Mind of the Beholder

By OughtaKnowBetter

There was only one—and Don meant only one—good thing about getting shot. It was that numb feeling that occurred for the first half second after it happened. Because everything that followed pretty much went down hill from there.

He didn't even realize at first that it had happened. "Go! Go! Go!" he was yelling, rifle in his hands, vest snugged tight around his chest with the yellow 'FBI' emblazoned on it both back and front. From the way that it first felt, it was entirely possible that he had bumped up against one of the other agents similarly attired and similarly armed, jostling their aim as they moved forward on the house where the kidnapper was roaring out through the front door with his semi-automatic blazing.

They had had to move fast. The tip had come in, a sheer piece of luck: a nosy neighbor with too much time and a pair of high-powered binoculars on her hands, and with a little five year old girl's life at stake there was no time to do anything but hustle. Don had immediately called for an assault team and they were at the scene within minutes armed with rifles and warrants.

Colby had been elected to scope out the back, his own field glasses in his pocket. "Movement inside, Don," he'd reported, "a single male Caucasian, balding, in his thirties. Looks like the repairman that the Coopers reported."

"Any sign of the kid?"

"Nope. Wait a minute; let me check the next bedroom over. Nope, nothing there. He's sitting in the kitchen with a drink in one hand and the phone in the other."

"Anyone else inside? He alone?"

"He's alone—wait a sec. He's getting up, moving around. He's heading toward the front of the house. I think he's getting spooked, Don. Get ready."

"Colby, you see anyone else in that house?"

"Nope. There's places I can't see, boss, but I haven't seen any second perpetrator. I think he's alone. And the kid's not there. I'm not seeing her."

Megan had broken in, her own field glasses to her face. "He's peering out through the front window curtains, Don. I see him. He's nervous."

"He's bolting!" David had called from the side. "Don, he's picking up a gun—"

Which is when and why Don called for the assault at that moment. It was by the book. It was the right thing to do: drop the kidnapper before he could get away with the kid. Assuming the kid was still alive, a prospect that no one was certain of since no one had seen the kid inside and the kidnapper had steadfastly refused to allow the five year old to talk to the parents. Nobody had felt good about the potential outcome. Smart kidnappers put kids on the phone to hustle the parents into paying up. This one didn't. This case was going down hill fast in a hand basket to hell. Don really didn't want to have to tell a mother and father that their only child was dead.

Don called for the assault. It was the only thing he could have done; the kidnapper left him no other choice. The guy came out, gun blazing, doing a good imitation of both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all by himself as though he had nothing to lose. The suspect fired; the FBI team fired back. Four bullets—possibly more—ripped into the man's chest. The autopsy later would be able to tell for certain how many bullets and exactly which one did the deed.

The team moved forward, firing. Someone jostled Don at the shoulder, nearly knocked him over. Don started to round on the guy lined up beside him only to realize that the man was a good five feet away from him in approved assault spacing. It wasn't the other agent that had belted him in the shoulder.

That was when the pain kicked in.

Momentum carried him another few yards until an over-sized azalea bush leaped into Don's path to trip him up. He was going down; he knew it, the azalea knew it, the damn flak jacket that didn't cover enough of what it was supposed to knew it. And then David was crouched over him, yelling about a man down, and Don so hated this, hated losing control over the situation that he had responsibility for, how could he direct the operation sitting on his ass on the wet grass dammit what was he going to have to write in that damn report…


"The lawn's wet," Don grumbled. "Somebody turn off the sprinkler system before I catch pneumonia."

"It's not on, Don." David carefully hooked a hand under Don's shoulder. "You're going into shock. Let's get you to the ambulance."

"I don't need an ambulance," Don insisted, trying not to lean on the other man. What a time for this to happen! "What's going on inside the house?"

"We're not finding anyone," Megan told him, getting the high sign from Colby who was running the interior inspection. She moved into position to give Don no opportunity to object to his team's ministrations. "One guy, no evidence that the Cooper girl was ever present, although we know that she must have been. "

"And the suspect?"

