All rights belong to the author: Ben H Winters.
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Ben H. Winters GOLDEN STATE

For Irwin Hyman

who built the world he wanted to live in

Disclaimer

Digital Galley Edition
This is uncorrected advance content collected for your reviewing convenience. Please check with publisher or refer to the finished product whenever you are excerpting or quoting in a review.

Part One

Future (n.), usually the future: the set of possible events which are neither happening nor have happened but which may happen, including those possible events which will happen, but which are not yet distinguishable from the far greater group which will not. [nota bene: avoid where possible].

The Everyday Citizen’s Dictionary, 43rd edition, the Golden State Publishing Arm

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Attestation:
This is a novel.

All of the words of it are true.

The extraordinary events detailed herein were either experienced firsthand by the author or, when relayed second- or thirdhand, have been double-checked (triple-, where possible), verified, and certified by the relevant departments, and substantiated through the reading of testimony, examination of material evidence, and review of relevant reality. All of the supporting documents and extant evidence are available upon request in the appropriate offices; physical addresses are included as an appendix.

This is a novel. All of these events occurred as described. It’s all on the Record.

Stipulation:
Though the author is a character in the events that follow, he claims no part of the glory it reflects. All glory belongs to the heroic Speculator, Mr. Ratesic, whose perseverance and heroism are on display throughout.

This author is loath to resort to set phrases like “He made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the State,” conscious as he is of the care we all must take not to fumble by cliché into accidental lies. But in this case, there can be no other conclusion. In service to the State, Mr. Ratesic made the ultimate sacrifice.

Willingly, and conscious of mounting dangers to his person, and despite numerous opportunities to save himself, he continued unflinching in his brave pursuit of the wickedness he had discovered, and ultimately was successful in foiling a grave assault upon the State—all at the hazard of his own health and safety.

And so, though the primary purpose of this novel is the same as that of all other novels, to entertain the mind and excite the spirit, in this case there is a deeper truth, one level down: this work is meant to serve as a legacy to Mr. Ratesic, the hero of its pages. It is a testament to him, and I hope it can serve as an inspiration not only to his fellows in Service, but to all our citizenry. Let this novel stand like a statue of Mr. Ratesic, a tribute to as well as a reminder of the lengths that are sometimes necessary to hold up the several bulwarks of the State, and a reminder of what is at stake if they should fall.

1.

Somebody’s telling lies in here, and it’s making it hard to eat.

In a perfect world, a man should be able to sit down at a favorite spot and eat his breakfast without the weight of professional obligation coming down on him, ruining his morning, pulling him right into the thick of it before he can so much as get a good hot sip of coffee.

But the world has never been accused of being perfect, has it, and so here we are and here is what actually happens—here is reality. No sooner has Honey the waitress slid my steaming breakfast plate down in front of me, right next to a piping hot cup of mountain-grown, than I catch a small dissonance in the air—the barest ripple, the softest whisper—but it can’t be ignored. My body won’t let me ignore it. The burble catches in my throat, my eyes prick with tears, and I put down my fork and say “Shit.”

The dissonance is close but not that close. It’s not at the booth directly behind me, where an old man and his old wife are discussing in their old slow voices the quality of their oatmeal: she thinks it’s worse than it used to be, he thinks it’s better, but both are speaking honestly.

They are both talking true, but someone in here is not.

I’m definitely too conscious of it, too aware to just carry on eating my chicken and waffles, which is a real shame, because this is Terry’s we’re talking about, this is fried chicken and waffles, and although there are three chicken-and-waffle chains in the city, Terry’s is in my veteran estimation by far the best, and the Pico-Robertson Terry’s is the best of all the Terry’s locations.

I get up. I push away my plate, lay down today’s copy of Trusted Authority, and heave my weight up out of the banquette and just stand still, very still, in the middle of the restaurant, rummaging for a source. Lot of people talking in here so it’s gonna take me a minute. Terry’s is crowded all the time, but most especially at breakfast time, and it’s breakfast time now, peak of the a.m. rush, every booth and table jammed, maybe forty or forty-five boisterous conversations overlapping, blending in with the tinny tingtang of the silverware, the sizzle of the griddle, a radio playing boisterous piano jazz, even the slow whoosh of the overhead fans, their wide beveled blades slowly pushing the July air around in circles.

I close my eyes, concentrate, try to find the sound among the sounds. Tease through the conversations for the one I’m after: Did you hear what Louis said about Albert… and I am so sick of all this… and You’re kidding me, you are fucking kidding me, you have got to try this. Somewhere in this atmosphere, cluttered with chatter, someone’s dissembling in a steady stream, a steady diffusion of false statements like an open gas line. I step away from my back-corner booth, one step toward the center of the restaurant, steal a sad glance back at my plate. The chicken is good, but it’s really the waffles that have to be tasted to be believed. They are cold now. And soon, so, too, the chicken.

I take another slow step forward, tuning in the various conversations, one by one. A couple of sharply dressed businessmen, both of them leaning so far forward their heads are almost touching—“There is money to be made here, Paul, real money…”—and then Paul in gruff dissent: “The last time you told me that…” Whatever the details of the deal, neither of them is lying about it. There’s a couple young folk seated across from each other, each of them leafing through a copy of Trusted Authority, not talking at all.

