3. THE SPORTS PAGE
"Is 'blain' an English word?" asked Mario Gonzalo, as the company of the Black Widowers sat down to their monthly banquet.
"Brain?" asked James Drake, scraping his chair toward the table and looking over the selection of bread and rolls.
"Blain," said Gonzalo sharply.
"How do you spell it?" asked Roger Halsted, who had no difficulty in deciding to take two slices of pumpernickel. He was buttering them.
"What's the difference how it's spelled?" said Gonzalo in annoyance. He placed his napkin carefully over his lightly striped and definitely pink trousers. "Spell it any way you want. Is it an English word?"
Thomas Trumbull, host for the evening, furrowed his bronzed forehead and said, "Damn it, Mario, we've had a pretty sensible session so far. What's all this about 'blain?'"
"I'm asking you a question. Why don't you answer it?"
"All right. It's not an English word."
Gonzalo looked about the table, "Everyone agree 'blain' isn't English?"
There was a hesitant chorus of agreement. Even Emmanuel Rubin, his eyes magnified by his glasses and his straggly beard a bit shorter than usual, as though it had recently been absent - mindedly trimmed, finally muttered, "No such word."
Lawrence Pentili, who had arrived as Trumbull's guest, and who was an elderly man with sparse white hair, and with muttonchop side - whiskers grown long, as though they were announcing that hair could still be produced, smiled and said, "Never heard that word."
Only Geoffrey Avalon held his peace. Sitting bolt upright as always, he frowned and with his middle finger stirred the ice in the unfinished half of his second drink.
"All right," said Gonzalo, "we all agree it's not an English word. You can see that in a second. But how do you see it? Do you go through a list of all the English words you know and see that blain' isn't on it? Do you check the sound for familiarity? Do you . . ."
Halsted's soft voice interrupted, "No one knows how human recall works, so why ask? Even people who have theories about how the mechanism of memory works don't understand how information can be fished out once it has been inserted. Every word I use has to be recalled from my vocabulary, and each is there when I need it."
Trumbull said, "There are lots of times when you can't think of the word you want."
Halsted had just turned with satisfaction to the turtle soup that Henry, the incomparable waiter of the Black Widowers, had placed before him. He said, stuttering slightly as he often did under stress, "Yes, and that upsets you. Most people take it hard when they can't think of a word, get very upset, as though something has gone wrong that shouldn't have gone wrong. Me, I tend to stutter when I can't think of a word."
Now at last Avalon's deep baritone sounded, and dominated the table. "Well, wait now. As a matter of fact, there is such a word as 'blain.' It's archaic, but it's English. It's some sort of animal ailment, or blister."
"Right," said Gonzalo with satisfaction. The word is used in the Bible in connection with the plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus. I knew someone here would get it. I thought it would be Manny."
Rubin said indignantly, "I thought you meant current English."
"I didn't say so,' said Gonzalo. "Besides, it's part of the word 'chilblains,' and that's current English."
"No, it's not," said Rubin, heating up further, "and besides . . ."
Trumbull said, loudly, "Don't get defensive, Manny. What I want to know is how Mario knows all this. And, incidentally, we're having finnan haddie today at my request, and if anyone here doesn't like it, he can negotiate with Henry for substitutes. Well, Mario?"
Gonzalo said, "I read it in a psychology book. There's nothing that says I have to be born knowing everything, the way Manny claims he's been. I pick up knowledge by keeping my eyes and ears open. And what I want to do now is make a point. Remembering too well is dangerous."
"It's a danger you'll never face," muttered Rubin.
"I don't care," said Gonzalo. 'Look, I asked a question and I got a quick and certain response from everyone here but Jeff. He was uncertain and hesitated because he remembered too much. He remembered the use of 'blain' in the Bible. Well, human beings are faced with choices every minute. There has to be a decision and the decision has to be based on what he knows. And if he knows too much, he'll hesitate."
"And so," asked Drake who, having speared some of the finnan haddii on his fork and placed it in his mouth, looked first thoughtful and then satisfied.
