Mortale’s Challenge – The Challenge Begins
The insipid remnants of the weak autumn daylight are fading to darkness as the car gracefully purrs along. It glides along a tree-lined, gravel driveway which is clumsily embraced by the wind-tossed skeletal branches of the surrounding wood. Seated in the back of the luxurious vehicle, you stare out of the window as the first drops of rain fall from the lowering storm clouds gathering above. You ponder how you have found yourself here: sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car on the way to the vast country estate of England’s richest, and most secretive, IT entrepreneur – Mr Ian Mortale.
You glance at the invitation which, despite being delivered to your home just under a week ago, already bears the scars of over-handling. Although just a small piece of elegantly embossed card, it manages to exude an atmosphere of mystery. It merely requests your presence and states that you will be collected by car and taken to an un-named destination. There you will be asked to pit yourself against a number of intellectual challenges. As the foremost expert in the field of cryptology, you are not one to turn down such an offer. Apart from that, the prospect of being in the company of someone as enigmatic as Mortale is enough to warrant a positive response to the invitation.
The car emerges from the wooded drive and you see before you a commanding, well-maintained, Gothic-style country mansion. You are driven around a fountain-adorned ornamental pond, then the car finally stops in front of steps leading up to the imposing entrance of what is a sprawling house. A servant appears and, as he opens the door of the car, a perhaps inauspicious flash of lightning splits the brooding sky.
The servant dips his head in a mock attempt at courtesy and introduces himself.
“Good evening sir and welcome to Lavr House. My name is Triggs. I am the head butler here, at Mr Mortale’s country residence. I will show you to your room. I have taken the liberty of setting out some items of clothing which will hopefully meet with your approval. There should be sufficient time for you to freshen up after your long journey before dinner is served. Please follow me, sir”.
You leave the car and follow Triggs up a set of wide stone steps framed by two stone columns. As you enter the house you glance up and notice that painted on the ceiling of the entrance is a single blue eye: an eye that is constantly open; constantly looking down on all who enter.
Crossing the threshold of the house, you cannot help but inhale a sharp intake of breath. No one who visits can fail to be moved by the majesty of the surroundings. The cavernous entrance hall is as imposing as the exterior façade, opening into a vast lobby, above which rises a domed ceiling. Numerous doors and passageways lead off from the lobby to the interior of the house. A sweeping marble staircase with curving banisters leads to the upper floors. It strikes you that everything about this mansion is designed to impress upon visitors the power and the wealth of the owner. Triggs makes for the staircase and leads you upwards to the first floor. At the top of the stairs you turn right and head down a long corridor lined with various, gilt-framed paintings which you presume detail the history of this great building and its owners. Triggs stops at the third or fourth door along, opens it smoothly and moves to one side to allow you to enter.
“Dinner is served at 8. Do not be late; Mr Mortale detests tardiness. Please ring the bell when you are ready and one of the staff will come to take you down to the dining room.”
Triggs makes to leave and, almost as an afterthought, says over his departing shoulder,
“Enjoy your stay!”
You close the door after he leaves and then turn to look around the exquisitely appointed room. Once again you are struck by the remarkable vastness of your surroundings. A well-upholstered, curtained four poster bed stands against the far wall. Set into the wall opposite the bed is a fireplace, blazing with a roaring fire that succeeds in chasing away the cold of the evening. An inviting leather chair sits by the fire; a table with a full crystal decanter and a glass within arm’s reach. You sniff the contents of the decanter – you guess it probably a rare and expensive brandy. An open door leads through to a fully-appointed and luxurious en suite bathroom. This modern room, whilst undoubtedly welcome, seems at jarringly at odds with the rest of the fixtures and fittings.
You walk over to the four-poster and notice that, laid out on the bed, is immaculately made evening attire, and on the floor next to the bed, a pair of beautifully cut shoes. Both the clothes and the shoes are made to measure; a disconcerting surprise – since you have never met your host Mortale before.
