Disclaimer: Joss Whedon created the Buffyverse; Isaac Asimov created the Black Widowers.
And the Black Widowers are . . .
Geoffrey Avalon, patent attorney; James Drake, chemist; Mario Gonzalo, artist; Roger Halsted, junior high math teacher; Manny Rubin, mystery novelist; Thomas Trumbull, US government code expert.
Henry Jackson, waiter.
All seven are men in their late 50s to mid 60s.
X X X X X
It was the pre-dinner drink session at the monthly meeting of the Black Widowers. For once, all the members were at the Milano on time, and as usual, Manny Rubin was at the heart of a rather tumultuous argument.
"They're fun," Roger Halsted said. "Furthermore, they help students learn to think. What's the harm in that?"
"And I say," Manny Rubin interjected, "That these so-called lateral thinking puzzles are by and large just an exercise in cuteness."
"How so, Manny?" Geoffrey Avalon asked.
"Because. Look. They allegedly set up real-world situations. But how likely are these to ever really happen? Take one of the most famous ones. John Doe leaves his apartment every morning and rides all the way down to the lobby. Then, when he comes home, if there's no one else in the elevator, he gets off at the twelfth floor and walks up to the twentieth, but if there is he goes all the way back to his own floor. Why?"
"I know this one," Mario Gonzalo said, briefly interrupted from sketching the guest. "It's easy."
"It must be if you know it, Mario," Rubin snapped.
"Well, I don't," James Drake said. "What's the answer?"
"That's not how these questions are supposed to work, Jim," Avalon said. "You're supposed to ask yes or no questions until you guess the answer or give up."
"That could take all night," Thomas Trumbull protested.
"Or it would," Rubin said, "If I wasn't simply to give you the answer. It's -"
"Don't!" Drake and Trumbull protested simultaneously.
"I'm not going to sit here and answer your questions," Rubin said. "My point is that these are a waste of time."
"I'm inclined to disagree," Avalon said.
"You already know my view," Halsted said. "Jim? Tom? Mario?"
All three agreed with Halsted and Avalon. "Wait a second," Rubin said. "We haven't asked our guest yet." The guest in question, one Rupert Giles, had been engaged in a study of the Black Widowers' small collection of reference books. He was a brown-haired man in his early 40s who spoke with a distinctly British accent and had been introduced by Geoffrey Avalon as the proprietor of a small shop out in California.
"Well, Giles?" Avalon asked.
"I've had quite enough of that kind of puzzle in the past few days to last me a lifetime," Giles said. "So I'd definitely have to go along with Mr. Rubin on that one. And by the way, Mr. Doe is a midget."
Trumbull's and Drake's protests were forestalled by the appearance of Henry, the Black Widowers' imperturbable waiter, announcing, "Gentlemen, dinner is served."
The dinner in question began with an excellent Caesar salad, and was followed by a hearty seafood gumbo and a sumptuous main course: lobster and baked potato. After the salad had been cleared away, Rubin said, "So, on the subject of puzzles -"
"Out of order, Manny," Avalon said. "Host's privilege."
"But, Jeff -"
"You can handle the grilling if you want," Avalon said. "But nothing more until then."
"Fine." Rubin sulked, although said sulk didn't prevent him from eating every last scrap of food placed in front of him.
"So what kind of shop do you run, Mr. Giles?"
The man said, "Um, it's kind of a magic shop."
"You mean you're a conjurer?" Gonzalo asked.
Giles hemmed and hawed. "Not THAT type of magic."
It took a second for Giles' words to sink in; when they did, Rubin exploded with, "You don't mean to tell me you actually believe that nonsense."
"I do," Giles said tightly, then said to Avalon, "Geoff, you didn't tell me I was going to be insulted."
"You can't expect to make an absurd comment like that and have it go unchallenged," was Rubin's defense.
"Yes, Manny, but you could phrase it a damn sight more politely," Halsted said. "I'm inclined to agree with you in spirit if not in vehemence. So it's the other kind of magic?"
Keeping an eye tightly on Rubin, Giles said, "Yes."
"Mostly crystal balls and tarot cards for the gullible?" Gonzalo asked.
"A lot of that, yes," Giles said, "Although we don't take out advertisements specifying that. Those items are strictly cost; I refuse to make my living off people who don't know any better. But there are also items in there of genuine magical worth. Those I try to make a profit on."
"Say, Geoff, doesn't this count as grilling?" Drake asked.
"It most certainly does," came Avalon's rejoinder, "And Manny, you know better than that. Knock it off."
"Off-limits. One more word on the topic and Mario does the grilling."
Rubin shut up, grumpily.
