‘Code Breakers’ by Lexi Bickell
Laila sighed, then read out the code from the tattered sheet of paper again.
“CCCF. UAU, AUG DEPT, ON GUG’S DAY.”
“It still doesn’t make any sense!” she groaned. “We’ve tried everything!” This wasn’t the February half-term she’d been picturing.
“What was the clue again?” Ethan mumbled, slumped on the sofa, eyes shut. She rolled her eyes at her twin, even though he couldn’t see her, then repeated it.
“Clue: The key to the code is the key to life.” Laila stared at Uncle Jerome’s letter, spread on the coffee table in front of her. They’d barely known the man, but Jerome had been close to their father – the two men worked at the same university. Jerome had left Dad money and boxes of his possessions in his will; when the twins received only a coded message in a yellowed envelope, Dad had laughed, thinking it was a last joke from his friend. But Laila wasn’t convinced – Jerome hadn’t been much of a ‘joking’ person. The letter seemed completely serious, and it talked about the code leading to “unlimited riches”. If there was any chance it was real, they had to crack it.
The door to the living room opened and Dad stuck his head in.
“Still looking for buried treasure, eh?” he chuckled. Laila nodded.
“But we’re stuck,” Ethan said, “Completely and totally stuck. Do you have ANY idea how to solve it?”
“Nope.” Dad said. “Not my area of expertise, I’m afraid! If you two are really set on working it out, though, you might want to start thinking like Uncle Jerome.”
“What do you mean?” asked Laila, fidgeting with the edge of the letter.
“Well, he was a biology professor, wasn’t he? So try to think as though you’re one too!” Laila’s mind raced at Dad’s words. “Lunch will be in about half an hour, okay guys?” Dad grinned, then popped back behind the door. Laila turned to Ethan, eyes gleaming.
“I’ve got an idea!” she whispered.
“Here!” Ethan called over, lifting one of the heavy tomes up to show Laila.
“Brilliant!” Laila scurried over to him from the box she’d been rooting through. It had been her idea to go through Jerome’s things after lunch, especially his books. “These are all of the textbooks, right?” she asked.
“Yep, all the ones I can find,” her brother replied. “Let’s get reading!” They took a book each and started going through the contents pages, searching for anything that might be related to Jerome’s code, or his confusing clue.
After swapping Experimentation 101 for Beginners’ Biology, Ethan yelled out, “I’ve got it!” He pointed to a table filled with Us, As, Gs and Cs, entitled ‘Building Blocks of Life’. It looked like combinations of those letters matched up with sets of other letters – like a code. Laila peered over Ethan’s shoulder to read out the caption underneath.
“Each combination of three letters codes for an ‘amino acid’. Long strings of these amino acids make up proteins and DNA. DNA is what your genes are made from. Your genes are incredibly important because they’re what make you, you. They determine what you’re like, from eye colour to health to your favourite foods.”
“That’s got to be what he meant by ‘the key to life’!” Laila said when she’d finished.
“Let’s see if we can use this to decode the message!” Ethan grinned. They ran to get pens and paper, then kneeled on the floor next to the open book. Over an hour passed, with lots of bickering and pinching going on, before they had an answer.
PROF. TYR, MET. DEPT, ON VAL’S DAY.
“Uncle Jerome was a professor, so PROF has got to be short for that.” Laila reasoned. “And then TYR… it could be part of a name? Another professor’s name?”
Ethan cracked his knuckles as he thought. “I don’t know what MET is,” he said, reading on, “but I know DEPT can be short for department.”
“Wait a sec,” Laila said, leaping up. In seconds she was back, tapping on their tablet.
“What are you doing?” Ethan asked.
“I’m looking up the staff at Dad and Jerome’s university…” Laila replied, clicking through links, “I thought it might be someone who works there.”
“Good thinking!” Ethan said. He watched as Laila scrolled through the list of staff members, passing Dad’s name, then jabbed his finger at the device. “Professor L. Tyrian! That has to be him. Where does he work?”
