Coded Freedom

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Keith ducked as another plate flew at his head.

“You bastard!” His wife Valerie screamed. “My friends were right about you, you cheating ass-hole!”

“I have never cheated on you,” he said, dodging a fork this time. He really hadn’t been cheating. Yes, he’d spent the afternoon with another woman, but not for anything perverted. He didn’t have long to explain it to her though. She was nearing the wooden block that contained the really sharp knives.

“I was helping an old friend,” he said. “She’s in trouble and needs me to help her figure it out. I’m the only one left that she can trust.”

“One of your ex-girlfriends I bet.” A bowl was launched.

“No, just an old friend from college. She’s been accused of murdering her husband for the insurance money, but she didn’t do it.”

“So now your cheating and aiding a fugitive?” There went the whisk.

“I’m not cheating and she’s not a fugitive. She’s just a suspect so far because they haven’t found enough evidence to charge her, but they probably will soon because she’s being set up.”

The volley of cooking implements ceased. “How can you be sure?”

“Because I know her, and I know how much she loved John. I have to help her.”

Valerie slumped into one of the matching chairs that surrounded the kitchen table. “Do what you have to.”

Thankful that her temper had finally played itself out with no serious injuries, Keith kissed his wife on the cheek before heading out the door.

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Earlier that day Keith had met up with Jenny, a lady he had known for years, and even though he hadn’t seen her in almost a decade, he recognized her immediately. She looked older than he remembered her, but that was to be expected. The surprising part was the haunted look in her eyes. Eyes that had clearly seen something horrific.

“What’s wrong?” He asked. In hindsight it seemed odd that he would start with that rather than some kind of greeting, but from the very first glance, he knew she was in trouble.

“It’s John. He’s dead.”

“What?” Keith had to take a moment to steady himself. He’d known John even longer that Jenny. In fact it was Keith who’d introduced them. “How?”

“A man came into our house last night. He was demanding that John give him some file. John said he didn’t know what the man was talking about. The man started waving a gun around and I crept up behind him, jumped on his back and grabbed for it. I heard two shots and I screamed. The next thing I remember, I was in the hospital with guards around my door.”

“Holy shit Jenny, slow down.” Keith said. “Did you talk to the police?”

“Soon after I woke up, a detective, Wilson I think it was, came in and took a statement. He acted like he didn’t believe me. I was so confused. Then I heard the guards outside talking about me having GSR, whatever that is, on my hands. By the tones of their voices I knew I was their prime suspect.”

“GSR is gun shot residue, and you’d have had it on your hands from it going off while you tried to wrestle it from the killer. Do you know anything about the file the man wanted, or maybe what John had been working on?”

Jenny sighed. “John doesn’t tell me much about his work anymore. He used to, but I got so worried about him and the people he dealt with that he stopped. He was a good man. Why would anyone do this?”

John had been a private investigator. A brilliant man, but terrible at taking tests. After failing to qualify as a detective three times, he opened his own business. He was great at his job, and would’ve been a much better at this than Keith was, but that wasn’t an option.

“I don’t know, but I will do what I can to help you.” Keith thought for a moment. “What made you come to me? I cook for a living. I don’t know how much help I’ll be.”

“Because of this.” Jenny said, handing him a folded up piece of paper. “John must have known that something bad was happening because just a week ago he gave me this and told me that if anything happened to him that I should bring this to you and remind you of the good old days.”

“The good old days, huh?” Keith arched an eyebrow while unfolding the paper. When he looked at it, he was sure she’d made a mistake. “He told you to give me this?”

“Yeah.”

“What the hell is it?”

“I thought you’d know. It looks like gibberish to me.”

Keith shook his head and examined the paper again. It didn’t make any more sense on the second viewing:

EHDOOC TAEEIE ENPOTR CYNNPI HTHATR AGRHEE PSINRT FEBDJT ENDSIL RTEOAY OWNOSH LTNAUE TLGCOO SLR

“And the only message he gave you was to remind me of the good old days?”

She nodded. “That’s it.”

“Trust John to leave us a damned riddle to tell us what’s going on.”

