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Dan Brown, born June 22, 1964, has never written a book about cricket and perhaps never will. However, Arunabha Sengupta inspects his series of Robert Langdon books and tries to write his novel on cricket for him.
The eminent president of the Marylebone Cricket Club, Jack Saunders, staggered through the exit of the Allen Stand of the most famous cricket ground of the world. He lunged across the passage, making his way towards Grace Gates before collapsing backwards a few feet from the iron grills.
A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” The president froze. In front of the gate, the huge silhouette of the assassin stood, staring at him. The small, deadly device had made its way into his ham-like hands. “Now tell me where it is.”
The president stammered. “I told you already, I have no idea where it is.” The sling was drawn back. One missile launched from the quaint yet automatic device had already struck Saunders in the ribs.
“You and your mates possess something that is not yours. Is it a secret you will die for?”
The 74-year-old Saunders could not breathe. “Wait, I will tell you what you need to know.” The president spoke his next words slowly. The lie he told was one he had rehearsed many times — each time praying he would never have to use it.
The assailant smiled. “This is exactly what the others told me. I found all the other ten. Pain is good, mate.”
As Saunders wondered with horror how the assassin had found all the XI, the deadly device emitted a strange hiss. The missile struck a few inches below the heart. Death was not instantaneous, that would have killed the story. But, Saunders knew he was dying. Instead of calling 999, it was now somehow far more prudent to create a maze of ciphers. The desperate task before him would require every remaining second of his life.
Robert Langdon awoke slowly. A telephone was ringing in the darkness. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. He was alert enough to notice the Louis XVI house style presentation in four colour schemes of blue, yellow, rose pink and peach, the plush carpets, supple bed linen, rich silk drapes and ornate antique furnishings. But, he did not manage to figure out where the hell he was. The only clue that told him about his surroundings was a jacquard bathrobe bearing the monogram Hotel Ritz London.
Langdon answered the phone, “Hello?”
“Professor Langdon, I know I have awoken you, but there is a visitor.”
“Do you know what time it is? Whoever it is, ask him to wait till the morning.”
“Sorry sir, he is already on his way. He is an important man. This was more of a FYI call.”
Langdon moaned. No doubt a fan. After all many thought Langdon was a better deal than David Beckham, Andy Murray, Elton John and all the other celebrities in town– after all people are crazy about symbology. The price of popularity, perhaps. His books on symbology had made him a reluctant celebrity, and that blasted Boston Magazine had added fuel to the fire by listing him as one of the city’s 25 most intriguing people. Tonight, thousands of miles away from home, he had been introduced in an evening’s talk with dubious accolades, with the offending Boston magazine flashed uncomfortably in everyone’s view. Langdon looked at the crumpled flyer on his bedside table.
THE CRICKET SOCIETY
AN EVENING WITH ROBERT LANGDON
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS SYMBOLOGY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
Royal Overseas League, Park Palace, London
That there is no such subject or professor in Harvard is neither here nor there.
However, today Langdon had been forced to stop the scandalous introduction.
“Thank you Monica, and if I find which one of you provided that article, I’ll ask MCC to ban you from all the grounds of England.” The crowd laughed. “Well, folks, as you all know I’m here to talk about the power of symbols in cricket.”
“Pardon me, Professor, but are religious symbols that common in cricket or any sport for that matter?”
Langdon had smiled. “What if I tell you, sir, that the first rules of the football, the other major British sport, were drawn up in this very city,” he had paused — “at the Freemasons’ Tavern on Long Acre, Covent Garden, London?”
There was the anticipated murmur of disbelief.
“What if I also tell you that one of the most celebrated Masonic Lodges to play cricket was none other than the very man who missed an average of 100 in Test cricket by four runs — Don Bradman?”
Once the excited whisperings had died down, he had continued, “In the 1930s, the religious sectarian rifts split the legendary Australian team. On one side were the Masons — including Bradman, Bill Ponsford, Bert Oldfield and others. On the other side were the Catholics, with Jack Fingleton, Bill O’Reilly, Stan McCabe, Leo O’Brien and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith. There was a match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, during which Bradman came to know that Fingleton, who opened the batting, had had his bat sprinkled with holy water by a Catholic Bishop. Fingleton was soon dismissed. As Bradman, at No 3, passed Fingleton on his way to the middle, he said: ‘We’ll see what a dry bat will do out there.’”Langdon paused again. “The master, of course, scored his usual century.”
“It could have been a one-off event,” a gentleman in an I-Zingari tie had offered.
“Could it?” Langdon asked. “Is it mere coincidence that when Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the 1975 movie with John Cleese and all the rest of them, it had the animated face of the Father of Modern Cricket speaking to the knights to set them off on a quest? Of course all of you know the name of the cricketer I am talking about. Is it a mere coincidence that he sported a beard resembling the deity of the Old Testament and answered to the name of …WG …?”
Langdon had thrown the question open, and the hushed chorus had echoed the answer, “Grace!”
“But what has all this to do with symbolism?” a man in an MCC blazer had demanded from a distant table.
Langdon had chuckled. “Cricket is full of symbols, isn’t it? Almost every delivery brings some reaction from the umpires. A six is demonstrated as reaching for the sky — which has roots in several pagan religious systems. However, without going into that depth, let me ask you — what are the most common symbols you see on a scorecard?”
“The signs for the captain and the wicketkeeper,” the gentleman in the MCC blazer had answered.
“Right. The captain is denoted by an asterisk. Derived from the sign of the pentacle.”
“But, it is not five lines …”
“It was intended to be derived from Clavicula Salomonis, or the Key of Solomon. It was the symbol of Jewish Kabbalists and Arab alchemists. There still remain some of the strange superstitions surrounding the sign, which makes one believe that the captain, one with the powers of the pentacle, can galvanise sides. And let us consider the second symbol. The wicketkeeper. What symbol is that?”
