Chapter 38: Stakeout
Kaitlyn and I met up the following evening at one of the restaurants that pop up around hotels everywhere. We chose a table over in the far corner, where we could talk without being overheard.
“So, my guru, what’s the plan?” Kaitlyn opened.
“This is going to be great practice for your invisibility skills, my shishya. Have you worked out how to carry a reserve of power inside yet?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I’ve been practicing, but it’s only good for a second or two. After that, if I’m still close to tech, whatever I’m doing just evaporates.”
“All right,” I said, taking a second to assess, “I think we’ll work it like this: we’ll have you start out in the open desert behind one of the big chain hotels over on the west side of the highway where they’re densest. Your second or two of reserve might just be enough to let you streak between two patches of nature or to get across the corner of a parking lot from one greenway to another.”
She looked nervous at this, but also avid. Oh, my little nudist streaker!
“How’s your time to trance coming? Under pressure, I mean?”
She bit her lip, then said, “Um…maybe about 15 seconds?”
“Hmmm,” I thought. “That’s pretty dicey. You’ll want to be very sure of your ability to make it across in a streak, then. A brief flash of exposure is one thing, but then being trapped for that long before you can disappear again…? I dunno. Be sure of the distance before you dash. This is risky enough as it is.”
She got a serious look on her face and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“I think you might be underestimating the risk even so. Remember, fear is the mind-killer,” I said. She just tilted her head, apparently not knowing the referent, so I quoted:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
I shivered. That quote always affects me thus.
“It’s from the Dune novels by Frank Herbert. We haven’t trained you to let fear just pass on through. If you were caught, you might freeze and be completely unable to get into a trance. You’d be trapped.”
She looked truly downcast at this.
“C’mon, it’s still going to be fun tonight. We’re going to be streaking nude through the night on the edge of town, and if we do it carefully, we won’t be caught this time.”
She shuddered a bit, but then her expression began to harden into resolve. “Yes. I’ll have to work on that.” After a bit, she asked, “Davie, how about you? Have you ever had to get into a trance in the face of real bone-shaking fear? How fast are you, worst case?”
I had to think a bit. “Well, several weeks ago I was in a pretty scary situation, but I’d gotten clear of the danger before I tried slipping into a trance. I had to use magic from my reserve in the actual heat of the fight. So no, I’m not sure I’ve ever been truly scared while needing to immediately slip into a trance. I suppose I’ve always just treated getting calm as a necessary prerequisite.”
“I wonder if I even want to try to train for that,” she said pensively. “I don’t want you turning into some kind of monster just to train me, and I’m not going to purposely put myself in danger just to learn to cope. I guess your way is best: don’t get into a situation where you’ve got fear trapping you while you need to be calm to slip into a rejuvenating trance. I’ll have to work on building up my reserve carrying capacity instead.”
I nodded. “That sounds right. Depending on how much power I’m pulling, my reserve lasts anywhere from about a minute to maybe ten. I can use that time to get away to a calm spot and recover. Tonight, I’ll be using it to maintain invisibility across tech islands, where the reserve amounts to about two minutes, this being one of the trickier magics I can pull off.”
I let her absorb that, then went on, “What I’m going to have you doing is spotting for me from magical concealment while I’m running around getting closer to whatever action you spot. Between scouting missions, I’ll rove a bit, extending our range beyond what you can see from your central location, then come back occasionally in case you need me to go on a run for you.”
“Can we link through Gaia, so I can send you messages that way?” Kaitlyn asked.
“No,” I replied regretfully. “That only works when we’re close to each other, and then only when there’s no tech interruption between us. It’d be tough to get into rapport on an artificial greenway sitting side by side, but even if we pulled that off, once I went running across the parking lot or whatever, the link would be severed. Walkie-talkies and phones will be right out, of course.”
“Crap,” she pouted.
“Not that we’d want to be using such tech anyway. We need to be as silent as possible. That’s going to make my runs tricky. I can’t go making slap-slap sounds on the asphalt with my bare feet. It’s going to restrict my range to go slow enough to move silently through quiet parking lots at night.”