The rest of the dinner proceeded smoothly, with topics ranging from contemporary television (nobody watched any except for Manny and Henry) to philosophy, but not a word more was said on either magic or puzzles until the last of the plates had been cleared and the brandy had been served. Them Avalon said, "I should know better than this, but Manny, if you would -"
"With pleasure." Rubin was practically rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "How do you justify your existence, Mr. Giles?"
"I've helped to save the world a number of times," came Rupert Giles' completely unexpected answer, "Most recently, last May when I helped to prevent a military experiment gone horribly awry from destroying a town in California."
Silence for a few moments, after which Roger Halsted said, "I thought you said you owned a magic shop."
"I do," Giles said. "Before that I was a school librarian."
"You said a number of times . . ." said a bemused Thomas Trumbull.
Giles shrugged. "If you want to know, I'll tell you," he said. "Geoff assured me that everything in these chambers was completely private - including the waiter -" upon hearing the reference, Henry bowed slightly - "So I can give you details, if you'd like. But I'll wager you won't believe me."
"You have that right," Rubin said. "Jeff, where did you dig this guy up?"
Unperturbed, Avalon said, "I'm a friend of the family's. And rest assured, that no matter what Giles may tell you, it is true. Of this I have no doubt."
Gonzalo said, "You were there when he singlehandedly saved the world last May?" His town was as disbelieving as Rubin's was.
"I never said singlehandedly," Giles protested mildly.
"No," Avalon said. "But, gentlemen, I know the basics of the situation Giles handles. I can vouch for his integrity. And," he said, glaring at Rubin. "His sanity."
A brief period of quiet was broken unexpectedly when Trumbull said, "Maggie Walsh. The Initiative."
Stunned, Giles could only nod as he said, "Adam."
A puzzled James Drake said, "Tom? What is this?"
"In my . . . position with the government," Trumbull said, "I have occasion at times to learn things that do not get out into the general public. You all know that. Well, 'The Initiative' was a horribly planned army scientific experiment under the direction of Colonel Walsh, a trained psychologist. It ended very badly - dozens of soldiers died. Heads rolled up and down the chain of command, well into the Department of Defense. I was part of the committee that was to assign the blame."
"And did Mr. Giles have anything to do with this?" Gonzalo asked.
"I don't recall the name," Trumbull admitted, "But there's no way Mr. Giles would know any of this - it was heavily classified. The usual rules apply double to this - mention it outside the club and it could be my job."
"Not a word," Avalon promised. "Manny? If you'd like to get on with the grilling?"
"Well, since Mr. Giles' bona fides have more or less been established," Rubin said, in a tone that clearly indicated he didn't believe a word but wasn't interested in arguing the point in the face of so much opposition, "Let's move on to puzzles."
"If we must," Giles said tiredly.
"Earlier," Rubin said, ignoring Giles' comments, "You said words to the effect of being sick and tired of puzzles. Or words to that effect. What brought this attitude on?"
Giles harummphed. "It's kind of silly, really," he said. "I wouldn't want to burden you -" Henry came up and offered to refill Giles' brandy; he accepted with alacrity.
"Burden away," Avalon sighed. "Lately it seems all we do is sit around and solve puzzles anyway."
"Very well then," Giles said. "Recently an 'old friend' of mine sent me information about a threat to one of my friends' lives. And for once, this friend was not himself responsible."
"By 'old friend' I take it you mean bitter enemy?" Drake asked.
"Exactly. To torture me, however, he refused to tell me directly who it was; he left a grid and five clues, said that the person in question had a five-letter name, and said that the grid held a final clue to the victims' identity."
"Difficult clues, I assume?" Trumbull said.
Giles put the brandy down on the table - a trifle harder than necessary. "I only wish. No, they were ridiculously easy. The problem is, each clue leads to a different person."
"What were the clues?"
"_____ St. Marie, folksinger."
"Buffy." This from Rubin.
"______, hope and charity."
"Faith," Gonzalo said.
"The life of ______."
"Riley," Halsted said.
Trumbull said, "Angel."
"_____ Jones, or a large nail."
It took a second; then Drake said, "Spike."
"And there you have it," Giles said. "It's one of those five."
"If this man is such an enemy, how do you know he's not just jerking you around?" Gonzalo asked. "Couldn't he simply be lying to make you sweat?"
"Ethan is a joyful servant of chaos, true," Giles admitted, "But would you take the risk that he was lying? Moreover, Ethan tends to like to watch the tumult he causes at close range, and he's nowhere within 500 miles of Sunnydale."
"Do you know anyone else with a five-letter name?" Avalon asked.
"Him, myself, and a woman named Joyce. But none of us fit the clues."
"Could the five clues lead to a sixth name?" Trumbull said.
