I never saw it coming.
People often say that when disaster strikes, or sometimes when miracles happen. Often they wish they knew what fate had in store for them.
But be careful what you wish for…
One Wednesday evening in January, nine days before my birthday, I was walking to the bus stop after a day at work when I saw two young muggers accosting an elderly man in an alleyway. Plucking up my courage, I came to the man’s aid. Fortunately the thieves were cowards; they ran as I charged forward, yelling and swinging my briefcase.
I helped the boys’ intended victim to his feet. He was a short, bald, pleasant-looking man with a thick, salt-and-pepper grey beard and striking eyebrows, dense and arched like black arrow points.
“Thank you young man,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Jean De Notredame. Who might you be?”
Curious, I thought. He sounds very English, yet has a French name.
“Patrick Thomas,” I replied, shaking the proffered hand. “Think nothing of it, sir.”
“I think very much of it, my boy,” he said winsomely. “And brave, kind deeds such as yours should not go unrewarded. Let’s what I have in here…”
Mr De Notredame had two old leather satchels with him; presumably what the muggers had intended to steal. He opened these and rifled through them, until he found what he was looking for.
“These bags contain precious things that I would not want falling into the wrong hands,” said Mr De Notredame. “But this I am glad to give to you.”
He placed a large, ornate book in my outstretched hands. It looked like it came from an antique bookseller in Istanbul; handsomely bound in dark blue leather and covered with intricately curving floral patterns. There was no title. I opened my mouth to say something but Mr De Notredame got there first.
“Use it well, my dear Patrick,” the old man smiled. “For though you will find many riddles within, the greatest riddle of all will reveal itself only with time. Farewell.”
He then shuffled away quickly before I could ask him what he meant.
I was sitting on the bus, heading home, when I first opened the book. I expected to see verses from the Bible or Koran, details of arcane rituals or intricate medieval manuscripts. Instead, I found something far more surprising.
It was a book of crosswords.
I was nonplussed. Who would ever think to put crosswords in a book this well-bound? All the same, I love puzzles and the paper was good quality, so I decided to do a crossword. I wrote my answers in pencil, to minimise damage to the book. The clues were simple and the journey long, so I finished the puzzle quickly.
I began a second crossword, but it was not until I had nearly finished it that I realised it had a mistake. The grid was filled in except for two words; 1 down and 10 across. Yet neither of these words had clues to them. This was how they looked;
Must have been a printing error, I thought, putting the book away in my briefcase.
As I entered my flat, I heard the repeated clang of metal on metal. It stopped as I closed the door behind me. I groaned softly. Dale was working out on his multi-gym.
“Hey, Patrick mate,” Dale smiled as he lumbered in from his bedroom, his face red and flushed, a towel around his shoulders. Sweat plastered his t-shirt, stretching it tighter than usual against his hefty torso. “I’ve just finished. Good day at work?”
“Pretty average,” I replied laconically. “But what happened afterwards was something else altogether.”
“Really? Do tell,” said Dale.
So I told Dale all about rescuing Mr De Notredame from the muggers. His face fell as he saw the gift I had been instructed to “use well”.
“A book?” he sneered. “It’s a nice one but not as good as money. It certainly won’t get the lovely Sonia to drop her drawers in a hurry.”
I sighed inwardly. Dale was a nice chap really, but he had a colossal ego and a rather chauvinistic streak. One might expect that, since he dabbled in bodybuilding outside his job at a leisure centre, but it cut me when he involved Sonia in his lascivious comments.
Sonia was my girlfriend of two years, who I was getting serious about. While many agreed she was gorgeous, it rankled when Dale made it seem like sex was all I wanted her for. Oh well, I had recently been promoted to middle management at the car dealership. Perhaps I would suggest to Sonia that we find a place together.
I had been about to tell Dale about the misprinted crossword when the phone rang. Dale was first to answer it.
“It’s for you, mate,” he said.
