Bill Taggart’s hands shook as he held his wife’s coded letters. He ran a finger across his name on one of the cream envelopes, trying to remember every little detail about his wife’s handwriting. Were these written under duress? The ‘T’ in Taggart had its usual curlicue at the end of the horizontal line. He’d always loved her handwriting, so feminine, almost like calligraphy.
He turned the envelopes over in his hands, wondering what was so important that she had to write it down. He’d thought of nothing except these letters for days now. Isla hadn’t been herself for months before her disappearance, just over two years ago. Perhaps the coded letters contained an explanation; so why was it so difficult for him to read them?
Having the letters in his possession wracked him with guilt. Why hadn’t he done more to protect her, to push her to tell him what had been wrong? He groped for his coffee mug and took three large gulps before setting it down.
In the private Nottingham apartment on Earth he and Isla had once shared, he sat down at the kitchen table in one of the fabric-covered long-backed chairs that Isla had picked out. He had followed her all over town so she could get the right shade of cream to match the synthetic alpaca wool rug in the living room. He’d done little more than accompany her that day. Isla only ever asked for help when she really needed it.
He sat alone in his apartment, the same one he hadn’t set foot in since he was sent to Exilon 5 to head up the investigation into the Indigenes. His fears of living in it without Isla were not as debilitating as he had expected them to be. On his return from Exilon 5, Charles Deighton, CEO of the World Government, had ordered him to go to Washington DC and work out of the International Task Office there. Two weeks later, he was sent to the London-based ITF office when Deighton lost interest in keeping an eye on him.
Bill was due to check in with Simon Shaw at the London office. Shaw was yet to put him back on active duty. His gut told him to be more vigilant than ever.
He stood up from the kitchen table. Beside him were stacks of boxes of Isla’s things, things he had packed away in a moment of sadness and self-pity. One day, he hoped to have a reason to unpack them. The coded letters gave him hope. Instead, he had rearranged the boxes four high and two wide against the blind-covered windows to block any external view into the apartment. He grabbed the blanket that was draped over the back of the sofa and pinned it to the wall over the Light Box with a couple of nails and a hammer.
Bill cleared the glass tabletop of its two burgundy placemats, a white milk jug and a matching sugar bowl. Isla had bought the placemats at a local junk shop, and had found the jug and bowl at the back of a replication terminal, ready for the trash. He couldn’t bring himself to throw these trivial knick-knacks out. Eating at the table was something they had done together.
With the table clear, he sat down again. He checked that the boxes adequately blocked the window. The blanket, haphazardly pinned to the wall, barely covered the Light Box’s virtual facade, but it was enough to give him privacy.
He caught a glimpse of some of Isla’s clothes peeking out of one of the boxes. The guilt hit him square in the chest. He was packing her away, as if he’d already given up on her. Another box contained the bowl that used to sit by the front door, stuffed with dried lavender and patchouli flowers. The music function on the Light Box was inactive—the last selection was Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, her favourite. After her disappearance, he had slipped back into the isolated existence of a single man with alarming ease. He wondered if reading her letters would change things. The faint smell of perfume on the envelopes was almost gone but the fact that they had a scent at all gave him a renewed sense of purpose.
With increasing agitation, he sat upright, bracing himself. He placed the three envelopes on the glass surface, lining the edges up against each other. His paranoia had him checking the height of the stacked boxes again.
He didn’t know in which order the envelopes should be opened. He hoped that their contents would explain things better. He pulled his DPad from his bag and placed it close to him on the table. Laura O’Halloran, the woman who had given him the letters, had explained the code as best as she could. To help, Bill had downloaded several articles on secret languages and codes from the Nottingham Central Digital Library. Until he opened them and read the letters for himself, he would have no idea which cipher to use.
He slid his finger under the already opened flap of one of the envelopes, noticing how the glue was thicker in certain sections. Laura had received them, already opened, from the woman from booth sixteen, but the glue indicated they had been sealed by an additional person.
Who else has had access to these? The Earth Security Centre or the World Government?
He shivered at the thought of someone else showing an interest in his wife’s letters. He was glad they were coded.
Bill pulled two letters out of each of the two envelopes and a fifth letter out of the last envelope. He laid each one flat on the table. He drummed his fingers rhythmically on the surface. The fifth, solitary letter, he noticed, was not coded. Skimming the top line, he drew in a tight breath and folded it up, shoving it into the back pocket of his trousers.
The four remaining letters had a number scrawled in the top right hand corner, presumably indicating the order they had been written in. The first letter read:
Dhtei teiao osonm dorta etire estch cehae ihaed veust
Rrone osugi bvake eebia mcipc eooeo mnnad ruati ertsn
hpytfa awieoe imodui sernbo wurteu ichuya sasloe tticlr hitole
ridngh esebee ugttne rtoude ehorid yiitks onnoin iaieanl fdmpcep