The young man was small and thin and very nervous. Wrapped in a sailor's jersey a size too big for him and with a cap jammed down to eyebrow level, he looked strangely like an eight-year-old dressed in an older kid's clothes. Stanford Tirrell almost smiled at that image; but there really wasn't anything funny about all of this. Keeping his peripheral vision on the piles of crates and equipment lying around the dock, he stepped away from the security gate and walked out to meet the young man.
"Mr. Potter?" the other asked as Tirrell approached. His voice made Tirrell revise his age estimate downward. The sailor couldn't be over twenty-four—barely old enough to be out of school—and the fact that he'd clearly been sailing for a while implied he'd dropped out early. Tirrell felt a surge of pity for him... but he had a job to do.
"Yeah," he said gruffly in answer to the other's query. "What'ya got for me?"
The sailor locked eyes with him for an instant before switching his gaze to somewhere in the vicinity of Tirrell's left cheek. "Raellian whiskey—but remember, you gotta pay what you said, 'cause if my usual buyer finds out—"
"Relax," Tirrell cut him off. "I got the money right here." He tapped his coat pocket and nodded over the sailor's shoulder at the weathered freighter rocking gently alongside its moorings a hundred meters away, its logo and number only barely legible. "The stuff still aboard or did you off-load already?"
"Aboard. Gimme the money and I'll tell you where."
Silently, Tirrell pulled out the envelope and handed it over. The sailor produced a long-bladed knife from somewhere and slit the envelope open with a quick flick of his wrist. Reaching in, he leafed through the bills, his lips moving as he counted.
"It's all there," Tirrell growled, wanting to get this over with. "Where's the merchandise?"
The sailor stuffed the envelope into his hip sporran; with a brief hesitation the knife likewise vanished. "Starboard hold, third locker," he muttered. "The back comes off—use a knife on the water sealant and push the bottom; it swings back. The stuff's in the ballast space behind and below, in six mesh bags."
"How do I get aboard?" Tirrell asked. "Is there someone who knows enough to look the other way?"
"No—there's just me." The sailor was backing away, clearly anxious to fade back into Ridge Harbor's dockyard community. "How you get aboard is your problem. I just get the stuff through customs."
"True," Tirrell agreed, reaching into his pocket again. "And I'm afraid that's going to cost you."
Something in Tirrell's voice must have tipped him off, because the sailor was running full-tilt for the security gate before Tirrell even got his ID badge clear of the pocket. Sighing, Tirrell put a finger in his mouth and gave a trilling whistle. If his trusty righthand was where he was supposed to be...
The sailor increased his speed—and suddenly screamed in panic as his feet left the ground. For another second his legs pumped madly, in a cartoon-like pantomime of flight, before abruptly giving up. Hanging motionlessly, thirty centimeters off the ground, he looked like a marionette with invisible strings. Farther ahead, drifting from his concealment near the fence, a grinning preteen appeared, making gift-wrapping motions with his hands as he flew over the gate. Breaking into a jog, Tirrell headed for the dangling prisoner, reaching him the same time the preteen did.
"That basically how you wanted it done?" the boy asked, settling to the ground.
"More or less," Tirrell nodded. "Your sense of humor leaves something to be desired, though." Stepping in front of the sailor, he held up his badge for inspection. "Detective First Stanford Tirrell, Ridge Harbor Police," he identified himself. "You're under arrest for smuggling. Tonio, let him down."
The preteen did so, and under his watchful eye Tirrell relieved the prisoner of knife and payoff money and secured his hands with wrist cuffs. "Let's go," he said, taking the other's arm and pointing him toward the gate. "Tonio, the whiskey's still aboard the ship over there. Make sure no one enters or leaves until the shakedown squad gets here, okay? I'll call them from the car and tell them how to find it."
"Sure," Tonio nodded. "Should be easy...." Gazing over Tirrell's shoulder, he frowned slightly with concentration. Glancing back, Tirrell watched the ship's gangway flip up to balance precariously on its edge. "That should keep the traffic down," the preteen said with obvious satisfaction.
Shaking his head, Tirrell rolled his eyes exaggeratedly heavenward and marched his prisoner away. Only when his back was to his righthand did he allow a smile to reach his face. Tonio still liked to think his sense of humor could annoy his partner.