You freshen up after your long journey, taking advantage of the invigorating shower and soft towelling bathrobe provided for you. You allow yourself a few precious moments in the comfortable chair after pouring yourself some of the deliciously aromatic liquid from the decanter. It tastes good and helps to settle your racing mind. You slip into the clothes after your short rest and marvel again at the perfect fit.
Glancing at your watch, you notice that it is five minutes to eight. Remembering Triggs’s warning about not being late, you walk to the side of the bed and pull the long cord that hangs from the ceiling. Almost immediately you hear a knock at your door. Walking over, you open it and see another smartly-dressed servant waiting for you. You begin to offer a greeting, but without a word they turn and start to walk briskly back down the corridor. You hurriedly follow them. They lead you down the stairs and back across the vestibule to a set of stately looking oak double doors. The doors open. Not for the first time tonight, you are so impressed that you almost forget to breathe. The dining room is like nothing you have ever seen before. The scale of the room is grand but it is the dark yew table that draws the eye. It is truly vast – which makes it ironic that there are only two places set. The flickering reflections in the highly polished, close-grained wood make you notice next the enormous fireplace and the flames dancing within. Only then do you become aware of your host, Ian Mortale, staring straight at you.
“Ah, my good friend,” he says although his eyes do not convey the message of warmth implied by his greeting. “Please come and stand with me by the fire. Here, take a drink.”
Hand outstretched towards the proffered glass, you walk over to the fire and, as you do so, you consider closely your first impressions of this man about whom you have heard so much. Mortale is dressed in an immaculately tailored evening suit which accentuates his tall and powerful build. You find it difficult to place his age: his close cropped black hair shows no evidence of grey and his complexion is flawless. Clear flint grey eyes observe you closely, perhaps weighing you up, but there is no warmth in those eyes – just a cool, calculating intellect which leaves you with an unsettling feeling.
“I prefer to take a small brandy before dinner, I assume you do too.” This was not a question and so you take the glass from him.
“I am not one for subterfuge – preferring, as I do, a more direct approach in my dealings. As such I am sure you would like to know why I have brought you here tonight.”
You nod your agreement, but it is plain your affirmation is not required.
“As you know, I have made my vast fortune from the science of cryptography. The internet runs on encryption, without it the World Wide Web would not be what it is today. Any sensitive information transferred online has to be encrypted to render it safe. I have made it my business to create the strongest encryption possible for those clients who are willing to pay for my skills.”
Mortale swirls his glass and takes a sip, savouring the flavour of the brandy before continuing.
“Much of my work involves simple encryption – basic data security that most businesses use. However, I do offer a more discreet, more secure service for certain clients who are willing to pay me to secure their data transmissions. This might be sovereign governments, military, intelligence services or, in some cases, criminal organisations. As you can appreciate this sometimes brings me into contact with some unpalatable people. But they are paying for my services and it has made me rich, so I am willing to swallow that bitter pill.”
He pauses and looks at you, assessing your reaction to his words before continuing.
“But wealth isn’t everything. I have become bored; bored of my work, bored of my life. I have decided that I needed a new challenge – an intellectual challenge: one that would finally interest me!”
At that, the door opens and Triggs enters the room. Approaching his master, he bows and murmurs,
“Dinner is ready sir, if you would please be seated?”
Mortale gestures towards you slightly impatiently. “Please, after you.”
Triggs leads you to the table and indicates the seat to the left of the head of the table. Mortale takes his place at the head and you sit down after him.
Mortale engages you in idle conversation while Triggs serves course after course of amazing food. Each mouthful is a delight, from the freshly baked bread rolls served with the rillette starter, to the divine, hand-crafted petits fours offered with the after-dinner coffee. The time spent savouring these delicious dishes is enjoyably spent. However, you can’t help but feel that Mortale is waiting for the opportune moment to return to the reason he has invited you to his house.
