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Synopsis Some mysteries can be unravelled with the help of books. Some mysteries live inside them.
Date September 15, 2018

Prufrock's Books: Bay Ridge

This tiny bookstore makes up for quaintness and style what it lacks in size and volume. Brightly-painted red doors are an inviting welcome to the little shop. Within, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling shelves take up three of the four walls, but for the front. There, the cash wrap doubles as a coffee stand, and the cashiers as baristas.

In front of the counter is a small space for a few customers to sit and drink their coffee comfortably. It's set a little like a living room, with a sofa, a coffee table, and armchairs clustered around it, all shades of red, bronze, and violet. On the coffee table sit a few board games, inviting those who wish to stay and linger to do so.

As it often is, the tiny bookstore with floor to ceiling shelves, is home to a few quiet patrons. Two older men, one skinny with graying hair and a gentle expression, one plump with glasses and a rueful grin sitting across from each other at a board game, occasionally reaching to move one of the white or black pieces. On one of the armchairs is a young teen, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans torn to be shorts, big heavy leather boots on her feet as she leans back.

The coffeeshop is, sadly, closed for the moment, with a 'Sorry, No Coffee Today, Bottled Water Available $1' sign folded on the countertop. The barista and cashier, a dark skinned woman with her hair pulled back with beaded braids seems to be occupied with doing her nails, the soft smell of nail polish lingering in the air.

A cardboard display featuring The Wolves of Valhalla sits not far from the interest, obviously provided by the publisher.

Even though Squeaks doesn't often get to the bookstore — it's a short hike from her usual haunting places — she does know where it is. And, today, she decided to start there in her quest for new knowledge instead of the library. It's a given that she'll end at the library, so why not poke around someplace new? It's a change of scenery, and a different selection of books from what she's more familiar with, after all, and maybe something will jump out at her that she hadn't seen before.

Letting herself into the small building, she pauses to look with wonder at the shelves and shelves of books. After a second or two, those eyes of hers wander over the other few patrons, passing vague interest over the chess game and closed coffee shop. The book display drags her to a second pause to let her look at the book cover a little more closely. But, since that's not really why she's here, she wanders off after a few seconds.

Wandering almost aimlessly for a little bit gives her the chance to figure out the way the store is set up. Almost like a library, but without being a library seems accurate enough. But eventually Squeaks picks out a place to sit and open the book she's had tucked under her arm since arriving. That weird leather-covered journal has been with her more often than it hasn't, at least while she's had no plans to explore the Underneath or make a trip to a neighboring island. So it's with her again today, with the intent of trying to puzzle over the strange writings inside.

As it has been every time she's looked at it since the first time, the book's pages are filled with letters that don't seem to have any rhyme or reason about them. Possibly a letter substition code, because she doubts this would be another language. The lettering, as smooth and botch free as they were, seemed hand written, in very dark, black ink, with the lettering slightly different occasionally to support that. A curve or a twist that's slightly different from the last time the letter appeared, a hint that makes each one slightly unique and not printed. But the ink is never blotched, the ink isn't faded, looking almost as if it were just applied. None of the letters are smudged, either. It almost seems too perfect for hand written.

The chess game at the nearby table seems to end, the skinny man shaking his head and making his black king lay down in an admission of defeat.

When Squeaks eyes return to the page, again, there's something different than there'd been a moment ago. The letters were gone. Replaced with dots and dashes. Repeating over and over and over, filling both the pages she's looking down at. And every one before and after.

... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- ... ... --- …

Cradling a cheek in her hand, Squeaks stares at the pages. Maybe by some force of will she'll have figured out how to unscramble the letters or some key will pop out at her that will unlock the hidden messages. It's the same home she's had every time she's opened the book, but that it's still hiding its secrets from her hasn't stopped her from trying.

