OUTSIDE THE COP SHOP:
"There's only one place to go. Back."
We approached the abandoned building cautiously, coming up Lispenard, urban commandos dodging from cover to cover—mounds of trash bags buzzing with midday flies, the half concealment of a phone booth, crouching behind doorways and stoops.
Actually, it was fun.
Until we spotted them.
The plywood doors were wide open, the padlock swinging on its chain. A rental truck sat blocking half the street, its elevator ascending with a whine, stacked high with boxes of the shoes.
"They're moving," Jen said.
We were hidden behind a steel-clad loading dock that thrust into the street, hot under our fingertips from the noon sun. We spoke in short bursts, as if on radios.
"Bald guy, by the door," I said.
"I count two more."
SoHo tourists walked by, casting puzzled looks in our directions. Hadn't they ever seen a stakeout before?
Our bald friend watched the work with a foreman's lazy disinterest while a woman stacked boxes on the curb. She was arrayed in a style commonly known as Future Sarcastic: a T-shirt emblazoned with a big-eyed alien, flight-suit trousers with dozens of gadget-shaped pockets, silver hair shining in the sun. Everything but the jet pack.
The guy riding the truck's elevator was muscular and lean, very dark. He was wearing a trucker cap and cowboy boots, jeans and a mesh shirt that showed off his muscles. In a friendlier context I would have pegged him as a gay bodybuilder doing an ironic take on NASCAR fandom. But alongside the other two, he looked more like one of many hopefuls sent down by central casting to try out for the part of Thug #3 in a hip new thriller.
Of which we were the unlikely heroes, I reminded myself.
"What do we do?" I asked, trying not to catch the eye of a curious young mother pushing a double-wide stroller past our position.
Jen pulled out her cell phone, starting thumbing. "Well, I'm inputting the license number of that truck."
"It's a rental."
"And rental places keep records."
"Oh, yeah." Maybe if I'd read more books about shoe consultants who solved crimes, I would've figured that out myself.
"And you should be taking pictures."
"Good idea. I mean, roger that."
I pulled out Mandy's phone and started to shoot. Between the five-millimeter lens and lack of zoom, they'd be pretty useless pictures, I was sure. But it was better than just standing there and being gawked at by passersby.
"Excuse me, is Broadway and Ninety-eighth Street around here?"
I looked up from my crouch at the two girls in their Jersey glitter shirts and floppy shoes, white capri pants tied at the calf with drawstrings, so last summer. I had to take pity on them—plus they were giving away our position.
"Yeah, it's about two blocks east" — hooking my thumb over my shoulder—"and about a hundred and ten blocks north."
"A hundred and ten blocks? That's far, right?"
I told them where to catch the 1 train.
"Your public-spiritedness is appreciated, I assure you," Jen drawled after the two had left, uncertainly repeating my directions to each other as they passed out of earshot.
"After when are you not supposed to wear white pants?" I asked.
I pointed. "They're leaving."
The truck was loaded, the bald guy scraping shut the building's doors. The shoes were going away. I thought of rising and dashing after the truck, jumping on just as it exceeded running speed, concealing myself behind boxes until I reached their evil lair, sneaking out and stealing a henchman's uniform, and, after a few captures and escapes, pulling the levers that made the whole place explode. And I realized why no crimes were ever solved by amateurs.
"There's nothing we can do, right?"
"Nope," said Jen as the truck pulled away.