Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

The Case of the Imperfect Imposter

A Star Hawkins Mystery

by Chaim Mattis Keller

I was busy shadowing my quarry - a dangerous master of disguise who has, my informant told me, a compulsive predilection for a certain unusual shade of green. This guy had to be him; he had a handkerchief of that color in his back pocket. I had no idea where he was headed, but it wasn't difficult following him through the streets of New City. The crowd began to thin out a bit and suddenly, my peripheral vision caught a flash of something green…that same shade so beloved by the man I was following. Without turning my head, I could see that off to my side and slightly behind me a woman was wearing a dress with a sash of that color. Was I following the wrong person? I suppose someone else could be wearing that color by coincidence…and that the person I'm really after is a woman, or dressed like one. A few more blocks of walking, and there were only a few of us left on the street. As I passed a store window, I caught another glimpse of that color being worn by someone behind me. Two people around me wearing that color might have been coincidence. Three was not. Apprehension gripped my throat as I was forced into the realization that I'd been set up, and only the presence of a few passersby was saving me from being plugged.

What is it about the feeling that you're about to die that makes the recent past race through your head, rather than the present and the need to ensure that you have a future? Somehow, I had to get this flashback out of my system so I could concentrate on escaping the trap.


My name's Star Hawkins, and I'm a private eye operating out of New City, North America, Earth. My relationship with the local police is usually pretty good, as I'm a law-abiding citizen who does his best to capture any crooks that escape their watchful eye. But they do have a somewhat justified suspicion of hired guns, and this has come back to haunt me.

The curtain had just recently dropped on the year 2082, when I received a visit from the local police. "How can I help you, officers?" I asked with a smile. My smile disappeared when I looked more closely at their faces.

"Mister Hawkins, please accompany us to the station house," one of them ordered me in a sour tone of voice.

"Sure," I said, extremely puzzled. I told my robotic secretary, Ilda, to hold down the fort in the office while I went downtown.

I was brought into the station house and into an interrogation room. Police Chief Ronald Karan, who I considered a friend, walked in. "Am I glad to see you!" I said. "What's going on? You'll give me a straight answer, right?"

Ronald sighed. "You'll get that, Star, but you're not going to like it." He took a videocassette out of a pouch he carried. "Watch this."

I watched in horror as the videocassette from a bank's security camera played a robbery scene. A man walked into the bank and set off an alarm. He pulled out a blaster and shot two guards responding to the alarm. He herded all of the bank's customers into a corner and forced a teller, at gunpoint, to fill a sack with bills. And, as he turned around to make his escape, the robber seemed to pause in order to show his face to the camera.

My face.

After I got over the initial shock, I turned to Ronald. "You can't seriously think that's me!" I sputtered.

Ronald turned his face away from mine. "Do you have an alibi for the morning of January 2, 2083?" he asked.

The other cops fixed me with steely stares and succeeded in making me feel uncomfortable. I needed to grit my teeth and gather some bluster. "Let's say I don't," I said. "I'm no felon, and you know that."

Ronald, still unwilling to look me in the eye, asked, "How are your finances, Star? Been forced to pawn Ilda lately?"

"I can't believe you're even asking me these questions!" I yelled. "If you can't trust that I'd never do a thing like that, you can ditch the first-name familiarity, Chief Karan."

For the first time since the ordeal began, he turned to look me in the eye. "I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Hawkins," he said softly. "I notice you haven't given any of those questions a straight answer yourself. Please step this way," he said, motioning toward the booking desk, where they would take a blood sample to have my DNA-identification on file. Soon, I'd have an actual arrest record and I'd be in jail, because for murder, especially during the commission of an armed robbery, even pawning Ilda wouldn't get me the money I'd need for bail. I had to make a move.

Ronald waved away the other officers and slowly escorted me toward the arrest desk. Under his breath, he whispered, "I'm sorry I had to talk like that, Star, but I'm a public official and have to look good. Get out there and clear yourself. You've got ten, fifteen seconds to make your move."

Good old Ronald! I put my hands in my pockets and felt around. "Axel Starker Hawkins," the desk officer addressed me. "Do you have anything to say?"

"Boom," I responded.

"What?" asked the desk officer, startled.

"I said, BOOM!" I yelled. I pulled something out of my pocket and threw it into a corner of the room.

Ronald helped me. "It's a bomb!" he yelled. "Down! Everybody down!" Officers across the room hit the deck, and I bolted for the door. With Ronald on my side, I knew he'd give me the time I need before telling another officer to examine the item I threw, which was actually my wallet.

Outside, I immediately regretted ditching the wallet, as I had to get away, and quickly. I didn't have much cash on me, and, as a fugitive, the identification in my wallet would have been more of a liability to me than an asset. But now, I couldn't hail a cab or catch a bus; a dragnet of cops would surround the area in no time.