Kaitlyn laughed. I looked at her quizzically, so she said, “I’m just imagining you tip-toeing naked through a parking lot, in full view!”
I grinned back at her. She’s right. That was funny stuff right there.
15 minutes later we were crouched behind one of those fenced-in trash areas behind one of the big chain hotels, stripping off, our bikes leaned up against the back side of the fence. We figured no one would go looking around behind one of these places; the fencing is there to help us ignore the nearby presence of so much trash to begin with. The eye learns to just skip right over such places. We were going to try making that cognitive blindness work for us.
I was only a bit worried about someone stealing our bikes. On the one hand, that’s what we were out here chasing, a bike thief. But I was more concerned with our clothes, which we couldn’t lock up. We’d be leaving them in a pile under the bikes, so if someone came for the bikes, they might grab our stuff instead. Or take our clothing and the bikes, too! Thus my reliance on cognitive blindness over cable locks.
“All right,” I whispered, “You’ve got the plan. You can get around and behind three different hotels from here, and you can get out to the highway frontage through those two greenways,” I pointed. “I’m going to run down that one there and then streak across the highway to check out the hotels on the other side for a while.”
She nodded, then sat down, naked behind a hotel-sized trash can, and said, “Hell of a second date, Davie,” before closing her eyes to slip into trance, so she could get under cover.
I wasn’t quite sure how she was numbering these things. Did only the in-town events count? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t able to come up with any logic good enough to interrupt her over.
About a dozen seconds later, she disappeared.
“All right, be back in five, maybe ten minutes, okay?” I told her. Then I wrapped myself in an invisibility bubble and was gone.
Four hours later, I was bored. Bored, bored, bored. Streaking in the night without getting caught is fun for a while, but eventually it was just work. Tip-toe over here, sit and watch, sneak back to Kaitlyn, report null findings. Sneak over there, sit and watch, report back. Sneak, sit, skulk, report. Repeat until bored. Bored, bored, bored!
For a while, there was some people watching to do. Families checking into hotels, adults running back and forth to schlep luggage in, groups going out to a late dinner and then returning. They don’t quite roll up the sidewalks and put them away for the night in Moab, but it does start getting awfully quiet around 10pm, and it was now midnight, so it was dead quiet, only the occasional rush of air from the odd motorist or delivery truck flying through town.
Did I mention that I was bored? Yeah.
I decided to go check on Kaitlyn, so I got up off my grassy ass, rubbed it and my legs clean, and jogged back to her position.
I was careful to step onto the narrow greenbelt she was using, a few dozen feet down from where I last left her, so that she would feel my approach through the Earth before she heard me or saw my footprints compressing the grass she sat on, to avoid startling her. She’d moved, and was now closer than I remembered.
“Anything?” she asked.
“No, I was just coming back to see if you’d seen anything. I’m bored, Kaitlyn. Maybe it’s time to call it a night?”
“Maybe,” she answered. Then she said excitedly, “Davie! Over there!”
There’s another big problem with invisibility: you miss all the social cues we learn from birth to rely on. At this moment, I especially missed the unconscious ability to sense where my interlocutor’s eyes and body were pointing.
“Over across the highway, at the other hotel!” she said insistently.
I spun in place and indeed, across the highway I saw someone walking across the parking lot of a competing chain hotel. Well, it was something to do, so I turned wordlessly and jogged quietly to the highway edge then shifted into a sprint across the highway, maintaining my bubble on stored power.
At the other side, I slowed enough to refill my reserves from the sandy verge before stepping onto the other hotel’s parking lot and going back on reserve power. Then I tip-toed across the lot on a course that would take me to a little patch of grass around a tree embedded in a concrete ring in the middle of the parking lot as part of its traffic flow. Meager sustenance, but it’d let me hang out there indefinitely while keeping an eye on this late-night errand.
