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Message in a Bottle

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"What do you mean, I can't see him?" There was a dangerous edge to Peter Jakes' voice.

"It wouldn't be safe, for him or for you," Chief Bright answered firmly. He glanced toward the ward where Thursday lay asleep, Win sitting at his side holding his hand. "We must tread carefully."

"But he's innocent! The evidence he gave Strange, his alibi for when the Chief Constable was shot, the gun used for that the same one used by Angela McGarrett to kill Deare-- I requested his hands be tested for gunshot residue myself, and I'm just waiting on the results."

Bright sighed. "I understand. The inquiry knows all of this. We must be patient. Morse is in the safest place he can be for now."

*****

"He must think we've abandoned him. You know how he gets." Jakes said over pints at the Flag that night.

"I know," Strange said heavily. "If there was only a way we could get a message to him. Let him know we're trying to get him out. Maybe something in the classifieds?"

Jakes made a moue of disgust. "Like nobody else would figure it out: EM- FT doing well, working to get you out."

Yet the idea stuck with Jakes. How could he get a message to Morse that no one else would notice? He fell asleep still pondering the problem.

It was his turn to guard Thursday that morning. He stopped at the inspector's bedside to check on him first, before taking his place outside the ward door. Bright was dozing in one chair, while Mrs. Thursday was knitting on the other side.

"Good morning, dear."

"Good morning, Mrs. Thursday." Jakes found himself wondering yet again, with a pang in his heart, what his life would have been like with her for a mum.

Thursday's eyes flickered open. "Morning, Jakes," he rasped, hoarse from coughing.

"Morning, sir." Thursday had lost weight and was still far too pale, but he'd turned a corner, clawing his way back in the general direction of health. Jakes realized he was probably the best person in Oxford to answer the question he was still mulling. "If you wanted to get a message to Morse, one that no one else was likely to notice, how would you do it?"

"Hide it in a crossword puzzle, of course. And you call yourself a detective," Thursday teased gently. "Case that brought him to us, a puzzle setter was hiding clues for rendezvous sites and times for his girlfriend in his puzzles. Morse was the one spotted them."

"I'm an idiot," Jakes muttered.

"Go talk to Miss Frazil. She's been trying to see him, in the guise of an interview, but the warden won't permit her."

On his way to the station that afternoon, Jakes stopped in at the Oxford Mail to see Dorothea Frazil. "Who sets your crosswords?"

"We have multiple puzzle setters. Why?"

"Would there be a way to-- hide a message in one? That only one person would understand?"

Dorothea looked at him intently. "Only one person." She pulled out a file. "Is this person receiving the paper?"

"Word through the bush telegraph is, he's been receiving it thanks to an anonymous donor."

"Is that so?" Dorothea looked studiously innocent, which told him all he needed to know. She paged through the puzzles. "It might be possible. I don't dare ask one of our setters to do it, but I might be able to-- adjust-- one."

*****

The closest thing to a high point to Morse's days was when the newspaper was slipped through the food slot in his cell door. To spend a few hours immersed in the outside world, to lose himself in a crossword, was the only thing holding off utter despair. No visitors, no letters, not a word from anyone. They'd kept word of Thursday's condition out of the news; he wasn't sure if the lack of a paragraph on the obituaries page was a good thing or merely false hope.

They wouldn't let him have a pen, so he picked up a stubby pencil and went to work, solving clues. At one, he frowned. 'Luncheon meat or hammer-holder honour.' Eight letters. The first thing that leapt to mind was Thursday. But how would a puzzle-setter, most likely an Oxford don or fellow, know about Mrs. Thursday's sandwich schedule? He examined the second part of the clue. 'Hammer holder honour.' His mind cycled through possibilities, landing on the Norse god Thor, for whom Thursday had been named. He shrugged and filled it in, then continued. 'Where the wind comes sweeping through the plains, abbrev.' lay directly below it. It niggled at his memory, but rang no bells, so he continued to the next clue.

"He won't get that one," Jakes had told Dorothea. "It's opera he's into, not musicals."

In the end, it was solving adjacent clues that gave him OK. When he finished the puzzle, two clues leapt out at him: THURSDAY OK. His heart skipped a beat and he wondered if he was seeing things, so desperate for contact or a ray of hope that he was jumping at shadows.

The next day's puzzle yielded nothing. But the one after that held a few other odd clues. 'A clever lad in sunlight.' Six letters. The clue was phrased just differently enough from the style of the rest that it caught his eye. BRIGHT he wrote into the squares, and startled, then started looking at the adjacent clues. WORKING intersected BRIGHT at the R, and KNOWS intersected that at the W. He stared at them for a long minute. BRIGHT KNOWS, WORKING. It was clumsy but reassuring, and now he felt certain of what he was seeing. Messages were being slipped to him the one way they could be.

Monday's puzzle counseled PATIENCE FRIEND. Wednesday's said NEVER FORGOTTEN. Friday's said ALMOST THERE. They were never the same. Some intersected, some were atop one another, one was made of the first and last clues. One made him chuckle out loud: 'Avoids waxy yellow buildup'-- NORESIDUE. Someone had been watching too many housecleaning adverts on telly or something, but at least the gunshot residue test had gone in his favor.

He was still frightened, still sleeping badly, still losing weight he could ill afford to lose. But he'd been thrown a lifeline, and he clung to it like the drowning man he felt like.

*****

"So who did it?" Morse had taken Dorothea Frazil out for drinks after the Bixby investigation finished. He felt like he owed her at least a bit of inside dirt on the case, and had cleared it with Thursday first. Not to mention, he knew she'd had a hand in the crosswords, and he and Jakes felt fairly sure she was the one who'd made sure he got his daily paper in prison.

"I changed the words in the puzzles, then came up with the best clues I could. I'm not a puzzle setter."

"They usually blended in well enough."

"None of the setters noticed except Diogenes. He was quite upset that I'd changed his puzzle without consulting him. It was too bad, really-- Thursday's puzzle seemed the logical place to give you updates on the inspector's condition."

"It's all right. Knowing he was alive was enough."

"Thursday was the one who had the idea of hiding messages in the crossword. Quite clever of him, I thought. Jakes worked on them with me."

"Quite. I shall have to thank them."

"Yet you still hid out in the wilderness, like Thoreau at Walden Pond. Licking your wounds?"

"I suppose. I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue as a policeman, but it seems I have no choice. It's in my blood now."

The next afternoon he dropped a copy of the Mail on Peter's desk, folded to the crossword. Jakes found it when he came in from questioning witnesses. The puzzle had been altered, with squares inked in to form a border around three rows of squares:

◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️
◼️◼️THANKS◼️◼️◼️
◼️BUYYOUAPINT?◼️
◼️◼️MORSE◼️◼️ ◼️
◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️