I scanned the street, desperately looking for a place to hide. My eye spotted a woman carrying groceries into a nearby residential building. "Need a hand, Ma'am?" I offered politely.

She looked at me warily. "No, thank you."

I hated to do this, but I had to. I took my blaster and poked it into her back. "I think you do, Ma'am. No screaming, or else," I said, letting the threat that I wouldn't have carried out go unspoken.

She jumped a bit but complied. We entered the building and made it to the privacy of her apartment. I holstered my gun and apologized. "I can't tell you how sorry I am that I had to do that, but I had to get indoors."

"'Sorry' is for bumping into me and knocking me over by accident," she said, carefully watching my hands and holster. "Forcing your way into my apartment at gunpoint is going to take a bit more than that."

"Like what?" I asked.

"An explanation would be nice, for starters," she said.

"I've been framed for bank robbery and murder," I told her. "I got free of the police, but they'll be after me and I need to hide."

Her eyes narrowed into slits. "Framed," she said, skeptically.

"Yes," I said. "I don't know what I can do to prove it to you."

"Sticking a gun in my back wasn't the way."

"I was - am - desperate. I'm no criminal, but I've got a basic self-preservation instinct." I wanted to reassure her, but if I admitted I wouldn't kill her in any case, she might tell the police I was there when they inevitably did a door-to-door search.

She stared at me long and hard. "You wait right there." She disappeared into her kitchen, and I tensed up as I heard her dial the telephone.

She hung up without saying a word and returned to me. "Who'd you call?" I asked nervously.

"Your gun is still in its holster," she noted.

"Who'd you call?"

"Time clock," she said. "To test you. You pass. Want a drink?"

The tension drained from the room. "Water's fine, thanks. I guess I can introduce myself, then. My name's Star Hawkins."

"Audrey Riles," she said. "Your name sounds familiar. Aren't you a cop yourself?"

"Private investigator," I corrected her. "I suppose my name's been in the news once or twice."

"So you've made your share of enemies."

"Yup. And I need to be free to figure out which one of them did this to me."

"Well, you can stay for a while," she said. "I'll help you hide…for now."

"Glad to hear it. Can I use your phone?" She pointed me toward the kitchen.

I called Ilda. "Star Hawkins detective agency," my secretary answered.

"I'd like to hire Mr. Hawkins," I said, not disguising my voice. Ilda would certainly recognize it and catch on that I was afraid of saying who I was.

"I don't know if that's possible right now," Ilda responded. "He's in a bit of trouble with the police. Even his phone calls are monitored."

I knew I could count on her to be sharp. "Are you his assistant? Is he in constant communication with you?"

"I usually have a telepathic spool connection, sir, but due to his troubles, his mental frequency has been filtered out of it by the police."

"Thank you," I told her, just as there was a knock at the door.

Audrey answered it. It was the police. "Have you seen this man?" they asked, presumably showing her a picture of me.

"Nope," she replied.

"Mind if we have a look around?"

"Must you? This place is such a mess…"

There was a pause. "We don't mind the mess. We'd like to see if he's here."

She was playing the part well, but they were taking no chances, and she wasn't going to be able to deny them. I had to get away quickly, but if I had wanted to be outside, I wouldn't have forced my way in to begin with. Where could I hide that they wouldn't look? And how could I do it without betraying my presence? I thought fast.

Within seconds, I heard the footsteps of the officers nearby. They poked around a bit, and approached my hiding place. Suddenly, I heard Audrey's voice saying, "Get your hands off that! What are you, a pervert or something?"

"Sorry, Ma'am," I heard the officer say. I could almost hear his face turning red. I also heard Audrey say, "I told you the house was a mess. I haven't sorted the laundry yet," as she and the officers walked away.

A few tense minutes later, she came to me and told me, "They're gone."

I emerged from the pile of towels, tablecloths and teddies that I had pulled out of her linen closet and arranged on top of myself. "Thank you," I said with a broad smile. "You were amazing."

"You're very welcome. You're lucky I keep my lingerie in that closet, separate from my other clothes. You pervert," she added, with a wink.

"Oh, I'm not so bad," I assured her. "I'll be out of your hair in a few hours."

"Not without my contact number, you won't," she told me, handing me a business card. "You could need more help. And what the heck, you've already seen my underwear."


I spent the next several hours trying to think of who would do this to me. Clearly this was a direct plot to get me out of the way for something…or revenge for some past wrong. No one had ever tried something of this sort, but that could just mean that I'm becoming enough of a nuisance to the New City underworld that they're trying to get rid of me. Good…if I can survive this.

There was a new organized crime gang forming from a group of street punks who had been known as the Cosmic Kids. They seemed to have their ears to the ground. Of course, it was entirely possible that they saw me as an impediment to their rise up the "corporate ladder" and cobbled together this plot themselves. But whether it was them or someone else who was behind my framing, I ought to be able to muscle some information out of them.

