The Case of the Cryptic Communcation 2012

Wednesday, 12:23 PM

Beth was having a very mediocre day. It was yet again one of those researchers. They just never seemed to follow the rules. While Beth was at the reference desk, he had been looking at the Chiang Kai-shek diaries and had tried to take a photo of one of the pages. This was something they explicitly didn’t allow. When she confronted him, he claimed not to have known, though Beth thought that rather unlikely. They allowed taking notes, so there wasn’t much advantage to making a copy. Unless you were lazy.

Beth put down the grilled cheese sandwich she was eating for lunch. It would be so much easier if everyone could just follow the rules. She certainly did not enjoy policing behavior; she’d much prefer to just answer questions and be helpful. I just need to get a .bad cop’ to partner with, she thought.

After lunch it was back to processing the Edward Teller papers, all six hundred boxes. Teller had been a fellow at the Hoover Institution for over thirty years, and though he was most famous for his work on the Manhattan Project and the hydrogen bomb, the bulk of the papers were from his later career working on energy and defense policy. Boring political stuff. Beth had been working on it for over a month now, and she was more than ready for something new. At least she didn’t have to deal with unruly researchers. There was something to be said for working by yourself.

She was processing intently when an unusual noise startled her. It was the phone. Beth never got calls at work, so it took her four rings before she realized that she should probably answer it.

“Hello?” she said.

“Is this Beth Goder?”, a familiar voice asked.


“This is Detective Adamek.”

“Oh, hello.”

“You probably never expected to talk to me again.”

“No. I mean. I can’t predict who I’ll run into. Or phone into, as it were.” Beth thought she heard a laugh.

“I actually need to consult with an archivist about another case I’m working on, and based on our prior success together I thought you would be willing to help.”

“Err. yes, I can certainly help. What do you need to know?” Beth said.

“I’d rather talk in person. Can you meet me tomorrow for lunch? I’ll stop by at noon.” Adamek said.

“Sure, that should work. See you then.” Beth said, and hung up. She wasn’t sure what to make of this. After her unexpected success at solving a murder four months before she quickly returned to her normal life. It wasn’t hard, since no one but Adamek knew the role she had played. It would have been much more difficult if everyone at work thought she was Nancy Drew. She certainly didn’t want that much attention. But she did miss the thrill of working against a deadline to figure out some kind of mystery. Adamek had asked her at the end whether she had considered a career in police work, but she was pretty sure that was a joke. It had to be. Beth certainly wasn’t the type of person to get involved in criminal intrigues.

But then why had Adamek called her again?

Thursday, 12:04 PM

They sat together at the Arbuckle Cafe, Beth eating lasagna and Adamek a catfish po boy. Beth wondered when they would start to speak of whatever police matter she was intended to help with, but she was too nervous to bring it up. They ate in silence until Adamek began their conversation.

“I really should take you out somewhere nicer than here. I never was able to thank you properly for your help in July. But you did say that you didn’t want to make a big deal about it.” she said.

“I was just glad to help. I certainly don’t support those that would abuse archival documents for personal profit. “ Beth said.

“As a result, all the credit in the case went to me. That’s been both a blessing and a curse for my career.” Adamek continued.

“How so?”

“Somehow the FBI heard about the case. They’ve been looking for people to staff a new department on art and historical relics. It seems that crime in the area has been increasing, though they don’t know why.”

“Wow. So you’re working for the FBI now? Congratulations, I guess.” Beth said, nervously. She wondered how careful she would have to be around Adamek now. She still remembered the first time they met, and the accusative look that the Detective gave her.

“Of course I am no expert on history, though I couldn’t really tell them that without including your involvement. So I’ve been cramming, trying to learn what I can. So far the cases haven’t been anything major, just a few petty crimes in some of the Bay Area museums. But my latest assignment is much more intriguing. That’s why I called you, actually.”

“Has there been another… death?” Beth said.

“No. that is, not yet. I don’t necessarily expect that there will be one, but it’s always a possibility when the stakes are so high. The FBI has learned that a known member of Yu-Xun, a Chinese crime syndicate, arrived in San Francisco earlier this week. We’re not yet sure what he wants.”

“Why don’t you arrest him already if you know he’s here?” Beth asked.

“It’s not that easy. He hasn’t really done anything illegal yet, and though we could have him deported for some spurious charge (thank you Patriot Act), that will just mean that Yu-Xun will send another agent, perhaps one that we don’t know about. It’s much more important that we figure out what he’s after. We need to learn what Yu-Xun is looking for.”

“Wow, that’s like something out of a crime novel. But what does this have to do the with the archive? He’s not trying to steal another rare document, is he? I don’t know how much of that we can take.” Beth said.

