Johnathan read the letter over and over again, trying to make sense of the strange combinations of letters and digits. He looked for patterns, for familiarities, but none of the sequences were consistent, as far as he could discern. Was it a code, a cipher? Then he scrutinised the writing in between, looking for hidden meanings, particularly in the underlined phrases. Nothing came to mind. This had him stumped.
Between readings of the letter, he looked at the key in his other hand, twiddling it between his fingers. There seemed to be nothing special about it, except that it appeared to be old. By the size, he guessed that it was the key to something small: a box, or perhaps a locker. Maybe even one of those lockable diaries. Did this Robert McCarthy have whatever it was in his possession. He supposed there was only one way he'd find out.
Back in his flat, he booted up his laptop, reading the letter for perhaps the twentieth time while he waited.
He opened up his browser and typed in Hobbs End. There were several of them, but one was indeed in Shropshire, so he clicked on it and opened up a map. All he wanted to know was how to get there. It seemed that the closest rail station was Ironbridge, which was five miles away or thereabouts. Then he found the rail enquiries site and worked out the route and timings. He looked at his watch. If he went straight to the station now, there'd be just enough time to grab a ticket and catch the next train. There was no chance he'd be there before dark, though. You could have given me this guy's number, Dad, among all those weird combinations, he thought. He didn't relish disturbing a stranger after dark, whether his father's friend or not.
Twenty minutes later, he stood on the station platform He absently caressed the old key in his jacket pocket as the train drew up. On the train, he thought about James. Should he have told him about all this? Maybe he could have helped. Two heads were better than one,and James had transport, too. Then he dismissed the idea. Even if his father had urged him not to tell anyone, he knew that it would be a mistake. James would simply take over, and turn the situation to his own advantage. Why should he, anyway? James hadn't offered Johnathan anything.
He had to change trains twice, before arriving at Ironbridge station. It was late, and the information desk was deserted, so he went to the ticket window, and asked the best way to get to Hobbs End. The woman behind the window told him there was a bus, but the last one had probably gone. His only option now was a taxi. She pointed outside.
He went to the rank, and got into the first car, The elderly looking driver was just finishing for the night, he said, but luckily had to go through Hobbs End on the way home, so Johnathan was doing him a favour. He was a talkative chap, and Johnathan asked him if he knew where Turnstile Lodge was, not expecting that he would. He was therefore surprised when the driver told him the place was very well known in the area.
''Oh, why's that, then?'' Johnathan asked.
''Well - it were in the news just last month, lad.'' said the driver, his tone implying that everyone knew about this. ''Ah well. Burned to the ground, it did, didn't it? The owner was lucky to get out alive, but he were badly burned. Still in hospital, he is, poor bugger.''