When I left Audrey's place, I headed straight to Billy's Bar, where two of the Cosmic Kids, Fat Al and Weird Hal, were known to hang out. They had both been pretty recently released from prison and had, as far as I knew, no outstanding warrants…unlike me. Hiding my face from view, I looked and saw that Hal and Al were at their usual tables. I sat at the bar nursing drinks and waited for Hal to go to the men's room. Al, true to his nickname was a large man, not easily intimidated. I felt I could bully Hal, who was tall but very skinny, into spilling some beans. As soon as Hal walked through the men's room door, I followed him and waited outside the stall I could tell he was occupying. He flushed, pulled the door open toward him, and moved to step out.

He never made it. I smashed into him, forcing him back onto the toilet. I locked the stall with the two of us inside. "Hello, Hal," I said. "Funny bumping into you."

"What do you want, Hawkins?" he said.

"Information," I told him. "Someone out there has impersonated me and robbed a bank, killing two guards. What do you know about this?"

"Nothing," he replied, with a hint of mockery in his voice. "So now you know what it's like to be on our side of the fence, eh, dick?" He moved to stand up.

"Can it," I said, pushing him back down onto the toilet. "You know I didn't do it, and I know I didn't do it. Who did?"

"Search me," smiled Hal. "We're clean. No crimes committed since we paid our debt to society."

I could tell he was hiding something. I pulled out my gun and shoved it in his gut. "You know, I don't think you have the stomach for organized crime. You're trying to play it cool, but you don't fool me, and I'm not in the mood for games."

Hal dropped his swagger. "I don't know," he said hurriedly. "Really."

He looked nervous…because of my gun, or was he lying? "You can find out. You've got more friends that just Fat Al."

Weird Hal nodded feverishly. "It's 10:00 PM right now," I told him. "Expect to see me in exactly twenty-four hours, right here. You'd better have something for me by then." I left Billy's and was about to head for home before deciding it probably wasn't safe. I made a phone call to Audrey, who let me sack out on her couch.

"I see you made the papers," Audrey told me in the morning.

I quickly roused myself, and she put the newspaper in my hands. "Hawkins Suspected in Bank Robbery, Two Dead" read the headline, with the story pretty much describing everything that happened yesterday until my flight from the police station. I smiled sleepily and handed it back to her. "Yeah, it sure looks like me."

"Know any masters of disguise?" she asked me.

"I'm one," I said. "But that's more than just a disguise. That's a darned good impersonation. I don't offhand know anyone with that level of expertise."

"Professional actor?" she suggested.

"I doubt that anyone in Hollywood is going to jeopardize his career by robbing banks," I said, "but I suppose there are more out there who haven't quite made it. Something to think about."

"Well, you can think about it, but somewhere else. I'm happy to help you out, but you're still too much of a stranger for me to leave alone in my house, and I've got to get to work."

"Sure," I said, "give me five minutes. What kind of work do you do?"

"Underwriter for a loan company," she said.

"Really!" I said. "A loan company!"

"You're interested in a loan?" she asked.

"Interested? Heck, I have dozens of them!" I told her. "I think your job just might be the thing to help me!"

She backed away, shaking her head violently. "No way. Uh-uh. I am not pulling strings to get my company to lend you money. I can already tell you're a serious credit risk."

"But you guys do repossessions, right?"

"Sure, but we're not going to lend to someone in the hopes of getting the repo."

"No, I'm not looking for a loan. I want you to repossess some of my stuff."

"Without a loan?"

"Right. I need some equipment from my office, but I don't dare show up there because I'm a fugitive. If you walk in there with a repo form, you can get the stuff for me without arousing suspicion."

She thought about it. "Tell me more."

"I need my surveillance equipment if I'm going to figure out who did this to me," I told her. "High-powered binoculars, lock picks, mini-flashlight, stuff like that. I'll write a list and give you my house key. You copy the list onto a repo form. You go to my office and give my secretary the original list, using the key as proof that I sent you. If any policemen stop you, you show them the repo form and they'll let you go, getting my equipment back here."

She smiled. "All right, I'm in."


I spent the day roaming around aimlessly, waiting for Audrey to get back with my stuff. By the time I returned to her place, she had not only brought my equipment, but also set up dinner for two. "Don't look so surprised," she said. "If you're going to stay with me, you might as well eat with me."

"I should force my way into more girls' lives at gunpoint," I mused.

"Don't push it, buster," she said, her face darkening somewhat. "I'm doing what I think is right, but bringing that up is not going to help you."

"Sorry," I said, sheepishly. "How'd the repo go?"

"Smoothly," she said. "That's a quite robot you've got."

"Ilda's a real treasure," I agreed. "I'd never manage to do anything if she wasn't as smart as she is."

"So," she asked me, "you going back to that bar tonight?"

"That depends," I said, tapping the binoculars she retrieved for me, "on whether the people I want to see are there."