At the big center table, there’s a funny, flirty waitress I know whose name is Ava, and she’s delivering an encomium to today’s special—a three-egg omelet, with jalapeños sliced into it along with red and green peppers—and I don’t know if it’s really good or not, but I can tell you that Ava really thinks it is, because from my position—I’m now standing near the dead center of the main dining room—I can hear every word of her testimony about the special and it doesn’t trouble me, it slides past like warm water. Whether the three-egg omelet is tasty or not, Ava believes it to be so.

So—

—there. There.

My eyes open back up, quick and completely.

At a table along the right-side wall, underneath the TV, are three people in a tense conversation, their voices urgent and streaked with emotion. They’re talking over each other, exchanging accusations, interrupting, apologizing, going round and round. One is a woman of late middle age, a pretty face but exhausted, eyes deep set and dark, freckles on her nose, hair thick and curly, some of it gray. She’s sharing the booth with a pair of broad-shouldered young men, both in ball caps, both sharing the woman’s robust good looks and black eyes. Two sons. A mom and her two grown children right in the middle of some kind of emotional set-to, talking fast, talking over each other, talking at once, and—ah, the air is rolling now, the dissonance is a shimmer on the scene—definitely one of them is lying. At least one.

“I’m not trying to blame anybody. If anything, I blame myself—”

“Mom, stop it. Seriously, stop. That is the last—”

“Eddie, give her a second. Give her a second to talk.”

“You’re interrupting me.”

“You’re interrupting her—

“Hi. Hello. Excuse me.” I step closer. I jam my hands into my pockets. “The Earth is in orbit around the sun.”

There’s a voice I use in situations like this: cool and calm, firm and definitive, authoritative but not aggressive. It gets the result I want: everybody draws down to a hush. Everybody looks at me at once. It’s like I’ve pulled a curtain around the four of us, here at this table along the wall.

“Hello,” says the woman. “And the Moon is in orbit around the Earth.”

“Always has it been.”

“Always shall it be.”

She takes a deep breath. Keeps her eyes on mine. The sons glance at each other.

“How are you folks doing this morning?”

“We’re okay. We’re just fine.”

That’s one of the two boys. Now all three of them are looking up at me with the same stunned expression, me looming over them like a dark planet blocking the sun.

“I’m sorry to bother you folks, but I overheard your conversation.”

The restaurant has gone quiet. People are looking at us, nudging each other—Look. The old man and his old wife have set down their spoons and are watching, waiting to see what happens. I take out my Day Book, take out my pen, click it open. The mom blinks, and her lips are pursed and there is emotion in her eyes, a little fear and a little confusion. It’s a strange feeling, sometimes, to be seen the way I know that I am seen—the way the world reacts to my presence. But it’s part of the job and it helps. You want to have control of a situation. You want to have people focused on you. You want to know that they know that it’s serious.

“I hate to bother you folks. But I was eating my own breakfast just over there—” I point back over to my booth, but all the while I am keeping my eyes carefully on the table, on the three participants in this conversation, making my quiet assessment of who the liar or liars are among them. “And I found that I was troubled by the presence of dishonesty in the atmosphere.”

“What?” says the mother.

“No…” begins one of the sons; the other is just looking down. “That’s…”

I wait a moment, one eyebrow cocked. That’s what? But nobody finishes the sentence.

It’s the mom, the lady, who speaks next. “How do you—why would you say that?”

“It’s not an accusation, ma’am,” I tell her. “It’s not a matter of opinion. It is part of what is Objectively So.”

My voice remains composed, reasonable. You gotta keep these things calm for as long as possible. That’s important. In a moment or two, someone is going to confess, or someone is going to do something stupid. There aren’t any other ways this thing goes.

I smile, but I know that even my smile can at times appear less than friendly. I’m over six two and over 260 pounds—how far over 260 varies depending on (for example) how recently I’ve been to Terry’s. I’m in the unofficial uniform of my service, black suit and black tie, black boots, and a battered pinhole with the brim angled slightly down. My hair is thick and red and I wear a big beard, thick and unkempt, not for any visual effect but because I’m too lazy to shave.

“Can I ask your name, please?”

“Kelly.”

“Your full name, ma’am.”

“Kelly Tarjin. Elizabeth. My middle name is Elizabeth.”

“So Kelly Elizabeth Tarjin?”

“Yeah. Right. Do you want to see my identifications?”

“No, Ms. Tarjin. That’s not necessary.”

I don’t need to see her identifications. Even in the general discomfort I’m feeling over here by the liar’s table, her asseveration of her name doesn’t add to the discordance. Maybe she was lying to the others just now, but she’s not lying to me right now. I can tell. When it’s bad, it gets bad. Two days ago I had a guy on a false claim, a guy begging at 4th and Alameda with a hungry and homeless sign, though he was neither, a guy who then clung to his demonstrable untruths even when contrary evidence was presented, stood there proclaiming and reproclaiming his lies, swearing to them until the air was so thick I felt it way down in my throat, like a clot in a drain.

“These are your sons, Ms. Tarjin?”

“Yes. Todd and Eddie. Edward.”

“Hey,” says one of them. Todd. They’re both looking at me, both of them wary, both of them uncertain. I cough once, into my fist.

“And what are you folks discussing this morning?”

The boys glance at each other. Ms. Tarjin taps one hand on the table, next to her plate.

“Well,” she says finally, and then one of the sons interrupts: “It’s personal.”

I smile. “I’m afraid it’s not anymore.”

I want to keep everybody cool for as long as possible. Keep the situation in neutral. I have other voices I use in other situations.

