creating pandemic peril in a whimsical world
Editor Barbara J. Becker
LINGUISTIC FINGERPRINTS EDITION: 2020
Compilation copyright ©2020: Barbara J. Becker
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover Photo: courtesy Pat Stefanchuk. Photographer Kevin Dennis
Oprah Winfrey 2002. O Magazine.
Worry is a misuse of imagination.
BARBARA J. BECKER writes and edits stories. She lives in Winnipeg. Recent works are the Measured Words trilogy, and assorted articles to the Manitoba Genealogical Society magazine, Generations, editor David Farmer. Barbara wrote the same introduction to all of the Covid Caper stories and then let them happen.
JACK FRANCIS grew up in St. James – Assiniboia, Winnipeg. His exploits are recounted in his memoir Time Warps. Jack is currently working on a second memoir.
FRANCESS H. BEATTY lives and writes in Winnipeg and has published an anecdote in Reader’s Digest and her short story, Dog Days of Winter in Measured Words: second helpings, and Justice Denied in Measured Words: third course.
ROBERT WOOD originally from rural Saskatchewan, lives and writes in Winnipeg. His story, Ice Jumpers, received Honourable Mention in the 2012 Winnipeg Free Press/Writers Collective non-fiction contest, and was published in the Free Press. His short story, Forbidden Fruit, was published in Measured Words: third course.
The steps did not go straight up. There was a curve, ever so slight, to the right. You had to place your foot squarely in the center. The edges collected moss and did not offer a solid footing. The air was damp and heavy to breath. The light from a single torch ricocheted off the stone wall, swirling and dancing in the surrounding gloom. A splayed hand tapped the stair wall for purchase keeping time to the roll of numbers off the tongue. …twenty-seven…twenty-eight…twenty-nine…thirty… thirty-one…thirty-two…. The landing was small and rectangular – flat grey slate, barely large enough for a small person. Rock walls formed two sides with a solid heavy wood door directly ahead. An ornate serpent handle controlled a slotted closure. With a heavy pull the door swung open. A further five steps and it was done. The door slammed shut.
Isabel wondered why she always counted the thirty-two steps that led up the hillside toward the basement of the immense old manor house. Something deep in my mind must cause it, she thought. An idle thought made her wonder how many hundreds of steps the huge old place possessed. For the moment she put that question aside as more important things required her attention.
She shivered from the chilly underground air and the scariness of being all alone in almost total darkness. She was calm, though, had her wits about her. She didn’t think she’d been followed, but caution dictated she wait briefly to be sure. She knew her major asset was that no one knew she was familiar with the area.
After five minutes, she moved, reaching back to silently twist a deadbolt into place. Now, no one else could get in. She was in a space a few feet wide, with rock walls on both sides, a thick timber door behind, and five steps to another thick door ahead. By the fading light of the electric torch, she located the slot in the wall. Bending over, she put her hand in and extracted a key. Fumbling in the dimness, she put the key into the inner door, turned it, and inched forward into a wine cellar, lit dimly by her torch. No noise penetrated there, and none was produced.
Walking softly among the endless racks of bottles, Isabel searched for evidence of other recent visitors, but all the racks were full, as though none of the wine was ever consumed. The layer of dust on many bottles looked like the accumulation of decades. The cellar was in two parts, and the smaller part, which she now searched, looked more used, more likely to be frequented, and more likely to have recent vintages. She searched diligently, but the constantly fading light from the torch made it pointless. She would have to wait for daylight, still hours away, when feeble light from the soggy sky would percolate through the low set windows, recessed in the thick old walls.
A few chairs were scattered around, so she sat down to nap. She was awakened at dawn by the sound of two men talking as they entered the wine cellar. They were at the far end from her, so she tiptoed across the sandy floor, back into the entry passage, closing and locking the door behind her. The door was heavy, but not soundproof, so she could hear them talking.
“Now, Bill,” said one, “we can’t take old Fred too seriously. What did he see or, more likely, imagine he saw?”
