Excerpt: Sudden Death Sudoku

Chapter 1

“A little higher.” Kate MacDonald looked up at the banner Harry Perkins was pinning to the black curtain of the VFW Hall stage. “A little lower.”

Harry twisted on the ladder and gave her a look. “Kate.”

Kate made a face back at him. “Try five point five centimeters lower.”

Harry grinned. “That’s better.”

“And don’t fall off the ladder.”

He lowered the banner and pinned it to the curtain, then climbed down from the ladder and stood back to look at his handiwork. He turned to Kate, his face flush with excitement.

“Wicked,” he said and grinned at her.

“Wicked,” she agreed.

The First Annual P.T. Avondale Sudoku Challenge. Kate just wished Professor Avondale were here to see it. But he’d been murdered six months before, leaving Kate a derelict puzzle museum—and Harry.

A fourteen year old orphan, Harry had been the professor’s apprentice. Now, he was Kate’s apprentice. He was tall for his age, all arms and legs with a smattering of freckles across his nose and an IQ that bordered on genius.

They stood together admiring the banner, though Kate was looking through a haze of unshed tears. She thought maybe Harry was, too.

She was excited, sad, and nervous as hell. What had begun as a one day local Saturday fundraiser had mushroomed into a three day event that drew interest from hordes of Sudoku fans up and down the east coast.

“I just hope we can pull this off.”

Harry gave her another one of his looks. “Hope isn’t exactly part of the scientific method.”

“Don’t I know it.” Kate was a mathematician, not a event planner. And she was afraid that any method beyond the scientific was beyond her grasp.

But wasn’t that why she’d left her job at the Institute for Theoretical Mathematics to return home to Granville? She’d always wanted to be a people person, and when the professor bequeathed the puzzle museum to her, she knew what she had to do.

The hall doors opened, bringing the buzz of participants waiting in the vestibule before it closed again.

Chief of Police Brandon Mitchell strode toward them.

“Shit,” Harry said under his breath.

Kate raised an eyebrow at him.

“Sorry. I meant. Oops.” He started to ease toward the ladder. One look from the chief and he stopped dead.

Kate shook her head and turned to meet the devil head on. She gave him her best smile. “Chief Mitchell. How are things going?”

He scowled back at her. “They’d be going a lot better if I had the personnel to control this crowd.”

Kate gritted her teeth. She knew he’d had to borrow officers from the county sheriff’s office to augment his five man police department for the weekend. He’d even called up old Benjamin Meany to act as crossing guard. And it still wasn’t enough.

But that was hardly her fault.

“And it would be better still if a certain eighth grader hadn’t skipped the last three periods of school today.”

Harry stepped behind Kate., even though hewas taller than Kate; Brandon Mitchell towered over them both.

Kate frowned at the chief. “You mean he didn’t . . .”

“No, he didn’t.”

“Oh.”

“Oh,” the chief mimicked.

They both turned to Harry, who shrugged guiltily. “I knew you wouldn’t let me skip school. Nothing important was going on anywawy. No tests or anything. And Kate needed me.”

Chief Mitchell turned his wrath on Kate.

“I didn’t condone it,” she said quickly, “ but I do need him here. I’ll call the school first thing Monday and explain about the absence. And Harry will make up any work he’s missed. Won’t you, Harry?”

“Sure.”

No hardship there. Harry was a near-genius. For him, school was not much more than baby sitting. Kate could relate. She’d spent her own adolescence as a misunderstood geek.

“That isn’t the point,” the chief said. “I need to know where you are.”

Harry jutted his chin out. “You could have called my cell.”

The chief’s dark eyes turned darker.

Kate touched his arm. She’d finagled him into letting Harry live with him instead of going to foster care. He was chafing under the responsibility.

“I understand. It won’t happen again.”

The door opened. Kate’s Aunt Pru stood in the doorway, tall and thin, dressed in a red tournament sweatshirt, white knit slacks and navy blue running shoes, in keeping with the red, white and blue decorations on loan from the Fourth of July committee. Even her hair was blue, but it had been blue since Kate returned to Granville six months ago. The reason was still an enigma.

“Great. Just great.” The chief stepped away from Kate.

