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From award-winning New York Times best-selling novelist Ben H. Winters comes a mind-bending novel set in a world governed by absolute truth, where lies are as dangerous as murder. In a strange alternate society that values law and truth above all else, Laszlo Ratesic is a 19-year veteran of the Speculative Service. He lives in the Golden State, a nation standing where California once did, a place where like-minded Americans retreated after the erosion of truth and the spread of lies made public life and governance impossible. In the Golden State, knowingly contradicting the truth is the greatest crime - and stopping those crimes is Laz's job. In its service, he is one of the few individuals permitted to harbor untruths, to "speculate" on what might have happened. But the Golden State is less a paradise than its name might suggest. To monitor, verify, and enforce the truth requires a veritable panopticon of surveillance and recording. And when those in control of the facts twist them for nefarious means, the Speculators are the only ones with the power to fight back.
Release date: January 22, 2019
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Print pages: 336
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Ben H. Winters
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.
All of these events occurred as described. It’s all on the Record.
Though the author is a character in the events that follow, he claims no part of the glory they reflect. 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.
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, 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 conversations overlapping, blending in with the tinny tingting 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 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 will be 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 of young folk seated across from each other, each of them leafing through the 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.
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 with the woman’s robust good looks and black eyes. Two sons. A mom and her two grown children 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 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, not for any visual effect but because I’m too lazy to shave.
“Can I ask your name, please?”
“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.
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. It’s okay. I’m patient. “We were just having a conversation about some medication of mine.”
“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 wasn’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 this 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 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 brother 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 personal 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 have to answer.” 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. 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.
“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.”
“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 even if I can’t catch him—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. Closing the distance between us. I have a gun of my own, of course, but I leave it in my pocket. The alley is short. 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 put 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, 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.
“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 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 Todd?” 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.
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.”
“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. This is disappointing. 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 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 . . .
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