“Yes, sir. Of course.” That’s Mom, that’s Ms. Tarjin, who is afraid. You can tell she’s afraid. I don’t want her to be afraid, I don’t want anyone to be afraid of me, I’m like anyone else, even though it’s not me she’s afraid of, it’s the clothes and the position, it’s the black pinhole with the felt brim, it’s the boots, the outfit metonymic for the whole system of which I am a representative. Still, nobody likes to make other people fearful.

But the atmosphere continues in its roil. It’s here. It’s close. I cough again.

“We were talking about some… some uh…” The woman, the mom, she’s choosing her words carefully. That’s what folks do, with me standing here, all the weight of what I am, me looming like a dark planet. It’s okay. I’m patient. “We were just having a conversation about some medication of mine.”

“Medication.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What kind of medication is that?”

“Dreams—that’s all. For dreams.” She has lowered her voice, as if it were possible for us to speak confidentially. As if everybody in the room weren’t listening by now, customers and waiters gawking, fascinated; as if the place wasn’t bristling, too, with captures—captures in the ceiling fans, captures on the kitchen’s large appliances, the pinhole that constantly captures my own personal POV. The whole world under constant surveillance, everything on the Record, reality in progress. “I take Clarify, that’s all.”

“Oh. Well, that’s all right.”

While I write it in my Day Book, Ms. Tarjin swallows, swallows again. “Dream control, you know. Prescribed. To reduce or—how does it go?—to reduce or eliminate the confusing effects of dreams in my waking life. I have the prescription. Do you—” She glances at her purse, and I shake my head, raise a hand—That’s not necessary. I don’t think she’s lying about being prescribed the dream dampener. The boys, meanwhile, are stock-still, frozen by some combination of protective impulse and fear for their own safety. In another moment, no doubt, I’m gonna know which guy has more of which. Like I said: either someone confesses or someone does something dumb. That’s how it always ends.

“And your supply of Clarify,” I venture, “has it perhaps been coming up a little short?”

“Yes.” She swallows. “That’s right.”

I write in my Day Book.

“And so the conversation you’re having here, that’s you asking the boys if they happen to know where your surplus dream meds might have gotten to?”

She lowers her head.

“Mom, you don’t have to answer all these questions.” That’s Eddie, the smaller of the brothers, giving his voice some spine.

“Well, she does, actually. She does.” He glares at me, his face tight with anger, and I gaze back at him impassively.

It’s dead quiet in here now. No waitresses are taking orders. No one is chitchatting in their own booth. Somebody has killed the jazz radio in the kitchen. Everybody is staring at us, at the big man in his blacks, towering over the three-top by the front window. And, you know, this is my nineteenth year doing this job and there’s something I’ve learned, which is that you can talk however calmly and reassuringly you want to, but people are gonna hear your words colored by their own feelings, by their own anxiety or fear or impatience.

“Tell me the rest,” I say to Ms. Tarjin.

“Mom—”

“No, Eddie,” I say. “You keep quiet, son. I’m gonna talk to your mom a minute. Don’t obfuscate.” I shift on my feet, turn out, so I’m talking as much to Ms. Tarjin as to the boys. “A lie hidden in a shell of truth is a lie just the same, and I will know it.”

“I was afraid that my son Eddie was stealing my pills.”

“Mom!”

“But—but—” She looks at the boys, and Eddie is looking at me, coldly furious, and Todd is inspecting the backs of his hands. “But Todd says it wasn’t Eddie. Todd says it was him.”

“It was, Mom. It was me.” Todd looks up, presses a hand to his chest. “It was, okay?”

She gives him a look I can only half see because the air is bending, the air is bent, and she says, “I thought it was Eddie because Eddie had been at the house but Todd told me that I had it wrong. So we’re getting it straightened out. That’s all. It’s not a matter for, for”—she meets my eye, very briefly—“for your department.”

“Oh,” I say, “I see,” and I look at the family looking back and I am feeling it now, and I know right where it is, and Todd knows that I know and he jumps, grabs the back of the booth in a pivot, and runs for it.

I huff once, like a bull, and go after him.

He slams open the door and I catch it before it closes, hollering “Stand back, friends” as I charge out onto Pico Boulevard just behind him, slamming into a small flock of businessmen that Todd has just managed to dance around, scattering them in their lightweight summer suits like blue-breasted birds.

“Sorry, fellas,” I say over my shoulder, grabbing on to my hat with one hand and steaming after Todd, four or five feet behind him, head down, body like a truck, my black boots slamming onto the sidewalk.

I like this part. It’s not the part of the job that people talk about, but it’s the part I like: pure law enforcement, my feet in the boots and the boots on the ground, me breathing heavy and charging after a liar.

He’s got no chance because I will catch him, and even if I can’t—and I will catch him, because giving chase is part of the job and I am competent and confident in all aspects of my employment—but even if by some miracle he gives me the slip, the captures are on: captures on every corner, captures in every doorway, forging history, putting us on the Record. Reality in progress.

I’ll catch him or we’ll requisition the stretches, scour the Record, trace him to where he’s gone. Plus, the thing is, I know these streets, I know this block of Pico and every block of Mid-City all the way till it hits downtown, and I know what’s coming up. There’s an alley mouth three more doors down, between the strip club and the hardware store, and it’s going to sing out to this desperate kid like his own true love, like a sure-thing escape hatch, which I know damn well it is not.

Todd, dancing around a lady and her dog, bounces off a parking meter, loses his balance for half a second, and I grab the scruff of his T-shirt, shout “Come on, man!,” but he wriggles free of my ham of a hand and—sure as shooting—flings his narrow body up the little alley next to the topless bar, and I race after him, breathing hard, slowing down a little, slipping on the uneven ground, the pavement slick with garbage juice and discarded sheets of Authority.

