Yarrow House

It’s a Puzzle

"The phone rang. It was a full moon, and all the crazies were calling in. I decided it was Raine’s turn to pick it up; I’d already answered my share of calls—lost engagement ring, familiar caller: “Check the pawnshop where you left it last time”; lost car:“Where'd you lose it?” “If I knew, would I be calling you?” “OK, so when did you lose it?” “A couple days ago.” “It's been towed. Call the City.” Lost sense of humor: “Don't take yourself so seriously.”

I hunkered down on the computer, trying to beat my score on Tetris. At her desk across our miniscule office, Raine ran through the standard telephone spiel about how we find things not people, grunted a few non-committal replies, and then repeated an address.

Sounded like we had a new client.  When she stood up and started loading her pockets with the tools of the detective’s trade—Maglight, Leatherman, notepad—I guessed the job didn’t involve computer work. Too bad. I’d have liked to stay cozy and dry on this rainy Seattle afternoon.

In Raine’s old beater we headed north to a Portage Bay houseboat.

“What’s the job?” I asked.

“Missing jigsaw puzzle piece.”

‘What!” We have looked for a lot of odd things in our years as partners in our search and research biz, but a puzzle piece? “Why?”

“That’s all they said.”

“So what’s so important about finishing a jigsaw puzzle?” I muttered to myself. Raine never speculated. Said preconceptions ruined her ability to locate missing items.

I, on the other hand, found speculating to be an important part of a successful job. Or at least it kept a job interesting. To be honest, being a detective was not as glamorous as the mystery books make it out to be, especially if you specialized in missing items. I don’t like guns, or other forms of violence, for that matter. I look forward to an interesting, and healthy, retirement some day if we ever make enough so I can build up a savings account. In the meantime sneaking around is OK. Having to avoid bad guys who want to kill you is not.

We squeezed the car between a Prius and a Car2Go and made our way down a long wooden stairway and then along a roughly paved one-lane road to one of the rows of houseboats. The one we wanted was at the end of a short dock, a narrow little two-story number painted nautical gray with purple trim, very 1980s and probably hadn’t been painted since then. Even the idea of getting on a boat can make me seasick, so I wasn’t looking forward to stepping onto the houseboat porch, but except for the water making sucking sounds on the pilings, you couldn’t even tell you were floating.

I expected to see some tottering old salt or Tugboat Annie answer our knock. Instead a 20-something, spiked-hair, matchstick of an Asian woman opened the door. She looked us over and then asked, “Where are the detectives?”

“That would be us,” I replied. The young punk looked back into the room, back to us, back to the room, thoughts apparently ping ponging around in her spiky head.

“Do you want help or don’t you?” Raine’s affect can range from invisible to outright scary. This time she was just fairly intimidating. The woman stepped aside and pointed us down a short hall to the living room. The vaulted living room looked out on the ship canal with UW campus buildings  rising above a marina across the way. For a small place, it felt  pretty spacious. If it weren’t on water, I could imagine myself living in it.

“The detectives,” she announced to the two guys hunched over a jigsaw puzzle at a dining table in front of the windows—one of them overweight in that too much time in front of a computer kind of way, shaved head; the other loosely similar, with an earring. The guy without an earring paused in his puzzling, looked us over, and raised his hand in what might have been a greeting. “Jack,” he introduced himself. He nudged the other guy, who looked up briefly, wiggled his fingers at us, and grunted hello.

 “What makes you think a piece is missing?” Raine scanned the room. 

“Jack counted the pieces,” Ms Punk said.

“Before or after you started?” Raine asked.

“About half way through,” Jack answered. The other guy was already back at the puzzle, rapidly slipping pieces into place.

“Let’s start from the beginning,” I broke in. “About our fee. $200 now, the rest after we find the missing piece. We take credit cards.”

“And if you don’t find it?” Ms. Punk asked

“No further charge,” Raine said. We’ve had arguments about this policy. Depending on the client, Raine is for or against it. The three shuffled through billfolds and came up with $200 in cash. Raine pocketed the bills, pulled out her flashlight, and started examining the floor.

While Raine flashed the light around the table and under the chairs, I asked. “So during the time you’ve been working on the puzzle until you counted the pieces, who left the table and how many times?” I  assumed, if it hadn’t fallen off the table, one of them had taken it.

“Three people, for a total of five times, “ Jack said. Sounded like he counted everything. “Two trips to the kitchen— drinks and snacks for everyone—two to the bathroom, and one trip upstairs to the loft—for a sweater.” So it looked like a search of the bathroom, kitchen, loft—even in a small house like this, it could take hours.

Raine had finished looking under the futon couch, and around the edges of the room. “OK, next, we check clothing,” she announced in her don’t make me get rough voice.

