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Authors: Stephen Parrish

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BOOK: The Tavernier Stones
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It wasn’t until the Dutchman and Blumenfeld’s partner absconded with the money that Blumenfeld realized she had been the real target of the sting. She bore them no malice. To be sure, she hunted down the partner, who soon afterwards died in a house fire. She lost all track of the Dutchman. But she appreciated the lesson she had learned. “We” in every subsequent job translated to “me.”
She’d needed someone to start the fire. A prison acquaintance suggested a young, clean-cut associate named Mannfred Gebhardt. Problem was, Gebhardt was about to stand trial for sexual assault. Several people were prepared to testify they saw him with the victim, but nobody had yet offered to remember he was elsewhere when the victim was assaulted.
Blumenfeld sometimes wondered to what extent she could excuse Gebhardt’s precipitate nature by attributing it to the abuse he had received as a child. An uncle had tied him to a bedpost and had his way with him, even going so far as to invite friends over to share the treat.
But the girl Gebhardt had assaulted was underage. And every deed had its penance, regardless of the circumstances that brought it about.
THE NEXT MORNING, JOHN took the day off and visited the campus of Franklin & Marshall College. It was the first time he had ever taken a day off from work, and the request surprised Harry Tokuhisa.
“You’re not sick,” Harry clarified.
“No, sir.”
“And nobody died.”
“No, sir.”
“You just need to take care of … personal matters.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Very well.” He signed John’s leave slip grudgingly, as though it were an execution order. “As soon as you’re able, tell me what’s really the matter.”
“Yes, sir.”
Like most private universities, F&M relied heavily on endowments. And like most private university libraries, the Shadek-Fackenthal Library bore the burden of its donors’ legacies. The pride of the library was one of its annexes, the Erwin Raisz Institute of Mapping Sciences.
Some 30,000 individual map sheets, most printed before 1900, constituted the heart of the collection. They filled long aluminum cabinets stacked to the ceiling of one of the building’s underground floors. Nearly one hundred pre-nineteenth-century globes populated a single room. The globes looked so much like round-headed people waiting for medical appointments that students usually referred to the room as the “waiting room.” Officially, it was the Amos Lithgow Room, in honor of the institute’s chief benefactor, though even some of the officers of the university were unaware of the name.
The building had cost Mr. Lithgow fifteen million dollars and the college its open-air tennis and basketball courts. The glass-and-steel construction was a new look for F &M, one not welcomed by every alumnus.
John Graf, a visiting alumnus clutching a sheet of paper covered with symbols he did not understand, decided to try his luck at the main library building. He thought he would have the best chances with a history librarian on the third floor. But the only staffer present took one look at the symbols and suggested he try the math department instead.
The math department was on the second floor of Stager Hall.
“You say you’re a writer?”
John smiled despite himself. It wasn’t really a lie; wasn’t everyone a writer?
“Yes,” he said, “I’m researching an article about the Tavernier legend, and I was hoping you could give me some advice.”
“Who do you write for?” Dr. William Moulton, a mathematics professor who happened to have his office door open, seemed genuinely intrigued. John allowed his hopes to rise.
“Well, I’m freelance, actually.”
“Oh. Have you published any books?”
“Not as yet.”
“Oh. I’m a sci-fi buff myself,” Moulton explained, leaning back in his chair. “The trouble is, nobody wants to write mathematical science fiction. They just want to write about combating aliens and exceeding the speed of light. The best science fiction, I think, would be based on mathematical concepts, for example non-Euclidean geometry. I just don’t understand why nobody’s doing it.”
John sighed. “I don’t either. Certainly everyone would want to read stuff like that.”
“Well! There’s a niche for you, a wide open one.”
“Too bad I wasn’t very good in math.”
“Yes. That’s a necessary—but insufficient—condition.” He slapped his thigh and started to laugh, but caught himself when he realized his visitor didn’t share the humor. “Now then, what was it you wanted me to look at?”
John handed him the creased and wrinkled page. He had arranged the runes from the border of Cellarius’s last map in rows of twenty-five characters each:
“The library sent me,” John said. “They thought, being a mathematician, and mathematicians being interested in ciphers, you might be able to make something of this.”
Moulton looked at the sheet and frowned. He turned it sideways, then upside down, and continued the quarter spins until it was right-side up again. It quickly became clear to John that the man had no idea what he was looking at. But the examination continued another full minute for John’s benefit.
“I’m afraid not,” Moulton finally confessed. “There are too few characters—I count only 275—to do a decent frequency analysis, a character association analysis, and so on. There’s software available for that stuff, but you’ll need a lot more ciphertext than you have. Is the solution in English—do you know?”
