On October 18th, I had the pleasure of participating in an event in West Chester, PA, called Noir At A Bar. The event gathered local writers from around the Delaware Valley for a night of murder, mayhem, and suspense. Area writers such as Merry Jones, Matty Dalrymple, Todd Harra, Jen Conley, myself and others came together to read short excerpts from our work. In preparation for the event, I wrote a special short story. Knowing that I could never write noir with the skill of greats like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, I decided to take a different direction with my story. If you were unable to make it to the event, have no fear. I've decided to post the story on my blog for all to enjoy. So, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I present "The Case of the Crossword Conundrum."
The Monday morning sunlight poured through the window making my office more oppressive than a McCarthy Senate hearing. Leaning back in my chair, I loosened my tie and wiped a hanker-chief across my moist forehead. My usually quiet morning had been sideswiped by a problem that would've left even Einstein flummoxed. In all my years as a private eye, I'd never come across something as ruthless and vicious. How could someone do something so cruel? I stared at the folded newspaper one more time, then slammed it down onto the desk.
"Damn crossword. I'm never gonna solve it," I said.
I'd filled in all the boxes except thirteen across. An enigma or mystery was the clue. Nine letters. Started with a C and ended with an M. That single row of blank squares mocked me like an ex-wife who'd just won the house, the boat, the car, and the dog in a divorce settlement. I jabbed my pencil against top of my desk in frustration, and watched as the lead point exploded into tiny fragments. Right then, the phone rang.
"Hello, Bernie Doyle speaking," I said, answering the phone.
"Bernie, it's Marty. You got a young kid working for you named Bob Travers?"
Detective Marty Robinson was an old friend from my days on the police force. He rose through the ranks while I was shown the door for indecent exposure. He was one of the few friends I had left up at city hall.
"Yeah. I've been teaching him the ropes on being a P.I." I picked up the newspaper again and tried to fill in the empty blocks. C...L...A?
"Well, your shamus in training was just pulled from the North River," Marty said. "Shot in the gut. Can you come down to the docks?"
"Classroom? No, too many letters."
There was a pause on the phone. "What? Bernie, are you listening to me?"
"Sorry, I'll be right there."
I hung up the phone, shoved the newspaper into my jacket pocket, and headed for the door.
* * *
Ten minutes later, my cab was pulling up to the city docks along the North River. My cabbie was no help in solving thirteen across. His suggestions of conceptualism and crematorium were both too long. And although carnalism had the right number of letters, it didn't fit with the clue.
I found Marty standing on the dock staring down at a body that was as wet as a fire hydrant in a dog kennel.
"Is this him?" he said as I approached.
I nodded, counting the letters in the word cloakroom in my head. "That's him."
"Was he on a case?"
I pulled the newspaper from my pocket and glanced again at the empty blocks of the crossword. "Yeah, he was tailing someone. Routine bodyguard stuff."
Marty asked for more details, but I refused, not on the grounds of client confidentiality, but because I was trying to see if cuneiform fit in thirteen across. My answer left him more than a little annoyed, like a princess with a mosquito bite under her chastity belt.
"Know any nine letter words that start with C and end with M?" I asked.
Marty shrugged. "Communism?"
* * *
In the cab ride back to my office, I thought about my client, Gidget O’Hennesey. She came in last week. A great tussle of blonde hair and wearing enough makeup to keep the Apache tribe in war paint for years. Ms. O’Hennesey spun me a yearn about a statuette called the Peruvian Parrot. Cataclysm? No. The artifact from Peru was over a hundred years old, and covered in black tar and feathers. But beneath the surface, it was pure jade. Worth a small fortune, according to Ms. O’Hennesey. She had the parrot, and a person she referred to only as the Fat Man wanted it. Cablegram? Hmmm... She was looking for a bodyguard. Just someone to keep her safe until the negotiations were done. Seemed like an easy job. That why I'd put Travers on it.
The telephone was ringing as I entered the office. Ms. O’Hennesey was on the other end.
"I heard what happened to Mr. Travers," she said.
"That's more than what I heard. Perhaps you can fill in some of the blanks, like who shot him."
She laughed a nervous, throaty laugh, like that sound a dog makes before it throws up. "But isn't it obvious? The Fat Man killed him."
"The only thing that's obvious to me is that your pants should be on fire."
"Bernie, please don't say things like that," she said. "I need your help."
I wondered when we'd started being on a first name basis. I wondered even more if Criticism would fit in thirteen across. "Ms. O’Hennesey, how can I help?"
