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The shadow cipher, p.6
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       The Shadow Cipher, p.6

           Laura Ruby
 

  “It was his thing,” said Tess.

  “What happened?” said Jaime.

  “He just gave up, that’s all.”

  Remarkably, Theo still had the energy to roll his eyes. “It’s not like he could help it.”

  “Yeah, well,” Tess said, knowing she was being unfair, even awful, but still wanting to argue. Her mind raced with what-if questions, each worse than the last.

  “Stop catastrophizing,” Theo said.

  Jaime looked from Theo to Tess. “Is that a real word?”

  “I am not catastrophizing,” snapped Tess, annoyed that Theo could read her so easily.

  A loud crash echoed from the kitchen. Theo said, “You’re not the only one who’s mad, you know.”

  “I know,” she said. But sometimes it felt like it. The therapist her parents brought her to see liked Tess to do a lot of drawings. The therapist was a nice man with a bushy mustache; he looked like a portrait from another century. He said, “It’s interesting that you drew yourself with this little golden crown on your head. What does the crown mean to you?”

  “That’s not a crown,” she’d told him. “That’s a nimbus of outrage.”

  Lance clomped back into the living room with the tray of stale cookies. Jaime gave him the empty glass, took two more cookies. Theo stuck a hand in his thick hair and held it there, his thinking pose. The cat stopped leaping and sat in front of the window, staring out at the middle distance. Tess let out a sigh, and with the sigh her outrage leaked away, leaving her with a hollow in her gut the size of a city. She slumped in the nearest chair, pulled the strap of her bag over her head, and set the bag on the floor. A stack of Grandpa’s unfinished crossword puzzles sat by the chair, as if Grandpa had been paging through the endless clues. “Almond capital of the world.” “Bug bite.” “Wrong.”

  “Look at this place,” she said. “Where’s Grandpa Ben going to put it all when the building is gone? Where are any of us going to go? There has to be a way to stop this.”

  “We could stage a protest,” Jaime said. “Go on a hunger strike.”

  “My mom would never let me go on a hunger strike,” said Theo.

  Jaime sighed. “Now that you mention it, neither would my grandmother.” He glumly ate another cookie.

  “If we can’t keep Slant from knocking down a building he owns,” Tess said, “I wish we could find a way to buy it back.”

  “Okay,” said Theo, “but where are any of us going to get that kind of money?”

  Jaime finished the cookie, found an antique monocle sitting on a shelf. He took off his glasses, blew the dust off the monocle, and held it up to one eye, making that eye look twice as large as the other, deep brown with a ring of gold around the edge of the iris. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a treasure? We could buy back the building.”

  “Well, if we could solve the Cipher, we’d—” Tess began, and then stopped. If they could solve the Cipher, then maybe they’d find treasure. More than treasure. The secret of the Morningstarrs. The reason for all these buildings, all these things they made. That had to be worth something.

  It had to be worth everything.

  “People have been trying to solve the Old York Cipher for one hundred sixty years,” Theo said. “I’m not sure there is a solution.”

  Of course there was a solution. There had to be a solution.

  “There’s a solution,” said Tess.

  “How do you know?” Theo said.

  “I just do.”

  “I don’t,” said Theo. “The Morningstarrs valued process over product. Or maybe the process is the product. The puzzle is its own reward. That’s what Grandpa Ben said, anyway.”

  “Yeah, well, Grandpa Ben’s not here,” said Tess.

  Theo extricated his hand from his unruly hair. “What’s your point?”

  “What if we did solve the Old York Cipher?”

  “Tess . . . ,” Theo began.

  “I’m serious!” Tess said. “If we solved it, we’d get the treasure and we’d also prove it wasn’t a hoax. It would be news all over the world. The city couldn’t sell this building or any of the other Morningstarr buildings, either. The buildings would be too important to sell.”

  Jaime stared at her with his giant eye. “I’m not so sure about that,” he said. “A lot of things are for sale that shouldn’t be for sale.” He put the monocle back on the shelf and used the bottom edge of his T-shirt to polish his glasses. “What if your brother’s right and the Morningstarrs just wanted a whole lot of people running around trying to figure out clues? What if your grandpa was right and this is one big joke?”

