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The Incrementalists, Page 2

Steven Brust

  “What theory is that?”

  “That you have absolutely no trouble fending off sleazy pickup attempts, and you like talking to interesting strangers, and you can tell the difference pretty quickly.”

  I hesitated. “Okay,” I said. “Any insider tips beyond coffee?”

  “Do you gamble?”


  “Then no.”

  “And if I did?”

  “I could tell you where not to.”

  “And why would you do that? I’m guessing you’re not universally generous with your insights.”

  “You might be surprised,” he said, and I caught a whiff of sincerity through a crack in the banter. “But I’d offer you all my secrets, if I thought you’d invite me to sit down. My knees are locking up.”

  “Here’s your tea.” The waitress put it down just out of my reach and turned to him. “Get you anything, Phil?”

  He glanced at me. Then she did. And whatever anonymous pleasure I’d been getting from a stranger’s privacy in public places seemed like less fun. I shrugged. “Have a seat.”

  “Coffee would be great, Kendra.” He stood just slowly enough to make me think his knees ached, and slid into the booth. He told me secrets for eating cheaply and well in Vegas, until the waitress came back with a bowl of matzo ball soup. It wasn’t the sandwich I had ordered, but with its two delicate dumplings floating in a broth that smelled like sick days when Mom had to work and took me to her mother’s, I decided to risk it.

  “Shall I let you eat in peace?” he asked, with enough Yiddish inflection to make me check his eyes for a joke.

  He smiled at me and, maybe feeling daring because my matzo ball gamble had paid out so tasty, I smiled back. “No, stay,” I said, “and tell me what the locals do here besides eat.”


  I decided that that part had been harder than it should have been. “I’d love to say something clever, like, laugh at tourists. But the fact is, get away from the Strip and locals do the same things they do anywhere else.”

  “And in your case, what does that involve?”


  “Just like everywhere else,” she said.

  I felt a shrug asking to be let out, but suppressed it. “It sounds more glamorous than user interface design, but when you’re running bad, you miss the steady income.”

  There wasn’t even a delay and a double take; she got it instantly. She nailed me in place with her eyes and said, “If you claim that was a lucky guess—”

  “Not at all, Ren. Usually, I’d call you Renee until you okayed the nickname, but I know how you hate your dad’s French aspirations.”

  She sat back. “Who the hell are you?”

  “My name is Phil, and I’m here to recruit you to a very select and special group. The work is almost never dangerous, and best of all we don’t pay anything.”

  Her eyes narrowed.

  “Yes?” I asked.

  “What I’m trying to figure out,” she said slowly, “is why I’m not calling security.”

  “I can answer that,” I told her. “Mostly, it’s the soup. It tastes like your grandmother’s. Also, if you listen closely, you can hear Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert singing ‘The Keeper Did A-Hunting Go.’ And if you look behind me—”

  “Oxytocin,” she said, staring at me.

  I was impressed, and I didn’t mind letting her see it. “Good work. That saves a lot of explanation.”

  “You’re triggering memories to make me feel trusting.”

  I nodded again. “Just enough to get the explanation in before you have me thrown out. And so you’ll believe the impossible parts at least enough to listen to them.”

  “This is crazy.”

  “It gets crazier.”

  “I can hardly wait. What are the impossible parts?”

  “We’ll get there. Let’s start with the merely improbable. Do you like the MP3 format?”

  “Huh?” Her brows came together.

  “A functional sound format introduced and standardized. Do you think that’s a good thing?”


  “You’re welcome.”

  She stared, waiting for me to say more.

  “It almost didn’t happen that way. That’s the sort of thing you can do with oxytocin and dopamine and a few words in the right ears.”

  She was silent for a little longer, probably trying to decide if she only believed me because I was meddling with her head. Then she said, “Why me?”

  “Because you almost got fired for telling truth to power in a particularly insulting way, and you did it for the benefit of a bunch of users you’d never met, and you expected it to cost you a job you liked. That’s the kind of thing we notice. On good days.”

  Kendra came by and refilled my coffee, which gave Ren time to decide which of the ten million questions she wanted to ask next. I waited. Her fingernails—short and neatly trimmed—tapped against the teacup in front of her, not in time to the music. Her eyes were deep set and her face narrow, with prominent cheekbones that made me think American Indian somewhere in her background. Her brows formed a dark tilde, her nose was small and straight, and her lips were kissably inviting and led to creases at the corners of her mouth that acted as counterpoints to the laugh lines around her eyes. I wondered what a full-on smile would look like.

  “Jesus Christ,” she said.

  “He wasn’t one of us,” I told her. “I’d remember.”


  Somehow, to my list of bad habits, I had recently added the practice of tapping my eyebrow with my index finger like an overgrown Pooh Bear with his absurd think, think, think. I caught myself at it and balled my fingers into a fist. Phil had his long body draped casually in his seat, but it stayed taut somehow anyway. He reminded me of a juggler, with his large hands and concentration. “Are you hitting on me?” I asked.

