Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Crimson Cipher - Chapter 1

The Crimson Cipher
Summerside Press (July 1, 2010)

Susan Page Davis

Chapter One

Wednesday, January 27, 1915

Emma Shuster hurried across campus against the cold wind coming off Casco Bay. Most of the walkways had been shoveled, but a few students employed by the college worked to clear the last few stretches. Six inches of powdery snow draped the brick buildings in glittery icing, and Emma’s heart sang.

A man in a blue wool coat with epaulets on the shoulders and a peaked hat of the same hue approached the Searles Science Building from the opposite direction. Navy, Emma concluded—a fine-looking officer. She looked away before he could catch her eye.

He reached the door of the brick building just as Emma did. “Hello.” He smiled brightly and opened the door for her.

“Thank you.” As she entered, she tucked the large envelope she carried under her arm. She pulled off her knit gloves and headed for the stairs.

“Excuse me,” the man said.

She paused and turned toward him. “Yes?”

He unbuttoned his overcoat, revealing a uniform beneath. “I wonder if you could direct me to Professor Shuster’s office.”

Emma relaxed and smiled. “I’m just on my way up to see him, sir. If you’d like to follow me, I’ll take you there.” Her father was a navy veteran. She wondered what the young man wanted with him.

He followed her to the second floor, where they turned and took the next flight. Classes were in session, and they met no one in the halls. He walked beside her to the third floor landing. The handsome stranger towered nearly a foot over her.

She supposed she should break the silence if she didn’t wish to be thought rude. “Several of the mathematics and science professors have their offices up here.”

“Indeed. I expect the climb keeps them fit.” The young man smiled.

“I’m John Patterson.”

“And you’re with the navy, Mr. Patterson?”

“Yes. Lieutenant, actually.”

They’d reached the door of her father’s office. Emma gave a quick knock and turned the knob. “Father, I’ve brought someone to—” With the door halfway open, she broke off with a gasp.

Her father’s slender form lay sprawled on the floor. Blood seeped onto the varnished oak boards and the papers strewn near him.

“Father!” She dropped her envelope on the floor and knelt beside him. Bending close, she touched his arm. The awful stillness of his body sent chills through her. A dry, fierce ache filled her throat. Pushing his shoulder slightly, she tried to speak again, but a sob wrenched her chest.

Patterson knelt on the other side and put a hand to the fallen man’s throat. After a moment, he reached across and gently touched Emma’s sleeve. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“No, no! He’s my father! We need to call a doctor.”

“I’m afraid there’s nothing a doctor could do for him.”

She wept then—great, hot tears splashing down her cheeks.

“Miss Shuster.” His quiet voice held authority she couldn’t ignore. “Come and sit down.”

Emma raised her hand to her mouth, staring at the blood. Her father had received a fatal wound—but how? She struggled to stand, but her knees buckled, and she grabbed the lieutenant’s outstretched arm.

He caught her as she wilted. “There, now. Let me help you.” He turned a wooden chair to face the door, holding her upright with his steel-like right arm. “Sit down, miss.”

Emma sank onto the chair and held her hands over her face.

“Can I get you anything?”

“No,” she managed. “Thank you. Just…please, see to Father. Make certain…”

“Only if you assure me you won’t topple out of that chair.”

“I—yes, thank you.” She pulled in a deep breath to prove it.

He left her side, and she shivered, even in her thick woolen coat. She wanted to look over her shoulder and see what Patterson did—to assure herself that she’d been mistaken and only imagined the ghastly scene.

She didn’t move.

The lieutenant came back, his jaw tense. “I’m sorry, Miss Shuster. I’m afraid it’s too late.”

A new sob worked its way up her throat.

He touched her shoulder, and the weight of his hand through her coat was oddly comforting. “We ought to call the police. Is there a telephone box nearby?”

She jerked her chin up and stared at him. His solemn brown eyes reassured her. “There’s a phone in the front office of this building, to the right of where we came in.”

“I’ll run down there and call for an officer. Will you be all right?”

She studied his face, wondering how he expected her to answer that. “I…don’t think so.”

“No, of course not.” He squeezed her shoulder lightly. “I’m so sorry, Miss Shuster. Would there be people in the other offices on this level?”

“Yes, probably.” She bit her lip. “Professor Fairleigh is across the hall, and Dr. Shaw is next door.”

