The fire crackled in the fireplace and lit up the otherwise dusky room. Eric growled and dashed his glass of port against it. Flames flared and ashes swirled, giving Eric’s reflection in the mirror above the mantel a grimace of abject fury. His thick eyebrows scowled and his teeth gnashed, as the flickering fire played with the lines on his face in a dance of light and shadow. He looked like a devil with the still-tender scar across his forehead and the gray hairs that now lined his face. Eric was young, but the war had aged him, and not well. He returned home with a permanent limp and a diminishing bank account. At least she had still been there… until now.
She ran off with Lewis, that no good two-timing blackguard who called himself a brother. Lewis knew nothing of brotherhood. Eric served with better men, far more valiant and loyal than his own flesh and blood. Meanwhile, Lewis spent the war flitting from party to party and squandering the rest of Father’s fortune. Were he alive today, Father would tan Lewis’s hide, no doubt!
Angry tears welled up in Eric’s eyes, and snarling, he fought them back. They spilled down his cheeks anyway, and Eric wiped them away which such force his sleeve scraped his cheeks and the scar on his forehead stung. The fire rose and ebbed; he paced the room like a caged tiger, not heeding the searing pain in his leg, and clenching and unclenching his fist.
“Damn them!” He cursed at the walls, the rug, the mirror.
Tongues of fire licked his wrath as he glared into the fireplace. He ran his fingers through his hair and, in one swift move, upended the antique pedestal table by Father’s old high-backed chair.
The baroque table had been one of Mother’s favorite pieces of furniture. It had one ornate carved leg with a tripod base, a thick round tabletop with inlaid tile depicting a phoenix, and a tiny drawer that was always locked since the key had vanished before its arrival at the shop. The table rested on its side; the tiny drawer was now open, and a piece of paper lay on the rug beside it. The paper fluttered as the fire flickered, and Eric glared at it through gritted teeth and tear-filled eyes.
Curiosity crept up his spine, and Eric picked up the paper, which was folded into a letter with no recipient or sender. He broke the wax seal and opened it.
Eric huffed. It was nothing but gibberish. He was about to fling it into the fire when he gave it a second glance.
“This looks like a cryptogram,” he muttered as he leaned closer to the firelight to read it.
Eric hobbled to Father’s desk across the room, and sitting in the big leather chair, switched on the desk lamp. He reached for a pen, and with a nostalgic lump in his throat, set to decoding it as he had done years ago by Mother’s sick bed. She loved puzzles and had bequeathed that love to him during many a quiet evening. His last moments with her had been over a cryptic crossword he helped her decipher.
That skill served him well in the army, and he spent most of the war decoding messages from the Nazis to their Luftwaffe. Though he did not escape the bombs — the ghastly scar and his shattered leg proved it.
Eric focused his mind on the task at hand, forgetting her perfidy and Lewis’s betrayal. It was a substitution code written in symbols; difficult, but not impossible.
The fire dwindled, and the room cooled around him, as the message appeared, letter by letter.
Confused, he furrowed his brow.
“Decipher this message and prosper for all eternity.”
Eric leaned back in the chair and huffed.
“What is this?” He said, the fire hissed in reply.
Eric stood and, noting the chill, limped across the room and threw another log into the fire. The flames sputtered and cackled, playing with the dead wood.
Eric returned the overturned table to its upright position and sat on the high-backed chair beside it. He watched the flames crackle and pop as his eyelids grew heavy and drifted off to sleep. His hand drooped over the arm of the chair, and his fingers loosened the grip on the decoded message.
The paper fluttered on the rug as a draft of wind gusted through the room, despite the closed doors and windows. It lifted the paper into a whirlwind of dancing flames and blew it into the fire. With one final wheeze, the fire incinerated the cipher and died.
The cold crept into Eric’s bones, and he stirred, shivering. He opened his eyes and stood to throw another log into the fire when, catching his reflection in the mirror, he gasped. The scar and the gray hairs had vanished! His youthful, flabbergasted face stared back at him, and only then did he realize he felt no pain in his leg. Rather, he felt no pain anywhere. He covered his mouth with his hand—a million thoughts flying through his brain—when he glanced into the cold hearth.
Glints and glimmers sparkled in the dim light of Father’s desk lamp. Instead of glowing embers, Eric beheld a trove of diamonds, gold, silver and precious gems where only ashes should be.