What You Can’t See in the Picture

It’s my job to bring ghosts back to life, to make them resurface and reform out of amorphous images and subconscious memories. To do this, I stare all day at closed circuit TV monitors, grainy footage from grimy cameras hung in corners that capture our worst moments. Or the deceptively mundane—a final purchase, a walk down a dark street, a bicycle flying past.

You see, I passed the many tests given by the police department so they can ferret out the super recognizers in our city. Last summer, in a room heavy with hot, stale air and the occasional smoker’s cough, I was able to match up, on my computer screen, the array of faces to each other, to pick them out of lineups and mug shots and to match them to their CCTV scans. Out of the 500 black-and-white faces I was presented with to match, I got just one wrong.

So now, when I go to work, all I need are my eyes. My eyes and a bag lunch. I stare at screen grabs of perpetrators. I’ve learned to know the tricks of light and what ageing can do to a face, but not to its bone structure. Video stretches skin, compresses heads, but can’t erase moles, large curvy ears, cleft chins, battle scars, tattoos, haunted eyes.

They call me Superwoman in the squad. I’m the only female super recognizer to date. When we cover mass protests, crowds, and festivals, spreading out and looking for perps, there’s always a male colleague lurking nearby. At first I was offended, but after this one time when I was able to call out a perp, even with a scarf covering his mouth, and the perp came after me with a knife, the male officer on the other side of the street managed to catch him from behind, his thick arm around the wrapped neck saving me from being scarred. Or worse. I decided, after the rush of fear was over, to relax into my Superwoman role and let them keep an eye on me.

This past Halloween, I wore a Superwoman T-shirt to work as a joke. There are selfies with me and the squad on my Instagram page. Me in the middle with a big smile on my face, and the men around me pointing to the big S shield.

No one but us knows what we do. No one.

It’s hard to date people when you have this SR ability. I’m talking about online dating. About looking at faces all day for work, then going home to an empty apartment and scrolling through the dating menu at night. More faces, only these are clearer and most are smiling, inviting you in rather than trying to hide. Still, I recognize the men who have changed their profile but still have the same picture, or vice versa. I’ve passed these imposters in the street, only to realize they are so much smaller or less tidy and together when not posing. I can tell when someone has doctored his image, like adding a cleft chin. Or photoshopped his bad skin.

Once, I found one of our convenience store robbers on a dating site, calling himself “Gary.” I alerted the Chief. At his orders, I pretended to set up a date with “Gary” at Starbuck’s. I had some surprisingly interesting chats with him online before we met, about the loss of the visible four seasons up north and his desire to get into acting. I admit I was hoping to see if we could continue the comfortable chatter in the café, but the moment he walked up to the table and pulled back his chair, the boys swooped in and gathered up my shocked perp.

It was his ears that had given him away. Even in the vague gray landscape of the CCTV screen capture, the tops of his ears spread like thin-veined bat wings and his lobes hung heavy like ripe fruit.

“Sorry,” I muttered, not looking up when they cuffed him. I felt bad they took him before he could drink his coffee. It sat there, abandoned, vapors rising. I picked it up and gave it to a homeless man I see every day, who was folded into the seam between the sidewalk and the cement foundation outside the café. “Here, John,” I said. I always try to speak his name.

My robber’s lobes haunted me for days. I stayed away from my personal computer till the ears faded into the constant, rushing stream of other parts and expressions and bone structures, along with the man’s dream to become something, or someone, other than himself.

It was tough being in the office after that arrest. My squad loves to tease me.

“Sorry we took your boyfriend.”

“Does coffee now remind you of Gary the Perp?”

“Wanna go through the database today to find a date?”

It’s all in good humor. I don’t mind. We’re all bonded together by our peculiarity. We’re all skilled chess players and have tournaments when things are slow. We see the patterns others can’t see.

It’s when I’m moving one of my bishops across the chess board that the Amber Alert comes in.

“Missing girl, four feet eight, age 10, last seen biking to the convenience store on Hathaway Street. Might be caught on CCTV. Janet Little has face blindness and has a fear of strangers. Both parents are cooperating.”

I swing my office chair back to my monitor to see the uploaded school picture offered by her parents. Janet’s upper frame is made of thin bones. Her face has no high cheekbones. She has freckles (one on the left cheek is in the shape of a butterfly), wide-set blue eyes, thick, unplucked eyebrows that thin out to a point. The left eyebrow is higher than the right. A small white scar graces her temple near the hairline, which has no peaks. Long red hair drapes her in unkempt curls.

I get lost in her blue eyes.

She is the opposite of me—I can’t forget a face, she can’t remember one. During our training, we learned about face blindness, or prosopagnosia. I wonder if she has it so bad that she can’t recognize her own beautiful face.

I offer to stay at headquarters late, waiting for the CCTV hard disks, praying they are not cheap disks that have been corrupted. The officers have fanned out, casing the area she biked in, looking for the cameras, talking to their owners, hoping for cooperation so we don’t have to obtain warrants, the best-case scenario. Then we can isolate her moment on camera. I keep studying her face, till I notice her jawline is crooked. I think of her being born, being pushed out so hard her jaw was curved wrong. This is the first young girl who has gone missing since I joined the squad. I’m warned that these are the hardest cases. What you don’t know, or can’t ever find, is sometimes worse than what you do.

Still, I feel like she is mine to find. She could be me, I could be her, but for some abnormality in the fusiform area of the brain. I feel guilty that my life must be so much easier than hers. And I try not to think of what could be happening to her at that moment. I choose instead to envision her lost, wandering around the city or in the woods that edge it, not being able to recognize her way home to parents whose faces she cannot recall.

I have to find her. Or her abductor, if there is one. Fast.