"So that's bad," said Gonzalo. "In the long run, what counts is a quick response and action. Even a less than good decision is better than indecision, most times. That's why human beings have evolved an imperfect memory. Forgetting has survival value."
Avalon smiled and nodded. 'That's not a bad notion, Mario," he said, with, perhaps, a trace of condescension. "Have I ever told you my theory of the evolutionary value of contentiousness? In a hunting society . . ."
But Gonzalo held up both arms. "I'm not finished, Jeff. Don't you all see that's why Henry here does so much better than we do in solving the puzzles that arise from time to time? Every one of us here at the table practices being deep . . ."
"Not everybody, Mario," said Rubin, "unless you're about to start."
Gonzalo ignored him. "Henry doesn't. He doesn't gunk his mind up with irrelevant information, so he can see clearly."
Henry, who was clearing some of the excess dishes, said gently, "If I may interpose, Mr. Gonzalo, I'm afraid that whatever I do could not be done, were it not that you gentlemen usually eliminate all that would otherwise confuse me." His unlined, sixtyish face showed only imperturbable efficiency, as he next poured several refills of the white wine.
Trumbull said, "Mario, your theory is junk and, Henry, that false modesty is unbecoming to you. You have more brains than any of us do, Henry, and you know it."
"No, sir," said Henry. "With respect, the most I'll admit is that I have a faculty for seeing the obvious."
"Because," said Gonzalo, "you don't have the difficulty of trying to look at the obvious through layers of crud, as Manny does."
Henry bowed his head slightly and seemed almost relieved when the infuriated Rubin launched into an analysis of the value of miscellaneous knowledge to the writer, and of the fact - which he announced as such with fervor - of the equation of general intelligence with the ability to remember, recall, analyze, and synthesize.
But Pentili, the guest, seemed to have lost interest in the conversation. His eyes followed Henry thoughtfully.
Waiting for the precise moment when the desserts had been eaten and when several of the coffees were about ready for the refill, Trumbull tapped his water glass with his spoon and announced it was time for the grilling.
"Since I am host," he growled, "I am delighted to be disqualified as griller. Mario, you did all that preaching over the soup. Why don't you grill our guest?"
Gonzalo said, "Dee - lighted," and cleared his throat ostentatiously. "Mr. Pentili, how do you justify your existence?"
Pentili smiled broadly so that a round little ball of flesh bunched up over each cheekbone, giving him the look of a beardless Santa Claus in mufti. "Thank heaven, I no longer have to. I am retired and I have either already justified my existence or have already failed."
"And in the days when you might have been justifying it, what were you doing to make your existence possible?"
"Breathing. But if you mean, how did I make my living, I served Uncle Sam in the same fashion, more or less, that Tom does."
"You were a cipher expert?"
"No, but I was involved in intelligence."
"And that justifies your existence?" put in Rubin.
"Shall we argue the point?" said Pentili agreeably.
"No," said Trumbull. "It's been argued fifty times. Go ahead, Mario."
Gonzalo looked eager. "The last time Tom had a guest here, he had a problem. Do you have one?"
"At the present time, certainly not. I leave problems to Tom and the others these days. I'm a more or less happy observers. But I have a question, if I may ask one."
Pentili said, "You had said that Henry - who, I take it, is our waiter - "
Trumbull said, "Henry is a valued member of the Black Widowers and the best of us all."
"I see. But I take it that Henry solves puzzles. What kind?"
A shade of uneasiness crossed Henry's face but disappeared almost at once. He said, "Some questions arise at one time or another on the occasion of these banquets, sir, and the members have been able to propose answers."
"You have proposed them," said Gonzalo energetically.
Avalon raised his hand. "I protest. This is not a fit subject for discussion. Everything said here is entirely confidential, and we ought not to talk about previous sessions in front of our guest."
"No, no," said Pentili, shaking his head. "I ask for no confidences. It just occurred to me that, if it were appropriate to do so, I could pose a problem for Henry."
Gonzalo said, "I thought you said you didn't have a problem."