There had been stunned silence. Everyone saw the symbol while poring over scorecards, but it was only at Langdon’s words that they sat up to take notice. The † or the crucifix.
Langdon had smiled to himself: random unrelated facts with some spurious correlation. That was all that it took to build the platform of a story.
However, now Langdon had to come out of his reverie because of the knocking on his door. He never stopped admiring the amount of memories he could conjure up during the space of about a couple of minutes. As he opened the door, the thin, washed out man standing outside flashed a card, “Mr Langdon, my name is Jerome Collate. Serious and Organised Crime Agency.”
Langdon paused. SOCA was the rough equivalent of the FBI.
“My boss wants to see you.”
“It’s after midnight.”
“Am I correct that you were scheduled to meet Jack Saunders at the Lord’s Tavern this evening?”
“Yes, but Saunders never showed up. Is anything wrong?”
The agent slid a Polaroid snapshot though the slight gap in the doorway. When Langdon looked at the photo, he went rigid.
“This was taken at Lord’s an hour ago.”
“But, who did this to him?” Langdon gasped.
“Ah … that’s where you come in based on your knowledge of symbology and your plans to meet him. Mr Saunders did this to himself.”
Langdon felt a chill. How could the same shit happen to the same man over and over again?
One mile away, Mynn the assassin limped through a building entrance bordering Hyde Park. Once inside his Spartan quarters, he called The Coach to convey the success of his operation. He hung up and proceeded to take the covers off a bigger replica of the device he had used for his murder. The balls were projected fast and he faced them without a willow or the protection of pads. The travelling red balls thudded into his huge torso, leaving welts of red, black and blue. Mynn had to go through the sacred practice of Castigo corpus meum.
The fifteen minute car ride through A41 had done little to clarify the puzzle. Now Langdon sat in the Long Room of Lord’s, his head throbbing with the age-old agony.
“How do you like the media centre?” asked SOCA Captain Bob Foley as he walked in.
Langdon winced. He had been asked this question by many a Londoner. “It’s magnificent,” he offered.
“It’s an eyesore,” Foley grunted. He looked closely at Langdon. “Why are you so pale?”
“Long story. It’s claustrophobia; an ailment from childhood.”
“Claustrophobia?” Foley raised his eyebrows. “It is the Long Room for crying out loud.”
“I know, but it is about time to dwell on my claustrophobia. It affects me early in every novel. After that I can squeeze into any tunnel, chute, dark and constricting hiding places without any problem whatsoever.”
“Hmm. So, Jack Saunders never turned up you say? How long did you know him?”
“This was the first time we were supposed to meet. After my talk at The Cricket Society, that is.”
“Really? Who requested today’s meeting?”
“Jack Saunders did, I have no idea why. Most probably he wanted to discuss Cricket Art and its symbolism; and a bit of cricket history. I often made use of his books on cricket history in my classes.”
“You teach cricket history in your course at Harvard?”
“Yes,” said Langdon stiffly. “That is no less believable than some other stuff that I am supposed to teach in these novels.”
They walked down the pavilion steps into the hallowed turf. “The MCC President was attacked in the pavilion, tried to escape and was struck down near the Grace Gates.”
“So, what are we doing inside the ground?”
“He made his way inside the playing area, and arranged himself to lie like that at the time of his death,” the captain pointed at the centre of the arena. Langdon felt a deep chill. Jack Saunders lay lifeless, in white flannels smudged grotesquely by blood. Strangely, he wore formal shoes, and his right foot was raised on the hovercraft pitch cover, the body lay on the grass, the right hand was strapped to the right thigh with a belt, left arm raised and pointing away from the body in the direction of the outfield. A bail hovered near his left foot.
“He tied his hand to his thigh himself?” Langdon was incredulous.
“Yes. And he did something else too.”
The chief barked an order into his walkie talkie and amazingly the giant electronic scoreboard came into life. Langdon stared at the bizarre scorecard.
M Lott 0(2)
Everett 6 (9)
Smith 4 (17)
Earley 3 (17)
R Clifford 0 (0)
Day 0 (2)
Boorman 3 (8)
Terey 0 (1)
G King 0 (2)
Taylor 0 (2)
Houghton 1 (18)
Marriott 3 (4)
Whiskin 0 (1)
“What does this mean?” Langdon asked.
“I was thinking you could help with that.”
The private jet had taken off from the small Biggin Hill Airfield. Seated in his plush, comfortable reclining seat, Raymond Burgess was wondering what had made the Wandering Willow Wizard XI to hide their secret in Hedley Verity’s grave in Caserta. The great left arm spinner had succumbed to his War injuries in that town in July, 1943. His remains rested in the immaculate Military Cemetery in the town. According to The Coach, the secret had been buried there.
Well, he sighed. After all this was a Robert Langdon novel and someone had to go to Italy for form’s sake. Burgess leaned back in his seat thanking his stars that it did not involve the crypts and paintings and all that Latin nonsense.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.” The young woman approached them in long fluid strides across the Lord’s turf. She was attractive and looked around 30. Her burgundy hair fell unstyled to her shoulders. She had a hardy quality that extended her beauty to radiate striking personal confidence.
“Mr Langdon, I am Sophie Nephew, from the Association of Cricket Statisticians. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Even in the darkness of the cricket ground at night, Langdon saw olive green eyes, incisive and clear.
“How the hell did you get in?” asked Foley.
“But, I am working with SOCA on the case. The scorecard was sent to us an hour ago for decryption. I have a message for Professor Langdon from the US Embassy. You are to call them immediately.”
Foley drew a seething inhalation. “What the … and what sort of a name is Nephew?”
