The Crossword-Puzzle Murderer
Copyright 2017, Steven M. Moore
“Hiya Rollie.” I had to step aside as the ME, Big Tiny, stepped out of the small apartment into the corridor. “Prelim findings should be on your smartphone.”
“You can’t just tell me?”
Big Tiny carried a large super-mocha-double-double something-or-other in his large rubber-gloved paw. Whereas a defensive nose tackle is more muscle than fat, he was the reverse. A happy man, though, in spite of his profession.
“I’m off to another crime scene.”
“So this is a crime scene? It wasn’t clear before, but I preferred coming over to reviewing pending cases where Chen and I aren’t doing too well.”
“I expected to declare it a suicide, but I’m leaning to murder. The bottle of sleeping pills is almost full and there are signs of antifreeze. The tox workup will decide for certain.”
“CSU is still here, I presume?” He nodded. “They might come up with some more evidence.” Bid the big guy farewell, put on my Tyvek booties and rubber gloves, and went inside the apartment. “Anything?” I said to the first CSI I encountered.
He handed me a sealed plastic bag. A regular sheet of paper folded in half showed a crossword partially filled out.
“Right up your alley, o puzzle-meister,” he said.
Didn’t know the guy, but he knew something about me. “I don’t do crosswords. I’m more a math puzzle fellow. What’s special about this?”
“First, it’s homemade. Second, there’s a message. Take a look.”
He went about his business. I stared at the crossword.
Someone—the vic?—had started filling it in. None of the words were erudite—NY Times Monday level—but there was a message. “Death is a release. Relish it.” Huh? The crossword wasn’t large. How did it arrive at the apartment? If the vic had begun to solve it, where did she get it? Better yet, what amateur word smith had made the puzzle? Or, had the vic just taken the message as a sign to do herself in? That tox report would be important.
Hung around a bit more and then returned to the precinct. Chen had gone to chat with one of her snitches about another case, but she was back.
“Just received a message from Big Tiny,” she said. “He’s declaring your case a homicide.” I’d heard the ping but had ignored it. Guessed he didn’t take long on his other case. The big black bear had crawled back into his lair to drink his coffee thing in peace.
I’d snapped a photo of the crossword with my smartphone. Handed the phone to Chen. “This might be the murderer’s threat then.”
She studied the phone’s screen, nodded, and handed it back. “Just what we needed: a weird case. How do you want to handle it?”
Two days later, we had another murder with the same MO. This time the vic’s throat was slit. He was an old man. There didn’t seem to be any connection to the first vic. Random? Serial killers often act randomly. But old man v. young woman was interesting. Just a killing lust? I’m not an FBI profiler, so I was at a loss.
You want to make sense of killings like that. I knew that the psychotic mind was often not logical, but sane people want to look for the logic—something that makes sense of it all. The first often means the case isn’t solved. The second, if you can find it, often leads to solving the case.
“Undeserved death. Grim Reaper laughs.” That’s what the message said in this crossword. Still Monday level. The creator wasn’t the brightest serial killer we’d seen. But he had a way with words.
He? That was an assumption. I knew for a fact that women read a lot more than men. Did that extrapolate to women doing more crosswords than men? Didn’t know, but our killer could be a she. Had to keep an unbiased mind.
The throat-slitting had looked professional. Maybe ex-military? That still didn’t exclude a woman these days. Asked Chen’s opinion.
“Overpowering an old man is easier than a young woman,” said Chen, flashing her Asian Mona Lisa smile, “but you’re right. The perp could be a woman. I’m not seeing a pattern, though, besides the crosswords. Time to bring in the FBI?”
“Not on your life. We’ve barely started.”
My partner came up with a connection. It seemed tenuous. Both vics rented apartments in buildings owned by the same guy, a Richard Jenkins.
“Let’s find out more about this guy and then pay him a visit,” I said.
In that process, we discovered that Jenkins was a vocal opponent of rent control, and the two vics were in rent-controlled apartments. We started forming a theory. Chen didn’t think much of it—she thought rents should be tied to market value if they were regulated at all. Pam, my wife, and I had lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn for some time. We couldn’t have afforded a rent tied to market value. Maybe your opinion is biased if you’ve benefitted from rent control or not? Didn’t know what landlords thought, but suspected that they wouldn’t be in favor. Complex problem: How do you provide housing for poor city dwellers in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the Big Apple?
Pam and I now lived in Clifton, New Jersey, living the American Dream with our kids and heavily mortgaged house. Rent control was in our past. Still didn’t like what I saw in Jenkins’s record—he even went after New York mayors on the issue. Did that make him a killer? Doubted it, but it was time to interview the man.
Of course, Jenkins’s penthouse was luxurious compared to the two vics’ apartments. A maid showed us into a comfortable study and indicated two seats in front of a modest desk. We waited.
I studied the walls. Ex-Marine mementos, including ribbons. As an ex-Navy man, I liked Marines. Tough hombres who generally have your back. One pic on the wall showed our landlord, a heavyset man-bear, standing in a small group with a Navy captain in the middle. My captain—in the sense that I’d served on his carrier long ago in another more dangerous life where choppers would carry us off to wreak havoc and destruction for the Pentagon.
“Isn’t that our old friend?” said Chen. He had participated on a few cases. I nodded. “That’s some coincidence.”
“Not really. Jenkins and I are about the same age. Could be a good recommendation for him.”
We talked about our families until Jenkins showed up. He shook both our hands. For me, his grip was strong. For Chen, he let up a bit. Chivalry not dead?
“I understand you both have served,” he said, taking his seat behind the desk.
Pointed at the pic. “The captain is a good friend.”
“For me too,” said Jenkins. “I guess there are a few cops who served.” We nodded. “They probably have to tone down the military bravura on the beat. We’re not a fascist state, thank God. What can I do for you, detectives?”
I explained our case. “The only connection between the two victims is they both were your tenants in rent-controlled apartments.”
He frowned. “And I’m a suspect? Good Lord! I work within the system. I have to. I don’t have to like the fact that other landlords don’t have to put up with rent control, of course. It’s a bit random, you know. I’ve never met these two people, by the way. Where did they live?” I told him. “Yeah, those are my buildings. I’ll have to check with the agency that handles the rentals. They should have sent flowers to relatives if they’re local.”
“They’re not,” said Chen. She checked her smartphone. “Do you have an alibi for the range of times established by the ME in the TODs?”
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