Skip to content

The Crossword Puzzle (#6)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
 To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:

The Crossword Puzzle

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all published chapters of “The Crossword Puzzle” click here



The Grand Jury had no choice but to indict Nola.  The D.A. convinced them that she was having a torrid love affair with Spencer Ghent and had gotten pregnant, as evidenced by the letter, and by her sister’s fury. Also, Nola had been cheated out of her share of the syndication money and wanted revenge. There was a relatively strong rumor that she was going to get a large Certificate of Deposit held in trust for her by Spencer.  He could, of course, had cashed that CD in himself if he had ever gotten short of money and she didn’t want to risk that because of his impending expenses on the new clinic addition.  A house employee, Hines Whitman, had seen her leave the scene of the crime moments after a gunshot had been heard.  Everyone else in the house had an unassailable alibi. Finally, she and another foreign lover had cheated local citizens out of $155,000 in a phony land deal.  She had betrayed every person who had ever shown her kindness.

On November 25th, Nola Harriman was arrested and placed in a county holding cell.   Ellis Foyle met with her.  “Unless they can find a hard-up magistrate, you’re not due to be formally arraigned until next Monday because of the Thanksgiving Day schedule.  I’m willing to pay your bail, but I just can’t get in touch with my broker. So sit tight for a day or a week and don’t worry. I’ll get you out.  Meanwhile, do not talk to anyone about anything.   Don’t make friends.  You have no friends in the joint.  I’m working on two separate cases with Graham, so my time isn’t exactly my own.  But I won’t let you down.  Meanwhile, try to figure out that goofy crossword puzzle.  He wrote, ‘There’s nothing left’ or something on the back and maybe the squares will amplify what could be a suicide note. And take care of yourself. Don’t let anybody get to you.”

“Don’t worry.  I can get into a Zen zone and nothing can touch me there.”

Ellis Foyle, looking around and startled by Nola’s casual yet indomitable attitude to jail, laughed.  “How did you get a power like that?”

Nola grinned. “Once I had an apartment in a building that burned down and idiot that I am, I didn’t have renter’s insurance.  I lost everything. I had no place to live so my master put me in a temple guest room and gave me a koan to meditate on. For a week I sat and worked on the Koan and I suddenly understood it.  It was like magic.  Everything was fine again.  Life was incredibly beautiful.”

“What was the Koan?”

Nola laughed.  “All things return to the One.  To where does the One return?”

“What was the answer?”

“You can’t be told the answer.  You have to find it for yourself.  And by the way, you look really nice in a business suit. Why don’t you wear one more often?”

“Is that a Koan?”


Ellis was signing out of the facility when Nola suddenly remembered where Vikram’s letter was. She called to him, “Ellis!  I remember.  I put it inside a reference book in the study.“  Immediately Ellis reversed his logout and hurried back to the holding cell.  “I had picked the theme, ‘con men’ and was looking up the histories of some Ponzi scheme operators when I saw it was the time I was supposed to call the pension in Mexico City.  They don’t take calls 24/7.  The operator said that the person who could help me had to be called the next day. I had written a lot of Spanish stuff on the envelope and did call and learn Vik was no one they knew.  So I continued with the puzzle and stuck the letter inside that book about con men. I forget the name of the book, but it’s on the top shelf nearest the door to the foyer.  It’s a kind of yellow book.”

Ellis immediately called Rowan and together they went to the Ghent house.  They found the missing letter which left no doubt that Nola had nothing to do with the missing money.  Dave Rowan, who had thought the case against her was extremely weak, spoke to the District Attorney.  The decision was made to wait another week for arraignment which would give them more time to obtain more dispositive information.  Meanwhile, Nola having no “roots” in the community, would be moved into the county jail. By rights she could be held only 48 hours, but Ellis, afraid for her safety, waived the requirement and for the first time he saw a small candle lit in a very dark universe.