  “This is no joke,” said Tess. The top of her head was twitchy, itchy, as if her nimbus of outrage were getting too tight for just one person. “This is our home.”

  Jaime slipped the glasses back on, blinked. Theo shifted in his seat. Nine padded over to Tess, laid her chin upon Tess’s knee. Even Lance went quiet. Tess knew what they were thinking. How could a bunch of seventh graders solve a mystery that people had been trying to solve for more than a century? People including her own grandfather? Grandpa Ben had tried; he had tried his entire adult life. Up till now, it hadn’t mattered that Grandpa hadn’t found an answer. The important things couldn’t be rushed. You had to dream your way to them, like a luftmensch, like the Morningstarrs themselves. She touched a page of Grandpa’s unfinished crossword puzzle. Tempus fugit. What if you had no time left to dream?

  “It’s not just about us, guys,” Tess said. “A lot of people live in this building. People who don’t have the money to just pick up and move because some megalomaniac says we have to. We can’t sit around waiting for Slant to send his wrecking balls.” This wasn’t catastrophizing anymore. This was telling the truth. A lump hard as a pebble tumbled in her throat, and she couldn’t seem to swallow it back no matter how many times she tried. “We can’t just sit here, Theo. We can’t. We can’t.”

  “Okay, okay,” Theo said, one palm up like a traffic cop. He gave her that look that said he just might go along, not because he thought it was a good idea, but because Tess needed him to, because he was her brother, because he was not a robot. At least not today.

  Tess turned to Jaime. They’d gone to elementary school with him, they’d seen him around the building for years, but they didn’t know him, not really. He had his own friends and always seemed way too cool to hang out with them—the nerd twins, those fuzzy-haired weirdos. And yet Jaime was here, and he was listening, not pointing, not laughing. Tess cocked her head, a question.

  “It’s my home, too,” Jaime said quietly. Through the dancing dust motes, something passed between them. A decision. An agreement.

  Theo’s hand dropped to his lap. He frowned, his shaggy brows meeting in the middle just the way they had when he was smashing the Tower of London to bits. “Let’s say for a second that we are going to try to solve the Cipher,” he said. “We have to do it right.”

  Jaime nodded. “We should start at the beginning.”

  They were humoring her or maybe they were humoring themselves, but Tess didn’t care. She smiled. “‘It begins, as everything does, with a lady.’”

  “Right,” said Jaime. “So let’s go see her.”

  CHAPTER FIVE

  Theo

  A what-if question: What if everything you’re doing is pointless?

  This was what Theo was thinking as Jaime texted his grandmother and Tess called their parents to tell them they were going out for the afternoon. And it was what Theo was thinking when the elevator looped in confused circles before depositing them in the lobby. He was still thinking it as they walked over to 72nd Street, and then headed toward the Underway entrance on Broadway. Pointless, pointless, pointless. Like building the entire Tower of London plus the London Bridge, only to kick it to rubble.

  But Tess was bouncing on her toes the way she did when she was excited, and Nine bounced alongside her. Maybe this trip wasn’t so pointless if it could make Tess bounce like that, at leas
t for a little while. He just hoped she wasn’t too devastated when it all came to nothing. Because it would.

  Grandpa Ben growled in Theo’s head: The only thing that’s truly pointless is kvetching about the pointlessness of things. What is the real point: the destination or the journey?

  So, Theo tried to focus on the journey, which helps when you’re trying to run for the train without tripping. They shoved their tokens into the turnstiles and burst onto the platform just as the Number 1 arrived. The cars were the same sleek, silvery steel they had been in the time of the Morningstarrs—the cars never broke down and so never needed to be replaced. They could travel below- or aboveground, with some routes suspended high over the city, wound like vines around the buildings.

