Merl Reagle called me on a Saturday some weeks back bursting with a story he said was too good to wait. So good he had to tell me in person. Right away.
You know Merl as the author of our monthly Hurricane puzzle (Page 15). I know Merl and his wife, Marie Haley, as devotees of good breakfast joints and a particular kind of story that relies heavily on serendipity. I love these stories (usually told over three or four cups of coffee) because they convince me, at least for a minute, that life is not a chaotic mess, that people can intersect in ways that are as tidy and amusing as, well, a crossword puzzle. Turns out this particular story was ur-Reagle, possessing all of the classic ingredients: breakfast, head-scratching coincidence, crosswords and — for a bonus — even some cross words.
The story begins at an intersection, which seems appropriate for Merl, who makes his living working within a puzzle grid. The intersection in question is in the parking lot of a Carrollwood shopping plaza on N Dale Mabry that is home to Brunchies, a haunt for Merl and Marie. He and Marie were on their way out of the parking lot, when in Merl's version, a car coming from their right didn't stop at a stop sign. Merl honked. And, to Merl's annoyance, the other driver honked back. Merl, who it ought to be said, is not a hot-headed guy, took umbrage at the implication that he had somehow been at fault. So he did a very un-Merl thing — he wheeled around to follow the other driver, who by now had backed into a parking spot near a Starbucks.
Merl then did a really un-Merl thing and rolled down his window to chastise the other driver. "Hey, this is how you do it," Merl said, sarcastically putting on the brakes to demonstrate how to stop at a stop sign. More words were exchanged. And fortunately that's where it ended.
A couple of days later Merl received a letter.
This is the part of the story Merl considered the payoff. The author of the letter, it turns out, was a fan of Merl's crosswords. He was a little abashed that he had drifted through the stop sign, but he appropriately reminded Merl that shouting at other motorists is not a good idea. As we all know, verbal disputes on Florida roads have a habit of ending badly.
But that's not the most amazing part, Merl said. The letter was from someone who had been prominent in the local FBI. Who, I asked, knowing there was a chance I might recognize the name. Al Scudieri, he said. Al! I know Al, I said, leaning back at the marvelous coincidence.
Nineteen years ago I had written a story about Scudieri's retirement from the FBI. His going away lunch filled a hotel ballroom with enough law enforcement badges to armor a tank. Scudieri was lauded for his meticulousness in all things — attire, evidence gathering and even his courtroom testimony. I remembered him as the only person I'd ever heard quote the French novelist Honoré de Balzac in a retirement speech.
This gave me a chance to reconnect with Al, who is an investigator with a law firm run by Chris Hoyer, a former federal prosecutor with whom he worked many big cases. On the phone, Al reminded me that he had been trained as a cryptographer by the FBI, which explains his love of puzzles.
Good investigator that he is he took down Merl's tag and ran it when he got to the office, only to discover that the owner of the car was a man he considers "a superstar in the crossword world."
From various puzzle blogs he had learned long ago that Merl lived in Tampa. "Maybe one day our paths will cross," he said. He was, of course, surprised it happened like this.
But it's no surprise Al would write a letter of apology; he's an old-school guy, formal and upstanding.
But what I like best is what happened next. Merl wrote back, because he's a word guy too. And when he didn't hear back immediately, he decided to stake him out so that he could offer a little contrition. At exactly the same time as before, he returned to the parking lot and found Al inside the Starbucks.
They talked, over coffee, admitted they'd both acted a little foolishly and reaffirmed their admiration for each other's professions. Then they scheduled lunch, so now they're buds. Would that all roadside frustration ended so agreeably.