“SHE,” Laila corrected, “works in the met-all-lurg-y… in the metallurgy department. That could be what MET stands for!” Her fingers moved like butterflies over the screen as she searched. “It means like, metals and stuff.” Ethan’s eyes glittered.
“You mean, like treasure and stuff!” he said, voice hushed. Laila nodded quickly.
“Okay, so we’ve got Professor Tyrian, from the metallurgy department,” she summarised. “‘ON VAL’S DAY’.”
“Well that must be Valentine’s Day,” Ethan said. “What else could it be?”
“You’re right!” Laila said. “That’s only a few days away! We have to tell Dad!”
They ran downstairs to explain what they had discovered and found Dad with a newspaper on his lap. “Wow!” he said when they finished. “Well done! I didn’t think there was a code at all. I bet you’re feeling pleased with yourselves!”
Laila nodded, swallowed, then opened her mouth to ask Dad the favour they needed. “So… will you take us to work with you? So we can talk to the professor?”
“What? No! I can’t do that, kids,” he said. “I can’t disturb Professor Tyrian for a silly puzzle! I don’t even really know her. I’m sorry.” Dad looked back down at his newspaper. Laila’s face dropped. She wanted to argue, but she knew that there was no point once Dad had made up his mind. She glanced at Ethan, who was frowning at the floor. She tugged at his sleeve so that he turned, then followed her out of the room. As soon as they were back upstairs, she stopped. Ethan raised his eyebrows.
“Any other ideas?” he asked.
“Dad’s going to KILL us if he finds out,” Ethan muttered, clenching and unclenching his fists. They stood in front of the door, the golden letters of METALLURGY DEPARTMENT shining against the dark wood.
Even during the school holidays Dad had to go to work. This Valentine’s Day, the twins had taken advantage of that – Dad just hadn’t known about it.
Slinking into the back of the car and hiding under the seats had been easy; it was getting out that was difficult. But they’d managed it, just about. Then, they’d hidden behind another car, before sneaking in the main door behind Dad, leaving as much distance as they could between him and themselves. After hunting around the corridors, hearts pounding every time a shadow slipped past, they’d found the door.
Before either of them knocked, it swung open. Without hesitation, Laila trotted inside, leaving Ethan to trail in behind her. They were expecting a room, but it was more like a warehouse. It was a hot, vast space, with high ceilings, filled with all sorts of technical equipment and chunks of metal that shimmered in the bright lighting.
“I know who you two are.” a voice said. Ethan whipped around, yanking Laila with him. An older woman stood in front of them, arms crossed. She wore purple-rimmed glasses and had a lime green boiler suit on. “I’ve been expecting you.”
“A – Are you… P-professor Tyrian?” Laila asked. “You were expecting us?”
“Yes, of course, to both questions! Jerome told me about his plan. Gave me a copy of his code and everything! He’d be so excited to know that you managed to crack it.” The woman smiled warmly. “Wait a mo’,” she said, one finger up, “I know you’re waiting for your reward!” She disappeared behind a towering pile of silver scraps.
“She’s getting the treasure!” Ethan exclaimed. Laila grinned at his excitement. The woman reappeared, holding an old book. Ethan scowled. “A book?!” he cried. “We were meant to get ‘unlimited riches’!” Laila elbowed him, but the scholar had heard.
“Books not your thing?” she asked. Ethan shook his head. Laila bit her lip. She peeked up at the professor apologetically. “You don’t have to have it,” the woman shrugged at Ethan, who jutted out his chin. He glanced at Laila. She didn’t move. Ethan huffed melodramatically, but stayed put too. The professor smiled. “You’ll be glad you didn’t leave,” she said, and held out the aged book.“Be careful with it!” she warned as the twins took it. “You might not understand fully yet, but it’s extremely valuable.” They looked down at the cover. Ethan’s face was confused, but Laila’s eyes grew round and she gasped.
On the cover of the book were pictures of gold coins and a red stone. Underneath the pictures was the title: The Secrets of Alchemy.