There is a certain deportment, a protocol one should follow in any specific environment.  Nola, unfortunately ignorant of holding-cell decorum, entered the strange room awkwardly. She took mincing steps to a metal slab that was held to the wall with chains.  Passively, she sat on the edge of the slab and waited for others to act. But they simply sat on the floor propped against the wall.  She could tell from the court proceedings that she had just experienced, that in the same room a murder suspect was sitting side by side with the wretched kind of citizen who doesn’t pay traffic fines on time; but what was lacked in security was compensated by brevity.  Of the dozen or so women who were with her in the cell, four of them, including the murder suspect, had their names called and the bailiff extracted them from confinement even as more women were added.  Nola could only wait in the holding cell for other unknown people to act.

The county’s holding cells were part of the police station and there were only a few such cells.  Two small ones for the mentally ill, and two large cells, one for men and the other for women who were mostly held for prostitution, shop lifting, and domestic abuse.  The women held as prostitutes waited for their pimps; those held for domestic abuse were oddly fragile and Nola wondered what kind of threat they posed to their husbands. Soon she tired of hearing all the chatter and decided that it was time to meditate. “I’ve been a life-long friend of adversity,” she told herself.  The surroundings, however, were not amenable to any friendly settling of her mind.  She continued to sit and merely listen.

Unnaturally nervous, the street-walkers were dressed in cheap provocative clothing.  Nola tried to guess their age: they looked older than they were, she thought.  They were just worn-out, distorted like over-played video tapes. Every other word they uttered was an obscene expletive in the vocabulary of a ten year old street urchin.  The only grammatically correct phrases she could associate with them were inked on their bodies.  One of the women watched Nola squint to read in full a line that had been tattooed on another woman’s back.  “Hey!” she cried out. “You gots a reader.”

The tattooed woman, in a kind of teasing dance, backed up to Nola to let her read the entire message. “Cowards die many time before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

“It’s Shakespeare,” the woman said.

“Yes. I know,” Nola replied. “Julius Caesar.  A great line. It’s a nice job of tattooing.  Well-centered and spaced.  Uniform lettering.  Beautiful work.”

“You ok.  I’m gonna remember that.”  With unaccustomed girlish pride she returned to the others.  “Didja’ hear that? Uniform letterin’! That’s why it cost so much.”

Nola lay back on the metal slab that was supposed to function as a bed.  She could not sleep and neither could the others who talked, cursed, and wept the entire night.

In the morning light, they were led into a courtroom over which a visiting magistrate presided.  The skimpy, garish garments the prostitutes wore seemed pathetic in the natural wood courtroom’s staid business atmosphere.  Graham Corbin, the lawyer Nola had never seen before, represented her in Ellis’s absence.  The judge, who was personally aware of Nola’s “miraculous” cure of Spencer Ghent was glad to accommodate the seeming indifference of the prosecutor. He asked Nola if she were released on bail would she have someone to live with – with an ankle bracelet of course so that she could not leave the immediate area.   He gave her an hour to locate someone.  Graham Corbin, who had neither money nor credit, handed her his phone and she immediately called Sri Bashumitsu and asked her if she would help both with the relatively small percentage to be paid on the bond if there were one, and also if she would let her use a closet-sized bedroom that had been considered too small to rent.  This would make the Norris-Giles House an official but temporary address. “I’ll pay you back the bond percentage as soon as this mess is resolved.”  Nola waited for an answer and then repeated the request.

Sri Bashumitsu chuckled.  “Were you under the impression that we’re a bank?  We don’t lend bail money; and as far as making this temple your home when we’re just now trying to repair the damage to our reputation that you… you and you alone… have done, all I can say is, ‘Forget it.’ You should have come to me when you suspected our Tenzo of stealing medicine.  You did it your way with him just as you did it your sleazy way with our Abbot.  There is no room for you here and please do not call again.”  She disconnected the call.

Stone-faced, Nola turned to Corbin.  “I’ve got no one to help me. I’ll have to wait for Ellis to get back.”

When informed of this, the magistrate said that he did not want her returned to the holding cell. “Very well then,” he said.  “Would you mind being a guest of the county at our new jail? The food is better and so are the beds… or so I’m told. On Monday they can drop the charges or file them.”

Nola nodded and said, “Yes. Thank you, Your Honor.”  The gavel struck. A bailiff came and handcuffed her, and she was led away to a van that waited outside.