Giles snorted. "That's what I've been bashing my brains about for the last few days. When Geoff called me and invited me to the dinner I thought maybe some time away could focus my thoughts."
"Well, then," Rubin said, clapping his hands together briskly. "Let's see if we can focus them for you. What can you tell us about these five individuals?"
As Giles rolled his eyes, Avalon said, "Just a thumbnail sketch is okay for now, Giles. If we need any for details, we'll ask."
Giles nodded and said, "Very well," and spent the next ten minutes giving brief character descriptions of the people in question.
"Any thoughts?" Rubin prompted.
After a brief period of silence, Halsted said, "Well, I'll be the sacrificial lamb this month. Another way to fill the blank in front of Jones would be Indiana, as in the movies. Didn't you say Riley Finn was from the Midwest?"
"From Iowa, though," Giles said.
"Well," Halsted said. "It was just a thought."
"And you might be on the right track there, Roger," James Drake said. "Let's see if we can make one of the names fit all of the clues."
Avalon rumbled, "The devil can be said to be a fierce enemy of faith."
"Okay, then, let's work with that name," Gonzalo said. "A monk's life is frequently said to be a life of faith."
Another awkward period of silence. Then Rubin said, "I hate to ruin a good idea, but I can't think of a single well-known person named Faith Jones. For that matter, I'm kind of hard-pressed to come up with a way to twist the definition of Faith into 'large nail."
"Her way of speaking was pointed," Avalon said, "But that is a bit of a stretch."
"More than a bit, Jeff," Drake said.
"You see what my problem is," Giles said. "I've tried exactly what you're trying now and I couldn't find more than three definitions to fit any one of the names. The sticking point seems to be the blank in front of St. Marie."
"True enough," Trumbull said. "Buffy St. Marie is the only folksinger I can think of with that last name."
Gonzalo said, "Well then, how about the pattern of the names? If you arranged them differently -"
"I can make the first letters spell out the word 'barfs,' Giles said, interrupting, "But none of the people in question is noted for excessive nausea. Nor does such low humor fit Ethan's character."
"What about the other letters?" Manny Rubin asked.
Trumbull said, "UPINA; FILNI; FKEET; and YEYLH. As far as I know none of them even anagram into words."
"And the diagonals?" Halsted said.
"Aren't worth bothering with," Giles answered. "It wouldn't suit Ethan's sense of whimsy to have me laboriously rearranging words. If it's wordplay it's going to be something fairly obvious."
"Well, then," Avalon said, "I hate to admit it, but I'm stumped."
There were general nods of assent all the way around, and Giles said, "Well, thanks for the effort, anyway, gentlemen - and even more so for the dinner. It was delicious. I suppose I shall have to puzzle this out on my own."
"Wait a second, Mr. Giles," Gonzalo said. "We haven't asked Henry yet."
"Henry?" Giles said. "Well, help is help. Have you any ideas?"
"I was wondering as to the exact wording of the note, actually," Henry said.
"Well, I don't have it with me; but I believe it was, 'Ah, Ripper. Recently I've discovered a magical plot against the life of an acquaintance of yours and I thought it only fair to give you a heads-up. Below is a grid, and clues to five five-letter names. The grid holds a clue to which one of your acquaintances is the intended victim. Happy hunting, Ripper old boy.' I may have a few trivial words off, but that's more or less it."
"Hmmm." Henry frowned. "Tell me, sir, were any of these people in or associated with the Air Force?"
"Riley Finn was in the army; Buffy dated him." Giles said. "That's as close as any of them get, to my knowledge. Why?"
"I was just wondering if the phrase 'five by five' meant anything. If not -" But Rupert Giles had risen from his seat like he'd just sat on a nail. "So it does mean something?"
"You could say that," Giles said, thunderstruck. "It's one of Faith's favorite phrases." He sat back down.
"Okay, Henry, out with it," Rubin said, "How'd you come up with that one?"
"Actually, it came out of the discussion you were having earlier about lateral thinking puzzles. The wording on the note Mr. Giles got disturbed me. It said that the grid held the clue. Not the answers, the grid. This got me to thinking that, perhaps, the answers were a red herring."
"And the grid in question is five squares across by five down," Giles said. "Good lord. Why didn't I think of it earlier?"
Henry said, "Don't blame yourself, sir. You said yourself that this fellow Ethan likes to torture you. What better way of doing it than providing false clues - while making sure the answer lies in plain sight all along?"
"If you'll excuse me," Giles said, "I need to make a phone call." Henry pointed him in the direction of the Milano's telephone and he hurried off.
"You've done it again, Henry," Avalon said.
Bowing slightly, Henry said, "I maintain that my success is still the result of you gentlemen carefully eliminating all of the false trails. Once they're gone - what is left but the truth?"