Keith thought back to when he first met John. It was in middle school. Their mutual love of puzzles had brought them together despite John being popular and Keith being less so. They had actually come up with some riddles together, even creating codes together while they were in that ‘I want to be a secret agent’ phase that virtually every boy goes through after seeing a few James Bond movies.

Thinking back to that stopped Keith in his tracks. Created codes together. There was no way that John would use one of those old things. How could he even remember them? Keith took another look at the paper and his jaw dropped. There was no doubt about it. John had used their favorite creation, the cypher they’d dubbed the triatomic code, despite it having nothing to do with molecules or chemistry, they just thought it sounded cool. It was, however, based on the number three, so at least they got that part right.

“Do you know what it means?” Jenny asked.

“No, but I think I know how to figure it out. It’s been a long time since I’ve decoded something like this, it’s going to take some time. Can I take this and get back to you later?”

“Yeah,” she said, looking at the paper like it was her last link to her dead husband.

“I won’t let anything happen to this and we’ll get our answers.”

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After almost being knocked unconscious by his own wife, Keith headed to the library. He needed somewhere quiet to work on this code. Considering it was made by a couple twelve year old kids, it wasn’t exactly computer age encryption, but it would still take some time to decipher. It involved splitting the code into three letter sections, then moving the last letter of each group forward three places, while putting the first letter back the same amount. After doing this, it could be read once spaces and some punctuation were added.

After ten minutes he finally had his answer, and it didn’t make him happy.

Seconds later he was on the phone. He needed to meet Jenny, and it needed to be now.

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“Your call sounded urgent,” Jenny said once she had arrived at the library. “Did you figure it out?”

Keith nodded, knowing that she wasn’t going to like the answer. “The cops are in on it. They’re protecting the bastards. Help Jenny find the answers. Go to our old locale.”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s what the note said after I decrypted it.”

Jenny frowned. “Locale seems like an odd choice of wording, does it mean something to you?”

“I thought the same thing, but I’m pretty sure he was just trying to make the number of letters divisible by three for the code. Either way, I know where he’s talking about. It’s at least an hour drive from here.”

“Ready to go?”

“Sure,” Keith said. “Why not? May as well get this out of the way.”

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They approached the underpass slowly. Keith hadn’t been there in years and back in the day, it was where teenagers hung out to do things that weren’t, strictly speaking, legal. Back then, it was mostly just smoking a little pot, but kids these days were into much harder things and the last thing they needed was to walk into a drug deal. Luckily, it seemed to be abandoned.

Jenny’s expression said more than her words ever could. By the time she’d met John, he was a respectable college student, well on his way to a degree in criminal justice.

“Are you sure this is it?” She asked. “I can’t imagine John ever being seen in a place like this.”

“I’m sure.” Keith said, knowing full well that there were things that she would never know about her late husband, and he wasn’t going to be the one to tell her. Let her keep her ideal mental image of him.

He moved into the darkness that was the path beneath the road and turned on his flashlight. When he was younger, he could have found the right place by feel alone, but after so long, he would need to see in order to find it.

It didn’t take long.

Amid all the graffiti plastered on the walls, he found a brick with a shallow carving in to. All it said was J/K. Any of the kids who might find it now probably thought it meant just kidding, but it was for John/Keith and it was there little hiding place from when they played spies. They called it a dead drop because that’s what they called it on TV, but it was really just a place where they stashed their tiny bags of weed so they didn’t have to carry them around.

Keith stood before the stone and started jiggling it. When Jenny saw the stone begin to slide from its place, she lost her look of disbelief. Once it was out, Keith extracted a quarter inch thick manilla envelope from the cavity. John must have done some excavation since the last time Keith had been there. As kids, it was a tiny hole, barely big enough to accommodate a folded scrap of paper, not it hid something much larger.

With their focus firmly stuck on the object they’d retrieved from the hiding place, they never heard the footsteps approaching from behind.

“I think you’ll be giving that to me now.”

The sound of a gun being cocked was all it took for them to take this faceless voice seriously. Both raised their hands.

