Sometimes my job requires me to outwit the police. Not in the way you think; I don't do anything criminal. If I step out of line, it's entirely possible that some A-class talent will be sent to strip me of my power. It's one of the first things you learn in skinschool: don't rock the boat. Above all what must be avoided is panicking the blanks--those being the large number of people in the world with limited talent.
When I say I have to outwit the police, I mean I have to go into a crime scene and think of the things that the police don't in order to provide the evidence they need. Sometimes when the police run up against a complete dead end, they call for someone like me, just to be sure that the evidence is what it seems to be.
Take tools, for instance. Not the metal objects that craftsmen use, I'm talking about the people. Tools are talented people whose specialty is inanimate objects. They can't work with living tissue at all; and most of them can't even manipulate once-living tissue. Most of the good tools are mechanics and repairmen and carpenters. Put a hammer in his hand and it can be anything the tool wants: a Skilsaw, a screwdriver, or a crescent wrench. Give him a broken engine part and he'll transform it back into a working version.
Sometimes tools are a bit more creative. Every once in a while you'll
get one who thinks he can disguise a murder weapon by transforming it into
something innocuous, like a clock or a hairbrush. Two things usually give them
away, however. First, you can't completely clean off bloodstains, and second,
most tools can't touch blood with their power. Not only that, but sniffers
like me can detect whose power has touched that clock, and how. Rare is the
person who can completely cover his tracks so that I can't trace
The deuces are less formidable in the scope of their power, but more devious. Deuces (short for "Medusa," the legendary woman of the snake-hair and petrifying gaze) cross that line between normal talent and the tools. A deuce can render an animate object into an inanimate one and back. Usually this takes the form of a work of art. The classic example is a stone statue that resembles the victim, but I've known deuces who specialized in paintings, photographs, clay sculpture or even ice statues. The only common denominator is that there is always a precise likeness to the victim at the moment the deuce's power takes over.
No deuce I ever met had the ability to grant life to inanimate objects, thank God, although the religious right claims that Jesus had that power. How else, they say, do you explain his resurrection of Lazarus?
A hundred years ago in London there was a famous deuce whose talent ran along the lines of portrait paintings, which inspired an equally famous Oscar Wilde story. That was back when the common man was still threatened by the presence of talent in others. It was an uneasy age of fear.
Things are better now, and although it means I still have to deal with clever criminals, at least nobody is being burned at the stake for her
powers any more.
One particular criminal did pose a certain challenge, using a method I hadn't come across before in person. I wasn't involved in the case from the beginning, so I can only repeat what is common knowledge from the newspapers. Most of you will probably recognize the story, anyway, because it did get a certain amount of local coverage.
A string of house burglaries drew the attention of the police, and it was determined from fingerprint analysis that the prints belonged to a man by the name of Stephen Roe, who had several previous convictions of burglary. Roe was a low level talent, definitely sub-L, and had had a particular signature in his crimes: he stole during the day, and took silver and platinum, but never gold. He just didn't like gold, or so he said at his trial.
Roe had been out for some time, having served his sentence, and had actually begun to make himself useful. For a few years after his release, Roe held down a job at a local gardening center, assisting senior citizens with their planting projects and teaching seminars on transplanting rose bushes. At least he had used his jail time to learn something useful, most people said, although they never quite trusted him.
The police made the fingerprint connection at once, noting even the similarities in the thief's signature, never taking gold, and picked Roe up for questioning. As it turned out, Roe had definitely been at his job during the times of every burglary, and there were multiple witnesses during each event -- reliable witnesses, too -- to confirm his alibi. Worse, while Roe was on his way to the station to be booked into a cell, another burglary was committed he clearly had nothing to do with. It was during that burglary that a young couple went missing.
So then they released Roe and called me in.
The obvious place to begin was at the scene of the most recent crime, so I visited the couple's house with a police escort. Their home was full of their particular signature, naturally enough, but there was no sign of them. Thinking a deuce might be at work, I ran my fingertips over nearly every object I could find that had their likeness on it: family portraits, vacation photos, every picture on the refrigerator.
I didn't find the couple in that way, but I did find traces of Stephen Roe. It was clearly his psychic imprint. I was certain that it couldn't be anyone else's. But Roe had an airtight alibi. What was at work here?
I sat down on a chair in the breakfast nook to think it over. Stephen Roe had been seen by reliable witnesses each time he was supposedly off committing crimes. On one of those events, the witnesses were police officers. It defied probability that every one of the witnesses was his accomplice. There had to be another way.
It wasn't someone transformed into the likeness of Stephen Roe, either. I would be able to detect that, fingerprints or no fingerprints. Besides, nobody could exactly duplicate a form's fingerprints unless they had them committed precisely to memory--or, like me, was simply restoring the form to its natural state.
So what had been done? And where did the homeowners go?
