Theft at the National Potato Repository

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“Idaho makes all fifty,” Black said as they got out of the car. McCoy just raised an eyebrow. Black shrugged and they went into the precinct. “Yeah, would have thought the last state I’d visit would be Alaska or Hawaii, or maybe one of the smaller ones in New England. Hardly the strangest thing in our lives these days, though.”

“Point,” McCoy said.

“You guys the FBI agents they sent in?” a young officer asked. His badge said his name was Thompson.

“Agent Black, and my partner, Agent McCoy. The report was a little vague. Somebody’s been stealing from the National Potato Repository?”

The officer grinned. “Something like that.”

“No offense, but that sounds like something your department should be able to handle. Why did you call the ‘Department?’”

The FBI had formed a new branch, specifically to investigate the bizarre occurrences that had been happening over the last two years. It currently consisted of Black, McCoy, a dozen other FBI agents, and one overworked secretary. They didn’t have anyone in charge yet, and Black was pretty sure the next department head to screw up would be ‘promoted’ to the position. Nobody had come up with a satisfactory name for the department, largely because even the agents weren’t exactly sure what they were doing. So they just called it the ‘Department,’ and most people knew what they meant.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try us,” McCoy said.

“Just follow me,” Thompson said. “You’ll see soon enough.”

Black exchanged a look and a shrug with McCoy. They went back out to their car and followed the young cop in his squad car. It wasn’t long before they could see the silos of the repository.

“Does something look odd about that one on the right?” Black asked.

“… Yeah,” McCoy said, as if he had an idea what they where looking at, but strongly hoped he was wrong.

It quickly became obvious that he wasn’t wrong. Thousands of potatoes sat in a tall cylinder. By all accounts they should have fallen in to a great big pile, but for whatever reason they hadn’t.

Thompson was waiting for them in the parking lot, with a giant grin on his face. Black got out of the car and took off his sunglasses to get a better look and the impossible pile of potatoes.

“So when you said someone was robbing the National Potato Repository,” Black said, “you didn’t mean they were robbing from the repository, did you?”

“Nope,” Thompson said, “that’s why I said you wouldn’t believe me.”

“We would have,” McCoy said.

Black nodded. “The same thing happened at an amusement park in Colorado. Tracks went missing, but the coaster somehow ran fine without them. We still had to shut them down, of course.”

“You’re kidding me!” Thompson said.

“No,” Black replied, looking up at the tower of potatoes again. “We’re the Department. We don’t have to make things up.”

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The Death of Mr. Errington

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“Sir,” Agent Black said, “for the last time. Your wife has an alibi. If you’ll please let me do my job.”

“Then she had her lover do it!” Mister Errington snapped. “She knew I knew. I had proof! Once I divorced her, she’d have nothing!”

Black let out a heavy sigh. “Your wife’s lover is her alibi. I need to ask you to leave.”

“This is my house!” Errington said.

“It’s a crime scene.”

“It’s my crime scene!”

“Why do we always get the weird ones?” Black asked his partner.

McCoy shrugged. “Just ignore him.”

Easy for him, Black thought. Errington had been rich, and the fact that he couldn’t take it with him hadn’t made him any less entitled.

“They must have hired someone to do it!”

That simply wasn’t possible. Errington had frozen her accounts, and her lover was a young artist “suffering for his craft.” She simply didn’t have the money to hire an assassin.

“Is there any precedent for this?” Black asked. “I mean, this must have happened before at some point, right?”

McCoy just looked at him.

Black sighed again. “Right. If there was, they wouldn’t be calling us in for a routine homicide.”

“Routine!” Errington said. “Do you know who I am?”

“No,” Black snapped, “I have no clue who you are. I decided it would be more fun to solve a murder without reading any of the local cops’ notes, and checking the driver’s license in the corpse’s wallet felt like cheating!”

Errington’s pale, translucent face turned a shade darker. “I’ll have your badge for that!”

That was the last straw. “Really? How are you going to do that? You’re dead. Since you never filed for divorce and have no will, all of your money belongs to your wife now. All of your connections, all of your corporate inter… ests…”

McCoy reached the same conclusion. He was already flipping through pages of the police reports.

“Here,” he said, pulling a paper out and handing it to Black. The All-Tech logo was printed neatly at the top.

“Oh, I hope this was them,” Black said. “I’m tired of them wriggling out of everything we throw at them.”

