The Puzzle Master
December 24, 1909
By the time you read this, I will have caused much sorrow, and for that I beg your forgiveness. As you know, my child, I am a haunted man, and while the toll has been steep, I have at last made peace with my demons. I do not write this as an excuse for what I have done. I know too well that there is no forgiveness for it—not in the eyes of God or man. But rather, I write this account of my discovery out of necessity. It is my last chance to record the incredible events, the terrible and wonderful events, that changed my life and will, if you venture into the mysteries I am about to relate, change yours, as well.
What, you ask, is responsible for such torment? I will tell you, but take heed: Once you know the truth, it is not easily forgotten. It has haunted me every minute of every day. There was no question of ignoring it. I was drawn to its mystery like a moth circling a flame—In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. And while I am fortunate to have survived to record the truth, even now, as I stand on the edge of the abyss, I cannot help but shrink at the thought of entrusting such a dangerous secret to you.
I have suffered, but it is the suffering of a man who has created his own torture chamber. I believed I could know what shouldn’t be known. I wanted to see things, secret things, and so I lifted the veil between the human and the Divine and stared directly into the eyes of God. That is the nature of the puzzle: to offer pain and pleasure by turns. And while the truth I am about to reveal may shock you, if it offers some small refuge of hope, then this, my last communication, will achieve all it must.
June 9, 2022
Ray Brook, New York
Mike Brink turned down a country road, drove through a dense evergreen forest, and stopped before the high metal gate of the prison. His dog, a one-year-old dachshund called Conundrum—Connie for short—slept on the floor of the truck, camouflaged by shadows. She was so still that when the security guard stepped to Brink’s truck and peered inside, he didn’t see her at all. He merely checked Brink’s driver’s license against a list and waved him toward an imposing brick institution that seemed better suited to a horror movie than the bright June sunshine.
Mike Brink had an appointment with Dr. Thessaly Moses, the head psychologist at the New York State Correctional Facility, an all-women’s minimum-security prison in the hamlet of Ray Brook, New York. She’d called him the week before and asked him to come to the prison to speak with her. One of the prisoners had drawn a perplexing puzzle, and she wanted help making sense of it. Because of his work as a puzzle constructor and his fame after Time magazine christened him the most talented puzzleist in the world, thirty-two-year-old Mike Brink was barraged with puzzles. Most of them he solved in an instant. But from Dr. Moses’s description, this puzzle sounded peculiar, unlike any puzzle he’d seen before. When he asked her to take a photo and email it, she said she couldn’t risk it. Prisoner records were confidential. “I shouldn’t be discussing this with you at all,” she said. “But this is a unique patient, one who’s become rather important to me.” And so, despite his deadlines and the three-hundred-mile drive, Mike Brink agreed to come upstate to see it. Puzzles were his passion, his way of making sense of the world, and this was one he couldn’t resist.
The prison was ominous, with steeples and dark, narrow windows. When he’d read up on its history, he found that it was built in 1903 as a sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. The clean air, high altitude, and endless forests had been an integral part of the cure. The institution’s one claim to fame was its appearance in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Plath had visited her boyfriend while he was recovering from tuberculosis at the facility and then repurposed the sanatorium in her fiction. Now the facility housed hundreds of female inmates. From the parking lot he saw a yard enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire and, beyond, a modern cinder-block addition, its severity a startling contrast to the Gothic excesses of the original building. Surrounding it all stretched an endless sea of thick evergreen forest, a natural barrier between the prisoners and the rest of the world. He imagined that such isolation was intentional: Even if a prisoner made it over the fence, even if she got free of its twists of razor wire, she would find herself in the middle of nowhere.
Brink parked in the shade, filled a plastic bowl with water for Connie, scratched her behind her long, soft ears, and plugged a portable fan into the truck’s cigarette lighter, cracking the window so she’d be comfortable. Normally he wouldn’t leave her alone, but he wouldn’t be gone long, and the mountain air was cool, nothing like the heavy wet heat of Manhattan. “Be right back,” he said, and headed to the prison.
At the main entrance, he paused at the security station, dropped his messenger bag into a plastic bin, showed his driver’s license and vaccination card to a guard, and walked through a metal detector. He’d been given prior approval to bring his bag—which held his laptop, his phone, and a notebook and pen—and was relieved that the guards didn’t try to take it.
A woman in a loose navy-blue dress stood waiting. She was tall and thin with dark-brown eyes, dark skin, and hair cut in a bob. She introduced herself as Dr. Thessaly Moses, the head psychologist.
He didn’t need to introduce himself. Clearly, she’d googled him. Still, she stared at him a bit too long, and he knew she was surprised by his appearance. He was six foot one and athletic, lean and strong and (as he’d been told) handsome, not at all what people expected of (as his mom sometimes teased) “a puzzle geek.” He wore his favorite red Converse All Stars, black Levi’s, and a sports jacket over a T-shirt that read somebody do something.
Aside from photos, a Mike Brink Google search would have brought up a video clip of his remote Zoom-in appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, recorded during the 2020 pandemic lockdown. He’d taken Colbert on a tour of his puzzle library and opened one of his Japanese puzzle boxes, which inspired a joke about sushi. There would be a Wikipedia page that linked to the New York Times Games page, where he was a regular constructor; a list of the puzzle competitions he’d won; and a link to a Vanity Fair profile that gave his entire life story: the normal Midwestern childhood, the tragic accident that had altered his brain, and the miraculous gift that had appeared in its wake.
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” she said. “I would’ve driven down to the city, but I couldn’t leave my patients.”
“You’ve definitely made me curious,” he said. “From your description, it seems pretty unusual.”
“I don’t understand it at all, to be perfectly honest with you,” she said. “But if anyone can shed light on this, it’s you.”
Her faith in his abilities worried him. As his fame as a puzzle solver grew, people often assumed Mike Brink possessed a superhuman gift. Not just an ability to recite fifteen thousand pi places, or the talent to create a vicious crossword, but the power to read the future. But he didn’t have superpowers, and he couldn’t do the impossible. He was a regular guy with a singular gift—“an island of genius,” as his doctor called it. The best he could do was give it a try.
“You have it with you?” he asked, noticing a folder under her arm.
“If you come this way, we can talk in private,” Dr. Moses said, gesturing for Brink to follow her through a hallway.
Although he knew the prison had been created in a different mold than modern facilities, part of him had expected cement-block cells and barred windows, all the images he’d seen in movies. Instead, Dr. Moses led the way through a calm, almost pleasant space, institutional—the windows were reinforced—but human. There were potted trees near the metal detectors, art on the walls, and carpeting in the hallway. The bones of the tuberculosis sanatorium had been adapted to contemporary incarceration in the way that an old church might be adapted to a Zen meditation center: The symbols and decor had changed, but the essential structure remained the same.
She ushered him into her bright, stylish office, closing the door after him. He stood in a meticulously organized space: an immaculate desk, color-coded binders on a shelf, a Mac desktop, all perfectly uninteresting until his eye fell upon a Rubik’s Cube sitting on the windowsill. It was a newer model, the cubies in plastic as opposed to stickers, a mix of blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and white. The cubies were scrambled in a way that showed regular unsuccessful attempts to solve it, weeks, perhaps months, of twists and turns as someone—Thessaly Moses, he assumed—strained to put the six color fields into alignment. He drummed his fingers against his thigh, nervous energy shooting through him. Just seeing the cube in that state of disorder filled him with an overwhelming need to put it right.