The face of Nicholas Easter was slightly hidden by a display rack filled with slim cordless phones, and he was looking not directly at the hidden camera but somewhere off to the left, perhaps at a customer, or perhaps at a counter where a group of kids hovered over the latest electronic games from Asia. Though taken from a distance of forty yards by a man dodging rather heavy mall foot traffic, the photo was clear and revealed a nice face, clean-shaven with strong features and boyish good looks. Easter was twenty-seven, they knew that for a fact. No eyeglasses. No nose ring or weird haircut. Nothing to indicate he was one of the usual computer nerds who worked in the store at five bucks an hour. His questionnaire said he'd been there for four months, said also that he was a part-time student, though no record of enrollment had been found at any college within three hundred miles. He was lying about this, they were certain.
He had to be lying. Their intelligence was too good. If the kid was a student, they'd know where, for how long, what field of study, how good were the grades, or how bad. They'd know. He was a clerk in a Computer Hut in a mall. Nothing more or less. Maybe he planned to enroll somewhere. Maybe he'd dropped out but still liked the notion of referring to himself as a part-time student. Maybe it made him feel better, gave him a sense of purpose, sounded good.
But he was not, at this moment nor at any time in the recent past, a student of any sort. So, could he be trusted? This had been thrashed about the room twice already, each time they came to Easter's name on the master list and his face hit the screen. It was a harmless lie, they'd almost decided.
He didn't smoke. The store had a strict nonsmoking rule, but he'd been seen (not photographed) eating a taco in the Food Garden with a co-worker who smoked two cigarettes with her lemonade. Easter didn't seem to mind the smoke. At least he wasn't an antismoking zealot.
The face in the photo was lean and tanned and smiling slightly with lips closed. The white shirt under the red store jacket had a buttonless collar and a tasteful striped tie. He appeared neat, in shape, and the man who took the photo actually spoke with Nicholas as he pretended to shop for an obsolete gadget; said he was articulate, helpful, knowledgeable, a nice young man. His name badge labeled Easter as a Co-Manager, but two others with the same title were spotted in the store at the same time.
The day after the photo was taken, an attractive young female in jeans entered the store, and while browsing near the software actually lit up a cigarette. Nicholas Easter just happened to be the near-
est clerk, or Co-Manager, or whatever he was, and he politely approached the woman and asked her to stop smoking. She pretended to be frustrated by this, even insulted, and tried to provoke him. He maintained his tactful manner, explained to her that the store had a strict no-smoking policy. She was welcome to smoke elsewhere: “Does smoking bother you?” she had asked, taking a puff. “Not really,” he had answered. “But it bothers the man who owns this store.” He then asked her once again to stop. She really wanted to purchase a new digital radio, she explained, so would it be possible for him to fetch an ashtray. Nicholas pulled an empty soft drink can from under