I took the receiver off him. “Patrick Thomas.”
It was my Aunt Edith, who was calling around to report some excellent news. Heidi, her beloved Bernese mountain dog, had won first prize in a local dog show. I was very pleased for her. Heidi is one of those dogs that just loves everyone and never tires of being cuddled or petted. If any dog deserved a rosette, it was her.
“Can you believe it?” Aunt Edith squealed. “Heidi, Top Dog in the whole show! There’s even talk of Crufts next year! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she won there too?”
I agreed it would. Yet as we chatted, I reached for the book of crosswords and found the page with the misprinted puzzle. I and studied the missing two words.
Funny, I thought. The words “top” and “dog” would fit the grid.
That night, a vivid, chilling dream invaded my sleep.
I saw a forest at night, the black, talon-like tips of bare tree branches reaching up into a sky illuminated by the full moon. I plunged into the wood, somehow never meeting resistance from branches or bracken. A box-like shape appeared ahead of me. Twin beams of light spilled from it; it was a car.
A woman’s face appeared at the window of the car. Even in the shadows I could see her face was wild with terror as she fought helplessly to free herself from the clutches of a shadowy figure holding her down. A piercing scream cut through me like a slashing sword.
I jerked awake, my eyes wide, breath coming in gasps.
Two nights later, I took a different bus home from work. It was Friday evening and I was going over to Sonia’s house for dinner. The catering company she worked for had been helping out at a conference in Birmingham all week and she was eager to tell me about it.
The book of crosswords had stayed in my briefcase ever since the night Mr De Notredame had given it to me. I decided to do some more of the puzzles, completing two and not finding any missing clues.
Perhaps the one I found was a printing error, I thought.
It was only when I began a third crossword that I noticed it had a mistake. This time, the clues were all present but the grid contained no words numbered 4 or 6.
The clues for the missing words were;
4. Consulate (7)
6. Khachaturian’s nationality (8)
I decided number 4 was probably “embassy”, while a quick search on my Blackberry revealed the composer Aram Khachaturian was Armenian.
“Patrick!” Sonia beamed as she opened the door.
What a beautiful sight she was. Long ebony hair, tan skin, bright emerald eyes, a brilliant smile and a figure to die for. As we kissed, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to have her.
Sonia excelled herself with dinner; a small prawn cocktail as a starter, a portion of her divine lasagne for the main course and baked alaska for dessert. We talked about our respective weeks. Sonia was very pleased with how things went in Birmingham. I was glad; Conrad, her boss, had noticed work had been slowing down in recent months and was thinking of making redundancies.
“And that wasn’t the only good news,” Sonia smiled as we ate our baked alaska.
“Oh? Do tell,” I said.
“Earlier on today,” Sonia went on, “Conrad told us that next month, we’ll be catering for a grand reception at the Armenian embassy!”
There was a pregnant silence. Sonia’s face darkened. “Aren’t you going to congratulate me, Patrick? This is only about the biggest thing the firm’s ever done.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said hurriedly. “Brain freeze. Wonderful news, Sonia.”
It’s just coincidence, I told myself. Pay no attention to it.
The rest of my evening with Sonia passed well. I suggested that now I had my promotion, we should find a place to live together. Sonia was very happy with my suggestion. So much so, we were both very happy three times that evening.
The night did not pass so well. The dream I had two nights ago came back. Again, I saw the night, the forest and the car. The full moon was rimmed by a frosty halo. It was clearly winter time.
I heard the woman struggling and crying as the car approached. I saw her pushing ineffectively against the man in the car. He in turn crooned foul words began to have his way with her.
Again, the woman’s scream rent the night and I jerked awake. Sonia lay beside me, still sleeping. I raised my eyes to the bedroom window, trembling as if I might see the full moon above me. Thankfully, it was only in its first half.
What truly scared me about this dream was not the fact that I saw a woman being brutalised. It was the fact that although I saw neither the rapist nor the victim clearly, both of them looked vaguely familiar.
