It’s that time again. A terrorist group was messing with my universe, and order must be restored on earth—someone needed to die. I was placing my ducks in order—including my updated will—before I left on my next sanction. The knock on the door caught me off guard. It was my chief of security with my daily bundle of mail. “Boss, you gotta see this,” he said.

I normally sort through my mail in front of the fireplace. Junk mail keeps the fire blazing. I was about to toss the oversize envelope into the flame when the hair on the back of my neck started to curl. My mailman was trained. Ninety-nine percent of the time he separated the junk mail from the bills and what have you.

Not this time—

The letter was simply labeled Buckner Axele Davidssen—no address, nothing. Nobody calls me Buckner—nobody alive that is, and very few people know my middle name. The return address made my neck hair stand straight up—as the envelope fell into the fire.

4 Oak Street, McAllen, TX. 42853-1185

I reached into the flame and grabbed it.

No name, but that didn’t matter, I knew the street well, and there was only one house on that street—number 13.

Clue one—
The zip code for McAllen was 78501, which told me the zip listed was another clue. The problem was—I hadn’t seen nor spoken to my old friend for twenty-five, no make that twenty-six years. Big John went dark and never resurfaced.

I quickly extinguished the flaming envelope and ripped it open. A smile spread across my face. Once a spook—always a spook and Big John wanted out. Problem number two—there was only one way to leave the CIA—dead.

The letter was an extremely fancy pictorial code with plenty of hints—to be precise—it was a double column cipher with the ciphertext in a crest, and ‘Quenches Fortify’ on a ribbon underneath the crest. As a hobby, I cracked codes for the Alphabet Soup community when I wasn’t eliminating terrorists. Still, my work was definitely cut out for me with this one.

The double transposition cipher had been around since WWII, but without a key, even the best program would spin forever without breaking it. This code had at least three keys by my count.

I tried several algorithms on the column keywords to no avail. When it occurred to me that quenches fortified was an anagram and the main key. My program quickly came up with Frequency Shift O.

Ok Big John, good one. The address (4) was the shift.

The key word above the left column was EXLIRE with an arrow under the column pointing right (forward). Over the right column was QIHYWE with an arrow pointing left (backward).

Using the frequency shift of four, I got Athena and Medusa. They were code names of the two sanctions we worked on together. This also told me the code was a six-column double cipher, and the cipher codes were seven characters.

Now to crack the cipher which read as follows.

FLEBFMN
ANRTSUY
KGDDEAD
IGYDMII
IONIILR
HORIEHJ

First I had to place the cipher codes vertically into a six position column using the alphabetical equivalents of MEDUSA, which was 432651.
4 3 2 6 5 1
M E D U S A

I K A H I F
G G N O O L
Y D R R N E
D D T I I B
M E S E I F
I A U H L M
I D Y J R N

Reading across horizontally I had six new cipher codes: IKAHIFG, GNOOLYD, RRNRDDT, IIBMESE, IFIAUHL, and MIDYJRN. Placing them vertically gave me the following:
1 6 4 3 5 2
A T H E N A

I R G M I I
I R N I F K
B N O D I A
M E O Y A H
E D L J U I
S D Y R H F
E T D N L G

Reading across horizontally I had six new cipher codes for Athena: IRGMIII, RNIFKBN, ODIAMEO, YAHEDLJ, UISDYRH, AND FETDNLG. Next, I had to apply Athena’s code of 164352, and place the ciphertext back into the column. The column read as follows:
I F Y O U R
R E A D I N
G T H I S I
M D E A D F
I N D M Y K
I L L E R B
I G J O H N

Marines don’t cry, but I came close when I read the text out loud. “If your reading this I am dead. Find my killer—Big John.”

I looked back at the envelope and keyed the zip (428531185) into my bank account cracking program. It didn’t take long for my program to tell me that Big John left me his life savings, and now I had to find his killer.

My sanction would have to wait another day. The clues from Athena and Medusa told me who killed Big John. It could only be one man.

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