“Train’s coming, Todd,” I say between heavy breaths, just loud enough for him to hear me.

“What?” he says, but he can see it now—the yellow flash of the warning light at the end of the alley, where it lets out onto the light-rail tracks. He turns, cursing, staring at me, shaking as the gate arm lowers behind him. He raises his left hand and it’s got a gun in it—oh, this fucking kid. A gun? What has he got a gun for? His brother is the drug thief.

Everybody’s got their secrets, I suppose. He points the gun at me but I keep coming. I have a gun of my own, of course. We all carry heat. But I leave it in my pocket. Closing the distance between us. The alley is short, noxious with the stink of trash and the midsummer city. Just bricks on one side, just the blacked-out windows of the strip club on the other.

“I’ll kill you, man,” says Todd, loud over the rattle and rush of the train. “I swear I will.”

“You’re not going to kill me.” He’s lying. I know and he knows that I know. “No more, Todd, okay? No more.”

By the time I close the distance he’s lowered the gun. He drops it and I kick it away, take him calmly by the shoulder and clap him into the cuffs and turn him around, push him against the bricks of the hardware store. The last rattling car of the commuter train goes past, revealing a scrum of strangers on the far side of the tracks, watching me gently place this poor young liar in cuffs. Catching my breath, I tug out my radio and get a line in to the regular police, and by the time the sirens start to sing their way closer, a crowd has gathered and Ms. Tarjin and the other boy are out here too, pushing through the front of the jostling semicircle of lookers-on.

“Oh Lord,” she says, wringing her hands. “Oh Lord. Todd, honey.”

Todd is silent. His eyes are locked on the wall. His head is hanging down.

“So?” she says to me, tearful, defiant. “Well? What happens now?”

“Well, there’s a whole process,” I say. “But, uh—but it’s going to be bad.”

“Oh no,” she says, her face crumbling. But what am I going to do—lie?

“I will tell the regular police what I know, and your sons will be charged with their respective crimes.”

“Crimes,” she says quietly.

Eddie, the other son, the one who stole his mother’s drugs, now puts a hand on her shoulder, but Ms. Tarjin shakes it off. Todd keeps staring stoically at the alley wall. Ms. Tarjin has got one hand on her brow, massaging her temple—a mother’s pose of grief. One more grief that the world has given her, a new pain to be etched into the sad lines on her face.

“The thing is,” I say, and then: “Oh good—hey fellas.” I help the regular police make their way through the crowd, two young officers I don’t know. They move Todd away from the wall, and I keep explaining to Ms. Tarjin: “Way it works is, you could decline to press charges on the stolen pills, if you wanted to. The kid’s not looking at more than six months.”

I glance at Eddie, who has the decency not to look relieved. It’s his brother, after all—the one now in handcuffs, the one now being led to a black-and-white parked slantwise, halfway up on the Pico curb—who, in trying to cover up for him, trying to protect their mother from knowing about his perfidy, has committed the more serious crime.

“What about him?” asks Ms. Tarjin quietly.

“That’s going to be a matter for the adjudication division, ma’am. I can’t tell you for sure.”

“A ballpark, though. Can you—” Her voice catches on tears. I cough forcefully into my fist, wipe at my watery eyes, though the dissonance that jammed me up has largely cleared by now. Now the air is clean. “You can give me a ballpark,” she says.

“Well. It was a forceful and purposeful distortion of the truth.” I grit my teeth. I hate this part. “Six years? Nine?”

She starts crying about that, the poor lady, and I take a step away from her. Just then it turns nine o’clock, I hear the tower at Pico and Robertson start to toll it, and people on the street all start saying it to each other—“It’s nine o’clock now”; “It’s just turned nine”; “Hey, how are you? It’s nine a.m.”—and by the time the bell has struck nine times, the regular police have led the boy away, and Ms. Tarjin is tearfully writing down the address of the Mid-City precinct where they’re taking him, and I don’t like it but I do like it, because we have to defend the world, because the world is all we have. We have to keep things good and true because the good and true world is all we have.

2.

By the time I make it from the scene of the morning’s drama all the way downtown to the offices of the Speculative Service and finish with the paperwork, I’m a half hour late getting to my own desk on the thirtieth floor.

“Hey, Mr. Alvaro,” I say in passing, palming my beard and scowling. “Ten is half of twenty.”

“But it’s twice five.”

“So it’s ever been.”

“So it ever shall be.” Mr. Alvaro is the boss man, standing at the big board like always, endlessly updating the list of cases in progress, today’s assignments: anomalous facts to be sorted through, questionable statements to be followed up on. Accidental infelicities to be sorted out from purposeful misrepresentations.

“Sorry I’m late,” I say. “I had an incident report to file on the fourth.”

“So I heard. Chasing a bald-faced out of a breakfast joint on Pico, right? I got the whole story from dispatch. Explains why you didn’t answer your radio.”

“What?”

“Not a big deal. You’re next on the rotation, and we had an incoming. Car crash outside Grand Central, wildly deviant accounts of the moments preceding.”

“You radioed?” I look down at my unit, fiddle with the buttons. It might be a matter of someone’s honest mistake, it might be a mere misalignment of perceptions, or it might be something worse—someone trying to paint a fake picture for the regular police, escape consequences by bending what is So. Those tend to be fun. I don’t like to miss those.