Finally, dinner is finished and, standing from the table, Mortale invites you to once more join him by the fire for a night-cap. You are anxious for him to get to the purpose of the evening so you acquiesce readily. Glass in hand, Mortale continues.
“As I said earlier, I am bored: nothing excites me anymore. I need a challenge so I have created a trial; one that pits me against the greatest minds in the world. I have contacted the foremost experts in science, mathematics and engineering and set them against seven unique puzzles that I have created. The puzzles are laid out in seven rooms in this house. By solving one, you can unlock the door and move onto the next room, and also the next puzzle. If all seven are completed there is a prize.”
Intrigued, you ask perhaps the most obvious question.
“What is the prize?”
“The prize is this: I will fund the research that they are conducting for an indefinite period. A blank cheque if you like, that the winner can write. I am pleased to say that so far no one has been successful. No one has managed to solve all seven of my puzzles. Some have managed to crack five, but no one has got beyond the sixth, which brings me to the reason why you are here. As you are a leading expert in cryptology, and I am interested in your research, I thought you would be an ideal candidate for my challenge.”
You are a little surprised by this offer: it takes you some time to gather your thoughts before you respond.
“If you like my research so much, why do you not just fund it without the pretence of this competition?”
“That would be far too easy wouldn’t it? Where is the challenge in that for me?”
He pauses and takes a long sip of his drink, considering his next words carefully.
“No. If you want to obtain funding, especially now that your current grant is coming to an end, then you will have to accept my challenge.”
He gazes intently at you, his eyes searching for a clue as to your intent.
“I am also hoping that I have not misjudged you. In you I see a kindred spirit, someone who needs to push the limit of their intellect. I hope I am not wrong.”
There is a pause while you both weigh each other up. It is true that your funding is coming to an end. You have been researching a rather unfashionable form of cryptology and, what with government economising on funding research, you have found that you are on the wrong side of their cut-backs. Perhaps it is this that forces you into making a choice. Or it might be that Mortale is right and you can’t resist a challenge. Either way, you decide you cannot turn down his offer.
“Ok,” you hear yourself saying, “I am interested in your challenge. When do I start?”
Mortale looks at you and you notice an almost excited glint in his eyes. He is obviously pleased that you have accepted, but there is something more behind those eyes that remains unsaid.
“Good, good! That is excellent news! I am glad that my assessment of your character was not wrong.”
At that he stands, making it quite clear that the evening is at an end.
“I bid you a good night and hope that you get a refreshing night’s sleep in preparation for the mental exertions that you face tomorrow.”
You spend a long time mulling over your conversation with Mortale, trying to find any hint in his words of the challenge that awaits you. Your brain is too engrossed with anticipation of the puzzle ahead to appreciate the opulence and luxury of your gloriously comfortable bed. Eventually, tiredness takes you and you are granted a few hours of dreamless sleep. You are awoken by a sharp rapping on the door. In the corridor outside, a servant stands with a tray of breakfast food.
“Mr Mortale wishes you a good morning and hopes that you had a pleasant night’s sleep. He awaits you in the lobby in half an hour.”
With that he places the tray on the table by the still-glowing fire and quietly leaves, closing the door behind him.
You eat quickly, dress in clothes which must have been laid out whilst you were showering, and thirty minutes later, you are in the lobby awaiting the arrival of Mortale
He walks from the west wing of the house and greets you rather curtly. Without breaking stride he heads into the dining room and you follow. He stops at a door and turns.
“This is where my challenge begins,” he says, a feverish light burning behind his eyes.
“Once I open this door the challenge will begin. All you have to do is solve the seven puzzles and make it to the last room. If at any time you cannot solve a puzzle, ring the bell and one of my staff will fetch you. The challenge will be over and you will be taken back to your home. If you succeed there will be a contract waiting for you which agrees to fund your research. This is your last chance to back out.”
You are starting to tire of the rather melodramatic tone to Mortale’s voice and so in a rather clipped tone you respond,
“Let’s get started.”
Mortale smiles and opens the door. Your task has begun.