"I don't," said Pentili, twinkling, "but I once had a problem, many years ago, and it was never solved to my satisfaction. It is of no importance any longer, you understand, except as an irritating grain of sand inside the tissues of my curiosity."
"What was that, Larry?" asked Trumbull with sudden interest.
"You had just entered the department, Tom. It didn't involve you - or almost anyone, but me."
"May we hear it?" said Gonzalo.
"As I said," said Pentili, "it's entirely unimportant and I assure you I had not meant to bring it up. It was just that when mention was made specifically of Henry's facility with . . ."
Henry said softly, "If I may be allowed a word, sir. I am not the expert at solving puzzles that Mr. Gonzalo is kind enough to think me. There have been occasions when, indeed, I have been helpful in that direction but that has only been when the membership has considered the problem and eliminated much of what is not essential. If, in that case, some simple thread is left exposed, I can pick it up as well as another, but I can do no more than that."
"Oh." Pentili looked abashed. "Well, I'm perfectly willing to present the problem to the membership generally."
"In that case, sir," said Avalon, "we are all ears."
Pentili, having finished his brandy and having declined a refill, said, "I will ask you, gentlemen, to cast your mind back to 1961. John F. Kennedy was in the first months of his tragically abbreviated Administration, and an invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles was being planned. Kennedy had inherited those plans and had refused to chance the repercussions of having the invaders granted American air support. He was assured by intelligence reports that it was quite certain the Cuban populace would rise in support of the invaders. A free Cuban Government would quickly be formed, and at its request the United States might move.
"It is easy, in hindsight, to realize how wretchedly we had underestimated Castro's hold on his army and his people, but at the time we saw everything through a pinkly optimistic haze. You all know what happened. The invaders landed at the Bay of Pigs and were met at once by well - organized Castroites. The Cuban people did not rise, and in the absence of effective air support, the invaders were all either killed or taken. It was a tragic affair for them and an embarrassing fiasco for the United States. Kennedy accepted the responsibility since he was President and had given the final kickoff signal. Although others were clearly more to blame, no one stepped forward to take his medicine. As Kennedy said, Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.'"
Rubin, who had been staring at his coffee cup, said suddenly, "I remember that. At the time, Kennedy said it was an old saying, but no one, to my knowledge, has ever discovered the source. It will have to go into the quotation books with Kennedy's name under it."
Avalon cleared his throat. "A defeat or even a humiliation does not stand alone in time. Smarting from the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy was determined not to submit again, so the next year he faced down the Soviets on the Cuban missiles affair and won for us our greatest victory of the Cold War."
Rubin said, with vehemence, "And victories don't stand alone, either. President Johnson, determined not to appear less macho than his predecessor, led us step by step into the quagmire of Vietnam, and this led to our..."
"Come on, you idiots," shouted Trumbull. "This isn't a contemporary history class. We're listening to Larry Pentili."
In the sudden silence that followed, Pentili said, with a bit of gloominess flitting over his face, "Actually, it is all pertinent. You see, the real villain of the Bay of Pigs affair was faulty intelligence. Had we known quite accurately what the situation was in Cuba, Kennedy would have canceled the invasion or given it effective air support. In that case, there would have been no fiasco to give either Castro or Khrushchev the false notion that they could get away with establishing missile sites ninety miles off Florida and then, if we accept Rubin's psychohistorical interpretation, there would have been no Vietnam.
"And in my opinion, information need not have been faulty. We had one operative who had been planted in Cuba and who was back in Washington some half a year before the Bay of Pigs with reports he had been unable to radio out. . . ."
"Why not?" said Gonzalo, at once.
"Because he was playing a difficult role that he dared not risk. He was a Soviet agent, you see, and his whole value to us was that the Soviets allowed him to travel to the United States freely and to circulate in Washington freely because they thought he was spying on us for them."
"Maybe he was," said Drake, peering through his cigarette smoke. "How can you tell which side a double agent is fooling?"
"Maybe both sides," said Halsted.
"Maybe," conceded Pentili, "but the Soviets never discovered anything more than we deliberately had this Russian of ours reveal. On the other hand, through him we learned a great many useful things that the Soviets could not conceivably have wanted us to know."
