In Book 5 of the Frank Nagler Mysteries, NAGLER’S SECRET, the mystery and the clues are more tangled than usual:
Here, Nagler and Captain Ramirez sort through tiny slips of cardboard containing messages that were found in an abandoned cabin.
“Detective Frank Nagler and Captain Maria Ramirez stared at the pile of strips of cardboard on the table.
“This is worse than pick up sticks we played as a kid,” she said as she examined one half-inch piece. “Does that say Bayonne?” She handed it to Nagler.
He squinted at the paper, then shrugged.
“Either that or Day one.”
“What are these supposed to represent, Frank?”
“At first we thought they were information about the kids, like hometowns, so Bayonne would make sense. Maybe their names, parents’ names. The other day I took a random handful and wrote down what I found.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out the list. “Look. Three of them said ‘tall.’ There were three others
with numbers – a 1, a 5 and 18. There was ‘Newark’ but there was also a ‘Newark 12.’”
“How long do you think the kids were stuffing these notes in the wall of that cabin?”
“Good question, Maria. How long has this been going on? Better question? How many such cabins were there?” Nagler leaned back. “Sister Katherine’s old battered women’s network had at least eight safe houses, half out of state.”
Ramirez stood and stretched, the leaned over the table with her balled fists as supports.
“Why did the kids stuff these notes in the walls? Who did they expect to see them?”
“Other kids. How do inmates spread news? Code words. These kids were inmates, Maria.”
“Okay, look for numbers. Here’s some,” She reached for three or four of the cardboard tabs. “Look, 579. 3, here’s and odd one, 2-20.”
Together they set aside fifteen tabs with numbers.
“What do numbers represent, Frank?”
“Order? Best you can do, Frank?” She smiled.
“Yeah. Street numbers, hours and minutes on a clock, age…”
“Height, weight, directions, you know, three blocks up, four blocks over…”
“Measurements, four feet, eight feet, nine inches…”
“This whole mess, this pile of hints and odd words is a story,” Ramirez said. “Let’s start by pulling numbers and see what it tells us.”
They shuffled through the tabs and found twenty-five more.
“Okay,’ she said, “579 could be the country road.”
“31 is also a road. Do they intersect?”
“So is 3, but that’s East Jersey.”
“Still, maybe a road heading for home.”
“Maybe.” Ramirez shook her head. “I think it’s more of a direction. On a compass face north is at 12, east at 3, south at 6 and west at 9.
“So 31-6 is take Route 31 south?”
“These are all mixed up, aren’t they, from different tubes found in the wall.”
Nagler nodded, “Yeah, we should have kept them separate. That was dumb.”
“Not necessarily. The kids new to the cabin wouldn’t have known the order. So these notes might not have been date specific, just basic information, a road map of sorts.”
“You’re on to something. Somehow the kids knew this information was in the wall, but they had to piece the meaning together. Like, if you run east” – he held up a 3 – “on the …” Nagler searched the tabs on the table and pulled out several and held them up before placing them in order “…’pine,’ maybe a trail through a stand of pine trees…” He held up a 5… “Five miles. Look, ‘red’ maybe red… this one ‘sign’, a stop sign? … or farm…” he held up a tab that said “tractor. A place with a red tractor, red barn… Then what…” Another tab, “cash.” … “Someone’s name? Maybe a bank, a direction to a bank…a marker on an escape trail…”
“Maybe not a bank, but ‘cache,’ misspelled, meaning deposit, a place to hide, steal, acquire, find…” She held up a tab, “‘food.’” She picked up another tab and another with three dollar signs. “Find food or cash. We know that kid who escaped, Oscar, was helped by a network.” She shrugged. “Why not?”
Nagler walked around the table.
“Every one of these has a double meaning. How did the kids sort it out?”
“A keyword,” Maria said. “Codes often have a symbol or word that says, ‘after this word or mark, is the message…’ So maybe there was a known list of keywords that clued in the new kids to the messages.”
“Where are we going with this, Frank? Is this going to get us any closer to the mess before us?”
“How do you tear down a wall?” He held up one hand. “Depends on whether you are inside the wall or outside. These are from the inside.”
Maria leaned over the table with the cardboard pieces. She stirred one of the small piles.
“Also depends on what the wall is made of. What’s this wall made of, Frank? Stone? Brick, Wood? Paper? Ideas?”
“Yup. Every wall has gaps, bad mortar, a seam that lets in water, a document that contains flawed logic, never tested, a belief become calcified, so stiff a tiny rock cracks it.” He waved his hand over the cardboard slips. “These are the tiny rock, Maria. We decode it and we are inside Sunshine Farms.”
For more Frank Nagler:
DRAGONY RISING, Book 5 in the series was named a 2022 Notable 100 Indie Book by Shelf Unbound Book Awards, and presented First Place for Mysteries in the 2022 Royal Dragonfly Book Awards.