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The shadow cipher, p.11
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       The Shadow Cipher, p.11

           Laura Ruby
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  “Theo,” said Tess, “slow down. “The last time you got this excited, you trashed the Tower of London.”

  “The Arabs made all their important discoveries in cryptanalysis—they invented it—but this was after they made all sorts of advances in math and statistics and linguistics, after they translated books from Egyptian, Hebrew, Chinese, Roman, Babylonian, Indian, Farsi, and a bunch of other languages.”

  “My people made many, many advances,” said Omar Khayyám, nodding.

  “Up there on the second level are books on medieval secret writing, including books on Mary, Queen of Scots. The archives also have recordings of Navajo code talkers—Windtalkers, some people called them—who used a code based on their language to transmit messages during World War II. The language is so hard to learn, and so few people knew it, that the Japanese couldn’t break it.”

  Imogen Sparks said, “Do you think Theo missed this place?”

  “Nah,” said Jaime. “He’s a cold fish.”

  “I’m going to get our friends here some refreshments. Ray brought some of his famous chocolate chip cookies,” Priya Sharma said. She went to the bookshelves and pulled out a red volume nestled in a line of green volumes. The bookcase swung wide. Behind it was a full kitchen.

  “This place is so awesome!” said Jaime. “When was it built? How was it built?”

  Edgar said, “This neighborhood was originally known as the Five Points. Rough slum. The Morningstarr twins lived here when they first came to the country from Europe. All of the buildings were eventually torn down and other buildings popped up in their places, this warehouse being one of them.”

  “This city tears down more buildings in a single month than most cities still have standing,” said Ray Turnage, a tall black man with a shaved head. “New York City is one giant boneyard.”

  “Anyway,” said Edgar, “one of the original Cipherists bought it for a song and began the conversion into these archives. Over the years, we’ve expanded to include other artifacts.”

  Jaime gestured to a bunch of papers strewn across a nearby table. “What are these? They kind of look like tic-tac-toe games.”

  “That’s Rosicrucian cipher. Sometimes called a pigpen cipher,” Edgar said.

  “That’s not a Rosicrucian cipher,” said Gunter. “I’ve never seen a Rosicrucian cipher that used sets of dots in that particular way.”

  “It’s a variant of the Rosicrucian cipher,” said Edgar. “A lot of secret guilds used ciphers like these. But it’s really rather simple. Each letter is represented by a dot or set of dots in a particular location. This is the key.”

  “So,” he continued, “if I wanted to write your name, I would write it like this.” He scribbled a series of lines and dots on a clean piece of paper.

  “Cool,” Jaime said.

  “Anyway, someone found the key and some enciphered messages hidden behind a map at the public library.”

  “Wow!” Jaime said. “What did the messages say?”

  “They’re about hiding a kitten from the master of the house,” said Gunter. “So not very interesting.”

  “Kittens are always interesting,” Tess said, scratching Nine.

  “And what’s that?” said Jaime, pointing at a board, about ten feet by three feet, hanging from thin chains going all the way up to the ceiling. On the board was a strange arrangement of brickwork in the shape of three pyramids.

  “Oh, that’s the latest clue in the Old York Cipher,” said Edgar. “The symbol from the wall of 211 Pearl Street, built in 1831.”

  “Another building we just lost to developers,” said Ray Turnage, shaking his head.

  “What does the symbol mean?” Jaime asked.

  “We don’t know yet,” said Edgar. “It’s not a tradesman’s mark. Nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

  “Looks sort of Egyptian,” Jaime said.

  “Yes,” said Edgar. “We’re not sure if the pyramid shape is important, if maybe there’s a match hidden in another building in the city.”

  “For all we know its match was in a building already torn down,” said Imogen Sparks.

  “We have enjoyed quite good luck so far,” Omar said, sitting and folding his hands over his knee. “We have not run into a dead end yet.”

  “Yet,” said Imogen. “But this could take a while to decipher. Those Morningstarrs were something. So smart.”

  “And cheeky,” said Tess.

  “Now you sound like your grandfather,” said Imogen. “He always said that anyone who made whimsical machines like they did had to be funny, but we’ve never found any evidence of that.”

