PUZZLED TO DEATH

By Bill Capron

You ever do those crossword puzzles, the ones that say Ďby 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, Iím the Edna Rodzini character, male version, Jack White. I slave all day in the real world. Then 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 donít care though because I love it and Iíd do it for free. And every so often one of those famous wordsmiths is stopped in his tracks by what Iíve 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, or 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. Itís my little trick, my signature. I donít tell the wordsmith, and my devoted -- well, thatís a stretch -- audience doesnít know either. Still, maybe twice a year some guy says he found the ladder, says he thinks itís cool to find an unlisted puzzle in the puzzle. Never got one from a woman though.

Iím always developing themes, looking for connections. I read the paper, I get an idea. I hear the news, another possibility. Youíve 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 itís complete, then work like hell to get it out the door. Iím not famous, but Iím pretty good, and the wordsmiths want my stuff.

I read the New York Times and USA Today every morning, then for a conservative 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, thatís 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, thatís the kind of thing that tickles my fancy. Hard to believe, huh? Well, I recall the name Bolan, a man killed in Miami. So, I wonder if I can word ladder Bolan to Culin, keeping the rare last name theme. It was a pretty simple exercise to go from Bolan to Bolin to Colin to Culin, all relatively rare last names.

Well, thatís 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 donít know if Iím interested or scared, but my hands are shaking 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 is midnight when I get into it hot and heavy, and 7:30 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. Yes, now I know, just me and a nameless killer. So what now?

Iím 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 then 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. Iíve been on the earth a few more turns than he has, so I tell him to relax, itís not so recent, and time is on our side.

Now that puzzles him. Well, he looks at me like Iím from another planet then gets on the phone. I hear him laugh then, louder than he needed to, "Okay, Doyle, but donít go kicking my butt." He points me up the stairs, third door on the right.

The doorís glass square is stenciled Homicide Division. Everything stops when I walk in the door. Seven men and three women, all plainclothes, heads together or on the phone or reading the paper. A big tall -- I mean real tall, like six-nine -- 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. He introduces himself. I do the same. "So, how can I help you, Mr. White?"

I fumble a bit. "Well, detective, Iíd like to report a murder. No, that is, Iíd 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, Iíve come across something, by accident. Iíve 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 looks thirty-five, short, boyish thin body, much too pretty to be dealing with the scum of the earth.

I repeat my last sentence.

She doesnít smile, but Doyle says, "How do you like that, a serial killer buster walks into our midst." Then turning to me: "And weíre supposed to believe heís found a connection missed by all of law enforcement."

I am unfazed by it. I am getting my bearings. These are normal people, and the words I was using obviously sounded unbelievable.

McMartin is more patient. "Thatís strange, Mr. White, but we donít have nineteen unsolved murders."

I give them more bad news, "Most of them arenít in New York, just the last one."

Doyle sneers, "Yeah, right."

McMartin leans toward the big detective. "Hang on, Dennis, letís hear what the manís got to say."

Doyle shakes his head, the thick hair a beat behind. "I donít have time for this. I got three real, now killings to deal with."

A note of pleading enters her voice, like sheís done this before. "Hey, come on, we have time. Weíll 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 donít need fame. As far as Iím concerned, Iím 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 is and how it is Iíd recognize the connections out of the blue. It takes longer than it would if they were puzzlers, but they do okay. I mean, itís not like they get up Sunday mornings to hear the Puzzle Master on NPR. Itís their loss though. 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 fewer words, but Iím pretty proud of her.

Then I go through the names using the word ladder and the dates, and they are interested, but Doyle is still pretty skeptical. He doesnít understand how unlikely the confluence of names is, but when I list the cities and their NFL affiliation, they jump on board. The change in Doyleís 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 Iím not a crackpot. Womanís intuition, or maybe she just 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, then table the idea for the brass to decide. A half-hour later, we convene with Doyleís 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, then Maureen McMartin asks the $64,000 question. "So, Mr. White, whoís next."