Well, the second question I could answer. I knew they had both unexpectedly been home during the burglar's break-in. That suggested to me that the burglar was on a schedule -- even though he had to know the couple was home, despite both their cars in the driveway, he burgled the house anyway. Clearly he wasn't afraid of being caught by them.
The burglar must have either taken care of both homeowners, or he had been in league with them. There was no sign of struggle in the home, so I guessed the burglar had used his talent on them. But what talent, and how?
The idea of the burglar being on a schedule planted a seed, and I thought I saw a way to close the gap.
I called Stephen Roe and
scheduled a time to visit him. I was up front about who I was and why I
planned to visit: I wanted to make sure that he was truly Stephen Roe, which
would clear up any confusion about the burglar who somehow appeared to be
He suggested I visit him at his home just after breakfast, so I stopped by around eight o'clock. He lived in a neighborhood that was probably brand new in the 1950s but was slightly on the decrepit side by now. I found him out in his back yard, exactly where he said he would be, working in his garden. His hands were buried up to the elbows in dark potting soil as he worked on revitalizing his flower bed. A bright green hose trickled a steady flow of water into the lawn nearby.
"Good morning, Mr. Roe," I said over his back gate. "Your zinneas are looking good."
"Thanks," he smiled, "but call me Steve. You do a turn in prison, and suddenly 'mister' doesn't sound right."
He came over and opened the back gate for me. "I'd offer to shake your hand," Roe said sheepishly, "but I don't think you want a handful of dirt."
I laughed. "No, not really. I really had better do what I came here for. Do you mind?" I held up one hand as if to touch his jaw.
He shook his head. "Go ahead."
I ran one finger along his cheek. All I could sense was his essence. I could practically taste it. But that's all there was. He really was
"Well, that settles that," I said wryly. "Looks like you really are who you say you are."
"So I'm cleared?" he asked.
"Hardly. Just because you're here now doesn't mean you didn't commit those burglaries. It just means that I don't sense anybody's power on you at this moment."
"Oh," he said, crestfallen. "What do I have to do to clear my name, then?"
"We'll see," I said. "First we have to wait for the burglar to strike again, and then nobody lets you out of their sight until I can verify you
My cellular phone rang, and I dug it out of my purse. It was one of the police detectives I had been working with. "Ms. Crane?" he said in a brisk voice. "I thought you should know there's been another break-in."
"Almost. Some silver stolen, no gold. But this is a department store, not a house. They got in before store hours just now. We're hoping you can tell us if this is our boy again."
"It had better not be," I said. "I'm standing right next to him. How long ago was it?"
"Maybe ten--maybe fifteen minutes. We're at the scene now. He might still even be on the scene, we don't know. We'll have to go over the security films."
The officer agreed that they should secure the scene before I arrived to look for evidence, and I hung up.
"Well, looks like somebody up there likes you," I said, folding up my phone and putting it away. "Our burglar struck again."
"I won't know until I get there," I admitted. "But I'll keep in touch. Do you want to go with me?"
Roe shook his head. "I'll stay here and finish up my gardening."
I waved goodbye, and he saluted me with one of his dirty hands.
The department store was better than an hour away across the city, through traffic-gridlocked streets, so by the time I arrived, the police had the doors taped off. I was escorted by two uniforms into the presence of an increasingly edgy store manager. The silence on the sales floor was profound. There were no customers browsing the racks of clothing, no calls for service, no ringing registers. I could understand why he was nervous, but this was more important.
First I was taken to the jewelry department, where there had been reports of missing items. There was no sign of forced entry on any of the cabinets, but that didn't concern me; I wasn't interested in the legal subtleties. All I wanted to do was find evidence that Stephen Roe had left traces here.
I found traces -- boy, did I ever. He couldn't have left a clearer trail across the counters and locked storage cabinets had he eaten dinner off of them. All of them. As I had rather suspected, someone was going out of his way to make me think Roe had been here. They didn't want me to miss a single sign.
This didn't worry me. I had known I would find it. The only trouble was, I still wasn't sure what it meant.
"How did he get out?" I asked, running my fingertips along the edge of the cabinet door.
"Fire exit out the back, we think," said a cop.
The edgy manager showed the way to an Employees Only door, beyond which there was an unattractive, warehouse-like room cluttered with boxes of plastic clothes hangers, a crate of mannequin hands, a few empty aluminum clothes racks, and posters on the bare walls advising the employees to 'Smile, It Makes All The Difference'.
"The door is that way." The manager pointed to the right, beside a dented row of employee lockers.
I examined the door's panic bar, touching it gingerly. Roe had been here, had even pushed the door open with both hands. "Yes, he was here. He set off the alarm going out?"
"Yes. That's what alerted us."
"Did anybody see him running out the door?"
"No, we asked."
"What's out there?"
"Just a loading dock and an alley."
"Where does the alley go?"
"Down to Tenth, I think," the manager put in. "There's a coffee place down there."
"And nobody was at the coffee shop at eight in the morning?" I asked incredulously. "Nobody saw anything?"