Sophie sighed, “Make it French and it is Neveu. No one bothered with the meaning then.Anyway, I tried to call you Captain but your cellphone was switched off. The SOCA knew I was on my way and passed the message from the embassy through me, and you have to swallow it even we all know it is lame. As Mr Langdon makes the call I will explain. We have found out the details of the scorecard.”
Langdon called the number and was stunned as he was taken to the voicemail service of Sophie Nephew. “Mr Langdon, do not react. You are in danger right now. Follow my instructions carefully.”
“You say the match is just a festival game at Hastings?” Foley fumed.
“Yes, in the early 1980s. We have checked the minutes of the committee and Saunders was there watching the very funny game — it was hilarious because in both innings extras was the top scorer. It was one of the days he enjoyed most in his entire life of cricket watching. We believe he wanted to have happy thoughts as he was dying.”
“Happy thoughts? Miss Nephew, a murdered man does not key in happy thoughts on the Lord’s scoreboard as he dies. He tries to identify the murderer.”
Langdon interrupted, lowering the phone, “A friend had an accident back home. Could I use the toilet?”
“Walk out of the Warner Stand exit and you will find one of the bigger toilets,” Sophie said helpfully.
Foley nodded. “Be quick please.” As Langdon made his way towards the exit, the Captain turned to Sophie, “I generally allow murder suspects to wander about on their own in huge premises. Just one of those idiosyncrasies. Now, you are sure this is just a normal scorecard from a Hastings Festival match?”
“Certain. Jack Saunders was a very special man, Captain. So, his reactions at death could be very different from normal people. Now, if you will excuse me.”
Sophie Nephew walked back towards the pavilion, leaving Foley a confused, harassed man.
Sophie entered the men’s room, disregarding the oddity of meeting a strange man in such an environment. “We don’t have much time.”
Langdon nodded and looked at his Mickey Mouse wrist watch, “I know, some 20 hours and that would be a stretch. All my books must end within a day’s time.”
Her gaze was sharp, and the juxtaposition conjured images of a multi-layered Renoir portrait … veiled but distinct, with a boldness that somehow retained its shroud of mystery. You see, it is most normal to see all this when confronted with a murder mystery right under your nose.
“I wanted to warn you Mr Langdon, that you are under surveillance,” she inserted her hand in his coat pocket and picked up a tiny replica cricket ball from the Lord’s shop. “The agent who picked you up put this in your pocket after you arrived at Lord’s. It is a GPS tracking device.”
“Because you are the chief suspect for the murder.”
Langdon braced for words.
Sophie grabbed a bar of soap from the sink and firmly embedded the ball inside it. “We will wait a while before we throw it onto a passing truck. Now, there is something you have not seen.” She handed him a Polaroid snap of the Lord’s scoreboard. The details were exactly the same as he had seen from the ground, only another line had been added.
For solutions: www.catchrobertlangdon.com
For several seconds Langdon stared in wonder at the photograph. Instructions to catch the killer in the form of a website address?
Solution to what? The murder?
Why would the MCC president incriminate him for a crime he did not commit? “Why is Saunders trying to frame me?”
“It is partially my fault. It was a message left for me. I was supposed to find you to get the solutions.”
“Yes, my favourite poem as a young girl was Wee Willie Winkie. He sometimes called me WWW. And if it seems lame, so was Princess Sophie for Post Script.”
“And why would Jack Saunders know your favourite poem?”
“Because he was my grandfather. Now, as you digest that piece of information, let me throw this bar of soap on a conveniently moving truck. After that we have to figure out what this is all about.”
Mynn peered at his torso, black and blue from the buffeting from the machine. His soul was at peace. He yearned to know about the progress of Burgess, but The Coach had strictly forbidden any communication between the two. He sat back and thought about the days when he had bowled fast and short and the batsmen had hammered him all over the park. And then Raymond Burgess had come along, taking him under his wings, teaching him to make the ball bounce from short of good length, the mysteries of outswing and inswing and reverse swing. The ones who had laughed after taking dozens of runs off his overs soon became afraid of him. He was called the assassin.
As an incensed Foley raced along the streets of London in his car, tracking a travelling truck in his GPS system, Langdon and Sophie made their stealthy way across the deserted Lord’s passage towards the Coronation Garden.
“Come on,” Sophie whispered. “What’s wrong? We are almost at gate number six.”
Langdon glanced up, realising he had stopped walking. It could not be that simple.
“Sophie, your grandfather deliberately strapped his hand on his thigh and raised his leg. And the other hand pointed upwards from his shoulder. Can we look at these two gestures separately?”
“What do you mean?”
“The leg raised, hand on the thigh. What does it stand for in cricket?”
Sophie needed only an instant to process Langdon’s implication. It seemed laughably simple. “Leg bye. And the other arm signalling bye. He wants us to look at the extras.”
Langdon smiled. “And the extras are the most fascinating part of that scorecard. It clearly seems someone has inserted them separately, from a different match. 13 and 44.”
He paused. There was some scepticism in Sophie’s face. “What?”
“In that case he might have made it very clear that he was posing as an umpire. But, he had put on fresh flannels, as if a normal player. Not a white coat and black trousers as an umpire would have done.”
“He might have wanted the answer to be apparent to only a few.”
“True, but again, he wore formal shoes.”
Langdon looked up at Sophie, locking his eyes with her. “Your grandfather has passed us a crystal clear clue. There was a bail near the feet as well. We need to get into the Lord’s Museum.”
“The security alarm system went off when grandfather was discovered on the ground. The circuit has not been reset yet,” Sophie explained as they easily pushed open the door to the Museum.
Langdon walked up the steps leading up to the second floor. “Stuart Pearson Wright. The Northampton based artist commissioned by MCC to paint the portraits of three outstanding Indian performers at Lord’s — Kapil Dev, Bishan Bedi and Dilip Vengsarkar,” he explained. “Of course he did a wonderful job with all three, but there are oddities. Vengsakar and Kapil Dev are painted wearing formal shoes. When he went to Mumbai in 2008 to paint the portraits, Wright insisted that these men bring their trainers. But, Vengsarkar and Kapil never did. And hence the curious footwear.”