“Arlo radioed. You musta missed it. No big deal, like I said. You’re too busy chasing petty liars down Pico Boulevard. Which, no kidding, is excellent work and will be reported up to Ms. Petras. If I remember, which I hopefully will.”

He probably won’t, but I say “Thanks” anyway. Laura Petras is the Golden State’s Acknowledged Expert on the Enforcement of the Laws—officially, Alvaro’s boss and my own. There’s a picture of her framed near the elevator, an older blonde woman with a careful smile and a tan blouse.

“And let that—excuse me a moment, Laszlo.” Alvaro makes his hands into a bullhorn to address the room. “Let that be a lesson to the rest of you mopes! Mr. Ratesic over here is collaring flagrant liars during his breakfast.

This testament to my supposed virtues earns a smattering of sarcastic applause and a vigorous middle finger from Burlington with his big mustache. The gang’s all here this morning: Mr. Cullers, leaning back with a hot towel over his forehead, and Ms. Bright, and Mr. Markham—the small-ball Specs, pure ID checkers and paper-trail combers. But Ms. Carson is here too, with her pencil skirt and serene expression, her hair shellacked into a hard helmet under her pinhole.

I look around the room for Arlo Vasouvian, the senior-most Speculator on the floor, and there he is—at my desk with an individual I do not recognize, a young female standing at nervous attention. She’s wearing a pinhole, which means she is Service, but she’s also all in gray, not black, which means she’s junior. She’s in training. This I don’t like at all.

“Arlo?” I go over there. Put down my bag and the cup of coffee I got downstairs. “What’s going on?”

“Ah, good. Mr. Ratesic. Hydrogen is the lightest element.”

“And Osmium is the heaviest. What’s going on?”

He smiles slowly, peers at me from behind his thick glasses. “There’s someone I would like you to meet. A new member of our service. Mr. Ratesic, this is Ms. Paige.”

“Okay,” I say flatly, extending my hand. “Twelve times twelve is one hundred forty-four.”

“And, inversely, the square root of one hundred forty-four is twelve,” replies Paige, sharp as a paper cut, and then, while we’re still shaking hands, she rolls right on: “It’s Aysa, sir, Aysa Paige, and it is an honor to meet you, and I look forward to our working closely together.”

I let go of her hand.

“Arlo? Why did she just say that?”

“Well, you can ask Ms. Paige, but I imagine she said it because it’s an honor for her to meet you. And because she is looking forward to working closely with you.”

Arlo’s smile is knowing and roguish; Ms. Paige’s is earnest and guileless. She is young and upright, dark-skinned, well turned out, with the brim of her pinhole turned sharply to center, her thick curly hair carefully tucked away and bobby-pinned. Her shoes are shined and every button is in place. The keen care she’s taken with her appearance goes beyond the dress code and says something exacting about her character—exacting or eager to impress. Either way, her looking like that, with me in my poorly fitting blacks and battered pinhole, makes me feel like I just climbed out of a duffel bag.

I turn to Arlo, who looks back at me mildly. No longer a field officer, Arlo wears no pinhole, no hat of any kind. and his thin white hair drifts in several directions.

“Yes,” I say. “I wasn’t calling the woman a liar. I was wondering why she has the impression that we are working together.”

“Well, that is my hope,” says Arlo. “If it’s all right with you. I had mentioned it to Mr. Alvaro”—he nods at Alvaro, over by the board, and Alvaro grunts—“and I did hope you would find the arrangement amenable.”

“I do not.”

Arlo’s wrinkled brow furrows, very slightly. “Oh, now. Laszlo, my boy. Can we discuss it?”

You can.”

“Oh, now, Laszlo.” He speaks the heavy syllables of my name with paternal disappointment.

Arlo Vasouvian is serene and equanimous, seventy-seven years old, with gigantic ears, with small eyes behind thick glasses, with hair so thin and white it is close to transparent. He is emeritus now, semiretired, but once upon a time, Arlo had Alvaro’s job—he did when I started, and he did when my father started, thirty years before that. Now he occupies a rickety desk toward the back of the room, slowly odd-jobbing his way through each day—helping new Specs get adjusted, putting the finishing touches on other people’s paperwork, sipping endlessly at a mug of hot tea. He could, if he wanted, be at home, puttering and humming to himself through an easy retirement in his little Ballona Creek cottage, but Arlo never married; the Ballona Creek cottage is essentially unfurnished. Arlo’s home is here. Every once in a while, someone teasingly asks Arlo when he plans on retiring, and he always has the same answer: “Maybe you’ll get lucky—maybe someone will shoot me!” This retort never entirely manages to hide the shadow of truth behind it, which is that the Speculative Service is his life, it is his soul’s strong purpose, and he fears that if the crutch of it is kicked away he will fall right over and never get up again.

I feel comfortable averring as to how he feels, because I feel more or less the same. I’m fifty-four now, but soon enough I’ll be making the same excuses, finding the same reasons to keep coming in here every morning.

I’m using my chair, so Arlo settles himself onto the edge of my desk, tilts his small body toward me, gathering his sport coat around his narrow chest.

“I had only hoped, Laszlo, that you would find it in your heart—”

“Nope.”

“—to offer Ms. Paige the benefit—”

“No thank you.”

“—of your many years’ experience, and mentor her as she—”

“Listen, Arlo.” I push back from the desk, look him in his owl’s eyes. “I’m going to say no just one more time, but I’m going to say it nice and loud in case, because you are old, you are having trouble hearing me. Because you are very old.” I lean back toward the desk and my office chair squeaks beneath me. “No.”

