Officer Dean Williamson’s first thought when he saw the shoplifter was, “What the hell is that?”
The guy wasn’t making any particular effort to be sneaky about the food he was stealing. This was odd because Williamson was right there at the counter, in uniform, paying for a cup of coffee. The 7-11 clerk, a chunky young woman with bleached-blonde hair and a tattoo of a snake on the side of her neck, said quietly, “Hey. Look at that.”
Williamson turned, and saw a gangling man with a shock of unruly coal-black hair standing in the middle of an aisle, in plain view, putting a package of beef jerky into his coat pocket. Once that was tucked away, he frowned as if considering what to take next, then selected a package of corn chips.
Into the pocket that went, too.
The man’s behavior wasn’t the oddest thing about him, however. Even by the standards of downtown Fall City, he was peculiarly dressed. He had on a pair of torn jeans that were far too short to cover his long legs. His socks were mismatched. One was a white athletic sock with blue stripes, the other heavy gray wool. His shoes were even more strangely paired—on his right foot he had an old black leather dress shoe with a sprung sole, and on the left a bright red Keds sneaker with a long rip down the side.
His Styx t-shirt must have been thirty years old, from the degree to which the “Rockin’ the Paradise” logo had faded, and it was several sizes too large for his narrow shoulders and chest. His jacket was khaki canvas, much patched and sewn, and was also too big for him. The effect was accentuated by the fact that he now had jerky, chips, a box of Hostess Ho-Hos, and a bag of LifeSavers distending the pockets.
Williamson stared at him. He couldn’t arrest the man until he left the premises. If he did, the dude could claim that he was just stowing the stuff in his pockets to bring it up to the counter, and fully intended to pay for everything. And maybe that was it, after all; he looked right at Williamson, a pair of intense dark eyes locking on the officer’s for several seconds before he turned back to pull a can of peanuts from the shelf and tuck it under his arm.
But then he strode toward the door, skinny legs swinging, free hand reaching out to shove the door open.
“Hey!” Williamson shouted. “Hey, you! Stop where you are!”
Without pausing, the man slammed his way through the door, and sprinted off across the parking lot.
“Sheeeit,” Williamson said under his breath, smacked his coffee down on the counter, and gave pursuit.
It was 11 PM, and the lot was nearly empty, although there was still plenty of traffic on Pentland Street South. Was he headed for a car? That'd make a bad situation worse, unless Williamson could stop him before he put it in drive. But the shoplifter didn’t run toward any of the three cars in the store parking lot. Long shanks pumping, mismatched shoes pounding on the asphalt, he sprinted off toward the rough field that stood between the 7-11 and Carlson’s Car Wash.
Williamson was a marathon runner, cyclist, and general gym rat, and it had served him well in the past. It did once again. The shoplifter was slowing, hindered by the uneven ground, his odd footwear, and the packages of food bouncing around in his pockets. After only a short pursuit, Williamson was gaining on him.
“Stop!” he shouted again. “Don’t make me tackle your ass, ‘cuz I will if I have to.”
The shoplifter gave a quick glance over his shoulder. He was wearing a silly grin. Is he a nutcase? Williamson thought. Wonder if he escaped from the psych ward. Certainly looks the part. But the man didn’t stop, and in ten more strides, Williamson was able to grab him by the waistband of his jeans, yanked hard, and the two of them tumbled in a heap to the rocky ground.
The man fought back, for all the good it did. Williamson’s upper arms were as big as the man’s thighs. In seconds, the shoplifter was pinned to the ground, his right arm twisted behind him. He used his left to pitch the can of peanuts at Williamson’s head, missing by several inches, and there was a hollow bonk as it landed somewhere behind them in the darkness.
“You are under arrest,” Williamson said, panting a little. “Shoplifting. You have the right to remain silent…”
The man burst out laughing, a high, wild sound. Yup. He’s a crazy, all right. At least he doesn’t look like one of the violent ones. He was, however, continuing to struggle, rocking from side to side, pulling at his pinioned arm, kicking his legs against the ground. There was a crunching noise as the corn chips inside his jacket were ground to dust.
“… Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just told you?”
The man cackled again, and didn’t answer.