“Well, he says he seen a dim light going up the steps at the back, about 3:30 AM, then later, there was a bit of light visible here in the wine cellar. It was hard to see ‘cause these windows are so low set in the thick wall, and he was on higher ground.”
“What was he doing up in the middle of the night, at his age?”
“Well, Nigel, he’s on the sky patrol, watching to see if there’s any bombers on their way to London.”
“Doesn’t the radar system take care of that?”
“Mostly, but there can be strays or some lose their way.”
“Bill, do you think he’s just imagining things?”
“Could be. He didn’t think it was intruders at first. Actually, thought it might be a ghost. After all, this place is over six hundred years old, and this space, down here, used to have dungeons. People died down here in Cromwell’s day - you know, in the Civil War.”
“Oh, bloody hell, Bill! A ghost!” Nigel was apoplectic. “I was got out of bed at an ungodly hour because of some senile lunatic’s imagination! Can you believe, in this day and age, in the year of our Lord 1941, that people still believe in hauntings?”
“Well, Nigel, I do,” Bill said firmly, “though I’m not saying this was a ghost that Fred saw. But if it’s not a ghost, what do you think he saw?”
“Bill, there was a small thunderstorm in the night. Could’ve been light from that; or maybe a poacher. But I’ll tell you what’s likeliest. A soldier home on leave was walking with his sweetie and having hugs and kisses. And since it was so dark, they naturally had an electric torch.”
“What about the light Fred saw inside here?’
“Maybe they came in. There’s a door back there. I’ve seen it.”
“Nigel, I don’t think that door has been opened in my lifetime, and I’m forty-seven. It’s probably all spiders and lizards behind that door. Bad enough in here.”
“Imagination, lightning, hauntings, whatever. I don’t really care what Fred saw. I’m going home to have breakfast. Uh, is the squire in residence these days?”
“The place is empty, at the moment. Everybody’s in the services, or gone to a war factory, or helping grow food. Her ladyship is in Cardiff, rolling bandages. So, there’s just me; I’m the groundskeeper, gamekeeper and Jack of all trades – and I live down in the village.”
They went out. Isabel breathed several sighs of relief. That had been a bit of a close call, but she knew now that she could work undisturbed throughout the day. Also, that the passageway she had come in by was considered unusable and unlikely to be checked.
She had food with her, so she went into a workroom to have breakfast. There was water in the taps, which she let run slowly for several minutes, then had a drink. Ah, she said to herself, the place still has excellent water. What it lacked was a water closet, but the sand floor in an adjacent workroom sufficed.
fter her brief meal, she resumed her search in the main area of the wine cellar, noting that the dim, but consistent, light was easier to search by than the fading torch of a few hours ago. It took over an hour of careful inspection before she noticed one rack slightly out of line with the others. Eureka! This could be it. The rack moved surprisingly easily; the lack of gurgles indicated the bottles were empty. She edged it aside and, with growing excitement, noted the rectangle of churned up dirt and sand, about six feet long, and three feet wide. She was suddenly both sad, and ecstatic, saying to herself, Well, now I know where they buried poor old Harold.
Poor Harold; he had learned too much. He had to be silenced.
It was Harold, the long time butler of the manor house, who had got Isabel snooping there in the first place. At first he smuggled her in, and soon showed her how to get in on her own.
He told her of overhearing short wave conversations – some of it in a foreign language, he thought. On a recent foray into the wine cellar it didn’t take her long to find the shortwave radio hidden in a large wooden wine barrel.
Now she was looking for evidence, of what, she wondered, maybe espionage.
Well, what could be finer than a nice red wine with her lunch? So she selected a bottle from a rack and with the always handy Swiss army knife in her shoulder bag was able to remove the cork easily. A few tentative sips were appreciated. Then a few good swigs followed.
And what to her wondering eyes should appear, but a rolled up red plastic sheet with rows of numbers on it. She quickly wiped it dry with facial tissues and stuffed it into her shoulder bag. And now to make her getaway. In her excitement at finding what she was sure was a coded message, she was eager to leave, but knew she had to wait for a time that she had learned to be safe to get out. Her plan was to get the wine bottle find as quickly as possible to her friend Jeffry at the War Office.