"Yes, well Iíve 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 only 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, thatís when I have my period." She gazes around the room. "And if I start hearing jokes around the time of the full moon, Iím 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. "Thatís the only choices?"

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 detectiveís look of incredulity, "There may be more, but those were the only ones on the Internet, and since all the other names were on the Internet, Iím guessing thatís his source."

The chief turns to the captain, "Weíre 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, weíre going to keep you for a few days."

* * * *

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

I donít get to sit in on the meeting with the FBI, so I ask Doyle, "What did the FBI have to say?" I feel like Iím 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. Itís a pretty thing, the smile, something youíd look for if you knew it was there. "Yes, but we didnít 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 didnít like it that someone else had found it."

"I take it youíve cleared me?" I am greeted by two blank stares. "Come on, itís only logical. I picked up the tail almost as soon as I got on the street."

They both shrug. Then 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. "No, 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 goodís a signature if no one knows youíre using it?"

I say, "I think sheís right. Iím sure sheís right. It is a signature, just like my word ladders in my puzzles. I donít tell anyone theyíre there. I do them to mark my puzzles. None of my puzzle buyers ever notices, but every so often one of the people working on them sees it. They know itís a signature right away, once theyíve found it. So, yes, this manís signing his work. He doesnít care that the cops havenít found it yet. In fact, thatís the game for him." I jab a finger at McMartin. "Heís a pretty gutsy guy, giving us three coordinates, the name ladder, the NFL cities, the full moon."

Doyle interrupts, "Yeah, that last one really pissed off the feds, that theyíd 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 say to McMartin, "This is the only chance weíll have, you know, because once he knows we figured it out, heíll stop. Itís 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 heís getting away with it, that you havenít a clue. Once the game is up, heíll slow down, change his MO, maybe find a new signature."

McMartin swishes what is left of her seven-dollar strawberry daiquiri. "Dennis, Jackís right. We better 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 theyíll run the sting on their home field. As if anyone cares, I agree with the cops. Well, the cops win. The feds are pushed into a support-only role, but they make it clear that if we donít nail the guy, itíll be our butts in the sling. Notice the ďour.Ē I am a Ďspecial adviserí to NYPD for the next four days.

The cops find the guys on my list. They donít talk to them but 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, all the way up to the mayor, 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 even knows thereís a big operation 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. There is a presentation made, and then the families 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 donít have the right names, what if he sees us, what if we miss him, what if he doesnít 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 itís really trite, but the tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Tempers are flaring, everyone is on edge. Me, Iím 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, who I am sure is enjoying the unexpected bridal suite. I whisper in her ear, "Arenít newlyweds supposed to kiss after a long day apart?"

She gives me a hug, of sorts. "Donít take advantage, Mr. White."

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

She laughs, like itís a reason, "Anyway, 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.

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 gunís 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 girl, unkempt hair hiding her face, earth mother clothes covering her body, bursts through the door, dropping her tiny pistol with a clatter. A plainclothes cop is right behind her. He stoops to pick up the gun, then pulls her upright, 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. Itís not so easy getting the words out. "You all right?"

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

I wheeze a weak "Iíll 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, "Whoís she?"

Like I know. Iím only a puzzler, not a mind reader. "Got me. We were lucky."

* * * *

We donít get any closer to the reason why. The mousy girl turns out to be thirty-five, the same age as her playmate. She hasnít said a word since she was taken into custody, except, "Itís Godís will." We know their names, James Thomas Jakes and Tillie Mae Tucker, know his wife left him for a quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, know he taught English up until a few years before, know they were from Arkansas, know they disappeared two years ago after Tillie Maeís parents turned up dead. Oh, the quarterbackís 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 from the pain. I try my best line, "So, what are you doing for the rest of your life, detective?" Hey, Iím a puzzler, not a gigolo.

"Whoa, big boy, Iím been burned before, so take your time."

I frown.

She throws me a bone. "Maybe call me in a week."

I am mollified. Iím a patient guy. Anyway, Iím already preparing a group of new themes for my crosswords, something like Word Ladder Mysteries. Iím thinking I wonít need a wordsmith to get it into the Times this time.