“We don’t actually know whether this has anything to do with the archive, or any document in particular. But I have a strong suspicion he’s after something here. The leader of Yu-Xun is a mysterious man known only as Feng. We don’t know very much about him, but we do know that he loves to collect weapons. We suspect that he’s recently learned about some Chinese World War II-era weapon that he’s trying to find. He’ll either add it to his collection or sell it for a large amount of money, probably to a terrorist group.” Adamek said.

Beth was starting to see where the Hoover came into all this. “Let me guess,” she said, “you think that what he’s looking for might be in our Chinese collections.”

“That’s exactly right. Since we aren’t actually sure, I don’t want to alarm the whole archive, which would tell the agent that we know that he’s here. That’s why I came to you. I have two favors to ask you. First, please be on the lookout for anything strange going on, particularly having to do with China. The agent is skilled, but he’s in an unfamiliar environment, so he’s likely to make a mistake. Second, if you have any idea what documents that you have might have something to do with Chinese weaponry from World War II, please tell me immediately. Any sort of information could help us immensely.” Adamek said.

Apparently she was done. Beth thought about what she had said for a minute, but she knew that she didn’t really have a choice.

“Of course, I’ll help you,” she said. “I have to protect the integrity of history. And if you’re right about what he’s looking for, more lives may be at stake. I’ll let you know if I think of anything. Meanwhile, what are you going to be doing?”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t really discuss any more of the case with you. I hope you understand.” Adamek stood up to go. “I’ll be in touch,” she said. “And please don’t tell anyone else about this. Our best chance is if he doesn’t suspect that we know anything. We have to hope he lets his guard down and we can figure out what he’s doing early enough to stop him.”

Beth kept sitting at the table as Adamek walked away. And thought. About the uncertain future.

Friday, 11:27 AM

Beth had spent the rest of Thursday watching intently for any sign of suspicious activity. She would surreptitiously leave her desk to walk around the archive, paying particular attention to all the researchers. But no one seemed to be acting strangely. It was all very disappointing, after the excitement of the conversation with Adamek. By Friday morning Beth had already become jaded with the whole thing, and went back to her usual nonchalance.

She knew that it was probably important for her to be watchful, but Adamek wasn’t even sure that anything would happen at the Hoover. Her reference shift was fairly boring at the moment, so she was just reading Madame Bovary, not paying particular attention to anything. In the middle of a particularly lurid scene (at least by nineteenth century standards), she saw a researcher leaving the Hoover with a folder. He was already almost out the door by the time she was able to follow, and as he passed around the corner she had a flash of panic that this was the Yu-Xun agent and she’d let him steal exactly what he needed. Why was it that criminals always chose the Hoover archives to pilfer?

As she got outside she saw that he had accelerated, and was now walking very quickly away. She started after him, breaking into a jog to catch up. He turned around and started running himself. Beth wasn’t sure if she would be able to catch him, but she ran as fast as she could. There was a football game that day on the campus, and the heavy foot traffic was slowing him down, allowing Beth to keep up. Finally he turned off into a secluded side street, and started to put more distance between them. Beth tried to keep up, but she was tiring. A career in archives doesn’t prepare you for chasing criminals on foot.

As they continued to run down the street, Beth suddenly thought about what she was doing. If the man truly was a Yu-Xun agent he was likely armed, and even if not there was no way Beth could stop him physically. How would she even get the folder back? It was strange that he kept running from her; based on their position it seemed that he should be the pursuer. But it must have been her confidence in chasing him that made him scared. This more than anything made her keep going. If he sensed weakness he could easily turn around and face her.

But Beth was growing very tired now, and soon she’d lose him for good. She had to do something to gain time, and with no time to think she did the first thing that came into her mind. She took the only object she had available and threw it at the man. You couldn’t call her aim unerrant, but it certainly wasn’t so far off the mark as to be ignored. It flew by a few feet from him and smashed into a car window. The man looked over, surprised, as the car alarm started ringing. The car’s door opened and an angry middle-aged driver stood up and, seeing the runner and thinking that he must be responsible, grabbed at him.

The runner was moving so fast that he couldn’t stop and he tripped over and fell forward onto the ground. The folder sailed off and landed in a muddy puddle. Beth had stopped to catch her breath, and she casually walked over. The driver was now helping him up, asking whether he had been hurt. Instead of answering, he turned, looked at Beth, looked at the folder in the puddle, and sprinted away. In that glance Beth thought there was something strangely familiar about him, but she knew that she had no chance of catching him now. At least he had left the document. She picked it up carefully so as not to drip any more mud on her clothes and turned to walk back. The bemused driver came up to her holding something in his hand.

“He threw this at my car! What’s this world coming to?” he said.

“It’ll be alright,” Beth said. “You can get that window replaced. At least you weren’t hurt.”

“I just don’t understa–” he was interrupted when the object in his hand made a loud noise. Beth immediately recognized it.