I start fussing with the stack of papers on the desk so I can be doing something, anything, other than look at Arlo. I’ve got a court appearance coming up, testimony I’m supposed to give in the Court of Small Infelicities, one of these knucklehead kerfuffles where an automobile dealership advertises “the lowest rates around” and a competitor hauls them in, challenging the veracity of “lowest” and the generality of “around,” and the courts insist on having someone from the Service in to weigh the litigants’ relative sincerity. So now I’m here, aggressively shuffling the papers, reviewing my prep materials, ignoring Arlo and the young woman, but I can feel them—this Paige character looking anxiously at Arlo, Arlo giving her a reassuring look: Don’t worry, I’ll handle this. Meaning handle me.

The last thing I need is an apprentice; the last thing I need is a shadow, dogging my heels.

“Listen. Laszlo.” I glance up in time to see Arlo give Ms. Paige a meaningful look, and watch her step discreetly away. I recognize this is an imposition.”

“That is one thing it is, Arlo.”

“I do not come to you lightly, Laszlo. I know how you are.”

“Do you?”

“I do. However. I consider the opportunity to mentor a high honor.” Arlo looks at me solemnly, his thin white hair pointing in all directions.

“Okay,” I tell him, “so why not give it to Burlington? Come on, Arlo. Or give it to Cullers.”

I point across the room, and, as if to neatly undermine my attempt to evade this high honor, Cullers groans, adjusts the hot compress he’s holding to his forehead. Maybe Cullers was up early too, chasing fugitive truth-benders down city blocks. Or maybe he was out late getting drunk. With Cullers, either possibility has an equal chance of proving out.

I shouldn’t have to explain to Arlo why this won’t work. Whatever skill at this job I have amassed after doing it for nineteen years and counting, I am skeptical of my own ability to implant them elsewhere. And certainly Arlo in his semiretirement has no power to make me do it either, and neither does Mr. Alvaro, not really. That’s just not how the Service is organized.

Arlo is my colleague but he’s also my friend, and I have known him for many years—he knew my brother. He knew my father. Which means that in a way he is like a brother to me, and he is like a father too, and what he is doing right now, with a charming shamelessness, is employing all of those associations to bend me to his will.

“There is no one like you, Laszlo,” he says, imperturbable, flattering, shameless. “You know that. The Service needs you. Your State needs you. I need you.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the best.”

“That’s subjective.”

“Stipulated. But listen.” He leans in closer. He lowers his voice. “This young lady is very special, Laszlo. I would like to see her mentored carefully. I need your help.”

I look over at Paige. She waits at full attention, her hands behind her back, her mouth a tight line, adopting what she must believe to be the expected stance of the law enforcement officer. But we’re not law enforcement officers, not exactly. Soon she will gather up the regular rhythm of the Speculative Service. The idiosyncrasy, the casual atmosphere. We don’t stand in line, we don’t salute, we do our own thing.

She’ll learn it all.

“Okay, look,” I say, and Arlo catches the answer in my voice and leans back, clasps his hands together in a restrained triumphant gesture. “When we catch a case, Ms. Paige, you can go ahead and ride along beside me. Okay? And you can… I guess you’ll just pay attention and everything, but try not to get in the way. Okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is that what you’re after, Mr. Vasouvian?”

“I want you to do whatever you feel comfortable with, Laszlo.”

Paige begins, “And can I just say, sir—” I hold up a hand.

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir,’ okay?”

“Okay, sir. If you don’t mind, though, I would like to. It’s a sign of respect, sir. You’ve earned it.”

“Stipulated,” I say. “But I’m just as happy for you to call me Mr. Ratesic.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hey Laz,” Alvaro hollers from the board. “Got something for you. Maybe a good one to break in the new kid. If you’re taking her on. Are you taking her on or not?”

I look at Paige. I hiss through my teeth, “Yeah,” and I extend my hand and Alvaro puts the piece of paper in it. “I’m taking her.”

Arlo slides off my desk, pats me gently on the shoulder, satisfied, as well he should be, having gotten exactly what he wanted.


We head up Vermont Avenue from downtown toward the scene, a simple scene of death on a lawn in Los Feliz.

It’s not clear from the report, but what it sounds like is that there is no specific anomaly, just the regular police requesting the presence of the Service, just to be certain. You get that a lot. When there’s a body, they want to be double sure all the facts are in good clean alignment.

I could take the 5, of course, a nice straight northbound shot, if I wanted to, and it might have bought us five minutes, but the stress of the highway isn’t worth it right now, not when I can give myself the pleasure of the surface streets, the pleasure of looking out the windshield at the various and beautiful Golden State rolling by. You get the streets and sidewalks of downtown, all the usual crowded midmorning bustle, the stop and start at the downtown intersections when you’re moving north and west around the administrative buildings and State services buildings that fan out from the Plaza. And then you escape the hive, pass under the highway and into the borderland, where you see the acres of industry, the factories and warehouses with their solar panel roofs winking back at the sun. And then, just north of that, the miles of farmland, lettuce and avocados, olives and all the rest of it, and then, just like that, you’re whipped back into the neighborhoods, the hip urban districts that line Vermont Avenue like a series of colorful beads: Echo Park, Los Feliz, Silver Lake.

There’s a place in Echo Park, actually, a quarter mile off Vermont, that sells some very solid crullers, some of the best in the State, but there’s no time for a cruller just now, not with a scene of death waiting for us uptown.

“Sir? Mr. Ratesic?”

“Yeah?”

