Dr. Coan lived a quiet life. It was a life so quiet, in fact, that anybody choosing to observe it would find themselves rapidly crippled by boredom. Fortunately, nobody to date had made that mistake. Coan’s carefully preserved set of routines and hobbies was thus safely contained, radiating only into the life of a man who was, for some unknown reason, content with these choices. As it happened, he rather liked his life.
He did not, accordingly, like surprises, nor was he fond of disruptions. His hatred for anything truly exceptional, needless to say, was the stuff of legend – or at least, it would be, if the cultural standards for legendary status were in a deep, traumatic decline. It was an irony of similar proportions, then, that his later years came to be so utterly dominated by exactly one such aberration.
It began one Saturday morning. This was a Saturday morning that itself began at the predetermined hour of nine o’clock, with the long-since-planned expedition to the front door for the retrieval of that morning’s newspaper (the digital world and Dr. Coan were not on speaking terms). Sadly, or perhaps mercifully, that was as far as the day’s schedule was to advance. Resting on top of the expected item was the stuff of nightmare – a squalid, nasty little symbol of life’s unpredictability. That symbol came in the outwardly mundane form of a letter, which, by virtue of the hand-written address and recipient (one Dr. Coan), was impossible for him to ignore or prejudicially destroy. Only two stops into his morning, and he had been derailed. This was one of the worst Saturdays on record.
There was nothing for it. Loathe though he was to deviate from his plans (and he was intensely, almost indescribably loathe), this letter demanded his immediate attention. Moving to his writing desk, he suppressed the twinge of boyish glee that he experienced whenever he had occasion to use his father’s letter opener. It was, admittedly, a nice letter opener. He prised the envelope open with a gentle, professional hand, and took just as much diligence in extracting its contents. There were two items. The first, a note:
“Good Morning Dr. Coan”. It read. “Here is a riddle for you. I hope you enjoy it.”
That was it – nothing on the reverse. Certainly mysterious. It was written in the same hand as the front of the envelope – an ambiguously flowery, yet confident script, marked out by a black ballpoint pen. Coan fancied himself something of an amateur graphologist, but this self-perception was generally not borne out in practice. Realistically speaking, the most he was likely get from a sample of handwriting was guesswork notionally disguised as reasoned analysis.
The second item was a bundle of perfectly regular squares of card, about the same size as post-it notes (those being, of course, a mnemonic crutch that imperilled the noble art of proper study). They were bound together by a neat bow of string, which was a nice touch, such that only the blank, white faces would be visible unless he opted to untie it. This was not a light decision to make. In doing so, he would be acquiescing to the will of this stranger, casting aside his beloved routines in favour of the new, unproven directives of another mind.
It remains unclear as to why he took the plunge. Perhaps a deeply-hidden spontaneous streak had chosen that precise moment to make itself heard from beneath stratum upon rigid stratum of conscious structure. Perhaps one of Dr. Coan’s many rules simply demanded that he fully engage with any messages sent his way, and the total absence of any such communication had been saving him from exactly this sort of situation for years. Perhaps the tactile joy of opening a letter had inspired a rush of physicality that now filled him with a lust to cut string. Whatever the reason, the string was cut and its contents unleased upon the world.
Those contents were:
- On separate cards, the numbers ‘48’, ‘3’, ‘12’ and ‘20’.
- A sketch of a flag. A brief recourse to his bookshelf revealed it to be that of Guatemala.
- The letter ‘D’.
- Another sketch, this time of a flowerbed.
- A diagram showing the keys of a piano. The B-sharp was labelled as such.
- A card that was entirely yellow.
Needless to say, Coan was perplexed. This was presumably the promised riddle. His first and most reasonable impulse was to discard it and move on with his day. Indeed, he made numerous attempts to do so, following through on his planned activities (breakfast, a short walk along the river, a cup of tea in his reading room…) with what he felt to be stoic determination. Still, he was unable to derive his usual, delightfully neutral enjoyment from the routine. Put simply, he was distracted, pulled away from his isolated pleasantries by stray, vandalistic thoughts of the letter – its sender, their motivation, the puzzle contained within, its possible solutions. His was a life comprised of secure, contained certainties, and some stranger had thrown a monkey wrench into its delicate machinery. It was an affront to his way of life, to basic good manners, and to his intellect. It would not stand.
With quiet, meticulous wrath, Dr. Coan spent much of that afternoon and evening slaving over the riddle. For a man who wore his technophobia as a badge of honour, this was a time-consuming business. Fuelled by tea and indignation, he leafed through books and rifled through the dusty old pigeonholes of his brain. The hammer of his inquiry soon came to be focused on the most readily available nail, namely the puzzle of the nine cards. Considerations as to the sender’s intent, the purpose of solving the thing, or indeed anything else fell to the wayside as he poured his energy into this exercise.
It was not until the Sunday afternoon, following a reluctant but necessary pause for sleep, that he arrived at a solution that he felt was satisfactory. This placed him firmly before the implacable brick wall of working out what to do with this success. Tired, and having experienced a full cycle of venting and resolution by this point, he conceded that the many further questions relating to this event could go happily unanswered. His quiet, ordered life could continue untarnished.
It could continue untarnished, until the following Saturday.
There, at the foot of the door, at the pre-determined time, at the end of the long-since-planned expedition, was another letter. Inside, a note, and a bundle of seemingly arbitrary words, images and numbers. There was a minute or so of disbelief, followed by perhaps ten minutes of inarticulate fury, followed by perhaps ten hours of dedicated puzzle-solving. Then, most insidiously, came the days of trying to discern his tormentor’s identity, of holding a magnifying glass to letters in an attempt to pick out details in the ink, of staring down passers-by on his road, of cross-referencing the two sets of cards in a hunt for synthesis. All of which served to keep him fastidiously occupied until the next Saturday, and the next letter.
This went on, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, for some number of years. Whenever it was that the real tipping point came, nobody was around to see it. Dr. Coan’s withdrawal into complete obsession went utterly unnoticed by a public and social eye from whose line of sight he had long since disappeared. Being that his life was so deliberately and thoroughly self-contained, he must have felt each further step he took to be a natural and reasoned one. Even as his home was consumed by networks of card and volumes of notes, even as he spun hours away in the consideration of small pictures of fish, sequences of roman numerals, dots, dashes, diagrams, definitions…
With shocking alacrity, he became fully submerged in a world of only two parts. Each week, the same note arrived, written in the same hand, with the same pen, bearing a fresh batch of unrelated stimuli. Each week, he slaved fastidiously to meet the challenge set by this mystery quizmaster, and then to assemble the larger, unifying solution in whose existence he had become so faithful. With nobody to stop him, to provide some words of reason or mere distraction, the only way to break the loop would be if he willed himself to do so. And this, he would not do. His commitment was well and truly escalated, his costs well and truly sunk. A person possessed of the wherewithal to escape such a trap would likely never have fallen so deeply into it.
No, Dr. Coan’s story was not told in his own time. In fact, only he and one other uniquely disturbed individual knew a thing about it – until the bills stopped getting paid. They found him at his desk, fingers wrapped around the antique letter opener, its tip halfway through the seal of another riddle. He was perhaps fortunate not to have lived to see his mystery dismantled by uncaring hands, packaged away into the obscurity it most likely deserved. It can be hard to see that not all questions have answers.