On the news the governor of the state of Indiana discusses the downtown shootings. “We will not stand for them,” the governor says. “These shootings. They will not be stood for.”
“Is it true that all of the victims have been associated with the pharmaceutical industry?” asks a reporter.
“I didn’t say it was time for questions,” says the governor.
“Is it true that the shooter was dressed in what appeared to be a fake fur coat and black goggles, brandishing two silver pistols that glowed in the moonlight?”
“No questions,” the governor says.
The governor and his retinue fold themselves back into the governor-van, and they remove themselves from the press conference.
“Was that ‘no questions’ or ‘no question’?” the anchor asks, from his desk at the studio.
“I believe it was the former, Bill.”
The wind picks up throughout the city, a great whistling through trees and between buildings.
Robert and Viola have dinner with Robert’s friend Trey and his date at a new restaurant. All we ever do is go to new places, Viola thinks. The constant churn of the new. Once, newness was invigorating. Now, I am not sure if I could identify the difference between one new place and another.
“Nice to meet you,” Viola says to Trey’s date.
“Oh, we’ve met before,” she says. “Viola, right?”
At the restaurant everyone around them seems to be talking about the secret law. “We are surrounded by enemies,” says one older man sitting to Viola’s right.
“The forces of disorder in all of its many forms,” says his companion.
“Increasing disorder is the fundamental state of the universe,” says a loud young man, several tables away. “Certain actions are necessary to prevent the encroaching of disorder—sometimes horrible actions—actions, that were they publicly known, might themselves increase disorder. Actions which must therefore remain concealed. This is the particular insight of the secret law.”
“Jesus,” says Viola.
“Robert tells me that there’s an FBI agent at your library these days,” Trey says.
“I’m not allowed to talk about it,” Viola says.
“NSL?” says Trey. Viola makes a zipping motion over her lips.
Their appetizers arrive, in a series of small beautiful bowls.
“I am an optimist,” Trey declares. “I believe in the basic goodness and order of the universe.”
“So you are against the secret law?” Robert asks.
“I believe in the disease theory of crime,” Trey says. “Containment, education. Ultimately, I think, we’ll find biological bases for most forms of criminality.”
“No free will?” Viola asks.
“Why would you want it?” Trey says, his chopsticks hovering above the bowls.
Somewhere around the main course Viola and Robert end up in a fight. No one is sure how it happens, not even Robert and Viola. They are fighting about the secret law, which Robert is in favor of and Viola opposes, except that really they are fighting about the fact that Robert suspects Viola is having an affair.
“Where do you think we’d end up, if anyone could do just anything and not have to worry about the consequences?” Robert says.
“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences,” Viola says. “I’m saying that there shouldn’t be terrible, unforeseeable consequences, carried out in secrecy by men who officially do not exist.”
They are still fighting during the drive home.
“I’m not choosing to feel the way I feel in order to hurt you,” Viola says.
“You know what I think?” Robert says. “I think you like the drama of it. I think instead of dealing with your actual feelings you’ve decided to make this into some big relationship drama.”
“My ‘actual feelings,’” Viola says. “I don’t like seeing a therapist, Robert. But I am. Because I am an adult. And I am swallowing my pride and dealing with my ‘actual feelings’ and my mental fucking health like an adult.”
“I’m fine,” Robert says. “I’m not the one who’s— I’m fine.”
They pass adult stores, a mostly-abandoned mall, kids too young to still be out walking along the soft shoulder of the road.
“Who are you fucking?” Robert says.
“If you want to leave you should just leave.”
So Viola leaves. She throws open the door at a stoplight and pushes herself out of the car just before the light turns green. Robert is so angry that he accelerates anyway, and drives two blocks with the passenger-side door open. He thinks, I could just drive off. He thinks, She wants to leave, I should let her leave. She can find her own way back. She has a cell-phone. He thinks, she has made the decision to jump out of our car in some shitty post-industrial part of town, she’s an adult, she can deal with the consequences of that decision.
Robert slows to a stop, leans over to close the passenger-side door, and takes a series of deep breaths. None of the breaths seem as deep as they should be. It’s like his lungs catch at a certain point and won’t go any further, just before he’s finished breathing all the way in.
He circles back to find Viola.