"George Barris, according to his driver's license. I've already phoned it in; we're running the wants and warrants on him right now."

"I want to know everything about him," Don announced, grudgingly allowing David to swing Don's good arm over his shoulders, trying to pretend to himself that people were listening to what he was telling them. He was in charge, wasn't he? Blackness sidled along the edge of his vision. Don swallowed hard, tried to push it away. Nausea needled his gut. "I want his known associates, his last known address—"

"We know what to look for, Don," Megan said gently. "Let David get you to the ambulance."

"I don't need an ambulance." Dammit, did his knees have to give out right at that moment? They were making him look bad.

"Sure, you don't," David agreed, the grin in his voice over-shadowed by concern. "We just have to make those paramedic guys feel useful. Wouldn't want them to feel left out."

"Yes, we would," Don grumbled. Damn, but they kept the stretcher high off of the ground. They think I'm on stilts? The two ambulance attendants took hold of him, easing him down onto the stretcher, one grabbing a handful of bandages and slapping it against where the bullet had entered. Don hissed with sudden pain—dammit, I've been shot. How am I going to explain this to Dad?...


"Look, it's not bad," Don insisted, wishing that he had the energy to jump up off of the stretcher before they put the whole thing into the back of the ambulance and carted him off to the local hospital. "Charlie, don't call Dad! He'll only get upset—"

"Of course he's going to get upset!" Charlie snapped back. His brother's eyes were wide: big and scared. "Lie back on the stretcher, Don. You're bleeding."

"Getting shot tends to do that." Don suddenly felt very tired, the adrenaline leaving him with unaccustomed rapidity. Someone had cranked the back of the stretcher up so that he was half-sitting, and now he was half-regretting it as his consciousness tried to drift half-away. Hah—doing a Charlie, with all the fractions. Who said that little brothers weren't a pain in the rear? Naw, just a pain in the arm. "Charlie, please don't tell Dad. It's just a scratch. I'm okay; they'll release me inside of an hour. What are you doing on the crime scene instead of inside the Suburban where I put you? Ow," he complained, as the attendant gently wrestled his arm into a sling, binding it to his body. "Where's Megan? What do we have on the kid? She inside?"

"You leave that to us, Don," Megan said gently from right beside him. Don squinted at her, vision suddenly fuzzy. "We're still searching the place."

"How long does it take to find one little girl? She's not there, right?"

"No, she's not," Megan admitted. "We're looking for clues, something to tell us where Barris hid her. It can't have been too far away."

"Yeah," Don agreed, thoroughly aware of Charlie standing beside him, eyebrows furrowed with fear. Carefully not gonna say that the kid's probably dead by now. There was a reason that Barris wouldn't let her talk to her mommy and daddy. He sagged back against the firm surface of the stretcher, reluctantly grateful for the support. But there was more support that he needed. The case wasn't over yet. There was a little girl out there somewhere. "Charlie, you're gonna pull some numbers out of your magic hat, right? Figure out where he took her?"

"I can do that," Charlie said. But the sparkle of drive wasn't there. And, Don noted, Charlie wasn't spouting off about this theorem or that concept that would solve the problem. Plug in the equation, and let's go. Don closed his eyes wearily. Did he know? Did he suspect that the kid was dead? Or was Charlie just worried about Don himself?

David, off to the side, snapped his cell phone shut. "Don! Don!" he called, rushing to the stretcher. "They found her! The kid's alive!"

"They found her? How?" Charlie breathed, his face lighting up. The sparkle crept back in.

"The Great Vervette."

The sparkle dimmed.