“All right, I’ll be right back.”

He was at the door before she forced out a word. “Lieutenant—”

His broad shoulders swung around, and the rest of his lanky form followed. “Yes, ma’am?”

She wanted to say, “Take me with you,” but she didn’t. Even if she couldn’t make herself look at Father again, she couldn’t leave him unattended. She shook her head and clenched her hands in her lap.

“I promise I won’t be long.”

She nodded.

His knocking on another door echoed in the hallway. The murmur of voices was followed by quick, heavy footsteps.

Short, sturdy Dr. Shaw appeared in the doorway. His gaze pinned Emma to her chair then shot past her. He gasped. “Good heavens! Whatever happened?”

“We don’t know, sir,” Patterson said. “If you would be so good as to go down and ask someone to phone the police…”

“Of course.” Dr. Shaw’s thick shoes clumped on the oak stairs.

Far away a bell chimed, and the hubbub of students exiting their classes wafted up the stairwell.

Emma raised her chin and blinked back tears.

Patterson stood ramrod straight, just inside the door, as though on
guard duty.

“Thank you,” she said. Thank you for sending Dr. Shaw, and for not going yourself—but she couldn’t say that. She would much rather stay in the room with the grave young man than with the overbearing Dr. Shaw. Father had never gotten along with him, and their disagreement over number theory was legendary on campus.

“You’re welcome. And if there’s anything else…”

“If you are a man of faith, Lieutenant, I’d appreciate any prayers you could spare this morning.”

“You have them already. Miss Shuster, I sincerely regret what has happened. I’ll help you in any way I can.”

Her heart ached, and a fresh stream of tears bathed her face.

Patterson reached into a pocket and produced a spotless cotton handkerchief, folded and ironed into a perfect square. He placed it in her hand and pressed her fingers around it.

For a moment, the warmth of his hand spread to hers. “I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d walked in alone.” She unfolded the fabric and wiped her cheeks.

* * * * *
An hour later, John entered the small, first-floor chamber where Miss Shuster sat with the dean’s secretary, Mrs. Whitson.

Emma huddled in a padded chair near the window with a full cup of tea cooling on the small table beside her. She’d removed her coat, hat, and scarf, and she looked small and vulnerable in her dark green dress.

She turned wide blue eyes up to him. Her face looked too puffy for her fine cheekbones. Dried tears mottled the creamy complexion he’d admired when he’d walked up the stairs with her—ages ago, it seemed.

He nodded to Mrs. Whitson and crossed to Emma’s chair. Her lips trembled. He couldn’t remain standing, looming over her. He went to one knee on the rug beside her.

“Miss Shuster, I’ve spoken to the police chief.”

“What can you tell me?” Her damp lashes lowered, hiding her reddened eyes.

“Chief Weaver will come and speak to you soon, but I’ve learned a few things about your father’s death.”

She shuddered, and he wished he’d cushioned his words.

Mrs. Whitson cleared her throat and rose. “Lieutenant, I shall give you and Miss Shuster some privacy.” She pulled over another chair, indicating that he should use it, not kneel before the bereaved young woman like an awkward suitor.

John rose and pulled the chair closer. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll stay with her until Chief Weaver comes.”

Mrs. Whitson left the room.

He turned his attention back to Emma, who had made good use of his handkerchief and held it wadded in one hand.

“Did they discover how he…died?”

“The coroner is there now. I’m not sure he’s come to a conclusion about that. But the police are treating this as a crime.”

She winced, and it hurt him to know he’d made her difficult day a little harder, though she’d have learned that fact soon anyway. He’d leave it to Weaver to give her the details of the investigation.

“Is there anyone you’d like notified? Your mother…?”

“She’s been gone since I was seven.”

“I’m so sorry.”

She sniffed. “There are relatives… . Father’s sister…but I’ll let them know later—after I’ve spoken to the chief and had a chance to think.”

“Of course.” He held out a large envelope. “I retrieved this from your father’s office. The police chief said it was all right when I told him you’d carried it in with you this morning.”

“Thank you.” She tucked it between herself and the side of the armchair. “I’ve been helping Father with a private project he was working on.”

John inhaled and studied her face. “If I may address that topic, would that have been his banking project?”

“I beg your pardon.”

If nothing else, his comment had distracted her from the grisly scene upstairs.