So an hour or so later, I was on top of a building across the street from Billy's bar. It was a little after 8:30 PM. The Cosmic Kids, if their habits were regular enough, should have been arriving within minutes. However, they didn't. Big surprise. I didn't think I could trust Hal.

Time ticked on. 10:00 PM arrived. I still didn't see any of them. They weren't that afraid of me; they had to have something else up their sleeves.

Five minutes later, I found out what. A squadron of police officers surrounded Billy's. They busted in the door and half of them swarmed through the place while the other half covered the exits. After an appropriately thorough search, they left. Gee, who do you suppose they were looking for?

After they were safely gone, I returned to ground level and entered the bar. "Rough crowd today, eh?" I commented to the bartender.

"Cops were looking for someone," he said. "That's the breaks in this neighborhood…Hey, you're-"

I grabbed his mouth. "I know who I am," I whispered. "You know who I am. End of introductions. Got it?" He silently nodded with a frightened look in his eyes.

I continued our conversation. "Damage is going to set you back quite a bit. Think you can get compensated by your buddies?"

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Who do you think told the cops to look for me here? Look around and tell me who decided to make themselves scarce tonight," I pointed out.

He scanned the bar. "The Cosmic Kids," he realized.

"Yup. Know where I can find them if they're not here?"

"You didn't hear it from me," he said, "but if you look in the Philadelphia Street area, you might find something you're looking for."

"Thanks," I told him. "Expect a big tip from me next time you see me."

I walked toward Philadelphia Street, which wasn't far. I stuck to the shadows until I spotted Weird Hal. Unfortunately, he was with the whole lot of other Cosmic Kids, and I wasn't prepared to take them all on right now. I was in for another long stakeout. I didn't mind; hopefully, I'd learn some things to help me in the future

It was after 1:30 AM that the Cosmic Kids' meeting finally broke up, unfortunately without revealing any information other than whose girlfriend is in trouble and who, conversely, would be in trouble with his girlfriend if he doesn't get home soon, which, invariably, none of them did. I saw Weird Hal walk off with Fat Al, but, though I preferred to lean on Weird Hal alone, I could take the two of them together. I slipped by the other Cosmic Kids and positioned myself in a nook. When the two of them passed me by, I reached out and grabbed Hal by his shirt collar. I dragged his tall frame down to my level and pointed my gun right into his left nostril.

"Hello, Hal," I hissed. "You didn't show up for our little meeting."

"I…um, I…" he stammered.

Al barged in on us. "Hey, hey, whatchoo doing with my buddy?"

"Your friend canceled an appointment on me," I responded, still talking through clenched teeth. "As if you didn't know."

"We don't have to follow your orders, dick," said Al. "Now let him go."

"Not until one or both of you talks," I said. "This little beauty in my hand says you do have to listen to me. I'll bet you're too smart to not listen, right, Hal?"

Hal nodded quickly. "Yeah, I've got some info for you, Hawkins."

"All right, spill it."

"Guy who's copying you. Don't know his name, don't know what he really looks like…he can look like anyone. But you can find him."

"How?"

"He's got this weird fixation on this shade of green. I've got a piece of cloth in my pocket. He'll never be seen not wearing something of that color."

I set Hal down, keeping my gun in his face, and felt in his pockets. I needn't have worried; he wasn't carrying a gun of his own. I took the cloth he was referring to. "Thanks," I told him. "If this helps me, I'll make sure it's been worth your while."

"We can't wait!" called Fat Al as I slinked away in the shadows back to Audrey's apartment for the night.

So here I was, caught in what was obviously a trap. I had no idea if they were trying to lead me toward a police station or, more likely, find an isolated area and kill me. However, if I stopped following their lead guy, they'd know I had caught onto them, and who knew what they'd do? I had to find a way out.

I looked ahead of me. I couldn't see any alleyways or likely escape routes. There were a number of stores in this neighborhood, but opening a door would take too long…

Then I spotted a storefront that looked pretty old. I couldn't be absolutely certain, but it looked like its window was old plate glass, not shatterproof plastic, not reinforced with steel. I held my breath and took sideways leap right into it, shielding my face with my arm. Time seemed to slow as I smashed through the glass. I heard the store's customers and owners screaming in horror. I saw my surprised pursuers turn toward me and draw their guns. Fortunately, I didn't feel the glass cutting me in a number of places; I guess I was too high on adrenaline to notice.

I hit the floor running. The store was a plumbing-supply store. The ground level was a showroom of bathroom fixtures; the loft upstairs consisted of rows of shelves containing pipes, fittings, nuts, bolts, screws, tools and other things necessary for the professional or do-it-yourself workman. There was a skylight in the ceiling. If I could make it up there, I might have a shot at escape, but at the moment, it wasn't looking good, as the stairway was exposed to the street through the broken window…and my foes were converging on it as I ran.