  Jaime imagined Theresa Morningstarr pelting people with potatoes, hiding mechanical spiders in purses, and hid a smile behind his hand.

  Priya returned with a tray of cookies, which she placed on a nearby table. Jaime would never refuse the offer of a cookie, any kind of cookie. He grabbed a chocolate chip and took a bite. Buttery, salty, chocolatey—even better than Lance’s oatmeal cookies. As he chewed, he examined the brick wall with its incomprehensible pyramids. He hadn’t the slightest idea what the shapes meant. He wasn’t an expert on the Morningstarrs like the twins were, but he knew the Morningstarrs were smart. And cheeky, if that letter was any proof.

  He stopped chewing.

  Smart and cheeky.



  He didn’t have to look in his pocket to remember that last two lines of the verse they’d found were:

  You spy the grand & pleasant seat,

  Possess’d by Washinton the great.

  The seat of George Washington. The seat! Not a city with government buildings, but an actual seat?

  “So, what brings you to the archives?” Edgar said. “Trying to walk in your grandpa Ben’s footsteps? Solve the Cipher yourselves?”

  A loud scoff came from Delancey DeBrule’s direction. Everyone pretended not to hear it.

  “No, not today,” Tess said. “Today we have some questions about something else. You see my friend Jaime is—”

  “Very interested in the decorative arts,” Jaime said.

  Tess frowned. Theo stared at Jaime.

  “Excellent!” said Flo. “Which era?”

  “Late seventeen hundreds, early eighteen hundreds,” Jaime said.

  “Yeeeeah,” said Tess, going along. “He has . . . a summer class. They’re studying pottery, furniture, all that kind of stuff.”

  “He is?” Theo said.

  “He’s doing a project about George and Martha Washington,” said Tess.

  “I didn’t know the Washingtons were known for their taste in tables,” said Imogen Sparks.

  “They were, in a way,” said Flo. “Martha Washington embroidered her own cushions.”

  “Cushions!” Jaime said. “I like cushions.” Tess gave him a look. So, he wasn’t a very good spy, either.

  “He has to do a diorama,” Tess said.

  “I was reading something about a famous chair that George once used,” said Jaime.

  Tess’s eyes widened, and then Theo’s eyes widened. Flo didn’t notice anyone’s eyes. She said, “Most of their belongings are at Mount Vernon in Virginia. There are pictures all over the web.”

  “Nothing around New York?” said Jaime.

  “Well, there’s his inaugural chair,” said Flo. “But that’s not all that interesting in terms of decorative arts. But interesting enough because of the story behind it.”

  Tess casually inspected the cookie tray, picked up an almond biscotto. “What story?”

  “Oh, just that nobody bothered to save or preserve the chair until the 1830s, when a US marshal saw it and figured out what it was.”

  “Huh,” said Tess. Jaime was amazed that someone as nervous and about-to-explode-any-minute as Tess could also lie so smoothly. “So we could see the chair?”

  “Sure,” said Flo. “At the New-York Historical Society. But really, the best pieces are at Mount Vernon.”

  “Cool,” Jaime said, “We’l
l definitely look at the web.”

  Flo said, “You should see Mount Vernon in person. It’s not far by train. Ask your grandfather to take you!”

  Imogen elbowed Flo. Flo said, “What?—Oh! I meant your parents. Your parents can take you.”

  Tess put the cookie back on the tray. “Right.”

  One minute they were in the Old York Puzzler and Cipherist Society’s Archives, chatting about George Washington’s furniture, and the next minute Tess Biedermann was stomping out of the archives, up the twisting staircase, out through the double doors, and onto the street, where she stomped some more.

  “Tess, slow down,” said Theo, which was exactly what she’d said to him when they were in the archives and Theo was lost in his cryptographic history–spewing trance. They did that a lot; said the same things to each other. Funny that neither of them listened.


  “What if we can’t solve it?” Tess hissed. “What if we lose our home and have to live in a houseboat? What if there’s a freak storm and we’re carried out to sea? What if there are sharks? What if the sharks jump into the boat?”

