Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Numbers Game

Sergeant Reeves sighed inwardly. It was going to be a long night.

He was always slightly nervous when partnered with Detective Inspector Moss. He was considered an excellent policeman, legendary within the Met. It was Moss that broke up the Ukrainian fraud ring, Moss who caught the St Swithin's Day murderer - only 17 days into his reign of terror, saving at least 23 more unnecessary deaths. Moss was the consummate police detective.

But he had his odd ways. And Reeves, sitting at the wheel of his standard-issue Mondeo, parked up in a lay-by, was stuck with him uhm-ing and ah-ing for an eight-hour stretch. The sound of Moss' pencil, scribbling away furiously, drifted over from the passenger seat.

"Sir," Reeves started, but trailed away to silence as Moss raised his grey eyes and coolly regarded his junior colleague.

"Please, Reeves, don't interrupt me. I meditate." He licked the end of his pencil and regarded the page in front of him.

"Sorry sir. It's just...well...I'm not sure why we're waiting out here. This case - no-one's under surveillance so far, are they?"

"No," replied the Detective Inspector absent- mindedly. "But we are carrying out important detective work nevertheless."

Reeves sighed once more, but audibly this time.

Without turning to address him, Moss continued, "You wonder why we're here, Sergeant Reeves, don't you? Well, everyone has to be somewhere. That's the nature of things." He pointed at the page in front of him, printed boxes with rows and columns, some filled with numbers.

"See that number seven in the top right-hand corner of the lower-left sub-square here? Now, to the untrained eye, that's just a number. But with the application of some simple rules, a little logic and years of practice, that one number tells me where other numbers will go. And where they won't. Plain as daylight. It's the key that unlocks the larger mystery."

"But sir," protested Reeves, "that's just Sudoku. Playing puzzles isn't going to get us closer to the truth. We've spent hundreds of man-hours trying to find a link between Woodward's gang and the jewellery shop robberies. This isn't helping."

Now it was Moss' turn to sigh. "Like I said, everyone - and everything - has to be somewhere. To solve this puzzle, we start by looking at the givens - those are the numbers already printed on it - although you might prefer to call them 'clues'. Then we go and cross-hatch. Or, in police parlance, we 'eliminate figures from our enquiries'. For instance, we know seven can't go there," he tapped a cell, "because it is already here. Because it definitely can't be in one place, we can see where it should be. Sometimes we deduce, sometimes we use trial and error."

Even while speaking, Moss constantly scanned the page, making notes and scribbling figures into the cells. Reeves gazed back along the road and counted the cars rumbling past.

"Got it!" Moss wrote the number five into the last remaining blank cell and folded the puzzle book away. Turning to Reeves, he smiled, "And I think we have an answer to our other mystery too. Woodward himself was involved. No-one else could have done it."

"What do you mean?" stuttered Reeves.

"Everyone has to be somewhere, Reeves. Woodward's alibi doesn't stack up. He physically couldn't have been at his club that night, like he told us. Think about it. There was a tube strike that night and he'd never have been able to made the journey from his home to central London in 20 minutes."

"So he's not being straight with us."

"And if I've taught you anything, Reeves, it's that sometimes you have to look at where someone isn't..."

"To see where they are! Brilliant, sir!" Reeves gunned the Mondeo's engine, and swung the car back towards town.

Moss waved the younger man's praise away. "It's really not difficult, Sergeant. Just a matter of putting figures into cells."

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