I ducked into the fixtures and drew my own gun. I peered out. There seemed to be five gunmen looking for me in the showroom. There didn't appear to be any non-combatants left in the store, so that robbed me of the protection of their not wanting witnesses, but also freed me to shoot indiscriminately.

I stayed quiet and saw one guy in the row next to me. I grabbed a toilet-tank cover and shielded myself with it. I jumped up. "Looking for me?" Predictably, he shot, breaking the lid in half but sparing my life. I slammed half the lid down on his gun hand, forcing him to drop it, and the other half on his head, which slumped over into a nearby toilet.

One down, four to go…and now they knew where I was. I scooped up the unconscious one's gun and held it in my other hand. I laid down a spray of somewhat erratic fire from the gun in my left hand, forcing the other four to duck for safety. Now the situation was reversed, except for the numbers.

I ducked and tried to get a bead on the others with the sonic heartbeat-sensing device on my gun, but my own heart, which my gun is programmed to filter out under normal circumstances, was pounding like a jackhammer, creating interference. I moved over to a section of sinks, one of which had an attached vanity mirror. With a small utility knife I routinely carry in my pocket, I quietly unscrewed the screws holding the mirror. I grabbed the mirror down, which elicited a burst of fire from the others, but I was safely under their range. Swiveling the mirror around, I was able to spot two of the gunmen near mirrors of their own. It's a shame that blaster doesn't bounce like a laser beam.

I crept down my row, in the direction of the staircase. I had no choice: I had to expose myself and get to the second floor. The waiting game would only help them, because the numbers were on their side and the unconscious amongst them were bound to wake up some time. I unscrewed some light bulbs from around the vanity mirror and threw them into the air behind me. It had the desired effect: the gunmen shot at the light bulbs. I jumped for the staircase, pulling myself over the banister about halfway up and took the stairs by threes, making it to the shelves ahead of my pursuers' blasts. Now I had the high ground, and I took some potshots at the one gunman who was within sight of me, knocking him out.

The remaining three had no chance to get me if they stayed away from my line of fire, and both they and I knew it. I had to keep them off the stairway before they reached it. I pushed a box full of straight copper pipes toward the top of the staircase, reaching it just as two of them made it to the bottom. I turned the box over and let the pipes roll out, banging down the staircase, tripping my pursuers. As I had hoped, they fell down on top of one another, with dozens more pipes landing on their heads at the bottom of the staircase.

I ran for the set of shelves nearest the skylight and climbed up. The remaining gunman didn't yet have a clear shot at me, but I could see that I wouldn't be able to reach the skylight without some work, which I didn't have time for. I jumped back down amongst the shelves, casting about for some way I could stop him.

Too late, a spray of blaster fire told me. I returned the fire, but neither of us could really connect while I was hiding amongst the shelves, and I didn't have the time to waste. I found a shelf containing several large buckets of pipe-sealing putty and hatched a plan.

I lobbed some wrenches over the shelves, in my enemy's direction. Sure enough, he got the message: just because we couldn't hit one another with straight blaster shots didn't mean he could ignore me. He advanced on my position and I slid myself onto a shelf. He peeked into my row of shelves and didn't see me standing there. He got a little bolder and was soon fully in my view. I threw the putty bucket over him, aiming for his gun hand. He turned around toward me, but his gun's trigger and barrel were completely jammed with fast-drying putty. As a bonus, I noticed that his feet were stuck to the floor as well, so I decked him, for the first time feeling the pain of the glass cuts in my hand. I then stacked boxes on top of the set of shelves I was on top of earlier. I took the longest pipe I could find and broke one of the skylight's panes until there were no more jagged shards of glass around the edges and then pulled myself up and out. I made it up to the roof and found my way back to the ground over several other roofs, allowing me to inconspicuously land on the other side of the block.

I made my way back to Audrey's later. "Oh my! What in the world have you been up to?" she said, with genuine concern.

"Ran into some critics of my work," I groaned. She began looking at the cuts in my hand and picked some tiny bits of glass out.

"The guys who set you up last night?"

"Not them, but friends of theirs. They double-crossed me twice, and I'm a fool for letting them do it."

"Don't beat yourself up, Star. You needed some leads on the guy who framed you."

"Yeah," I said. "And tonight, I'll get real ones."


I didn't really expect to get a lead on the actual impersonator. My plan was to draw him out of hiding, or at least exonerate myself, by finding some flaw in his impersonation of me. So, wearing my black bodysuit and carrying my lock picks, utility knife and flashlight, I paid a visit to the offices of our local holovision station. They were bound to have some footage of the real me, and I would compare it to what I'd seen of the bank videotape. Hopefully I'd be able to prove my innocence by pointing out the differences.

Imagine my surprise after successfully breaking in and discovering that the librarian had signed out all archival footage of me…supposedly for her own use! Needless to say, this was highly suspicious. No one would have needed all that except my impersonator. Looked like I just might have a lead after all.