Jack nudged Earring Guy and they waved their hands at each other. Raine started waving her hands, too. It finally dawned on me that they were talking in sign language. Sometimes I can be pretty slow at picking up on nuances. Not a good trait in a detective. Raine keeps telling me I’ve got to get my head out of my mind.

Protesting innocence, everyone stood up. “This is a team effort,” Jack said. “None of us individually benefits by making us fail.”

“What is this puzzle stuff  about?” I asked, an obvious question we should have already asked, but there you have it.  In a disjointed explanation, interrupting each other throughout, Jack and Ms Punk said they were part of a treasure hunt. Earring Guy was commenting with his hands, saying the same thing, I guess. They’d survived through various stages of challenges, and now were one of two teams left. The puzzle contained the message to where the final clue was located. If they got there first, and found the clue, they won an all expenses paid trip for the team to a hotshot gamers convention in Las Vegas. A big deal for gamers.

The puzzle was a clue they’d found at the last site. I looked at the box lid for a picture, but it was a homemade box and the only thing on the top was “Happy hunting. May the best team win.” From the looks of the two-thirds they’d managed to complete, it was a Seattle panoramic.

“So which piece is missing?” Raine asked. They gave her a withering look, which she ignored and went on with her examination of pockets and pants cuffs. “You know, you’re assuming it’s a 500 piecer. Maybe it’s not,” she added.

The three puzzlers looked at her, then through her, assessing the odds of a 499 piece puzzle, I supposed, and then returned to their work with renewed fervor,  jostling each other to pop their pieces into place, mumbling and signing advice about what went where.

 “Isn’t it cheating to hire help?” I asked.

“When you’re playing a game, you have to use all your resources,” Ms. Punk said without looking up.

So, if nobody had taken the piece, and it hadn’t been dropped and kicked under something, maybe it had fallen into a lap and been carried somewhere. Assuming the bedroom was a less likely location for an accidently missing piece, I said I’d take the kitchen if Raine wanted to take the bathroom.

The kitchen would have fit into a boat, a large boat but none-the-less a boat. I stood for a while in the kitchen doorway, surveying the likely snackers’ paths and possible trajectories of a fallen puzzle piece. I use the term likely loosely. I just couldn’t see it happening. Raine would have said to get my mind out of my head. “Assumptions get in the way of seeing.” But you have to start somewhere, and an assumption’s at least a place to start.

Of course, maybe it hadn’t fallen. I’ve been known to carry something around and then lay it down somewhere without noticing. I imagined one of the puzzlers, Ms. Punk maybe, deciding to get another cup of coffee and carrying a puzzle piece along with her. Maybe putting it down on the counter— I gave the counters a once over—or setting it on something, just for a moment—I surveyed all horizontal surfaces. No missing piece. Time for the unlikely but possible places—maybe in the refrigerator? Leftover takeout, my kind of reefer. Cupboards? Generic crockery. These folks really liked Ikea.

Raine and I met up again in the hallway and shared our mutual lack of success. The puzzlers had finished the puzzle, and indeed, a piece was missing, right in the middle of a view of Seattle from the stairs of the Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

Now was the time for the intuitive part of the job. In other words, stare at nothing for a while and make wild guesses. I examined the shadows at the peak of the ceiling.

Raine stared out the window at the evening water, at the boats in the marina across the way, at something only she could see, who knows. Then she stared for a while at the puzzle again. “Is it fair to tell you where it is?” she asked, with her mouth and hands.

“That’s what we hired you for,” Ms. Punk snapped.

“Not the piece, the location of the next clue.”

Jack, Ms. Punk, and Earring Guy erupted into a noisy discussion. Ms Punk was on the side of all’s fair in love and gaming. Earring Guy maintained, according to Raine, that they should have the honor to find the location themselves. Jack argued alternately for and against.

All the time they were arguing, Earring Guy kept glancing at the puzzle and then out the window, maybe staring at the same thing Raine had been staring at. Finally he stabbed the empty spot in the puzzle, which was also, I finally noticed, right in the middle of the hole in the big black sculpture in front of the museum, signed some comment, and stood up.

“What’d he say?” I asked Raine.

“He knows where it is, and he’s going there now,” she said.

“So we found the piece, right?” I asked the room at large.

“That was piece not place,” Ms. Punk said.

“Still, the piece probably wasn’t really missing, and you got what you needed,” I argued. We trailed them out of the house and off the dock. I would have argued more, but I was distracted by the idea of the sculpture’s empty center, which would have been on the missing piece in the puzzle. Obvious metaphor. But where would you hide something in a hole?

“Let’s follow them and see where the clue is,” I said to Raine.

She paused in starting the car, gave me one of her looks, and shook her head. “The full moon must be getting to you.”

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2014