Saturday, December 24, 2016

Week 42 - The Return of the Chief

Michael Salsbury
A police chief on one of the Alliance border worlds gave an interview about a large criminal caper that happened on his planet. Millions of credits’ worth of rare metals disappeared from a government storehouse without a trace. The chief and his men had no suspects, found no clues, and had no idea how the crime was accomplished. When asked who could have perpetrated the theft, he told the reporter that it was, and I quote, “some cockroach of a man, with no sense of morality or respect for authority.”

As I watched the coverage from several systems away, staring at the gleaming bars of precious metals at my feet, I wasn't offended. Far from it. I felt that the hapless chief had paid me a compliment. 

Consider the cockroach. It is an incredibly old species, going back to some of Earth’s earliest days. It has survived for millennia, traveling with mankind as we spread across the planet. Despite tight manufacturing tolerances and extensive decontamination procedures, cockroaches got aboard spacecraft leaving Earth and followed mankind out to the stars. There is hardly a colony in the Alliance where the cockroach has not been seen. While no one wants a cockroach in his colony or his home, keeping them out has proven to be an impossible task. 

I share much in common with that humble insect. Despite extensive childhood psychological testing and behavioral monitoring to identify such tendencies, I have chosen a life of crime rather than a humdrum workaday existence filled with routine and regulation. Like the cockroach, I slip from one human settlement to another without being noticed. Despite the best efforts of the Alliance law enforcement community to catch me, I remain a free man. Rather than be repulsed by that police chief's remark, I was inspired. Since that day many years ago, I have proudly considered myself The Cockroach. 

How did the uncatchable Cockroach end up in a jail cell in a Podunk town on a backwater planet at the fringes of Alliance space? Did I slip up? Did an Alliance cop get lucky? Did one of their little traps finally catch me? None of the above, I assure you. I am here as part of a much larger plan I set into motion almost a week ago. I am here in this cell, surrounded by three-dimensional cameras, microphones, and a dozen other court-admissible surveillance and security gadgets as part of the plan. When high-value merchandise goes missing on the other side of the planet, I will be blamed. It is important that those who will be doing the blaming realize that I've been here the entire time, under the watchful eye of the planetary police force. It's an airtight alibi, especially combined with the total lack of evidence at the scene. 

Why is that important? Why not just slip in, commit the crime, and get out? That is a fair question and requires a bit of explanation. It started when I first arrived on this planet. Well, no, that is wrong. It actually started a couple of years ago on a completely different planet, named Mastrion. 

My father, perhaps the only more-skilled criminal in Alliance space, went there to relieve a small beach town’s bank of the contents of its safe. The planet's police chief, who moonlighted as its crime syndicate leader, captured my dad. When dad didn't make our planned rendezvous, I went there to look for him. To make a long story short, I made sure the police knew their chief was the leader of the criminal syndicate on the planet, and that the criminal syndicate learned that their leader was the planet's top cop. The last I had heard, the chief was going to be in prison for many years. That assumed the mob didn't get to him first. 
Imagine my surprise when I stepped out of a jewelry store on world several light-years distant from Mastrion’s prison system and found myself staring into the chief’s ugly mug. 

“You’re a long way from home, chief,” I said, taking a step back.  

His lip curled. “You. You cost me my life.” 

“Yes,” I said, smiling. “But it wasn’t a very good life now, was it? Playing both sides the way you did. Very unsporting of you.” 

He growled. “Make one wrong move on this planet, and I’ll make sure they lock you up.” 

“Funny,” I said, “I was just about to tell you the same thing. The name on that identification card around your neck is not the name you had on Mastrion.” 

“Keep your voice down,” he said.  

“Hmmm,” I looked at the badge again. “Astral Insurance Investigation. You look for insurance fraud now? Is that right?” 

“Yeah. After my lawyers got me out of prison, it was all I could get, thanks to you. 

“I imagine so. How many companies would hire a crooked former police chief and criminal overlord? Only those who want, what is the old saying, to ‘set a thief to catch a thief’?” 

He nodded, gritting his teeth. “Exactly. Since I already know what you are, you had damned well better make sure I have no reason to come looking for you. See that logo there,” he said, pointing at a sticker matching the badge around his neck, “that’s my company. You steal so much as a pen from a business with that sticker on it, I'll make sure you get locked away… or maybe ‘shot trying to escape’…” He opened his jacket so I could see the holster and handheld artillery underneath. 

