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?”
“My daughter-in-law can provide you with my agenda. I’m pretty busy. What are the times?” Chen told him. “I can’t say for certain about the woman, but the old man died when I was at a black-tie charity function for a local hospital. My father died there from cancer some time ago.”
We talked some more, got the daughter-in-law’s info, and bid farewell.
“Gut feelings?” I said to Chen in the elevator.
“Seems OK,” she said. “But let’s check his alibis. I wouldn’t take the daughter-in-law’s words as gospel, by the way. The family seems close-knit.”
“Yeah, I saw that other pic too. The elderly couple probably were the father and mother, the younger the son and daughter-in-law. Didn’t see any grandchildren.”
“I have a feeling we’re wasting our time,” said Chen, “but let’s be thorough.”
Chen checked out the young Jenkins family. They lived in Montclair, the neighboring township with Clifton. Both commuted into Manhattan every day. Hubby was a doctor; the daughter-in-law handled a lot of Jenkins’s real estate business but delegated much of it to an agency where she maintained an office. Chen went to interview the doctor; I went to interview his wife.
Penny Jenkins was a bit like a Greek statue—beautiful but made of stone. Felt she thought I was wasting her time. Knew I might be wasting mine.
“Did you know the victims?”
“I knew of them. I make a habit of reviewing renters’ records.”
“Looking to evict the renters in rent-controlled apartments?”
She frowned at that—the room’s temp seemed to drop five degrees as she stared at me. I waited for an answer. “That’s an antagonistic question, so I’ll answer it obliquely.” She typed on her laptop. “Yes, I thought so. Both of your victims were model tenants. They’ve rented that same apartment for years—ten in the case of the woman and nineteen in the case of the man.”
“What does it take to get them out of their apartments besides death?”
“Getting behind on their rent. A long legal battle ensues.”
“So their death is the quickest route?”
“You might say that. In this case, we’ll refurbish the apartments and rent them at the going price. The differential could be a thousand dollars or more.”
“So it would greatly benefit your father-in-law?”
“Not that much. He has many apartments, some rent-controlled, others not. It’s a business he inherited from his father. I suppose my husband will eventually inherit it too, although my husband would be reluctant to do anything with the properties. He’s more an idealist.”
Cops tend to run in families in my city. Why not landlords? “Mr. Jenkins told us you could probably provide alibis for him using his agenda from past days.”
“At what times?”
The alibis held.
Chen didn’t come up with anything either. We met in a little coffee place near the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
“The son seems nice enough,” she said.
“The daughter-in-law isn’t. She’s an ice queen.”
“Shall we move on and try to find other POIs?”
Thought a moment. “Yeah, I guess the next step is to get a list of the vics’ friends and acquaintances and see if there’s any commonality. But I can feel a cold case coming on. I hate those.”
“You and me both. I can ask around in the apartment buildings.”
“Check out the uniforms’ reports. They might have already done some of the legwork.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“The daughter-in-law stated something that at least hints at some internal family friction. She said her husband wouldn’t be enthusiastic about managing the properties if his father passed on, that he’s too much of an idealist. Not sure what that means, but took it as uncomplimentary.”
“One impression I had,” said Chen, nodding. “He’s a conscientious doctor. Other than hinting the husband isn’t much of a businessperson, why does that bother you?”
“Wouldn’t his inheritance be more valuable if most of the apartments recently had their rents increased?”
She thought a moment. “Sounds like a stretch. And the apartments would still be under rent control.”
“But with a higher rent. Let me run with that. If valid, I can predict the next victim.”
She stole my idea. “The renter who’s been renting for the longest,” said Chen.
“You’ve got it. Tell you what. Let’s switch tasks. I’ll be the old gumshoe. You get a list of the rent-controlled renters with how much they pay, and I’ll try to track down some of the vics’ acquaintances.”
“You’re assuming the two vics will be at the top of that list?”
“If they are, my theory is a possibility. Give me a call when you have the list. I want to visit with the lowest paying renter who would now be number three on the list.”
“OK, I’ll play your game. I don’t think it will get us anywhere. Go ahead and wear your shoes out more. Call me if you have any other brilliant hunches.”
“So you agree it’s brilliant?”
A raised eyebrow was her only answer. Maybe because she’d guessed it?
When you want to know who a renter’s friends are, the first person to ask is the super. In the old woman’s building, it was a gruff but spry old man. In the young woman’s building, it was a heavyset woman who didn’t speak much English. The old renter didn’t have many friends—I got only two names from his super. The young renter had a boyfriend who the super was sure stayed overnight sometimes and about five girlfriends. They were all professionals like the woman. Two of the girlfriends worked in the same office; two were in the same building. I’d talked to that super in Spanish.
One of the girlfriends in the building opened her door when I knocked.
“I made a statement to a uniformed cop,” she said. “My friend had no problem with the landlord.”