  He laughed and relaxed. “No,” he said, and I trusted him.

  “Just checking.” I sliced into a matzo ball with the edge of my spoon. “Because guys who ask to join me in restaurants, and make small talk, and recommend soups, and invite me into secret societies are usually after something.”

  “I didn’t say I wasn’t.”

  That shut me up. I ate some soup and pretended to be thinking. But mostly I was just drifting on chicken fat and memories. Eating hot soup in a cold café in the desert felt a long way from my grandmother’s house. “My, what big eyes you have,” I muttered.

  Phil frowned.

  “Little Red Riding Hood,” I explained, but it didn’t help. “I’m feeling like I’ve strayed from the path in the woods.”

  “Been led astray?” he asked.

  “Maybe just led. How did you know to find me in Vegas?”

  “We arranged for you to be here. Sorry about your date with Brian. But if he has any sense, he’ll be waiting for you.”

  “Is my boss one of your guys, or Jorge?”

  “No. But one of us helped one of Jorge’s daughters a few years back, so it wasn’t hard to arrange.”

  “So you have people in Vegas and New York. Where else?”

  “Everywhere. Worldwide.”


  “Not yet.” His cheesy wink reminded me of the parrot in Treasure Island, the way source material seems clichéd when you don’t encounter it first.

  “Why Vegas? Is the organization headquartered here?”

  His laugh startled me, and made me smile, which startled me more. “No,” he said. “There are only around two hundred of us. I’m the only one out here.”

  “So they brought me to you, specifically.”

  “Right.” There was not a whisper left of his smile.

  “You couldn’t have come to me?”

  “The World Series of Poker makes this a bad time for me to leave Las Vegas.”

  “So you wanted me enough to screw up my life in a couple of directions, but not enough to miss any poker?”

  “Well, it’s not just ‘any pok
er.’ It’s the WSOP, but I would have come to Phoenix for you if I’d needed to.”


  “I already told you.”

  “No, you told me why me. Now I’m asking why you.”

  Phil put down his coffee cup. It made no sound when it touched the table. “I can’t tell you that.”

  “You arranged for me to be where I am. You planned how you would approach me, what I’d eat—no matter what I ordered—and what music would be playing in the background.”


  I listened again. Sam Cooke. Family washing-up after dinner music—energetic, but safe. “And you’ve been manipulating me ever since.”

  “That’s right.”

  “Manipulating me really, really well.”

  He inclined his head in something between a polite nod and a wary bow.

  “I want to know how you do that.”

  His smile came slowly, but he meant every fraction of it. “That’s what I’m offering,” he said.

  “You and this small but influential, international, nonpaying, not-dangerous secret society of yours?”


  “Like the mafia, only with all the cannoli and none of the crime.”

  “Well, we’re much older.”

  “An older, slower mafia.”

  He looked a little disconcerted.

  “And you fight evil? Control the government? Are our secret alien overlords?”

  “Try to make the world a little better.”


  “Just a little better.”

  “An older, slower, nicer mafia?”

  He stood up. “There’s substantially more to us than that. For example, most people can’t get Internet in the café. I’ve gotten about half the shockers out of the way, and next time we talk I won’t be meddling with your head. Sleep on it.” He took a small plastic dragon from his pocket and put it by my plate.

  “I used to collect these things!” I said. “But you knew that, didn’t you?”

  Kendra the waitress stopped him on the way out, said something to him, kissed his cheek, and came to clear our table with her face still pink. I put my earphones back in and logged into Gmail using the wi-fi you can’t get in the 24/7 Café to find two messages waiting for me.

  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Tomorrow’s Meeting Rescheduled

  Thursday, June 30, 2011 5:46 pm GMT - 7

  Hi Ren,

  Hope you’re enjoying Vegas. Jorge has pushed our meeting back. Something came up for him at home, so you have an extra day of fun in the sun on our nickel. Take yourself to a show or something. My flight is the same time, but on Saturday now instead of tomorrow. Sorry, but I know you can entertain yourself.



  From: [email protected]

  To: [email protected]

  Subject: Breakfast?

  Thursday, June 30, 2011 5:01 pm GMT - 7

  Assuming you’re free.

  And somehow, as trapped and arranged and manipulated as it all felt, I knew I was.


  You Can Do That?


  Usually, the first interview without switches is the tricky one, so after yesterday, I was wary. I got to the café first, on the theory that her walking up to me would be less threatening than the reverse. Ren normally woke up at eight and spent forty-five minutes getting ready, subtract fifteen minutes for her being out of town, giving us 8:30; I arrived at 8:20. Katy was hostessing, and she had a dramatic fake coronary, while making comments about seeing me before noon.

  “I’m meeting someone,” I said. “So two, please.”

  She led the way, remarking, “It can’t be business, so it must be personal. A girl?”

  “She is certainly female, and this has nothing to do with poker.”

  “Well, my my.”

  “Tell me how your heart is now broken.”

  “Not mine, but I can think of a couple of waitresses who will be disappointed.”