“Dude, you really need to chill out,” Williamson said. He pulled out handcuffs and cuffed his thin wrists, then hauled him to his feet.
The man looked the officer up and down. “You run faster than I would have thought.” Those were first words he’d spoken. His voice was light, musical, intelligent. He sounded completely unconcerned.
“Yeah. Remember next time that when a cop tells you to stop, you stop. Otherwise you get your face rubbed in the dirt.” He took the man’s bony elbow and propelled him back toward the 7-11 parking lot and the waiting police cruiser.
Williamson had driven halfway back to the station before he remembered that he’d left his coffee on the store counter. This did not improve his mood, and he considered returning for it.
“Stone cold by now, anyway,” he muttered to himself.
“What?” the man in the back said, in a cheerful voice.
Williamson escorted the shoplifter into the Fall City Police Station, where he was booked, and offered the opportunity to pay $500 in bail to be released that night. He identified himself as Cyprian James Grove, but he had no identification on him to verify that. When he was asked his address, he laughed and said, “Nowhere near here.”
And about the bail money, he said, “Unless you’ll take a box of smashed Hostess Ho-Hos as collateral for a loan, I’ve got no cash.” He was searched, and there was nothing found in his pockets but the food he’d stolen, so that was removed and he was hustled off to a holding cell.
“One strange mofo for sure,” Rosa Lamperez, the officer who had booked Grove and fingerprinted him, said to Williamson a little later. He’d gotten a cup of coffee to replace the one he’d left at the 7-11 and was sipping it slowly while delaying returning to the beat as long as he could manage.
“Dude was standing there in the middle of the aisle, loading up his pockets. Looked right at me and the cashier, and kept on doing it, then walked to the door like we were gonna wave goodbye and tell him to have a nice night. Even when I caught him and pinned him, he was laughing like it was a big joke. And the clothes. I dunno.”
“College kid who lost a bet?” Rosa said.
“Looks too old to be a college kid. I’d put him at 25 or so. Did he give a birthdate?”
“No. Told me it was none of my damned business how old he was, and to figure it out myself.”
“Huh. I thought I knew most of the weirdos that hang around downtown on sight, but I’ve never seen this guy before.”
“New in town?”
“If so, he walked here. He didn’t have a car. I thought he might have escaped from the psych ward up at Fall City Regional.”
“I don’t know, Dean. But wherever he came from, he’ll be stuck here a while if he can’t make bail. Wonder if he’ll try to call someone tomorrow. Family, or a lawyer, or something.”
“Could be. That’d at least tell us more about him.” Williamson drained the last of his coffee. “I’m back out. Shift ends at four. See you, Rosa.”
At a little after two AM, Officer Khalil Mansour passed the cell where Cyprian Grove was being held, and gave a glance inside. Rosa Lamperez had told Mansour about the shoplifter's odd outfit—"He looks like he got dressed in the dark from the dumpster behind the Salvation Army" were her exact words—and Mansour, who had just gotten off shift and was ready to clock out, was curious enough to take a look.
Grove was in the middle of the cell, on all fours, head down.
Is he puking? Mansour thought. But the guy didn't seem to be sick. He was moving his hand along the floor, backing up a little at a time, his nose inches from the cement, frowning in intense concentration. Between his fingers he held a piece of chalk. He was drawing a line on the floor, every so often turning his head to sight down it, checking it for straightness.
It was while his face was almost resting on the dirty cement that he noticed Mansour looking at him. He broke out in an impish grin.
"Got to make sure it's as straight as I can manage," he said, in a conversational tone, still in the odd position with his cheek near the cold concrete surface and his butt in the air. "Hope you don't mind my drawing on the floor, though. I'm not usually a graffiti artist."
"You need to stop," Mansour said. "You need to give the chalk to me."
"Nope," Grove said amiably. "When they frisked me and emptied my pockets, they missed this. Fortunately. I always carry it in case of an emergency."
"An emergency?" the officer said, at the same time thinking, Why are you letting this guy draw you into a conversation? Rosa was right. He's a wacko. Just go in there and take the chalk.
The cell was operated by a card key, allowing any on-duty officer to get in quickly in case of an emergency. Mansour reached out to swipe the key in the reader, and Grove chuckled.