"I wonder," said Rubin, with something more than a trace of sarcasm in his voice, "if the Soviets might not have reasoned in precisely the same way."
"I don't think so," said Pentili, "for in the end it was the Soviets who eliminated him and not we. How they caught on to him, how he had given himself away, we never discovered, but it was clear that the Soviets finally came around to agreeing with us that he was essentially our Russian and not theirs. Too bad, but, of course, from their standpoint he was a traitor. In reverse, we'd have done the same thing."
Avalon said, "Frankly, I would hesitate to trust a traitor. A man who betrays once can betray again."
"Yes," said Pentili, "and for that reason he never knew anything more than it was considered safe for him to know. Yet I, for one, did trust him. It was always my opinion that he chose us because he came to believe in the American ideal. During the three years he worked with us, he never gave us any ground for concern.
"His name was Stepan and he was an earnest man, rather humorless, who went about his task with a conscious dedication. He was determined to learn idiomatic English and to speak it with a General American accent. He was therefore a faithful listener to news programs not for their contents but for the sanitized pronunciations of men like Walter Cronkite. To develop his vocabulary, Stepan worked at crossword puzzles, with indifferent success, and was very fond of the word game Scrabble, at which he usually lost."
Avalon said, "Scrabble is that game that involves small wooden tiles with letters on them out of which you form words on a board?"
"It has its complications. . . ." began Rubin.
Pentili overrode him. "You have the essentials, Mr. Avalon. I mention the game because it has something to do with the problem. Stepan never achieved his aim fully. He retained his Russian accent, and his vocabulary was never as unlimited as he would have liked it to be, but we encouraged him because we felt it to be a sign of increasing dedication to us. The Soviets probably supported it because they felt it would make him a more efficient spy on us and for them."
"They may have been right," said Rubin dryly.
"They killed him, remember," said Pentili. "In September 1960, Stepan arrived from Cuba. We had only the most indirect notion of his activities in that country, but his initial guarded contact with us gave us every reason to think he had information of the most vital importance. It remained only to get that information in such a way as not to blow his cover.
"In very indirect fashion, we arranged to make contact with him in a hotel room. The trouble was that, although neither he nor we knew it at the time, his cover was already blown. Someone got to him before we did, and when our man finally arrived, Stepan was dead; knifed. What it was he meant to tell us, we never learned."
Avalon ran his finger thoughtfully around the rim of his long - empty coffee cup. "Are you certain, sir, that he was killed by the Soviets? We live in a violent society and people are killed every day for a variety of reasons."
Pentili sighed. "To have an agent killed just at the point of delivery of a vital message, and to have that killing come about through some unrelated cause, is asking too much of coincidence. Besides, the Washington police were bound to treat it as an ordinary killing, and we helped them since the man was a Soviet national. Nothing was turned up, no theft, no plausible motive arising out of his private life. There were no traces left behind of any kind; an ordinary culprit would have left some.
"Second, there was some interest in the murder on the part of the Soviet embassy, but not enough. They were just a shade too easily satisfied. Third, certain avenues of information, which would have remained open had Stepan been in the clear and had he died for reasons not connected with his work, were closed. No, Mr. Avalon, there was no doubt in my mind that he died the death of an agent."
Gonzalo, suddenly aware of crumbs defacing the fine cut of his lapel, brushed at himself delicately and said, "Where's the puzzle, though, Mr. Pentili? You mean who killed him? Now? After all these years?"
"No, it doesn't matter a hippie's curse who killed him. Even after he was knifed, though, Stepan must have tried to get across something, perhaps enough to give us the essential core of what we needed, but if so, he failed. I have been wondering frequently, and painfully, in the years since my retirement whether a greater shrewdness or persistence on our part might not have saved our country some of its losses in the years since that murder."
Halsted said, "I'm sorry if this question is embarrassing, Mr. Pentili, but was your retirement forced on you because of Stepan's death?"