“Noted,” I said, smiling at him. “But I’m strictly here for relaxation.” 

He snorted. “Right. Like your kind ever relaxes. Get out of my way. 

He pushed me aside and went into the jewelry store I had just left. I was glad that I had already completed my analysis of their security setup and set into motion a plan to empty its safe. I knew the chief would be busy feeding my image into the store’s security system as a person of extreme interest. I would probably not be able to set foot in the store again without being detained. Fortunately, I no longer needed to. 
Despite his many failings as a human being, I knew the chief’s reputation as an investigator from the research I had done on him back on Mastrion. He worked his way up through the ranks and became their Chief Detective before accepting the Chief of Planetary Police title some years later. His investigative skills were probably the reason he caught my father in the first place. 

Part of me wanted to cut my losses and leave the planet. 

The rest of me had a completely different desire. The planet Belloc is home to several of the Alliance’s richest and most reclusive citizens. These are the kind of people who hire a staff to help them spend their disposable income. Belloc practically oozes credits. The contents of the Gemnifique store were a testament to how badly someone wanted to relieve the planet's residents of a few hundred million credits of that disposable income. Virtually every rare gem, metal, and shiny substance known to Alliance science was on display. A haul like this would allow me to buy and retire on a small planet. 

Bumping into the chief put a huge wrinkle in the plan I had been forming. I could have gone in during the night, shut down most of the security, reset the robots, opened the safe, helped myself, and moved on. In the process, the chiefs employers would have taken a huge write-off and the store’s owners reimbursed for their losses. The insurance company would raise its rates, further swelling its bottom line in the long run. The store would rid itself of some gaudy trinkets that weren’t selling and replace them with something more marketable. Security companies would earn huge consulting fees figuring out how I did it, and millions more selling the store equipment and services to prevent it happening again. I would walk away with planet-buying wealth. The citizenry of this world would gain lots of entertainment from evening news stories about the crime, dramatic reenactments, and made-for-3D movies. Everyone would benefit. Big crimes are good for the economy. 

The chief's presence eliminated my first option. The minute I walked out of that place with the loot, he would be there to slap on the cuffs. When I left the planet, I could count on a thorough search and lots of police scrutiny.  

I am nothing if not adaptable, so I reformulated my plan. My new objective was to help myself to the contents of the store’s safe, without even being on the same continent. If I was right, the precious metal filings and rare stone grit I was spreading around the block would be all it would take. My expertise in human and robot behavior ensured a high likelihood of success, with nothing that linked back to me. 
The chief’s own thirst for revenge would ensure a certain level of humiliation. By now, he had probably told every cop and private detective on Belloc that I was here to rob that jewelry store. When the vault turned up empty in the morning, he would feel vindicated. Then he would learn that I had been right here in this jail cell for a week, under the watchful eye of the police. He would look for evidence that I had committed the theft, and find none. How did I know that? Because I never re-entered the bank after bumping into him. 

<*> 

The business day had long since ended in Belloc’s capital city of Eldon. The crowds that filled the streets in the daytime had all gone home. A few robots moved about, cleaning the streets, sweeping the sidewalks, emptying the trash cans, and keeping the city clean. Police robots made their regular patrols, looking for criminal types like me who were up to no good. They would not find me, of course. I was thousands of miles away. 

While the staff of Gemnifique had long gone home, the building was a hive of robotic activity. Sentry robots patrolled the corridors, scanned for lifeforms, and monitored the array of alarm systems. Maintenance robots cleaned the air ducts, dusted the counters, cleaned the glass display cases, and shined the floors. 

Maintenance Robot 7 emerged from its charging station and moved toward the vault. Like every other room in the store, the vault interior required regular cleaning. MR7 signaled to the security sentries that it needed to access the vault. Sentry Robot 3 scanned MR7 for the presence of foreign objects, scanned its programming for unauthorized modification, and verified that no life forms were present inside the store premises. SR3 signaled to its counterparts that the building should go into full lockdown mode while MR7 did its job. At this point, it would have taken an army with significant firepower to get inside the building. 
SR3 stood guard as MR7 entered the vault. MR7 began its regular dusting routine, followed by polishing, and finally vacuuming. An hour later, MR7 signaled the completion of its cleaning routine. SR3 scanned the vault for lifeforms and alterations that might signify a break-in attempt. Satisfied that the vault was unmodified, it called to its compatriots to seal the vault and restore normal lockdown levels. The fact that wireless security cameras could not work inside the vault meant that MR7's cleaning work would go unrecorded. Wired cameras were unwelcome, due to the security risk that the hole for the wire would have presented. The lack of camera footage ensured that the disappearance of the vault's contents would remain an unexplained mystery. 

