Annie watched as her parent’s car drove down the drive and turned onto the road early the next morning. The night had been a restless one for Annie. Despite her exhaustion she had been unable to sleep. She had eventually given up and decided to continue reading the cryptic letters that she had found in the attic. However, try as she might, she could not force her mind to focus on the task at hand. Eventually she abandoned that task as well and continued to read the novel she had started the night before. Only when the sun began to rise did her eyes begin to droop sleepily. By then it was too late. She got up and helped her family pack after which they said their goodbye’s.
Her parent’s goodbyes went much as she expected. They each gave her a tight hug and a kiss, assuring her that they would see her soon. Catherine’s farewell had been perplexing to say the least. Instead of the scathing look of anger that Annie expected, Catherine had given her a tight hug and a promise to see her soon. The experience was still causing her to reel.
Annie turned and went back inside the house. It was eerily quiet. A tingle went up her spine. She looked around frantically, fully expecting to see someone, or something, standing near her. But her search revealed nothing. Get a hold of yourself Annie. You’re tired and alone for the first time since your grandfather’s death. Annie repeated this mantra in her head over and over. She was only tired. She needed to sleep. Wearily, she climbed up the stairs and went into her room. She drew the blinds and curtains tight, making her room more akin to a cave. Then she climbed into bed and dozed off. Before exhaustion fully took her, Annie pulled up the covers and tucked them under her chin.
Annie’s eyes slowly drifted open. She knew she had been asleep for hours. Her growling stomach made sure to protest at its lack of sustenance. Groggily, she pushed herself up from bed and swung her feet to the floor. The clock on her phone informed her that it was half after five in the evening. Dazed, she slowly pushed herself off the bed, left her room, and made her way towards the kitchen to find something to eat.
When she opened the fridge she was accosted by a mountain of casseroles, whichever she had grown tired of after the last few days. She decided to order Chinese take-out. She dialed the number of her favorite local Chinese restaurant and ordered her food.
With the order complete, Annie wandered back to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of her favorite beer. Bottle in hand, Annie walked down the stairs and into the basement, which had been converted into an entertainment room. A large 4K TV dominated one wall. Large, comfy couches and recliners surrounded the enormous TV. The room also contained a pool table, wet bar, and the most expansive collection of movies that Annie had ever seen.
Annie was carefully considering which movie she wanted to watch when the doorbell rang. She ran up the stairs and pulled open the front door, grateful to see the delivery man standing there with her food. She paid him, gave him a generous tip, and then went back downstairs. Annie selected an old black and white mystery, popped it in the DVD player, then sat down and enjoyed her dinner.
Ninety minutes later, with her food and beer gone, and the movie at an end, Annie decided go for a swim. After spending nearly all day sleeping, she was predictably wide awake. This development did not bother her. She was far more productive at night. She figured she would go for a quick swim, take a shower, and then continue reading the letters. She walked up the stairs and discarded her trash, then went and changed into her swimsuit. Just a few minutes later, Annie dove into the pool.
The sky had shifted from sunset to twilight. In all honesty, twilight was her favorite part of the day. The melding of day into night brought an air of mystery. Anything seemed possible at twilight; even the most fantastical and outlandish thoughts seemed plausible.
Annie swam laps for quite a while. The routine movements of her body helped to unclutter her mind, which was something she desperately needed right now. So much had happened, was still happening. The enormity of having this house to herself, of actually owning the house, weighed heavily on her. But the thing that was foremost on her mind tonight were the letters. With each stroke she contemplated their strange structure and wording. It could be the author was inexperienced at composing letters. For some reason that explanation did not ring true. What else could it possibly be then?
Annie finished her last lap then turned and floated on her back, continuing her mental inspection of the letters. As she recalled each letter something struck her. The letters, while choppy, did seem to have an odd flow to them; almost as if they had a pattern. Annie pondered the idea more. It was obvious, due to the dates on the letters that they were written during the American Revolution. Could it be some sort of code? The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that was the case.
With renewed excitement, Annie hastily made her way out of the pool and into the house. She flew up the stairs and took a quick shower then sat down at her desk. She closely examined the first few letters. There was definitely a pattern there. Now all she had to do was figure out the meaning of the pattern and if it did indeed display some sort of code. Annie decided that the best approach to discerning what code was being used was to use the process of elimination.
Pulling out her notebook, she listed common codes used during the American Revolution by both countries. The first code she crossed off was the Culper code. That code utilized random letters and numbers that would appear to be nonsense to anyone who did not have the cipher. These letters did not fit that description. The next spy tactic on her list was invisible ink. Annie thought this tactic unlikely, merely because of the letters’ structure. If the writer had been using invisible ink there would be no reason for the disjointed nature of the letters. Still, she could not be one-hundred percent sure that was not the case, so she scribbled a question mark next to it.
