Copyright 2018 by Jeff Strand.
Gabriel excitedly walked into his apartment and tossed the jigsaw puzzle box onto his kitchen table. It was Friday evening, Diane was out of town, and he was all psyched up to put in an all-nighter on this one.
He was thirty-six, and had never lost the love of puzzles he’d acquired in pre-school. Of course, back then he did six-piece Cookie Monster ones, but now he could put together anything the most devious minds could create. Puzzles that were entirely one color. 3-D puzzles. Puzzles without a straight edge. Puzzles that offered clues to a mystery story. He’d completed them all.
Gabriel wasn’t even sure what this one had to offer. The non-descript box merely called it “An Insanely Difficult Jigsaw Puzzle Experience.” Sounded like the perfect way to spend the evening.
He walked into what passed for his living room and started up his Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Blu-Ray to provide background noise. Then he returned to the kichen, sat down at the table, and opened the box.
He poured the 500 pieces onto the table and began the quick process of turning them all face-up. It wasn’t a double-sided puzzle and there seemed to be a wide variety of colors in the completed image, so he wondered what made this one so difficult. He hoped he wasn’t getting ripped off.
Gabriel sorted out the straight-edge pieces within a few minutes and found the four corners. The straight-edge pieces were mostly white with some brown, so he fit the brown pieces together first. Looked like wood. The white pieces weren’t much of a problem, and he soon had the entire frame of the puzzle completed.
He arranged the remaining pieces by colors. There were more white, the same wood-brown, some red, black, silver, and some flesh-tones and hair.
The red pieces almost looked like blood.
He decided to start with the white. This puzzle didn’t appear to be nearly as insanely difficult as the box had promised, so he might as well give himself an extra challenge.
However, it wasn’t that much of an extra challenge, because the lighting on the white made it easy to match up the pieces. He had a third of the puzzle complete before the Oompa-Loompas even had their first musical number.
He moved on to the red pieces.
It became quickly clear that it was not blood, but rather a shirt.
When he’d completed the puzzle, it depicted a smiling middle-aged man in a red shirt. While it wasn’t the easiest puzzle he’d ever put together, it was no more difficult than any other 500-piecer. What a disappointment.
His cell phone rang. A local call from a number he didn’t recognize.
“Hello, Gabriel. This is the manager of Trystan’s Games. Congratulations on completing the puzzle.”
“How did you know that?”
“We were spying on you, obviously.”
There was a pause. “Uh, what year do you think this is? Don’t worry about it. I just wanted to call to congratulate you for finishing the first part.”
“The first part?”
“Yes, Gabriel, the first part. Check outside your door.”
Gabriel hurried over to his front door. He looked through the peekhole to see if anybody was out there, but the hallway seemed empty. He opened the door just a bit, until he saw a large cardboard box. He tried to lift it but couldn’t, so he dragged it into his living room and then closed the door.
“Got the box?” asked the man on the phone.
“Yeah,” said Gabriel.
“There’s an envelope on top. Open it.”
Gabriel tore open the manilla envelope and slid out the picture. Diane.
“Your wife is fine,” the man assured him. “That picture will be the puzzle for our next customer, but only if you fail to complete this one.”
Gabriel felt like he was going to throw up but forced himself to remain focused. “What do I have to do?”
“Treat the puzzle you just completed as the box lid for this one. That’s who you’re putting together. All five hundred flash-frozen pieces of him. You have until he thaws. Good luck.”