Kate’s hand fell to her side.

Pru scanned the room, zeroed in on the police chief, and sprinted toward them. An inveterate lady, the only thing that could make Pru move like a race car was Brandon Mitchell.

“We’re ready to open the doors,” she said, pointedly ignoring the chief.

“Already?” Kate barely squeaked out the word as a jolt of pre performance jitters struck without warning. She took a deep breath. She only had to give the welcoming address and introduce Tony Kefalas whom she hired to emcee the weekend.

After that all she had to do was worry about everything else.

“It’s seven-forty-five.”

“Is Tony here?”

“Ginny Sue drove him over from the inn. He’s waiting backstage.”

Kate swallowed. “Okay. Tell everyone to . . uh . . .”

“Man their battle stations,” the chief suggested.

Pru pursed her lips at him.

Kate nodded. “Let them in.”

Pru hurried away, shooting a look of disapproval at the chief over her shoulder.

Kate ran her tongue over suddenly dry lips and looked around. Everything was ready.

Except Kate. She smoothed her hair. But her normally wayward curls were already gelled back into barrettes. She straightened the jacket of her black wool pants suit. Looked down at her black sling-back heels.

“You’ll be fine.” Chief Mitchell gave her something like a smile and strode away.

Right, thought Kate. She’d be fine.

The back doors opened. Red-shirted volunteers took their places around the room. People rushed in to fill the cordoned-off spectator area at the back of the hall. The doors to the overhead gallery opened and those seats were soon filled.

Kate took a deep breath; ran through the litany of tips she’d learned from a government speech coach. Relax. Be gracious. Move your eyes around the room so they think you’re talking to each one of them personally.

As she reached the stairs that led to the stage, she saw Tony step from the door to back stage. Remember to breathe. He winked at her. Her foot caught on the lip of the first step and she stumbled. And for heaven’s sake. Don’t fall up the stairs to the scaffold—uh, the stage.

She regained her balance and managed to make it to the podium without further mishap. But when she looked over the sea of people, she panicked. Every seat was occupied. Competitors stood at the back of the room waiting for their level to be called. Rows and rows of rectangular tables filled the huge space in between.

Kate cleared her throat. This just never got any easier. The sound rumbled over the microphone and she winced. “Welcome to the First Annual P. T. Avondale Sudoku Challenge. I’m glad to see so many of you braved the elements to come here this weekend. Snow is predicted, but we New Hampshireites know how to deal with snow.”

Laughter.

They thought she was joking. But she knew how easily a forecast of six to twelve inches could turn into a blizzard. She was keeping her fingers and toes crossed that it didn’t happen this weekend. To heck with the scientific method; she’d stoop to anything that would insure a successful weekend.

“The tournament is named in honor of one of Granville’s most illustrious citizens, Professor P.T. Avondale, the owner and curator of the Avondale Puzzle Museum until his death last year.” She had to blink rapidly before she could go on. “The professor was my mentor and friend. I know he would be pleased to see so many Sudoku fans here tonight.”

She took another breath; smiled at the back wall.

“I know you’re all anxious to get started, so without further ado, I’d like to introduce the moderator and emcee for the weekend. A man whose reputation precedes him . . .” This brought another round of laughter. “For those of you who may be new to the puzzle circuit, Tony Kefalas is twice Grand Master . . .” Kate listed the specifics of Tony’s career, then gestured toward Tony.

Applause broke out as the renown puzzle master took the stage.

Tony was several inches taller than Kate, about five-ten, with a slight build and black hair going to gray at the temples. He was dressed impeccably in a tweed sports jacket, tie and vee neck sweater. A large gold medal hung from his jacket lapel by a wide purple ribbon, his latest Grand Master award.

“Thanks, Kate,” Tony said, taking the microphone. “It’s a pleasure to be here tonight.”

Kate started to ease away.

Tony grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her back to the podium. “Kate was very generous in her accolades, but what she forgot to tell you is that not only is she the curator of the Avondale Puzzle Museum that is sponsoring this weekend, but she is also the 2004 Eastern Level A Sudoku champion.”

Polite applause.

