From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett (opens in new tab) wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, we head out to catch a real criminal!
In the world of PC gaming, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and casual gaming companies willing to churn out games about some staggeringly inappropriate things. Like this—a casual game based on a real-world killer. Fun! His name is Ira Einhorn, and he evaded justice for 25 years after beating his ex-girlfriend Holly Maddux to death and stashing her corpse in his closet. Yes. Really.
This is the story of how he was captured. According to Real Crimes: The Unicorn Killer.
The last week of March, 1979 was an eventful time in Pennsylvania. Within a 48 hour period, the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island underwent a partial core meltdown, and, less than 100 miles away, Detective Michael Chitwood discovered the body of Holly Maddux in a steamer trunk inside 60s activist Ira Einhorn's apartment. But Einhorn had no intention of sticking around for the trial. Shortly before it was due to begin, Einhorn vanished, without a trace, a wisp in the international ether. It didn't matter that he was convicted in absentia; he wasn't there to be incarcerated. This is where you come in. (opens in new tab)
One look at the crime scene was enough to make FBI Agent Jennifer Lourdes regret her choice of career. She'd expected blood. She'd expected nightmares. She'd never expected to be sent back in time to 1970, only to be ordered to rummage through the rubbish of a hippie protest in search of... a pinecone. Why a pinecone? She had no idea. It was just one more thing for the evidence bag, along with—she checked—an oar, a wrench and a bowling ball. To Sherlock Holmes, any of these might have been a bonanza of clues. To her, they were years of dreams pouring straight down a rusty drain.
"This is where it all started," announced her boss, Detective Alan Michaels, an older man who was conspicuously not on his hands and knees in search of a discarded guitar pick. "This is where Holly Maddux first caught sight of the man who would eventually beat her to death. Ira Einhorn was the featured key speaker, and by all accounts he was fascinating. Ah. The pinecone!"
"Is it relevant, sir?"
"Not in the least," said Michaels, cheerfully throwing it over his shoulder. "What matters, Agent Lourdes, is that you found it. Think of it as the first step on the road to catching our killer. If he slips up, and that slip happens to involve a pinecone, I can think of no better person to help bring him to justice."
Lourdes sighed. "OK, sir. I think I have everything. Rope, oar, guitar pick... pinecone... watch, file folder, wrench. Should we pick up the rest of this stuff, like the... uh... gas mask, or is that—"
"Irrelevant, yes." Michaels thought for a second, surveying the scene. "Ah. A rare opportunity. Agent Lourdes, did you by any chance see a spoon on your travels?"
"A wooden one?"
"Excellent. Now, do you see that black pot over there?"
For a moment, Lourdes' pulse quickened. Forensics! If this was a pot that Einhorn himself had used, perhaps his DNA would be on it. From there, they could put it into the magic computer at FBI Headquarters and triangulate his position. Or maybe it would be full of what the science team liked to call 'corpse sludge', and she was about to serve up a soggy spoonful of hot justice! It didn't matter. On the very first day of her very first case, she was going to play a key part in bringing in a murderer!
"Yes," she said, hurrying over to it, spoon in hand. "What now, sir?"
"The... the empty pot?"
"The very same."
"Just... swirl the spoon around it? Like this?" She lowered it in, uncertainly, and gave it a theatrical little waggle. Glancing over, she saw Michaels nod with satisfaction, pluck a ragged moleskin notepad from his inside coat pocket, and make a careful little mark with his biro.
"I like to set myself little challenges," he said, noting her expression. "Stir The Pot, 10 points. Amazing. Do let me know if you find a stick of butter, a candy cane and a budgie on your travels, won't you?"
Lourdes didn't ask. Though even then, she knew she was doomed to dream the question.
"I don't think we're going to find many clues here," she said, as tactfully as she could. "Sir."
"Unsurprising. We are standing seven years before the murder happened, after all. I simply thought it important for you to get the full history of the man before beginning the chase. We're done here though, let's move on. Besides, I hear that Carmen Sandiego woman has stolen the Sphinx's nose again, and Zack and Ivy keep calling to ask when they can have their Chronoskimmer back."
As the afternoon progressed, Lourdes came to realise that while death may or may not have travelled in Einhorn's wake, litter certainly did. From outside the building where he once stood for election, she'd found a hatchet, an arrow, pepper, flashlight, a toy horse, and the King of the Traffic Lights. Outside Einhorn's house, there was a wrench embedded in a tree, a sword hanging from the wall, and a flamingo that Michaels gleefully noted, scratching off an entry in his notebook that read 'A Flamboyant Bird'.