The following afternoon, Sonia was away visiting her parents and Dale was out hooking up with a yoga instructor he met at work earlier that week. That left me alone in the flat with my thoughts.
I sat on the sofa in the lounge area, reflectively turning the book of crosswords over and over in my hands. It felt like handling dynamite. Was this book, as I feared, predicting future events? Was it causing me to have these nightmares and were they a warning of some impending catastrophe.
Ridiculous, I chided myself. It was merely printing errors and coincidence, while the nightmares were just a product of my natural protective instinct towards Sonia.
Grabbing a pencil and rubber, I decided to try a few more of the crosswords. I managed to complete three in full, until I found another one with a mistake.
It was a cryptic crossword and while all the clues were present, there was no word in the grid for 5 and 8 across;
5. A boulder goes on a vowel, then meets dismissal on someone’s back. (8)
8. A cube’s face contains one imprisoned. (6)
I sighed and shook my head. Cryptic clues are tough at the best of times, but when there are no spaces in the grid to put them in, they’re nigh on impossible.
I stowed the crossword book away in the drawer of my bedside table. Two nights passed and I had no more nightmares.
On Monday morning, I came into work to find my boss arguing with one of the mechanics from the MOT test centre next door.
“Ralph, this is unacceptable,” my boss said irritably. “You only signed them out on Saturday. How could you have lost them already?”
“I don’t know, Mr Matthews,” Ralph pleaded. “I can search the garage if you want, but I can’t say for sure if, if…”
“…you’ll find them?” Mr Matthews snapped. “You’d better, if you like working here, Ralph. Get to it!”
I was not surprised that the exchange was so heated. Ralph is a bit like Barney Rubble, loyal and affable but not very bright. Mr Matthews, by contrast, is a sharp-suited, well-educated perfectionist, the sort of person that is unlikely to see eye to eye with someone like Ralph.
“What’s going on, Mr Matthews?” I asked.
“That idiot has lost the spare keys,” Mr Matthews retorted. “He signed them out last Saturday and now he says he can’t think where he’s put them.”
I felt bad for Ralph. He sounded desperate and I did not admire Mr Matthews for putting him so on edge. I thought carefully about Ralph’s daily movements and where he might have left the keys.
Just as Ralph reached the door to the garage, inspiration stuck me. I raced over and caught up with him.
“Ralph, check inside the rucksack you take to work,” I said. “The keys may be there.”
Sure enough, Ralph checked his rucksack and the keys were there. Both he and Mr Matthews were delighted.
“I must have accidentally put them in there with Saturday’s paper,” Ralph told me. “Thanks a lot, Patrick.”
“Well done, both of you,” said Mr Matthews. This is why I promoted you, Patrick; always on your toes and thinking ahead.”
I acknowledged his compliment with a friendly nod. My mind was already elsewhere.
When I got home, I marched through the front door and the lounge area so single-mindedly that Dale (relaxing on the sofa with a copy of Nuts) asked what was up with me. Grunting a reply, I made for my room and whipped the crossword book out of the drawer it had been resting in.
I flipped furiously through the pages until I found the cryptic crossword I had studied the other day. Again, I sought out the two mysterious clues.
Rucksack; a boulder is a rock, one vowel along is U, getting the sack is dismissal and a ruck-sack is worn on the back.
Inside; the sides of a cube are called faces, and someone who is in prison is in-side.
My head spun as I shut the book and tried to reassure myself that I was still on the right side of sanity.
The dream came back that night. Now the dream seemed almost real. I shivered in the chill night air, felt branches brushing against me and smelt exhaust fumes from the car.
As I approached the car and heard the first sounds of a struggle from within, a hard, ringing voice called out to me.
“Use the words!” the voice intoned. “The words are your weapons… use them or she will suffer!”
The woman’s protests drew closer and closer.
“What do you mean?” I heard myself cry out. “How do I use the words?”