“And the only reason she didn’t take nationals is that she didn’t attend due to delivering a paper to the government’s Institute of Theoretical Mathematics, where she was resident genius before leaving to dedicate her time to a wider range of puzzles.”

Kate blushed. She’d left that life far behind. It was hard enough being accepted by her home town after growing up as a child genius and local geek. She didn’t need for them, or her, to remember just how much she didn’t fit in.

Only she did fit in. This weekend was evidence of the town’s support.

Individual spaces for the contestants were marked off by yellow cardboard screens. Each place was equipped with several pencils and a bottle of water, all donated by local businesses.

Red, white, and blue banners festooned the walls and stage, draped the windows and the spectators gallery. Above the stage, the numbers of a giant digital clock, paid for by Marian Teasdale, president of the museum, blinked red.

Rayette’s Cafe was running the concession stand downstairs. The VFW had donated the use of the hall.

The event was a town effort and Kate appreciated it more than she knew how to express.

As soon as the applause began to wane, she scurried off the stage. Tony slipped on a pair of black rimmed reading glasses and began outlining the rules for the competition.

“ . . . two semi-final rounds in all divisions. The top five winning times will advance to the finals tomorrow afternoon. All scores will be compiled to establish team rankings. Team finalists will compete in the Sudoku Smackdown, Sunday at twelve. That will give everyone time to attend the Presbyterian Church service across the street to offer up prayers for victory.”

A ripple of laughter.

“Junior divisions will be held here starting at ten o’clock tomorrow morning, to be followed by—and this is my favorite part—a complimentary sticky bun and coffee breakfast, donated by Rayette’s Bakery and Café on Main Street. Be sure to visit the café on your time off. I’ve been told, she bakes the best sticky buns in town.”

“In the county.”

“In the state!”

Tony grinned. “You heard it from the folks whose motto is Live free to eat sticky buns or die.”

Cheers and whistles and laughter at his play on the New Hampshire state motto.

Kate felt a little envious. Tony was so good at this. Relaxed and funny. And he kept things moving along. She had no people skills at all.

“And when you’ve enjoyed lunch at one of the lovely restaurants in town, please join us for a Saturday afternoon of workshops. Sudoku for Rookies, Taming the Monster Sudoku, and Breaking into Codes and Ciphers, a special presentation by Granville’s own super spy, Harry Perkins.”

Across the room, Harry stood at the wall, beaming with pride.

“As always, please be totally quiet during each round. And now, Level D competitors, please take your places.”

A volunteer unlatched the cord that separated the competition area from the spectators and there was a rush toward the rows of tables. Chairs scraped along the floor as competitors chose their seats. Within seconds, the tables were fully occupied. The air was charged with anticipation and concentration. Volunteers began placing paper puzzles face down on the tables before each competitor. A hush fell over the hall. The red dots of the digital timer sprang to life.

“The time allowance for the first round is twenty minutes.” Tony waited for the volunteers to return to the sides of the hall and the adjudicators to take their places at the end of each row of tables.

“On your mark . . .Get set . . .Go.”

Papers rustled as they were turned over and the contestants bent over their work. The clock began to subtract the seconds.

Kate let out a sigh of relief. They were on their way. She tiptoed along the side of the hall toward the entrance door, careful to keep her heels from clicking on the wooden floor. Even the smallest noise could be distracting to nervous puzzle solvers.

She eased the door open and slipped out to the vestibule where Alice Hinckley and five other members of the Granny Activist Brigade were manning the registration tables.

Alice looked up from her folding chair behind the A-F sign. Her rosy paper-thin skin crinkled around her eyes as she gave Kate a thumbs up.

Alice was small, dainty, and as fragile as a sledge hammer. She lived next door to the museum and had organized her friends to block the proposed razing of the historic district in order to build an outlet mall, hence the Granny Activist Brigade, affectionately and sometimes, not so affectionately, known as the GABs.

“Haven’t seen this many people in this old hall since the armistice.”

“Had more at the Centennial,” said Pru from her place behind the M-P sign.

“Armistice,” Alice said.

“Centennial,” Pru answered.