Her eyes wander from time to time, going unfocused or slanting toward some movement. The action of the chess game draws her attention for all of a second, eyebrows pushing upward when one of the two men show defeat. Then shifting again, she looks over at the teen who's residing in the overstuffed armchair, but there's nothing super interesting there. So she goes back to her book. There's got to be some way to break the code.

That's now not just a jumble of letters, but dots and dashes. She even checks forward and back, eyebrows screwing downward in confusion. "That's… Is it…" She even closes the book and opens it again to see if it stays the same. Then, climbing out of the chair, she slowly turns a full circle. Her eyes bounce from the pages to the books on the shelves around her, wondering — and hoping — they carry books on codes.

The dots and dashes continue to repeat, over and over. It doesn't change back when she closes the book, doesn't change to something else. No one in the room seems to have noticed. The two men are resetting the board, with the colors now swapped, the teen is quietly flipping her book, whispering to herself (perhaps she's one of those who can't help but read outloud a little) and the barista applies a clear coat to her now purple with gold lines and dot nails.

The bookshelves feel impossibly full, but a few do stand out when she skins the titles for codes. The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh, Modern Codes: The Art of Cryptology by Ruri Kobayashi, Making, Breaking Codes: Introduction to Cryptology by Paul Garrett, Code Breaking, By Vlasis Kouris as well as a few others, some larger and newer looking, some older and used.

The journal is hugged to her chest as she takes a couple of timid steps away from her seat. Squeaks casts looks at the barista and others doing their things, then ducks behind those shelves. She drags a finger over the spines as she reads the titles, head tilted to the side so they're less sideways. She picks out a couple, sliding the Introduction to Cryptology book and the one on Code Breaking from the shelf.

She peeks around the shelf again, but figures no one's going to care so long as she doesn't steal anything. Then, she sits right there on the floor, legs folded criss-cross. The journal is laid in the crook of her shins and the code breaking book is opened first. Squeaks doesn't bother with indexes or tables of contents, but flips right through the pages, skimming for anything that might look close to dots and dashes.

From the way the teenager is reading her unpurchased book, one might imagine that they don't care much unless someone accidentally spills something on a book or tries to walk out with it. And maybe the current cashier wouldn't even notice. Maybe.

As Squeaks skims through the books, she comes upon a segments on dashes and dots pretty quickly. Morse code. According to Vlasis Kouris, it's a rather simplistic code that was first used in the mid-1800s, with three versions, an International version, a Continental version and an American version. Can make use of telegraph, physical tapping, flashing lights, and other forms. In the first paragraph it says that three dots, three dashes and three dots are the universal and most common sign for SOS, an international sign of distress.

Another peek is is given, over her shoulder, but it's quick and really doesn't show anything new. The other store-goers ignored, Squeaks lays the opened book in front of her, so the page with information shows and can easily be compared to the journal. "This is weird," she says out loud, hardly more than what she'd use in the library. One finger traces lightly over the dots and dashes, following as she lists each cluster out loud. "S, O, S, S, O, S, S, O, S… Okay… But what do you need help with?"

As she looks on, the black ink covering the book changes before her eyes. Dots become dashes, dashes become dots, some stay exactly as they were. When it finishes moving about against the white backdrop and settles, a new string repeats itself.

... -.-. .- - - . .-. . -.. .-.. --- ... - -.-. .- -. ·----· - --. . - -... .- -.-. -.- ... -.-. .- - - . .-. . -.. .-.. --- ... - -.-. .- -. ·----· - --. . - -... .- -.-. -.- ... -.-. .- - - . .-. . -.. .-.. --- ... - -.-. .- -. ·----· - --. . - -... .- -.-. -.- ... -.-. .- - - . .-. . -.. .-.. --- ... - -.-. .- -. ·----· - --. . - -... .- -.-. -.-

It continues and continues.

Seeing the effects of the change just prompts curiosity. Seeing the change happen? That causes a startled, "What?" Probably louder than she intended, definitely louder than library volumes. Her hands lift away from the pages and she stares at the dots and dashes changing around to become …still dots and dashes but now different. "Primal," Squeaks breathes as things settle into a new order.