“I’m speaking to you confidentially, of course. I’m assigned to the navy’s Signal Corps. My supervisor, Captain Waller, is an old friend of your father’s.”

“Captain Waller?” Emma blinked and nodded slowly. “I’ve heard Father speak of him. They served together in the Philippines, back in the war.”

“Yes, so I understand.” John looked toward the door to be sure it was securely shut. “The captain sent me here to speak to your father about a matter they’d discussed before—the possibility of Professor Shuster going back to work for the navy—”

“Father joining the navy again?”

“Not necessarily. The captain wanted to offer him a position with the Signal Corps. We have several civilians working there, and your father could have served in that capacity if he wished.”

She pushed back a strand of her light brown hair. “I don’t understand. What is it they wanted him to do?”

“To work in cryptography.”

She nodded, the light of comprehension in her eyes. “I see. But Father was happy here at Bowdoin College.”

“Captain Waller hoped the prospect of adventure would entice him away from his academic nest. Your father told him in confidence about the work he was doing for a banking corporation. Designing a system of encryption to help the bank make long-distance transactions securely, by telegraph transmissions.”

Her eyes widened. “I’m surprised Father would disclose even the nature of his work to anyone.”

“He and Waller were apparently close friends, and the captain has a deep interest in this type of work. In fact, during their military service together, they had reason to discuss it often. I telephoned the captain, and he has authorized me to discuss it with you.”

Again she nodded. She must know that during the war her father’s military assignment had included putting messages in code so the Spanish could not decipher them.

“Captain Waller would have come to Maine himself, but his duties prevented that, so he sent me with a private message for Mr. Shuster and instructions to persuade him to come to Washington if at all possible. Waller wanted him badly.”

“Are code makers needed so urgently then?”

“Ah, Miss Shuster, if only it were that easy. But you say you assisted your father on this assignment?”

“Yes, I’ve worked on the project with him since the beginning. It challenged him to his limits, but by God’s grace, he was able to find the solution needed by his employers. He was nearly finished.”

John nodded, thinking quickly over his instructions and how much he could reveal. “It’s not code makers we need just now, but code breakers.”

A rap at the door drew their attention. The oak panel swung open, and the chief of police entered. “Miss Shuster?”

“Yes.” Emma wobbled slightly as she stood, and John stepped nearer,
in case she collapsed again.

“I’m Chief Weaver.” He closed the door and walked toward her. Emma extended her hand, and he shook it gravely. “I’m sorry about your father.”

“Thank you. Can you please tell me what happened?”

“As near as we can tell—and it’s early days yet, ma’am—someone surprised him when he came into the office this morning. The gunman may have been inside when he arrived, and—well, shot him.”

Emma caught her breath. “Surely someone would have heard the sound.”

“Not if the killer used something to muffle the report. Besides, I understand the professor came to his office early this morning, before there were many others in the building.”

“That’s true. He left the house about six thirty. Classes don’t begin until seven forty-five. He may very well have been the first one here.”

The chief took a small pad from his pocket and made a note. “The coroner says your father suffered a gunshot wound to his chest. That’s what killed him.”

Emma’s face paled, and John prayed silently as he watched her, ready to help.

“When you entered, you two were together?” the chief asked.

“Yes,” John said. “I met Miss Shuster when I came in and asked directions to the professor’s office. I had no idea she was his daughter at that time.”

Weaver scribbled in his notebook. “And who entered the room first?”

“I did,” Emma said. “I opened the door, and when I saw Father lying there, I ran inside. This gentleman was right behind me.”

“That’s right. As soon as I saw Professor Shuster, I hurried in and felt for a pulse. There was none. I got Miss Shuster into a chair and went for help. One of the other professors called your department for us.”

Weaver nodded. “Now, we’ve looked all around the room—under his desk and everything. We didn’t find a weapon.”

Emma said nothing but waited, her lips parted and her brow furrowed.

Weaver coughed. “That is to say, at this point, we don’t think it was a suicide.”

“Suicide! I should think not. That is the last thing Father would do.”

The chief held up his hand. “As I say, miss, we found no weapon. But we had to check, you understand.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“We’ve reached the conclusion that this was murder.”

John raised his arm, ready to catch her, but Emma didn’t waver this time. She drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “All right, sir. What do you intend to do about it?”

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