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Friday Slide Show: The City Center Caper Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

18 September 2020

Detective Nick Nessuno found himself inexplicably stuck with another stakeout in the very neighborhood in which he had followed a perp picking up his car one afternoon. This time, however, was different.

For one thing, it was night. Not ideal conditions, to put it mildly. During a daytime stakeout he could nap but he couldn't actually sleep through a nighttime stakeout.

And for another, this time he let ambition get the better of him. Inexplicably.

It was ambition that now spurred him to exit the confines of his undercover beater (nevertheless locking the door) to wander down the block looking for trouble in the dark facades lit up by guilty floor lamps hiding behind tattered drapes and embarrassed table lamps covering themselves with revealing curtains.

Except for a pile of blown-over fencing, he found nothing out of the deplorable ordinary.

So he sauntered over to City Center's bright lights for a look around. He pulled his mask up to conceal his official capacity as he waded into the scattered crowd navigating the shopping mall.

He could smell a crime from 100 yards away over pools of motor oil, sticky cola spills and less efficacious but more odiferous debris. There might be a missing penny in some innocent young girl's change at Chipotle, for example. Or a suspicious light left on at Subway after hours.

Not to mention the Target shopping carts strewn about to form obstacles to any chase.

But Detective Nessuno was not a meter maid. He was an investigator. So he investigated.

It seemed to him that only Chipotle was still open. A line of people standing six feet apart from each other and wearing masks obviously covered with various code phrases and signs seemed ominous to him. What kind of heist were they attempting to pull off?

There was only one way to tell. Order a burrito bowl under cover.

He got in line and tuned in to the chat around him. Noise, he said to himself, nothing but noise. But, apart from the barely audible play lists, there was hardly even that. Everybody was looking down at their phones, tapping away in texting apps and laughing quietly to themselves.

It had all the markings of a big operation, Nessuno affirmed with a scuff of his shoe on the cement sidewalk as he took a step closer to the door.

"What can I get you, sir?" a kid patronized him when it was his turn to order.

"Burrito bowl," he said without looking the kid in the eye. "Steak, black beans." He glanced back at the door as if expecting a UPS delivery.



"You want guacamole with that, sir?" the young man asked politely.


"Sour cream?"


"Salsa?" he continued bravely. "Hot, mild, chili-corn, tomatillo green, tomatillo red, none of the above?"



"Sure." It was becoming an ordeal ordering a burrito bowl, Nessuno groused. But finally it was over. Mission accomplished.

That lifetime achievement and a coffee ran him a little over $10. But it made the perfect cover, he thought, allowing him to disappear into the crowd while nefarious clouds were gathering around him.

He sat on a bench outside with a view of the front door. But oddly none of the patrons gathered together. Not nefariously or otherwise. They kept six feet apart.

And as soon as they finished eating, they dispersed to their own vehicles and drove off into the night. A lot of them didn't even sit, they just got their food and drove off.

This wasn't the target after all, he surmised. Had he instead uncovered their hub? The network operations center? The NOC?

No question about it, he swallowed a mouthful of burrito bowl. But how did they communicate? And who was giving the orders?

They were all giving the orders, it suddenly came to him. He had himself unwittingly given an order. And the kid at the counter had filtered it through the system to whatever operative in the back was waiting for it. Probably disguised as a dish washer.

Except there were no dishes to wash because everything was recyclable cardboard. Very suspicious, that recycling thing.

Could he finger the head hancho, the big enchilada, the king pin? He decided to look around.

This was turning into a tougher case to crack than the perp with the parked car had been. He could have nabbed that guy if only he'd thought to write down the guy's license plate. But, as it turned out, the guy gave him the slip before the idea occurred to him.

His burrito only a memory, Nessuno was aware he had to find a new way to blend in to continue his investigation. So he took out his smartphone, lit up the screen and pretended to look down.

Can you take pictures in the dark? he wondered. He was thinking if he could prove he was working, he could expense the burrito and the coffee.

He took a few blurry shots that made it look like there was more violence than there actually was. Camera motion instead of subject motion, so to speak.

When he got a shot of the king pin's crib he put the phone away.

"That ought to do it," he said to himself. He got up and retraced his steps to his trusty steed, his shift abruptly over once again.

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