The manager said nothing, turning to the cops for help. One of them just shrugged at me. "Maybe he turned into a bird and flew away."
"No way," I said. "Not carrying a bag of stolen silver."
"That's true," he grunted.
"Are there cameras back here?"
"There's one over the back door, outside," the manager offered. "We put it in to cut down on employee theft. We -- we had a problem."
I looked around the back room. "Who uses these lockers?"
"Just the employees."
"There's no locks on them."
"We don't let them use padlocks."
"Could the silver be in one of the lockers?"
"No, we already looked. It was a likely place to hide it on the way out the door."
I thought about it. I'm no police woman, but something wasn't adding up. "So you're saying he got in here without anybody knowing it. He steals jewelry out of the cabinets without breaking into them, and to top it all off, he announces his exit by setting off the fire alarm, where nobody sees him. Why didn't he go out the way he came in?"
The cop just looked at me. "That's what you're here for."
"We are reviewing the tapes," the manager said primly.
"Never mind the tapes," I said. "There's something here..."
They watched as I turned slowly around in a circle, reviewing the broken clothes racks, the brushed aluminum push-doors leading to the break room, a few empty shoeboxes, mannequin parts, and ended up facing the lockers again.
"This one," I said aloud, and touched a locker at random.
It had Stephen Roe's signature prints all over it.
"Whose locker is this?"
"I don't know, they aren't assigned," the manager said.
I opened it. Inside was a full set of old clothing: shoes, socks, jeans, shirt, underwear. None of it was clean.
"What's this doing here?" I asked.
"We saw that," the cop said. "Figured it belonged to an employee. I guess we thought he probably didn't run out the door naked."
There was a wallet in the back pocket. I took it out and looked at it. "Does this guy work here?"
The manager didn't even look at the picture. "We already looked at it, miss. That's Joel Brachs, he's one of the display specialists."
"Display?" I asked.
"You know, the mannequins in the windows and on the floor."
I thought about it. "Where does he work?"
Joel's workshop was
decorated with bolts of cloth, a workbench, boxes out-of-season decorations,
and a pair of mannequins. Everything in the room had strong traces of Stephen
"Does he normally keep mannequins in here?" I asked, staring at them. Both were nude, fully posed, and leaning against each other in a corner, one male, one female.
"Not usually. I saw him bring these two in yesterday." The manager shrugged. "Said he picked them up as surplus from another store."
"Don't believe a word of it," I said, and walked right up to one of them and putting my hand on its shoulder. "Here's your missing couple."
The cop stared at me.
"I could change them back if you like," I went on with a faint smile. "But don't you think they should have some clothes first?"
"So what are you saying?" the cop demanded.
"Your burglar is a deuce," I said. "His talent is mannequins. That's not all that common, so he should be easy to track down. But he doesn't work alone."
"What? How do you know?"
"He can't," I said. "He had to have help..."
Stephen Roe was arrested
on my suggestion, while I combed the sales floor for his signs. Nothing leaves
a clearer imprint than the human hand, so it wasn't easy to find where he had
gone. He had largely kept his hands to himself, except where he had picked out
some clothing from the racks. Finding him after that was easy.
"Find me a mannequin who's wearing a pair of dark blue Hagar slacks," I said. "And don't let him get away."
We cornered our burglar near the Employees Only door, standing innocuously to one side of the aisle, transformed into a mannequin. Wearing Hagar slacks.
He knew we had him, too, and transformed back into human shape somewhat dejectedly. I recognized him from his drivers' license as Joel Brachs. Evidently, so did the manager. "Officer, this is Joel Brachs."
"Not exactly," I said, taking Joel's hand. I wasn't worried about his power: if you have the talent to transform yourself, there's no way for you to use it on others. Likewise, I couldn't use my ability on myself.
Brachs' hands were giving me nothing but the signs of Stephen Roe.
"Evidently, Mr. Brachs and Mr. Roe had a third accomplice somewhere. Some deuce who had the power to turn others into mannequins. That was how they made the couple disappear, and also how they got Roe's imprint on every burglarized house. From the beginning, the whole thing was scheduled so Roe could have an airtight alibi while Brachs was out using his friend's hands to commit crimes."
"But--how did they switch their fingerprints? How did they fool you?"
"Their accomplice must have switched their hands or arms around in mannequin shape, then reversed them into humans. After that, everything Brachs touched would put Roe's signature on it. It's a pretty old trick." I sighed. "This kind of trick usually requires close coordination, so I scheduled a meeting with Roe to identify him, hoping he would take the opportunity to schedule another burglary while I was there. Naturally, he had his hands dirty so he had an excuse to avoid a handshake. And of course there was another break-in. Or rather, a break-out."
"How did he get in, then?"
"He works here. He probably assumed mannequin form and never left for the night."
"What is the couple doing here, then?" the cop asked.
"He's just disposing of evidence," I guessed. "He could have put them on display and nobody would ever have found them. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get some bathrobes for our stiff friends in the back."