The best, and last, image we find of her is on the convenience store footage. Luckily they’d upgraded to a surveillance-grade disk after two hold ups in six months that were lost on a plain old cheap disk the owner had been using. So for Janet, the timing is right.

There she is, as clear as can be in black and white.

The store has two cameras, one facing the street and one over the register. She silently pulls up on her bike, captured by one camera, ignores her kickstand and leaves the bike on the sidewalk, laying it down carefully. Up the three concrete stairs till her head disappears. Then inside, the second camera has her moving about the aisles, taking her time. I make notes as to what she is wearing. A T-shirt with a Hello Kitty image on the front, light-colored shorts. One knee looks bruised. Flip flops. She scans the makeup aisle, touching the Maybelline eye shadows, picking up nail polish bottles, putting them back. I suspect she’s not allowed to wear these yet, so she’s scouting out the future. Then she walks to the front by the register where all the candy and gum is displayed and picks out what looks like a chocolate candy bar. She pays with a dollar from her left pocket, accepts the small change, never looking up, and walks out. Then the first camera finds her again, on her bike, leaving the footage in a burst of pedaling. I note she does not head back in the direction of home.

I watch the footage over and over. Back it up to see if I note anything unusual or different. I’ve learned the eye can overlook things in forward motion, because we can anticipate what’s coming next. When you reverse, you play a trick on your mind. It stumbles on itself, gives you time sometimes to see what’s right there under your nose.

It’s in reverse that I see him. A man’s grainy form is on a bench across the street, facing the store, tucked into the right corner, leaning on the arm. It’s a park bench, just on the edge of the far sidewalk. Ball cap pushed down over his eyes, arms crossed. He’s there when she arrives. When she picks up her bike to leave, he stands up and gets on his own bike, which is parked behind the bench. He heads in the same direction as she does, on the opposite side of the street.

There are moments in this business where your body tells you more than your eyes. Those little hairs on my forearms rise up with the shiver that runs through me. I call the Chief over. Everyone’s working some angle of the case. We all know these first twenty-four hours are crucial. He’s been working with the street squad and police dogs, who lost the scent by a marshy swamp area but found the abandoned bike. The parents verified it was hers.

“Chief, did the parents say if this was a routine or not? Going to the store?”

“Yeah, she went every Saturday after she got paid on Friday nights for babysitting.”

“I need more footage. I want to go back and look at the Saturdays before this one. At least a months’ worth from the store.”

“Done. Let’s hope they saved them.”

I’m staring now at the previous week’s CCTV recording, and there he is again. And also in the week’s footage before this one. Each time, he rises and leaves when she does, and heads in the same direction.

We get more footage from a park CCTV. It’s clearer. I get a screen grab of the man and pass it around. As I mentioned before, light can play tricks on the eyes. The sun shining through the fully leafed tree branches creates white patches and shadows that move across his cap and clothes and profile. But when he stands and walks to his bike, hops on it, something triggers in my mind. I enlarge his hands.

I’ve seen them before.

And I enlarge his nose.

I’ve seen it before, too.

Now I have to go deep into my mind’s files. I leave the squad room and go to the bunkroom and shut off the lights and lie down. I pull up the ghost images from the past. Breathe in and out. In and out.

Hands. Hands holding guns, hands hitting dogs, hands throwing rocks and beer cans, hands…grabbing girls. Last year, an abduction aborted when a good Samaritan grabbed the girl back from the large, hairy hands of a man wearing a ball cap. I’ve never seen so much hair, all the way up the knuckles to the nails. And I recall the bent nose, probably once broken.

I get up and turn the light switch back on. I’m blinded temporarily.

By 7 a.m., he is identified by a weary neighbor answering the knock on her door, clutching her tattered bathrobe closed at her chest.

By 9 a.m., we have his clothes, and the dogs are on the scent.

By 1 p.m., he is found, fleeing the tent in the woods.

Janet is brought back to her parents, carefully, still alive.

Animals recognize each other mainly through smell. Birds, mostly through song. Humans have been given the gift of sight, some more so than others. On the way to the hospital for the photo op with Janet and her parents, as requested by the mayor, I scan the streets as a habit. Watch the people move together as a mass, like a river, parting ways, tumbling over and around each other, looking down at phones and up at lights.

All these faces with stories, good and bad.

And I recognize, always, some of them. Even years after I’ve seen them in the store or in a bar or on the street. But they don’t know me. It’s an odd feeling, like being a voyeur.

Janet makes it all worthwhile. She is lying in her hospital bed with a gown on, her hair washed and dried and curled in a mass around her little face. When I walk in, she turns her head my way. Usually those with face blindness look down, to avoid making eye contact and having to admit they don’t recognize you. She doesn’t know me, but I can see she wants to. It’s like she is drinking me in with her blue, bruised eyes, her freckled, crooked face now holding the wisdom of an adult woman.

I place the gift I’d wrapped in pink Hello Kitty paper on her lap. It’s the Superwoman T-shirt. It’s big enough to be a dress on her, but her mother puts it over her gown for the pictures.

If you get this Sunday’s paper, you will see us there on the front page. I’m to the right, pointing toward Janet and the big S, my arm around her. The caption bills me as her rescuer. But the whole squad, down to the dogs, played a part.

What you can’t see in the picture is us saying our goodbyes, my tears in her hair, her tears dampening my shoulder. Two diametrically opposed sisters clinging to each other to extend the moment.

Me knowing she will become one of the ghosts.

Janet knowing that as soon as she lets go, she will never recognize me, her hero, again.

I will see her once more, years from now. I will be glad to recognize her face as a mother, as she navigates the crowded city sidewalk with a child holding both of her hands.

I will keep walking.  

Copyright © 1999 – 2021 Juked