Once safely away from the manor, Isabel lost no time in getting to Jeffry. She was worried that the simplicity of the numbered sheet would make it unimportant or maybe in an unbreakable code. So she was surprised to see Jeffry quickly begin jotting down notes.
“That was the easiest code break in my memory,” Jeffry told her.
“Really? How so?”
“Each number simply stands for a letter. There are 26 letters in the alphabet and it was quickly obvious to me that there are no numbers higher than 26 in this message,” Jeffry explained. After that it was simply a matter of figuring out the letter combinations and patterns, shapes and repeats. This is a schedule for wireless short wave radio contacts.”
Isabel asked him to make a copy so she could get it back into a bottle of wine and back on the rack in the wine cellar of the manor. Done, he told her, and added a request for her to check out more bottles, carefully, and see what else she could find.
“Will do,” she responded, and quickly and carefully stuffed the coded sheet into her shoulder bag, and headed for the door.
Harold’s directions got her back into the mansion and into the wine cellar in record fast time in spite of the difficult terrain travelled.
Isabel returned the plastic code sheet to the wine bottle and refilled it with red wine from another bottle which yielded another plastic sheet.
“Oh wow! Now I’ll have to get this to Jeffry for decoding, too,” she yelped.
The timetable that Jeffry had decoded made it easier for Isobel to organize her comings and goings into the wine cellar. It was unlikely she would encounter the culprit between scheduled radio communications. The enemy must surely be equally wary of running into someone during clandestine short-wave contacts in the cellar. The information gave her confidence that she would have more time to search further, undisturbed.
She pondered who among the people in the nearby village would be a Natzi German spy and how they had chosen this particular manor to coordinate their operations.
The manor was within easy proximity to Bletchey Park where the War office housed its top-secret decoding facility. Isabel worried that the manor’s strategic location may have been the very reason it was chosen. Everyone working for the British had been scrupulously vetted and sworn to secrecy. Perhaps it was simply a coincidence, but it was a worrisome thought.
She made her way back carrying the new document in her bag with the intention of broaching her concerns with Jeffry. In her hurry, she stumbled along the uneven terrain and then, slowed her pace. It had been a long day and she was tired. It gave her time to think more clearly; she changed her mind. After all, Jeffry was a decoder, not an agent, and would be the wrong person with whom to raise a security breach. But she was not privy to the chain of command and it was getting late.
She planned to make some discrete enquiries the next time she had an opportunity to talk to the Officer who had recruited her on Harold's recommendation. But she could not shake the feeling that to delay might be a devastating mistake. Isabel decided to make an effort to contact someone in charge as soon as possible even if it meant a breach of protocol.
She bit her lip, sat down on a nearby log, and mulled over her plan. It was crucial to know the identity of the German Agent who had been making forays into the manor to relay his information by radio to the enemy. She still had one incriminating document to return, but now knew, that it was unlikely anyone would miss it until the next scheduled contact which was two days away.
As she mulled over her options and the best way to approach the matter, Isabel had an aha moment. Jeffry had given her a rundown of the schedule; it would help with her plan for the next visit to the catacombs beneath the manor to be without the danger of encountering the Nazi informant. It had been easy to commit the schedule to memory because it followed a predictable pattern. She was now in a position to carry out a heroic plan.
Knowing when to expect the village traitor, she decided that, instead of avoiding an encounter, she would orchestrate one. She would let herself in, in the early evening
before the next scheduled date and lie in wait in the hope of recognizing the individual who was doing the spying. She thought of hiding in the shadows near the rack of wine where she first discovered the coded messages. But on second thought, anyone with a torch or any source of light and her presence would be spotted.
