It's been a gentle, curious, friendly afternoon. From noticing a tennis ball in my garden (how'd that get there?) and finding a beautifully crafted miniature book inside, to chatting with the boatman at Word on the Water in Primrose Hill, to retrieving an envelope marked 'G' from a volume in London's most beautiful bookstore, to examining a jar full of moles (and then crawling under the cabinet), I've been puzzling, marvelling, and ambling for hours.
The instigator of all this doesn't get off work until 9, so there's plenty of time. I've stopped for snacks a couple of times already.
But in the third act, the mood changes. It's 4:30, and I'm sitting on the steps at the Grant Museum. Just before she goes offline, my contact warns me that there's a checkpoint in a location that closes at 5pm, and that she doesn't think I can make it.
Never tell me that. It's only 4:45 when I hit Columbia Road. Pah. I'm not even winded. But the shop's closed. A sign on the door advertises that it opens for appointments, 9-6, Monday to Friday. I phone them and explain that possibly I'm meant to pick something up from them, but I have no idea what it is, or why, or who from. They're friendly but baffled.
Out of ideas, I read the hints I've been emailed, and immediately retrieve a hidden container from under the front step. Obviously.
This wasn't the in-store pickup. In fact, the message reveals that it's two steps further away. I'd assumed Columbia Road, 5pm deadline --> flower pickup --> cryptofloricon message, a possible endgame that fit so neatly that it blinded me to any other possibility.
The faster I'm moving, the stupider I get.
I have no choice but to get a lot stupider. It's 4:50, and I need to swing past London Fields, find a dragon hidden behind a sign, grab it, and get to Hoxton by 5pm. I phone up the Monster Supply Store in Hoxton and ask them if they feel like staying open until 5:10. They don't, quite reasonably.
The clue's really clever but I don't have time to muck about. I go directly to the hints, find a cigarette packet behind the sign, rip it in half, and shove both halves and the plastic dragon it contains in the vague direction of my pack's side pockets. I'm rolling, no time to set up the music, smashing Hackney Road traffic to the sound of my breathing. I can do this.
After a couple of hundred metres I get a bad feeling, pat my shorts, then, more urgently, the side pockets of my backpack. Nothing. I pull over and ransack the pack.
I've dropped the fucking dragon.
This is not how this ends. I have not come this far to fail now. And this is not the story I want to tell. I am not slinking back at 9am tomorrow. But it's 4:57, now. It's not looking good.
I think about trying to blag my way in, but it's not going to work. The instructions were very clear that, should I attempt to enter without a dragon, I would be disemboweled. So I hammer back to last checkpoint, recheck the sign, tear the pack apart, scan the road I've just cycled, snatch up the toy, and get back on the bike.
Hackney road, again, faster, and with more frustration. A van door starts to open and I'm too close. I scream and dodge right; from inside the van, there's an answering scream from the startled driver.
Sloppy. Should've checked if that van was occupied.
I hit the Monster Supply Store a few minutes after five and stagger inside. Three women behind the counter eye me curiously. Perhaps they were waiting.
"Is someone .. here expecting .. me to give .. them a .. dragon?"
I don't have the energy left to be more eloquent. Two look blank. The third reaches under the counter and hands me a box with a smile. I'd love to stay and explain, but I'm on a mission.
The box is full of jigsaw pieces.
You might also find it interesting to read the other half of the story.