"Oh, no, you don't. Getting tackled once in a night is enough." He continued his line on the floor all the way to the back wall, then stood. "Hope it's straight enough," he said, looking Mansour right in the eyes. "It'll have to do."
The light turned green. Mansour pulled the cell door open. At the same moment Grove, wearing a goofy grin, said, "Ta-ta, now, Officer. Give my regards to the musclebound guy who arrested me, and the cutie who took my fingerprints." He wiggled his fingers.
Then Cyprian Grove stomped on the chalk line with the foot wearing the dress shoe. It made a resounding smack.
Then he wasn't there any more.
Mansour ran through the door. "What the…" He stopped, looking around the cell as if he expected Grove to reappear like a stage magician, sitting cross-legged on the bed, holding a white rabbit in one hand.
The cell was empty.
Police Captain Sarah Persinger leaned back in her chair, and gave the three cops who were seated in her office a not-very-friendly glare.
"Okay, Mansour," she said, "you're telling me Cyprian Grove vanished. Stomped his foot, and went through the floor like jail cells come equipped with some kind of fucking trap door."
"Captain, you saw the CCTV camera footage…" Mansour began.
"What I saw," Persinger said, "was that as soon as you opened the cell door, he dropped down on all fours, and after that mostly what I saw was your backside."
"That's because he was gone."
Her eyes narrowed. "Don't give me that bullshit. People can't go through cement floors, but they can crawl. And the only way he got out of that cell is past you."
"Then where did he go, Captain?" Lamperez said. "If he got out past Mansour, or behind him or whatever, the guy would still have had to get through the locked door at the end of the hallway. The CCTV down there doesn't show anything."
Persinger gave her a sour look. "I wasn't the one who was there. I also wasn't the one who opened the cell door immediately before a prisoner escaped."
"He was drawing a line on the floor with a piece of chalk," Mansour said.
"I don't care if he was writing out one of Shakespeare's fucking sonnets. You had no reason to open the cell door."
"Grove didn't get out through the door, Captain." Mansour's face was set in a stubborn expression.
"Well, I can tell you he didn't turn himself sideways and go through a chalk line on the floor." Persinger turned toward Williamson, who had been sitting in silence the entire time, his eyes distant. "What about you, Williamson? What can you tell us about our magical disappearing man?"
Williamson looked up at the captain, and shook his head. "There's something wrong with him. Wrong in the head, you know? He was shoplifting all of this food, looking me right in the face as he did it. When I took him down, he laughed, like it was no big deal." He met Persinger's eyes steadily. "Like he knew he didn't have anything to worry about. Like he knew he could get away if he needed to."
Persinger snorted. "So you believe Mansour's story, that this man fell through a crack in the jail cell floor?"
No one spoke.
She gave a piece of paper on her desk an exasperated shove. "We need to find this guy and get him back into custody. Because right now, all four of us are looking like incompetents who can't even keep an unarmed shoplifter locked up for the night. I'm gonna have to file a report on this, and when the Chief of Police sees it, which he will, it's gonna make the whole lot of us look like the Keystone Kops. Internal Affairs is gonna investigate this thing from top to bottom no matter what, but we need to do whatever we can to stop this from blowing up in our faces. I want Grove found, I want him brought back in, and I want it done before the Chief of Police hands me my ass on a platter. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," all three said.
As they were leaving, Williamson turned to Mansour and said, "I believe you, K. There was something weird about that guy. He wasn't no ordinary shoplifter, that's for damn sure."
Mansour shook his head. "I saw it, Dean. I saw it with my own eyes. He was drawing a line on the floor with this little stub of chalk. And he said something about always carrying it with him, because it could come in handy in an emergency. Then he stepped on the line, and went right through it." He held out one hand, palm upward. "I can't explain it any better than you can. But I'm as sure of it as I am that I'm standing here right now. Persinger can threaten me all she wants, but I'm not going to lie."
"So maybe she's right about one thing. Maybe we need to find Cyprian Grove and see if we can figure out what the hell is going on here." His expression was grim. "But if we do catch that crazy sumbitch again, I'm gonna check his pockets for chalk."