The guy was making his way towards one of those large buses — motor coaches, they call them — the kind they run tours with. They bring in a group of tourists from the big city to see the area highlights for a week or so, only a few hours or maybe a day at each spot, and a different hotel each night. Then take the interlopers back to their lives. Those buses were everywhere in this town. I’d planned my commuting and errand routes to avoid Main Street, largely because of those buses. I didn’t hate them, but I did treat them as a hazard to street navigation.
But no…he wasn’t going to the bus… He went to the pickup truck parked next to it. A truck filled with bikes standing in a rack bolted into its bed!
The man looked around, then climbed up into the bed and pulled something out of his light jacket. It looked like…gardening shears?
A sharp metallic sound came from the truck bed: PINK!
Not gardening shears, bolt cutters! By Turing’s testicles, this was going down right in front of me!
Quietly and carefully, the man climbed out of the bed and stood on the rear tire, then hauled one of the bikes down from the bed, released from its cable lock, then carefully lowered it to the ground with a bup-bup-bup bounce on its tires. The man stepped down, turned around, and started digging in one of his pants pockets. He pulled out a jangly keyring and opened the second rearmost cargo door on the bus, the only full-width one that far back. I could see from here that the compartment wasn’t entirely empty, but the man just unloaded the few bags in the hold, put the bike in, and stuffed the bags back in around it. The bike fit neatly into the compartment, hardly taking any fiddling to get it in there. The man quietly shut the door and pressed his full weight on it to set the latch without slamming it shut.
Then the man just stood up and calmly walked right back into the hotel.
Slicker than snot.
I memorized the license plate of the pickup truck then that of the bus and took off sprinting for Kaitlyn. I didn’t care about being heard now.
I gathered her up, snuck her back to where we’d hidden our stuff — still there, thank Ritchie! — dressed and called Poulsen’s personal cell.
“Hey, Officer Poulsen, it’s your favorite nudist. Look, we’re out at the Harriot Holiday 6 Suites, and I think I just caught your baddie in the act!” A pause. “Yeah, I’m going to meet you at the northwest corner of the parking lot. I’ll be on my bike with Kaitlyn.”
We suited actions to words and biked out in a long loop so that we’d be seen coming into frame on any nearby security cameras from the north, as if we’d been on the trails outside of town.
Soon enough, a car came rolling up out of town center, flipped a U-ie across the highway, and parked in the verge nearby. I knew that car… I’d seen it out at my house just yesterday! Officer Poulsen got out.
“Oh, I was expecting you to pull up in your patrol car, Officer,” I greeted him.
“I’m off shift. I was just settling down for the night when you called,” he explained.
“Oh! I’m sorry. I just kind of assumed you’d be working tonight,” I apologized.
“I was, but my shift is 3 to 11pm, so I was back home. Doesn’t matter. It explains the personal call, if anyone asks, and I did tell you to call. You’re my good personal acquaintance, Mr. Bhat, aren’t you, so why wouldn’t you call me?”
“Of course you are. So, does this mean I get to know your first name now?” I asked.
“It does not,” he said firmly.
“Officer Poulsen it remains, then,” I said with a small smile. I explained what we’d seen and then launched into my plan. “We can’t explain the circumstances of the actual stakeout, so the way I want to run this is that we,” waving to indicate Kaitlyn and myself, “were riding the trails north of town, then we’d gone down by the river to hang out a bit and were walking our bikes up to the highway to go back home when we stumbled across this and called you.”
“Yeah, all right, I think we can sell that,” said the officer. “That gets me enough to wake a judge up with a warrant to open that bus.”
I offered, “What if you go park behind the truck and bus so neither can leave, then we can just sit on them until 6am to let everyone get up normally? We can get your warrant, find the owner of the truck through the hotel, and get the tour people out here, all before the tour bus loads up and gets out of town on us.”
“Hmmmm…quite the choice of evils you’ve dropped on me, Mr. Bhat. Either I wake a judge at,” he glanced down at his watch, “1am or I do a quasi-legal seizure on two private vehicles with my personal vehicle, then sit around with you two for five hours.” He stewed on that, then said, “No, I’d better do this one straight. I’ll call one of the on-duty officers, pass along your info, and run it through them.”