"You mean that I might have been fired as punishment for not having kept him alive? No. The episode did not reflect any discredit on me and I retired only a few years ago, in the ordinary course of events, with a generous pension, the expressed esteem of my confreres, and an award handed me by President Nixon. In fact, danger came to me not through Stepan's death but through my insistence that he was trying to tell us something significant. The department dismissed the matter; erroneously, in my opinion; and I was more or less forced to dismiss it, too. But I have wondered about it since; all the more so, since my retirement."
Gonzalo said, "What was Stepan's way of getting across the information?"
Pentili said, "We are quite certain that Stepan had no documents on him, no letters, no written message. He didn't work that way. He had what any traveler might be expected to have in a hotel room. He had clothes, toiletries, and so on, in a single suitcase, and an extra suit in a garment bag. There were signs of a search, but it was a skillful one that left a minimum of disarray. Something may have been taken away, of course, but if so, we cannot tell what it was, and that has nothing to do with the problem.
"The only items that might not be considered perfectly routine were a crossword puzzle book, with approximately half the puzzles worked out completely or nearly completely in Stepan's own handwriting, the Scrabble set he always carried with him . . ."
Rubin interrupted, "So he could strike up games with occasional strangers?"
Pentili said, "No. He had the habit of playing four - handed games with himself when he had nothing to do and using a pocket dictionary to help. He said there was nothing better for developing a vocabulary. The dictionary was there, in his jacket pocket, with the jacket hanging in the closet.
"He was knifed while standing, apparently, and that was the one flaw in an otherwise flawless performance, for he was not killed outright. The killer or killers had to leave rapidly, and they left a spark of life behind. Stepan had collapsed just next to the desk and, when they were gone, he managed to pull himself upright. On the desk was a newspaper - the Washington Post, by the way - and the Scrabble set.
"He opened the top desk drawer and pawed about for the pen. He found it and tried to write with it but it was dry - a common situation in hotel rooms - so he dropped it to the floor. His own pen was in his inner jacket pocket at the other end of the room, and he knew he couldn't make it there. He had a couple of minutes to live and he had to make use of whatever objects were on the desk.
"The newspaper, at the time of the knifing, was folded as it had been when he had bought it an hour earlier, but he . . ."
Halsted said, "How did you find out all this?"
"Circumstantial. I assure you we are expert at this. The desk drawer was open; the pen, quite dry, was on the floor. Most of all, Stepan was bleeding, partly from his right hand, which he had instinctively used to try to ward off the weapon, and his own blood marked his every movement and everything he had touched.
"As I say, he unfolded the newspaper to the sports page. He then lifted the top of the box of the Scrabble set, removed the board, and managed to take out five letters, which he put in the wooden holder used for the purpose. Then he died. The letters were 'e,' 'p,' 'o,' 'c,' and 'k.'"
"In that order?" asked Drake.
"In that order, left to right."
"Epock is a period of time in history, isn't it?" said Gonzalo.
"It's a point in time," said Rubin, "marked by some significant historical event and later used as a reference, but it's spelled e - p - o - c - h. It ends with an'h."'
"Making a mistake in spelling under the conditions isn't surprising," said Gonzalo defensively. "The man was dying and maybe he could hardly see. Maybe the 'k' looked like an V to him. Besides, he was a Russian, and he might not have known how to spell the word."
Pentili said, with a trace of impatience, "That is not really the point. 'Epock' or 'epoch,' 'k' or 'h,' what does it mean?"
Avalon said, "Actually, Tom is the code expert. . . ."
Trumbull shrugged. "Larry has come to you men. You work at it. It anything occurs to me, I'll interrupt."
Avalon said, "Would you have a code book, Mr. Pentili, in which 'epock' stands for some phrase or sentence? Is it a recognized code?"
"I assure you that neither 'epock' nor 'epoch' means anything in any code of which Stepan had knowledge. No, the answer had to be in the sports page, and if the letters had any meaning it was in connection with the sports page."
"Why do you say that?" asked Halsted.
"Let me explain further," said Pentili - then interrupted himself to say, "I will have a little more brandy, Henry, if you don't mind. You're listening to all this, I hope."
