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Fresh Clue

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"The Hovitos are near." (tastes the poison dart, spits) "The poison is still fresh, three days. They're following us."

A Fresh Clue is a piece of evidence that reveals someone was at this location recently. This can range from just moments before to a few days ago. Once the evidence is found by someone, they can then deduce that whoever left it there must be nearby.

Warmth in any form is a big giveaway, and so is smoke - from a cigarette, a stamped-out campfire, or a gun.

Compare Signature Item Clue, which is about who was here instead of when they were here, although the two can overlap. Also compare Follow the Chaos. In Real Life, this is sometimes called "tracking and trailing".


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Case Closed: More often than not, clues of this type are faked by the suspect for alibis, but Conan had several close calls because Gin noticed signs that somebody was nearby and insisted on checking things out just to make sure.

    Comic Books 
  • Robin (1993): Tim Drake berates himself for downplaying the steaming clue of the unplugged iron when he broke into a suspect's apartment and found himself in a rush to free the poor woman tied up there with burns and other torture marks on her. He didn't see the attacker and thought he'd just left, but the man was still there.

    Comic Strips 
  • Slylock Fox: A frequent puzzle, usually of the form "How does Slylock know that the Villain of the Week is still in the area?", with an accompanying picture showing a scene with multiple Red Herrings and a cup of coffee with steam coming off it, or something similar.

    Films — Animated 
  • Ice Age: When the trio of Sid, Manfred and Diego arrive at the human camp, Diego remarks upon a piece of kindling: "It's still green. They broke camp less than two hours ago."
  • In Megamind, Megamind and Roxanne go into Metroman's hideout and find a glass of water with ice in it, which is proof that someone was there recently. Sure enough, they turn around to find Metroman still living there.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Ask a Policeman: In Devil's Cave, Brown finds a still smouldering cigarette butt at the mouth of one of the tunnels; telling him which way the smugglers went.
  • The Assignment (1997). As part of his spy training, the protagonist must enter a mock apartment and establish from clues whether the woman who lives there has been cheating on her husband. One clue is that the milk in the fridge is slightly off, but not sour as it should be, given that she claimed to have not been in the house for a week. This serves as a Chekhov's Gun when he later meets with a contact and realises from a fresh cigarette butt left in the rubbish bin that she has met someone in secret.
  • In Beethoven's 2nd, as the family is tracking their pet dogs, they happen to find some dog poo that likely belongs to one of the dogs. To find out when they left it there, the daughter sticks a finger in it to feel if it's still warm. It is.
  • In The Crime Doctor's Courage, Gordon Carson is found shot through the heart in his locked study with powder burns on his coat in what appears to be suicide. However, Dr. Ordway is in the room within seconds of the shot being fired and when he touches the gun, discovers it is cold and could not have been just fired.
  • The Crime Doctor's Strangest Case: When searching the abandoned nightclub, Dr. Ordway discovers that someone was there no more than 15 minutes before him because an oil lantern is still warm.
  • Subverted in Enola Holmes 2. At the scene of William's murder Enola and Sherlock find clues that point to Charles McIntyre as the culprit, including his signature cigar. However, Sherlock realizes that the cigar is cold and there's no ash in the tray, meaning these "clues" were planted by someone who wanted them to think McIntyre was the culprit.
  • GoldenEye: When Ouromov and Xenia massacre the staff at Severnaya, Natalya—who is hiding in the kitchen—drops her cup of coffee. When Xenia investigates, she finds the broken cup and spilled coffee on the floor. She dips her finger in it and tastes it. On discovering it is still hot, she knows there is someone still alive in the base.
  • Hooded Angels: When Wes is tracking Hannah across the prairie, he finds the remains of her campfire. The ashes are still warm so he knows he is closing in.
  • In The Last Boy Scout, this is how Joe Hallenbeck figures out that his wife is cheating on him:
    "Oh, that's right. Sometimes you forget I'm a detective. See, there's all this steam in the shower like somebody was just in there. Only your hair's dry. So it must be somebody else we're talkin' about. A male somebody, because the toilet seat's up. Since he's not under the bed I figure you must have stuck him in the closet when you heard my key hit the lock a day early. So... who's the guy in the closet?"
  • In the film version of No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is investigating Llewelyn Moss' trailer and notices condensation on a bottle of milk. The killer they're tracking had left the milk there less than an hour ago. Unfortunately, this doesn't really help them find the killer now.
    Ed Tom Bell: Now that's aggravatin'.
    Wendell: Sheriff?
    Ed Tom Bell: [points to a bottle of milk] Still sweatin'.
    Wendell: Whoa, Sheriff! We just missed him! We gotta circulate this! On Radio!
    Ed Tom Bell: Alright. What do we circulate? "Lookin' for a man who has recently drunk milk?"
  • The Peacemaker: Colonel Devoe realizes their bomber just left because the breakfast eggs are still warm. In fact, the bomber went down one elevator just as his team was going up the other.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark. At the beginning of the movie Indiana is leading an archaeological expedition in the Peruvian jungle. They find a dart and one of the bearers, Satipo, tastes the tip and determines how close the local indigenous tribe is.
  • Sherlock: Case of Evil: When the police storm Moriarty's warehouse, Holmes finds Moriarty's cigar sitting in an ashtray with undisturbed ash still on the tip, and he knows he hasn't missed him by much.
  • In Young Frankenstein, when the main trio follow mysterious violin music into a secret room, they find a cigar smoldering in an ashtray.

