The Puzzle Box


There was only one way to tease out this tangled thread called life - for Deanna anyway. It was to hold her breath and wish that it would all go away. It never did of course, but she always felt better afterwards. Only then did she realise that life wasn’t quite tangled enough for her. The lack of intellect in others and their limited conversation was what perplexed Deanna. It was the perpetual f.....g this and f.....g that, which replaced more suitable words and, inevitably, the need to think. Her mother used the word on her children, her friends dropped it into casual conversation... and now she had heard her sainted older brother use the expletive in a radio interview - live! The star of the local football club, role model for wayward youth, and her idol since infancy had let the F word slip in public. Deanna had felt so embarrassed she dare not look him in the eye for days. Nobody else had paid any attention. As ‘bloody’ was regarded as offensive in the fifties, the F word was becoming just as acceptable. Deanna wanted to push a thesaurus under the noses of everyone who used it, though that would have meant felling several forests to print them.

So what could she do? Give up and join in? Try not to flinch whenever she heard it? Or go and visit Mrs Solomon, the one person guaranteed to always know the right word, correct punctuation and form of address for every dignitary you could name? Her shop of antique knick-knacks, ancient books and Tiffany lanterns between a bookmaker and mobile phone outlet sat like cut glass crystal flanked by garish plastic mugs. The odd drunk from the bookmaker would occasionally wander in to find something to squander his winnings on and, when she opened up, Mrs Solomon frequently found on the doormat mobile phones discarded by users who had upgraded. These were donated to a charity for recycling.

Deanna was one of those few visitors who helped liven up the day for the antique dealer and a panacea to the less discerning who wandered in to search for the million pound item she might have mistaken for junk - like that would happen! Mrs Solomon was able to afford her prime position in the high street and open at erratic times because of an unwavering acumen in identifying the rare and precious (her website was testimony to that). And in Deanna she could also see that rarity, a young woman who was genuinely interested in what was going on around her.

So Mrs Solomon decided to show her friend a mysterious puzzle box acquired from an inventory of goods surrendered for tax purposes. Apart from it being crafted in English yew there was little else the knowledgeable Mrs Solomon could deduce about it, even from the faded parchment concealed in a secret compartment. On it was the Georgian equivalent of a crossword puzzle with archaic clues for no doubt equally archaic solutions. The heads of the wooden keys locking the box together had strange symbols carved on them, inviting the curious to push them in the correct sequence to unlock it.

The puzzle box had been waiting under the glass counter in anticipation of Deanna’s occasional, hesitant appearance. The self-effacing teenager had never quite understood why a much older person regarded her as an equal, and always felt that she was invading Mrs Solomon’s authoritative space. That was the feeling most other adults gave her: they either expected appreciation for their condescending attempts to communicate with the young or deference to everything they did, however stupid. The antique dealer was a one-off, with an integrity that must have come from an interesting past history. That was why Deanna found her company so stimulating, and she really wanted to know about that past history.

The door bell tinkled its bright tune as Deanna entered the shop. The puzzle box was on the counter waiting for her, but no Mrs Solomon who must have been in her back parlour. The temptation was too great. Deanna picked up the box and prodded the ornate characters. It didn’t take long for her to work out that it was a locking device.

There was a familiar voice behind her. “You know what those are, don’t you?”

Mrs Solomon always moved noiselessly so Deanna should have been used to her by now, but those deep, plummy tones never failed to make her jump.

“Look like cryptic letters to me. They’re either back to front or upside down so could be compositor’s leads, but wouldn’t print anything sensible even if they were pulled out.”

“There are only 26, so are probably English.”

Deanna started to jot down the layout of the letters in the notebook she always carried with her. “Yes, definitely the alphabet.”

“Go for it kid. Your brain is more agile than mine.” Mrs Solomon handed Deanna the ancient parchment with its list of clues to open the puzzle box. “You should be able to work out this as well.”

Deanna’s jaw dropped. She was good with words, but these clues in copperplate handwriting were baffling. Googling them wouldn’t have helped. This called for a very old dictionary.

Mrs Solomon read her thoughts. “Samuel Johnson.”

“You’ve got his dictionary?” Deanna asked hopefully.

“Sold the last original edition, but there is an abridged version you can use.”

Deanna shook the box to check if there was anything inside. It sounded like a large key.

“Take it home with you,” the antique dealer suggested.

“I’d rather not. My family is mental. It would be impossible to concentrate.”

“You’d better use the back parlour then. Don’t mind the cat. She’ll sit on your lap, but won’t be any bother as long as you let her. Keeps the knees warm.”