“The words are your soldiers!” the voice bellowed. “Use them well!”
Before I could make any reply, the woman’s scream brought me crashing back into the waking world.
The following day at work, Mr Matthews remarked that I looked unwell, and that I should have taken the day off if I had felt ill.
I reassured him that I was fine, but it was a lie. I had struggled even to doze after last night’s dream. Not only was it chilling, lifelike and horribly familiar, but I was sure that not only it, but the crosswords, were trying to tell me something.
Use them well, the dream voice had said, just like Mr De Notredame had told be to use the book well.
It was insane, it was impossible… and yet now it was irrefutable. I had to know what the words were telling me.
That evening, after a quick supper, I took the book of crosswords out of its drawer. After relocating the “misprinted” crosswords and marking the pages with strips of file paper, I wrote the three phrases I had gathered down.
TOP DOG ARMENIAN EMBASSY INSIDE RUCKSACK
Makes no sense, I thought. Maybe if I arrange them alphabetically…
ARMENIAN DOG EMBASSY INSIDE RUCKSACK TOP
Again, the words made no sense. Reverse alphabetical order was little different.
TOP RUCKSACK INSIDE EMBASSY DOG ARMENIAN
For three hours, I tried every kind of wordplay possible. I swapped the letters for numbers, spelled the words backwards, made up scores of anagrams, dropped the vowels, swapped words for antonyms, aligned them to spell words downwards…
No solution had presented itself, but by eleven thirty I was too tired. I made ready for bed and drifted into a thankfully restful sleep.
I felt more my old self the following day at work, which Mr Matthews was very pleased to notice. In the evening I ate supper with Dale in the kitchenette and swapped stories. I did not even mind him bawdily discussing his date’s physical attributes or what he would do with her if things went well.
Still, I remained in a quiet mood. I retired to my room and went back to the notes I had made last night. A whole evening’s work had produced nothing. Either I was missing something, or there were more words to be found that formed the message. I decided to see if there were more “magic” crosswords to be found.
It took me a record six tries to stumble on a crossword with a mistake. The grid had a complete set of words, but the clues were missing for 2 and 3 down;
As I chewed my pencil trying to think of a solution, my mobile rang. It was Sonia, who did not sound happy.
“Why haven’t you called, Patrick?” she protested. “I didn’t hear from you all last night. We need to organise your birthday dinner tomorrow.”
Of course; it had slipped my mind. Sonia and I had agreed to have dinner out the following evening, while we would go out with friends on Friday, the day of my actual birthday.
I apologised and said I would get on it.
“So, where will we go?” Sonia asked. “The Lighthouse?”
She was referring a gastropub that we both liked to use for special occasions. I was about to agree when my eyes fell on the crossword in front of me.
I wrote the word “avoid” into the squares for 2 down, then “lighthouse” into those for 3 down. Both words fit perfectly.
“Patrick, are you still there?” came Sonia’s voice from my phone.
“Yes, yes,” I stammered back. “No, Sonia. Not the Lighthouse. Let’s try that French bistro down the road. You OK with that?”
“That sounds fabulous,” Sonia said, reassured. “So then, eight o’clock tomorrow?”
“Eight o’clock it is,” I said, smiling.
Two minutes later, I rang off, wondering what would come of following the book’s advice this time.
The following evening, Sonia and I were at a table in the bistro enjoying a plate of duck a l’orange and a bucket of moules marinere.
“What’s the matter, Patrick?” Sonia remarked. “You seem distracted tonight.”
“I’m just… thinking,” I said lamely.
Before I could finish, a deafening boom was heard outside. Sonia almost choked on the mussel she had been chewing. Once I was sure she was alright, we both went to the front of the restaurant to see what the noise had been.
A few doors back along the street, immense clouds of smoke and tongues of flame poured forth from the front windows of the Lighthouse. People were stumbling out of the door, limping and coughing, covered in ash.