It was nearly two hours later, and Tirrell was catching up on some of his backlog of paperwork, when the summons came to report upstairs.
"Bad news," Police Chief Alverez said as Tirrell took the seat in front of the cluttered desk and politely declined the pantomimed offer of a drink. "Your smuggler friend's a dead end. A complete amateur, and seems to be a loner, to boot."
Tirrell nodded; the sailor's youth and obvious inexperience had already led him to the same conclusion. All those hours of digging through the customs office's truly horrible record system—gone, just like that. "How does he account for the diamonds in his last delivery?" he asked.
"He doesn't." Alverez smiled thinly. "He thought we were joking when we asked about that. When we convinced him we were serious, I thought he was going to rupture a blood vessel."
"I'll bet." Tirrell gazed out the window for a long moment. One of the small pleasures—usually the only one, in fact—of being called into the chief's office was the panoramic view the corner windows offered of both Ridge Harbor's sheltered bay and the line of white bluffs that hemmed the city in from the west. "It makes a certain lopsided sense, you know," he mused. "Most of the professional gem smugglers are too well known to move without attracting attention. So you pick a schmuck who's trying to make a few bills and stick the stuff into his whiskey cache. No one's really likely to bother with him. Does he have a record, by the way?"
Alverez shook his head, plucked a piece of paper from a stack in front of him. "Luz Sandur, twenty-three; dropped out of Tweenriver Academy two years ago. Mild sort of troublemaker in his hive, I gather, which meant he never got the necessary points for anything over Basic at school. Saw the handwriting on the wall—"
"Too late, of course," Tirrell interjected.
"They always do. Decided he was in a dead-end position and wangled an apprenticeship in the merchant marine. It apparently wasn't what he expected."
Tirrell shook his head sadly. It was always the same story: preteen on top of the world at his hive, without the brains to look ahead to life after Transition. It wasn't like the event sneaked up on anyone—Transition was as sure as death and paperwork. Still, pretending it wasn't going to happen was an easy trap to fall into, especially given the horror stories that circulated in the hives. Even after twenty years Tirrell's own memories of that time held some sore spots. "What about his buyer here? Have you picked him up yet?"
"Yeah, but I'm not sure it'll lead us anywhere. He claims he doesn't know anything about gem smuggling—says his warehouse was broken into the night after we intercepted that load eight months back." Alverez shrugged. "I'm inclined to believe him—like Sandur, he's too small an operator for professionals to trust."
"Which leaves us whoever in Raella is pulling the Cleopatra act," Tirrell growled. Eight months of hard work, gone like a hole in water.
"I believe Cleopatra was only putting pearls in wine, but you've got the right idea." Alverez scratched his cheek and picked up another piece of paper. "It's Raella's ball now—which is just as well, because something came in half an hour ago that I want you on. It looks like we might have a new fagin operating in town."
The hairs on the back of Tirrell's neck stirred, and suddenly the scenery outside the window didn't seem quite so picturesque any more. Gem smugglers were businessmen, opponents to match wits with; fagins were more on a level with vermin. "What's happened?"
"Four-year-old boy was kidnapped in broad daylight at Vaduz Park—kidnapped so casually that his sitter didn't even realize what had happened until an hour afterward. We've got a shakedown squad out there now looking for clues, but I'm not expecting much."
"The boy's parents been notified?" Tirrell asked, already heading for the door.
"Foster parents, yes. They're on their way to the park now."
Tirrell nodded grimly. "All right. I'll see you later."
Opening the door, he left at a fast walk.
The sitter who'd been watching Colin Brimmer was seventeen years old, a student at Ridge Harbor Introductory School picking up a few extra points toward medical training. She was also very near the point of tears, a point which, judging by the puffiness of her eyes, she'd already been by at least once. "I don't know what else I can tell you, Detective Tirrell," she said, sniffing as she fought halfheartedly with her sinuses. "I've told the other policemen everything I know. Please, I just want to go home."
"I understand, Miss Thuma," Tirrell said gently, "but it's important that I hear the story from you, personally, before any of the details begin to fade."
She sniffed once more and briefly closed her eyes. "We got here about two o'clock—Colin, me, and two other children from the neighborhood that I sit for. One of the older men who're sometimes here was sitting over there." She waved toward a nearby bench, the current focus of attention for two of Ridge Harbor's best shakedown men. "I'd seen him three or four times in the past month or two, the last time two days ago. He was about average height and build, I guess, with a gray beard and medium-length gray hair, and he wore glasses."