MR7 made its way to the trash chute and ejected the dirt and debris it had collected in its waste container, then returned to its charging station. 

Outside the building, a city sanitation bot replaced Gemnifique’s dumpster with an empty one, and hauled the full one to the city dump. There, it would be sorted into recyclable materials and waste to be burned to power the city. 

This pre-programmed routine took place just as it had many times before.   

In case you are wondering, I did not so much as speak to the store's robotic fleet. I did not change their programming. I did not give them secret instructions. That was the beauty of this particular caper. If it worked, there was nothing linking it to me. If it failed, no one would know. 

I fell asleep with a smile on my face, turned away from the cameras of course.   

<*> 

I woke up to the sound of the chief’s gravelly voice. “Get up, you thief! I’ll see you behind bars. 
I sat up on the cot and turned to face him. “Unless it’s escaped your notice,” I told him, gesturing around me, “that is exactly what you are doing.” 

He growled. “You did it. I don’t know how you did it, but you did.” 

“What are babbling about?” I raised an eyebrow in an effort to look surprised and confused. This question was for the benefit of the officers nearby who were staring in our direction.  

Gemnifique. You robbed it. Took every stone in the vault. How?” 

One of the local cops, hearing the ruckus, walked over to the chief. “What’s going on here?” 

“This man,” he said, pointing at me, “robbed the Gemnifique store in Eldon last night.” The officers in the room were all paying attention now. 

The detective shook his head. “Not possible. He hasn’t left this cell in six days. We picked him up on a drunk and disorderly and he couldn’t post bail. He’ll have served his time tomorrow noon. 

“This is slander, Officer Robertson,” I told the cop. “This man has some kind of vendetta against me.” 

“Not my problem,” Robertson said. “And you,” he said, looking at the chief, “Stop bothering my prisoner. If you come back with an arrest warrant before noon tomorrow, he is yours. You don’t, he goes free.” 

The chief’s face turned an interesting shade of red, and I could have sworn I heard some of his teeth crumble as he gritted them. Without another word, he stormed out of the jail. I went back to my cot and laid down. 

<*> 

True to his word, Robertson opened the cell at noon the following day and let me out. He returned my belongings and wished me well. The chief made no appearance. 

As I reached the bottom of the jailhouse steps, two men grabbed me and threw me into the back of a black ground car. They got in after me, one on each side. In another row of seats facing mine sat the chief. If looks could kill, his would have reduced me to a fine pink mist and then vaporized that. 

“Ah, chief,” I said, stretching out my legs. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” 

“You’re coming with us. You’re going to tell the police what you did, and how you did it.” 
At this, the goon to my left slapped a helmet over my head and connected it to a box he pulled out of his pocket. 

“You know what this is?” The chief took the box from his goon. 

“It’s a brainwave scanner. Truth Finder Model A14, I believe.” 

“It’s the A15,” the chief said, “but you're right. You’re going to give me some answers.” 

“Fine,” I said. “But it’ll only convince you that you’re on the wrong trail.” 

“Did we meet on Mastrion?” He looked down at the box. 

“Yes,” I said, watching a green light appear on the box. 

“Did you leave your jail cell in the last six days?” 

“No.” The green light lit again. The chief grumbled a bit. 

“Did you break into Gemnifique in Eldon two nights ago?” 

“No, I told you that you were on the wrong trail.” Green light again. The chief shook his head. 

Then you know who broke into the store, don’t you?” 

“No.” Green light. The chief whacked on the box several times and nodded at the goons, who tightened the helmet on my head. It was starting to hurt. The chief seemed to be losing faith in the A15. I’d better throw him a bone. 

“Where are the gems? You know, don’t you?” 

“No.” Red light. 

“Ha! I knew it. You do know where they are.” 

“Yes, sort of,” I said. “They’re not in the store. You've told me that much. As for where else they might be, I don’t know.” Green light. It was true, I didn’t know where the gems were. I had a pretty good idea, though. 
The chief growled. One of the goons punched me in the gut. I doubled over, then sat back up. 