And, I realized, if there was no other available video footage of me, then it would be easy to convince the police that the bank robber was an impostor.

Before Audrey left for work in the morning, I asked her, "Can you check someone's banking records?"

"If we have their signature authorizing it," she told me.

I pulled out a photocopy I had made of the video sign-out sheet. "I can forge this on a form. Do you have any handy?"

"I could bring you one tonight," she offered, "but I don't want to get in trouble."

"Don't mean to sound unappreciative, Audrey, but you're already harboring a fugitive from the police. This isn't going to make it worse. In fact, the more you help me clear my name, the sooner you're out of trouble as well."

She reddened. "There'll have to be forms filled out. A loan application, at the very least. All you have is her name."

"Ilda can get that for us. I'll call her and tell her what we need. There's no one better at simple information searches than a robot. What else do you need?"

"That should be it. I'll bring the stuff home tonight."

"Not soon enough. Can I come into your office to get the forms?"

She was clearly resistant, but realized that I was right. "Okay," she sighed. I wrote her a letter for her to transmit to Ilda and told her the details of my plan.


After forging the necessary signature on Audrey's forms, I spent most of my day wandering the streets, waiting for Audrey to come home. At the time I expected her to leave work, I made my way toward her office. Sure enough, I saw her across the street from me. Suddenly, a large, hooded man jumped out from an alley and grabbed her!

"Eeeee!" she screamed. "Help!"

"Shut up," said her assailant. "You hand over your wallet, you won't get hurt."

But her assailant's attempts at secrecy failed, and the scene began to attract a crowd. I ran over to her and drew my gun, yelling, "Leave the lady alone!"

The man paused, uncertain what to do. "I see you need a little persuasion," I said. "Try this." I shot a little over his head.

That did the trick. The man let go of her and ran off with speed that could only be described as inhuman. I walked over to Audrey and asked her, "Are you all right, ma'am?"

"I…I think so," she said.

Meanwhile, some people in the crowd had spotted me. "Hey, that's Star Hawkins!" "Isn't he wanted by the police?" While I stayed to comfort Audrey, someone alerted the police to my presence and in moments, they arrived.

"Mister Hawkins, you're under arrest," said the arriving officer.

This time I was more confident. "I'll come with you down to the station," I said, "if you'll let some of these fine folks come with me." I waved my right hand at the crowd. My left one held my gun, which the officer quickly confiscated.

The officer spoke to headquarters over his radio to see if my request should be granted, and it was. Me, Audrey and several of the bystanders went down to the station house, and I was brought in front of the desk officer for the second time.

The desk officer was not happy with my escape stunt. "Now, Mister Hawkins, let's try to keep it a little less violent than last time. Do you have anything to say before I book you?"

"Yes," I said. "That wasn't me in the video, and all these people will attest to that."

"That's for a jury to decide," he said, and prepared to take a DNA sample from me.

Just then, Chief Karan arrived. "Give him a chance to convince us," he ordered.

I addressed the crowd. "When I came to this lady's rescue, what hand did I shoot with?"

The crowd thought about it for a while, before a few answered, "The left." Eventually, they all came to an agreement that I was a lefty shooter.

"If you'll check out the bank videotape, Chief Karan, you'll notice that the guy is a righty. Not me."

Ronald, who knew me personally for long enough to know that I was, in fact, a righty as well, thought about it for a while. "You never shoot with your right hand, Mister Hawkins?"

I smiled. "I guarantee you, no one can claim to have seen me shooting with my right hand."

Ronald gave me a knowing look and nodded. "He's clear," he said. "Unblock his robot's spool and get rid of the wiretaps." I pumped the air in victory, and retrieved my wallet that I had thrown my previous time there.

Audrey came over to me. "Can you walk me home? I feel safe with you."

"Sure," I told her, and we filtered out of the police station with the crowd.


When Audrey and I arrived at her apartment, we found Ilda waiting for us there. As soon as the door was safely closed, I gave Audrey a huge hug. "You were amazing! What an actress!" I said. "I can't thank you enough!"

"You bet you can't," she said, with a wry smile. "And how about a little something for the lady behind me?"

"Of course," I agreed. "Great job acting as the robber, Ilda. Of course," I said to Audrey, "she's programmed and trained for that kind of thing. You, on the other hand, had to do it off the cuff."

"Well, I do have some small talents," she answered with a smile. "So, what now?"

"I still have to find the guy who was impersonating me before the librarian returns the video footage of me to the archives. Do you have the bank records?"

"Sure do, Star," she said, handing me a printout. "And it looks like you hit pay dirt. See, there's a recent transfer of twenty thousand credits to her account…guess who that must be?"

I looked at the entry she indicated and noticed the account number that the money was transferred from. I froze in horror. "Trouble," I said sourly, "that's who it is."