“So it is one of those two portraits we need to be looking at?”
“No, we need to look only at Vengsarkar’s. The man scored three hundreds at Lord’s but can be very uneasy in personal interactions. Wright found him to be quite prickly and awkward. So he was painted standing under dark skies that denote the uneasiness of the sittings. And Wright was annoyed enough to paint his stumps in a way to show that he is bowled. One bail is on the ground. It seems the artist was not amused when Vengsarkar turned up for the sitting with a journalist and the details of the commission were leaked before the scheduled press conference.”
On the first floor the dapper Indian batsman stood framed in the portrait, under the stormy clouds, with black shoes and one bail dislodged. Langdon marvelled at the originality of Saunders in providing several clues with one final position. He peered closely at the portrait. There it was, scribbled with a marker pen at the corner of the frame. “I’ve got it Sophie,” he gasped.
“Where, Mr Langdon?”
Langdon winced. “I’ll tell you on one condition.”
Sophie paused, startled. “What’s that?”
“You stop calling me Mr Langdon.”
There was a faint lopsided grin on Langdon’s face. Sophie smiled back. It is perfectly natural to have such exchanges when a city’s police force is tracking one down on murder charges. “Yes, Robert, what is it?” Sophie asked.
Langdon flashed his pencil torch at the corner.
“My grandfather’s writing, no doubt about it,” Sophie’s eyes filled with tears as she looked up at the scribble, but the meaning remained unclear. It simply said, “Four slips to the lady.”
“We need a safe house to work this out,” Sophie said under her breath as she drove the speeding red snub-nosed two-seater. “The American Embassy is out of question. Trust me, they will cooperate with the SOCA. They had switched on the car radio to hear their names linked to murder. “My flat will be teeming with the police by now.”
Langdon caught his breath. “Sophie, listen, does www mean anything else to you other than Wee Willie Winkie?”
“I told you …”
“Apart from that. Have you seen the letters anywhere else? In a blazer, a tie perhaps?”
The question startled her. How would Robert know that? She had once rummaged through her grandfather’s study, looking for a present he was supposed to give her the next day. And in a strangely hidden cabinet, she had come across a tie with WWW printed across it. Her grandfather had not given her an answer when she had asked about the initials. “Someday you’ll learn about it.”
“Yes, I saw them. It was a tie belonging to grandfather. How do you know?”
Langdon exhaled. “I am certain your grandfather was a member of a secret society. A very old brotherhood. WWW and cryptic clues form the signature of that brotherhood. It is called Wandering Willow Wizards. They are mostly based in London, with sometimes a member from overseas and have very influential and powerful people within their ranks – eleven at a time. They also form a cricketing eleven.”
“Eleven?” Sophie’s voice quivered.
“Robert, when I was retrieving the car, the radio mentioned eleven murders around the city – including grandfather.”
“Jesus.” Langdon knew perfectly well that the man whose name he uttered was not more than just a man, but he could not help it anyway. “And you have never heard of WWW?”
“Some of the most influential Englishmen and a handful of Australians have been members of the brotherhood. From Arthur Conan Doyle, James Barrie, Robert Menzies, Jim Swanton, Harold Pinter. And it was started by Nicholas Felix.”
Langdon inhaled sharply. “I now know what the scorecard stands for, Sophie. This changes everything. Take the route to Belgravia. I’ll give you the address. We will receive shelter and help.”
A few miles away, Foley bristled as he stood in front of a bewildered truck driver, fingering the soap with its embedded GPS cricket ball.
“The WWW have historically guarded one grave secret,” Langdon explained as they drove. “It is called the Catapulta Code.”
Sophie looked jarred. Too many events were taking place all at once.
“What’s the Catapulta Code?”
“Something more than deadly,” Langdon whispered. “If it lands up in the wrong hands, it will destroy cricket forever.”
Sophie gasped and stepped on the accelerator.
Some thousands of miles away, in Caserta, Raymond Burgess cursed. It took a lot to make him swear, especially in front of the grave of one of the best bowlers produced by England. However, the shock had hit him hard. “Coach,” he spoke into his cell-phone. “It was a decoy. All the eleven have lied. Even in death they have defeated us.”
A few minutes later, Mynn answered another call in the Hyde Park residence. His pale features lost even more blood. He had spilt blood eleven times that night. All for nothing. He had been tricked. But, The Coach assured him all was not lost. It was time for action again.
“My good man, I dare say you are still on Harvard Standard Time,” the voice was crisp and light as it spoke through the intercom.
Langdon grinned. “My apologies John, sorry for waking you up at this ungodly hour.”
“And pray why should I open the door to a stranger at the very middle of the night?” Sir John Heller’s voice chimed in, with its thick Australian accent.
“What if I say I have clues to the whereabouts of the Catapulta Code?”
There was a long pause. “That does strangely stir my interest,” the former royal historian confessed at long last.
“Any chance you will open the gate for an old friend?”
“Those who seek the truth are more than friends. They are brothers. But I must confirm your heart is true. Three questions.”
“What did Jardine, Larwood and Voce eat at the Picadilly Hotel as they hatched the Bodyline plan?” Heller asked.
Langdon thought hard. “Steak and Potatoes.”
“Excellent. How much cake would you order during tea at Lord’s if Middlesex played in the 1980s?”
“There is no limit. Gatting was in the team.”
“Indeed. Final question. In which year did an English batsman last score a century before lunch against an Australian attack?”
Langdon had no idea but he could imagine only one reason the question had been asked. “Surely such a travesty has never occurred.”