The borrowed books are left on the floor as she stands, but the journal is again left open clutched against her chest. She tippy-toes around the bookshelf to go to the counter, with some hesitation between visiting the cashier watching over the shop or the barista painting her nails. It's the latter of the two she chooses to shyly approach. "Do… do you have a pen I could borrow, please? And a blank paper?" Because this is going to need writing.

At the outburst, the two older men glance over briefly, but ignore it after a moment, assuming the kid just read something that confused her. It's the teen who, when she glances over with a raised eyebrow, continues to watch her for a long moment before returning to her book. Maybe she's surprised to see someone only a few years younger than her, maybe something else.

The cashier looks up from a clear coat over her nails and, as she can't actually touch anything, she points with too long pinky nail at a small pad of ripped paper and a pen. "Just bring the pen back." Probably used by customers who wanted to write down the store owners phone number or some other piece of info—

The dashes and dots haven't seem to have changed in the meantime, but could she know for sure if it had? It's not back to hand written letters in a seemingly random order, though, still dashes and dots.

Feeling like she's being watched, Squeaks chances a look with just her eyes moving. It doesn't help for seeing who's watching her, things get all blurry when its beyond her periphery, and she pretends like it's nothing. Not interesting at all, just a kid trying to take some notes. "I will," she promises as she gathers up pen and paper so she can rush back to her corner on the floor.

Hoping the message hasn't changed, she sets the journal down again just as before. Group by group she works slowly, checking and rechecking the groups of dots and dashes in the journal against the chart in the book before committing them to paper. Then, when she's triply-double sure of it, she writes down each letter in an unpracticed hand.

//S C A T T E R E D L O S T C A N ' T G E T B A C K S C A T T E— //.

As the letters begin repeating, she stops to tap the pen against her chin. "Where," the girl finds herself asking. She's quiet again this time, back to using her library voice. "Scattered and lost… can't get back. Where were you, and where should you be?"

The dots and dashes pull together into a smudge of black ink in thick lines that then slowly transform into symbols, letters, numbers, almost as if it's trying to figure out how to convey what it wants. As if the dots and dashes weren't enough. The letters and the symbols don't match what they had been before, not even in the writing style. They seem more in the style of typeface than before. It doesn't last. The black continues to contrast with the white, the left to right text starts to go up to down for a moment, still more symbols than letters.

Then it's all numbers again, just ones and zeroes. Then it's back to dots and dashes. It seems to stay there this time.

..-. --- .-.. .-.. --- .-- . -.. - .-. .- .--. .--. . -.. - .-. .. . -.. - --- .... .. -.. . -- --- ... - --- ..-. -- . .... . .-. . - .... . .-. . ... - .-.. --- ... - -.-. .- -. ·----· - ..-. .. -. -.. .. - -.-. .- -. ·----· - ..-. . . .-.. .. - .-.. --- ... - .... . .-.. .--. -- . .... . .-.. .--. -- . .... . .-.. .--. -- . .... . .-.. .--. -- . .... . .-.. .--. -- .

This time only the last part seems to be repeating over and over.

"Oh no, I broke it." Squeaks' voice is barely a whisper when the dots and dashes go all blobby then shift and change from symbols to letters and numbers. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it." She watches, captivated by the movement, but nervous also. Some part of her knows she should try to copy some of it down before it changes again, in case something does make sense when there's time to really look at it, but the pen doesn't move.

When it settles again into some kind of sense of dots and dashes, she leans forward. It's a lot tougher this time, with so many more letters, and it takes longer to work through it. But soon enough the pen is moving again, working out each letter the same as before.