“How did you clean out the vault?” 

“I didn’t.” Green light. 

“Did you reprogram the robots?” 

“No. If I had, you would have found that by now.” Green light. 

“Let’s try another line of questioning,” the chief said. “Do you know who stole the gems?” 

“No.” Green light. It was true. No one stole the gems. In fact, it could be argued at this point that the gems were not "stolen" at all. They were simply discarded. 

“Do you know how the gems were stolen?” 

I would imagine that the hypothetical thief got into the vault somehow, picked them up, and carried them out.” Green light. It was true, I did imagine that. Despite centuries of refinement, lie detection can still only tell you that a statement is true or false, it can’t tell you why. 

“How did the thief get in?” 

“I can only guess. You tell me the gems were stolen. Since you are asking me how that happened, I can infer that you have no idea. This means that there must have been no modification to the alarm systems, no changes the programs the robots ran, nothing unexpected in the robots' logs, nothing in the surveillance footage, and nothing changed about the vault itself. It is as though the thief simply walked into and out of the place without being noticed." Green light. 

“Bah,” the chief said. “This is a waste of time. He must have some way to fool this thing. Toss him out. Let’s go back to the store. Maybe I missed something." 

The goons were efficient. One yanked the helmet off my head as the other tossed me out of the vehicle. Hitting the pavement knocked the wind out of me. I watched the vehicle vanish in the distance as I stood up. 

So far, so good. The chief had nothing on me. If he had, he would not have tossed me out of the car. 
I had the feeling someone was watching me. I have been in the criminal business long enough to know I should trust that instinct.  

The fall from the car left me dirty, a little bloodied, and in need of a change of clothes. I walked to the nearest hotel, got a room, and asked them to send a tailor bot to my room. 

I emerged from the shower to find the tailor bot waiting for me. It laser-scanned my body to measure my sizes. Since I was wearing nothing, the measurements should be extremely accurate. 

Using the tailor’s menu, I ordered a few outfits to cover the rest of my stay on the planet, which I hoped would be only a few days. I doubted I could pull another caper with the chief on my case. 

The tailor printed the new clothing, pressed it, and left it on the bed for me.  

I dressed, then went down to the hotel lobby. The feeling of being watched returned. 

I felt a surge of adrenaline. Was this one of the chief’s stooges? Was it a cop? An Agency drone? I couldn’t tell. 

When I first met the chief on Belloc, I told him I was here for relaxation. I decided to make sure that my follower saw me doing exactly that. I stopped in a cigar shop and bought a nice Zubano, punched a hole in the tip, and lit it as I walked down the street. This wasn’t strictly legal, of course. I did it to see if my shadow was a cop. If he was, this would give him a reason to arrest me if he wanted to. He didn’t. That told me my follower was probably working with the chief. 

By the time I had finished the cigar, I was getting hungry. I stepped into a restaurant and requested a table near the window. I am basically a nice guy, and I wanted to make sure my follower could keep a close eye on me without going to too much trouble. If they wanted to watch me eat, who was I to interfere? 

This routine persisted for four days. Then, as suddenly as he appeared, my tail was gone. This did not entirely surprise me. If the chief was having me followed, his insurance company would grow tired of paying the expense of watching someone the police were certain did not commit a crime, and who only seemed to be acting like a typical tourist. 

It was time for the riskiest part of my plan. In the next few hours, I would either collect the loot from the jewelry store caper or collect a very large sum from the chief’s employer. I might even manage both. 
I took every possible precaution as I made my way toward the city’s recycling center.  I knew it took the robots about a week to get to the last batch of refuse. If I was too late, the recycling bots would find the gems and I would end up with nothing. I would not know until I got there. 

Based on earlier surveillance, I knew approximately where to look for Gemnifique’s trash. Even knowing that, it would take hours to find the loot. These wouldn’t be pleasant hours, either. Week-old trash has an aroma you would never mistake for a field of flowers. 

As the sunlight began to fade, I found a few Gemnifique receipts and shopping bags. In the last few rays of sunlight, I caught the sparkle of a gemstone. Within minutes, I had all I could carry. Leaving some behind would actually help cover my tracks. 