  But today’s ride would be belowground, so they settled into the spotless, plush red seats. No one dared eat or drink on the immaculate trains, because if you did, you would be thrown off at the next stop, no questions asked. In the corner of the car, a uniformed Guildman, sallow and sullen, sat in a glass box, glaring at the passengers as if every single one of them were an interloper, an intruder in his clean and perfect world. The Guildman’s gaze lingered on Nine the cat, but the cat was wearing her service-animal harness and was perched still as a sphinx. No out-of-control behavior, no gacked-up hairballs, no reason to toss them all off. Nine didn’t even chase the delicate metal caterpillar parading up and down the train car, scouring the dirt left by so many shoes, as it did every hour. The Guildman watched Nine lifting one paw, then the other, to let the caterpillar clean beneath, and frowned. Theo couldn’t be sure, but the Guildman seemed disappointed.

  Theo wasn’t the only one to think so. Jaime pulled a small notebook and a pencil from one of his many pockets and did a quick sketch of the Guildman, giving the guy a blue cape, a mouth like a nutcracker, and a thought bubble that said, “No vermin on the train.”

  A good sketch, if you liked comic-book kind of stuff. Theo said, “Where’s the vermin?”

  Jaime shrugged. “We’re the vermin.”

  They were, sort of. Scuttling underground, not very different from the rats that used the Underway tunnels to get from one place to another. But Theo had also seen lower Manhattan from above during a solarship tour, seen the way the tufted green carpet of Battery Park spread at the feet of the winking glass towers of the financial district. Grandpa Ben had been okay then. Mostly.

  “Look, Theo,” he’d said, pointing out the window. “Aren’t humans capable of the most amazing things? Isn’t nature? Look how blue the grass is!”

  “You mean green?”

  Grandpa laughed. “Yes, green. Of course.”

  Theo didn’t know whether it made him feel better or worse that Grandpa Ben would never know how truly rotten humans were. Or maybe he had known all along and tried too hard to forget it. Grandpa remembered everything until he didn’t. What kind of journey was that?

  Tess nudged his knee.

  “What?”

  “You’re doing that thing with your lip.”

  “I am not.”

  He was, though. Pinching and pulling on the bottom lip like he trying to yank it over his head. He let go. Next to him, Jaime ignored the Weird Things Theo Was Doing to His Face and kept drawing. He added the outlines of passengers and a picture of Darnell Slant in the middle of his drawing. Cartoon Slant announced that he’d just bought the Underway and they all needed to get off the train forever. The speech bubble said, “Walking is good for all you commoners!”

  A half hour later, Theo and the rest of the commoners walked out of the station and onto the esplanade that bordered the park. Sunbathers and Frisbee players dotted the lawns while the sun blazed the nearby Hudson silver. They dodged Starrboarders and bladers and hordes of giggling teenagers all punching one another for no good reason. They hauled Nine away from all the curious babies who wanted to hug her and away from all the parents afraid that Nine wanted to make snacks out of the babies.

  They passed a group of girls, black and brown, jumping double Dutch and singing the Cipher song:

  “Lady Liberty was number one,

  Clue, clue, who’s got the clue?

  City hall where George had fun,

  Clue, clue, you’ve got the clue.

  A diary in a library,

  Clue, clue, who’s got the clue?

  Puzzle out the penitentiary,

  Clue, clue, you’ve got the clue.

  John Bowne House, Quaker, Quaker,

  Clue, clue, who’s got the clue?

  Prison Ship, gonna meet your maker,

  Clue, clue, you’ve got the clue. . . .”

  The rest of the song faded away as they walked. At Castle Clinton, Theo and Tess and Jaime lined up to get tickets for the ferry. When this place was still called Castle Garden, Theo’s great-great-grandfather Emil Adler had lined up here, too, with only the change of clothes and a pocket watch—all he’d brought with him from Germany—to sell for food and lodging. Theo had never been that desperate, never been that hungry. He tried to be grateful for that the way his parents and grandparents always reminded him to be, but today, gratitude seemed impossible.

  They bought their tickets and boarded the ferry, squeezing their way through the crowd to the railing. He’d ridden the ferry so many times with his grandparents that the press of the wind and the smell of the water made him feel less weird, more like himself. In the distance, the Liberty Statue rose out of the water, as familiar as a member of the family. Made out of copper, still gleaming bright and reddish brown because of a special treatment that kept it from oxidizing, she stood on a pedestal, a book curled in one arm, a torch held high in her other hand. On her right, an eagle perched on a tree branch, its wings just beginning to spread. On her left, a globe topped a short pillar. One foot was chained, the other had broken free.

