Virtually Harmless

virtually harmless

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chapter-1

drop-cap-he thought that he was safe. It was the perfect crime. No witnesses left alive, no one to point the finger at him.

He’d shown her who was boss. She thought she could go behind his back? Cheat on him? Every day acting like she was the perfect little girlfriend, so naive and innocent and happy to please him, and all along, she’d been sneaking around behind his back. Well, he’d shown her.

And there was nothing to lead the cops back to him. Neither of them had shared the details of their relationship with anyone. She’d been even more concerned about her family and friends finding out than he’d been. He’d warned her about how she would be treated if people knew about them. So he was sure she hadn’t talked, and now it was too late.

They’d always met away from their homes or usual haunts, the danger of being found out adding an extra layer of excitement to the illicit relationship.

And surveillance cameras. He’d even thought of that, casing their meeting place and the streets around it for surveillance cameras and nosy neighbors. Wearing an oversized hoodie, ball cap, and glasses as he arrived and left afterward to hide his identity in case he did get caught on camera.

It had been a thrill, satisfying a lust in him even deeper than their secret rendezvous. He was high and satisfied and exultant all at the same time.

He’d gotten away with it.

The perfect crime.

Only he hadn’t known about Micah Miller.

“They got him,” Aaron Kwong told the team, a smile spreading across his usually impassive face.

Micah was momentarily distracted by the itch to sketch Kwong’s face. In a population that was ninety percent white, her artist’s eye was immediately drawn to those who stood out. The Asian cast of his features, skin smooth even at the end of the day when he was tired and other men would have been showing a five o’clock shadow. Neat, close-cropped hair. And the glasses. She thought that the narrow, rectangular frames were new. A little bit different from the last time she had seen him.

He wore a white lab coat to match the dress of most of his team, buttoned up with a light blue shirt and perfectly-knotted silk tie underneath. But he was rarely in the lab. Like Micah, most of his work took place in front of a computer, not a test tube.

“David Beggs was just arrested by the Toole County Sheriff’s Department for the murder of fifteen-year-old Jessica Johnson.”

A smattering of applause went up from the assembled team. Micah joined the lab techs a few seconds later, clapping quietly. It wouldn’t bring Jessica Johnson back, but it was one less predator on the street. One less violent pedophile. Who knew how many children they had saved from a similar fate.

“Most of you were involved in getting the Sheriff’s Department the evidence they needed to collar David Beggs,” Kwong went on, “but I wanted to mention Micah particularly. Without your work, Micah, we wouldn’t have had a face to put to the killer. That was the one key piece of evidence that helped the cops identify the killer. Because of you, Jessica’s family can at least be assured that their daughter’s killer is behind bars.”

All faces turned toward Micah, renewing the quiet applause for a few seconds. Micah shifted her feet and looked away, slightly uncomfortable with their attention. She smiled and nodded, waiting for Kwong to go on and take the spotlight off of her.

There was more work to be done. She wanted to be back at her desk, working on the next case.

chapter-2

drop-cap-micah sketched as she waited for the Snohomish Police Department Duty Officer to figure out who to put her through to. Drawing was something that kept her fingers occupied for hours every day. She wasn’t the kind of person who could just sit and be still. Whenever she wasn’t doing something that occupied her brain, she had to be doing something with her hands. And ever since she was a child, that had been drawing.

She ran through several different faces, cases that she had been working on lately, trying them out with different hairstyles, facial hair, accessories, or expressions. Sometimes, something just clicked, and she would create a new composite with those details to add to the file. She couldn’t count the number of times when sketching while bored had led to the creation of the composite picture that would crack a case.

But none of them was prompting any special thrill today. Micah switched tactics and drew her own face, just like she would one of the composites, naked of anything but the essential shape and features to start with. She didn’t hold any illusions that she was a beauty. She was a plain Jane. Nothing particularly striking about her. She’d analyzed her face piece by piece many times. Her face was mostly well-proportioned—nose just a little too prominent, jawline just a little too square.

You could be pretty if you put some effort into it.

How she had come to hate that comment. It had been made by both men and women who disdained the fact that she rarely wore any makeup or did anything with her dark hair but brush it out and put it in an elastic to keep it out of her face. People didn’t seem to understand that she didn’t care about being pretty. She had good hygiene; she didn’t wear the same set of clothes every day—though she did have a sort of a work ‘uniform’ that made it easy to get ready for the day each morning—she didn’t smell bad or have mussed-up hair. She just couldn’t be bothered to go to all that trouble for no good reason.

For what? So she could attract a mate? She enjoyed her friendships with men, had an easy camaraderie with most of the men that she worked with, both cop types and geeks. But she far preferred a meeting of the minds to the possibility of a romantic relationship. She had guy friends, not boyfriends. And she didn’t often hit it off with women. Too many of them were distracted by girly things. Fashion, shopping, chasing men, talking endlessly about their children or pets. It was hard to have a good intellectual discussion with someone whose brain was busy with so many other things.