Raised my smartphone. “I have your statement here. How did you know I was going to ask that question?”
“The uniformed cop did. I’m the one who’s had a bit of a problem. I’ve been trying to get the screen in my kitchen window fixed.”
Talked a bit more. Was on my way to the next girlfriend-tenant when Chen called.
“Your theory checks out so far. Maybe you should interview the next target, assuming the theory keeps holding up,”
“It’s a long shot. Which building is it?” It wasn’t one of the original two. “I’m at a lost on how to proceed.”
“The delivery of a crossword seems to announce the murder. I’d ask the tenant if she’s received a homemade one.”
“I just thought of something. Wouldn’t the killer have to know the target liked crosswords?”
“Good point. Just ask her.” Chen hadn’t understood the question.
Our potential target was Jenny Pacheco, an accountant in a Wall Street brokerage. She wasn’t in. Called her office after Chen buzzed me the phone number. She answered. Said who I was and why I was calling.
“Now, this is going to sound silly. Do you do crosswords?”
“Crosswords, Sodokus, all kinds of puzzles. Why?”
“You didn’t happen to receive one in the mail printed from a laser printer, did you?”
“I did. I guess. I didn’t open the envelope. It’s on the kitchen table. I was thinking of working on it tonight. I figured one of my friends sent it to me.”
“Not a friend maybe. Will you give me permission to enter your apartment?”
“Give me your full name and badge number and I’ll call the super to let you in. How did you know I received that crossword?”
Ignored the question. “What time do you get off work?” She told me. “OK, stay there until I call.”
“I have a date tonight.”
“Delay it. I’ll call as soon as I can.”
Super let me in. Saw the envelope with “A fun crossword for your perusal” in a large printer font written across the front. Put on the rubber gloves. Opened the envelope and saw the powder. Put it back on the kitchen table, went to the sink to wash the gloves before I removed them, and then called the CSU.
Our serial killer had decided to make this kill a remote one, not close and personal.
“How are we going to trace this back to the daughter-in-law?” said Chen.
“Might not be the daughter-in-law,” I said. “We can pretend we have more forensics than we have when we talk to her. DNA and a latent print. Let’s see if she panics.”
“If she’s an ice queen, she might not. What then?”
“We try to get search warrants for her office and home. The ricin comes from somewhere.”
“I wonder how the perp knows that his or her target does crosswords.”
That had been my question! I had an answer.
“Garbage. People do the Times’ crossword folded up and then toss it in their garbage. Not too hard to discover that. And the daughter-in-law has carte blanche to visit these buildings, obviously.”
“You’re still liking her for the murders?”
“Until circumstances prove otherwise. If it isn’t her, we’re almost back to square one. Let’s go visit her.”
Chen then came up with a better idea on how to proceed.
Penny Jenkins seemed more annoyed the second time. We found her going over a huge ledger. “I’m very busy.”
“So are we. It will just take a minute.” I took about half that to see if she fidgeted. Nope. Like a block of ice. “We just wanted to inform you that we have a good lead. We ID’d the next target and discovered another crossword in the house.” Slid across her desk a sealed envelope with that telling phrase, “A fun crossword for your perusal,” written on the outside. “We’d like to compare the ink and font used here with your laser printer’s.”
She looked at the envelope and turned pale—fitting for an ice queen, I guess. “Take that away!”
“We want to open it and use the inside in the ink and font comparison too,” said Chen.
Jenkins scooted backwards and her chair overturned. “That envelope contains poison, you fools!”
Winked at Chen. “Now I wonder how she knew that?”
My partner went around the desk and helped Penny Jenkins to her feet. Slapped handcuffs on her and read her the Miranda rights. Figured we’d still need the search warrant, but now we had probable cause. We’d also use the sanitized original envelope and crossword puzzle for the comparison. That might not work, so we’d search the whole office and then her house.
The laser printer ink and font matches were iffy, but no matter—more crossword puzzles were found on her laptop. Penny Jenkins eventually confessed to two murders and one attempted on her lawyer’s advice—she’d get less time that way.
When she got far enough down the list, I figured she’d have bumped off the old man so hubby would inherit, and then maybe even him. Hubby and wife each had a million-dollar insurance policy with each other as beneficiaries. There was also one for two million on the old man being paid for by our perp. Of course, we couldn’t prove she’d planned all that, but we could still put her away for a while.
Pretty bold scheme. Greed can be a powerful motivator. Case closed.
Want more Chen and Castilblanco? Did you know the complete “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series” of novels is now available on Smashwords in all ebook formats, and at all its affiliated retailers (Apple, B&N, Kobo, and so forth) and lenders (Overdrive, for example). The first book in the series is on sale at Smashwords until March 1. Of course, the entire series is also available on Amazon in .mobi (Kindle) format.
In libris libertas!