"Yes, sir," said Henry.
"Good!" said Pentili. "Now in the ordinary course of events, Stepan might have, in an emergency, transmitted information more densely - that is, with the greatest information per symbol - by transmitting a number. Each number could represent a given phrase. That's an inflexible message, of course, since the proper phrase might not exist, but a number might give a fair approximation, and in the extremity of approaching death, he could do no more. He opened the paper to a page on which there were numbers and where one number might be significant."
Halsted said, "He might merely have wanted a sheet of paper to write on.
"He had nothing to write with," said Pentili.
Pentili twisted his mouth distastefully. "He might have done that but he didn't. He might not even have been aware he was bleeding. And if he wanted to do that, why open the paper? The front page would have been enough."
"He might have opened it at random," said Halsted stubbornly.
"Why? He was a professional. He had lived with death for years and he knew that the information he carried was more important than his life. What he did would have to be to pass on that information."
Trumbull said, "Come on, Roger, you're being trivial."
Pentili said, "It's all right, Tom. As a matter of fact, the general opinion in the department was that there was no puzzle; that Gregory's attempt at the point of death meant nothing; that whatever he tried to do had failed. I was the only one who wanted to follow it up, and I must admit I never succeeded in translating the message.
"The trouble was, you see, that he had opened to the sports page. About the only page in the paper that could have been more littered with numbers was the financial page. How can we look at all the numbers on the sports page and select the one that was significant?"
Avalon said, "If we assume that Gregory knew what he was doing, then despite all the numbers, the particular significant number must have been obvious, or should have been. For instance, all the numbers on the page may have had no meaning at all. It may have been the number of the page that counted."
"First thought! However, it was page 32, and 32 stood for 'Cancel previous message.' There was no previous message, and that was not it."
Avalon said, "What was on the sports page?"
"I can't reproduce it from memory, of course, and I don't have a Xerox copy to show you. That page dealt with baseball almost entirely, for the baseball season was in its last few weeks. It had baseball standings on it, the box scores of particular games, some pitching statistics."
"And was Stepan knowledgeable about baseball?"
"To a limited extent," said Pentili. "He was professionally interested in America, reading American history avidly, for instance, so he would be interested in the national game. You remember World War II movies with their cliche that any Nazi spy, no matter how cleverly schooled, would always give himself away by his ignorance of last year's World Series? Stepan intended not to be caught in this fashion, but he could scarcely make himself an expert."
"Well," said Avalon stiffly, "if ignorance of baseball is the hallmark of the Nazi spy, I had better turn myself in. I know nothing of the game."
"Nor I," said Drake, shrugging.
Gonzalo said, "Come on, nobody can read the papers, watch television, or talk to people without knowing something about the game. You guys are just indulging in snobbery. Why don't we figure this out? What kind of a number ought it to be? How many digits?"
Pentili said, "At least two digits, possibly three. Not more than three."
"All right. If Gregory was no baseball expert, he would have to pick something simple and obvious. Batting averages are in three digits. Maybe there was some batting average that made the headlines."
Pentili shook his head. "There were no numbers in the headlines. We would have been on to that like a shot. I assure you that nowhere on the page, nowhere, was there any one number that stood out from the rest. No, gentlemen, I am quite convinced that the sports page by itself was insufficient, that Gregory in his last moments used it only because there was nothing else he could do. The number was there but there was no way of picking it out without a hint - so he prepared one."
Rubin said, "You mean the Scrabble letters? 'Epock'?"
"I don't see what kind of hint that might be."
Gonzalo said, "He might not have finished, you know. He managed to get five letters out and then died. Maybe he gave up on the sports page and was trying to spell out the number, only he didn't finish. If he wanted to write 'one hundred twenty - two,' for instance, that would take a lot more than five letters."
Rubin said, "Are you telling us there's a number that begins with 'epock'?" He rolled his eyes upward in exasperation.
Gonzalo said, "The letters don't have to be in order. In Scrabble, you're always arranging and rearranging your letters - like in anagrams. After he had all the letters he wanted, he'd have rearranged them into the number he was spelling. He died too soon."