Quickly she crossed off two more tactics: intercepted letters and hidden letters. If the letters had been intercepted their messages would be clear. The same would be true with hidden letters. The only tactic that was left was a British spy tactic known as masked letters. These letters were written in such a way that the true message would be defined by a shape. Spies would often create stencils then write the coded message inside. Once they were done they would remove the stencil and write around it, incorporating everyday occurrences to disguise their code. Annie believed this was the most likely tactic that had been used on the letters. The only thing she had left to do was to determine the shape that was used, something that was far easier said than done.
Hunkering down for a long night, Annie pulled out a few blank sheets of notebook paper and created known stencil shapes from the time period. When she completed a stencil she placed it on top of the letter then wrote the words that were displayed inside it. One hour later she had a stack of stencils and the messages that were contained within them.
She perused each stenciled copy, hoping that one would jump out at her. None did. She had figured that once she had transcribed the letters only one would make any sense. Unfortunately that was not the case. Each letter she looked at was utter nonsense. Exasperated, Annie searched through the folio again, hoping to find a missed pocket that contained the mystery stencil. Her search turned up nothing. She contemplated other places that it could be. Some of the furniture in the home dated back to its construction. Perhaps there were hidden compartments that hid the cipher.
Leaping up from her chair, Annie searched each antique item of furniture in the house, which was no small feat in itself. The search took several hours and turned up nothing. She wracked her brain, trying to decide where else to look. The only plausible place she hadn’t searched was the attic. Trudging back up the stairs, Annie made her way to the attic. She searched the jumble of furniture first. Each time she found nothing. As a last resort, she made her way over to the trunk that she had found the folio in. It was a long shot. Annie highly doubted that someone would leave a cipher so close to the items that they were meant to decode. It would be highly risky, especially if the letters were to fall into enemy hands.
Carefully, she pulled items out of the trunk, inspecting each one closely, each time finding nothing. Once the trunk was empty, she felt along for any indication of a false wall or hidden compartment. Her search was fruitless. Highly discouraged and utterly exhausted, Annie gave up her search. She haphazardly stuffed the items back in the trunk. As she stood up she noticed the watch lying next to the trunk. She had forgotten all about it. Carefully, she picked it up and inspected it. The watch was on the larger side of the spectrum for a pocket watch. The detailed scrolling around the edges indicated that whomever bought this particular watch was relatively well off. She opened the lid and re-read the inscription:
No arrangement of words
Can express my feelings for you.
I will remain yours
Through all time.
All my love. A.
The wording of the inscription struck Annie as odd and vaguely cryptic. Why would someone use the phrase “arrangement of words” instead of the more common “No words?” Usually watch inscriptions contained some sort of date of significance such as an anniversary or birthday. Other times they had generic messages of love or other feelings. While this inscription was personal in nature, the wording of it made no sense.
Intrigued, Annie took a closer inspection of the watch. She turned it over in her hands, feeling for some sort of abnormality in its construction. Her fingers squeezed, tapped, and pushed along the various surfaces. When she pushed on the back of the watch she was surprised to hear a faint pop. Eagerly, she flipped over the watch and opened the false back. Inside was a folded up sheet of paper. Carefully she pulled the sheet out and unfolded it, simultaneously shoving the watch in the small pocket of her boxer shorts. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw that it was in fact a cipher. With a shout of joy, Annie raced from the attic and ran towards her room, not noticing the watch as it fell out of her pocket.
Once in her room she carefully placed the cipher over the first letter. What she read made her skin turn white and her blood run cold. She had expected one of many things, but not this. Her mind full of fear, Annie sat down at the desk and re-read the message:
Annie, if you are reading this, then the time
has come for your journey to begin.
Your actions in the next few months
are essential in determining the fate of this great nation.
Each of these letters will guide you on your journey.
It is essential that you complete the task set before you.
These letters are not meant to be read all at once.
It is important that you read these letters on the
date indicated. Do not read ahead!
Ignoring this action will result in devastating
effects for your country as well as you.
If you do not complete this task,
the world as you know it will cease to exist.
Annie re-read the message over and over again. The rational side of her wanted to believe that this was just some great coincidence. But the content of the message as well as the words that her grandfather had placed in his will caused her to doubt that was the case. The warning at the end of the encrypted message made her feel as if the author were speaking directly to her.
Annie carefully considered her grandfather’s words. Inside this house many secrets and discoveries are left to be uncovered and Annie is the perfect person to decipher the mysteries it holds. Her grandfather never, in her experience, said or wrote anything without a purpose. Those words, while cryptic at the time, had a specific meaning. She had been puzzled over them for the last two days. Now she wondered if she had discovered their meaning.
By the time Annie finished deciphering the first letter the sun had already started it ascent. She checked the time, shocked to see that it was half after eight in the morning. Reluctantly, Annie put the notes away and decided to get a few hours rest. Before climbing into her bed she checked the date of the next letter. It was dated July 24, 1780, which meant she would have to wait until tomorrow to read it. Keeping that in mind she made her plans for the day. First she would take a short nap, go to the grocery store, call her parents, eat dinner, then watch a movie or read. By then it should be midnight and she could read the letter. Satisfied with her plan, Annie closed the curtains, turned off the desk lamp, then crawled into bed. She was asleep moments later.