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“Slowly set the envelope on the ground and slide it back toward the sound of my voice.”

Having needed glasses with lenses as thick as a TV remote since he was four years old, and being damn near legally blind without them, Keith’s other senses had grown more acute over the years. He could tell where the man was behind him and how far away. He purposely slid the package a few feet too far to the right, and well past the man.

He heard the man lurch in the direction of the fleeing documents and Keith took his chance. He turned and hurled the engraved brick at the back of the man’s head. It connected with a nasty crack and the man went down. Only once he’d turned around did he notice that the man wore a police uniform.

“Shit,” he said. “Now I’ve assault a law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon. We to need figure out what the hell is in here, get it to someone who will be able to use it, and do so before this guy wakes up and presses charges against me.”

They replaced the stone in the wall before running back to Jenny’s car.

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“That was Wilson,” Jenny said once they were driving away from the scene. “He was the one who interviewed me at the police station. He must be the one John was trying to warn us about.”

“Seems likely,” Keith said between raspy breaths. He hadn’t ran in a very long time and almost threw up when they’d gotten back to the car. He was glad Jenny was driving. It gave him time to get his breath back and have a look at what was in the envelope.

“Well this sucks,” Keith said after browsing the first few pages.

“What?”

“It seems that several officers were involved in some highly illegal things, but there’s no way to tell which ones were dodgy.”

“Excuse me? It doesn’t say who was involved?”

“The original documents probably did, but these look like those declassified documents that you always see on the conspiracy websites. Someone went through and blacked out every name. There are lots of details about what evils they perpetrated, but no way to tell who was responsible for each individual act. There’s extortion, drug trafficking, a couple murders, and lots of bribery detailed here, but not a single name attached to any of it.”

“So we’re back at square one?”

“Maybe, but they don’t need to know that.”

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Wilson’s head felt like it’d been stomped by every member of the Miami Dolphins when he awoke. Reaching up to inspect the damage, he could feel the sticky wetness of blood on his scalp. He’d let his guard down while trying to retrieve the files and he’d paid for it, but he’d get them back. They’d now assaulted a law enforcement officer and that would be prison time. As long as he found them before someone else, he could make sure the information they’d uncovered never saw the light of day.

He headed back to his car at a brisk walk. He had to hurry if he was going to end this before they could make everything public.

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“So if there are original documents that show that the police force is corrupt, why hasn’t anything been done about it?” Jenny asked once they had gotten far enough away that she could stop the car and have a look herself. “Surely if there’s paperwork, then there must’ve been an investigation that produced those pages.”

“You’re right, but clearly whoever investigated it was in on it, and once they could no longer cover up their own involvement, they hushed -” Keith paused and squinted at something. “What is that?”

“What is what?”

“On the back of the page you’re holding, there’s writing in the corner.”

She flipped the page over. “It says Singer: Pages 7-9. What the hell does that mean?”

Keith shook his head. “It’s another one of John’s damned puzzles. I’m guessing the original documents are hidden somewhere that refers to Singer, and we need to find it. Any ideas?”

Jenny mulled it over. “I vaguely remember him having a client a while back who was either named Singer, or was looking for someone with that name. We could head over to his office and look through his files.”

“I think we’re going to have to.”

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They arrived at the office to find it torn apart. Files were strewn across the floor, and furniture had been dismantled, but Keith went about the task of finding the Singer file amidst the wreckage while Jenny disappeared into the back room. It took a surprisingly short amount of time to locate it, but what he found was not what he had been expecting.

Jenny walked back in to the main office to the sounds of Keith swearing.

“John, you know I loved you to death, but if you were still alive I might kill you myself,” he said to no one in particular.

“Another less-than-helpful clue?”

“Of course. The pages that he directed us to are pages of random letters. It looks like a freakin’ word search. Why couldn’t he have just given us directions to something clear and meaningful?”

“Because then the wrong people could’ve read them and destroyed the evidence. The fact that he hid this so well is probably why it survived the demolition of this office. Let’s get out of here, this can’t be safe with Wilson looking for us,” she said.

“You’re right, and I’m already here.”