"What was it like, being here and knowing that Holly's body was in the closet?" Lourdes asked, trying and failing not to be distracted by a top hat on the drainpipe.
"Well, I didn't know. I strongly suspected that Ira had killed Holly, but I didn't think he was so brazen as to keep her body in his apartment for almost two years." Michaels paused. "In retrospect, the piles of air freshener cans everywhere should probably have tipped me off. We live and learn."
"Should we go inside? There might be clues."
"Clues... perhaps. Pinecones, no. No, my dear, I feel our attention is better spent elsewhere."
"The fingerprints lab?" asked Lourdes. "I don't understand."
"It's simple," said Michaels, slumping down in a chair to watch her work. "I want you to just take a look at the fingerprints we found, and compare them to the prints on file for Einhorn."
"The prints... from Einhorn's house, an event he spoke at, and his own election headquarters?"
"Precisely. This way, we'll know for certain if he was at any of these places. Everything we do has to be based on evidence, even chasing a bail-jumping murderer around the world. I can't predict where the next lead is coming from, and neither can you. You have to get in the head of both the suspect and the victim as much as you possibly can. You never know when that insight will come in handy."
"And here I was thinking you were just making me collect random crap from not-even-crimescenes."
Michaels shrugged. "You say 'potato', I say 'do as I say or you're fired.'"
The revelation that Ira Einhorn had indeed been to Ira Einhorn's house soon proved a key bit of information, and it wasn't long before the detectives were standing in his lounge. By any standards other than the litter-strewn horrors they'd already seen, it was clearly the abode of a madman. Who else would put a stopwatch in a glass, for Christ's sake. Who but one touched by evil could master the sorcery required to keep a banana split unmelted for year after year? Who else would consider a candy cane a sofa decoration, or frame his back window with the world's largest poker and a full-size sword?
"At least it's tidy," said Lourdes, picking up his diary. "She's gone, and the knowledge rips into me, hovers and swirls, bites, erodes, and the sadness again... the light must come through as we/it goes on its way. Now what do you feel? Anger, loss, resentment arising from the pit of your stomach. Let it rise, detach yourself from it, feel fixation... instead of living out the violence of anger."
Michaels shuddered. "What does the next entry say?"
"'I was wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Oh, how hatred and an infinity of regrets flood through my soul as I see my folly for what it was, is and shall forever be. May angelic and stygian lights bear witness to my blood confession; Tom Baker is a much better Doctor than Jon Pertwee ever was."
"The ravings of a lunatic," said Michaels, though not convincingly. Had he stared into the abyss so long that the abyss had offered him a jelly baby? He had no idea. All he knew was that the little plastic bits on the ends of shoelaces were called aglets. And he also knew that he couldn't tell his partner about his concerns. She had, after all, proven rather less professional about the chase than he had hoped.
For her part, Lourdes had given up trying to understand her partner around the time they were looking at Einhorn's boat, the 'Sheets To The Wind', only for Michaels to suddenly spot a giant watermelon in the sea, cut himself a slice, and mark another thing off his Things To-Do At A Crime Scene List. It wouldn't have been so bad had she felt they were actually making progress. Instead, they were just going round in circles. At one point, he even dragged her all the way back to their previous investigation sites, only this time at the dead of night. What did he hope to find? And for that matter, who the hell had been messing with them? Einhorn's banana split was gone. How had it tasted? Was that a clue?
She didn't know any more. She didn't remember why she'd ever even cared.
If Michaels saw something she didn't, he didn't tell her directly. One minute they were in America, trying to build a psychological profile of a man with a grappling hook, police tape, handcuffs and a giant fish lying around his house, the next, outside a pub called The Lamb and Flag in Sweden. As far as Lourdes was concerned, that was a hell of a leap to make considering that their last real clue was a scrap of yarn they'd picked up for no apparent reason. Not even found on something. Just cut from a ball.
"What about Interpol?" she asked. "Weren't they tracking him after he jumped bail?"
"I'm afraid your notion of Interpol is garnered mostly from movies," laughed Michaels, patting the trained FBI agent on her cute little head. "Real investigations involve completely breaking any notion of jurisdiction, heading to a pub whose only connection to the case is that the suspect drank there occasionally, and hoping to draw inspiration from an abacus, croquet mallet, lawnmower and fresh loaf of bread that just happens to be sitting around outside it."
Both detectives glanced over at the man in the door. "Americans, am I correct?"
"Correct!" said Michaels, and mentally awarded him 50 points.
"My name is Ludvig, I manage the Lamb and Flag. Is there anything I can help you with? Aside from telling you whether Swedish pubs traditionally have names like 'The Lamb and Flag', of course..."