"I can walk," Don grumbled, clutching onto the sling that bound his arm tightly to the rest of his body, grateful for whoever had put it there. His arm was giving off those little signals that told him that any movement beyond half an inch would result in mind-blowing pain that would send him to his knees and completely ruin the picture of health that he was trying to project to his father and brother. It was bad enough that Charlie had called their father from the Emergency Department. Now the pair had hijacked him, refused to let him recuperate in his apartment in peace, kept insisting that he needed someone to look after him for a day or two or fifteen. It was enough to make him wish that he'd never moved back from Albuquerque.

"You used to be able to walk," his father announced grimly. "In case you hadn't noticed it, Donnie, you've been shot. Get into the wheelchair and wait there until I bring the car around."

"Dad—"

"No arguments," his father told him with a tone that he hadn't used in over a decade. "You want me to call in back up?"

"Charlie? Get real—"

"Megan," Alan Eppes said.

Don shut up. The woman could talk a jumper off a bridge, could bring out a desperate felon looking at murder one out of a barracks filled with illegal semi-automatics. Don hadn't a chance, and his father knew it.

"Gee, thanks," Charlie grumbled. "I'm no good as back up?"

"Charlie," his father said, turning around on his way out through the Emergency Room door, "as a mathematician, you are world class. I bow to your genius. But your older brother has always been able to twist you around his little finger like a pretzel."

"Not always," Charlie protested. Then, "well, maybe a little."

The grunt that his father gave just before the doors closed gave ample evidence as to what he thought of that admission.

Don wasted no time taking advantage of his younger brother. "Give."

"What?"

"You heard me. I saw you talking to David after they loaded me into the ambulance. What did we find?"

Alan Eppes was right; keeping secrets from Don was all but impossible and Charlie didn't bother to try. "We didn't find anything," he said with an almost audible sniff. "While one of us was being carted off to the hospital—"

"Charlie!"

"—the other of us was too busy worrying—"

"You've got my cell phone. Give it to me." Don was through playing around.

"Nope."

"If I have to get out of this wheelchair—" Ignoring the fact that he'd fall on his nose and put that into a sling as well.

"David said that they didn't find anything," Charlie said hurriedly. "The Forensics Unit went through the house with a fine tooth comb, and didn't find any evidence of the little girl. Barris apparently never had her there. He must have taken her directly to the place where they found her."

Don grunted. "The kid identify the shooter as the kidnapper?"

"Megan said she was pretty upset. They showed her a picture of the guy, an old mug shot with no blood on it, and she said that it looked pretty much like him. Megan seemed to think that that was the best identification that we'd get out of a five year old, and left it at that."

"But we got her back." That was the important thing. A little five year old girl would be going home to spend the rest of her childhood cosseted and cherished by a pair of parents who likely wouldn't be ready to let her out of their sight until she was thirty and maybe not even then. "How?"

Charlie looked away. "It was that psychic guy."

Don didn't have to cover a smirk. Charlie was busy studying the hospital 'Patient Bill of Rights' on the wall, refusing to look at his brother. 'You have the right to a clear explanation of your illness' was one of the lines. 'You have the right to be thoroughly confounded by the unexplainable' was Don's take on the matter.

"The Great Vervette?" Don allowed the smirk to sidle into his voice. "Well, what do you know? I guess he's the real thing after all. He was able to find the kid just by holding her dolly. Psychic brain waves."

Silence.

"What was that, Charlie?" Butter could melt in his mouth, he was so innocent.

"There has yet to be any study that clearly proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that psychic powers exist," Charlie said clearly, enunciating each word.

"And this doesn't count? Seems like The Great Vervette did a pretty good job with this."

"Anecdotal evidence." Charlie still wouldn't meet Don's eyes. "These results are not reproducible and therefore scientifically invalid."

"What, you want to stick him in a room and make him read cards?" Don asked, needling his brother.

"I don't have to. I looked this guy up. They did stick him in a room, and yes, he did several runs of cards and achieved a 73 percent accuracy."

"That not good enough for you? Identifying the suits in a deck of cards, that's what? One in four chance? What's the likelihood of getting 73 percent of them right?"