“Well, it sure is a big crowd,” said Tanya Jones, caught in the middle at G-L. “Gonna have to get a larger hall for next year.”

At the end of the table, Carrie Blaine smiled at Kate, oblivious of the argument. She must have her hearing aid turned off.

Smart woman, thought Kate.

“Maybe the Presbyterian fellowship hall,” Pru said.

“Not big enough,” said Alice. “Gonna have to rent one of those big hotels.”

“That’s all the way out on the highway. People don’t want to stay out there.”

“Well, they don’t—”

Kate groaned. “Let’s just get through this weekend.”

“Don’t you worry,” Alice said. “The GABS are on the job.”

Kate knew she could depend on them. Their efforts had been so successful—if a little unorthodox—in stopping the mall construction, they’d decided to take up other causes. And the GABS hadn’t stopped since.

They’d organized a fund raiser for the Valley Assisted Living Home and had several code violations fixed while they were at it.

They’d been instrumental in helping the puzzle museum get back on its feet after years of neglect. They even took turns manning the reception desk when Kate had fired the last secretary. They were doing so well that Kate hadn’t bothered to find a new one.

“Thanks you ladies, very much.”

“Honey, we’re not done yet,” said Tanya, shaking her tight curls. “You just take it easy. You’ve been working enough for all of us.”

Kate smiled. She’d take it easy when this was over and they broke even financially, and no one had slipped on the ice and sued, and they didn’t get stranded by the snow plows, and they didn’t run out of coffee or toilet paper. She’d relax when the last trophy had been handed out, and they were waving the last competitor good bye.

“Katie,” Aunt Pru said. “You’re getting frown lines.”

Kate automatically relaxed her face. Now if the cold front would just hang over the Great Lakes until Sunday afternoon, her life would be complete.

The front door opened and a group of late registrants rushed inside, bringing a gust of artic wind and a plethora of snow flakes.

“Oh no,” groaned Kate. “It’s already started.”

“Well, heck,” Pru exclaimed. “I hope that snot-potty chief of police remembered to get the snow plows ready.”

Alice nodded. “Be just like him to forget.”

Kate sighed. The only thing the two life-long friends didn’t argue about was Brandon Mitchell.

“Well, what do you expect. He’s from Boston. Ayuh.”

“Prudence McDonald,” Elmira Swyndon exclaimed from across the wide foyer, where she was explaining the finer points of coat checking to two teenage girls. “Even Boston has rules and regulations.”

“And they should keep them to themselves,” said Pru. “Ayuh. And keep that so-and-so of a police chief, too.”

“For shame, Pru.” Elmira tightened her lips and turned back to her trainees.

Chief Mitchell did have a few supporters in town. Elmira was one of them. Of course, she was also his dispatcher and Gal Friday. Kate was one of his suporters, too, though she’d never let him—or Aunt Pru—know it.

He’d been police chief since moving to Granville from Boston a year before, but he was still constantly setting off the locals with his by-the-book law enforcement. By-the-book was not the Granville way.

They’d eased up on him for a while after he solved the professor’s murder. But as soon as he issued his next speeding ticket, it was business as usual. An outsider. Not one of us.

And so it would always be.

“I’ll be downstairs in the canteen, if anyone needs me,” Kate said and headed for the stairs.

The downstairs was half as large as the hall itself. There was a wet bar and large counter for food service. Four green upholstered booths lined one wall. The rest of the area was filled with small round tables, that Kate recognized from the bakery. High on the wall behind the bar, two small rectangular windows gave a view of the parking lot asphalt. Asphalt that was already dusted with snow, Kate noticed.

Bathrooms were located down the hallway. Across from them, a large room was filled with vendors selling an array of Sudoku theme novelties and clothing; ties, sweaters, baseball caps, tote bags, coffee mugs, pencils. All covered with black and white grids and numbers, slogans and graphics. Sudoku Princess. Do U Sudoku? Got Sudoku? For A Good Time Call Sudoku. Only Sissies Use Pencils.

The canteen area was crowded. Most of the tables were occupied. Knots of people stood drinking coffee and catching up on puzzle news. There was a steady stream in and out of the vendor’s room.