The gate clicked open. “Your heart is true, my friend. You may pass.”
Heller came into the room on his metal leg braces and crutches. “Welcome. You have a lady friend with you, I see Robert. Greetings, M’Lady.”
“I was hoping you would be kind enough to instruct Sophie on the Catapulta and its secrets.”
Heller feigned confusion. “But, I thought it was you who had the answer to the secrets.”
“We do have clues, but the young lady will be able to help us find the answers quicker if she is brought up to speed.”
Heller spread his legs. “So you are a Catapulta virgin? Do you at least know of Nicholas Felix? Okay. Now, you will remember the first time. He was born Nicholas Wanostrocht in 1804. To a family of educators. His great uncle, Nicolas, hailed from Belgium. His father Vincent was brought over to Camberwell from France just as the Revolution was about to take off. Old Nicolas organised for a special pass, signed by Robespierre himself. First Nicolas and then Vincent were headmasters at the Alfred House Academy and in 1824, at the age of just 21, Felix took over after the death of his father.”
Of course when you are running from the law, the ideal way to spend time is to let academics tell you long winded stories. Sophie soon found herself absorbed in the tale of Felix. Heller continued, “In 1828, Nicholas Wanostrocht visited Lord’s for the first time. He took to cricket late. Yet, the genius that he was, he soon perfected the art of batting. He was a musician, painter, scholar and inventor. He took batting with the same scientific rigour. Soon he was considered second only to Fuller Pilch as a batsman — and more attractive in his superb cut shots. In 1847 he scored 113 for Kent against Sussex. By then he had written Felix on the Bat — a curious, funny, yet superb, technical, illustrated manual of batsmanship.”
“Hang on, he scored 113 in 1847. For 19 years before that he did not score a century?”
Langdon and Heller laughed. “The run, my dear lady, undergoes fluctuations of value as does the pound sterling. Wickets in those days were dreadful. And yet, in the first 201 First-Class innings Felix played, he top-scored 51 times. It was testimony to his quality. However, he was known for something else. He created the first known bowling machine – the Catapulta.”
Sophie gasped. “During those days?”
“Yes, in the 1830s. He also had lots of path-breaking ideas about gloves, pads and hats. He was the first man to wear gloves. But it was Catapulta that captured imaginations. It was based on a Roman siege engine by the same name. Felix came to know of this machine through his classical scholarship. The catapulta, model built by a Mr D who occupied the mathematical chair of Alfred House, could bowl fast, straight, and accurately with the feature of changing the direction and speed of the ball. It was a delightful invention, and used frequently in training.”
Langdon took over. “In some occasions, Catapulta also took part in matches. In September 1844, for example, thirteen Gentlemen of the South were assisted by the Catapulta in playing eleven Hampshire Players. The machine clean bowled six batsmen and had four others caught. However, seven years before that, on October 9, 1937, the Catapulta was displayed for the first time, at Victoria Gardens, Gravesend. Fuller Pilch himself came to take part in the demonstration. In the afternoon, two teams of eight a side played a game of double wicket, with the machine bowling continuously. According to The Sportsman the first team consisted of M. Lott, Clifford, Andrews, R Clifford, Boorman …”
“The scorecard,” Sophie gasped.
“Exactly. That was one match in the nineteenth century when the number of balls played by each batsman was recorded, because people wanted to know the details. All that was added to the scoreboard today, obviously with some specific motive, was the extras.”
Mynn crept through the hedges. He could see the woman inside, while the cripple talked animatedly. He felt the miniature, automatic catapulta in his grip. He just had to find a way in.
“My valet tells me that your pictures are all over the television as murder suspects,” Heller was piqued. “But, I will allow my immense interest in the Catapulta and faith in fellow friends to triumph over common sense. That’s supposedly what people do. Anyway, as I was saying, among Felix’s many qualities was punning, sketching, rhyming and singing. The puns extended to visuals. For example, Felix on the Bat depicts a man with a bat riding on the back of a winged bat — bat not as in willow but as in the mammal of the chiroptera family. He established the WWW XIs, and they too specialised in punning, speaking and drawing in codes. It’s fun and provides some outlandish plots for novels. Any questions?”
“Why was he called Felix?”
“Ah, why the weakness for that particular nickname is not really known, but Felix insisted on being called by that because his Belgian surname was difficult for people to remember and pronounce.”
“And what is the secret that everyone seems to be so keen to protect?”
“Ah. That involves the WWW. With the Wandering Willow Wizards, we take leave of true facts and venture into pure fiction for the sake of this novel. Felix played from 1828 to 1852. However for one full year, he was not recorded in any scorebook whatsoever. Even Arthur Haygarth’s Scores and Biographies has no trace of him for this one year. 1844. A popular belief is that during this period, Felix was perfecting the Catapulta. If you notice, the match between the Hampshire Players and Gentlemen of the South that Robert described was played in 1844. It seems the Catapulta took on unplayable proportions during that year.”
Langdon added, “And what most people believe is that Felix destroyed this perfected Catapulta because it was impossible to play. The instructions to build it were kept as a carefully guarded secret by the WWW XI.”
“But why?” Sophie was still unsure. “What if such a bowling machine was made? How could it kill cricket? One cannot use a machine in a match.”
Heller laughed. “Of course not. However, that was not all. One of the additional features of this new version of Catapulta was that it had an appendage to manipulate, massage and stretch the wrists of the user, allowing him to achieve unbelievable contortions of the joint. We know how freakish wrists of people like Muttiah Muralitharan and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar have reaped huge success. Now, imagine that perfected on demand. And it was rumoured that Felix had drawn up the instructions to enable men with those modified wrists to bowl exactly like the new version of the Catapulta.”
Langdon continued, “In other words, he had perfected ways for every bowler to become unplayable. And he had scientific evidence to prove that the batsman could do nothing about it in spite of the amount of training. Cricket as a contest between bat and ball would just cease to exist.”