"Through the application of psychic powers, astronomically small," Charlie snapped back. "Getting 73 percent of them right through trickery, almost 100 percent guaranteed, which was what the stage magicians proved. They demonstrated how he did it, using the reflection off the reader's glasses. When they changed readers to a woman wearing contacts—and it was one of the magicians who was very good at keeping a straight face—his accuracy dropped to 30. Slightly above average but well within a standard deviation of normal. So there."

"Ooh, a little cranky are we? Ow." Don bit his lip at the inadvertent movement of his injured arm. "So he can't read cards in front of a critical audience. Psychics have been saying for years that doubting interferes with their ability to work. Does that prove that psychic powers don't exist?"

"No. But it doesn't prove that they do," Charlie returned. "No one claiming to have psychic powers has ever been able to demonstrate conclusively that these powers exist. Every test devised, every 'power' that anyone claims to possess, can be duplicated by sleight of hand. We don't need 'mystical gifts' for a rational explanation."

"And him finding that little girl? That doesn't prove anything?"

"If he can do that over and over again, then I would be willing to consider it as 'proof'," Charlie allowed, "but I don't think there are any parents out there willing to have their children kidnapped so that we can test that hypothesis, do you?"

One corner of Don's mouth quirked upward. "Really getting to you, isn't he?"

"No, he's not. You are," Charlie snapped back. "Why won't you listen to the science of this?"

"Hey," Don objected, "I just headed up an operation that got a little girl back to her parents alive and well. I use your math because it works, and I'll do the same with voodoo and mumbo-jumbo if it'll get the job done. Just because he found her and you didn't isn't a good enough reason for me to dismiss him, even if I do have a tough time calling him 'The Great Vervette' instead of Ralph Maurer."

"You do realize that he's only doing this for the publicity?" Charlie struck a pose. "'Look at me: I'm the Great Vervette! The FBI can't tie their own shoelaces without me!'"

"You are so jealous over this," Don mocked. "You can't stand it."

"I am not! I'm frustrated because you and Megan and everyone are eating this up. Can't you see that—"

"See what, Charlie?" Don taunted. "See how he found a little five year old girl? How did he do that? Huh?"

Charlie glared. "There has to be a reasonable explanation."

"Right. And how about Megan? How did he know that her mother had just gotten over the flu? Pretty good for a man she'd never met until two days ago. And that David had a sister? And that Colby is originally from Idaho? Shall I go on?"

"I could figure that out," Charlie argued. "This is the New Millennium, Don. You Google something, it pops up."

"Not on FBI agents, Charlie," Don told him. "How about you? Have you ever Googled yourself? You're famous. What do you find?"

"Lots of stuff. I find that paper that I submitted to the Journal of Applied Mathematics, and the one that I co-authored with Professor Kingsley at Oxford, and the one—"

"Besides articles," Don interrupted. "Personal life? The fact that you have a brother that's in the FBI? The fact that you worked for the NSA? Charlie, The Great Vervette even knew that I have a scar on my left knee! How did he know that? I got that when I was what, twelve?"

"Ten," Charlie replied, setting his lips.

"And how about Colby's horse, when he was a kid? Tell me that knowing that the horse's name was Burgess was something that he could have gotten off of the Internet. It's not as though that was something that this character would have known without psychic powers, Charlie. I mean, c'mon! Burgess, for a horse's name?"

"There has to be a rational explanation—" Charlie tried to insist when a car pulled up.

His father poked his head out. "You two arguing again? Charlie, leave your brother alone or I'll send you to your room in the house that you now own. Get in."


"The pieces aren't fitting together." Colby pursed his lips, looking as though he'd like to throw the case file across the room.

"I know what you mean," Don agreed. It was three days later, three days of enjoying his father's cooking and hating being waited on hand and foot. Don was never so glad to get back to his office. It was on light duty, his arm still stuffed into a sling, but it was out of his father's house. Charlie's house. Whatever. "Run through what you've come up with. I want this case closed before the day is out. The kid is back safe and there's no point in trying to prosecute a dead body. Let's see if we can make a reasonable scenario out of this and dump it into the file cabinet so we can move on to more pressing matters. Run the facts, Colby. Let me hear them out loud."