Kate spotted Erik Ingersoll and Jason Elks sitting at one of the booths and went over to say hello. They were both members of the museum board and the Granville Arcane Masters Club. Both would be competing later that night in the A Division preliminary.

They didn’t notice her at first. They were deep in conversation. Erik’s bulk was wedged into the booth, and he was talking so vehemently that his cheeks wobbled. Jason leaned across the table, his bald pate reflecting the overhead light as he nodded vigorously to what Erik was saying.

Kate groaned inwardly. What could possibly be wrong already?

She stopped at the booth and waited for them to see her.

Finally Jason looked up. “Katie. There’s something we must tell you.” He scooted over in the booth and motioned her to sit down.

Kate slid in beside him. “What is it? Is something wrong?”

Jason looked furtively around. Erik planted his chubby arms on the table and wheezed asthmatically.

“Don’t look now,” Jason said.

“Where?” asked Kate.

“Don’t look,” Erik reiterated between gasps for air.

Kate was beginning to worry about him. He was only in his mid sixties but his weight and a tendency toward asthma concerned her.

“There’s a man here,” Jason said. “He’s over there, standing with that group of people.”

Just then laughter erupted from a group in the far corner. Kate ducked her chin and glanced in their direction.

Three men and two women stood close together. The center of attention was a tall man, in his early forties, Kate estimated. He was wearing a black turtleneck and brown corduroy slacks. He was good-looking with gold blond hair and a classic profile that would set off her Aunt Pru’s husband search alarms. Pru had made it her life’s work to find Kate a husband—a local man, with job security.

Kate automatically searched the room for her aunt, hoping against hope that she hadn’t spotted the Adonis in the corner. She’d set him up with Kate before he could run to the nearest exit. Hopefully he’d just flown in from Anchorage or Latvia and would soon fly out again.

Then she saw the willowy blonde standing next to him. Really close to him, molding her body to his. It was a very impressive body in its spandex pants and tight velour sweater. Kate breathed a sigh of relief. Even Aunt Pru would figure that one out.

The man was already taken. One less thing to worry about.

“Katie, are you listening?”

Kate turned her attention back to Jason and Erik.

“That’s him. The one in the black turtleneck.” Jason pursed his lips. “You have to disqualify him”

Kate looked back to the big blond. “Why?”

“Don’t you know who he is?”

“No. Should I?”

“I suppose not. Before your time.” Erik took out his handkerchief to mop his forehead.

Jason moved closer to Kate and spoke in an undertone. “That’s Gordon Lott. He’s a liar and a cheat and he shouldn’t be allowed to participate.”

Kate looked back at the man, her analysis of him suddenly tainted by Jason and Erik’s dislike. There was something a little too slick about him. She stopped herself. Opinion didn’t count. Just facts.

“Can you prove this?” she asked even though she knew she couldn’t disqualify him without catching him in the act of cheating. It was their word against his and she certainly wasn’t going to accuse him of cheating on hearsay.

“About ten years ago he petitioned to join the Arcane Masters. He lives over to Hanover. A history professor. We voted him in. He had impressive skills.” Jason shook his head. “We didn’t catch on right away. He was brilliant. Or so we thought.”

“But he was taking liberties that the Arcane Masters don’t allow.” Erik tightened his lips so hard that they disappeared.

“What kind of liberties?”

“One night he came early and P.T. found him looking over the sequential we were to solve at the meeting. Lott, of course, played the innocent. Said he’d just come in and was moving the puzzles so that no one would be tempted to peek. He finished first by several seconds.”

Damning perhaps, but not proven, thought Kate. Could there be a little jealousy in the men’s attitude toward Lott? It was times like these she longed for the predictability of mathematics. The one thing you could say for numbers: they didn’t get jealous and they didn’t spread gossip.

“And when we participated in the Harvard Brain Trust Alumni and Friends puzzle weekend, I personally saw him sneak a calculator into the event.” Erik snorted. “He said he hadn’t realized it was still in his pocket. It was outrageous. And an embarrassment for P.T. and myself who were alumni of the Brain Trust. Fortunately it was confiscated before the games began, but nonetheless humiliating.