Sophie frowned, “So he destroyed the catapulta.”
“Yes, and he kept the instructions of making one and the additional methods of producing the killer bowler well hidden. He himself did not bowl at all — in all his years in cricket, he got just nine wickets. He did not want to bowl. And we believe it was because he knew he could kill the sport if he bowled in the way he knew. After he passed away, his secret was guarded by generation after generation of WWW XIs.” Heller paused. Sophie had opened her mouth in a silent scream. A huge pale man in flannels was standing behind Langdon, with a strange miniature catapulta in his hand.
Captain Foley signalled his men to be slient as he crept towards the Heller residence. Sophie Nephew’s two-seater had been smartly parked behind a bush. But, it had not remained undiscovered for long. Now, Foley cautiously crept towards his quarry.
“Tell me the secret,” Mynn hissed.
“We don’t know it yet ourselves, man,” Heller laughed. Langdon was on the floor; the missile from the catapulta had been fired mildly, but had found him squarely on the occipital lobe. “We were just working things out with these clues,” Heller stooped to pick up a piece of paper from the coffee table. The crutch slid from under him, and he began to topple sideways to his right. As Mynn looked startled, the falling man raised the sliding crutch and cut a wide arc through the air before striking him on his leg. Mynn buckled, and Sophie’s right foot slammed into his face.
“Well done M’lady, but I believe we have some more company. If I am not mistaken we are about to be interrupted by the members of our well known SOCA. If you tie this creature securely and manage to revive Robert, I will creep down to the garage and get into the Daimler.”
As he lay tied up in the boot, Mynn could make out conversation between the three, but the words were too muffled to make any sense.
“But where are we going?” Sophie asked as she drove. Langdon was used to automatic gear, and Heller could drive only a special car made to order for his needs.
“Extras 13 and 44,” Heller mused. “A little too profligate, in my opinion; and Jack Saunders wanted you to take them together, since with his final position he signalled both bye and leg bye together. If you put them together, you get 1344. But what is 1344? The next clue we have says four slips for the lady. Does that ring a bell, Robert? Four slips, a lady bowler and 1344?”
Langdon was amazed. How could he have not seen it? Turning to Sophie from the passenger seat, he said, “Take the M40 and after thatthe A40. We are on our way to Oxford.”
“Never a truer word spoken,” Heller chimed in.
“But, John, you are harbouring fugitives.”
From the rear seat, Heller smiled.
“To clear all our names, we have to get to the end of this.”
In the Belgravia house, Foley stood seething in frustration. Reaching a minute late was becoming a well rooted habit. The fiendish design of the house had included an almost undetectable garage door on the other side of the house. The three had made off, and by all indications there was a fourth person as well, who not gone on his own volition.
“A manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, dated 1344,” Langdon explained as Sophie drove through the breaking dawn. “Has an illumination that shows a woman in the act of throwing a ball with a man holding a straight bat over his shoulder. There are figures of both sexes standing in a way that seems incredibly like they are expecting catches. Four such figures in all, located behind the man with the bat, exactly where slips would have been. To many it constitutes the evidence that cricket was played as early as the fourteenth century.”
“Four slips for the woman?” Sophie wondered aloud.
“Exactly. And 1344.”
“That leaves no doubt.”
The Bodleian Library does not open till 9:00 AM in the morning, and it was just 6:15 when Sophie drove the Daimler into Westgate Car Park in Norfolk Street. However, Heller walked to the library with confidence and walked up with a knowing smile. A few quiet knocks on a side door brought forth a curious and annoyed face before the expression changed to delight.
“Sir Heller, what a pleasant surprise. And my God, is it Robert Langdon?” the head librarian Jean Maddox was positively delighted, and it was apparent she had not been watching the Harvard symbologist on television the previous night. It was just the general way everyone in the academic community supposedly though Langdon was a superstar. He was instantly recognisable even when he was not being portrayed by Tom Hanks.
“I was sure to find you up and about early, Jean. I know you have a home, but this is where your heart lies. We have a very unusual request, but I am sure you won’t mind such demands from a handicapped, crazy old man, my dear,” Heller charmed his way in. He handed the librarian a slip of paper. “This manuscript is quoted by Reverend James Pycroft in The Cricket Field. My two friends would like to take a look at it.”
Langdon looked up in surprise. “Surely Sir Heller you will accompany us?”
Heller shook his head. “My dear Robert, I am a man of intense desire to know the truth, but with minimal control over my physical ailments. I need my medication at regular hours and also rest which I have been tragically deprived of last night. I want to take part in all the excitement, but right now some moments of solitude in the car is desired. In the meantime, I will also try to see if our late night visitor would like to indulge me with some enlightening conversation.”
Sophie whispered, “But can you handle him alone?”
“The man is tied up, my dear, trussed like a chicken by your capable hands. And I have the toy with which he likes to play,” he patted the miniature catapulta secured in his belt. “Now, you require all your attention on the manuscript without fussing over a cripple like me.”
As Langdon and Sophie entered the library, Heller walked down the steps and took out his cellphone. The number he dialled was 999.
At the Belgravia residence, agent Collate stared at the computer in the secret loft. The systems specialist had been working on it for a while now after Collate had discovered the secret study secured from public eyes by a false wall. The results were intriguing to say the least. “You are sure this PC has been used to eavesdrop on all these computers.”
“Yes. It’s a complex tracing software. Data has been collected for over a year now.”
Collate read the list again. James Harrison, Senior Archiver, British Library. Michael Randall, curator London Museum. Jack Saunders, President, MCC. There were eleven names in all. Each one of them an eminent, respected public figure. Each one a member of MCC. Every one of them killed during that night.