"Again?" Colby made a face. "Little girl gets snatched by ex-con George Barris, a guy who got out two weeks ago after doing five years of a fifteen to twenty for armed robbery. That part makes sense: Barris needs the money and he sees this kid playing in a rich neighborhood with a bunch of other kids. A neighbor identifies him as a workman in the area."

"Possible workman," David slid in, "and possible ID. Medium height, sandy blond hair, medium build can fit a lot of people. Including you, Colby."

Colby accepted the correction. "Some of the kids see Barris taking the kid away in an older model sedan, black or dark blue, California plates but nobody got a license plate."

"They're five year olds," Megan murmured. "They just barely know numbers and letters."

"The circus begins," Colby went on. "The newspapers get involved, the word gets out. The ransom note is delivered to the newspapers, instructing the parents to put money in a bag, etc."

Megan took up the tale. "But before the deadline, someone spots the suspect and phones it in. We surround the place and we take down the suspect who, unfortunately, doesn't want to be taken alive. He shoots up the neighborhood and shoots up a certain team leader who shall remain nameless."

"And I thank you for that. The nameless part, I mean." Don set his coffee mug back onto the desk so that he could scratch a couple of notes onto the pad of paper sitting in front of him. It helped to write, helped with the thinking. He frowned; something was trying to percolate through his foggy wits. "The neighbor who spotted Barris; who was it?"

Megan consulted her own notes. "Mrs. Evelyn Thornton. She checks out, Don. She's lived there with her husband, two kids, a dog, and an SUV for the last five years. Scratch that—the SUV is only two years old. She called in to say that there was a blond man in the neighborhood that she didn't recognize, a man who didn't belong there. She wasn't certain that it was our guy, but a drive-by with a scope confirmed it."

That little hinky feeling that Don had learned through long experience never to ignore started to quiver. "Who interviewed her? You?"

"No." Megan consulted her notes again. "It was LAPD. An Officer Manny Gutierrez. You want me to talk to him?"

Don shook his head. "No, I want you to talk to Mrs. Thornton. Does she make a habit of spying on her neighbors? What's her connection to Barris, if any?" He regretted shaking his head; it jostled his arm which still hadn't forgiven him for getting himself shot. It twinged slightly before delivering a sharp stab as a reminder. But if he took any of those pain-killers the doctor had prescribed, he'd have to ask one of his team for a lift home. His home, his apartment, where he could relax in peace without his father forbidding him to lift so much as a TV remote control…

"You think she may be in on it?"

Don sighed. "Let's just say that I agree with you, Colby: this case doesn't add up. This is a straight-forward kidnapping, or is meant to look like one. But the kidnapper doesn't have the kid, and when we catch up with him, he doesn't try to negotiate his way out. If you were caught with your pants down, wouldn't you try to bargain for your freedom by giving up the location of the kid?"

"Which suggests that he didn't know the location." David caught on at once.

"And all of the identifications are weak," Megan agreed. "The five years olds can easily mistake one man for another, especially if they look similar. And kids will say whatever they can to please adults, which is why they aren't reliable witnesses, in court or out." She set her own mug down. "I'll talk to Mrs. Thornton, see what I can find out." But Megan made no attempt to stand up. "How far do you want to take this, Don? I mean, it's a closed case. The little girl is safe, and the kidnapper is dead. There aren't very many leads to run down."

Don started to look at his watch, stopped when his arm reminded him that any movement involving that area of his body was punishable by torture. "Let's give it until the end of the day," he compromised. "Charlie's been snarling ever since I got home that the facts aren't adding up."