Ms. Paige is looking at me avidly from the shotgun seat, but I am definitely not looking at her; I’m looking at the road. But I can feel her emotions in the shotgun seat, feel her anxiety and excitement, young Paige’s first-day jitters a living thing in the car with us.

“So should I just, like, jump right in?”

I scowl. “Jump right into what?”

“What?”

I feel her deflate. I feel it emanating from the shotgun seat, the crestfallen silence of someone who had a whole speech ready to roll out.

“Jump into my—oh, I mean—just, like, my life story. When I first knew that I had the sense and everything. How I decided to go into the Service. The whole… I just meant… I don’t know. Sorry.”

She wants to tell me about when she was nineteen years old, or fourteen, or twenty-two, whenever it was that she first saw something in the air, first realized what it was that she was feeling. She wants to tell me how she ignored it at first, because acknowledging and indulging this dangerous feeling would mean abandoning her desire to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an architect, or whatever, but how she eventually realized that she had a calling, a responsibility, that she could cultivate this new facility, this instinct, bring it up and bring it out, because then she could serve the State and it would be selfish not to, and it was, after all, the least she could do…

And then I would tell her my own version of the story, so similar, I’m sure, to hers, with the only additional complication being my father, and then my brother, Charlie, him having done it all first, sensed it first and followed it first, his brilliance like a sun casting a shadow over my own career.

My mood, which has already been spoiled by the encounter at Terry’s, by the unexpected burden of taking on a junior, is further clouded by this unexpected memory of Charlie, both welcome and unwelcome, a sudden flood of feeling: Charlie and what happened to Charlie. I can feel the smile slide off my face. Just then we pass the House of Pies, another favorite diner of mine, on the northern edge of Los Feliz; I am tempted to pull over, tell Ms. Paige to wait in the car, and get myself a piece of blueberry pie or something to take the edge off the day.

But I don’t. I keep going. We’re almost there.

“Listen, Paige.” I glance at her. “It’s Paige, right?”

“Yes, sir. Aysa Violet Paige.”

“I don’t want to hear your story. I don’t need it. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“I don’t need yours, and you don’t need mine.”

“Oh. Right. I mean—sure.”

Paige fidgets self-consciously in the shotgun seat, casting occasional nervous glances my way, otherwise staring out the window.

This girl is my opposite, and I darkly wonder if Arlo put her in my car purely for the physical comedy. She is short, neat, black, and fully earnest in her countenance. And here I am, this too-big creature, my pale face and my black pinhole, my thick fingers gripping the steering wheel, thick red beard like a bristling animal over the wool of the suit, and my irritation with the world—which is really an irritation with myself—like armor, a chain mail layer rattling across my broad chest. And I don’t know what it is, I can’t tell you, but this kid’s face, everything in her face is different from everything I feel: she’s excited, almost agitated with her own excitement, as if all the great days of her life still ahead of her are jostling inside, creating a field of energy. And she believes that I am someone worth looking up to, someone worth learning from. And if you want to hear something true—big true, deep true—that does not feel terrible. It doesn’t feel terrible at all.

“What matters is what happens now. In the field. What matters is how you marshal the abilities you’ve been granted, and how you harness them to real investigative skill. Okay?”

“Okay. Yeah.”

I drive a minute more. Dope shops and banks, coffee shops and dry cleaners.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“I just—”

“I mean it, Paige. All of this?” I point at me, and then at her, meaning all of the interpersonal, all of the getting to know each other, all of the teamwork, the senior-junior BS, all of it. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens in the world. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I think that might be it for conversation—I hope it is—but no.

“So can you maybe tell me how it works?”

“How what works?”

“Oh, I just mean… where we’re going. Our interaction with the regular police, the different protocols. I mean, I know how it works, obviously. I’ve done plenty of simulations, and I’ve done all the reading and training and stuff. I just mean… in real life. In the field. Is there anything you think I maybe don’t know?”

“I am sure, Ms. Paige, there are many things you don’t know.”

And then I just keep driving; I just leave that flat piece of truth unadorned, add no further context. I’m being a prig, I am aware of that, I am being a special kind of asshole. Indulging in rigorous literalism, answering questions to the letter, ignoring the spirit in which they were asked is a nasty and childish trick. But I can’t help it—I’m already regretting agreeing to this. I should have held firm with Arlo, told him to pin this particular ribbon on someone else’s chest. I value my time alone. I like driving by myself; I like working by myself. I like knowing that if I’m on the way to a scene of crime, and I feel like taking forty-five seconds to run into House of Pies and pick up a slice of blueberry I can then eat in the car, I can do that without anyone judging me or asking questions.

Too late. We drive on. We’re almost there.

3.

I slouch across the lawn, bent forward, moving slow but with big intent, the heavy man’s hurry, with Ms. Paige trotting along at my heels. I see the body and I move right to it, ignoring the crowds, ignoring the regular police, the capture crews, the gawkers—the shifting crowd that appears in the wake of a death, like insects coming up out of the ground after rain.

I push through the crowd, sighing. Growling, maybe. I’m making some kind of noise and all the regular cops and microphone operators and AV knuckleheads step back, wary. There’s sweat gathering at the back of my collar, sweat beading under my beard. The early-day cool has burned away and it’s hot as a mother out here—I’m roasting in my blacks. I’ve never minded the discomfort of the uniform, to be honest with you, full true; I always feel like the discomfort is part of the job. The discomfort is the job. It marks you out, sets you apart. You get to a scene and you’re already scowling, and everybody knows you’re there on business. Everybody is watching the boundaries.

