“Come on, Trevor! Get the ball!”
Luke Schumaker threw a rubber baseball into the woods. The large, shaggy-haired retriever dove after it with unbounded glee. It must be nice to have one thing in life you were born to do and to do it so whole-heartedly.
Luke loved his early morning hikes in the Pennsylvania woods. The trail up Henneman Hill started at the edge of his apartment complex and was its chief attraction, as far as Luke was concerned. August was not his favorite month in the Northeast, with its damp, close heat. But he’d put up with the summers in exchange for fall and winter. He’d spent ten years after college working in California for computer game companies, and he’d been thrilled when his company had announced a work-from-home policy. It meant he could continue to do the job he loved and move back to Pennsylvania, where weather was weather and men wore flannel shirts—even the gay ones.
Gay men, that is, not gay flannel shirts, though Luke had a few of those in his closet.
Luke was pretty sure he had a serious flannel kink.
Back at his apartment, Luke had his key out before he noticed the newspaper propped against his door. It was a Philadelphia paper, the Examiner. When it was still there after his shower, he decided a little neighborly consideration was in order.
His apartment complex was called the Woodsman, and it had thirty separate units, all emphatically rustic. Each unit housed four apartments. Luke knocked on the door of all three of his neighbors, but none of them took the paper. His lucky day, then. Luke sat down to enjoy his breakfast and the crisp feel of actual newsprint.
The Entertainment section had a crossword puzzle. Luke glanced at the clock guiltily. He usually started work by nine, but it was eight forty-five and he never could resist a puzzle. He picked up a pencil and looked down the clue list, tracing his lips with his tongue in concentration. He finished it in twenty minutes.
At lunchtime, Luke made a sandwich. Something had been tugging at his brain all morning, something about the crossword puzzle. He dragged the completed puzzle across the table and looked at the grid as he chewed his sandwich.
19 across – Gospel writer _ _ _ _
It was a four-letter spot, and the crossing “k” in space three made it Luke, not Mark or John. Luke was not uncommon in crossword puzzles. But there was more….
20 across – If it fits _ _ _ _
21 across – Dying to meet your _ _ _ _ _
2 down – Source for kindling _ _ _ _ _
12 across – Don’t run _ _ _ _
18 down – What silence is _ _ _ _ _ _
22 across – Fetcher _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
[Luke shoe maker woods walk golden retriever]
Luke started at the puzzle in disbelief. What were the odds that Luke and “shoe maker,” the Anglicized version of his last name, would appear in the same crossword puzzle and all in the same horizontal line? Add in “walk,” “woods,” “golden,” and “retriever” and the odds had to be off the charts. And then there was the fact that the paper had been left on his doorstep. He looked at the crossword puzzle byline: A. Ecrivain. The name meant nothing to him.
The rest of the day passed in a daze. Luke was, by his own admission, a geek. Once his brain latched onto a problem, it was hard to tear it away. It made him a strong computer game designer, but work suffered when his brain latched onto something outside the bounds of his daily bits and bytes.
Did A. Ecrivain really send him a hidden message in a crossword puzzle? And if so, why?
He Googled the Philly paper but couldn’t find anything about their crossword puzzles on their website. He Googled “A. Ecrivain” and the results were all in French. The word “écrivain” was French for “writer,” he discovered. “A. Writer”—it had to be a pseudonym. Great. He spent an hour with an old stats textbook trying to figure out the odds of seven key words appearing among seventy random ones. He wasn’t great at stats, but he came up with something like less than three percent. At six o’clock he had a Skype chat with his development team, and they discussed the next episode of Saints and Sinners.
By bedtime, Luke was trying to think up a unique idea for a troll/bridge puzzle, and the crossword had been filed away in a mental TBD bin with things like picking up bread and buying Stephen King’s latest e-book for his iPad.
Until the next morning. Luke and Trevor returned from their morning hike to find the Examiner on the doorstep. This time it had an ominous and vaguely teasing presence, like a plot moment in a cheesy horror movie.
Luke’s heart rate sped up. He took it inside.
