“You get the strangest deliveries,” Watson says, standing over me as I sit at the small dining table in the sitting room. From his vantage point, he has an unobstructed view of the letter Anne just brought up with lunch. “It’s nothing but a string of numbers and a few odd letters.”
“But absolutely fascinating, all the same.” I reach for the butter dish to spread a swipe onto a piece of fried bread as Watson takes his chair opposite me.
It is an otherwise dull and uneventful day, the third in a series of the same. At least the weather has decided to be warm and relatively pleasant, so escaping the drudgery of the quiet flat is possible. While that provides a lovely view, it only holds my attention for awhile. Wandering the Natural History Museum only occupies me so long. Without proper stimulation, boredom has begun to settle in, bringing an increasing restlessness with it.
And then came the letter.
“Never found numbers all that interesting, myself. Mathematics were never my strong suit.”
“Hence why a doctor should always have a nurse nearby to double-check his sums when doling out medication.” Anne appears with a second plate of bread and sliced meat and cheese, which she sets in front of Watson with a distinct, annoyed thud. There is a tension there of late – a strain between tenant and landlady that began the night of the St. Simon incident. The night of the bath intrusion, more precisely, and my delayed departure from it.
“We would be soundly lost without you all. As Holmes and I would be without you.”
Anne makes a sound best described as a “harumph,” and departs. Not for long, of course. She has taken to spending as much of her days as she can working in the sitting room, claiming the couch as her own to knit, sew, answer correspondence, plan meals, or do the household budgeting. If she could manage the washing up and cooking from that spot, she would never leave it. She is, by all appearances, determined that Watson and I are never, ever, alone together again.
Over dinner the night before, I had complained to Mycroft of Anne’s latest habit. He laughed. “Can you truly blame her? It’s never been wholly proper, Charlotte, and seems less so now.”
“I am a grown woman, far beyond the need for a nanny,” I said. I may have stomped a foot for emphasis as well.
“A grown woman you may be, but the doctor is a grown man as well, and throwing those two things together, alone, rarely remains uncomplicated for long.”
“Depending on the criteria required to obtain that classification, said grown woman and grown man may be looking forward to a bit of complication.”
The comment had earned me one of Mycroft’s patented knowing looks. “Just be careful, sister-mine, that eviction doesn’t become one of the doctor’s particular complications.”
“Is it a problem?” Watson asks, redrawing my attention.
“The message. Is it possibly just a very long and awkwardly arranged computation?”
“I don’t think so.” I set the paper on the table, turning it so it is easily readable for Watson. “It lacks any of the proper symbols to mark it as an equation, even a strange one. There are punctation marks, though, which indicate sentence structure. And see this odd bit here?” I point to the lower left corner with the butter knife, leaving a greasy smear behind. “’TSaAoS, Erichsen, 1857.’ Seems a strange note, don’t you think?”
“The whole thing is strange to me,” he says. “Could it be a signature and date?”
I laugh. I can’t help it. “Would indicate a very delayed post, for starters, based on that date. And the name is printed, not signed. That fact alone tells me nearly everything I need to know about the author.”
Watson scoffs. “That small detail tells you that much?”
“There are no small details. Even the tiniest is significant when viewed in the right light.” I take a bite of meat before pressing on. “The fact the author chose to print the message instead of merely writing it indicates an attempt to disguise themselves.”
“An easy enough conclusion.” Watson nods and works on a bite of bread and meat. “But surely that is the only hint to be gleaned from the choice of writing style.”
“It could be assumed as such, and if I were a simpler person I might agree. But it’s a mistake to do so.” I pull the letter back around so it faces me. “The only reason someone would go to the trouble of disguising their handwriting is that they think the person they intend to read it would recognize it otherwise. Thus, I can conclude that the author of this cryptic correspondence is someone I know. And that I know well enough to have reason to have knowledge of their handwriting style and recognize it at a glance.”
“That narrows the suspect pool a bit, doesn’t it?”
“Indeed.” I layer the remaining meat and cheese on the buttered fried bread and take a thoughtful bite. “I have been well-acquainted with Anne’s and Mycroft’s for some time. Yours has become quite familiar to me as well. I am learning the peculiarities of Fi’s still. I know no one else’s well enough, I’d say, to identify them at a glance without another sample to compare it to.”
Watson’s left eyebrow ticks and a corner of his mouth twitches in an attempt to suppress a smile. “Can only be one of those closest to you, then?”
“Yes. Of course, why any of you would feel the need to send me such an odd note…” I look at the notation in the corner again, head canting as I process the purpose of it. “You know, I think I know what part of this means. I do believe that this,” I say, pointing to that corner, “refers to a book.” I push back from the table and spring to my feet, making a quick path to the book shelves surrounding Watson’s tidy desk. “Are these organized alphabetically by title, author, or subject? I never remember which system you prefer.”