Away from the dump, I pulled a clean change of clothes out of my pack, took out a cleaning kit, and cleaned myself up. I tossed the dirty clothes and cleaning kit into the pile nearest the recycling bots. They would ensure it disappeared soon. 

The pack, not to mention my back, struggled under the weight of its contents. I buried the pack in the corner of a vacant lot near the dump.  

Back at the hotel, I found the chief and his goons waiting in the lobby for me. 

“Search him,” he said to the others. They found nothing, of course. 

“What’s going on, chief?” I smoothed some of my clothing wrinkled by the search. 

“You left here with a backpack. Where is it?” 

I pretended to be surprised, and looked around me. “You’re right. I lost it somewhere.” 

“Right,” the chief said. “You think I was born yesterday?” 

“Not with that much gray in your hair,” I told him. One of the goons punched me in the side. 

“I still can’t figure out how you did it,” he said. “I checked the camera footage. You’re not in it. Just all the robots, doing their jobs. We checked the robots’ logs. None of them saw you. None of them has any missing footage. Their programming and hardware is intact, even down to the microscopic level. And logs from that jail you were in show you never left there, either. But I know you did it. This has all the right signs to be one of your jobs. How’d you do it?” 

“I didn’t. I told you that.” 

We’ll see.” 

They left, and I returned to my room. From the state it was in, I could see that the chief and his men had conducted a very exhausting search. Had I stashed the gems here, He would have found them. 

<*> 

In the Eldon City Dump, a recycle bot discovered many unusual rocks and metals among the trash. It's programming told it that these were not to be recycled, but to be brought to the humans in charge of the recycling operation. 

The humans called the police. 

The police called he insurance company and jewelry store manager, who confirmed that the gems had come from Gemnifique. 

<*> 

I awoke, strapped to a chair, with the Truth Finder strapped to my head again. 

The chief, his goons, and two men in expensive looking suits were looking at me. I saw a 3D camera on one wall, aimed at me. This was another interrogation. This time it would be an official one. 

“Good morning, sunshine,” the chief said. His smile reminded me of a cartoon shark. 

“Hi, chief,” I said, “Got any room service here? I could use some coffee.” Green light on his box. 

The smile faded. “We found the gems in the city dump.” 

“Really? Then why all this?” I asked, looking at my strapped down extremities. 

“I know you did it. But why put them in the dump?” 

“I didn’t.” Green light. 

“You know how they got there, don't you?”  

“I have a theory,” I told him. Green light. “I assume one of these guys is your boss?” I gestured with my head toward the guys in the expensive suits. 

“I am,” one of them said. “Why?” 

“You have seen that I did not take the gems from the store.” Green light. “I was in jail when the gems were taken from the vault.” Green light. “I did not break into Gemnifique.” Green light. “I did not disable any security, any cameras, any sensors, or any robots.” Green light.  

The man looked at me. “What are you driving at?” 

“There is no incentive for me to tell you how these gems got to the dump.” Green light. 

“So?” 

“If you’ll provide one, I will share a theory with you, one that the chief here can investigate. If it proves correct, you’ll know exactly what happened. You will also know that I did not break into the store and that the removal of the gems was merely an unfortunate mistake.” Green light. 

“Fine.” 

“In exchange, I want a finder’s fee… whatever you pay a consultant you call in on a case like this. I’m not greedy.” 

The chief snorted. 

“Done,” the suit said. 

"How much?" If he offered the right amount, I would tell them where to find the pack. It would be easier than fencing the goods. 

He pulled out a notepad and scribbled an amount on it. He showed the amount to me. It was generous, but meant that I would not help them find the pack. 

Acceptable. First, get me out of this get-up.” 

They removed me from the chair and pulled the Truth Finder helmet off my head. I might not have convinced the chief, but his boss seemed to believe me. 

“When I visited Gemnifique, I saw that their security precautions were first-rate. As the chief will tell you, I know quite a lot about these things.” 

The chief rolled his eyes. 

“The chief tells me there is no evidence to suggest that any person entered or left the building.” 

“Correct.” 

“No robots left the building, either, I gather?” 

“No. They’re not able to.” 

“There’s only one way this could have happened. The cleaning robots are programmed to clean the vault on some regular basis. Correct? 

The suits nodded. 

“Normally, they’re programmed to clean everything in the vault but not touch gems and jewelry. Right?” 

Again, they nodded. 

“How is that done?” 

