The Case of the Dangerous Game

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Rip enjoys relaxing with a hot cup of tea and the latest mystery novel.

It was half past midnight by the time Holmes and I arrived at the scene of the crime. The body had been removed, but the rest of the scene was intact. Uniformed officers made way as we entered the manor's cavernous study, where a captain greeted us eagerly.

"This seems to be the source of the dispute," he observed, gesturing toward the square mahogany table by the fireplace. "Our victim must have been expecting a friendly game, but unfortunately for him, his visitor had nothing of the sort in mind." From the surface of the table, strange words peered back at us, many unrecognizable to me as any tongue to which I'd ever been exposed. On a neighboring pedestal, a bag lay collapsed in a wrinkled heap.

"What is all this?" I asked Holmes. "Can you make sense of these peculiar arrangements? The letters are the usual, but the words aren't any language I know."

"Peculiar!" he scoffed. "Why, these are all normal English words. Did you never play this game as a child, Watson?"

"Of course I did," I replied, miffed at the condescension. "Well, then what's that first word there, starting from the center square and going to the right? Surely no word I know."

"That? A type of beam," he mused, taking one of the score sheets from the table, on which both players' moves were recorded. "And you can rearrange those letters to get a word for certain cranial nerves."

"And our victim's reply?" I asked, picking up the other score sheet. "I see he used all seven of his tiles."

"A crucial word in this game!" he exclaimed. "For in its singular form," he explained, "it can also be spelled as the alphabetically first word containing a Q but no U. And the next one," he continued, pointing to a word placed vertically, "means the killing of a prophet."

"This next I know," I interrupted swiftly, eying a word that stretched nearly to the bottom of the board. "I remember it from my marine biology days," I announced with pride. "A sea snail once used to make purple dye. And this next one, intersecting at the R and with a blank for an L, is a flower that follows the sun."

"Indeed," Holmes nodded. "Add a V and rearrange the letters in that word to get Stan Laurel's birthplace. And you know the next word too, I presume?"

"A Roman nickname," I answered. "Like the one for the emperor named after his little boots."

"Correct," agreed Holmes, "though not like the one for the orator who shared his name with chickpeas."

"This next one I'm lost on though," I sighed, referring to the first word to reach the bottom of the board.

"Another name for the river rat," Holmes explained. "And after that, another crucial one to know for this game," he observed, pointing to a word that availed itself of a previously played I. "Remove the first letter, repeat the final letter, or do both -- all are spellings of the same word."

I marveled at Holmes's knowledge of the arcane and wondered whether there wasn't a better use for his time than memorizing alternative spellings of words. But the next one I was honestly curious about. A six-letter enigma, our victim's opponent had been forced to use a blank, since all the tiles for a particular letter had been exhausted. "This couldn't be English," I conjectured. "A loanword from Greek, perhaps?"

"On the contrary, my dear Watson, it's about as English as it gets! The prefix you see there is pure Middle English, indicating a past participle. One of the rare words of its form that have survived to modernity."

"The next one I know," I offered, happy to be back in the realm of flora and fauna. "A plant genus. And change the second letter to form a wild goat."

"You do seem to know your animals," Holmes commended.

"Yes, I've always had a bit of an excessive interest in them," I admitted. "This next word may even apply," I laughed, pointing out yet another occasion where our visitor had used all seven tiles, this time horizontally across the board.

The following word, which saw our victim playing three tiles vertically and forming only one word, Holmes quickly explained as another important Q but no U word, and the one after it I recognized as a word for rootlike structures. "If there had been an open S on the board," Holmes proclaimed, "our visitor might have played a word meaning perspiration instead."

The next play, which ran to one of the board's edges, was a sugar, and it formed a second word too. "Replace the E in the sugar with a U," Holmes added, "and you can rearrange those letters to get a word for women who assist in childbirth."

The subsequent word was a common interjection that formed four words crossing it. "Change the last two letters both to Es," I noted, "and it could still be played in the same spot."

At last, we arrived at the final word played. "You can see from their score sheets that our victim's guest marked this play invalid," remarked the captain, whom I was amazed to find still with us.

"But that five-letter word, extending to the left edge of the board, is perfectly usual!" I objected. "It means cool and uninvolved. I must use it to describe Holmes here twice a day."

"You must consider the play as a whole," Holmes observed. "And I think you'll find that this move isn't the only one they disagreed on. Look closely at both score sheets, and you'll see they don't concur on a single move!"

Holmes turned quickly to leave the room. "But the crime scene, sir!" cried the captain. "Don't you want to take a look around?"

"No time to lose," snapped Holmes. "I know the model of the getaway car." The rest of us stood still, dazed and bewildered.