  Theo said, “If sharks jump into the boat, Nine will eat the sharks.”

  Jaime added, “And if Nine doesn’t take care of them, you will.”

  “Yeah?” Tess said. “With what?”

  “The power of your rage?”

  “Oh,” she said. They passed Croton Fountain, listening to the shhhhhh sound the water made. Shhhh, there are no sharks here. Shhhh, this will all work out okay.

  This will all work out okay was what Jaime’s father had said when he took the assignment in Sudan. And Jaime had stomped, too. He had stomped for weeks and weeks.

  On the inside, he was still stomping.

  Jaime cleared his throat. “About the riddle. I think George Washington’s seat means a literal seat and not the seat of government.”

  “Right,” said Theo. “Good thinking. We should probably go find that chair.”

  Tess had finally slowed to a walk. “It’s getting late. We have to be back for dinner. Tomorrow?”

  Jaime nodded. He wouldn’t ask about the twins’ grandfather, though he could picture the man so clearly, drifting through the hallways of 354 W. 73rd, a pencil tucked behind his ear and a book tucked under his arm, so lost in his own thoughts that he might not even hear you when you said hello.

  It was as if everyone was a Cipher. You could look for keys and clues, but you might never figure them out.



  They decided to walk to the nearest Underway station and take the train back uptown, but when the train came, there were only two seats left in the car. Since Tess was too antsy to sit, she let Theo and Jaime have them while she dangled from one of the overhead straps and held Nine’s leash. As the train stopped and started, stopped and started, Jaime sketched in his sketchbook. Theo occupied himself by thinking deep thoughts, and Tess imagined wrecking balls crashing through stone, several generations of families stuffed in cars and in houseboats, cat-eating sharks, and shark-eating cats. She wondered what Jaime was drawing—maybe another girl superhero with a bandolier of sledgehammers, a boy in a red cape or in a suit of iron, a man who looked like Jaime’s dad erecting sun castles in a Sudanese desert.

  Or maybe he wasn’t drawing superheroes at all. Maybe he was drawing the archives and the heroes there, the ones who had been trying to solve the Cipher forever. Tess felt a little twinge of guilt that they were keeping the new clues from Uncle Edgar and Imogen and Flo and everyone else at the society. But Theo had been right. If the Cipherists started investigating, the whole city would soon get wind of it, including Slant and his minions. Slant could hire his own cipherists, an army of cipherists. And if Slant solved the Cipher first, if he took the most valuable treasure known to man for himself, who knows how much power he’d have? He could buy all of New York City. He could buy all of the world.

  The doors of the Underway car opened and a thousand or maybe a million people flooded in, surrounding Tess and Nine so that she could no longer see Theo or Jaime, or even the ever-present, ever-watchful Guildman in his box. A random elbow nudged her in the ribs, and she had to keep her face angled to the right in order to keep her nose out of someone else’s all-too-fragrant armpit. Nine huddled against her leg.

  At her feet, the caterpillar was maneuvering between people, scrubbing the floor. It reached Tess, suddenly stopped. Which was weird. The caterpillar never stopped for anything or anyone.

  “Hey, could you stop nuzzling my pit, please?” the skinny guy next to her said, so pale he was almost gray. He was in his early twenties and was sporting floppy hair, a ratty T-shirt, and what her dad called an Artisanal Hipster Mustache.

  “I am not nuzzling your pit,” Tess said. Nine growled. The caterpillar rose up on its back legs, swaying like a snake. Tess could have sworn the thing was looking at her. But she didn’t think it had eyes. It had pincers, though, and the pincers were clicking.

  “Why is it doing that?” said Mustache, also watching the caterpillar. “I’ve never seen it do that before.”

  An Asian woman with a purple Mohawk seated nearby said, “It’s looking at you.”

  “It’s not looking at me,” the man said. “It’s looking at her.” He jerked his mustache at Tess.

  “Why would it be looking at her? She’s just a kid.” The woman’s eyes narrowed as she examined the man. “What did you do?”

  “I’m just standing here.”

  “You must have done something. Did you kick it?”

  “No,” said the man. “Why would I do that?”