There’s a motion under a billboard, near where she ran from the car. Robert parks and opens his door and calls out to see if it’s Viola. A moment later there’s a loud crack that sounds exactly like how gunshots sound on television. It takes Robert a moment to realize that the sound was, in fact, a gunshot. Someone runs off into the darkness.
There is a terrible feeling in Robert’s stomach. He can make out another figure underneath the billboard. It’s still moving. Robert runs towards the billboard. He tells himself that it can’t possibly be Viola. It isn’t. “Thank God,” Robert says, out of breath.
“I don’t think I’m going to be okay,” says the man lying on the ground.
“I’m going to call the police,” Robert says. “I thought you were my wife. But I’m going to call the police.”
“I don’t think I’m going to be okay,” the man says. “I’m not going to be okay, am I?” The man is middle-aged, white, well-dressed, with a thick white beard and fat red face. He looks like Santa Claus. He’s lying on his back, clutching at his abdomen.
Robert dials 911 and gives his location. “There’s a man here. I think he’s been shot. I’m pretty sure he’s been shot. I’m not supposed to move him, am I?”
The operator tells Robert not to move him.
“I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to move him.”
“Are you alright, sir? Are you in a safe location?”
Robert thinks about this for a moment. “Oh, God,” he says, and then starts yelling for Viola. “I’m sorry,” he says to the operator. “I have to make another call.”
Viola answers on the first ring. “What’s going on?” she asks. “Why haven’t you been answering your phone? What’s going on? Are you alright?”
“Where are you?” he says. “Can you see the car?”
Robert is in a small room at the police station. There are two police officers in the room with him, one small, squat, somehow feminine, the other quite a bit larger and vaguely Slavic looking. They keep asking if Robert would like a cup of coffee. It’s nearly one and Robert is visibly shaking. He would not like a cup of coffee, not really.
“We’re pretty sure you’re not our guy,” the more effeminate officer tells him.
“Good,” Robert says. “That’s good. Especially since you’ve already told me I’m not under any suspicion.”
“For one thing, what motive could you possibly have? For another thing, what did you do with the weapon?” The officer stares at Robert as if waiting for an answer.
“Was that a question?” Robert says, after a moment.
The officer laughs and clasps his hands together. “Oh, you’re good. You’re not going to just walk into a setup like that, are you, Mr. St. Clair? He’s good, Ivan.”
“He said he was a lawyer, didn’t he?” says the second, larger officer. “They’re slippery.”
“I’m not under any suspicion, right?” Robert says. “I thought I wasn’t under any suspicion.”
“At this stage in the process,” says the first officer, “we are simply trying to establish that this shooting followed the same MO as the previous shootings. You, as an eyewitness, can help us establish that. You look like you could use a cup of coffee. Ivan, could you please get Mr. Robert St. Clair a cup of coffee?”
The second officer leaves and returns with a cup of coffee.
“Alright, so this guy you say you saw,” he says, putting the coffee down in front of Robert. “Was he tall or short?”
“Tall?” Robert says, unsure.
“Like would you say six-foot-three? Six-foot-four? Six-foot-five?”
“I don’t know,” Robert says.
“You don’t know how tall he was,” the second officer says. “Man says he’s seen the guy, doesn’t even know how tall he was.”
“There are problems of perspective to be taken into account here,” says the first officer. “Depending on the angle, of course—”
“Was this guy white or black?”
“It was hard to tell, it was dark…”
“Doesn’t even know the ethnicity! Guy’s coming in here, says he can ID our perp, doesn’t even know the ethnicity!”
“It was dark,” Robert says. “And anyhow I never said—”
“Of course it was dark!” says the second officer. “It was night! You think we can just decide to do our job during the day? You think taxpayers would stand for that? You think, maybe, we can ask the criminal element to hold off on all illicit activities between the hours of eight pm to six am?”
“I’m sure he’s not suggesting that, Ivan.”
“You know what I’d like to do?” the second officer says to Robert. “I’d like to take that coffee you’re drinking right now and throw it in your smug, law-school face. Would you like that? Would you like it if I threw that coffee in your smug law-school face?”
“Of course he wouldn’t like that,” the first officer says. “Why would you even ask such a thing?”
“In terms of noses would you say that the man you saw had more of an upturned or a downturned nose?”