“Sir?” says Ms. Paige, and I raise one hand—Gimme a second.

This is nothing. This is an empty dumb nothing.

The dead man was a roofer, and he died falling off a roof. Those are the facts, and they’re clear from the get-go, clear and plain. As Arlo would say, it’s true as daylight, true as doors on houses. The mansion is one of these expansive but unassuming old places, with the poured concrete and the Spanish tile, with the wide white patio and the rambling lawn. A modest two stories but turreted with balconies and pilasters and stone-carved cherubs peeking out from the corners of the porch. I shield my eyes and look up to the spot on the red tile roof, where the man scrambled before he fell, and I note the patch of loose and broken tiles. A single piece of fractured gutter juts out like a broken bone.

I turn from the house to the body of the man, and all the angles are adding up. He fell from the high pitch of the roof, scrabbled in vain to catch himself on the downspout, and died when he hit the ground. I get out my Day Book, pin down this first set of flat facts in black ink, pressing hard so the carbons catch it.

“Sir?”

“Let’s just do this, Ms. Paige,” I say. “Let’s get out of here.”

The man’s body lies facing the sun, half on and half off the patio, eyes staring up at the golden blue of the morning. “A roofer,” I write, “with wiry black hair and a wiry black mustache on a deeply tanned face. On the breast pocket of his green work shirt there’s a logo of a hand holding a hammer. Here are his limbs, all four splayed out against the manicured lawn in ugly incongruous angles; here was a slick of blood expanded out from underneath him, slowly seeping into the manicured lawn, spreading dark red onto the bone-white patio stone. Here was the wild mosaic of broken roof tiles surrounding him—the armload he’d been holding when he tumbled, the explosive shatter pattern around him testament to the force of the fall. Here was the trowel, flung out on the lawn, a crust of dried caulk along its lip.”

I get it all down, organizing the flats in neat columns on the pages of my Day Book, and then—I don’t know why exactly, but I do—I stay in my investigative crouch, a bear down low to the ground, paws planted to keep myself from toppling, roving my careful eyes over the man’s dead face. His skull has split and spilled but the weathered face is intact, unharmed. The eyes above the black mustache are open wide, very wide, and he’s got this expression—and this is a subjective determination, this is hard to measure on the scale of what is and what is not so—but he looks terrified.

“Mr. Ratesic?” Paige is trying again, eager to learn, her own Day Book out and open. “What are you seeing?”

“Nothing,” I say, and stand up, heaving my body straight. “Not a thing.” I take one more look up at the house, shake my head. “You wanna tell me what we’re doing here?”

“What?”

“What was the impetus for the presence of the Service? Why were we called?”

“Oh. Um—should we ask?”

She gestures to the knot of regular police who are hanging around close to the house, pretending to do things, stealing glances at the two of us over here by the body. So, too, are the dead man’s coworkers, all in the same green shirts he’s wearing, all milling uncertainly in the shadow of the house, murmuring together, looking warily at their fallen comrade.

And then there’s a team from the Record, circling Paige and me, capturing reality as it unfolds. The capture operator and his backup. The microphone operator, hovering at the prescribed distance, professional headphones bulky over her ears. The archivist and the archivist’s assistant.

“No,” I tell Paige. “I don’t want to ask them. I’m asking you. You looked at the call report, right? From Alvaro?”

“Yes. It just said they called it in. It said the Service was requested to discover the full and final truth. He said they said—”

“Who said?”

“The regular police.”

“What did they say?”

“They said there was something anomalous in it.”

“Anomalous?”

“Yes, that’s—” She takes a step back from me. I’ve got my hands jammed in my pockets. I am scowling, bent forward. “That’s what they said.”

“Meaning what?”

“What?”

“What does that word mean?”

“Meaning… you mean what does ‘anomalous’ mean?”

“Yes, Ms. Paige. Shared understanding is a bulwark. Clear and agreed upon definitions of common terms are defenses against infelicity. Words mean what they mean. So, what is the meaning of the word ‘anomalous’?”

My tone is not pleasant, I recognize that. If Arlo wants me to train this girl, well, then I’m going to train her. It is miserably hot out here—deadly hot. The sun is carving a rash into the skin above my collar.

“‘Anomalous’ means”—Paige takes a breath and stands erect, spits it out, word for word from the Basic Law—“a mismatch of facts possibly indicative of the presence of a falsehood or falsehoods obscuring the full and final truth of a given situation. Sir.”

“Okay.” I nod, maybe a little disappointed to be deprived of the opportunity to further chastise. “Good.” Paige’s nervous face shows a quick shimmering smile.

“So what do you think? Where’s the anomaly?”

“I—” She looks at me, uncertain. Then she looks back up at the house, back at the guy. “I don’t see it. I think he fell off the roof.”

“Yes,” I say. “Me too.”

“So maybe if we just—” She angles her head over to the crowd of officers again. “Maybe we ask?”

“Nope.”

“But—”

“If we can’t spot it ourselves, we don’t keep digging. They put the body in the ambulance and they drive him away. The regular police do their thing, and our part is over. We get back in our car.”

“But—wait.”

I’ve started walking away, and Ms. Paige puts a hand on my shoulder, and then shrinks back when I stop and turn to glare at her. A pause. A mourning dove makes its low coo from somewhere in the high trees. Along the lawn are the embedded captures, forever adding to the documented bulk of reality.

“Why would they call it in if there isn’t anything?” ...


All rights belong to the author: Ben H Winters.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.