  • Beka Cooper starts working with a scent hound in her second book, and spends most of the third tracking prince-kidnappers across Tortall. With how dogs are drawn to scent, this includes noticing every spot where people stopped to relieve themselves.
  • Used magically in Circle of Magic book Shatterglass. The more lightning in Keth's blown glass, the closer they are to the time of murder (unfortunately, that also means they can't see the location, murderer, or victim until it's too late). Dema, Tris, and Niko also have a significant amount of trouble talking the religious bureaucracy into letting them look for fresh clues before a site is magically cleansed of all evidence.
  • Inverted in an Encyclopedia Brown story. EB deduces that the perp had not just just pulled up after a hours-long drive (as he claims) because a baby sits on the car hood and doesn't get burned; therefore the car must have been sitting there long enough to cool down. Played straight in some other cases, as when a perp offers him apple cider that has supposedly been sitting in an unused shed for months — the cider is still unfermented, which tells him the shed has been used recently.
  • In The Famous Five:
    • In Five on Kirrin Island Again, Uncle Quentin finds a fresh cigarette end, leading him to suspect that somebody else is on the island. In the same book, the trope is inverted when the Five conclude that nobody has been down in the dungeons for a long time, because there are weeds deeply embedded around the stone closing the entrance.
    • In Five go Adventuring Again, a bottle of camphorated oil is found in Uncle Quentin's study, which George left behind when she sneaked Timmy in at night to rub his chest.
    • In Five have a Wonderful Time, the Five find branded chocolate wrapping when exploring the ancient secret passages of a castle, showing that somebody has been there relatively recently.
  • A children's book called The Good Spy's Guidebook included a section on Tracking and Trailing. A practice picture in the book asks you to decide which track out of three your quarry recently took. The correct path has three obvious clues.
  • In the second book of The Immortals, Daine in wolf form tracks a woman on horseback and notes that the horse's droppings are wetter the closer she gets. Traces of sweat and blood are also noticed as the horse's rider tried to drive her struggling mount on.
    • In the third book, Daine turns into a hyena to track Emperor Ozorne through his palace as things go to chaos. He wasn't well shod for a chase and his thin decorative shoes wear out on gravel, so he soon starts to track blood and fear becomes a stronger and stronger element of his scent. Also, Ozorne had to defend himself with his magic at several turns. As Daine tracks him she finds his felled enemies, first burned and melted all the way through, then increasingly more intact as his reserves dwindled. By the end of the chase she's finding more blood from an enemy who managed to injure him before being killed, as well as sweat and sour exhaustion.
  • The novella Oathblood, in Heralds of Valdemar, has two tweens kidnapped and carried away in a covered wagon. Hoping that their teachers will be trying to find them, the girls find a knothole in the floor and feed beads and scraps of cloth through. Warrl, traveling with their teachers, is able to pick up on that specific scent and keep following even when the kidnappers merge on to a larger road. The girls also put poisonous seeds into the kidnappers' soup, which makes them and everyone else ill and slows the procession as people keep having to stop and duck into the bushes. Warrl notices those signs too.
  • Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride is an expert tracker, and manages to correctly interpret Wesley's adventures while rescuing Buttercup.
    Iocane. I'd bet my life on it. And there are the princess's footprints. She is alive, or was an hour ago. If she is otherwise when I find her, I shall be very put out.
  • In the fourth Protector of the Small book of Tortall Universe, Kel and her soldiers are able to tell how close they are to the Scanrans they're pursuing by the freshness of the horse manure they leave.
  • Simon Ark: In "The Automaton Museum", Simon deduces the killer's identity when he discovers that the automaton in the victim's office has 23 minutes of time left on its spring, meaning it cannot have been running for more seven minutes after the murder.
  • In The Three Investigators story The Secret of Phantom Lake Jupiter Jones realizes that the perp hadn't just pulled up and tried to help because his car hood is cold and the ground underneath it is dry. (They're in the middle of a downpour.) This proves that the perp had been there for quite some time digging up a Buried Treasure.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Colonel March of Scotland Yard: In "Death in the Dressing Room", March feels the palm of the Body of the Week before it is moved, much to Inspector Ames' confusion. Later March reveals that her hand was bone dry and not covered in oil as it would have been if she had been dancing, meaning that she had been killed before the floor show and that someone else had taken her place.
  • In two different episodes of Columbo, "Suitable for Framing" and "It's All in the Game", the killer invokes this by putting an electric blanket over the body in an alibi trick, keeping the corpse warm to throw off the estimation of time of death.
