I stepped carefully, not wanting to disturb the body lying on the sidewalk, and certainly not wanting to slip and fall in its guts in my good heels. An elderly man sat under a nearby tree, demonstrating the proper way to tie a noose to a crowd of boys.

They waved at me as I pulled my mail out of the box. One of the boys jumped up and dragged the unfinished scarecrow out of my path, scattering the rough straw as he did so.

"Stopping by for candy tomorrow night?" I asked him as I headed inside.
"trick or treating's for little kids." He replied, scornfully. "I'm going to a party."
"That's too bad. I bought full size bars for the neighbor kids."
"well, we might go to a FEW houses . . ."

I let myself in and tossed the bills (of course they were bills!) onto the top of the microwave so I could shrug out of my coat. There was an odd sound from among the pile. I froze, remembering the little mail incident from a few months back, when I was investigating a case at a circus. It had taken two trips from the exterminators to finally rid my house of trained fleas. Grabbing a pencil, I began nudging envelopes and postcards around.

One of them didn't move. I nudged harder and it gave, sliding several inches before repeating the odd snap again. It didn't look suspicious. It looked rather like a card. I picked it up, curious about its clinginess to the top of the microwave. Then I slapped it against the side of the appliance. It stuck. Magnets?

The return address only had a hastily scribbled J.B. Suspicious. Curiosity bit. I opened the envelope warily and pulled out a card, featuring a black and white 1960's photo. Inside, it read: 'Birthdays . . . what a perfect time to get down with your bad self.' On the back were two large, thin magnets.

There was no signature, only a long number sequence:


I stared stupidly at the card for a few minutes, as if waiting for something else to magically appear. Then I turned my attention back to the envelope.

I knew now who it was from. My uncle, James Brown, a naval captain, smarter than the average bear. I often accused him of being a spy, he certainly had the knowledge and talent for one. He'd just grin at me and tell me he was nothing more than a common tar.

Problem was, he was dead. Had been, for a while. The circumstances, both at his death and now with his estate, were strange, unusual, complex, and to me, suspicious. He apparently had something to hide, and knowing that I'd be smart enough and cynical enough to BE suspicious, had sent me a coded message from beyond the grave.

Great. Just great. I stuck the card on the refrigerator door and struggled out of my coat, staring at the goofy looking dancers on the front of the card. There was nothing special about it. Just a commercial card. Not even a Hallmark, the cheapskate.

All evening, as I made dinner, cleaned, and cursed the bills and my bank account balance, I kept pausing to stare at the card. What kind of message WAS that? Did the numbers correspond to letters? Was I supposed to add them up and then convert? Turn them upside down and look in a mirror? Maybe they were GPS coordinates, or foreign phone number. What do Swiss bank account numbers look like, anyway? Why the funky dancers? Why the magnets? I'd never seen birthday cards with magnets before. The postal code was local.

I finally settled down to give it a really detailed going-over. The 0s in particular really bothered me, and finally led me to believe that they weren't going to be turned into letters, unless the first word was Nooo, or Arrr! Doubtful.

All right then. I gave up on letters and concentrated on what kind of numbers they could be. GPS coordinates? A quick check online (hooray for Google maps!) dropped me in the Pacific near Japan. Hmm, sunken treasure? Possibly, but why the funky split of numbers? And then that K? Some were really short, while the longest looked like a zip code or something.

Well, why NOT a local zip code? I checked, and it proved to be for Chantilly. Promising. If the second part of that sequence was a zip code, was the first a street address? Back to google!

This time I hit gold. The Chantilly library, whose address gave me the first three numbers in the series. It also made sense of the rest of the numbers, obviously giving me a card catalog number.

At this point, I realized the phone was ringing, and I dove for it. It was Graham, my assistant.

"Did you figure it out?" He asked immediately.
"Yes! But I won't make it to the library until Saturday. Meet me there around 10, I may want your help."
"Um, what?"
"What does the library have to do with jewelry?"
"Jewelry? What does jewelry have to do with Uncle James?"
"Who's Uncle James?" Sensibly, at this point we both stopped.
"You must be on a new case." Graham finally guessed. "I was calling about a current case. The jewelry."
"Oh, THOSE! Yes, I got them back and I'm meeting with Mrs. Stranahan tomorrow. But let me tell you what I got in the mail today!" I quickly explained, and then explained further about my uncle and what I knew of his past.
"I'll be there." Graham promised. "This sounds fun! It's not often you get to play with secret messages."