“That’s for me,” she said, and snatched her cellphone from his hand.

Friday, 1:13 PM

The call had been from Adamek. She had wanted to check with Beth in case anything had happened, but immediately drove over after Beth told her about the runner. After the detective arrived they looked together over the folder. Inside was a single mud-stained sheet, which looked to be a photocopy. The text appeared Chinese, though it was difficult to tell much more because of the damage. They might have just assumed it was, given who they were pursuing.

“Do you have any idea what this is?” Adamek asked.

“No,” Beth said, “I’m not that familiar with our Chinese collections and I don’t speak Chinese. We might have better luck if I asked one of the other archivists.”

Adamek thought it over. “I can’t really involve any more civilians in this right now,” she said. “I’m already worried I’ll get too much heat for brining you on board.”

“You mean my involvement isn’t official?” Beth said, worried. Images of being taken into some dark cell for the rest of her life flashed through her head.

“Well, not technically. But I am empowered to take whatever means necessary to solve the case. I guess you could call it a gray area.”

Beth didn’t think that sounded very comforting. “So what will you do?” she said.

“I’ll take the paper in for analysis, and hopefully one of our specialists can make sense of it. There’s not much to go on given the mud, but we don’t have much else. It was good that you followed him and got the paper back. It’s the first clue I’ve had.” Adamek flashed a quick smile. “And let me know if you get any more idea about what the document could be.”

After Adamek left Beth realized she had yet to recover from the day’s excitement. She spent fifteen minutes sitting outside, composing herself. She hadn’t been this excited since last July, but she realized that she wasn’t really done yet. She’d still have to figure out what the document was. Otherwise the Yu-Xun agent would just return for another attempt. Another–wait! Suddenly she remembered Wednesday and the researcher that tried to take a photo of the Chiang Kai-shek diaries. Could it be that it was him again?

She hurried back into the archives and checked the record of those who had asked to look at the diaries. There were a few names that appeared both Wednesday and Friday, but with more investigation she found that this was hardly their first time, so they were unlikely to be the agent. It was still possible he used a different name the second time. She found her coworker Amanda, who had taken over her reference shift on Thursday while she had lunch with Adamek. She asked her whether anything unusual happened that day.

“No, nothing unusual. Well, except those researchers, you know. They’re always acting a bit strange,” she laughed.

“Was there anything particularly strange that you might remember? Such as, oh, I don’t know, someone trying to get a copy of the Chiang Kai-shek diaries?” Beth said.

“Oh… yeah. That did happen. How did you know? I wasn’t very happy about it because we always tell the researchers in advance, but this one apparently didn’t get the memo. I told him he could take notes, but he was still upset about it, and stormed off.” Amanda said.

“Great… I mean, that’s annoying. I hate when they do that. You don’t remember who it was, do you?” Beth said.

“I can check. It was a slow morning for some reason and only a few people came in.” Amanda looked at the log. “It was someone named David Fields. I didn’t recognize him though, I think it was his first time in here.”

“And do you remember what he was looking for?” Beth asked.

“Not exactly. I think it was in one of the diaries from 1947 or .48. But I’m not sure.” She suddenly gave Beth an odd look. “Why are you so interested in that?” she asked.

“I’ve had a few run-ins like this myself this week. I was just trying to see if it was the same person. But it looks like they were different. What a coincidence.” Beth forced a laugh. “I hope it goes more smoothly next week. See you later.”

She immediately went outside to call Adamek. She told her about someone named .David Fields’ trying to get a copy from one of the Chiang Kai-shek diaries from 1947 or 1948. Adamek said that she wasn’t familiar with that alias, but that the agent likely had many, so it was certainly possible that it was him.

“What are you going to do next?” Beth asked her, deathly curious.

“We’ll have to take a look at the diaries. With the paper you found us and the diaries we should be able to find a match, though it might take some digging. Thanks for your help, yet again. I’ve had an analyst working on it for a few hours now, but he hadn’t come up with anything yet. I imagine this will help.”

Sunday, 4:50 PM

Beth hadn’t heard from Adamek since their conversation on Friday. She would have thought that this would make her happy, but instead she couldn’t stop thinking about what Chiang Kai-shek’s diary contained. She knew that it was probably in more capable hands than hers. On the other hand, no one else had done much of anything in the case so far. And her curiosity was getting to be unbearable. She was still wondering why the agent needed a copy of the diary, rather than taking his own notes of the contents. She decided to give the detective a call.

After a few short rings, Adamek picked up. Beth was actually taken aback, despite her bravado she didn’t expect to reach her so easily. “I’m… just wondering… how the case is going?” she stammered. “Have you figured out what he wanted with the Chiang Kai-shek diary?”