John shrugged.
“Oh, well. Have you tried the people at Fort Meade?”
“What do you mean?”
“They’ve got a secret underground cryptology operation going on there. Most mathematicians who are into this kind of thing end up working for the government and never publish anything. But they’ll tell you the same thing I’m telling you: without a decryption code, you’ll have to come up with a whole lot more ciphertext to conduct any worthwhile analyses.”
Moulton slowly handed the paper back, then looked at his watch and yawned. “Was there anything else?”
Before leaving campus, John stopped by the cafeteria in the Steinman College Center. From his table near the window he was just able to see the blue-capped spire of Hensel Hall next door. Although Hensel Hall served mainly for musical performances, it reminded John of a chapel, and its presence had always comforted him. The spire, visible from off-campus, was an F&M landmark.
He had taken the crumpled sheet out of his pocket and was gazing absentmindedly at the runes when someone sat down across from him at the table. He looked up to find Dr. Joseph Quimby, one of his former history professors, smiling in greeting.
“Well, what do you know,” Quimby said. “A ghost from Christmas past.”
“It’s been a long time,” John admitted. Quimby hadn’t changed: an oval face, bulbous nose, and bald pate made him look like a clown without makeup. Still, he was one of the best teachers John ever had.
“That’s the way of it, you know. I teach my students all I can, then I kick them out of the nest, and the moment they learn to fly, they forget who taught them. Do you know that out of hundreds of students I have every year, year after year, the only ones who return to visit are the ones who got a D?”
“So now you know why I’ve never visited. You gave me a C.”
“I didn’t.”
“Oh, yes, you did. In medieval history.” John had worked harder in that class than any other in his life.
“That explains it. My killer course. You might have gotten the highest grade.”
They shook hands warmly.
“Seriously,” John said. “I’ve always meant to visit. It’s just something I never seem to get around to doing.”
“I understand completely, what with your job taking you so far away. Where is it, way over on James Street, right?”
John felt himself blushing. “Come on. Don’t rub it in.”
“So what brings you here today?”
He tapped his tray. “The food, of course. I got addicted to it during the four years I spent here, and I can’t break the habit.”
“Is the pigpen keeping you busy?”
“Now, listen. North Star may not be a palace, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a pigpen, either.”
“No, I mean the pigpen cipher.”
“Excuse me?”
“That page you’ve been studying.” He pointed to the sheet of paper in front of John. “It’s written using the pigpen cipher. Didn’t you know that was its name?”
“Ah, no, I didn’t.”
“No wonder you got a C in medieval history. The pigpen was popular in the Middle Ages, especially among Freemasons.”
Quimby took the sheet from John’s hands and smoothed it out on the table. “Let’s see if we can improve your grade.”
Chicago Tribune
, slammed the door of the conference room as she entered. Her naturally red hair looked like it had caught fire. She threw a current edition of the
onto the conference table, where four of her junior editors sat wringing their hands, knowing that unscheduled staff meetings only meant bad news.
The paper spun several times on the polished table.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” she asked when the paper came to rest.
The four remained silent. Finally one of them raised his hand.
Justin cleared his throat. “Ma’am, ours is the only major newspaper in the country not to reveal the identity of the pigpen cipher?”
“Ah! I suspected something was amiss.”
She sat down at the table, closed her eyes, and ran her fingers through her hair. “All right. This Tavernier affair is dominating the news. Actually, it’s overwhelming the news. I want stories. Your assignment is to interview puzzlers, historians, cartographers, treasure hunters—everybody. The jewels aren’t going to be found; the real treasure here is the opportunity to sell newspapers. My boss knows it, and he has made sure
know it, and now I’m making sure
know it. Any questions?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Justin closed his eyes before speaking. “Is there any travel and expense money available?”
Eleanor Hall glared at him. “Tell you what, Justin. If you wear out your shoes walking between your PC and my desk because you’re bringing me stories, I’ll personally buy you a new pair.”
David met Sarah at a diner on Market Street, where she was nibbling on a plate of fries. He joined her in the booth.
“Did you get it?” she asked.
He removed a folded envelope and a small plastic bag from his shirt pocket. He unzipped the bag first and showed her a four-prong Tiffany ring mount. Stamped inside the shank were “18K” and the image of a lightning bolt.
“How much was it?” Sarah asked.
“Three hundred dollars.”
“You could have gotten it from a jobber for less.”
“True, but the jobber would come with a disconcertingly wide gap in his face known as a mouth.”
BOOK: The Tavernier Stones
4.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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