“Because you refuse to utilize any system of your own at all. By title, for the record.” He mutters the last before rising to follow me. “Please don’t make a mess, Holmes. I just got it all sorted to rights after the last time you went digging about.”
“Pish. You fuss far too much, doctor.” My fingers glide over the spines of the collected books as I scan their titles, searching for something that matches the initials by the listed author. On the second to last shelf I find my prey – The Science and Art of Surgery. Upon opening it, I discover the author, one John Erichsen, penned this particular edition in September of 1857. “Isn’t this an extraordinary coincidence, you possessing the book that most likely serves as the key to this strange message?”
“Or whomever wrote it did a quick scan of the books available here and chose one that seemed unlikely to be an obvious choice?”
“Well. We’ll see, won’t we?” I take the book back to the table and splay it open beside the note. “I think it’s safe to assume that the first number in the pairing refers to a page, given that a few of these entries feature a V that likely indicates the existence of a preface. That would mean the second number probably references a certain word upon that page. Given that…could you hand me a pencil, doctor?”
Watson produces the requisite writing utensil and I set about scanning the indicated pages and counting words, jotting them on a piece of scrap I also grabbed from his desk. When I have the last of them down, I sit back in my chair and scan the collection of words that I jotted down automatically and without initial comprehension:
My affections are not practical, yet they are increasing. I think of nothing but the time we embraced. I beg the reader operates in a similar manner. It is my first and most favorable wish. Diligently, your doctor.
When I look up from the paper, Watson is watching me with open expectation and the slightest hint of fear. I imagine a thin filament stretching between Watson’s heart and this piece of paper. The wrong word may sever it and shatter the former without doing the slightest damage to the latter. The only option, then, is a nonverbal response; I vacate my seat once more, this time to approach his. He continues to wear that slightly terrified look until I lean in and kiss it away. It is a far cry from the shy attempt in his office. I’ve learned a little boldness since then, taught at his hands – lips, technically, I suppose – and returned to him now. It’s his turn to be left breathless.
“Only you would send me a coded love letter written from a surgery text,” I say when the need for a pause arises. I don’t give him a chance to respond yet, stealing another before he can answer. His arm slides around me, his hand on my hip. I am highly aware of the placement of each of the fingers on that hand by weight alone, despite the layers between them and my skin.
He ends the kiss, breathless and glassy-eyed. “Someone had to give you a puzzle to occupy you for a few minutes at least. You were about to go mad from boredom.” I open my mouth to object and he shakes his head. “Don’t deny it. I heard you complain to the newspaper boy yesterday that there aren’t any decent murders in the city these days.”
“Well there aren’t.” I pout. A smile tugs at one corner, ruining, I’m sure, the effect. “If Anne had half an idea what that note says, she’d be livid, I think.”
“More reason it had to be a cipher.”
“Indeed.” I pull away, as reluctant to complete the action as Watson is disappointed that I do. I reach for the decoded note and the volume, wadding up the former and carrying it to the fireplace. One touch from a match and the whole thing is ash in a moment. Then I replace the book from whence I took it. “More reason to ensure she can’t ever discover the key. It leaves us a perfect means for communicating beyond her reach.”
I settle once more in my chair just a moment before Anne returns, her quilting basket over her arm. She looks toward the table, a searching glance, examining the scene for clues of our misbehavior. “Any luck with the odd delivery?”
I shake my head. “Not a single clue. I may be working on this one a while.”
“Someone has managed to stump you? I’m shocked.” As she makes herself comfortable on the couch and starts digging out her pieces of fabric, I quietly tear the corner identifying the book from the page. Anne is a clever woman; she might figure out the reference, given half a chance. “Don’t let me interrupt whatever you two may have been discussing.”
Watson looks at his watch and stands, dabbing his mouth with his napkin as he does. “I actually have patients imminent, so I bid you two ladies adieu. Good luck with your mystery, Holmes.”
“And you with your medical complaints, doctor.”
Anne watches Watson leave, then turns her attention to me. I take another bite of my lunch and try not to smile.
(Author’s note: I actually found a copy of Erichsen’s 1857 edition of The Science and Art of Surgery online and made sure all the words necessary appeared in it. Because I’m that kind of thorough/crazy. The only word I needed that I couldn’t find was “you”; thankfully, Erichsen used “the reader” twice in the course of the preface, and that worked well enough.)
4 thoughts on “The Erichson Cipher”
Oh. My. Lord. This. Was. Amazing.
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Yes, this should tide me over until there’s Imzadi fic.
Diana, I totally love you for a) using a real book and b) double-checking the cipher.
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It’s always nice to be loved for one’s eccentricities.
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By which you mean awesomenesses.