"Had you talked to him before today?"
"Yes—on Wednesday. That was the first time," she added, sounding a little defensive. "He came up and introduced himself and specifically said hello to Colin. Colin seemed to know him, so I thought he was a friend of the Brimmers."
"How long was this conversation?"
"Just a few minutes. He sounded cultured and well-educated. I—I didn't think he—" She sniffed loudly and got her face back under control. "Anyway, he told me he was a city building inspector who was retiring early for health reasons. He pointed out his apartment building—that white one through the trees." She pointed. "Then he said good-bye and went back to his bench to read. He was still there when we left."
"Okay." Tirrell made a note on his pad. "Now tell me about today."
"He was here when we got here, sitting on his usual bench. He said hello and said he'd brought a small gift for each of the children—they were little model airplanes. They'd been flying them for a half hour when Colin's hit the ground too hard and broke. Mr. Oliver—that's the man—tried to fix it, but he couldn't. He said he would have to go to his apartment, where his glue and vise were, and asked Colin if he wanted to come watch. Colin seemed eager, and—well, he seemed to know him—"
"Yes, you told me already," Tirrell said, striving to keep his voice even. He couldn't really blame the teen; she'd probably never had more than a half hour of instruction on the art of child-sitting in her life. Besides, she clearly still had the reflexes of the hive structure she'd so recently left, reflexes geared to obedience toward authoritative adults. "So they left. It then took you a whole hour to become suspicious?"
She nodded, a single forlorn jerk of the head. "I'm sorry," she said miserably.
Glancing around, Tirrell caught the eye of a policeman and beckoned to him. "I'm going to ask you to go down to the station with this officer," he told the teen, "and describe this Mr. Oliver for one of our artists. Okay?"
"Sure." She sniffed once more and left with the policeman, her shoulders curled with dejection. A motion off to his left caught Tirrell's eye, and he turned as Tonio landed a few meters away.
"Couple of messages for you, Stan," the preteen said. "First: the address is a phony. No one there's ever heard of this Oliver guy or anyone with his description."
"Big surprise," Tirrell growled. "You're going to like this guy, Tonio—he's got your warped sense of humor."
"What do you mean?"
"The term 'fagin' originally came from a pre-Expansion Earth book, whose title happens to be Oliver Twist. What's the other message?"
"Colin's parents are here."
Tirrell glanced once at the men working on the bench. "Good. Let's go talk to them."
The detective had never met the Brimmers, but their reputation was well-known in official Ridge Harbor circles. Both in their early forties, they had been foster parents to six children over the past eighteen years, providing the close family background that seemed to best minimize the later transitional shocks to hive, school, and adulthood. Their record had been one of the best in the city... until now.
They were standing together near the row of police cars, obviously upset but under much better control than the teen sitter had been. The man took a step forward as Tirrell and Tonio walked up to them. "Are you the officer in charge here, sir?" he asked.
Tirrell nodded. "Detective First Tirrell; this is Tonio Genesee, my righthand. You are Thom and Elita Brimmer, of course. First of all, do you know anyone named Oliver, or anyone who has gray hair, a beard, and wears glasses?"
Both shook their heads. "We've had a few minutes to think about it—the policeman who drove us here gave us Lenna's description," Elita said. "We're quite sure we don't know anyone like that. But I wonder whether or not the hair and beard are a disguise. In that case he probably could be almost anyone."
"Good point." Tirrell had come to that obvious conclusion long ago. "Next: is there any reason to suspect Colin may have been kidnapped for purposes of ransom? Or that someone might want him in order to force you to do anything?
Again, two solid negatives. Tirrell hadn't expected anything else, but the questions had to be asked. "All right. Then I'd like to go to your house with you and look over both Colin's things and any photos you have of him, especially recent ones taken outside. After that I want you to tell me everything you can about Colin, your friends and acquaintances, your daily schedule—everything that could conceivably give us a clue."
"We're at your complete disposal, Detective," Brimmer said. "We want this man caught as badly as you do."
I doubt that very much, Tirrell thought blackly as he led the way to his car. The Brimmers had most likely never seen what could happen to a child who was brought up by a fagin. Tirrell had.
It wasn't something he was anxious to see again.