1 across – Two can play _ _ _ _
10 down – Made it up _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
11 across – Axe to grind _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
20 down – Blue-eyed _____ _ _ _ _ _
31 across – ___ as a button _ _ _ _
32 down – Greeting _ _ _ _ _
[game designer woodsman blond cute hello]
Okay, “cute” might or might not be part of the hidden message, but Luke was blond and he was cute, dammit.
He shivered as if a cold finger had stroked the back of his neck. There was absolutely no doubt the message was for him. Who was doing this?
On the third morning, Luke went for his walk early and was back home by seven. He watched through his peephole, spying on the open-air corridor outside his door in a vigil that was, frankly, damned boring. But at 7:20 a.m. a teenager appeared and lobbed a newspaper at Luke’s door like he was pitching the World Series.
Luke opened the door in a flash. “Hey! You!”
The boy turned and eyed Luke warily, as if he might dance a naked Macarena at any moment.
“I didn’t order this paper. Why are you leaving it?”
The kid pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “Luke Schumaker, 1750 Wilson Drive, apartment 31C?”
“You have a subscription. It started a few days ago.”
“Who signed me up for it?”
The kid shrugged. “Dunno. Call the paper, I guess.”
Luke did and was patched through to the newspaper’s subscription hotline. His daily delivery was a gift, paid in advance for three months. No, they couldn’t tell him who ordered it, because the gifter had checked the “anonymous” box. Company policy.
Luke hung up the phone. A slow grin spread over his face, and his gamer mind rubbed its hands together with villainous glee. Oh, this? This was excellent. He ripped off a piece of notepaper and started making a plan.
There were two possibilities as Luke saw it. “A. Ecrivain” was either someone who lived in the complex or someone he’d met in town who was watching him. He couldn’t rule out women—he didn’t exactly wear a gay tattoo on his forehead. He drew a line down the paper. The left side he titled “The Woodsman” and the right one “Town.”
On the Woodsman list went:
Judy Miller—The complex manager was a fortysomething smoker with a voice like Harvey Fierstein. She said “ain’t” and “yous” a lot. Unlikely.
Mr. Morissey—The groundskeeper was in his fifties, weathered, married, and lumberjack straight. Probably not.
Phil—The maintenance man weighed three hundred pounds. He’d fixed Luke’s showerhead once, but when Luke cornered him for a chat outside 30A, Phil didn’t seem to recognize him. It was a big “no” to Phil, then.
His co-unit dwellers—They included a single mother who was always distracted, a young couple attending the university, and a grandmother who played tennis in hot-pink sweats. They could safely be ruled out.
Luke’s bedroom window overlooked the parking lot. He set up his laptop in there so he could keep an eye on the comers and goers.
A young woman with red hair and expensive suits lived in unit 28. She looked like Pippi Longstocking, if Pippi had grown up and gotten a law degree. She never glanced at his building. In 22B were Jock A and Jock B, who never emerged without sweats and a ball. Jock A had a girlfriend, and Jock B scratched his balls in a manner distinctively het. There was a guy in a wheelchair in the end unit. He was picked up by a van at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He was cute, if you found librarian-types cute—which Luke did. But he never looked in Luke’s direction. A hot, intellectual-looking yuppie in unit 27 topped Luke’s suspect list for a while. But one day Luke saw a young woman with a twin baby stroller emerge from the same flat. Not gay, then.
In town, the only places Luke went to regularly were the grocery store, a coffee shop called Diggits, and Chumley’s, a gay bar. He usually took his laptop to Diggits on Wednesday afternoons and worked there just for a change of scenery.
He went to Diggits at his usual time and surreptitiously cased the joint. The girl behind the counter had blue hair, a bored attitude, and a nametag that said “Jazzy.” She’d never even remotely flirted with him. There was an all-American busboy, but his eyes were so dull with disinterest that Luke figured he’d have to wear a little black dress and heels to get a reaction. Luke recognized a few regulars, but none of them seemed suspicious.