  “Katy, why don’t you tell me this stuff when it will do me some good?”

  “Looking out for my staff,” she said.

  “I think I won’t ask what you mean by that. Here she is. Katy, this is Ren.”

  “You know everyone here, don’t you?” she said, sliding into a chair. “Hello, Katy.” Ren was wearing pants and a sleeveless green sweater that would have looked purely professional if they hadn’t been tight.

  “Enjoy your breakfast,” said Katy and went back to her post.

  “She thinks we’re involved, doesn’t she?”

  “She’s a doll, but she has a limited imagination. And you are every bit as observant as I’d been led to believe.”

  A waiter named Sam came up, looking like the dancer he probably was. I ordered a Santa Fe Breakfast Wrap and coffee. Ren looked at me. I said, “It’s all you, this time.” She nodded and ordered Frosted Flakes and tea.

  The instant Sam walked away, she said, “What qualifies as better?”

  “We argue about that a lot.”

  “What are your criteria?”

  “That’s part of the same argument.”

  “Okay, who gives the green lights?”

  “For meddlework? Usually—”


  “Meddlework. Two d’s. Our term for it. Like what I did to you yesterday. Meddling with someone’s head so you can change his actions. Usually no one has to approve, you just do it. If it’s something big, you’re expected to run it past the group first, and people usually do. When they don’t we scream at them a lot. There’s a group called Salt that sort of oversees the discussions but has no real power.”

  Her stare was intense. Her mouth was set in a firm line, and her hands weren’t moving at all.

  “What if you’re wrong,” she said. “What if you do something big, and it makes things worse?”

  There is a curving boulevard that leads to a half-moon–shaped park. Buddha watches over the street at various points. The park is dominated by a curved colonnade that looks more Greek than Asian. Along the boulevard, in the park, on the shiny, glittering street, bodies of men and women, boys and girls, old people and infants, wait to be buried. They’ve all been murdered, but not here; there is no blood in the street; everything is neat and clean, except for the bullet holes. There are thousands upon thousands of dead, and they are all looking at me.

  “That can happen,” I finally said. “It really, really sucks. We try not to do that.”


  Trouble moved over his face, lining the edge of his brow and cheekbone like a felt-tip pen. It aged him and put depth under the handsome. It made me want to touch him, but of course he would know the sexy of vulnerable, and I wasn’t falling for that. I had questions.

  “How long can you keep me here?”

  “Do you want to go?”

  “I mean how long can you keep me in Vegas, Liam in Phoenix, Jorge in New York, and RMMD paying for it all?”

  “We have time.”

  “How do you know? And how can you possibly track all the implications of what you do? You make it so I’m here because this is where you need me, but maybe Brian is my soul mate, and while I’m gone, he meets some other girl and they fall in love.”

  “He’s not your soul mate.” Something fierce in Phil’s calm voice made me wonder whether it was soul mates or Brians he was so certain of.

  “I meant as an example,” I said. “Maybe Jorge goes ahead and commits to a design without hearing from us first, and we lose the auditory prompts his own research demonstrates his users need, and a bunch of old people don’t get reminders to take their medicine?”

  “Or maybe you join us and I show you how to get even more effective alarms written into the requirements, plus maybe shift Jorge’s priorities a little.”

  “You can do that?”

  “You can do that. You’re designing a monitoring and assistanc
e device for Alzheimer’s patients. Maybe Jorge’s mom would be interested in joining the beta test pool.”

  “That’s what you do? You get nonhuman corporate entities to make decisions on a human level?”

  One of Phil’s eyebrows contracted in a way that, if both had done it, it would have been a grimace. Somehow it conveyed interest. “That’s one thing we can do. Sometimes.”

  “Sometimes? What determines whether you can do it?”

  “Lots of things. How drastic the change is, how well we know the Focus—the person we’re trying to meddle with, how good we are at meddling. No one is going to turn Rupert Murdoch into a liberal, but a few nudges might convince some British investigators to follow up on what he’s doing, if they’re inclined in that direction anyway.”

  “That was you?”

  “Someday I’ll tell you what we didn’t do. It would have been big. And ugly.”

  “So if I want in, what do I do? Confirmation class? Dunk in the river? Prick my finger?”

  “You come home with me.”


  “You come home with me and find out.”


  Something closed up behind her face. It was as if she suspected the process would be unpleasant, and I didn’t want to tell her about it. Or maybe I just imagined that because it was and I didn’t. On the other hand, maybe she just thought I was hitting on her, and really, I wouldn’t blame me if I did. In an attempt to undo the damage, I said, “Not right now. You can take as much time as you want to think about it. And I’m not meddling with you.”

  “I know you’re not,” she said. Then, “But I don’t know who you are.”

  “Me, or the group?”

  “You. Who are you?”

  “That’s a hard question to answer. For anyone. How would you answer it?”

  She nodded slowly. The food arrived, and Sam asked something about it, and I answered. We ate for a little while, and I drank coffee. Then she said, “What’s the most important thing you aren’t telling me?”