Puzzled to Death

You ever do those crossword puzzles, the ones that say ‘by Edna Rodzini, edited by Will Shortz or Will Weng’ or some other famous wordsmith? Your name gets first billing, but only the real aficionados know who you are. Well, I’m the Edna Rodzini character, male version, Jack White. I slave all day in the real world, and twice a week I get on the computer and work until two or three in the morning building puzzles that pay next to nothing. I don’t care though, because I love it and I’d do it for free. And every so often one of those famous wordsmiths is stopped in his tracks by what I’ve done, and takes a little time out of his busy life to tell me how much he liked it.

One of the key ingredients of puzzling, especially since Merle Reagle redefined the science in the early eighties, is the theme, like quotes, funny twists on standard idioms, misplaced letters, symbols, even plots. My favorite is word ladders, but not as the central topic, that would be too mundane. I insert the word ladder running right to left, top to bottom for all my puzzles. I start with a five or six letter word that can be referenced to the theme, then replace one letter at a time in four or five clues, until I have the name of the speaker of the quote for example. It’s my little trick, my signature. I don’t tell the wordsmith, and my devoted – well, that’s a stretch – audience doesn’t know either. Still, maybe twice a year some guy says he found the ladder, says he thinks it’s cool to find an unlisted puzzle in the puzzle; I never got one from a woman.

I’m always developing themes, looking for connections. I read the paper, I get an idea. I hear the news, another possibility. You’ve got your standard themes like Christmas and Thanksgiving, but current events type themes are my favorite. In those cases I start and finish the puzzle in the same week, place it before it’s complete, then work like hell to get it out the door. I’m not famous, but I’m pretty good, and the wordsmiths want my stuff.

I read the New York Times and USA Today every morning, then as a liberal antidote, I consume the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post on-line after dinner. I save a wide range of articles to feed my puzzle thinking. Then one day it gets more serious than that.

A couple weeks back, I read about a murder, in New York, of a man named Culin. Well, that’s my favorite kind of name, one that, though not unique, is really rare, probably shared by a single family. So I get on the internet and find there are twenty Culins in the United States, at least on the internet white pages, including the dead man. Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that tickles my fancy, hard to believe, eh? Well, I recall the name Bolan, a man killed in Miami. So, I wonder if I can word ladder Bolan to Culin, keeping the uncommon last name theme. It was a pretty simple exercise to go from Bolan to Bolin to Colin to Culin.

Well, that’s not the half of it, because I remember those names too. So I get on the internet, call up a news service search engine and check out Bolin. He was murdered two months ago in Minneapolis, and Colin was killed last month in New Orleans. I don’t know if I’m interested or scared, but my hands shake from the adrenaline rush. I try Bomin, dead a month earlier in Kansas City. It takes a while to get to Domin, dead a month before in Jacksonville.

It’s midnight when I get into it hot and heavy, and seven-thirty the following Saturday morning before I finish with Meide in Phoenix. The guy was a real card, a puzzle in a puzzle. The word ladder gives me the names of the dead men, and they were from the teams of the National Football League, in alphabetical order. Now I know; him and me. So what to do?

I’m a member of the normal world, you know, the people who have no idea how to find a cop, because we never need one, and they never need us. So I take a train for the hour-long ride into the city and walk uptown from the subway stop to the address listed in the phone book. At the front desk I tell the uniformed officer I want to speak to someone in Homicide. He asks why. I tell him I want to report a murder. He gets a little hyper, but he looks like a rookie. I’ve been on the earth a few more turns than he has, so I tell him to relax, it’s not so recent, and time is on our side.

Now that puzzles him; and he looks at me like I’m from another planet before he gets on the phone. I hear him laugh, then, louder than he needed to, “Okay, Doyle, but don’t go kicking my butt.” He points me up the stairs, third door on the right.

The door’s glass square was stenciled Homicide Division. Everything stops when I walk in the door. Seven men and three women, plainclothes, heads together or on the phone or reading the paper. A big tall, I mean tall, like six-six, man with thick unruly red hair stands at the back of the room and waves. The din rises behind me as the room returns to a normal beat.

Doyle motions to the chair opposite him and introduces himself. I do the same. “So, how can I help you, Mr. White?”

I fumble a bit. “Well, detective, I’d like to report a murder, no, that is, I’d like to report nineteen murders.”