On Friday he hit Chumley’s. He’d decided when he moved here that he and Chumley’s should have a distant relationship. He’d sown his wild oats in San Francisco—or what passed for wild oats for a workaholic nerd. Here in the medium-sized university town of State College, Pennsylvania, Chumley’s was the first, and the last, of the gay scene. Luke was twenty-eight and ready to meet someone meaningful. He didn’t want a rep as a man-ho. So he’d gone to Chumley’s just a few times, when he’d been bat-shit stir-crazy and horny as a goat. He’d hooked up twice, but neither was anything more than a one-night stand.
Chumley’s was a mix of leather, business types, and college students. It was a friendly place that lacked the feelings of judgment that dogged the San Fran clubs, where wearing the wrong shoes could get you treated like pork rinds at a vegan potluck. Luke drank a beer and played detective for a while, but no one was ringing any bells on the suspect hotline.
He got a bit distracted by the heated glances of a man wearing a black leather jacket and a tight white T-shirt. His face was rough but attractive. Luke tried to come up with a good reason for him to be a suspect. But no, it was impossible to see Biker Boy with a dictionary, except possibly as a doorstop.
Then again, there were more things in life than finding his secret admirer.
An hour later, Luke found himself giggling his way up the stairs to his apartment with “James” in tow. The sex was fine, if perfunctory. The lonely stillness of his apartment after James left was depressing. It made Luke realize how unlikely it was that he’d attracted the attention of anyone with substance at Chumley’s. There were too many fishermen there and too much bait for any one small fry to make an impression. Enigma 3, Luke 0.
Saturday and Sunday Luke did the crosswords by “A Ecrivain” with anticipation, but he found no secret message. Then Monday’s edition came.
1 across – Gospel writer _ _ _ _
10 across – RV date? _ _ _ _ _ _
18 down – Fish Fri _ _ _ _ _ _
19 across – Time for bed _ _ _ _ _
20 across – He has less fun _ _ _ _ _ _
20 down – Two-wheeler _ _ _ _ _
35 across – A lonely feeling _ _ _
[Luke hookup Friday night brunet biker sad]
Luke stared at the paper. Suddenly the game wasn’t funny anymore. He’d been watched—or at least seen—the night he brought James home. That was both creepy and made him feel squicky, like he’d cheated on someone and been caught. But he hadn’t even met A. Ecrivain yet!
Luke tried to focus on work, but the crossword puzzle would float to his mind every so often and bring with it an awful feeling. He told himself he didn’t care. But he did. The lure of the puzzle had been great, the cleverness of it. And the fact that someone would do this for him and publish it in a national paper was so, well, flattering.
It had made him feel anticipation and… hope. He hated that.
Luke was not surprised when Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s papers held no message. But by the time he’d finished the Sunday crossword and found nothing in it, Luke knew he’d been abandoned. He’d driven off his admirer with his floozy ways.
Luke wanted to let it go. He couldn’t.
On Monday morning Luke called the Examiner and asked for the editor of the Entertainment section. “Hi. My name is Luke Schumaker. I’m trying to reach the person who designs your crossword puzzles, A. Ecrivain.”
“And why is that?”
Because they leave hidden messages for me would make Luke sound like an utter loon. “I’m a game designer for City Shark Games, and I thought that maybe he or she would be interested in doing some work for us.” It was a lie, but Luke could probably talk his boss into it, if need be.
“Hmm. I can’t give out that information. But send me an e-mail and I’ll forward it to him. Or you can send a letter to the paper to the attention of ‘A. Ecrivain.’ Those get sent to him unopened. He often gets fan mail and reader suggestions.”
Him. The crossword puzzle designer was a him. Luke felt a flush of hope again. Thing was a damned nuisance.
“Awesome. Thanks,” Luke said. “I’ll send a letter.”
Luke contemplated what to write. What if crossword puzzle man was really scary or hideous? The secret messages hadn’t been blatantly flirtatious but they weren’t not either. Finally Luke went with this:
I don’t know you but your puzzles have me dead curious. In fact, you’ve triggered the dreaded obsessive gamer in my soul. Can we meet for coffee? How about Diggits, 6 pm on Wed. the 20th?
Neutral ground and a tone that implied nothing beyond inquisitiveness. Filled with a heady anticipation, Luke mailed it.