A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Full Hand
Scene Four: Hidden Message
In his darkened cell, Denario rolled back and forth, restless and poked by the straw. For years, he'd used the trick of doing quadratic equations in his head if he was having trouble falling asleep. But this time it didn't work. He couldn't concentrate on the math. He kept thinking of questions he couldn't answer.
One was the matter of his horse. He hadn't fed her this afternoon. Would the stable master take care of her? He'd seemed a bit too callous. Then there was Pecunia. He missed her so terribly he could almost smell her through the stink of the dozen men in the jail. Was she thinking of him? He remembered the look on her face when he told her about the report he'd written on Figgins. It made him doubt her faith in him.
His cell mate, Vir, seemed deadly but had more self control than Denario had first guessed. Was he really a bandit? That seemed crazy. Economically, it didn't seem possible to sustain such a life.
Denario wondered about the economics of rural life for a while, then he noticed that his back itched more than just a few pokes from the straw should account for. Did a bug do something him? The burning feeling had re-awoken him when he was starting to tire. He scratched himself anxiously for a moment.
He reflected on how lucky he was that the courier sent from Ziegeburg couldn’t identify him. It meant Mayor Figgins didn’t expect Denario to flee in this direction. But the Hogs-Poliez captain would send him off to Ziegeburg anyway. That was unlucky.
It had taken the sight of the ruined stagecoach two days ago for Denario to understand his danger. He’d crossed the Figgins brothers without realizing it. He’d signed his own death warrant with them. He’d been a fool Yet … what else could he have done? Master Winkel would have been disappointed in Denario if he’d lied or misused math. And there was an afterlife. The gods said so. People, on rare occasions, talked to the gods. Winkel somehow might know what was going on. He might understand the problems Denario faced. What would the master accountant have done in this situation?
“Oh, Melcurio.” Since he couldn’t sleep, Denario got up as quietly as he could and began to pray. He stretched out his spirit to reach the god of accounting, wherever he was. Oddly, it didn’t feel to Denario like he had to spread his thoughts too far to get that golden, tingling feel.
“I just want to do the right thing,” he murmured. “I had to save Kurt’s life. I didn’t mean to hurt those men.”
He prayed silently for a while in case Vir was awake. He didn't want anyone else to hear his conversation with Winkel. All he got back from thinking of Winkel, though, was the sense that he should stop acting helpless and start trying to solve his own problems. Winkel had always been in favor of that.
“Okay, I’ll help myself,” he promised the god and his old master. “But am I doing it right? You’ve given me signs before. I wouldn’t feel talked down to or anything if you gave me a sign again.”
At that moment, there was a knock on the wall. Denario froze. Was it the god? Melcurio had a sense of humor, the old master had said.
The knock came again, then again. It was moving down the outside wall of the jail. It didn’t sound like a god now. It was a person trying to locate someone in the jail. Was it one of the wives of the drunks? Was it another bandit searching for Vir? After all, he must have bandit friends. For a moment, Denario considered answering. It wouldn’t be hard to tap out a rhythm on the wall. It might be better to wake his cell mate, though. He leaned in Vir’s direction.
“That better not be Melcurio.” Vir grumbled before Denario could touch him. He sounded like an expert whisperer. His words were perfectly clear and yet Denario didn’t doubt that no one else could hear.
“You’re awake? Never mind, that was a stupid question.” He felt embarrassed at being caught praying. “Are you expecting someone?”
“Not like this. Ssh.” The knock came again, closer. It was only a cell or two away. “Now is the time for the man we saw earlier today to reply to his friend.”
Sure enough, there was an answering knock. It had a different rhythm from the first. It seemed to make the person outside the walls excited. A rapid response followed, far louder than anyone spying should have made.
“How did you know?” Denario kept his voice so low he was nearly mouthing the words in the dark. Vir heard him anyway. Without rising from the floor, the larger man tapped Denario on the foot to remind him to be quiet. Denario closed his mouth. Together, they listened to the knocks. In half a minute, the pattern was obvious.
Denario brushed aside handfuls of straw to expose the dirt of the floor. He knocked aside a beetle, too. Maybe he really had been bitten earlier and that had got him up to pray.
He repeated the pattern he’d heard as scratches in the dirt. The men on both sides of the wall kept making mistakes. They had to repeat themselves, which made the recording of their patterns easy to do.
“What are you scratching in the dirt?” the expert whisperer asked during a break in the action.
“Math,” mouthed Denario. “The patterns are repeating. Maybe I can figure out what they’re saying.”
Vir grunted. “Sounds crazy.”
“Let's see,” mused Denario. He rubbed his chin. He wanted to rise to the challenge. “It sounds like positional lettering, doesn't it? Bump, bump, bump means the third letter. But that 'bong' sound could be a ten in positional notation or maybe a 'five.'”
“It's a five,” said Vir. “They'll be counting in handfuls.”
“Right, then. The first sequence of tapping sounds in the Ogglia alphabet would be .... R ... X ... T ... A ... W ... R ... but that doesn't make sense. So maybe it's not positional.” Denario scraped aside more straw. It was frustrating. He felt so close. He hoped he could work it out better as he copied more of the message.
“Why would they use the Ogglia alphabet?” asked Vir.
“Oh, right. Could be the old alphabet. In that case, the first word would be ... M ... A ... D...E ...I ... T ... oh, that might be right. Maybe he made something.”
“What’s next?” grumbled Vir impatiently. Nothing seemed to surprise him.
“S … E …E … H … I … M.” Denario shook his head. With his right hand, he continued scratching things down but with his left, he read his own writing. Then he was able to keep a complete picture of the rhythms in his head. But the possible meanings of the words had started to worry him. “Maybe they’re talking about me. Maybe that fellow is from the Ziege, come to kidnap me.”
“H … E … I … S … I … N … C … O … R … N … E … R … C … E … L … L.” Denario stopped. He wasn’t tired but he found himself breathing a little too hard.
The knock rapped again. It was the same pattern the outside knocker had attempted before but botched. That let Denario collect his thoughts. He returned to writing and decoding.
“That was G … U … D … J … O … B,” he told Vir. “Now the other knocker, our man inside … D … O … W … E … H … A … V … E … N … U … F.”
“Do they have enough?” asked Vir.
“I guess that’s what they mean.” Denario had to pause from decoding to make sense of the words. “Right. It’s a question.”
They sat together in the dark for another minute and listened to the two, quiet wall knockers continue to make mistakes. The code was primitive and they still kept getting it wrong.
At this point, Denario knew their system so well that he didn’t have to write down the rhythms. He just spoke each letter as it occurred. In a little while, he didn’t need to do even that because Vir was keeping up with him. For a brute, he was awfully bright.
"Damn,” said Vir before the outside knocker finished the first word of his answer.
“Y … E … S … W … E … E … L … A … T … T … A … K … T … M … O … R … R … O … W.”
“They'll attack?” the big man asked.
Denario nodded. Then, because he was pretty sure Vir couldn’t see him even though the man could apparently hear a blade of grass bending from across a meadow, he added, “Yes, I think he meant ‘attack.’”
“And they’ll do it tomorrow. But when? Day or night?” Vir cursed softly.
They waited about a quarter of a minute for the man on the outside, who had broken off from his drumming, to finish. Maybe he had been spotted by a guard. Or maybe he'd only paused to worry about a passer-by overhearing.
“T … M … O … R … R … O … W ... N …I …H …T,” came the knock.
“Okay,” said Vir. “Nice of them to tell us. We've got some time. We'll be ready.”
Chapter Six, Scene One