Halsted said, "Sorry, Mario, that's not possible. The written forms of the numbers have an odd distribution of letters. For instance" (his mathematician's eyes gleamed), "do you know that you can write all the numbers from zero to nine hundred ninety - nine without using the letter 'a'?"
"So?" said Gonzalo. "There's no 'a' in 'epock.'"
"No, but there's a 'p' and a 'c'. Write out the numbers in order and you won't come to a 'p' till you reach - uh - one heptillion, which has twenty - four digits. And you won't reach a 'c' till one octillion, which has twenty - seven. Of course, that's in the American system of numeration. In the British system . . ."
"You made your point," growled Trumbull.
Rubin said, "He could still have been incomplete, though. He may have given up on the sports page altogether, started fresh, and intended to take out those five letters plus a 't,' rearranging the whole to spell 'pocket.' There may have been something in his pocket that carried the message. . . ."
"There wasn't," interposed Pentili curtly.
"It may have been removed after the knifing and he was too far gone to realize it."
"That's a second - order conjecture. You assume an additional 't' and then a pocket - picking as well to account for it. Unlikely!"
"Might 'pocket' have been a code word?" said Rubin.
"No!" Pentili waved his hand left and right, palm outward, in a gesture of impatience. "Gentlemen, it is amusing to listen to your conjectures but you are moving in the wrong direction. Habit has a firm hold even at the moment of death. Stepan was a neat person, and when death came he had his hand on the top of the Scrabble box and was clearly making an effort to replace it. There is no question in my mind that he had taken out all the tiles he was going to. We have these five letters, no more."
Halsted said, "He would not have had time to rearrange the letters."
Pentili sighed. "There are exactly 120 different ways in which 5 different letters can be arranged. Not one of the rearrangements is an English word, any more than 'blain' is," he smiled briefly. "One arrangement is 'kopec,' which is a small Russian coin usually spelled 'kopek,' but that has no significance that any of us could see. No, there must be a reference to a number."
Avalon said suddenly, "Was there anything on the sports page besides sports? I mean, were there advertisements, for instance?"
Pentili looked with concentration into the middle distance as though he were concentrating on an invisible sheet of paper. He said, thoughtfully, "No advertisements. There was, however, a bridge column."
"Ah, could the letters have referred to that? See here, Mr. Pentili, I am not a bridge buff in the real sense, but I play the game and sometimes read a bridge column. They invariably have a hand shown under the heads, 'north,' 'south,' 'east,' and 'west.' Each hand has its cards listed according to suit, 'spades,' 'hearts,' 'diamonds,' 'clubs,' and under each suit the cards are listed in descending order of value."
"Well?" said Pentili stonily.
"So consider 'epock.' The 'e may stand for 'east,' the 'c' for 'clubs.' East's hand may have five clubs, which may, as an example, be J, 8, 4, 3, 2. The Jack and the 3 are excluded because they are occupied by letters that do not stand for digits. That leaves 842 as your code."
Pentili looked at him with some surprise. He said, "I must admit that I've never thought of this. When I am back in my office I will look at the bridge hand. Amazing, Mr. Avalon, I would not have thought a new notion could have been advanced at this stage of the game."
Avalon said, flushing a little, "I can but do my poor best, sir."
"However," said Pentili, "I don't believe your suggestion can be useful. Poor Stepan was not, to my knowledge, a bridge player, and it seems to me only a monomaniac on the subject would have tried to use bridge for a code like that at the point of death. It has to be very simple. He might have used the page number as the code, but I suspect he could no longer see the tiny symbols on the newspaper page. He recognized the sports page as a whole and he could still see the large letters of the Scrabble set. And we can find nothing simple there."
Gonzalo said, "Unless Henry has a suggestion."
"Ah," said Pentili, "then it comes to Henry in the end. What does all this mean, Henry?"
Henry, who had been remaining silently at the sideboard throughout the discussion, said, "I cannot say, sir, unless the number 20 would be of signifi - "
He was interrupted by a suddenly frowning Pentili. "Twenty! Is that a guess, Henry?"