  • In the Elementary episode "Snow Angels" a Federal Reserve cash processing facility is robbed during a blizzard. When they find the tracks left by the robbers' vehicle, Sherlock is not only able to determine how long ago they were there from the fact that they can still see the tracks when it's snowing two inches an hour, but what kind of vehicle they were driving.
  • The F.B.I.: In "The Hijackers", Erskine and Jim are searching a parking garage for the hijacked truck. The owner tells them the fifth floor has been closed up for a month. But Erskine finds a fresh pool of gasoline that had leaked from the truck.
  • Forever: In "The Last Death of Henry Morgan," Henry finds that a body is still warm and the blood still wet, meaning the victim was killed very recently and the killer is likely still close. While the cops spread out to look for the killer, Henry discovers the victim isn't actually dead yet, although Adam is certain it's too late to save him.
  • In the third-to-last episode of Fringe, the observers locate Donald's apartment and search it. The place is abansoned, but Windmark notices a hot cup of tea, meaning he must've just been there.
  • General Hospital. While holding Lucky Spencer prisoner, Faison brings him his favorite meal from Kelly's, the local Greasy Spoon. Lucky notes that the plate and food are warm, meaning that it hasn't traveled very far and that he's being held near to home, but Faison points out that the dish could just have easily been placed in the microwave, meaning that he could actually be thousands of miles away.
  • During the opening sequence of the Law & Order episode, "Phobia", the detectives find a discarded baby carriage a few feet from a man's body.
    Detective Green: (after picking up the discarded baby bottle) "It's still warm". note 
    Detective Briscoe: "Let's hope the kid is too".
  • In Les MisÚrables (2018), Javert and his squad realize that Valjean and Cosette have only just escaped—and therefore couldn't have gotten very far—from their apartment when they see that smoke is still emanating from the candles.
  • In one episode of New Tricks, an "Old-School" detective states he knew someone was a suspect when he saw that a cat was sleeping on the still-warm hood of their car, disproving their account of not having driven it. Subverted when it turns out that was just bullshit he made up to justify his hunch, and that all the team knew that was a widely used justification in The Met during the 70s.
  • In the very last shot of the last scene of the last episode of Now and Again, the government goons sent after Michael Wiseman and his family get there just in time to see the breakfast still on the table and the back door swaying.
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Phage", when the team is tracking the Vidiians that stole Neelix's lungs, Janeway's tricorder detects a heat signature indicating that a humanoid life form was in the room within the last few minutes.
  • Whenever Ian Edgerton shows up on NUMB3RS, he does two things: track the bad guys using Fresh Clues, and kill them from afar when necessary. In his first appearance, he establishes his credentials by finding a sandwich and identifying it as being less than a few hours old.
    Ian: He didn't finish his PB&J. The ants haven't found it yet.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "Where is Everybody?". A man finds himself all alone in a deserted town with a case of amnesia. While he's exploring a police station he finds a lit cigar smoldering in an ashtray. When he looks in a cell he finds a sink with the water running and shaving equipment (including a brush with wet shaving cream) sitting around. All of this is evidence that someone was there not too long ago. The Twist Ending is that he's actually in a hallucination caused by isolation.
  • In the Unsolved Mysteries segment about the murder of Kay Hall, a member of the group of people who found her body states "She was just as warm as you and I (the interviewer) are right now, so whatever happened had just happened."
    • Conversely, in the segment about the mysterious death of Norman Ladner, his father instantly realized that he'd been dead for a long time because of how cold he was.
  • Vera: In "Cuckoo", Vera and Aiden bust into a drug dealer's flat to find it deserted. Aiden touches a mug of tea and comments that is still warm.
  • Whodunnit? (UK): In "All Part of the Service", Inspector Godfrey notes that the amount of undisturbed ash on the Victim of the Week's cigar means that it sat burning in the ashtray for at least 10 minutes; meaning he was almost certainly dead long before the witnesses heard the gunshot.
  • A couple times on The X-Files, a still-burning Morley cigarette left on the ground or in an office ashtray indicates that the Cigarette-Smoking Man has been there recently. Since he's The Chessmaster who's far from careless, he most likely deliberately left these there.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Call of Cthulhu supplement, Terror Australis adventure "Old Fella that Bunyip". The Investigators may stumble upon the scene of one of the Bunyip's attacks. They find a picnic site with signs of a struggle and a tea kettle of water heating over a fire. The kettle is still whistling, which means they arrived minutes after the attack.
  • Dungeons & Dragons module CM1 Test of the Warlords, adventure "The Ruins of Alinor". The PCs find a cave filled with the bodies of dead giants and wolves and a fire with venison cooking over it. From the condition of the bodies and the roasting meat, the PCs can deduce that the attack occurred within the last half hour and that the perpetrators are probably nearby.