David nodded. "I have to agree with him, but there are times when the facts won't add up. This may be one of those times. The kidnapper acted stupidly. The kid is back; end of case." He grimaced. "Well, maybe not. The newspapers have been interviewing The Great Vervette non-stop, and I hear that talk shows offers and jobs are flooding the phones and the mail for him, and he's been asking around for someone to help him with a website. He's certainly making a bundle off of this. Much more, and he'll need an agent."

"If he's got a gift, good for him," was Megan's opinion. "And if he can find more lost people by using it, even better."

"And that's Charlie's problem," Don grumped. "He doesn't believe in psychic phenomena, so he doesn't want anyone else around him to, either. I think he's trying to come up with a theorem or some such that will disprove their existence."

"Good luck," Colby said wryly. "I mean, it's hard to argue when the guy tells you the name of your horse that you rode ten years ago. And tells you the color of the mane." He shook his head. "We ought to think about putting that guy on retainer, Don. He's good."

"Just don't tell that to Charlie," David advised. He stood up. "I'll see what I can dig up on Barris's background, just to have a few more facts in the case file. Then we can close it up with a clear conscience. You need a lift home, Don?"

"No. I can handle the Suburban with one hand." Wouldn't mind it, but I've got my pride to think of. "I'll just finish up my own report and head back to my apartment." Which doesn't really feel like 'home'. My old house—Charlie's house, now—is where the heart is. Not that I'll ever let him know that. "Didn't you say that The Great Vervette was due to stop back in? I'll take that angle."

Typing his report one-handed took longer that Don thought. He was only half finished when the self-styled 'psychic consultant' rapped at the glass to his cubicle for admittance.

Ralph Maurer was nothing if not mediocre-looking. Not short, but certainly not tall, and would have been wearing spectacles if medical science hadn't come up with contact lenses. Brown eyes, mousy brown hair that tried to droop into his eyes but was too short to reach. The fedora that he wore looked ridiculous, as though the psychic was from a bad fifties' flick, and the suit came straight off the rack with a sale price of fifty percent off. He wore a small gold stud in one ear that flashed with a diamond chip. Or maybe a simulated diamond chip; Don wasn't about to ask. He smelled of cheap cologne.

"Glad you could stop by." Don shook hands, grateful that it wasn't his right arm that had gotten winged. "Sit down. I hear you've been making out pretty well over this."

The Great Vervette grinned. "Yes, well, a little publicity will do that. Letterman has approached me as well as Leno, but I think I'm going to turn down Jerry Springer. I'm not quite certain what I could bring to Mr. Springer's venue. And that newspaper man Ken Randall tells me that he's running a lovely article on me in tomorrow's paper." He leaned forward, a worried expression on his face. "I insisted that Mr. Randall not make you folks out to be bumbling idiots. You're all quite good at your jobs. It's not your fault that you don't have my gift."

Don's face froze. "Thanks." He picked up a pen, just to have something to do with the hand that wasn't in a sling. "I'm just cleaning up the records, finishing up the case files. Remind me; how did you hear about this case?"

"I didn't 'hear' about it," The Great Vervette told him. "There was nothing on the news at that point, if you recall. I merely got a 'feeling' that something was wrong; I kept seeing that child's face everywhere I looked. I kept being drawn to the La Paz park, but couldn't figure out why until the very end."

"So you knew about this before the newspapers did?"

"Well, yes and no. I 'knew' about it but didn't know exactly what it was until I saw the child's picture in the paper. Then it was quite obvious."

"Which was when you came in," Don acknowledged. "You contacted the parents—"

"Who were only to happy to have me on the case—"

"—and you did your thing." Don had dealt with his share of psychic crazies—it was almost commonplace in this day and age—and The Great Vervette had been one of the better ones, not getting in the FBI's way and not demanding special favors. A quick background check showed the man to be clean, and that he'd even helped the Seattle office with a similar case last year. Not as high profile, nothing leaking out to the media like this one, but a successful ending to a kidnapping case with the three year boy going home to Mommy and Daddy at the end of the day. And there was nothing that linked Ralph Maurer to little Bethie in any way shape or form, nothing to suggest that this was a set up of any kind. So Don had permitted the man to sit in while they ran down leads and waited for the follow up ransom call. "Tell me about it."