McCoy smiled at Errington. “One question remains: can you leave this room?” And the two FBI agents walked out on the indignant ghost.

The Final Trick

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McCoy leaned over. “He’s using a trapdoor.”

Black smiled as the man on stage stepped between the audience and his assistant. She was blocked from their sight for less than a second, but then she was gone.

“Nice try,” Black said, “but no.”

McCoy scowled. “You don’t know.”

“That’s an easy trick. The only thing impressive about it is how quickly he does it.”

“Then how does he-” McCoy was cut off as the woman sitting behind him sushed him.

McCoy sulked through the rest of the show, which amused Black. His partner was usually the cryptic one. He used his silence as an effective tool, keeping people wondering just what he knew. To someone who knew him as well as Black did, it was obvious that he didn’t like being kept out of the loop.

Black had only dabbled in stage magic when he was younger, and other than some last minute research for this assignment, he hadn’t paid any attention to the field since he joined the force ten years ago. Despite that, by the second show, he knew how Inferno did almost all of his tricks. However, he had taken the oath that all stage magicians made, and unless it became important to the investigations, he wasn’t going to tell anyone how Inferno’s tricks worked.

The fact was, Inferno wasn’t terribly creative — at least, not with the actual tricks. He took relatively simple tricks and dressed them up with well-crafted showmanship, unbelievable speed, and an excessive amount of pyrotechnics. It had made him very famous, but also a joke among the magic community.

There was one trick Black couldn’t figure out, though. It wasn’t even the trick, really. Right before his finale, he transformed his assistant into a flock of birds — this one did use a trap door — and had her change back on platform suspended above the stage. The trick was easy to work out, except for one part.

 

“There just isn’t time,” he muttered, as they retired to their hotel room.

“Hmm?” McCoy asked.

“The real challenge of any translocation trick is getting the target from point A to point B without anyone seeing. The misdirection is more important than the trick itself. I just don’t see how she can get to the platform in time.”

McCoy smiled this time. “So you can’t figure it out.”

Black began to pace. “That’s just the thing. I can think of two or three ways to pull off the trick, but they all involve her moving up as she disappears. It’s the only way to get her high enough in such a short window.”

“And?”

“And he’s using a trapdoor. She’s going down. That should be adding at least a two or three seconds to her time.”

“Trick only takes one-point-five.”

“I don’t know how those pencil-pushers spotted it, but I think they’re right.”

“All-Tech?” McCoy asked.

Black leafed through their file on Jeremiah “Inferno” Shenkman. “There’s no connection between Shenkman and All-Tech, but what do we have on his assistant, Miss Embers?”

McCoy grunted. “Nothing. Don’t even have her real name. No records before two years ago.”

“Which is when all this All-Tech crap started. That can’t be a co-incidence.”

“You’re the magician,” McCoy said. “What’s the plan?”

Black grinned. “We know she’s going down before she goes up. We just need to sneak under the stage and see how she does it.”

Fowler’s Field

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“Can I help you?” a young police officer said as the pair entered the station.

“I’m Agent Black. This is Agent McCoy.” He held up his badge. “FBI. We’re here to talk to the young men responsible for the incident at Fowler’s Field.”

“And a woman,” the officer said.

“The report said only three people were involved,” Agent Black said, taking a sheet of paper from a folder and looking at it. “Tim Lar, Paul Yellowstone, and Jack McMire.” Agent McCoy just raised an eyebrow.

“That’s right, but Jack’s a woman. Well, a girl. A tomboy, really. Her full name is Jaqueline, but we all call her Jack.”

Black frowned. “You might want to put her full name down on future reports.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

There was a long pause.

“Well?” Black said.

“Oh, right. They’re in the interview room, just back there.” He pointed to a door at the back of the station. “Surprised to see feds out here for some high school prank.”

“When you stop using acres and start using square miles, it’s not a high school prank anymore.”

Three miserable looking teens, fourteen years old at most, sat on one side of the table. Their heads raised in unison as the agents walked in the room. A moment of confusion passed before the kids realized what strangers in suits meant.

“We didn’t do anything!” one of them said, standing up. This had to be Jack, Agent Black thought. She only looked feminine in contrast to her companions. If you put her with a bunch of girls, most people would probably mistake her for a boy.

“Sit down,” McCoy told her. She obeyed instantly.

“Does that make you the good cop?” one of the boys said, looking hopefully at Agent Black.