He gets that look like, oh no, a wacko. “Nineteen new murders?”

I ignore it, the look, that is. “No, detective, nineteen old murders.”

The big Irish face turns red. “What are you trying to pull here, White?” The mister is off the rose, so to speak.

I hold out my hands, palms up. “Look, detective, I’ve come across something, by accident. I’ve connected up nineteen unsolved murders.”

The detective turns his big head to the pretty woman at the desk next to him. “Hey, Maureen, you got to hear this.”

She takes the chair next to me and introduces herself as Detective McMartin. She is thirty-five, short, boyish thin body, much too pretty to be dealing with the scum of the earth.

I repeat my last sentence.

She doesn’t smile, but Doyle says, “How do you like that, a serial killer buster walks into our midst,” then turning to me, “and we’re supposed to believe he’s found a connection missed by all of law enforcement.”

I am unfazed by it; these are normal people, and the words I am using obviously sound unbelievable.

McMartin is more patient. “That’s strange, Mr. White, but we don’t have nineteen unsolved murders.”

I give them more bad news; “Most of them aren’t in New York, just the last one.”

Doyle sneers, “Yeah, right.”

McMartin leans toward the big detective. “Hang on, Dennis, let’s hear what the man out.”

Doyle shakes his head, the thick hair a beat behind. “I don’t have time for this. I got three real, now killings to deal with.”

A note of pleading enters her voice, like she’s done this before; “Hey, come on, we have time. We’ll make time.”

To me she says, “Okay, Mr. White, take us through your fifteen minutes of fame.”

I get a little testy; “Listen, detective, I don’t need fame. As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to leave this turd on your desk, and you guys can figure out what to do with it.”

She makes the right sounds to calm me down, and I take them through the paces. They understand crossword puzzles, but I have to explain what a word ladder was, and how it is I recognized the connections out of the blue. It takes longer than if they were puzzlers, but they do okay. I mean, it’s not like they get up Sunday mornings to hear the Puzzle Master on NPR, but that’s their loss. Somewhere in the middle of our dialogue, Doyle says, “You mean people actually do this shit? For fun?” It makes me wonder, but I get by it. McMartin says her daughter loves puzzles. So she catches on and shows the big cop how to get from Doyle to Mills, out of the blue. I could have done it in three less words, but I’m proud of her.

Then I go through the names using the word ladder and the dates, and they are interested, but Doyle remains skeptical. He doesn’t understand how unlikely the confluence of names is, but when I list the cities and their NFL affiliation, he jumps on board. The change in Doyle’s level of respect is visible, like he never doubted me for two interminable hours. For some reason the woman knows from the git-go that I’m not a crackpot. Woman’s intuition; or maybe she likes my face. So I check; force of habit; she has no ring.

Doyle calls his captain to schedule a conference room. I get to sit in. They debate calling the FBI and table the idea for the brass to decide. A half-hour later we convene with Doyle’s captain, the chief of police, a police psychologist and two research-type civilian employees. When we finish going through the scenario, the researchers take their notes and leave.

There is a silence; Maureen McMartin asks the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question; “So, Mr. White, who’s next.”

“Yes, well I’ve had a little time to think about it.” I stand up at the white board and write the points as I say them; “First, he kills men. Second, in their homes. Third, there is one month period between each, plus or minus a couple days.” I have a new idea; “Can someone check to see if the dates fall on a full moon?”

McMartin scans down the dates. “They do,” she notes.

Doyle is skeptical, “How the hell do you know that?”

She blushes, “Well, Detective Doyle, if you must know, that’s when I have my period.” She gazes around the room. “And if I start hearing jokes around the time of the full moon, I’m going to find the one responsible and rip their lungs out.”

Everyone laughs, and the spell is broken, but we have another clue. I continue, “So,” then calculating in my head, “the next murder will be in five days, on November 26th, in New York City, and the last name of the victim will be Rulin, Calin, or Dulin.”

Doyle is skeptical; “That’s it?”

I nod with certainty. “Detective, I did some checking, and the killer likes unusual names, no Jones, Brown, Adams, Dolans. These three names are rare, and in New York there are only seven people with those last names.” I answer the detective’s look of incredulity; “There may be more, but that was it on the internet, and since the other names were on the internet, I’m guessing that’s his source.”