“As soon as we returned to Granville we blackballed him from the Arcane Masters and sent a letter to the Brain Trust apprising them of the situation. We’ve heard more scuttlebutt since then. The man has no moral fiber.”

“We realize this is all anecdotal,” Jason said. “But we can’t afford to have the integrity of our first Sudoku Tournament in question. We’re not the only people that know about his reputation for cheating.”

“Yes,” Kate said. “But we can’t disqualify him without there being a valid—and provable—cause.”

The two older men began to protest.

“I’m sorry. But surely you understand that. I’ll post extra observers near his place at the table to keep an eye on him. At the first sign of cheating, we’ll ask him to leave. Maybe he’s turned over a new leaf,” she added hopefully.

Erik snorted so loudly that he choked. Jason leaned over the table and slapped him on the back.

“It’s the best I can do, until, or if, he’s caught red-handed. Now, why don’t you two forget about it and let me handle this. We don’t want your concentration less than stellar. We have the Hanover and the Cambridge, Mass teams to outscore.”

Erik threw up his hands. “See. I told you she wouldn’t do anything. We’ll have to take care of this ourselves.”

Kate was filled with an awful foreboding as she imagined Erik and Jason coming to cuffs with Gordon Lott.

“Please, gentleman. Don’t do anything to jeopardize the Challenge.”

“That’s just what we’re trying to protect. Come along, Jason. We have work to do. Excuse us, Kate.”

Kate reluctantly scooted off the bench to let Jason out, then watched the two men walk away. Gordon Lott was gone and the rest of his group had dispersed. Assuming that Lott would be participating at the top-tier A level competition, she would have a good hour to glean some solid information about him. She hurried back upstairs and checked the registration forms.

Gordon Lott. Age, thirty-seven. Occupation, History professor. Resident of Hanover, New Hampshire. He was entered in both the single A level and the team competition as a member of the Hanover Puzzle Club.

Kate knew a couple of the other members. She could talk to them, but it was obvious they had no qualms about Lott’s honesty. And she didn’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest. Not if she didn’t have to.

When she stepped back into the hall, several of the competitors had already finished their puzzles. Runners moved through the aisles collecting puzzles. Ginny Sue Bright stood by the blackboard, stage left, and wrote down the names and times as each competitor finished.

The blackboard was on loan from the grammar school. Thanks to Ginny Sue who was a fourth grade teacher there. She was Kate’s age and they’d both gone to Valley High School, but they’d only become friends since Kate had moved back to Granville. Ginny Sue was likable, with hazel eyes and a cloud of reddish brown hair that that Kate envied. She was also a member of the museum board and Kate’s right hand woman for the tournament.

As Kate watched, two more hands went up, and two volunteers in red sweat shirts hurried to mark the completion time and take their puzzles. Their names were added to the list.

Time was called and the few players who still hadn’t finished reluctantly turned in their sheets.

Tony came back on the mike, exhorting the newbies not to lose heart. “There’s always next year. Isn’t that right, Kate?”

Kate jumped, then waved from the doorway. All she wanted was to get through this weekend. She’d worry about next year later.

Talking broke out while the puzzles were taken backstage where a panel of scorers would check them for accuracy.

When the official scores were finalized, Ginny Sue handed the results to Tony, who announced the finalists and handed out tournament certificates.

The tables were cleared of pencils and empty water bottles; new water bottles and freshly sharpened pencils took their place. The Level C participants took their places at the tables.

Ginny Sue came to stand beside Kate. “Everything’s going really well, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely,” Kate said. “Thanks to everyone’s hard work. And yours especially. I haven’t seen you all day. And I’ve been looking for you to thank you for driving to Manchester to pick Tony up.”

“No problem.” Ginny Sue smiled and looked toward the podium. “He’s very nice.”

“Yes, he is,” Kate agreed. “And a sweetheart to help us out like this. He agreed to do it for expenses, no fee. But I was about to break out in hives worrying that the airport would be snowed in and his flight wouldn’t be able to land.”

“Not many more flights will be coming in tonight. They already had a foot of snow when we left the airport. You can stop worrying. He’s here and the worst thing that can happen now is that he gets stuck in Granville for a few days.”

 

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