“Well, I don’t know,” the suit said, looking at the other. 

“It’s a setting,” the chief said. “You tell ‘em they aren’t to pick up stones and metal. That way, they grab dust, dirt, water, and whatever else. They scan whatever they clean up. If they do find any metal or rocks they set those aside for the humans to look at later.” 

“Exactly,” I said. “So no robot in that store should ever pick up gems or jewelry, and they should never toss them out. 

“Yeah.” I think I even had the chief's interest now. 

“Suppose that someone came into the store with bits of rock and metal on their shoes, and they tracked it all over the floor. What would happen?” 

The chief’s eyes opened wider. “Somebody would tell ‘em to clean it up. They wouldn’t, because they don’t know the difference between ordinary rocks and metal or jewelry.” 

I nodded. “Right, chief. So they tell it to override that and do it anyway. They don’t want the store all dirty, and no one wants to do a job himself that a robot can easily accomplish. 

“So the robot does it, then goes back to its charger. They tell it to reactivate the setting. 

Suppose they forget to turn off the override? The robot goes into the vault, sees ‘rocks’ all over the place, and starts cleaning them up.” 

“But the security sentries, wouldn’t they—“ 

“Stop the cleaning bots? No. They watch the vault, not the merchandise,” the chief said. “As far as they were concerned, the cleaning bots might as well have been picking up dust and dirt.” 

"Wait," the suited man said, "They don't see the merchandise?" 

"No. With the inventory changing, people putting things in a different spot every night, and all that, no one bothers to make the robots watch the inventory itself," the chief said. "It's not what we recommend, but I've never seen a jewelry store do it right." 

“Exactly,” I said. “When they were done, the robots dumped all the ‘rocks and metal’ into the trash chute, where the sanitation bots hauled it to the dump.” 

“And the recycle bots found it.” 

“You got it, chief. Like I said, I didn’t do it. I never broke into the store. I never touched the robots. I didn’t steal the jewels.” 

“I think you did. You probably tracked the rocks and metal into the store. 

"I assure you I did not, and your security footage will prove that." 

“If he did, why would he be telling you how?” the chief’s boss asked. 

“He wants me to know he’s smarter than I am, and thinks I can’t catch him.” He turned toward me and looked deeply into my eyes. "But I will." 

Turning to the suits, I flashed my best salesman smile. "If I had committed the crime of which I am being accused, then I am quite confident that this man would catch me. If I know anything about him, it's that he's an ace investigator. You have done well to hire him." 

The chief jerked, like he had been hit with something heavy.  He didn't expect a compliment.  
"Could I have a moment alone with the chief?" I asked. The others left the room. I motioned for him to come closer. What I had to say was for his ears only. 

"Chief, when I first saw you again, a part of me wanted to see you crushed for all you have done to me and to my father. I have checked the records in the Alliance Central Criminal Registry. Don't ask how, just know that I have. The Alliance believes that you have paid your debt to society and that you are no longer a threat to the civilized worlds. As much as it might surprise you to hear this, I agree. You are earning an honest living, using your skills and smarts. To do you any harm at this point would be a very petty act on my part. It would not bring back my father and it would leave a stain on my soul. For whatever you may think of me, harming any individual who doesn't deserve it is a line I will not cross." 

He whispered into my ear, "I don't buy it. I'm taking you down." 

"Then consider this. There is no evidence that I have committed the crime of which you accuse me. I guarantee you that you will find no evidence that I did, and plenty of evidence admissible in court to prove that I did not. Even if you are correct, and I am not saying that you are, unless you catch me with the missing items in my possession, you will have no case. Even then, I can claim to be taking them back to the jewelry store for a reward." 

"Just try picking 'em up. My guys will be on you in seconds." 

"No doubt that is true. But let me give you something else to consider. I have already given you a great gift, whether you realize it or not." 

He stared at me, saying nothing. 

"I have told you how I believe the gems left the store and found themselves at the city dump. Not only would your contacts at Gemnifique be pleased to have that information, but the manufacturer of those maintenance and security robots would, too. In the case of the store, you could offer services as a security consultant. You could make a similar offer to the robotic manufacturer. Having their robots revert back to the owner's default settings after a set amount of time would have prevented the cleaning robot from emptying the safe in this case." 

He rubbed his chin. 