  The woman raised a brow. “Why would you walk around with that stupid thing on your face?”

  “Is that supposed to be funny?”

  The caterpillar swayed back and forth, back and forth. Nine’s head followed the movements as if she’d been hypnotized.

  And then the door to the Guildman’s box opened, and the whole car went silent except for the sound of the wheels on the tracks, and the thud of boots on tile. The Guildman appeared in front of Tess, a boxy man with tan skin and sharp brown eyes. Tess gripped the strap tighter, her heart beating in her palms.

  The Guildman frowned at the swaying, clicking caterpillar and frowned even harder at the hipster.

  “Dude,” said the hipster, “it’s not looking at me; it’s looking at her.”

  The Guildman looked from the hipster to Tess, Tess back to the hipster.

  “I didn’t do anything to your pet bug, okay? Chill,” the hipster said.

  The Guildman tried to grab the hipster, but the guy whipped his arm away, smacking Tess in the process.

  “Ow!” she said, hot pain exploding in her cheek.

  The Guildman clenched his teeth and pried the hipster’s hand from the pole.

  The hipster wailed, “Dude! I didn’t mean to hit her. And this isn’t my stop! I’m going to be late for an audition! Seriously, dude, this is going to really mess me up!”

  The train screeched to a halt. The doors opened. The Guildman shoved the hipster onto the platform. He said one word:


  Then the doors closed and the train started again. The Guildman scooped up the caterpillar, holding it like a baby, which was more than weird, because the caterpillar was still clicking its mandibles, as if it were talking to someone, as if it were talking to the Guildman. For one long, torturous moment, the Guildman studied Tess before moving back to his glass box, carrying the caterpillar with him.

  Everyone on the train exhaled. Nine licked Tess’s hand, and Tess practiced her deep breathing, in and out, in and out, but her head kept saying what was that, what was that? And she didn’t know what was that, except for completely bugburgers.

  “What happened?” said Jaime when they got off the train. “We couldn’t see anything. There were too many people.”

  She described the caterpillar swaying like a snake, clicking as if it had something to say.

py,” Jaime said.

  “But probably just a malfunction,” said Theo.

  “Since when do the Morningstarr Machines malfunction?”

  Theo pulled at his lip. “Good point.”

  By the time they reached their building, it was close to dinnertime, and Tess was totally worn out, bruised cheek aching. Even the elevator seemed worn out, and it carried them directly to their floor without any of its usual whimsical side trips. The doors opened.

  Stoop and Pinscher were standing by the tiled wall with a chisel and a hammer. Pinscher held the chisel, and Stoop tapped it until a tile popped off.

  “What are you doing?” said Jaime, leaping out of the elevator.

  Pinscher caught the loose tile, slipped it into a plastic bag.

  “We’re taking samples of some of the more distinctive features of the building, of course,” Mr. Stoop said calmly.


  “Yes, samples. Of the tiles, of some of the plasterwork, crystal doorknobs, that sort of thing. We’ll preserve these artifacts. Perhaps display them somewhere in the new building after it’s built. This is a Morningstarr building, after all. Didn’t you know?”

  Jaime looked mad enough to spit. “Do you know how hard my grandmother works to keep all those tiles on the wall? To keep everything clean and repaired? To keep this building running?”

  “Well, she won’t have to work that much longer,” Stoop said. He smiled his bland, bland smile, and then he and Pinscher strolled to the elevator. Just before the doors closed, he said, “We’re going to have to take this elevator apart, too, you know. I’m sure all the gears and buttons and things will look nice . . . in a collage.”

  Jaime took one step forward, one hand curled around his pencil, as if he were looking for the nearest femoral artery. Pinscher gave one of his little waves. The doors closed.

  “I hate those guys,” Jaime muttered.

  “We all hate those guys,” Theo said.

  Tess said, “Next time, I’m going to let Nine eat them.”

  “Mrrrow,” said Nine.

  They agreed to meet the next morning. Jaime walked to the end of the hall, and Tess and Theo let themselves into their apartment. Inside, their father was putting books in boxes and their mother was on the phone, pacing.

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