Deanna took the puzzle box, list of clues and abridged Samuel Johnson dictionary into Mrs Solomon’s parlour. As soon as everything was placed on the velvet tablecloth and she had sat down, Tabitha jumped onto her lap and made it clear with needle claws that she intended to stay there.

Deanna carefully unfolded the parchment and read the first clue:- A foul odour from Virginia: stink.

Putrid smell? Stench? She fancied there was an element of JK Rowling about it. One of her characters was quite smelly. And his name was Mundungus.

Second clue:- One part of a cloven hoof multiplied by two.

Pig, antelope, camel, satyr? No, it was more obvious than that. Separating one hoof would be to cleave. There was no cleave in this abridged dictionary, but there was clees.

 Third clue:- A fowl that feeds in silt.

Could be any of a dozen birds, but Deanna doubted that Johnson was much of a twitcher, so the primary word had to be silt. A synonym for what birds waded in; marsh, water margin - Not here. A more basic term was mud. And there it was - mudsucker.

Fourth clue:- A bundle to take far.

Bundle could be a package... or, portmanteau... No. So it had to be take or far. Take was no help, so it had to be far, as in fardel.

Clue five:- A ragged fellow.

This looked easier. It was either fellow or ragged. Too many synonyms for fellow - ragged was easier, and tattered the best match. And there it was - tatterdemalion.

Now Deanna had them all. The only way to find out if her solutions were right was to spell out the words by pushing the keys on the puzzle box.

Should she do it? This device was far more fiendish than a Rubik’s cube. The Georgian who designed the puzzle box must have had a lot of time on their hands. Just as it was crossing her mind that it might have been a bobby trap, Mrs Solomon pulled the parlour door curtain aside.

“You’ve solved it then?”

“Might have.” Deanna was sure the antique dealer could have done it just as easily if she had set her mind to it but, like most adults, probably had far too many other things to do. “Would you like to open it?”

Mrs Solomon sounded genuinely impressed. “Goodness no, you solved it.”

Deanna pushed in the letters to spell out mundungus. There was a ‘click’ as a lock deep inside the device sprang open. She hesitated, surprised that it had worked. Something this sophisticated could only have been invented by Charles Babbage and programmed by Ada Lovelace.

“Carry on,” urged Mrs Solomon.

Deanna entered the other solutions. Each time another lock inside the puzzle box opened. At last tattermalion. She pushed the last letter home and sat back for fear of something leaping out at her.

With a loud ‘click!’ the lid sprang open and woke Tabitha. The cat’s claws sank into her leg.

Nestling amongst the bars of the wooden posts was, as she had expected, a large, ornate key. Underneath it was a slip of card, battered from the vigorous shaking the box had received over the centuries. Mrs Solomon lifted Tabitha from Deanna’s lap as she tipped them out.

The writing was still legible. It was an address.

“Probably demolished by now.” Deanna took out her smartphone from a zipped inside pocket where she hid it from her siblings. She tapped in the address. “Couldn’t be some sort of elaborate scam, could it?”

“I wouldn’t know. You’re probably a better judge of that given your talent to ferret things out. The nearest I get to technology is emailing the geek who manages my website.”

Deanna hoped that Mrs Solomon hadn’t mentioned her aptitude with electronic technology, especially in coding HTML and Java, and cracking ciphers, to anyone else. It was bound to interest dubious individuals wanting her to hack into something. The only other person to know just how good she had become was her technology teacher. Aware of how well they would get on together, he had been the one to introduce her to Mrs Solomon.

After typing the address in Start Page to reduce the number of pointless results thrown up by Google, only one mention came up. That was in a register of buildings demolished in the late 19th century.

“There’s something kooky about this page.” Deanna was tempted to run it though Scamadviser to see where it originated.

“How do you mean?”

Deanna checked out its source code. “It’s just a page, recently posted, with too many keywords and no primary root folder. Why go to the bother of a domain name when this is all you need to upload?”

“Sorry, it’s too small to see without my other glasses, and probably won’t make much sense to me anyway,” Mrs Solomon evaded.

“Anyway, it’s quite near here. Shall we take a look?”

“Why not. I could lock the shop up tomorrow afternoon and get out the car.”

“I didn’t know you had a car?”

“Stays in the garage. Don’t worry, I’m still safe behind the wheel. It needs an outing every now and then to keep it roadworthy.” Mrs Solomon studied the location Deanna had brought up on Google maps. “Anyway, we’ll never reach that by bus.”