Micah filled in some new details on the sketch of her face. She gave herself bobbed hair that curled around her face, softening the lines. Earrings. No glasses. All different from her real-life look. She picked up some colored pencils and added skin tones that were a little warmer than her natural complexion, dusky red lips, roses in the cheeks. Sure, she could be pretty, or at least prettier, if she cared to change those things. But the face that looked back at her was fake. A mask to be put on every day instead of being able to be her own true self. Start down that road, and who knew how many concessions she would make to societal expectations? As a combination of geek, artist, and forensic detective, people allowed her latitude, shrugging off her eccentricities, and that was the way she liked it.

“Is this Micah Miller?” a gravelly man’s voice spoke in her ear.

Micah was startled, but managed not to drop the phone and quickly recovered.

“This is Micah,” she said briskly.

“This is Detective Rasmussen. Not sure why you didn’t call me directly, honey. I left you all of my details.”

“As I told your duty officer, the voicemail you left me was garbled. I don’t know whether there was a problem with your phone service or mine, but I could barely figure out your police department name after listening to it half a dozen times.”

“Oh. Well, no harm done, I guess. You’re the one who had to wait around while my DO tied himself in knots.”

“What can I do for you?” Micah asked, getting straight to the point.

“I’m told that you are the go-to man—er, woman—for those whatchamacallits, virtual mugshots for perps you don’t have photos of.”

“Composite pictures.”

“Composite, yes,” Rasmussen agreed.

“Do you have an eyewitness?”

“If I did, there are folks around here who can do sketches or use the computer programs that make them. My problem is that I don’t. One of the techies here said that you could make pictures from DNA samples. I told him there’s no freaking way, if you’ll pardon my French. But he says you can do it, and some of these virtual pictures you’ve done have been so on-point that they’ve been able to identify the perp and get an arrest.”

“Yes, I can do Forensic DNA phenotyping,” Micah told him. She knew that he wouldn’t know what the phrase meant, but if she dumbed it down for him, he’d never learn and would keep calling them virtual mugshots. “These are graphic representations of what your suspect may look like according to his or her DNA. You will also get a listing of observable characteristics that will help you to eliminate suspects. For example, I may be able to tell you that the suspect’s eyes could range from green to brown, but they are absolutely not blue. Or I may be able to tell you that your suspect’s skin and hair are fair, which will allow you to eliminate those with darker complexions.”

“And these pictures can be used to identify the perp.”

“The picture gives you an idea of what he or she looks like. I’ll produce a series of photos with different hairstyle or facial hair, accessories, age range, weight range, and so on, in the hopes that one of them will be close. But that will not be sufficient evidence to charge him or her. You will need to gather other evidence, try to get a direct DNA match, and so on. The court will still expect you to have done your homework.”

Micah spoke slowly and precisely to give him a chance to soak it all in. She’d given the explanation many times and, although she felt it was perfectly clear, LEOs—law enforcement officers—still seemed to think that the pictures she produced would magically provide the identity of the subject and they would have enough to make an arrest without all of the difficult in-between work.

“Can you give me some examples of what we would get?” Rasmussen’s tone was petulant. “We can’t afford to be shelling out money to private contractors without being sure that we’re going to get something out of it.”

“Can you use an internet browser, Detective?”

“Can I use a—?” Rasmussen sputtered. “Of course I can use an internet browser! I may not have grown up with the technology like some of the young folks coming up now, but I’ve learned how to use it!”

“Great. That will save us some time. Are you at a computer right now?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent. Fire up your browser and type in this URL.” Micah waited for Rasmussen’s verbal confirmation that he was ready.

“Up in the top bar?” Rasmussen asked, a little sheepish, since he had just told her he knew what he was doing.

“Yes. Are you ready? Here it is.” She spoke and then spelled out the URL for him character by character. His typing was slow and uneven. Hunt and peck.

She waited for him to load the page and look it over.

“Are these all yours?” Rasmussen’s voice held new respect, almost reverence. Micah clicked her home button and loaded the page on her own display. Up came the images of FDP composites that had been released to the public, some of which were paired with photos of the suspects who had been convicted of the crime. She never tired of looking at the page.

“Yes, anything from the past three years is mine,” she informed him. “They are in reverse date order, so that’s the top five rows.”

She could hear him breathing as he looked through them. “Good grief. I owe Darius a beer. These are incredible.”

“As you can see, some of them are better likenesses than others, and we have put the best match at the top of each picture stack. If you click on a stack of composites, they will fan out so you can see the various hairstyles, ages, and weights that I produced for that file.”

She could hear his clicks through the phone as he tried a couple.

“I’ve seen what sketch artists and computer programs produced from witness testimony in the past,” Rasmussen said. “They always look flat, and darned if I can see the likeness to a suspect. But yours look like… well, like he was sitting across the table from you.”

“Thank you,” Micah acknowledged. “I take the information the DNA provides to come up with a computer composite, and then I finish the details by hand, like a portrait artist. I use the genetic and epigenetic clues and any crime-scene evidence available to piece together things like age, height, likely body build, and facial hair and hairstyles that are typical to that generation and region. And as you can see, sometimes I couldn’t have gotten much closer if he or she had been sitting across the table from me.”

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Virtually Harmless

By P.D. Workman

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