F O L L O W E D T R A P P E D T R I E D T O H I D E M O S T O F M E H E R E T H E R E S T L O S T C A N ' T F I N D I T C A N ' T F E E L I T L O S T H E L P M E H E L P M E —

Lowering the pen again, a frown once more creases her forehead. Not only is it strange, but also it's kind of worrying. A book that can talk? Or maybe someone is making it talk. "I can't help if I don't know where," Squeaks explains. "I will, but where do I look? — Who are you?" That last question is added as an afterthought, and quickly in case the answers come faster.

The dots and dashes seem to quiver for a moment, almost like ripples running through and over it, but with no apparent source or cause. After a long moment it shifts and changes, settling into another series of dots and dashes.

.... .. -.. .. -. .- -... --- -..- ... .... .. .--. -- . -. - --- ..-. -... --- --- -.- ... - .... . .-- --- .-.. ...- . ... --- ..-. ...- .- .-.. .... .- .-.. .-.. .- .-.. --- --- -.- ..-. --- .-. -- . .. -. - .... . .-- --- .-.. ...- . ... --- ..-. ...- .- .-.. .... .- .-.. .-.. .- .... . .-.. .--. -- .

Again, the dots and dashes she just recognized from before continue to repeat in previous pages and after. Help me. Help me.

Again, cradling her chin in her hands, with her elbows braced against her knees, Squeaks stares down at the book in fascinated curiosity. It’s pretty amazing watching the dots and dashes shift and change and do things to become other words. She waits patiently for the answers to come again, not wanting to rush the… whatever or whoever and end up with crazy cryptography again. And when the dots and dashes do settle again into new words, she lets out a tiny “Yay.”

She works a little more quickly this time in translating. It’s easier now, as she’s beginning to recognize the groups she’s seen more often. The newer ones she still has to check over against the chart in the book, but eventually she does get them all written out.

H I D I N G B O X S H I P M E N T O F B O O K S T H E W O L V E S O F V A L H A L L A L O O K F O R M E I N T H E W O L V E S O F V A L H A L L A H E L P M E.

Sitting back, she stares at the words on the paper. “Hiding in a shipment,” she asks herself. Straightening a lot, so that her back stretches, Squeaks leans to look around the bookshelf to where the display stand is. “That book is really new,” she again wonders out loud, returning to looking at the journal. How would a really old journal know about a really new book?

“I’ll help you,” the girl states firmly. “But what am I looking for?”

The ripple effect happens again, but it doesn’t take quite as long for the dots to spread into dashes, and the dashes into dots with slight white space forming between letters. After a time, some of them are quicker to recognize.

- .... .- -. -.- -.-- --- ..- - .... .- -. -.- -.-- --- ..- - .... .- -. -.- -.-- --- ..- -... --- --- -.- ... .. -. ... .. -.. . - .... . -... --- --- -.- …

The older men continue to play their game of chess, the teen kicks her feet up and stands, wandering over to the counter to buy the book she’d been reading. The cashier fans her nails one last time, so that she can carefully take the cash.

The pen taps against her nose as the dots and dashes figure out how to line up this time, but she’s ready to start writing as the first groups begin to settle into a form that makes sense. Squeaks still sometimes looks at the chart, there’s still letters she isn’t quite sure of, but there’s enough repeating groups that she can remember what they stand for.

T H A N K Y O U T H A N K Y O U T H A N K Y O U.

“You’re welcome,” Squeaks says as she pauses in translating the code. It might seem silly to answer a book, but she’s being pretty quiet about it. She starts writing again, knuckley grip moving the pen to form letters while a finger on the other hand keeps track of where she’s at.

B O O K S I N S I D E T H E B O O K S.

Nose scrunching a little with a thoughtful expression, the girl looks up from the writing and leans way forward again so she can see around the shelf. There’s that stand again, with its display of The Wolves of Valhalla. She gathers up all her papers, the translations stuffed into her hoodie pocket. She collects the borrowed books to put back on the shelf and her own journal is clutched protectively under an arm as she stands. Scooting around the shelf, she beelines for the display to claim a copy for herself, pausing only to glance at the still-going chess game. Then, with book in hand, she slides into line behind the other teen to return the pen and purchase the book.