"Not entirely, sir. Is it significant, then?"
"Significant? I've spent years gloomily suspecting he was trying to tell us twenty. Twenty meant 'Government in firm control.' I haven't mentioned twenty in the course of the story, have I?" There was a chorused negative.
"If I could have shown," said Pentili, "that Stepan was trying to tell us twenty, I might have been able to stop the Bay of Pigs. At least I would have tried; God, I would have tried. But I don't see how you get twenty out of this, Henry."
"Why, sir, if it is true that Mr. Stepan was only moderately knowledgeable in baseball, then he would see on the sports page only what other moderately knowledgeable people would see - like myself, for instance. As Mr. Gonzalo would say, I speak from ignorance when I say that all I see on the sports page is the result of the games - the score in other words - and that brings 'twenty' rather forcibly to mind."
Avalon, possibly smarting at the failure of his own suggestion, said, "I don't think much of that, Henry. 'Score' is rather an archaic word. Would Stepan have known it?"
"I imagine he would, Mr. Avalon," said Henry, "Mr. Pentili has said that Stepan was an avid reader of American history, and one of the best - known historical phrases is 'Fourscore and seven years ago . . .'"
Pentili looked disappointing, "It's a clever notion, Henry, but not convincing. Too bad."
"It becomes convincing, sir, when you realize that the Scrabble letters also signify twenty."
"In what way?"
"When Mr. Gonzalo asked his question about 'blain' he specifically asked if it were an English word. No one has specified that 'epock' must be English."
Gonzalo said delightedly, "You mean it's Russian for twenty?"
Pentili said, "No, it is not Russian for twenty. I've already mentioned the 'kopec - kopek' possibility, but that has nothing to do with twenty, surely."
"I'm not thinking of Russian words," said Henry. "As you have said, habits are hard to break even at the point of death, and Mr. Stepan must have found himself using Russian letters. . . ."
"The Cyrillic alphabet," said Rubin.
"Yes, Mr. Rubin. Now, I have seen the USSR written in Russian in letters that look like CCCP. I suspect therefore that the Russian 'c' is equivalent to our 's' and the Russian 'p' is equivalent to our 'r.'"
"Quite so," said Pentili, looking dumbfounded.
"And the Russian 'k' is equivalent to our hard 'c' so that in our letters, 'epock' becomes 'erosc,' and that can be rearranged to read 'score.'"
Pentili seemed overcome by a deep depression. "You win, Henry. Why couldn't you have told me all this in 1960?"
"Had I but known, sir," said Henry.
"The Sports Page" - Afterword
In some ways, there is a certain inflexibility about my scheme for writing Black Widower stories. There is always the banquet and the general conversation; then the grilling and the presentation of a mystery; then the discussion and solution.
But there is a certain flexibility as well, for the mystery itself can be anything at ail. It can be a murder, or a theft, or a spy story, or a missing - will story.
It can even, on occasion, be that hoariest of devices, the dying - clue mystery. Why not? They're always fun.
"The Sports Page" appeared in the April 1977 EQMM.
By the way, readers occasionally write me to offer alternative solutions to my Black Widowers. In the case of this story, two readers came up with identical alternate solutions that were (in my opinion) cleverer than the one I had constructed. One was Dan Button, editor of Science Digest, and the other was Paul Edwin Kennedy, a Boston lawyer. Let me quote the latter: "He [Stepan] left us the cryptic message 'epock.' Any person 'moderately familiar' with baseball is familiar with the box scores. To him, the letters 'e,' 'po,' and 'k' stand for 'error,' 'put out,' and 'strike,' respectively. We can then translate 'epock' as 'error put out c strike.' Surely it's obvious then that 'c' stands for Cuban."
Dan Button, using identical reasoning, interprets the message as either "You will strike out (suffer disaster) if you go ahead with the plan," or "The strike (invasion) is out, because of the erroneous information you've received."
Unbelievable that, without knowing it, while constructing one solution, I had laid the groundwork for another that was even more subtle.