The Great Vervette took a deep breath, preparing himself. "I sat here, in your office, when your tip came in. You remember?"

"I remember." It hadn't been just Don, but Megan, David, Colby, and Charlie, waiting for the results of the plain clothes man's drive by. It had been a tense time, with all of them waiting for the report, Charlie trying not to glower at the psychic. The Great Vervette himself had been going for the wounded nobility look: how can you doubt me? Did I not prove myself in Seattle?

"The atmosphere was not conducive to my powers," The Great Vervette confided. "There were negative influences present."

Right. Charlie. Those eyebrows get you every time.

"When your report came in, I knew that there would an unfortunate outcome. There was a black aura around you, Special Agent Eppes." Ralph Maurer, AKA The Great Vervette, pointed at Don's arm in the sling. "You can see that I was right."

Don grunted. "You could have told me that."

"Would you have believed me?" The Great Vervette asked. "Your brother certainly wouldn't have."

"We can leave Charlie out of this." Don scratched on the writing pad. "The point is, you believed that we wouldn't find the little girl."

"I knew that you wouldn't find her," the psychic corrected. "Yet her mental voice was still calling to me. I sought her out."

"And you found her in a shed in the La Paz park, just by holding her doll."

"I followed her psychic trail." Ralph sighed, tired of needing to correct the FBI agent. "She called to me. And, once I knew how to look, I found her. As you know."

"Anybody go with you to find her?"

"Only that newspaper man, Ken Randall," the psychic said. "I told him to stay back, that his aura would interfere with my search. He has a very powerful aura himself, that Mr. Randall. Almost magenta."

"Magenta?" Don couldn't help it; the question slipped out.

The Great Vervette nodded wisely. "It's not quite right to describe auras in terms of colors, but that's the closest I can come to those who aren't gifted as I am. He saw me as I left, and asked if he could come along. Knowing that he wouldn't be welcome with you, I permitted it. Finding little Bethie made such a lovely article for Mr. Randall, don't you think?"

Don put that question aside. "And what kind of 'aura' did little Bethie have, Mr. Maurer?"

"Please, call me Ralph. I try not to stand on ceremony." The Great Vervette put the dreamy look back on his face. "She has a delicate pink aura, one that looks like it ought to have lace around the edges. Something like Agent Reeves'; hers has little silver threads running through it."

Don couldn't help it. "How about me? Do I have an aura?"

The Great Vervette smiled. "Of course you do, Agent Eppes. Almost everyone does. Yours has that lovely royal blue color to it, a very solid and trustworthy color. It suits you. It fits."

Time to get back on track. "So, how did you know to look in that shed? What led you to the kid?"

"Her aura," Ralph Maurer repeated. "Once I was out in the open, away from the Black Hole, the perceptions became clear. I was able to go straight to her."

"The Black Hole?"

The psychic looked almost prissy. "There was someone in your office whose aura was preventing my powers from working."

"Don't tell me; let me guess. Charlie."

"I'm sorry to tell you that, Special Agent Eppes, but you are correct. Once his influence was no longer present, I was able to work. And, as you recall, I was successful. I led Mr. Randall straight to little Bethie."

Not gonna get anything more out of this guy; Don recognized that. He would write all the psychic stuff down into the report, file it away, and move on. Some people would say that it was psychic powers that cracked the case, and others would be skeptical. Don would be satisfied that the little girl went home to her parents and the State was saved the expense of a trial. A hole in his arm was a small price to pay.

But there was one more thing that he had to know, something that wouldn't make it into his report. "How about Charlie, Mr. Maurer? What color is his aura?"

The Great Vervette looked uncomfortable. He looked away, out through the window, before giving an apologetic smile. "He hasn't got one, Agent Eppes. He's too busy repressing it."