“It must have been a gas explosion,” Sonia said, taking hold of me. “Oh Patrick, if we had gone to the Lighthouse instead…”
I put my arms around her and kissed her on the head. I too was both scared and grateful, but for different reasons.
Could it be my magical crossword book was leading me into danger?
I spent the night with Sonia, where the dream came back more powerfully than ever. All my senses now seemed magnified. The night air felt like ice water. The tree branches seemed to cut my flesh like surgeon’s scalpels.
“Use the words,” the dream voice intoned. “The words are your weapons; your soldiers! Use them or she will suffer!”
The car loomed into view and the woman screamed, but just before my eyes snapped open, I saw her face clearly for the first time.
I turned to study Sonia’s beautiful, tranquil face as she slept and the smooth curves of her body beside me.
Use the words or she will suffer.
No, not Sonia, I thought. Please, not her.
I left Sonia’s house early the next morning and got a taxi back to my flat. Before I left I grabbed an apple from breakfast and the crossword book from my drawer, then drove to work.
With every spare moment of the day, I tried to find another crossword that might hold the answers. Every puzzle I located was free of mistakes. I finished each puzzle I found in case I discovered something, but no luck.
It was not until the bus ride home, and my eighth attempt, that I found a crossword with a full set of clues, but no corresponding words in the grid for 7 or 9 across;
7. Celebration (5)
9. Amazement (8)
Once I worked out the words I realised I was not going to the pub as planned that evening.
Sonia, Dale and all our friends yelled it as I stepped in the door that evening.
I feigned amazement; this was exactly what I had been anticipating. “Surprise” and “party” had been the words that fit the crossword grid. Sonia knows I love it when she’s spontaneous and she and Dale had planned a party at the flat all along.
Sonia allowed to me to change and put my briefcase away before I joined the party. Dale was in his element. He left his shirt open to reveal his deep chest as he flirted with all the girls there. Personally, I could not help doubts and fears tugging at the back of my mind.
Two hours into the party, Sonia brought out my birthday cake and everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. Yet as everyone was giving three cheers, Sonia stumbled and almost dropped the cake.
I helped her place the cake on a table, blew out the candles and found her a seat. “What happened, Sonia?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I feel woozy. Funny that; I haven’t been drinking.”
“Stay sitting down,” I suggested. “It might pass.”
Sonia did so, but half an hour later she felt the same. She also complained of blurry vision and pains in her stomach.
“Shall I take you back home?” I suggested. “I don’t have to stay.”
“Enjoy your evening, mate,” said Dale. “I’ve not been drinking. I can take her back.”
Sonia agreed, and said she would call a doctor if she continued to feel bad.
It was not until the door had closed behind Sonia and Dale that I saw something in the corner of my eye. A faint blue glow was coming from underneath my bedroom door. Why would that be? I had turned off all the lights in there.
“Entertain yourselves, guys,” I called. “I’ll be back in a mo.”
I closed the bedroom door behind me as I went inside. In the darkened room, I could clearly see deep blue light spilling from between the two halves of my briefcase, where I had left the crossword book.
Not needing to turn on the light, I went over and flipped the briefcase open. The cover of the book was now glowing like a great blue ember, so bright that I was dazzled.
I seized the book, meaning to tear it open and look inside. Everything went black.
Moments later, I saw myself back in that terrible forest, approaching the car while watching my poor Sonia struggling vainly against the rapist’s advances.
“Sonia!” I screamed into the night. “Sonia, I’m coming!”
I tried to move faster towards the car in order to save her, but it was as if I was on a conveyor belt, unable to move at any pace other than that which the dream dictated. The great booming voice echoed round the clearing.
“Soon!” it roared. “Soon! You must act now! Use the words; they are your soldiers!”
“How?” I cried back. “Tell me how!”
“Soldiers must march in rank,” retorted the voice. “March your soldiers in rank and you will see!”
“What do you mean?” I shrieked.