“We’re FBI, not cops,” he said. “We don’t do the good cop, bad cop routine. We’re actually here to help you.”

“Yeah, right,” the other boy said.

“Are you Tim or Paul?” Black asked.

The teen tried to stare defiantly, but he trembled a bit too much. “Tim. Why?”

“Because, Tim, when I tell you to take the chip off your shoulder, I want to know who I’m talking to. We didn’t come down here to throw a few delinquents in juvie. So I’ll make you a deal. If you actually managed to do this, just tell me how you pulled it off, and my partner and I will walk out that door. We won’t tell anyone what you said, and you can go back to dealing with Deputy Barney out there.”

Tim blinked uncomprehendingly at him.

“Reference’s too old,” McCoy said.

“Yeah, I get it,” Black snapped back. “The point is, you’ll have one less thing to deal with. So what happened last night?”

“I don’t know, man,” Tim said. “I just woke up in the middle of Fowler’s Field with Paul and…” He trailed off, his cheeks flushing as he looked at Jack. Her face also turned red and she gave a murderous look at Tim.

McCoy’s pen scratched loudly on his notepad in the silence. “Woke up, naked, in corn field,” he muttered to himself as he wrote.

Black had to fight not to smirk. “Were you drinking the night before?”

“No way!” Tim said.

“I’m not going to report you if you were.”

“No alcohol. No drugs. Nothing, man.”

Black looked at the other two for any reaction. They looked frightened, but not particularly guilty, and he found himself believing them.

“Were you together the night before?”

“Together like, together together?” Paul asked, his face still red. Jack punched him in the arm.

“Let’s do this the simple way,” McCoy said, not looking up from his notepad. He pointed at Paul with his pen. “You. What’s the last thing you remember from the night before the incident?”

“I dunno.”

“Try harder.”

Paul frowned in concentration. “I remember eating dinner, cause Mom was mad at Johnny – that’s my brother – for playing video games when he should’ve been doing his homework.”

“That’s a start,” Agent Black said. “What happened after that?”

“I went up to my room, and studied for the test… I think… I remember looking out the window.”

“What did you see?”

He closed his eyes. “I… I don’t know. I don’t even remember what made me look out the window in the first place.”

“Hey,” Jack said, suddenly, “I did, too… I think. I was studying, and there was… a noise or a light or something…”

“How about you, Tim?” Black asked.

Tim shook his head. “I don’t remember anything like that.”

“Well, it’s something,” Black said, more to himself than the kids. A thought struck him. “I don’t suppose any of you have heard of All-Tech?”

“Who?” Paul asked.

“Nevermind.”

McCoy let out a quiet chuckle. “Couldn’t be that simple.”

“Had to try,” Black said with a shrug. He turned back to the teenagers. “Think. Did you notice anything unusual that night.”

“You don’t think it was aliens, do you?” Jack asked, her voice barely more than a whisper.

“I don’t have enough information to speculate at this point.”

“That’s not a ‘no’, is it?” she said, staring down at the table.

“I’m sorry, but until I find a way that three teenagers could flatten that much corn in a single night, I can’t rule anything out.”

“What happens to us now?” Paul asked.

“I’ll see about getting you three released so you can go home. It looks like we’ll be investigating here a while.” He slid a card to each of the teens. “Call me if you remember anything else.”

Once the agents had left the police station, Black turned to his partner.

“It couldn’t really be aliens, could it? We’ve seen some weird stuff, but… aliens?”

“Well, we know one thing,” McCoy said.

“Oh?”

“If it is aliens, they’re remarkably cliché.”

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

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“Maybe the whole thing backfired on him?” Agent Black suggested.

Agent McCoy didn’t look up from the report, but merely grunted.

“I mean, Sticks was an experiment, right? Maybe his brain just shut down. Or maybe he wigged out and offed himself with his own powers.”

Another grunt.

“It can’t be a coincidence. We’re tracking down a guy who can kill people with his brain, and when we find him, he’s in the same state as all of his victims. No visible physical damage aside from a nosebleed, but the brain is completely fried.”

McCoy handed the papers to Black, who glanced over them briefly.

“Yeah, a list of victims in the area. It’s not like he hasn’t left us an entire trail to follow. I guess he stuck around here for a while.”

“Last one. Look at the date.”

Black stared at the paperwork for a second. This particular death, while identical to the others, happened three years ago. Sticks had only been loose for two weeks.

“Shit.”