She thought of another better plan and decided, instead, on a bolder move. If she were to be detected in hiding, it would put her under immediate suspicion and probably in danger of losing her life. If they met in full view, she would be able to feign a legitimate reason for being there. An unabashed encounter would give her an excuse to ask questions and feign ignorance. Because she had no way of knowing the exact time her target would show up – she guessed it would be under the cover of darkness – she would need to work out a believable ruse for being there.
Isabel continued her trek back to the War office with the newly retrieved, encrypted message for Jeffry and a daring new mission in mind, for herself--to plot and...execute. Should she seek permission, or simply forge ahead on her own?
The new message was much longer than the first. On the train to London, Isabel considered whether Jeffry was the best person to take it to. She thought him a very nice chap, perhaps a romantic consideration in other circumstances, but this was do, or die, wartime, and the coded messages were not a game; they were a battlefront. Crucial results might hinge on them; untold numbers of lives might be in the balance. After long pondering, she decided she would have to tell Jeffry what she was, and what she was up to. Together, they could pass it up the chain of command to where the important decisions got made, and important actions set in motion.
It took Jeffry hours to decode it, then translate it into English. Isabel cruised the nearly empty shops, seeing nothing to tempt her to spend any of her meager cash. When she returned, Jeffry seemed oddly amused, despite the scary message he had deciphered. This message, he said, was a set of orders.
“It’s for an agent here to create chaos at Portsmouth naval base by setting a batch of huge fires with various incendiaries already in his possession. There will be an air raid at the same time. The purpose of the raid and the arson is to cause the fleet to withdraw to sea, supposedly out of harm’s way. Then, while the ships are silhouetted against the flames of the city, a pack of waiting U-boats will sink everything in sight. There’s a lot of details, but that’s the gist of it.”
Isabel was aghast. “We’ve got to alert the Admiralty, the police, the fire departments … why are you grinning? This isn’t funny.” She was shrieking in panic, while Jeffry continued to grin.
“Well, Isabel, it’s a hoax. I’m not sure whose, but I know it’s a hoax.”
“How do you know?” she demanded.
“First, no important message would be sent in such a simple code. Second, anyone planning such an operation wouldn’t tell the agent everything, for fear of discovery, or leaks. Third, even if this was a surprise assault, it wouldn’t succeed. Because of the importance of the naval base, the area is very heavily defended. Few planes would get through to inflict damage. If the fleet did withdraw to sea, all craft would be armed to the teeth and on maximum alert. Subs would get chewed up and spit out. Erich and Fat Hermann know all that, so they wouldn’t even try.”
“So, who are Erich and Herman?”
“Erich Raeder heads up the Kriegsmarine – the Navy – and Fat Hermann Goering runs the Luftwaffe – the Air Force.”
“Oh, yeah. I knew that. Just didn’t think of it. But whose hoax is it? And why, in the middle of the war, would they bother with the trouble and expense?”
“Well, if it’s the Germans, it could be to see if we’re on our toes enough to catch this little jab at our defenses, or to see if we react by taking steps to give the naval base extra protection. Or they may just want us to run around on some fool’s errand, getting all hot and bothered and wasting resources.”
Isabel couldn’t imagine it being anyone except the Germans, but she asked anyway; “Well, if it’s not the Germans, then who and why?”
“Our guys,” Jeffry told her, “Also checking to see if all of our security people are on their toes. Maybe also checking to see who understands German and might be a possible sympathizer, even a traitor.”
“Not that I think you’re a sympathizer,” Isabel told him, “but how did you learn German?”
“In school, but also travelling around Europe with my Dad. He’s an engineer with an international firm. All quite above board.”
“Oh, of course, of course.” She didn’t apologize, as her question had seemed so legitimate. “Now, I can understand that sort of stuff about them trying to fool us or our guys checking on our security, but what does either of those have to do with Harold Watt being buried in the sand of the wine cellar at Arlington Manor?”
Jeffry gaped, moved his mouth but emitted no sound for many seconds, then said, “What? Harold? Buried? Like dead and buried? “
“Exactly! Harold, the butler forever at Arlington Manor. He told me he had suspicions about someone up to no good. When I went to check on things, I found his grave under a big wine rack, not far from the wine barrel where I discovered a two way short wave radio.”