Sonia screamed and I was jerked awake. As I came to, I found myself sprawled across my bed with the book open in my hand. It was no longer glowing and I could only see by the moonlight coming through the bedroom window.
Oh no. The moon was full. And there was a halo round it.
My eyes fell upon the bureau at the side of my room. The notes I had made the on Wednesday night lay there.
March your soldiers in rank, the voice had said. What did that mean? Alphabetise them? Rank them in terms of length? What?
Then it hit me.
I raced over to the desk and flicked the desk lamp on. Seizing a sheet of file paper, I wrote down all ten of the phrases that the crosswords had given me so far.
I opened the book to each of the “magic” crosswords and took note of something. Then I shuffled the words one more time and wrote them down the page.
What I saw made my blood run cold.
Heedless of the sounds of the party outside, I quickly dialled 999 on my Blackberry and told the operator what I suspected was about to happen.
I prayed I was not too late.
The police found Dale and Sonia in a copse about a kilometre from her house. It was a popular “make out” spot and one that Dale had apparently used before, with more obliging women.
They were just in time to stop him.
“I can’t believe he would do it,” I told them. “He had quite a libido, but to think he was capable of this…”
The police told me Dale’s narcissism was what probably did it. He was jealous of me for having Sonia when he was the one who generally got the best girls, and he wanted to prove himself.
“I got suspicious when Sonia said she hadn’t been drinking, but looked like she was drunk,” I lied. “That and the fact Dale isn’t usually such a gentleman as to give a girl a lift home.”
Drunken feelings, loss of muscular control, blurred vision and nausea would all have been symptoms of the Rohypnol Dale slipped into Sonia’s fruit punch, the police told me. Yet what had made me tell the operator to look for wooded areas?
“It seemed like the obvious place to… you know, be out of the way,” I said.
The police seemed satisfied and left soon after. I just hoped the jury at Dale’s trial would be satisfied with my answers too.
Sonia had an overnight stay in hospital, but was back at my flat the following evening. I let her have a good, long cry over the shock she had experienced.
“How did you guess that Dale was going to try and rape me?” she sniffed.
There was no point in hiding it any more. I took her into my bedroom to show her the crossword book and my notes. Bit by bit, I told her everything; from saving Jean De Notredame from the muggers right through to collapsing on the bed and receiving the final warning from the dream voice.
“When the voice told me to ‘march my soldiers in rank’,” I explained, “I realised what I had do was put the words in order according to their numbers on the grid.”
I showed her the list I had made the previous evening.
“Once I made this list,” I went on, “The rest was easy.”
I underlined each word’s first letter so Sonia could see the hidden message too.
“So, the book knew all along,” Sonia said plainly.
I was astounded as I realised what she was implying. “You believe me?”
“It’s not hard to, given who gave you the book,” Sonia smiled.
“You’ve heard of Jean De Notredame?”
“Not him,” she said. “But I’ve heard of the great sixteenth century French astrologer Michel De Notredame. I suspect you have to.”
She did a quick Internet search on her iPhone and showed me an old etching of a sage-looking man with the same beard, face, eyes and eyebrows as Jean De Notredame.
“Nostradamus,” said Sonia. “Jean De Notredame must have been one of his descendants, blessed with the same talents his ancestor had. Hey, look…”
The book’s cover had started glowing again. This time, the glow faded quickly and when I dared to touch the book, nothing happened.
I cautiously opened the book at one of the pages I had marked. I gasped. The crossword I had filled in was no longer there. A new, unfinished puzzle sat in its place. The same was true of the other four marked pages.
“Why do you think they’ve gone?” asked Sonia. “Maybe there’s another future event the book wants to tell us about.”
“Maybe,” I said, taking her by the hand, “But do we dare find out?”
Beware those of you who long for the gift of foresight. Even if you could prevent the bad things from ever happening or help the good things come sooner, would you want to? For now Sonia and I have that gift, and every day we fear what future delights, or dangers, Mr De Notredame’s book may yet reveal…