    Urban Legend 
  • A popular myth about the disappearance of Mary Celeste is that when she was discovered, there were cups of tea on a table, still steaming hot.
  • A similar myth arose concerning the Flannan Isles lighthouse, whose staff vanished without a trace in circumstances that remain unexplained. Claims that the relief crew found still-warm plates of food on the dining table were exaggerated, but seems that the table had been laid ready to serve a meal, and a chair had been knocked over as if someone had got up and run outside in a hurry. The prevailing non-supernatural theory is that two of the lighthouse keepers had been outside when a rogue wave began heading for the island, and the third saw it from the window and ran to warn his colleagues only to be swept away as well.

    Video Game 
  • AI: The Somnium Files: during a visit to a yakuza office Date notices that there is a recently extinguished cigarette butt in an ashtray (he having heat vision helps) along with a still hot spot in the sofa and deduces that someone was recently sitting there. He's in fact in the next room.
  • Guards from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion will sometimes say "the body's still warm... The murderer cannot be far away." They will do this even when they are the one who killed the victim, or when you killed him in front of them.
  • In the third Jack French game, there are some still-smoking cigarettes in the ashtray when Jack gets to a crime scene. This is used to show that the murderer was there minutes ago, and provides a clue to his identity - Vince, the police officer who alerted you about the murder.
  • Mass Effect 2: After finding a few dead animals with bullet wounds in Jack's Loyalty Mission, this is how you find out the abandoned Cerberus facility isn't abandoned...
    Jack: That's a fresh kill. Who the fuck shot that varren?
  • In A Story About My Uncle, when you find the last abandoned campsite of Uncle Fred, the narrator points out that the fire is still smoldering and he can feel the distinct smell of Fred's aftershave.

    Web Original 
  • In 7-Second Riddles, a common theme is that culprits will set food out on a table after committing a murder, only to claim the food was there for hours. They're always caught because the food is too fresh or cold for the story to be true.
  • SCP Foundation: Subverted terrifyingly in SCP-2935. One of the first clues that something is terribly, terribly wrong with the alternate dimension the Foundation's recon team is surveying is that they find several dead bodies in a farmhouse and half-eaten meals on the dining table, neither of which show any signs of decay... but a newspaper found in the living room suggests that whatever killed these people happened over a week ago. It turns out that every living organism is dead, worldwide, right down to microbes. And they never find out why.

    Western Animation 
  • In an episode of Sharky And George, the two enter the local diner and find it deserted. In keeping with the show's Film Noir parody, they observe that a plate of food's still hot, so everyone must have left recently.