  “The last time I came here I was in kindergarten,” said Jaime. “I forgot how big she is.” He turned to a fresh page in his book and drew the statue. In his version, she was grinning. Her speech bubble said, “Yo!”

  Yo, Theo thought, as the ferry docked on Liberty Island. Yo, as they powered past tourists to get to the statue. Yo, as he craned his neck to take the whole of Liberty in.

  “Okay, the puzzle,” Jaime said. “I remember this one from that video about the Morningstarrs we had to watch in third grade. You apply the sequence of numbers that was printed in the New York Sun—”

  Theo recited, “42, 1, 2; 42, 20, 7; 42, 1, 10—”

  “You just can’t help yourself, can you?” Tess said.

  “Right, and you apply those numbers to that Poe story,” Jaime continued as if Theo hadn’t interrupted, “and get ‘It begins, as everything does, with a lady. Her book holds your keys.’ I checked the magazine back at your grandfather’s apartment, and it worked, so at least that part of the Cipher seems right.”

  Tess said, “And the chance of any other text giving a coherent riddle using that same sequence of numbers is . . . well, I don’t know what it is but it’s really low.”

  Theo said, “I know what—”

  “Shut up,” said Tess.

  “Okay. So, the real question is whether the ‘lady’ in question is this lady?” Jaime pointed at Liberty.

  “I think so,” said Tess. “Not only is she a lady—the lady—with a book commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but it was the Morningstarrs who secured this island for the statue.”

  Jaime was still staring up at Liberty. “‘July IV MDCCLXXI,’” he read. “July 4, 1776.” He wrote the date into his sketchbook. If Theo had to guess, Jaime wasn’t humoring Tess. He seemed to be taking this seriously. And of course Tess was.

  Is it the destination or the journey, Theo?

  Theo cleared his throat. “At first people thought the word keys meant literal keys.”

  “Yeah,” said Jaime. “I remember there were people who insisted that a set of keys must be hidden inside the book.”

  “Someone even sued the city for the right
to open the book with a blowtorch,” Tess said. “But the word keys obviously meant ‘keys to a puzzle.’”

  “It’s only obvious after the fact,” said Theo, who, again, couldn’t help himself.

  A voice called: “You kids trying to solve the Cipher or something?”

  They all turned, even Nine. A sallow guy trailing behind a large tour group smirked at them.

  Theo tugged at his lip, let go. Why adults felt comfortable interrupting the conversations of people they didn’t know was the most annoying sort of mystery.

  “A regular bunch of Nancy Drews,” the man said. He held a brown bottle, swirled the liquid inside it. Root beer? Regular beer? “That’s cute.” He chuckled to himself and took a sip.

  Nine growled but Tess smiled sweetly the way she did when she was angry enough to bite. “Just a bunch of Nancy Drews, that’s us all right.”

  The man chuckled again. Or maybe it was a chortle. Who could tell the difference?

  Jaime had his sketchbook out and he was sketching a two-panel comic. In the first panel, the man was doubled over with the words HEH HEH HEH HEH all around him. In the second, he laughed so hard he dropped his bottle on his foot. YEEOUCH!

  “Guys, let’s go inside,” Tess said. “If we’re cute out here, I’m sure we’ll be super adorable in there.”

  They left Guffaw Man still chortling and walked around to the other side of the statue, where glass doors led into a dark, damp gallery. Because it was so nice out, the gallery was completely empty but for them. All around were photos and plaques and posters about the history of the United States and about the making of the Liberty Statue. Tess and Jaime kept talking about the Cipher, how everyone figured that the date on Liberty’s book was the key to another book cipher, so applied the number 741776 to the Declaration of Independence. When that didn’t work, they applied it to the Bill of Rights, and then to all the plaques and displays in this gallery. And when that didn’t work, people started thinking about women with books, writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe or Phillis Wheatley.

  “It wasn’t the date that was important,” Jaime said. “It was the fact that it was talking about the Declaration of Independence.”

 
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