l.” He tossed the paper over to Alan. “See what you can do.”

For several minutes, Alan scribbled combinations of letters then tried to decode portions of the message. Dan watched, drinking the last of his tea and putting the empty mug in the sink. He stared out the window, lost in thought, taking himself back to the peculiar back room in the café. Why does she bother? he wondered. Would anyone really be taken in by Deborah’s display of fake artefacts? Surely, the gleaming swords attached to the walls were obvious reproductions, as were the clay lamps and storage jars arrayed along the shelves. It was all just so much junk. Tacky. But then, perhaps that was what tourists wanted. Wasn’t London full of the same kind of nonsense? Model red buses that hadn’t been seen on the streets for many years, Buckingham Palace snow globes, union jack baseball hats: it was all there. We don’t even play baseball, he thought. Where’s the logic?

Logic. The word nagged at him. There ought to be some logic to the placing of the carved message. If the connection wasn’t the Roman trinkets, then what was it? There’s nothing else to go on, he decided. We have to assume it’s got something to do with the Romans, otherwise, we’ve got nothing. But he was missing something, something important, something he knew but he couldn’t recall. What the hell was it?

His thoughts were derailed by the grating of Alan’s chair as he pushed it back from the table. “I can’t make it work. I’m getting nowhere. We need to try something else.” He exhaled noisily and threw down the pen. “What about the simple one? The one where they wrapped it around a staff.”

Dan stared at him. “My God, that’s what I’ve been trying to remember. A scytale cipher.” He sat down beside Alan, grabbing the pad and pen and running his finger along the coded characters. “Okay. Step one, there are ninety-six characters. Now we need to find all the factors of ninety-six.”

Alan rubbed his hands together. “This is more like it. Mental maths is more my thing. So, one and ninety-six, two and forty-eight, three and thirty-two, obviously. Four and…let me see…twenty-four. Yes. Then six and sixteen. And of course, eight and twelve. Did you get all that?”

“Got it.” Dan was already drawing rectangles on a fresh sheet of paper.

“I thought you needed to have the same diameter staff to decode it. Isn’t that the way it works?”

Dan smiled. “Yes and no. A scytale is a transposition cipher. The letters are just jumbled, not replaced, and that’s why none of our attempts have worked so far. But now, we just need to rearrange the letters into the right pattern, and we’ll see the original message.”

“Okay, but that could take ages, couldn’t it?” Alan checked his watch. “I’m getting peckish.”

“This won’t take long.” Dan paused. “To code the message, a strip of paper was wrapped around a staff, then the letters were written along the length of the staff, one on each turn of the strip, yes?”

Alan nodded. “That’s the way we did it in my class. But surely, you at least need to know how many times you’ve wrapped the paper around the staff.”

“It would help, but we can work around it. Picture what would happen if we ran a knife along the staff.”

“Lots of little strips.”

“Yes, and all the same length,” Dan said. “If we laid those strips next to each other, they’d form a rectangle, and because there are ninety-six characters, and all the strips are the same length…”

“The sides of the rectangle must be factors of ninety-six,” Alan said, grinning. “I wish I’d thought of that before. My class would’ve loved that. We could’ve had a competition to see who could crack a code first.”

But Dan wasn’t listening. He swept on, sketching out more rectangles as he spoke, dividing each one into hastily drawn grids. “We need a rectangle as a kind of matrix to write the message in. Any of the factors of ninety-six are possible for the lengths of the sides, but some are unlikely. For instance, it would be difficult to have thirty-two turns of the strip.”

“I see what you mean. What if I take eight by twelve, and you work on six by sixteen?”

“Good idea,” Dan said, ripping off a sheet of paper and thrusting it towards him. “I’ve already drawn them on there. Unfortunately, you’ll have to try twelve by eight as well. We’ve no way of knowing which way around the rectangle will be.”

“Okay.” Alan studied the scruffy grids Dan had drawn. “Do I fill it in horizontally or—”

“Vertically,” Dan interrupted, already filling in one of his own grids. “When you get to the bottom of one column, go to the top of the next one.”

“Okay. And I suppose I’ll soon be able to figure out if I’ve got the right rectangle.”

Dan didn’t look up. “The words will start to emerge. So if you’re getting gobbledegook, stop.”

They worked in silence for a minute, Alan craning his neck to read the coded message he’d copied out earlier. But suddenly, Dan placed his palms flat on the table, and he stared straight ahead.

“What is it?” Alan asked, his mouth dry. “What have you found?”

Dan’s only reply was to point to the sheet of paper, and Alan took it from him. “In memory of Cyril Kenning,” he read aloud, then he gasped, scanning through the rest of the decoded message. “My God,” he whispered. “It’s a gravestone.”

I hope you enjoyed the second part of this story.

Please share this post online because it will help to encourage me (there are buttons below), and your comments are very welcome too.

I'm collecting these episodes and stories into monthly anthologies and formatting them as ebooks. The ebooks will only be available to my patrons on patreon where, for a few dollars a month, you can have instant access to all the ebooks as soon as I compile them. Also, the support of patrons will help me to keep writing and providing content for you all.

The best way  to learn more is to head on over to patreon and check it out

All the best and happy reading,

Mikey C

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