“Meaning you don’t have to pull a judge out of bed or interrupt his breakfast over a mere bike theft,” I put in.
“Preeeecisely,” he agreed with a grin. “I can hang out with you until things get started. Then I’ll get to bed and you all can have a nice circus without me.”
“Not interested in the credit, Officer?” Kaitlyn asked.
“Oh, my lieutenant will know the straight story. I can slice off enough credit from this as it goes by. Besides, he wouldn’t like me going cowboy on this. It’s better that we run this all official-like from here on out.”
Kaitlyn and I had to wait for the police bureaucracy to braid red tape in triplicate around the scene before the responding officers could drag the tour bus operator and the bike owner out of their hotel beds, waving the warrant they’d gotten from some judge that they’d also busted out of bed. It was quite the show, but everyone agreed that we couldn’t sit around and wait until civilized hours: the bus would be moving by then.
Days later, I heard back from Officer Poulsen. Interrogation revealed that what I’d seen was just the riskiest part of a much larger plan. The use of the tour bus to smuggle the bikes out of the area meant the thief could fence the bikes in any of the cities the bus regularly drove through, most often doing it in the tour company’s home city, but occasionally doing it along the route at a later night stop down from the theft if the thief got nervous for some reason.
If anyone saw the bus operator handling the bikes, it’d likely be written off as the help moving some other tourists’ belongings around, quickly forgotten. Some of the tourists would see the stolen bike, but they were all just a bunch of strangers thrown together for a week; no one had any idea what “normal” was when it came to the contents of the cargo holds under the bus, doubtless assuming that the bike belonged to another of the tour members. The tourists would all disperse before the deception could fall apart.
The apparent coincidence of the thefts never being caught on camera was also simply explained in retrospect: these tours came through the area regularly, so the driver had plenty of opportunity to scout out good places to park, and he knew when to arrive to ensure good parking opportunities. The thief confessed to chatting up the office staff of the hotels, one hospitality professional to another, sneaking glances at the camera angles in the office security camera’s monitor to find the blind spots.
The odd choice of hotels to hit was also obvious in retrospect: those were the ones the tour company chose to select from. The tour company simply wasn’t doing business with one-off local hotel operators, only major chains. The thefts occurred at different hotels each time as the tour company chose a different one on each trip by picking the lowest bidder to maximize the profit on each trip.
The neatest part is that the actual theft moved the bike only dozens of feet across the parking lot at most, where it would then sit for several hours before leaving the area. Rarely did the thief need to go more than several spots over to find a suitable target. The police were sometimes called out early enough that the victim’s vehicle was still parked near the bus, but none of the officers ever thought to search the bus, thinking the bike was long gone by the time they got there! The tour bus driver just calmly drove the bike out of the area.
It was quite the slick little operation. If it weren’t for us meddling kids…
“So,” I put in at one point, “you aren’t harboring any resentments about this, are you? You put months into this case, and we cracked it in half a night.”
Poulsen laughed a bit, saying, “The way I see it is that I put in months of investigatory work which you then grabbed and ran with, swiping all my credit!”
I knew he was joking, so I responded saying, “Well, it was really easy. All we had to do was stand around naked in the chilling night for four hours. If you’d been willing to do that, maybe you’d be the big hero now.”
He got a thoughtful look on his face and said, “You know, I never really stood a chance at seeing the theft in my patrol car. Even if I’d used my own car, I might well have been seen by the thief before he could act. No, this was good and valuable work, Mr. Bhat. Pass my thanks on to Ms. Gutierrez.”
“I will. Good night, officer.”
They held the trial locally, but they didn’t even call me or Kaitlyn in to testify. The cops extracted a confession easily enough, so it ended up being an open-and-shut case for the local DA. He’d stolen enough bikes over the months they ran the scam that he went away for years.
Later, I heard that they rolled up five different fencing operations by chasing the leads from this case.