 

“What if he always had these powers?” Black said as they climbed the stairs to the third floor. “I mean, before he was caught and selected for experimentation. He could have killed the victim back then.”

McCoy and Black had been partners for two years now, which was why Black knew McCoy’s grunt meant “You’re reaching.”

“Yeah, he wouldn’t have bothered with the knife. Damn All-Tech. I didn’t join the FBI to track down psychic mutants.”

The third floor of the apartment building was pretty much identical to the first two. Paul Jones, age seventeen, had died here three years ago. It had been declared the results of an unexpected seizure, so there was no real investigation.

Sticks’s body was also found in the alley behind it, so it seemed like a good place to start.

“You want to do the talking this time?” Black asked with a grin.

McCoy just knocked on the door.

The first thing that entered Black’s mind was that the young woman who answered was notably ugly, and he hated himself for thinking it. He was an FBI agent. It was his job to help people, not judge them. But at the same time, he couldn’t help dwell on her gaunt cheeks, her sallow skin. Her dark brown hair was pulled back, and there was something unsettling about it, but he couldn’t quite seem to figure out what.

She was also wearing a thick red cloth tied over her eyes. He didn’t know how he managed to take in every unattractive feature of her before noticing that.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“Sorry,” he said, recovering his wits. “I’m Agent Black. This is Agent McCoy. FBI. We’ve got a few questions. How long have you lived here?”

“I moved here a little over three years ago.”

Agent Black exchanged a look with McCoy.

“Did you know a boy who lived here around that time? Paul Jones?”

She shivered. “The one who died. Yes, I knew him. He was… unpleasant.”

“Could you elaborate on that, ma’am?”

“Where are my manners. Please, come in, come in. Can I get you some tea?”

It was answer enough. None of the other tenants had said it directly, but it had become increasingly clear that Jones was a bully. It wasn’t hard to imagine him picking on the ugly, blind woman.

The FBI agents entered the apartment. Clay pots and bowls of every size cluttered the living room. Various machines were organized neatly in one corner. Agent Black could only guess that they were used to make pottery.

“Tea won’t be necessary, Miss…?”

“Ceto. Meda Ceto. Are you sure?”

“Ma’am,” McCoy said, glancing about. “Do you have any pets?” Black stared at him as if he had never seen his partner before.

“Pets? No. We’re not allowed pets here. Why do you ask?”

“I thought I heard something. Nevermind.”

Miss Ceto placed an old teapot and cups down on the table. “Just in case you change your minds.” She sat down, and gestured for them to join her. Black did, but McCoy stayed standing, looking cautiously around.

Black gave his partner a meaningful glare before turning back to Miss Ceto. “I know this was a while ago, but did you notice anything strange around the time Mr. Jones died?”

“I don’t think so. I had only been here a month, though. If there was anything strange going on, I wouldn’t have been able to tell. I thought his death was a seizure. Why is the FBI suddenly interested?”

“That’s not important, Miss Ceto. Have you…” He had started to pull out a picture of Sticks to ask if she’d seen him, when he caught himself. “Have you ever met a man named Steven Ticks, also known as ‘Sticks’?”

She shook her head. “No. Not by either of those names, at least.”

“Do you hear something?” McCoy said. His hand twitched towards his gun.

Standing up, Black walked over to McCoy. “What is wrong with you?” he said in a furious whisper.

McCoy didn’t meet Black’s eyes. “Thought I heard a hissing sound.”

“Oh, dear,” Miss Ceto said, apparently perfectly capable of hearing their whispered conversation. “That would probably be Molly.”

“Molly?” Black asked.

“The Petersons – they live next door – their boy has pet snake. He’s not supposed to have her, mind you. She sometimes gets loose and comes here. She likes to curl up in my pots.” McCoy jumped away from the nearest collection of pottery as if he had been burned.

“Thank you for your time, Miss Ceto,” Agent Black said, grabbing his usually stoic partner and forcing him out of the apartment.

 

When they were gone, Meda removed the blindfold, blinking at the sudden increase in light.

“Molly,” she called out. “Are you here?” The corn snake obediently rose out of one of the larger pots. She held out her arm and Molly slithered up.

“Did you come to keep me company?” Meda asked her. “After that man – Sticks, I suppose he is called – broke in here, I can’t really blame you for worrying over me. And I do appreciate being able to look someone in the eyes. We had best be getting you home, though.”

With a sigh, she began to wrap the cloth over her eyes again.