Officially in limbo, Nola was placed into the custody of women guards who were inured to the awkwardness of strip searching.  They put gloved fingers into her vagina and rectum and made sure that there was nothing hidden in her hair.  Once they were certain that she had no contraband on her, they pushed her into a warm shower and gave her prison garb to wear, along with bed linens and blanket. She was now #28956 but she was still technically in a holding cell.  The jail, she learned, held both convicted prisoners and those who were awaiting trial.  She had been moved out of the big cell and placed in a two-person cell.  The other woman who occupied it seemed mentally deranged since all she did was brush her hair and sing repeatedly, Cow-Cow Boogie in its entirety.

Now ensconced in a cellblock, Nola’s prison life was different from her holding cell experience.  The other woman, Nora supposed, was losing hair due to stress, so much that it became impossible to eat the food that was delivered through a slot in the barred side of the small room. Long black hairs were on her slim pillow and in her shoes and blanket. When Nola found several hairs on her toothbrush, she gagged and literally got down on her knees and prayed that Monday would come quickly.

As disgusting as the loose hair and song that the woman endlessly sang were, it was night that was far worse to tolerate. The jail had several tiers. At night the lower lights were extinguished and only a few ceiling lights remained, their dim light creating a kind of smothering fog – not of mist, but rather of hopeless sighs that lay over the lower floors.  It gave her a disheartening sense of permanence that drifted down into the darkness; and it seemed necessary for every one of the inmates to let the others know that she was still alive there, hidden in the dense air by shouting a version of, “I’m here.  Don’t forget me!”  Curses hurled at betraying friends and lovers; excuses and reasons for doing what the police had caught them doing; charges of incompetent lawyers, jealous relatives, and racial hatred filled the large cellblock.  On and on it went stopped only briefly by the curiosity aroused by vomiting or by everyone’s exhaustion. Nola had listened to each intelligible yell.  Morning came and it was as if night had skipped its turn. She thought of the “Fasting Buddha” whose ribs showed the terrible effects of starvation and told herself that she had already lost so much that she would hold on to her religion.  Ingratitude, betrayal, lies, pain – both psychological and physical – all these “came with the territory.”  She chanted to herself as many chants as she could remember.

Almost as an afterthought, she remembered the blank page puzzle… those twenty x twenty blank squares that had to do with having nothing left that needed to be at least partially filled.  The theme had to have been given on the back flap.  The envelope was ready to be mailed.  She knew that from the way it had been inserted into the side fold of Spencer’s desk blotter. “How do you say, ‘nothing… there’s nothing left?’  She had a notepad and a pencil stub in the cell with her and she began to write down words that signified nothing. None; no; nada; naught; empty; bereft; cipher; tapped ; dearth; zip; zilch; bupkis; null; blank;  void; zero; extinct; deplete; busted; nil; eradicated; squat; dick; diddly; and from tennis not only ‘bagel’ but “love”; from math she got Origin; and then she couldn’t think of any more words that signified nothing.

A guard was watching her.  “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Writing down words that mean nothing.”  Nola read the list to her.

“You could add ‘zot,’” the guard suggested.  “It’s legal talk that means ‘It’s nothing significant.’”

Nola added “zot” to 0the list

While the guard stayed to watch, Nola explained, “There are only two words that contain ‘K’ – blank and bupkis.  They probably intersect.  I’ll start there.”  She began to fill the white boxes in.  That was it.  After three hours of trial and error, she completed the puzzle.


On Monday, before she had a chance to show Ellis Foyle the completed puzzle, he had managed to obtain her release and vouched personally for her presence.  At a formal arraignment proceeding, the judge, following the recommendation of the visiting magistrate, released her into Ellis’ care, pending a formal charge. The prosecution did not object since by then, they, too, were having doubts about the case. Ellis moved to have the non-specified charges dismissed, but the judge asked for patience in this convoluted matter.