Jeffry was deeply shocked. He had known Harold, if not well, at least for a long time. Like Isabel, he had grown up in the area and had known Harold as a nice chap of his parents’ generation – someone liked by everyone. He wondered who would kill Harold? And why? So he asked Isabel. She pondered his questions for a few minutes, then said, “Jeffry, it’s time to come clean with you. I’m not just a WREN on leave. That’s only a cover occupation. I’m actually part of the Security Service. We’re known semi-officially as MI5, to distinguish us from MI6, which is Military Intelligence. MI6 operates externally, gathers intelligence both military and civilian for use in the war effort. We in MI5 operate internally to discover and deal with spies, sympathizers and hostile foreign agents of various sorts.”
“So how did you get to be working for Security?” asked Jeffry. “I don’t remember you as being all that adventurous.”
“Well, I worked at the manor in my teens, and got to know it, and Harold, pretty well. He often told me he’d been in military intelligence in the 1914 to ’18 war, so it was no surprise when MI5 reactivated him to keep an eye on this area. They apparently had suspicions of enemy activity. He then recruited me, and I took the training. This isn’t the only locale I’ve worked in, but given my familiarity with the region and people, I was an obvious choice.” She said nothing about protecting the Bletchley Park decoding facility. Its location and function were absolute top secret, but she thought her assignment might relate to that. She was one of the few people outside the facility to know it existed. It would be treason to talk about it.
Jeffry digested all this information for a few minutes, then said, a little haltingly, “Well, I ... uh ... guess, I’ve also got some coming clean to do, too.”
“Yes. As you know, I’m a decoder for the War Office. Some of the overseas stuff I handle is pretty high level, so that I can’t ever talk about it. Battles, strategies, troop movements, plans, directives to generals, military requisitions, even civil service and ration regulations can have a lot of information wrung out of them. This is not to brag, but to point out that I’ve got clearances similar to yours and similar access to high ranking ears. I think we should join forces to kick this case up the chain of command to solve Harold’s murder, nab whoever is behind the radio transmissions, and keep the country safe.”
Isabel agreed, but with the feeling that they weren’t quite equal partners; Jeffry was taking over her case, even if that wasn’t his intention.
Oblivious to her concern, he now added complexity to the situation. “We should consider we may be dealing with two separate, mostly unrelated cases. Whosever’s hoax it is would be unlikely to kill Harold and draw attention to themselves, so his death may be caused by someone else. Does that sound reasonable?”
“Very reasonable,” she agreed, then asked, a bit sardonically, “Okay, Mr. Jeffry Grant, what is the first thing we should do in this endeavour?”
“For the moment, I’m going to sit at my desk doing my usual job. You will take the train back to Little Morton village, get that sheet of plastic with the message on it back into the wine bottle. Then you will sleep soundly for many hours, till early morning. In the morning, you will take the train back here – to London – and we will begin the process of unraveling this case.”
Isabel awoke with a start.
Something about the wine cellar had been nagging at her, was stuck in the back of her mind. Now, suddenly, it popped up. What was it all about, those two men she had overheard arguing in the next room during one of her wine cellar visits? Now it all came rushing back to her as she got out of bed.
Bill, the groundskeeper and jack-of-all -things around the aging mansion, was telling Nigel about Fred seeing the odd lights in the night in the woods leading up to the back of the building and dim signs of light in the wine cellar window slit. Nigel was insisting old Fred, at his very old age, and well known for his failing eyes, was seeing things, but Bill continued to fret.
Isabel was now also fretting for she had no doubt old Fred was right and she was afraid her visits to the wine cellar were the source of his sightings. But then she had second thoughts because of the short wave radio activity in the wine cellar which Jeffry had discovered in those coded messages she had found in wine bottles. She would have to pay a visit to Fred, in his hut in the nearby village, and find out who else he might have told about his light sightings. Fred is a neighbour of Bill’s, so she could check with him too, she thought, hoping to find them both home.