"There may be," said Lourdes, who had in fact been wondering about that trivial point. "You haven't seen a heavyset, obnoxious bull of a man around lately, have you?"
"No, I am sorry. The last person I saw who fit that description was the American criminal, Einhorn I believe his name was. He brought much disgrace to this establishment by not even bothering to invent a fake name for himself; he was evicted and I haven't seen him since."
"Thank you," said Michaels. "Lourdes, you know what this means?"
Lourdes nodded with excitement. "An actual lead! We can call the Swedish authorities, set up a nationwide manhunt, and slowly draw the noose tight. After all this pointless hunting for hidden objects of no value, it's finally time to use old-fashioned policework to nail this son of a bitch and—"
"WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE DOING IN ENGLAND?" screamed Lourdes.
"I thought you'd be interested to see another place where Einhorn visited while on the run," said Michaels, unconcerned. "You see, for him, this was almost a punishment. He was cut off from his networks—"
"I WILL INSERT ALL OF THE PINECONES INTO YOUR ANUS."
"ALL THE PINECONES!
"Anyway," continued Michaels, after one pain-baiting return to Sweden and quick jaunt in the other direction to France, "There's a local FBI chapter here that, working with the French Police... an organisation that apparently does not dick around searching for parasols and roller skates instead of clues... has tracked Ira to this chateau. It was once a windmill, but it has long since been decommissioned. In short, it's a regular house. Saying 'chateau' just sounds more impressive."
"So what are we waiting for? Let's storm the place!"
"We can't do that without the full co-operation of the local authorities. We're here merely to recon."
Lourdes took the inevitable list between thumb and forefinger. "Yes. Yes, when they get here, they're going to be so happy to know Einhorn has a wooden spoon, a pair of scissors, and felt the need to stick his Marriage License high on the outside wall. Next to Satan, and a windmill sail decorated with a guitar, a set of pan-pipes and a pitchfork. You know. By that tree that's growing robots ."
Michaels sat patiently, letting her get it out of her system. Barely any hours had passed at all by the time she finished hyperventilating. Wrapping a towel around her and wishing that had been on his list, he drove at a reasonable speed to the local FBI branch office, because they have those, apparently, to make sure everything was going according to plan in the land of people who actually solved crimes.
"Stan," he greeted the agent in charge.
"Ludvig?" breathed Lourdes. "What are you doing here?"
"My work at the Lamb and Flag is just a cover identity," Ludvig told her. "To ensure my safety and operational security, I find it best to pose as a humble barman. And just to be extra, super-sure nobody can stumble onto my secret identity, I do it in Sweden."
Lourdes opened her mouth to let her brain finally just dribble out of it. Michaels clamped a hand over it to prevent spillage. "Is the team set to go?" he asked quickly, hoping the man hadn't noticed.
"Yes," said Ludvig/Stan. "Of course, we'll need you to play your parts."
That was music to Lourdes' ears. "Finally, some action!"
"I wouldn't get too excited," cautioned Michaels. "While Ira might not escape this particular net, the courts will take their time with the extradition hearing, and it is anything but a foregone conclusion that the French government will comply with the wishes of the United States. Do you see now why I had you find all that worthless crap? At least there, you can find some satisfaction in a job well done..."
"Lourdes, I want you to run point," Ludvig/Stan cut in. "We could use someone we're sure Ira won't recognise, and there's at least a chance he didn't see you climbing all over his house to steal his shit. Just take a quick look around. See if he's home, see if there's anything in the yard-"
"—anything he could use to escape. Give us the signal when you're done, and we'll move in. That signal will be finding a Pole Axe, a Peace Sign, a radio, toy teeth, a doodlebug, an ice skate, a screw...."
And so was the escaped murderer Einhorn rather unceremoniously caught and banged up in Houtzdate State Penitentiary, where he continues to serve a life sentence. Occasionally, he is heard to mutter "I knew I shouldn't have left that pinecone lying around." Nobody knows why.
Agent Lourdes and Detective Michaels returned to the FBI in triumph, much to the FBI's surprise. They even brought with them so much accumulated crap, the resulting eBay auction was able to fund the Agency for 10 years. Their method later turned out to be the exact same one used to track down Jack the Ripper (opens in new tab), finally answering the question of how he managed to evade the police so well.
"To happy endings," said Lourdes, holding up her half-empty champagne glass. "I'm sorry I doubted you, despite clearly having been completely and totally correct to do so, because you're mental."
"Cheers," replied Michaels, clinking her glass. "And yes. To a happy ending."