The telephone company verified the numbers Nola had called and one of the detectives personally talked to the English speaking landlady who supported Nola’s version.  Also, Nola had not been cheated out of any syndication money since there was no contract whatsoever to syndicate the puzzles.  Dr. Boyle’s description of the state Spencer was in when Nola came to the house made it clear that the patient was hardly in a lovable condition.  And Paige regarded it as an insult that her husband would have preferred her sister to her. Forgetting her previous tirade, she announced,  “If I thought for one moment that there was anything between them, I would have sent her packing.  No, my husband was enamored with that Swiss doctor.  Check it out for yourselves.”  They did and witness testimony at the clinic verified the liaison. But in the normal fashion of pit bulls and assistant district attorneys Nola was still the number one candidate, the “prime suspect.”

Ellis took her to his house to live, explaining that his wife and children had once occupied the house and Nola had a whole section of it to herself.  He gave her a key to the front door and retrieved her Explorer from the police impound station.

She cleaned the house and washed and ironed his shirts and did everything she could do to pay him back for his kindness.  She also cooked dinner which, considering his restaurant ownership, she profusely apologized for.  Luckily, his wife, he alleged, was an even worse cook.  They had pleasant conversations over dinner and she told him about the woman who had Shakespeare’s line tattooed on her back.

Ellis repeated,‘Cowards die many times before their death.  The valiant never taste of death but once.’ It’s sort of appropriate for a whore.  She risks her life every night.”

His remark touched Nola and she felt an additional admiration for the man.  “It’s funny,” she said, “but people need a concise creed to live by.  It can be a phrase or a word that gives them some kind of comfort… like Masha in The Three Sisters.  They may not know exactly what it means, but it’s significant to them in a more important way.  It’s strange that it’s a complete distortion of the singing horse story.  It’s which song he sings or how well he sings it that’s important.  It’s not that he sings at all.  When I complimented the gal in the cell she was so proud of the uniformity of the script and its spacing that she changed for a moment into an innocent little girl… a girl who didn’t know anything about Julius Caesar or what the quotation meant. Religion works in the same way.  I learned a lot from studying Zen.”

“Is that where you got your special koan?”

She looked surprised.  “No. Not at all.  It’s true that I devoted my spiritual life to Zen Buddhism but it’s not the motto that I use whenever I’m in a worrisome situation.”

“Are you allowed to tell me what it is?”

She laughed.  “Sure.  Honi soit qui mal y pense.”

Ellis put his head back and laughed.  “That’s the Order of the Garter’s motto.  ‘Evil to him who evil thinks.’ The Queen allows special people to use it when she knights them.”

“Nobody knighted me but I learned that if a person has faith, adversity becomes an opportunity – within reason, of course. But the faith has to be real. And if you think harshly about someone you suppose is your enemy, you’re the one who ends up suffering.”

“I should adopt the motto for myself.   You can call me Sir Ellis.”

“Meanwhile, let’s change the subject. How am I going to exonerate myself?”

“First, tell me the extent to which you were involved with Spencer.  I need to know the truth if I’m going to counter it.”

“It’s so hard to explain.  I don’t understand it myself.  At first he was just a patient I liked and felt sorry for.  And then he began to get better under my regimen and I was proud of him… and myself, too, for the improvement.  We started to work on the puzzles and it gave us something besides sickness to think about. We’d laugh and laugh. But he was such a strange guy.  There were days in a row that we kept the same routine.  But then, with no explanation, he’d take his medicine and then ask me to leave and just lock me out of the room.   Same thing when he got better.  He’d take his medicine and then suddenly leave the house.  And never an explanation.  Like… it was none of my business. I’d sit and worry all day.  And I guess I began to really fall for him… but then we went to the cabin and – I admit it – I’d have had sex with him except I caught the expression on his face and I could see that there was no love there, no desire… no thought of me.  So I went out and slept in the truck.  That’s as far as it went.”

Ellis laughed.  “Have you ever heard of the Razzle Game?”

“Yes.  It’s a carnival game that’s been outlawed or something.”