Later, I made a call from a pay phone rather than use the one in my own apartment. "National Science Center, Ivanoff speaking," answered a friend of mine who works for Earth's national law-enforcement agency.

"Sergei, what the hell are you guys trying to do to me?" I hissed.

"Hawkins?" he asked, puzzled.

"Yes, it's me. I seriously hope I can trust you on this."

"Sure you can," he said. "What makes you think we're working against you?"

"Maybe this news didn't get around to your area, but someone impersonated me and framed me for robbing a bank. Some detective work by yours truly has turned up the fact that this guy's using one of those special hidden government bank accounts, like I've learned to recognize from the numbers."

"Oh, $#!+," Ivanoff swore. "Blank."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"A guy we recruited about fifteen years ago," Sergei explained. "An excellent actor and master of disguise. He worked in our Reassigned Identities department for a number of years, helping our agents or protected witnesses act as new people, setting up information to support the existence of non-existent people. Six years ago, we discovered that he'd been using his government clearance to set up secret bank accounts and different identities for himself, padding his expense reports and stashing the extra money in those accounts. When he realized the jig was up, he cut off all contact with the agency. We still haven't caught him and we haven't yet uncovered everything he did."

"Our best information about him," continued my friend, "is that he works as a hired impersonator and hit man, going by the professional name 'Mister Blank.'"

I breathed a sigh of relief; the government wasn't out to get me after all. "So you think he's my guy."

"I'd swear to it," Ivanoff told me.

"Are his services expensive?"

"I believe they are."

"Does he take pride in his impersonation ability?"

"I'd say so."

"Then I think I just might be seeing him again."

"One warning, Star…"

"Yes?"

"He's very dangerous," Ivanoff said, and I remembered the two bank guards. "If you're in a fight with him, don't hold back. Shoot to kill."

"But I need to find out who hired him," I said.

"He's too professional to talk," replied Sergei, "and odds are that the money was pooled by a number of your gangs, and there'll be no way to pin it on one of them. Best you can do is to show them they can't get you this way."

He was right; I'd probably never learn exactly who's responsible for the whole mess. Clearly the Cosmic Kids were amongst them, but there was in no way any serious evidence to link them with Blank. I'd have to settle for getting Blank himself. "Shoot to kill it is," I agreed, grimly.

I walked over to the offices of the local newspaper, where I was able to get an advance copy of tomorrow's early edition. My being cleared was one of the top stories. I brought it over to Billy's Bar. I saw the Cosmic Kids sitting at their usual table, and I walked over to them. Their faces turned pale as they saw me, and Weird Hal's jaw dropped. "Hey, hey, Kids," I said.

"Wh…what do you want, Hawkins?" said Al, nervously.

"Oh, nothing," I said nonchalantly. "I'm just here to welcome you little fish to the big pond. Be careful out there. I don't know who you pooled your money with to pull off that little stunt against me, but I don't think they're going to be pleased that it failed…and it's not going to be the established players who take the fall." I dropped the newspaper on their table and walked out, adding, "I hope you can at least get your money back, because I'm home free."

"We don't know what you're talking about, dick," one of them worked up the guts to say.

"Well, then, you have nothing to worry about," I said, walking out on the most worried-looking folks I'd seen since, well, me before I cleared myself.


I expected that that little stunt would bring Mister Blank to my apartment. Prior to my trip to Billy's, I had set up video and audio recording equipment in my apartment in the hopes that I could get the guy to admit to robbing the bank. I called Ilda and asked her to stand sentry over my apartment so I'd have some warning when he came. I opened the door, and found that I already had company.

"Audrey? What are you doing here?"

She smiled at me from my dining room table, upon which she had set up a candlelit dinner. "I figured you owed me a night or two in your own apartment," she said playfully. "You left me that copy of your key to identify myself to Ilda, remember?"

"I'm…overwhelmed," I said.

"Silly man," she giggled. "You don't seriously think I wouldn't have done all that stuff for you if I didn't like you, do you? You're a lot of fun…in a dangerous sort of way." She came over and draped her arms around my neck.

I smiled back and kissed her. Sure, I was expecting trouble, but I had no idea when it would come, and I might as well live a little until then. We were in the middle of our romantic dinner when I suddenly got a telepathic-spool message.

Audrey saw me snap to attention. "Everything all right, Star?"

"That dangerous sort of fun is back," I said. "Ilda's outside, and she's in trouble."

"Come back soon," she said, and I assured her I would.

I rushed outside and found Ilda. "What's up?"

"What's up with what?" she asked.

"Your message. You indicated that you ran into trouble."

"I didn't," she said.

Suddenly, I realized what had happened and ran back inside. Obviously, Blank had used a different telepathic spool to fake a message from Ilda to me, and slipped in while my talking to her distracted her. He was probably going to try to ambush me in my own apartment…and he didn't even know about Audrey's presence. Now, no doubt, he had a hostage.