They looked up to see a tired looking Wilson pointing his pistol at them.

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“Give me the files and we’ll forget all about you cracking my scalp open,” Wilson said, staring down the sight of his gun. “That’s all I want.”

“But I need these to prove my innocence,” Jenny said. “I will not go down for my husband’s murder. He was killed because of something he found.”

“I’m sorry that you got caught up in this, but those files can’t be made public.”

Jenny looked to Keith, who was nodding his head.

She sighed. “Fine, but I want your word that Keith will not face any charges. He was just helping me.”

“Done”

She handed the files to Wilson. He glanced through them quickly and ran out the door.

“I guess we’re screwed now,” Keith said. “I’m so sorry Jenny.”

“Don’t be,” she smiled. “I made copies.”

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They went to a late night fast food joint a few blocks away to go through the papers. Sitting at a table in the corner with a clear view of the door, and where the smell of burning fries wasn’t quite so strong, they spread everything out so they could try to find some connection between the word search pages and the copies of the files John had left them.

“All I can see so far,” Jenny said, “is that the lines are spaced the same. It’s the same size type and everything.”

Keith put one paper on top of the other and found that she was correct, but what he noticed was that the blacked out spots on the page he had lined up perfectly with strings of letters that could easily be names.

“Well I’ll be damned. He left us the names on the other pages. Line them up and you can read it.”

It took some time for them to find which pages lined up with which sets of random letters, but once they could read the whole story, they discovered why Wilson wanted the files so bad. He had been involved in a string of illegal activities that would land him in prison for a very long time.

“We need to get these out,” Keith said. “Do you know any of John’s contacts on the force? Preferably one that isn’t mentioned anywhere on these documents.”

“I know just the right guy. Let me call him and see if we can meet.”

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As they walked into the police station, they were greeted by Officer Caldwell, a man in his early sixties who’s name they recognized from the documents. In fact he was the very same cop who’s name had been associated with a murder who’s MO matched John’s death almost exactly.

“Can we speak to Detective Jacobs please?” Keith asked. Luckily Detective Jacobs, Jenny’s contact, had pulled the graveyard shift that night.

“And you are?” The officer asked.

“Keith Garvey.”

“And?”

“Jenny Woodhouse,” Jenny said.

The officer’s eyebrow shot up but he didn’t say anything.

“I’ll go see if he’s available.” Caldwell said.

It was only a minute later when Wilson appeared, grabbing Keith by his arm. “We need to talk. Follow me.”

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“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” Wilson asked. “We had an arrangement. You leave this alone and Keith never hit me with a brick.”

“We know what you did,” Jack said. “I will face the assault charge if it means Jenny isn’t getting time for murder.”

“What I did?” Wilson asked. “What do you think I did? All the names were blanked out. You have nothing.”

“My husband left us the names elsewhere and we put them together,” Jenny said. “I’m not going to prison to keep you out.”

Wilson deflated. “I was just trying to protect my dad’s name. If you check the dates on those, it’s from before I was even a cop. My dad wasn’t perfect, but he did some good things in this city. Almost every cop in there is already dead or retired. Can’t you just leave it alone?”

“One of those cops killed my husband, and this is the only link between those crimes and this one. This proves I’m innocent!”

“Fine.” Wilson said. “Since I can’t stop you from releasing these, I’ll make you a deal. You let me doctor the originals to black out the names of every cop who’s dead, charges against them will do nothing but tarnish their memories, and you can turn that in to Detective Jacobs. Those who can still face charges will. I still won’t press charges against Keith and you will both be free to go.”

“Deal,” Jenny said.

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The ballistics in the report were a match to the ones in John’s murder and they watched from the lobby as Officer Caldwell and two others were arrested. There were others who were either retired or had the night off, but they’d be in cuffs before breakfast.

“How does it feel to be a free woman?” Keith asked.

“Wonderful,” Jenny said. “How can I ever repay you?”

“You could buy me some new plates and bowls. My previous set were recently thrown at my head.”

Jenny shook her head, having no idea what he was talking about. “I think I can manage that.”

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