“In its own extreme way, it’s based on the addictive principle.  Aside from getting money, if you played a game in which you won every time you played it, you’d soon lose interest. Even with money, it’s human nature to kill the goose that lays the golden egg by dispensing with common sense protocols.  In games of chance, drugs, love, or anything risky, something mysterious happens in the brain.  It’s the whole principle behind gambling.  To keep a person playing, you’ve got to make him lose – I don’t know what the ratio is… maybe you’ve got to lose two or three times to winning once.  But whatever it is, something snaps inside your brain and you fall victim to a euphoric optimism and keep thinking that you can beat the odds… that you can win.  Love works on the same addictive principle.  A man and woman meet and really get along. They happily date and then, to initiate that infatuated desire or need, one suddenly cools while remaining friendly. Control and ego become the driving force, not love. The intention of winning, or gaining control, keeps the union functioning. They reunite and then the same one cools again. The fear of loss and jealousy replaces true love.  But the union rarely ends well. It’s rigged by the brain. It ends in murder or divorce.

“But as things begin, the way that one person can get another person into that vulnerable zone is like the Razzle Game.  Let him win a little and think that he or she can easily master the challenge. But the game… like life… is rigged against the vulnerable player.  They’re addicted to the game and try even harder to win.

“I remember lending a kid in Spence’s frat some of my notes and I needed them back.  So as he separated my stuff from his, we sat in the living room and drank beer.  Spence was there and we began to talk about Razzle.  One of the Frats had a big fund raising carnival and they hired a professional outfit to run the games.  Small but crooked stuff… throwing unbalanced balls and shooting ducks with skewed gun-sights. But in a back room they included Razzle by a different name… a football scoring game.  They made big money from the suckers who played.  And our conversation turned to sex and I remember him saying how you could get any woman you wanted to love you if you applied the gaming addiction ploy.  Treat them nice for a certain period of time and then when they thought they had you, disappear or turn cold without explanation… and this would turn on that snapping mechanism in the woman’s brain.  ‘It never failed,’ he said.”

“Jesus.  Are you telling me that I fell for that?  Lao Tzu said, ‘If you want to attract someone, take a step back.’ I guess I ought to be proud of myself that I… or maybe Ingrid…  finally freed me from such a stupid manipulation – and I didn’t even have to change my environment.  You know, during the Viet Nam war the Viet Cong flooded the market with really cheap heroin.  Hospitals and police department in the U.S. prepared for a crime wave when these soldiers got home and couldn’t afford the expensive stuff here.  But it never happened.  The guys went back to the farm were without that jungle atmosphere and just had no desire.  The only ones who reverted to drug addiction were the ones who used and were from the mean streets before they went into the service.  They were given the choice between the Army and prison. When they got home, the mean street allurements were waiting for them.”

“So you’re saying you no longer have feelings for Spence because there’s a big difference in our houses,” he joked.

“Yes.  His has nicer furniture and a built-in cook.”

“Ok.  You win.  Alcoholics should avoid bar rooms and smokers should avoid stairwells.  I get it.”

Ellis leaned back in his chair. “That, however, is of no consequence.  We have two choices: Spence committed suicide and a person or persons took the gun.  Or, Spence was murdered by a person or persons unknown.”

“Paige has the only watertight alibi.  They can stretch the time of death, but not that far to accommodate her appointment with Andre.  The other servants alibi each other.”

“What about the kids?” Ellis asked.

“Mid-terms.  Samantha lost enough time shopping and on top of that they all lost time for the funeral.  No, the servants either made his suicide look like murder or they actually did kill him.”

“But not all the servants, surely.”

“No, Mrs. Eglington can be a bitch, but she’s quite above murder or conspiracy.”

“Gregor, Jules, Hines and Gladys.  Which ones?  I doubt that all four were involved,” Ellis mumbled.

“Look… the only reason Spence was in the bathroom was to wash GSR off his hands and arms.  Now, as a nurse I’ve had to lift bodies.  Dead weight is more than a figure of speech.  Hines could never lift Spencer two feet not the needed twenty.   And Jules either has a cervical spine problem or he’s gold-bricking.”

“He’s not gold-bricking.  I remember when he was injured.  He’s lucky to be able to use his right hand at all. And Gladys?  She weighs less than Hines.  Only Gregor could have moved the body to and from the bathroom. And the Coroner said that there were no bruises on the body.  If a couple of the lightweights tried to do it, they’d make a mess of it.”