I took out my gun and put it in my left hand. I opened my apartment door carefully. "Audrey?"

She was sitting at the table, continuing her meal with the man who was obviously my impersonator. She looked at me. "Star? But then…" she looked worriedly at the man in my seat.

My impersonator stood up. "Get down!" he told her, in a perfect imitation of my voice. "That's the guy who framed me!" He pulled out his gun with his right hand and shot at me.

She obediently dove under the table, as I ducked his shot. "Don't believe him!" I yelled at her. "I'm the real one and he's the fake. Look, he's using his right hand!"

"I am Star Hawkins and I am a righty, you two-bit fake," he said, clearly playing it up for Audrey's sake while giving me a knowing, angry look.

I stood up to face him. "So you're Star Hawkins," I said.

He smiled smugly. "Yup."

"And you shoot with your right hand," I continued.

"Indeed."

"Then it must have been you that robbed that bank. You're under citizen's arrest!" I said.

He didn't expect that, and his smugness disappeared, to be replaced with anger. "Stay back," he said, waving his gun. "I was framed, you know" he said, still playing the role, trying to regain control of the situation.

Now it was my turn to be smug. "Not by me," I said. "I'm a lefty. Clearly, you're the bank robber."

He lost it. "YOU ARE NOT A LEFTY!" he yelled, enraged. "I impersonated you perfectly!"

"Impersonated who? When?" I taunted him. "I thought you were Star Hawkins."

"Don't play with me, Hawkins," he said. "You already tripped me up, but don't you dare treat me with mockery. I can still kill you, you know."

"You wouldn't do that until you can restore your reputation," I answered. "You won't get much business as an imperfect impostor. I, however, can kill you."

"Then why haven't you?" he sneered. "No, you're not shooting for a reason…" He thought for a moment. "If you shoot me, you have no proof that you're not the bank robber."

"No, I already have that. The bank robber's a righty, and that's you."

"Then why don't you shoot me?"

"Maybe I just don't feel like it at the moment. Maybe I want to toy with you."

"That's a lie." Suddenly, it dawned on him. "You're not shooting me because you need to keep that gun in your left hand to keep up the charade. You're naturally a righty, like I knew all along, and you can't shoot straight from your left hand."

Blast, he figured it out. "Bull," I bluffed. "I can shoot you any time I want. I'm merely toying with you for the moment."

He smiled. "I don't think so." He grabbed Audrey from her shelter under my table, and stuck his gun into her back, giving me a sickening sense of deja vu. "Here the two of us are, nice and cozy. My gun's at her back. Like her, Hawkins? Then save her life. Shoot me. But you'd better be accurate, 'cause my head is right next to hers." He smiled triumphantly.

I couldn't risk hitting Audrey. I put my gun in my right hand. "Okay, I'll admit it. You impersonated me perfectly when you committed the bank robbery."

"I knew I did," he said. As soon as he said that, his face did a double take. Now that he had admitted to the bank robbery, it was safe for me to use my right hand, and, crack shot that I am, I got him right between the eyes.

"Yep," I said to him, though he could obviously no longer hear me. "You're a dead ringer for me."


Epilogue:

A few days later, Audrey, Ilda and I had lunch with my buddy Sergei Ivanoff. "Good work getting Blank," he told us all. "I've got a little thank-you present from the NSC for that."

The three of us each received an envelope from him and thanked him. "I know a certain bartender who'll be happy to see a little of this," I commented. "What I want to know is, though, why didn't I ever hear of him before? I mean, I'm a detective. I'm familiar with the most-wanted lists, and he certainly should have been on them."

Ivanoff lowered his voice. "Well, if word of some of his exploits ever got out, it could be very embarrassing to the government."

We perked up. "Really?" Audrey said. "Like what?"

"I shouldn't…" Ivanoff said, but his face was breaking out in a grin and we could tell he couldn't resist.

"Come on," I said, grinning back, "we did get him. We can keep a secret. Give us one example."

"Well," Ivanoff whispered, "remember the presidential sex scandal a few years back?"

"Who can forget?" Ilda said. "I've still got the news files stuck in my database. The president had been carrying on for years with his mistress."

"Yes," said Ivanoff, "but it never amounted to any public outcry until the two of them were once indiscreet and did it in front of a Presidential Palace security video. Well, we're pretty sure that the video-recorded meeting was a Mister Blank trap-job."

"Wow," Audrey's eyes opened wide. "He's good enough, that with all that presidential security, he's able to impersonate the president?"

Ivanoff stifled a giggle. "Not exactly…"

Our jaws dropped (figuratively, in Ilda's case). "No…!" I whispered as Ivanoff nodded silently.

Letters Editor Chaim Mattis Keller, aka Legion-Reference-File Lad, is a computer programmer who lives in New York City with his wife and four children.

 
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