Saturday morning we made our way through the library until we came to the section indicated in the card.

"Books on codes. I could have used this several days ago." I commented. We soon found the book indicated. Code breaking: a history and exploration, by Rudolf Kippenhahn. As Graham pulled it off the shelf, he knocked the edge against the shelf above it, and I heard a familiar *snap*. Frowning, I ducked down and felt the underside of the shelf. An envelope, held to the shelf with magnets, came away in my hand.

“What the . . .” Graham began. “ Looks like it’s for you.” He added as I turned the envelope to show him the “Elanor” written in big letters on the front. He leaned back casually, glancing over my shoulder, as I checked out the rest of the aisle behind him. No one seemed to notice or care what we were doing. We made our way casually to the checkout desk, and then outside, where we tried not to rush to the car.

Graham’s car was either perfect or pointless for a stakeout. It was a bright rubber-duck-yellow mustang with a modified engine. I often accused him of using the Force when he drove, as he certainly didn’t seem to drive as though his eyes were open. I opened the letter as soon as we were away from the library.

“My Dearest Elanor,” it began,

“This information was too important to simply leave to you in the will. The vultures after my estate would have done whatever it would take to get their hands on it. But you’re the only one I can trust with it. There is a message for you hidden in my house. There’s no way you’ll ever get past the goons who are guarding the house. But, my robot still has the run of the house. You can connect to the robot over the internet at xx.xx.xx.xxx. The goons are used to him by now, and you can use him to search the house. The robot uses a simple text interface, and you can use telnet to talk to him. The port number you connect to is the concatenation of the two digit month and two digit day. The robot is a bit precocious, so don’t be surprised if he challenges you in some way before he’ll follow your instructions. Also, this book is not a clue, but rather it is the key to the message you will find in the house. Good luck: I’m counting on you to solve this puzzle. Fondly, Uncle James”

“What’s it say?” Graham asked, leaning over.
“It says we get to play with robots. Take me to the office. I need to get to a computer with a decent internet connection.”

The robot responded rather quickly once I was connected via Telnet.

Welcome back, Captain Brown!

“The robot thinks you’re the captain.” Graham said. “I guess it doesn’t know he’s dead?”
“I suppose Uncle James was the only one who used this connection.”

I suppose the rumours of your demise have been greatly exaggerated. I have missed having you here.

“Looks like it did know.” I replied. The line of text continued:

There has been a steady stream of goons in and out, searching the house, going through your stuff, and making a general nuisance of themselves.

“That’s bad.”

In your absence, I have been working on your funeral arrangements, but since you're here, it seems that I should get your input.

“Um, what?” Graham scratched his head. “That doesn’t make any sense!”

We have one table left to fill, and five couples to put there. It's an interesting group -- there's a Lieutenant, a Captain, and an Admiral in the Navy, as well as a Doctor, and a Professor, along with their wives. The wives are named Christina, Elisabeth, Jeanette, Jennifer, and Sarah. The husbands are Andrew, Arnold, David, Frederick, and James. Their last names are Crumholtz, Hamilton, Holmes, Rush, and St. John. We need to figure out which couple to put at each of the five places along the table, based on what we know about them.

Professor Crumholtz and his wife always want to sit at the far end of the table, so we should put them in the fifth spot.

Andrew and Jennifer always want to sit at the near end, so we need to put them in the first spot at the table. And despite their last name, they are not big fans of Neil Peart.

Frederick, who went to the Naval Academy, and his wife have to be the center of attention, so let's put them in the middle position at the table. Speaking of the Navy, Andrew was recently promoted after serving for eight years as a Commander. And of course, Elisabeth was always a sucker for a man in dress whites. Neither Elisabeth nor Mr. Holmes want to sit next to the Crumholtz's.

Now it's time for some random trivia... Sarah married the great grandson of the British Consul in Brunei. David got an advanced degree from Baylor University in Dallas. James is 27, and has not been to graduate school. Mr. Hamilton's parents did not name him after an Old Testament leader. Jeanette met her husband at a conference on Nephrology.

So, who goes where?