* * *
Taking an uncomfortable cab ride to City Central Station, I retrieved a package wrapped in brown paper, then headed to the Hotel Freedonia on 33rd Street, making sure to stop by my office on the way to change back into my suit. The high heels were killing me. As I rode the elevator up to the sixth floor, I pulled the newspaper from my pocket and fumed over the seven empty blocks. There'd never been a puzzle that I couldn't solve, but this one . . . This one had me worried. Before the elevator doors opened, I'd tried crossbeam, courtroom, and Caesarism. But none of them fit.
My knock on the door of room 608 was answered by a broad-shouldered man, with a face so flat, he looked like he'd run a hundred-yard dash in a ninety-yard gym. He ushered me into the living room. Gidget O’Hennesey was standing by the window, gazing out between the lace curtains. Seated on the sofa was a man who left no doubt as to his identity . . . And no place on the sofa for anyone else to sit. It was the Fat Man.
"At last," he said, gesturing to the package in my hands. "Let’s see the elusive Peruvian Parrot."
I unwrapped the package on the table and stepped back so all could see the black, feathery statue. The Fat Man started to salivate as if he'd just been seated at an all-night buffet and told to help himself.
"There's the statue. Where's my money?" Gidget said.
The Fat Man looked at me. "Where did you find it?"
"In a locker at City Central Station. She'd taped the key underneath the sink in the Ladies Room."
Flat Face looked at me, puzzled. "The Ladies room? How did--"
I glared at him. "Just leave it," I said.
The Fat Man turned his gaze to Gidget O’Hennesey. "Are you really prepared to part with it?"
"Trust me," Gidget said, gesturing with her hand. "I'm giving you the bird."
"As I can see. Of course, what's to stop me from just taking it?" He gestured to Flat Face, who dipped his hand into his jacket pocket.
My hand leapt to my pocket as well, and I had my automatic out faster than light, hence proving Einstein wrong. "Hold it," I said. "We've got matters to discuss. I've got the cops breathing down my back over a dead body, and I've got a damn crossword to finish. I want answers before anyone double crosses anyone else."
Flat Face withdrew his empty hand slowly from his pocket. He glared at me like I'd given him a wet willy with my entire fist. I swung my gun toward the Fat Man. "I want answers. Specifically, a nine-letter word starting with C and ending with M."
He thought for a moment. "Candygram?"
"Is that one word or two?" said Flat Face.
The Fat Man replied, "One, I think."
I shook my head. "It doesn't fit with the clue."
"For god's sake," said Gidget. "Where's my money?"
I turned toward her. "Why'd you have to murder Bob Travers?"
She gasped, like a fish who'd suddenly realized that getting a suntan wasn't all it was cracked up to be. "Bernie, how could you think such a thing?"
"Travers was shot at close range. Very close range. He'd never let someone like Flat Face here get THAT close. Sorry, sweetheart, but you’ll get the hot seat jitters for this."
"Don’t talk like that, Bernie," she said. "I love you."
"You've known me for less than a week. How could you love me? You know nothing about my habits, my lifestyle. Perhaps I drink too much. How would you feel about that? Perhaps I pick my nose on the subway each morning. Maybe I never wear clean underwear. Perhaps I spend my weekends in the park wearing a trench coat and exposing myself to passersby."
Gidget pressed herself against me. "But, none of that would matter . . . well, maybe the part about exposing yourself in the park, but--"
I cut her off. "My point is the feelings of two people don't mean a handkerchief full of snoot to this world. The day you walked into my office, I knew your case would end in disaster, like a family picnic on the train tracks. You're nothing but trouble. I get $22.38 a day plus expenses when I can get it, and for what? To send a young kid into the arms of woman like you whose as cold as my ex-wife in a brass bra."
The Fat Man laughed. "Well, Mr. Doyle. You have your murderer and I have my bird. I believe it's time we were leaving."
He began to lift himself up from the sofa, a feat that was not without its many grunts, groans, and curses.
"No one's going anywhere," I said. "Not 'til I get thirteen across."
The Fat Man, who had made it to his feet, eyeballed me. "Well, we've got a bit of a conundrum, because we’re leaving . . . Unless you plan to shoot us."
"That's it," I shouted. "Conundrum!"
I yanked the newspaper from my pocket and leaned over the table to fill in the empty blocks of the crossword. That’s when it happened. The flash of movement was only a faint blur in the corner of my eye. Flat Face came across the room, and before I could do anything, he sapped me behind the ear. The darkness swallowed me up as I fell to the floor.
When I awoke, there was no one in the room. The only thing left on the table was my newspaper. I rubbed the back of my aching head and reached for the phone. As I dialed and waited for an answer, I gazed at the crossword.
“Marty,” I said. “I think I’ve got it.”
“Thirteen across. A nine-letter word starting with a C and ending in M. The answer is . . . Damn it!”
“What’s wrong, Bernie?”
I pounded my fist on the table. “I forgot the word.”