The chief turns to the captain. “We’re not going to play cowboys on this one, John, too much at risk.” To Doyle, “Get the FBI serial crimes people in here and brief them.” To McMartin, “Maureen, you put together a task force. Make it people who can keep their mouths shut.”

The meeting breaks up with everyone leaving me alone at the table. Ten minutes later McMartin pokes her head back in the room and says, “Better get a hotel room, Mr. White, we’re going to keep you for a few days.”

*        *        *        *

There are a lot of meetings. It’s all new to me, really fun. I get to see how the cops work, and it’s pretty impressive in a routinized way. I mean, there’s no special insight going on, no great minds at work, but there’s a standard operating procedure like a rutted road in the wilderness, and it works. After the first late night sessions, I take the two detectives out for a drink.

I don’t get to sit in on the meeting with the FBI, so I ask Doyle, “What did the FBI have to say?” I feel like one of the team, an honorary cop.

The big detective laughs. “They were less than respectful at the beginning, almost got up to leave in disgust, right Maureen?”

She smiles at the recollection. It’s a pretty thing, the smile, something you’d look for if you knew it was there. “Yes, but we didn’t let them. We took them through your list, leading them backwards, exactly twenty-eight days at a time. When we took it forward, putting the football teams on each, we had them hooked.”

The grizzled cop chuckles; “Yeah, but they didn’t like it that someone else had found it.”

“I take it you’ve cleared me?” I am greeted by two blank stares. “Come on, it’s only logical. I picked up the tail almost as soon as I got on the street.”

They both shrug; the pretty detective asks, “So you must have given it some thought, Mr. White?”

I interrupt to tell her to call me Jack.

“So, Jack, why is the killer using these puzzles?”

“Your psych girl must have had some ideas?” I make it a question.

Doyle shakes his head. “Nothing other than the usual litany of why serial killers are serial killers. Useless bullshit. I could have gotten that from a book. She said it was a signature, but what good’s a signature if no one knows you’re using it?”

I say, “I think she’s right. I’m sure she’s right. It is a signature, like my word ladders in my puzzles. I don’t tell anyone they’re there, I do them to mark my puzzles. None of my buyers notices, but every so often one of the people working on them sees it. They know it’s a signature right away, once they’ve found it. So, yes, this man’s signing his work. He doesn’t care that the cops haven’t found it yet, in fact, that’s the game for him.” I jab a finger at McMartin. “He’s pretty gutsy, what with giving us three coordinates, the name ladder, the NFL cities, and the full moon.”

Doyle interrupts, “Yeah, that last one really pissed off the feds, that they’d missed the fact that these guys were killed on a full moon. I thought they had computer programs to pick up that kind of stuff automagically.”

I agree, then to McMartin, “This is the only chance we’ll have, you know, because once he knows we figured it out, he’ll stop. It’s a game to him.”

Doyle swallows the last of his beer and orders another. “They never stop, Mr. White. Serial killers are driven by more than the game.”

I sort of nod and shake my head at the same time. “That may be, detective, but his rate of killing is based more on the fact that he’s getting away with it and the authorities haven’t a clue. Once the game is up, he’ll slow down, change his MO and find a new signature.”

McMartin swishes what is left of her seven-dollar strawberry daiquiri. “Dennis, Jack’s right. We got to get this guy the first time.”

*        *        *        *

I am cleared to sit in on the next meetings with the cops and the FBI. There is an immediate, but brief turf battle. The feds want full control, but NYPD says they will run the sting on their home field. As if anyone cares, I agree with the cops. Well, the cops win and the feds are pushed into a support only role, but they make it clear that if we don’t nail the guy, it’ll be our butts in the sling. Notice the ‘our’, I am a ‘special advisor’ to NYPD for the next four days.

The cops find the guys on my list. They don’t talk to them; they follow them, take pictures, build thin bios, but nothing to raise suspicion. In the war room, the secret task force convenes twenty-four hours a day. There are a hundred cops assigned, and six members of the brass, and they are the only people who know a thing. The most critical step is keeping the story out of the media. Secrecy? It is so secret, no one else in the police department knows the operation is going on, much less what it is.

The war room is a conference center in the bowels of city hall. Pictures of the potential victims cover the walls as the police search for look-alike cops. Lucky me, I turn out to be a dead ringer for an Isaac Rulin. I volunteer as soon as I see his picture. They give me a reluctant okay, with an even more reluctant Detective McMartin as my newlywed wife.