“Let’s talk motive,” Nola said.  Gregor didn’t know about that primogeniture stipulation.  He no doubt thought that he could get Paige to marry him and then he’d be master of the house.   He also strikes me as the kind of man who would take obscene photos of Paige… with or without her knowledge.  That would be his insurance in case she refused to marry him. So the sooner she became a widow, the sooner he could ride those thoroughbreds in the stable.”

“Don’t forget the money angle.  Paige was convinced… or hoped at least… that the reason Spencer was talking to his attorney so much was because of the syndication contract.   And then it became the addition to the clinic.  The sooner he died, the less he’d be spending – especially on his new lady-love – and the more they’d all inherit. She knew that things were happening fast with the addition.  And the kids, except Roland, figured they’d inherit right away.  I talked to Spence’s attorney.  That clause about making her executrix until all his children were of age was not such an unusual provision.  In a way, an insecure man would kind of guarantee his own life against being murdered for his money by his offspring.  They’d have to bump off both parents and then they couldn’t be sure whether someone else was named as executor.  So we can forget Roland.  There was enough real estate for him to sell just one property and get more than enough money to keep him for years.  Or, looked at another way, he could make life easy or hard for Paige who any day now will be living in his house as a guest. So even if she had plenty of cash, he still held the trump cards.  Still, she could have talked Gregor into helping whoever it was who changed your letter.  To me, it looks like Hines and Gregor.”



Nola sighed. “They feared that he’d change his Will and leave everything to Ingrid; but now they know that the Will was unchanged except for the insurance policy to the Clinic.  All the other rumors were just so much nonsense. And separately, he had already signed contracts for doing a land survey, buying the land, doing the excavation, and with the architect and engineering firms plus, of course, the general contractor. The kids didn’t know that the contracts were executed, but they did think they’d all be richer if he died before he could execute the documents.   How long will it take for them to get their money?”

“Pierre will be eighteen before probate is concluded and then it’s still up to Paige.  Probate,” Ellis explained in layman’s terms, “is just the period where all the bills incurred by the deceased come in and get paid.  Spencer spent time in Europe and Japan.  If he ran up any debts in these places, they have to be paid.  Taxes, too, take time.  Throwing Ingrid into the mix didn’t help. Now they fear she squirreled away a huge chunk of their cash in some Swiss bank account where they will never get it.

“They all had to be worried about his appointments with his attorney. And not only that,” he added, “but then Gregor accused Hines of stealing something from him.  They had a terrible row Mrs. Eglington told me. Hines stuck around because he wanted a good reference from Jules and, I suppose, Paige. We need to find out what the argument was about.

“Meanwhile, we’ve added nothing to your defense.”  Emphatically, he said, “Your solution to the puzzle makes it seem like a weird kind of suicide note.  I got stuck with the word ‘bereft’ – bereavement.  It’s a suicide note, all right. Think about it!”

“I have been! This puzzle may have been intended for the Japanese guy he was teaching English to. The reason that the envelope had no address was probably that he photocopied his friend’s address which had been written in Kanji.  He would have taped the address to the envelope. He said he had been fooling around with some new ways to write a puzzle to teach this guy colloquial English.  If you wanted to teach someone the different ways we say something…  you could direct him to a thesaurus – which is no puzzle or game of any kind, or you could make the puzzle a learning exercise by fitting the words into the white squares.

“He always gave the puzzle’s theme,” Nola said, “so his line on the back flap makes sense. “Nothing… Nothing left at all.’  It’s the theme of the puzzle… and a suicide note.  Spence had hit bottom.  The kids were grown and all he had to look forward to was a life with Paige and those greedy kids. He found love and purpose with Ingrid, and that was worth an investment.  But he lost her and, therefore, the purpose of the investment.  He did feel as though he had nothing left.”

Ellis immediately called Dave Rowan and explained the solution to one puzzling part of Spencer’s death.  Rowan was impressed. “In his desk we found a bunch of small papers that had identical Japanese writing on them. An address in Akita. Could be this guy’s address.”

Ellis knew that Rowan would contact the man in Japan to verify the puzzle game.  “Let’s hope he can be located.”

“It still proves nothing,” Rowan said, “no pun intended.”


Print Friendly, PDF & Email