Crossword Conundrum – Chapter 10: It’s Solved

Back at the garage, Kevin O’Conner has already gone home for the night. I had assumed he lived here or something, since he is caretaker for the robot that does live here, but it looks like he doesn’t care enough to do anything like that.

AR73 doesn’t seem too lonely about his absence. Right now it just seems excited about getting a bunch of new paints to experiment with. 

Still, I bet the kid would do well if it had a better caretaker helping it around, someone who cares more about companionship. Like if it were raised by Karina. Or maybe even me. Okay, not me; I think I spelled doom for my short-term legal guardianship hopes with how I handled Kobi. 

Heh, the thought of R8PR raising another robot as its own pops into my head. That would probably spell the end of human society pretty quickly, but it’d be kinda funny.

“You know, you’re a pretty good robot, and I don’t say that lightly,” I tell AR73.

“You’re a pretty good human too.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Well, thanks for taking me to the art supply store. I got to meet a lot of new people and study nature, which I don’t get to do that often. I really hope you and Karina will visit me again soon.”

“Speaking of that… It’s already dark. I wonder if Karina’s okay?”

“You should call her,” AR73 says.

“Already on it.” I take out my cell phone and call her. 

She immediately picks up. 

“Hello? Morgan? I was literally typing your number on my phone when you called.”

Uncanny.

“Hey. Just checking to see if your practice went okay.”

“I showed up half an hour late… But I didn’t get kicked out at least. How was AR73? Anything interesting happen?”

“AR73 foiled an armed robbery.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“Uh, okay then…”

“You know, AR73 is actually really awesome. I never knew a robot could be so much fun. We need to come here more often.” 

“Wait, what? Are you joking?”

“No. What?”

“You… you never say stuff like that.”

“I… uh… crap. I’ll see you tomorrow, Karina.” I hang up quickly and try to forget I ever portrayed a genuine emotion to another person. I almost blew my cover.

AR73’s gone, I just realized. Must have gone inside when I was in my phone call. Well, I was going to make some final catchy farewell like, like “Paint me a picture, will ya?” or something, but I guess we’ll have to leave it at that for now.

But only a moment later, AR73 returns, holding a large sheet of cardstock. “Hey, Morgan. I made this for you. It’s probably not any good, but I hope you’ll accept it anyway.”

Gee.

It’s not a painting, but a pencil drawing it must have made in just moments– a portrait of me. It’s essentially a photo replica drawn onto a dot matrix, but it’s pretty cool-looking. I don’t know enough about art to say if it’s good or not. Still. Awwwwwww…. “Thanks,” I say. “I’m going to keep this.”

“Interesting. I wasn’t sure how you’d react. You’re a perplexing individual, Morgan.”

“Thanks.”

I bend down, shake AR73’s hand, and make my way back home. If I hurry, I can probably catch the ten o’clock news and see if any mayoral candidates insulted each other in particularly-nasty ways today. My favorite sporting event.

“Today wasn’t so bad,” I say to myself. It’s honestly kind of weird.

***

“I agree. Finding Jones Burrow should be our paramount goal.”

“It already is, isn’t it…?”

In the abandoned church, doing my weekly check-up with R8PR. Karina’s off sitting on a pew, still looking at that ridiculous crossword puzzle in The Rotten Peach, so it’s just me having to figure out what R8PR means in all his cryptic talk while he sits at his makeshift throne like some domineering overlord.

He’s a lot like Marge in that regard.

“Has it really been your top priority, Morgan? It’s been two months now, and you haven’t found any leads. I’m almost disappointed.”

“Almost?”

“Well… Jones is good. She’s one of the best.”

Scratch that, he’s just a shallow Marge clone.

“I’m doing my best with finding her,” I say. “But as long as she’s hidden away so well I can’t get even a single lead…”

“Then you may need to look for different avenues,” R8PR says. “But for everything else, I think you’ve done a good job recently. Everything with Lamar went pretty smoothly, and now you’re thwarting an armed robber? You’re such a hero.”

“Ew, no, don’t say the H-word.”

Karina looks up at me and giggles. That one always gets her, even after the fiftieth time I’ve used it.

“By the way,” R8PR says. “What’s that you’re reading, Karina?”

The Rotten Peach, the ‘Ultimate Crossword Puzzle’ issue,” she answers. “Wanna see it? Morgan and I are going to win the mystery prize.”

“I can say I am quite the fan of The Rotten Peach,” R8PR says. What does this guy do in his spare time… “With my near-encyclopedic database of TRP-related materials, I can answer any questions you may have.”

“Well then, how about this one?” Karina asks. “AR73 came up with an answer, but it doesn’t seem right. The question is, ‘Our longtime readers will know this one; some may love it, some may hate it, but most are indifferent. Eight letters.’ And the last letter is a T.”

R8PR ponders this for about five seconds, before the metaphorical lightbulb goes off in his memory board and he stands up, raising his left index finger into the air.

And then he doesn’t say anything.

Karina and I eye each other while our robot ally stands there silently, posing as if he’s gotten some huge breakthrough.

“Yo?”

He zaps back into action. “I’ve got it,” he says. “I didn’t even need to know the word ends in a T to figure this one out.”

“Please, tell us,” I say.

“See, when I first went over that question a few times, I became increasingly convinced that it was a deep reference to a specific piece of Rotten Peach lore dating back around fifty years. So I scanned through the contents of every single issue of the magazine, which I have conveniently stored in my memory banks, and came up with… Zilch.

“Zilch is only five letters,” Karina says. “Wait, nevermind.” Her face turns bright red.

“When I realized that they couldn’t possibly be making a reference to something in a column or newspaper strip or any specific famous article, I looked at few different angles to approach the question, until I found one that stuck out: the sales data. And that’s where I found the answer.

“You see, this is how you should approach the search for Jones Burrow. When you’ve exhausted all your options, don’t go giving up so quickly. Look with a different lens, from a different viewpoint. Start over completely, with a different objective. Maybe finding Jones herself isn’t the answer, necessarily, but… Well, you get the point.”

“I’m a bit confused about how we got here from talking about a crossword puzzle,” I say.

“Ah, yes,” R8PR says. “The sales data. It’s been declining consistently for the past fifteen years, under forty percent of what it was at its height. The page count has been slashed in half, but that seems to have only further impacted its subscriber base. I don’t have any data from the past couple years, but I don’t think it’s shown any improvement. And so this last question can only be one word…

“‘Bankrupt.’”

“Some may love it,” (Kevin O’Conner)

“Some may hate it,” (Marge, R8PR apparently)

“But most are indifferent.” (The entire rest of the world besides those three)

“This is their last issue,” Karina says. “It… kind of makes sense now.”

“I feel really dumb,” I say.

“So, any other questions you’re stumped on?” R8PR asks.

“Actually, no,” Karina says. “The rest of the puzzle was pretty easy. That was the only question that was stumping us. So… I guess we can turn this in and get a mystery prize?”

I shake my head “What the hell is the mystery prize if they’re going out of business…”

“Doesn’t hurt to try,” she says.

“Yeah, I guess. I’ll mail it in tomorrow morning and we’ll see what happens. I hope it’s a million bucks. Uh, thanks R8PR, for your very precise help.”

“You can always rely on me.”

Geez, I shouldn’t compliment him so much.

Karina fills in the final question, erasing the totally-off-the-mark “Sunlight” that AR73 had suggested, and hands the magazine to me. The Rotten Peach is going under after all these years. I know feel like I should feel stronger about this. But I really am indifferent. Wow.

Must suck for them.


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