The day before, November 25th, the seven men and their families are brought into the war room and told the story. They are put up in a downtown hotel under fake names, in rooms with guards and no telephones.

The team is getting jittery; I mean, what if we have it wrong, what if we don’t have the right names, what if he sees us, what if we miss him, what if he doesn’t show? In the next thirty-six hours we better have a killer in custody. Suddenly the downside risk looks like a drop off the Empire State Building. Yeah, I know it’s really trite, but the tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Tempers are flaring, everyone is on edge. Me, I’m planning my next puzzle.

Later in the day, the seven potential murderees sit in chairs next to us, their doubles, as make-up people change hair color, skin tint, and outfits to complete the disguise. That afternoon we each come home, so to speak, from work, to houses and apartments staffed by backup cops installed when the families were evacuated.

I am greeted by McMartin in a frizzed blond wig, yellow Capri pants and a flowery red blouse, the typical outfit de jure for the oversexed Mrs. Rulin, whom I am sure is enjoying the unexpected bridal suite. I whisper in her ear, “Aren’t newlyweds supposed to kiss after a long day apart?”

She gives me a hug, of sorts. “Don’t take advantage, Mr. White.”

Yes, I am Mr. White again. “Advantage? Hey, I’ve been out of the house for nine hours, be thankful a kiss is all I want.”

She laughs, like it’s a reason, “Anyway, as you know, I have my period.” Then she slaps my butt.

“Sexual harassment,” I chide.

She ignores me. I follow my scripted routine; I put on the television and draw the blinds. My wife prepares supper.

I am watching the early late-night news when the door crashes open. A big, stringy guy with greasy dreadlocks stands like a messenger from Hell backlit by the entry light. An image of Charles Manson crosses my mind. He slowly raises the pistol in his left hand, like a ritual, searching my face for fear. He doesn’t look like a puzzler to me.

My beautiful cop twists around the door, her pistol held tightly in both hands, her arms extended, her feet firmly planted on the ground. Crazy eyes turn to meet hers, fearless eyes as the gun’s barrel continues to rise to me. There is a crack, like a toy pistol and Maureen twists into the wall, her gun skittering on the floor towards me. A deafening explosion fills the room. I dive as the bullet tears into the chair. I grab the pistol and turn to face the killer. The next bullet takes me full in the middle of the bullet proof vest and throws me against the wall. The pain is total, but I hang onto the gun, sight and pull the trigger. The Manson wannabe is thrown back into the doorway where he slides ingloriously to the ground.

A mean-looking little woman, unkempt hair hiding her face, earth mother clothes covering her body, bursts through the door; she drops her tiny pistol with a clatter. A plainclothes cop is right behind her. He stoops to pick up the gun and pulls her away from the dead man whose blood is spreading in an almost perfect arc from the left side of his body.

I stand on wobbly legs. Maureen McMartin pushes herself upright on one arm. I reach down and pull her to her feet. “You all right?”

She feels the entry wound and winces. “Yes, I think so. How about you?”

I wheeze a weak “I’ll live.”

The room is filling with cops. A medic comes in to attend to her arm, but she pulls away. She asks me a last question; “Who’s she?”

Like I know; I’m a puzzler, not a mind reader. “Got me. We were lucky.”

*        *        *        *

The mousy girl turns out to be thirty-five, the same age as her playmate. She hasn’t said a word since she was taken into custody, except, “It’s God’s will.” We know their names, James Thomas Jakes and Tillie Mae Tucker; we know his wife left him for a quarterback with the Cleveland Browns; we know he taught English up until a few years before; we know they were from Arkansas; and we know they disappeared two years ago after Tillie Mae’s parents turned up dead. Oh, the quarterback’s last name, Reide, starts the word ladder. Let me guess, the last one was going to be Jakes.

I sit next to Detective McMartin, watching Doyle on the other side of the one-way glass as he interviews Tillie Mae for the twentieth time. McMartin shifts her weight and winces. I tried my best line, “So, what are you doing for the rest of your life, detective?” Hey, I’m a puzzler, not a gigolo.

“Whoa, big boy, I’m been burned before, so take your time.”

I frown.

She says, “You know, you’re not exactly geographically desirable.” But she throws me a bone; “Maybe call me in a week.”

I am mollified; I’m a patient guy; and I’m already preparing a group of new themes for my crosswords, something like Word Ladder Mysteries.

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