“We haven’t actually,” Beth heard Adamek sigh. “I’ve had a team looking over it since Friday with barely any breaks. They did find the page of the diary that matched the one you recovered. But it doesn’t have anything overtly relevant. It’s just a description of a normal day in his house. We’ve been trying to see if we can find some kind of code, but with no luck so far. Did you have something more for us?”

“Not exactly. I was mainly wondering about your progress.” Beth said.

“It’s as I’ve described. What makes it worse is that David Fields or whatever alias the agent is using has disappeared. We haven’t been able to track him since Friday. He may have noticed my investigation and gotten spooked. It’s also possible that Feng has grown tired of his failure and ordered him back. If he sends a different agent we might be in serious trouble, so I’ve really got to get back to work. I appreciate all your help, but right now we just have to focus so we can figure this out before it’s too late.”

“Sure, I’ll let you get back to work. There was just one thing that was bothering me. Why did the agent want an exact copy of one of the diaries? He could have written down a copy of the contents without violating our rules, and we would have never noticed. So why go through all that risk?”

Beth heard only silence in response. Then there were some distant excited voices that she couldn’t understand. “Hello?” she said. No response. Finally after a few minutes Adamek returned.

“It seems you might be onto something,” she said, cagily. “I have to go, but I’ll let you know as soon as I have something.” She hung up.

Beth wasn’t sure what had happened. Had she helped them to figure out some secret, or just wasted the FBI’s time?

Monday, 12:04 PM

They had lunch again at the Arbuckle Cafe. Beth ate a bacon quiche, and Adamek roasted chicken with wild rice. The detective had surprised Beth with her visit, and she wasn’t sure if it indicated success or failure in the case. As usual she didn’t talk till they were done eating, even though Beth could sense she was really antsy to break some news to her.

It finally looked like Adamek was done eating, so Beth took a step forward and asked her. “How is the case going? Did you ever figure out why he wanted a copy of the page?” she said.

The detective finished chewing her last bite before she answered. “When you called me yesterday we were close to thinking it was hopeless,” she said. “The text on the page didn’t lead us anywhere and we thought for sure we were missing something vital. I told the analysts what you said about the page and they realized that the page must have encoded some information that could only be preserved in an exact copy.

It didn’t take long after that until they noticed that the characters were spaced in an unusually precise manner. The gaps between them were one of ten fixed distances. We measured them and produced a string of digits. We weren’t sure what the digits meant, and were worried it was another cipher, but then someone remembered the Chinese Telegraph Code, which is similar to Morse code for English. Each Chinese character is encoded with four digits, from 0000 to 9999. After we tried it on the diary it was apparent that the digits gave us a message in plaintext. I again have you to thank for helping me with my case.”

“What did the message say?” Beth asked.

“I’m meant to keep this secret, but given all the help you’ve provided me I think that would be hardly fair. It appears to be a reference to a nuclear weapon that a Chinese spy stole in the late 1940s, and hid in the US. We believe that Yu-Xun does not know what the weapon is exactly, but they do know that it is something very valuable.”

“But you can find it and stop them from getting it, right?” Beth said.

“That’s the tricky part. The message in the diary didn’t say where the weapon is hidden. This means there’s something very dangerous that could be hidden practically anywhere in the country. If Yu-Xun were to find it, they could sell it to a terrorist group and cause millions of deaths. On the other hand, they are going to have just as much trouble finding it as we are. I’m optimistic about our chances. At the very least, we’ll be able to capture the next agent they send for the diary, which could give us more valuable information.”

“Wow. So we haven’t really stopped the threat yet. Is there anything more I can do to help?” Beth said.

“That’s actually why I came to see you in person. I wanted to thank you again for your service in this case. But both of our encounters have been very one-sided when all I can give you is thanks in secret. I’m also afraid that next time I may need your help my superiors won’t approve, as they’re already asking questions about how I figured out it was the Chiang Kai-shek diary that the agent was looking for. And I worry that without your help I won’t do as well next time.”

“I’m sure you’re an excellent detective,” Beth interjected.

Adamek smiled. “Thank you. But I still don’t want to lose your assistance. That’s why I came here to offer you a job. I know you hate the thought of crime against historical artifacts. Do you want to work with me to stop them?”

Beth was stunned. “Working for the FBI. don’t I have to be able to shoot a gun and chase down bad guys?” she said.

“That’s honestly a small part of our job, and most of us aren’t field agents. We really value those that can do research in complex records to find the connections that we need. That’s exactly what you’ve demonstrated with this case. I can understand it if you decline, your current job is likely to be a lot less hectic. But think it over.”

“I will,” Beth said. “My term at the Hoover ends next June, and I’ll be looking for a job. And I have wanted to try my hand at something other than archival processing.”

“Great, I’ll give you a call in a few months.” Adamek said. She stood up and started to walk away. Before she had gone too far she turned around again. “Unless something more urgent arises,” she said, and winked.