"If you persist in pursuing me, and that is assuming that I orchestrated this incident as you allege, then you might be fortunate enough to catch me with the items in my possession. When the details of this little incident come out in court, any opportunity you have right now to profit from the information will vanish when it becomes public record. I would not be at all surprised if your bosses are already considering how to monetize this situation." 

He growled, and left the room in a hurry. 

Minutes later, a man I had not seen to this point opened the door and looked in my direction. "You're free to go, I'm told. The receptionist has your check." 

I nodded, smiled, and walked to the exit. I stopped to pick up the check on my way out, of course. I had given the chief's company valuable information and deserved to be compensated for it. 

<*> 

Everywhere I went on Belloc for the next several days, I heard the sound of footsteps in the distance or the whir of a surveillance robot. 

To the chief's credit, he made a very public show of cracking the Gemnifique case. His insurance company offered a handsome reward for the return of the merchandise, no questions asked. I expected this. If the chief was wrong about me, his employers would want the stones back to cut their losses, and would pay anyone who found them. If the chief was right, they hoped I would be stupid or greedy enough to bring them in myself. This would have validated the chief's suspicions and probably resulted in my arrest. I could be patient. The eventual reward would be worth it. 

Could I wait here long enough? I wondered. It appeared that the chief was determined to catch me with the gems. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. The feeling of eyes on the back of my neck and the sound of whirring robots haunted me. 

I was getting tired of Belloc. I had seen all the sights. I had dined in all the best restaurants, sampled all the best drinks, and smoked the best cigars. All of this while the chief's eyes followed me. 

My followers were different now, though. I gather the chief had exhausted his access to insurance company resources and was using his own money to hire investigators now. I had grossly misread his level of hatred toward me. 

It can be dangerous to become too attached to a score. It was time to let go of this one.  

I had several options. I could tell the chief where the stones were, but that would be as good as admitting that I had stolen them. I could tell someone else where they were, and let them turn the stones in for a reward, but the chief would probably grill that person until they turned me in. I could hire a courier robot to retrieve the stones and turn them in. None of these options was particularly satisfying. Most of them landed me in jail. None of them turned a profit. 

It was time to play the long game. There was a risk, of course, but it was far lower than the risk of going after the stones. 

I booked passage on the next flight to Carfan, the nearest border world. Quite predictably, the chief and two police robots were waiting for me at the spaceport. 

I smiled. "Chief, how nice to see you. How nice of you to see me off after my little break on this world." 

"Stuff it," he said. "Search him. You'll find the stolen merchandise. I guarantee it." 

"That's a guarantee you will regret, chief. I do not have the items you speak of." 

The robots hauled me into an examination room. They scanned every inch of my body, every molecule of my clothing, and everything I was carrying. Judging from the time one of the robots spent plugged into the computer net, they were checking my alter ego's finances as well. 

"There is no evidence that this individual is in possession of the missing items," one of the police robots told the chief. "He is free to leave Belloc." 

"That can't be," the chief said. "He wouldn't leave here without them. Search him again." 

"Unnecessary," the robot said. "We apologize for the inconvenience, citizen. We have credited your account for the price of your ticket as an apology for detaining you." 

"Quite civil of you," I said. I stood up, and dipped my head toward the chief. "I told you, chief. I did not steal the jewels." 

"You did. You just can't go near them. Don't worry. I'll find 'em if it takes a hundred years." 

"Perhaps, but you won't find them on me." I left the room, listening to a stream of curses from the chief as I made my way to the departure gate. 

It's good for everyone to have a hobby. I had just given the chief one. He would search for the missing gems until he found them or grew tired of looking. 

If he found them, the pack they were in would tie them to me, but it would be circumstantial evidence. The pack was a mass-market item available in stores all over Belloc. It would not be enough to convict me. 
If the chief did not find the gems, one day I would go back and claim them. He would probably be there to try to arrest me when I did, but I would make sure the statute of limitations had long expired. 

As I said, I was now playing a long game with a potentially large payoff. There was always a risk that the chief or some random stranger would find the pack before I returned. If they didn't, my retirement fund was assured. If they did, as the old saying goes, "easy come, easy go"... 

The transport ship lifted off and jumped into FTL mode. A serving robot rolled past, dropping an envelope into my lap. I opened it and pulled out the note inside. "We have your nest egg and will take good care of it. Enjoy your time on Carfan." It was signed "The Agency"…  

I thought I had lost them.