Deanna expected Mrs Solomon’s car to be some old banger that she kept for its vintage value. She couldn’t have been more wrong. It was hardly surprising it wasn’t left parked in the road. Far from being ancient and barely roadworthy, it was the most up-to-date, top of the range, electric sports car on the market. And she thought that this woman couldn’t drive!

And how the antique dealer could drive. Even the satnav had been switched off because it couldn’t keep up with her.

Deanna checked their destination on Google Earth. “You do know that there aren’t any buildings at this address, don’t you? The nearest place is a deserted aerodrome.”

“Well, we’ll just take a look. The old girl likes a good spin out.”

Indeed, when you had a car like Mrs Solomon’s, why not let the hedgehogs know about it. The electric engine purred like a tiger as it sped across a field, startling rabbits and pheasants, to reach a potholed road leading to a long demolished house. The grounds were vast and overgrown and the occasional tower of masonry jutted above the trees.

Mrs Solomon stopped by the only intact wall. In it were steps leading down to a door.

Deanna’s puzzle solving efforts hadn’t been a waste of time after all.

She waited for Mrs Solomon to get out of the car before following her down the steps, tightly clutching the old key. She was sure the lock must have rusted tight after all these years.

“Did you bring a torch?” Deanna asked.

“In the car. We’ll just take a peek inside first to see what’s there.”

“Okay.” Deanna pushed the key into the lock and turned it. The tumblers immediately rotated.

Deanna started to feel apprehensive. “That’s weird.” What had she let herself in for? Mrs Solomon was no longer the same amiable antique dealer she had known for over a year. As well as the expensive car and irrational diffidence about plummeting through the decaying floorboards of old ruins, her tone was now more authoritative.

“Push the door open then.”

Deanna dared not refuse.

As it creaked wide, she expected a colony of bats to fly out from their roost in the decaying beams that supported the ceiling of the cellar.

Instead, a bright light flooded out onto the stone steps.

“Go in. Be careful. There’s quite a drop down.”

Deanna toppled into a large room. She picked herself up. Bemused operatives at computer monitors gazed at her in interest.

Mrs Solomon closed the door. “Here she is, as promised.”

“She cracked it then?” a young woman exclaimed.

“Well I never! It was worth the hassle of putting that thing together after all.” This voice sounded like the designer of the puzzle box. “She’s better than the adults.”

“Careful,” chided Mrs Solomon. “She is virtually an adult.”

Someone else sounded more dubious. “Still hormonal, I bet.”

“No more than you when you were recruited.”

Deanna was too overwhelmed to ask what was going on.

“This is what the plebeian masses refer to as the Secret Service - technical branch,” declared Mrs Solomon.

“One of those many branches they fortunately know nothing about,” added the young woman.

“Meet Sangeeta,” announced Mrs Solomon. “She will induct you into the ways of our little world - should you be interested.”

Overcoming her amazement, Deanna could only think of one thing. “But how did you all get down here? There’s no proper road or car park.”

“There, what did I tell you. Picks up on things that matter.”

Sangeeta laughed. “There is a tunnel to the aerodrome. Built during the last war. Once the walls were reinforced and wildlife evicted, it was ideal for our little bolthole, well away from phone masts.”

“Then how do you receive and transmit?”

“All cabled up to our own exchange. No Wi-Fi down here.”

“But if all this is a supposed to be secret, why are you letting me see it?”

“Don’t worry,” the dissenting voice chimed in. “We’ll just shoot you if you tell anyone else.”

“Shut up Dancy!” scolded Mrs Solomon. “The only person I’m liable to have shot is you.”

Deanna wandered uncertainly about the room lined with monitor screens, trying to guess what the software was capable of.

“Well,” snapped Dancy, disregarding Mrs Solomon’s glare, “want to join us or not?”

“Will I need to shoot anyone?”

“Only Dancy,” said Mrs Solomon.

“But I’m not 16 yet?”

“You can still the sign the secrets act.”

“What will my parents say? They’d never allow it.”

“We’re a secret service - you don’t tell them. You’ll be 16 in four weeks and able to do what you like - mostly.”

“Can I tell my brother?”

“You mean the one that let the F word slip on live TV?”

“You saw that then, did you?”

“Brilliant football player, but not so bright. We’re only interested in wordsmiths and have a very large swear box. Leave him to his boozy friends and blissful oblivion of what happens in the big, wide world.” Mrs Solomon indicated the monitors. “And this, believe me, is the big, wide world the tabloids do not have the words to describe. What we do might scare them to death. Not you, though. I reckon you’ll be here for keeps.”