Mynn had suddenly fallen into deep slumber. Yet, now that consciousness returned, he felt his hands were less tightly bound. Was it an act of God? He tossed and turned, and it seemed to be working. The knots came off. The phone was vibrating in his pocket. He answered, “I have failed you, Coach.”
The revered voice was reassuring. “Not due to lack of intent. Go, my boy. You will find the old cripple just outside the car, with the catapulta in his belt. Wrench it away and fire a shot at his shoulder. Graze it, don’t hurt or kill. He will be stunned enough for you to make a getaway. Return to Hyde Park. Burgess will join you on the way.”
The illumination was unreal. The people in the fielding positions looked so like slips that it seemed a quaint anachronism. All seemed to resemble the modern game except the batsman.
“The lady must have possessed a mean outswinger,” Sophie observed. It is perfectly sane to utter casual one-liners when one is busy hiding from the police.
Langdon chuckled. They scanned the manuscript page by page. And it was not long before they found it. In faint pencil, behind the final sheet.
“13 DEC 2011
The Lord’s old father’s long done feat
The gate of Sydney where it does meet
Hexed is that and thus the key
Royal Path two-score, toilet to ye”
“Now, what on earth is this supposed to mean?”Sophie wondered aloud.
Langdon was already copying the verse in his smartphone. “Is the date of any significance?”
“Must be the day grandfather jotted it down. We can run a search on Test matches on that day perhaps,” Sophie offered.
In the main office of the library, Jean Maddox was flummoxed to hear knocking on the door once again — this time impatient and heavy-fisted. It was with some annoyance that she peered out. The men were in uniform and wanted to know whether Robert Langdon was in the premises.
Raymond Burgess had tossed the semi-conscious Heller into the backseat as he had taken his place beside Mynn in the passenger seat. “Would it not have been better to leave him here?” the assassin had asked.
“The Coach has given us his orders,” Burgess said softly. “We need a hostage. We will leave him in the car and walk the last couple of miles to Hyde Park. The car is far too well known. Another car will be provided and we will return to transfer him.”
“The Coach thinks of everything,” Mynn had immense admiration for Burgess, but the man Burgess followed was obviously near divine.
“Yes, he does,” Burgess replied quietly.
The beehive of networked passages underneath Oxford is legendary. The Old Bodleian and the New Bodleian were once connected it by a tunnel underneath Broad Street and the Clarendon Quad all the way to the Radcliffe Camera. The conveyor belt used to transfer books from one library to the other had now been dismantled, but the passageways remained. Langdon and Sophie were running through the intricate alleyways. As usual, all traces of claustrophobia had vanished in these confined surroundings and Langdon was busy thinking about the historic development of these underground paths for the full length of a page and a half while the two made their getaway.
They had been on their way towards the office when Jean Maddox had appeared all of a sudden, accompanied by two uniformed policemen. Slipping back behind the shelves, Langdon had called upon his superb knowledge of all such tunnels across every city of Europe.
We are flickering to and fro through these ancient passages, thought Langdon. And he paused.
“Robert, for heaven’s sake, they will be on to us any minute.”
“Sophie, I think I have got the message on the manuscript.”
“Really Robert, everything has a time and a place.”
“Do you really think so? Think of all that happened last night, all that has happened since my very first book. This is the ideal place to decipher puzzles.”
“At least think of your infamous claustrophobia.”
“Ah well, that’s for the first quarter of the book. But, how did you know about it?”
“It was in the Boston Magazine issue, remember?”
Peering out of the window of his Hyde Park room, Mynn saw a faint outline of a car through a hedge. On the car’s roof was a police siren. He must escape now, but Burgess was still taking care of removing Heller from the car. What should he do?
He reacted on instinct. Surging across the room, he came to a stop just behind the door as it crashed open. The first officer stormed through, swinging his gun in what appeared to be an empty room. Before he realised where Mynn was, the assassin had thrown his shoulder into the door, crushing the second officer as he came through. The first officer wheeled to shoot, but Mynn dove for his legs. The gun went off, the bullet sailed over Mynn’s head. The first officer crashed on the floor, hitting his head. The second staggered to his feet, only to have Mynn driving a knee into his groin.
Mynn burst into the staircase. Someone had informed the police he was there. But who? Running out through the doorway, he noticed a figure coming around the corner, moving fast. The catapulta was whipped out and the missile was fired with deadly aim. And he watched in horror as Raymond Burgess fell, looking at death with hapless eyes. Mynn’s eyes filled up with tears as he grabbed the catapulta.
The bus service from Oxford was not really the ideal way to get to London when the police was behind you, but at least it gave them the opportunity to merge with the crowd.
“Now tell me,” Sophie whispered. “As soon as you get your breath back.”
Langdon closed his eyes. “I got a flash when we were running around the underground maze.”
“Yeah, I got that much.”
“Of course. Now in the poem there is the reference to Lord’s old father. From the cricketing point of view, we can be sure that Lord’s is nothing the ground. And who is old father out there?”
Sophie’s eyes sparkled. “Father Time.”
“On his vane. The Lord’s old father’s long done feat. That surely refers to something far back in time. Long ago at Lord’s. In fact At Lord’s is the most famous poem on cricket, written by Francis Thompson. It ends with the famous lines
‘For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!’”
“I know that. Remember, my grandfather was Jack Saunders.”
“Long ago is definitely the reference to Dick Barlow and AN Hornby, the old batsmen of Lancashire. Now the next line — The gate of Sydney where it does meet. I wondered what gate of Sydney Cricket Ground it can refer to, but there the entrances are all known by their numbers or letters. So, what else can we deduce from Sydney and Gate. Any word that connects the two?”
Langdon smiled. “Exactly. The Monkeygate incident of Sydney. So where do the long done feat and gates of Sydney meet? In the word ‘Monkey’.”