The teen looks back, eyebrow raising as she takes her book and presses it under her arm. It’s not one of the books on display, but a novel that seems to have a historical romance flare to it. Paperback, something that could be read in almost any setting. Though the people on the cover look completely unrealistic. Mean Heat has always been a hit locally, after all, due to local author. The bookstore still has a few copies for sale.

The dark haired girl steps out of the way, muttering something softly to… herself? Maybe. It’s hard to tell for sure. It’s almost like she’s talking to someone standing right there, but she’s not. The cashier shifts, not even needing to scan a barcode or anything because the ‘special display’ is known to her. She just punches in the price. “Anything else?” she asks before she finalizes. “Thanks for returning the pen.” Not everyone did.

Peering up at the other teen, Squeaks shuffles aside just slightly so she can be passed without being jostled. Her gaze follows the other girl as the counter becomes clear, curiosity etching lines into her brow at the muttering. Well, some people do talk to themselves. Still, it’s a little strange. She startles a little when the cashier lady speaks and shakes her head mutely.

It takes her a few seconds to come up with the cash to pay for the book — unofficial earnings from Raytech most likely — and slide it across the counter with a distracted glance over her shoulder. “Thanks,” the girl offers, picking up the new book and tucking it alongside the journal as she hurries to follow the strange teenager.

It doesn’t take long for the cashier to take the money and dole out change, but in that short time, the young teen is already well down the street, heading east. There’s a lot of people on the streets— not as many as in some areas of the city, but enough the long dark hair disappears behind a taller figure as she turns. Standing, especially in the thick soled boots, the teen was tall, but even then, adult men seemed to have a height on her. She rounds into an alley, and when the younger teen catches up, she was gone.

In the shadowy vestiges of the alley, Squeaks can feel something cool and wet feeling on her arm, almost as if rainwater had dropped down on it when the sky seemed clear enough.

When she looks, though, it’s not rain. It’s… something else. A black liquid shape on the back of her wrist. At least it felt like liquid at first, but then seemed to soak into her skin. It no longer felt cold or wet, but even if she tried to wipe it away it did not leave or fade or smudge. It looked like three thin lines running nearly parallel to each other and connected by a line running through their middle. The bottom line arched up a little, and the middle line was shorter.


“Hey.” Squeaks’ call is not particularly forceful, or loud, as she pushes her way out of the store and into the street. It’s done as she scans the other people, the grown-ups with their busy-ness and others doing whatever they do during the day. What change she might have is shoved into a pocket, and the books in her arms are juggled until they’re hugged tightly against her chest. She takes off running, or tries, ducking around hips and elbows, once she thinks she’s caught sight of the strange girl.

It’s not easy, getting around grown-ups who have better things to do than move out of the way for someone in a rush. Typical New York City, even if the city isn’t what it used to be. The girl gave up on trying, “Excuse me” just a few steps away from the storefront, and settled for jostling and pushing past when she couldn’t outright run.

Entering the alley, her feet skid to a stop. Wide eyed and trying to catch her breath, she takes a few timid steps further into the narrow strip of road between buildings, calling out a nervous, “Hello?” She slinks another few steps deeper into alley, only to stop when she feels the drippy sensation. But she looks up first, accusing clouds or some spill that isn’t there. When Squeaks does look at her wrist, the character that’s suddenly there is just stared at. It wasn’t there before! She gives it a quick rub against her hip, then a longer one when the lines remain. Still finding herself marked, somehow, she tries a third time with a huff.

The girl blows out a breath when three times of scrubbing leaves her marked. “Maybe no one will notice,” she says out loud. She doubts it, though. Someone will see and ask about it. Just in case she missed someone looking, she takes another peek down the alley before she turns around to find her way home. There’s a book to read, after all.

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