“It's a challenge entry question!” I said. “Well at least it’s not something stupid like ‘what’s your favorite color’ or ‘what was the name of your best friend in fourth grade?’ This is just a logic puzzle. Easy peasy.”
Graham snorted. “You go right ahead, Ms. Brown. I’ll go get lunch.”

By the time Graham came back with sandwiches, I was finishing up in my answers.

“Here goes nothing.” I told Graham, and hit enter.

Okay! Now we can get to business.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and directed the robot to give me its location.

You are in the main foyer. There is an open doorway to the WEST, a door to the EAST, and stairs in front of you leading UP. Next to the stairs is a hallway leading NORTH to several more doorways.

Over the next several hours, I learned to control the robot’s movements and carefully explored the house. Shocked, I discovered it was occupied by an unknown thug who had broken in and was also searching and/or guarding the house. He was also interfering with the robot, but I was soon able to outsmart him. The robot itself had a strange personality, and at one point, it loftily told me that it was facing a mirror inscribed with 'Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi'. Graham and I laughed at the Harry Potter reference and moved on. Eventually I found a hidden safe, and inside a piece of paper with yet another code. This one said simply:

214-20 185-22 239-38 47-15 81-34

“Another code. Definitely not a GPS coordinate or an address.”
“It’s a book code!” Graham said excitedly. “I just read about that!” He waved the book we had checked out of the library. “You use a book that both the sender and receiver have to write a message. The first number is the page number, the next number is the number of the word on the page.”
“Great. But what book?” We stared blankly at each other for a few minutes, and then I grinned. “The mirror of Erised! I didn’t know my uncle was a JK Rowling fan.”
“Maybe just the robot is.”

I soon had my answer.

Black light secret on letter

“Hey Graham, got a black light?”
“Not since college, why?”
“Then tomorrow, we go shopping.”

I had rather hoped that after-Halloween sales would be easy to find, but strangely, there were no black lights available. We spent much of the day running around random stores, trying to figure out who carried such a thing, and why they grinned at me like that when I asked. Finally, at a Spencer’s in the mall, I ran into some helpful clerks who, after I explained my situation (abbreviated and censored) told me there was a huge black light running over my head and to bring the letter in. Encouraged, I pulled out the letter I had found in the library and turned it over.
“Ohmigod! What IS that?” One of the clerks exclaimed, peering over my shoulder. “Can you read that?”

Click for a pdf copy of the runes

“Runes.” I sighed. “Norse, looks like. Thanks for your help, but I don’t think I can hang around THAT long to translate.”

Fortunately, Graham had had better luck at the Toys R Us, where he’d bought a little spy kit with two black light ink pens with a light on the other end. He’d also bought an action figure from his favorite TV show, a huge water blaster, and two containers of playdoh. I decided not to ask.

By Sunday evening, I had translated the runes. I immediately called Graham and told him where to meet me the next day.

Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the - just kidding - At xx.xx latitude by -xx.xx longitude, visit the grave then go east along the north side of the garden until you find the new stumping ground of the one who was buried then look out across the east lawn and line up the right conifer with the lonely deciduous to see the foundation of his trade and the goal of our quest

The directions led us to Sully Plantation, right by the airport. We wandered carefully around the muddy fields until we ended up at the semi-remote slave cabin, where we continued to wander around, looking for something out of place on that historically accurate 18th century farm. It wasn’t until Graham said, “Hey, did they have concrete blocks back in the seventeen hundreds?” that we found something. I shimmied under the cabin and pulled out a surprisingly light block. It turned out to be fake, and I broke off the painted Styrofoam to expose a sealed box.

Once at home, I opened the box to reveal two items – a book on ‘natural magic’ and a katana. As I admired the workmanship of the sword, Graham flipped through the book, wondering if my uncle had been poisoned.

“Why a Katana?” I asked. “Why not a broadsword, or a rapier, or a scimitar?”
“Had he ever been to Japan?” Graham asked.
“Many times. He had a . . . friend . . . there . . .”
"So our next step is to find your uncle's friend, and a witch?"
"Quite possibly . . ."

To be continued

A Birthday Adventure

In Fall of 2007, I was given, for my birthday, an Adventure. Now, not everyone gets an adventure for their birthday, so I felt quite privileged. This story is an account of what happened as I tried to solve the puzzles, with only a few minor changes to make the story flow better. (It took me forever to find that letter in the library!) I hope you enjoy it!