“Surely you know AN Hornby was popularly known as Monkey Hornby. So more precisely, the two allusions meet at Hornby.”
“Hexed is that and thus the key,” Sophie’s voice was raising in pitch with growing excitement. “I am sure this refers to some key code. Hexed. Is that a pun indicating hexadecimal code?”
“That crossed my mind too.”
“Makes more than good sense,” Sophie fished out her smartphone. “‘Hornby’ converted into Hexadecimal format. 486f726e62790d0a. A sixteen digit code. To what? Must be a bank account.”
“Yes, and I think the last line gives us the whereabouts. Royal Path two-score, toilet to ye. Makes any sense?”
Sophie frowned, typing in furiously into her phone. “Yes. When we are rushing away from the police, we always solve these puzzles at lightning speed. So toilet can be WC. Phonetically ‘to ye’ tells us 2E. And WC2E is … ”
“A London Area Code,” Langdon remarked sharply.
“And here is King’s Road, the Royal Path — in WC2E,” Sophie looked at Google Maps on her smartphone. “Two-score — so 40 King’s Road. That gives us the London Branch of Zurich Depository Bank.”
Langdon’s eyes gleamed in excitement. “A brand new branch. We have the Bank, we have a key code. But we need an account number.”
The two looked desperately at the four lines, trying to concoct an account number from the cipher.
The Coach had seen it all. The death of Burgess and then the repentant Mynn firing a missile into his open mouth. Curious, he thought. In Felix on the Bat, a hilarious cartoon specifically instructed fielders never to try and stop a ball with their mouth. Too bad the big old oaf did not heed such wisdom, he laughed. The 999 call from Oxford had worked miracles.
Batsmen! He had hated them always. Ever since the day he had crouched at short-leg, and the full blooded pull had thundered into his ankle. He had never walked without braces and crutches again.
All he had to do now was to track down Langdon and Sophie after they found the instruction manual in the Zurich Depository Bank. He had got the name of the bank from prolonged scan of the computers of the WWW XI. But, he did not know the required account number and access code. Now the Harvard professor and the Cricket Statistician would find it out for him. And then the end of batting as the world knew of the art.
Sir John Heller’s eyes gleamed in glee.
The Depository Bank of Zurich was a 24-hour Geldschrank Bank offering a full modern array of anonymous services in the tradition of a Swiss numbered account. The blind drop was the oldest and simplest services.
The man in full business suit at the reception smiled with corporate warmth as Sophie and Langdon walked across the red carpet.
“Good morning. Account number please.”
Sophie handed him a piece of paper with the 16-digit code. The banker looked at it and his smile disappeared.
“I am afraid this is not the account number. Does madam have a 10-digit account code?”
Langdon’s heart sank. They knew they were missing another number. “Is there any way to find it out from this code?”
“Sorry sir,” the banker replied with polite, firm formality. “The access is a combination of the account number and the key code. I cannot help you if you don’t have the account number.”
As Langdon started to answer, Sophie pulled at his sleeve. “Robert, you did not jot down the date.”
“There was a date at the top of the poem. You did not jot it down. Can you remember it?”
Langdon could. His memory was photographic.
“It was 13th December 2011. But …”
But Sophie was already punching in the keys on her smartphone. Devilishly clever, just what she expected from her grandfather.13 DEC 2011, looking ostensibly like a date, was a Hexadecimal number. And converted from to Decimal, the result was a ten-digit numeric string.
“Here,” she displayed the number to the man. “5333852177”
The warmth returned to his eyes. “Follow me please.”
The vault they stepped into was a steel cage with no outlet — but Langdon, nearing the end of the book, had no trace of claustrophobia. They approached the numbered vault. “I will leave you here, you have one hour to complete your transaction,” the man stepped out with a polite smile.
The alphanumeric keypad demanded the 16-digit pass code. Sophie typed out: 486f726e62790d0a.
There was a click. Sophie pulled the door open. Inside lay a manuscript with the title visible from where they stood. Felix on the Ball. Langdon extended is hand and put it inside his jacket pocket. He did not want to look at it and live with the knowledge that could end cricket forever.
“Robert,” the voice was familiar but cold. “Hand it over.”
Heller stood outside the Zurich Depository Bank even as Langdon and Sophie emerged, a small pistol in his hand as he leaned on his crutches.
The two looked at him in shocked surprise. “John?” Landon’s voice was confused as he stared at the barrel of the gun. Sophie looked at him with infinite betrayal.
“There is no time for games, Robert. Hand it over, or I will shoot your lady friend.”
Once scanned, uploaded onto the internet, and tweeted from his account, all the bowlers in the world would have access to the ultimate tricks and techniques to become unplayable. He needed the manuscript for just a few hours.
“No, Robert,” Sophie urged. “Grandfather would have wanted to keep the secret. He died to keep it.” Her voice was steady.
“Very well,” Heller aimed his weapon.
“No, John. That’s not cricket. If you want to win, you have to play a good game,” Langdon threw the manuscript in the air. Heller’s hungry eyes followed it and the two hands automatically extended for the catch. Foley’s gun fired at that moment and the bullet knocked the pistol out of the aged historian’s hands. As the Captain of SOCA and his men converged on him from their hidden positions, Heller cried, “Robert, at least tell me you have taken a look.”
“No John,” Robert smiled. “I have not. And I will not either. The world will not know anything that has the power to kill the game of cricket.”
The sun was setting at Wimborne when Langdon and Sophie took the last look at the grave. They had to leave. The train ride back to London took two hours. In any case, Nicholas ‘Felix’ Wanostrocht had been sleeping there for 140 years without their assistance. His secret had been safe all these years.
Langdon dusted the mud off his hands.
Now the unwanted invention would remain with the inventor forever.
For a moment Langdon thought he heard a voice, the wisdom of ages … whispering up from the chasms of the earth.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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