After a quick breakfast of bangers and tea, Isabel phoned Fred and finding him home caught the bus that had stops in the nearby village. A knock on Fred’s door got no response. Then she recalled about his poor hearing, as well as poor eyesight, and hammered hard on his door.
Fred opened the door and his big smile showed his pleasure at having a visitor. Isabel declined his offer of tea and crumpets, and quickly grilled him about Bill and Nigel, and anyone and everyone he had told about his claims of mysterious lights at the mansion.
Fred was tempted to weave a tale of telling many in order to keep her visit there longer, but being a lifelong honest person, told her the only person he discussed it with was Bill, the mansion handyman.
On the bus back home Isabel though it over. So that’s Bill and Nigel, Isabel said to herself as she pondered the clues. I can’t see Bill as being anything but what he is, the handyman, but Nigel, there’s a different cup of tea, altogether, she thought, and why was he so insistent that Fred was seeing things?
Nigel, she knew, was a long time friend and traveling companion of the squire and his family. Before the war, Nigel was sure to accompany the squire whenever he was in the west Europe countries, especially Germany and France.
It is time to check with Jeffry again. Maybe he has some information about Nigel that could be helpful, Isabel thought. She trusted Jeffry; she had to trust Jeffry, she now realized and accepted, because he was helpful so far, without reservations.
Talking to Fred was revealing. Isobel was convinced that he had seen the lights and it worried her that he was freely, even eagerly, passing out the information. Perhaps, he was just an old man wanting to remain relevant and important in the community, especially to Nigel. Questioning Bill would not be a wise idea. He might become suspicious and wonder why she was interested in what he and Nigel had discussed in the cellar, and how she had known about their conversation that morning.
She decided that Jeffrey would be a better source for some answers. After a careful review, she realized that the lights Fred had seen did not coincide with times that she was there. There was only one answer; it must have been someone working with the Nazis. There might be others involved: those who had left messages in the wine bottles; perhaps, people involved with the radio communications.
It worried her that Nigel seemed eager to discredit Fred and make him out to be nothing more than an imaginative old fool. Was Bill covering up when he intimated that poor old Fred believed in ghosts.
Jeffry was her main contact, but she needed to corroborate some of the information he had given her. He told her to replace the decoy paper he had decoded and go home for a "good night's sleep." That seemed a little presumptuous – why would he want her to be out of the way that night? She pondered the idea and wondered if she was over-thinking things. If she decided to overstep Jeffry's authority and approach one of the others working on the team at the War Office, he might get wind of it and that would ruin everything; they needed to trust each other.
This was becoming more complicated as time went on. It occurred to her that it was surprising that Jeffry had not known of Harold's death. That was another loose end that troubled her deeply. Was it being kept secret for a reason? Why had she not been warned to keep that bit of information to herself when Harold`s disappearance was discovered. At this point, she felt there was no one she could really trust. With the exception of, perhaps, poor old Fred.
She entertained the idea that Fred, might be playing the fool to keep everyone off his trail. Maybe he dropped tidbits of information to get a reaction from his confidants and catch them in an unguarded moment. Was he actually the best undercover agent, so far.
She decided that she would need to avoid visits to the Manor during the scheduled dates that Jeffry had decoded. It would be dangerous to encounter individuals responsible for the clandestine activities at the Manor; they would not hesitate to kill. She wondered how Harold had been found out and eliminated; he was a highly respected member of the War Team. She itched to unmask a traitor from the village, if there was such a one among the people they trusted. It was tempting because she was privy to the times Nazi operatives would be expected at the Manor.
If only she had someone more experienced to consult who would be capable of approaching others whose identities were unknown to her. A seasoned agent would know what to do and how to approach a suspect without detection. She would be willing to take a calculated risk to confront one of them, but, on her own, she felt at a loss.
Her next move could be the catalyst to a dangerous plot, or an opportunity lost if no one at the War Office was privy to her suspicions. Who could she trust to take her seriously and have the experience to act judiciously?
TO BE CONTINUED …