“I don’t know,” Robert says.
“I’d like to bash your head into the wall!” the second officer yells. “Would you like that? Would you like it if I bashed your smug, law-school face into this concrete wall, right here?”
“This is harassment,” Robert says. “I’m not under suspicion for committing any crime, am I?”
“Ivan has suffered a number of disappointments in his life,” the first officer tells Robert, sitting in the chair beside him, putting a hand on Robert’s shoulder. “Chief among them being that, coming from a family of lawyers, he was expected to follow in their footsteps. His mother went to Yale, top of the class. His father and brother both went to Brown, and didn’t do so bad for themselves, either.”
“I choked on the LSAT,” the second officer says, as if Robert were somehow at fault for this.
“He choked on the LSAT,” the first officer says with a shrug. “Of course we’re all sure that he would’ve made an excellent lawyer, but some people just aren’t good at standardized tests.”
“I never choked on no test before.”
“He’s a hell of a detective,” the first officer says. “We’re glad to have him on the force, as you can imagine.”
“I’d like to choke this fucking asshole,” shaking a fist at Robert.
“Ivan, really, enough. We’re going to have a lawsuit on our hands.”
“I can’t even stand looking at this guy. I need to get some air.”
The second officer glares at Robert and leaves.
“He has a gruff exterior, but his heart is pure,” the first officer says.
“Look, if I’m under any suspicion, I need to call my lawyer.”
“Who said you were under any suspicion?”
“So I’m free to go?”
“The world is a complicated place,” says the officer, “full of many moving parts. You mentioned lawyers. You yourself are a lawyer, of course, and one of your firm’s clients, we happen to know, is Obadiah Birch Pharmaceuticals. And the man who was shot? A researcher, contracted to work with Obadiah Birch Pharmaceuticals. It is entirely possible that this is a coincidence, these two things coming together, a lawyer working for Birch Pharmaceuticals and a researcher, now dead, also working for Birch Pharmaceuticals. But you must understand that these are exactly the sorts of coincidences we look for, here in the force: the coming together of two such related things. We strive to put the world in some kind of order, to turn the chaos of sensation into the beauty of theory, of explanation.
“On the other hand—speaking of order—it stands to reason that the guy who plugged this researcher is the same guy who plugged the other researchers. And if that’s so, and if just for the sake of argument you were our guy, why would you, our guy, call 911 after plugging this researcher, when our guy didn’t call 911 after plugging previous researchers? Calling 911 doesn’t fit our guy’s MO. Unless—oh, this is the tricky part!—unless our guy’s smart enough to change his MO from time to time, to throw us off the trail. You’re a pretty smart guy, aren’t you, Mr. St. Clair? Smart enough to change your MO, just to throw a couple of old detectives off the trail? In which case we’d have to reexamine the entire concept of MO. Meaning, in effect, reexamining the concept of causality itself. What is an MO if not an essence, the hard core underlying the varying methods of the criminal? The theme that ties act to person? The concept, in other words, of order itself?
“I see you are trembling somewhat, Mr. St. Clair. It is a terrifying idea, living in a world without order. I understand why the idea would frighten you.
“Unless, of course, that’s not why you’re trembling. You look fatigued, Mr. St. Clair. You’ve had a long day. If I had had such a day, only to end up in an interrogation room in a police station, with some mincing dwarf of a police detective talking to me about MOs and causality and science, I think I might be trembling too. I would maybe want to get something off my chest. Possibly there is something you want to get off your chest, Mr. St. Clair. But not quite yet! First—yes, first, let me show you something. It is behind this door,” hand in place, readying himself to open it, “something that, I think, will bring this night to—” A polite knocking comes from the other side of the door. The detective opens it, just a crack.
“Ivan!” hisses the first officer. “What the hell. Where’s the other witness? How can we have the big payoff without the other witness?”
“There was another witness?” Robert asks.
“We never actually managed to pick up the other witness,” comes the second officer’s voice, from the other side of the door.
“Why wasn’t I told about there being another witness?” Robert says, standing. His voice is reaching what sounds, even to his own ears, like an uncomfortably high pitch.
“You told me they were bringing him in,” the first officer says, opening the door fully to reveal the second officer, looking sheepish. “How can we have the big payoff if they didn’t bring him in?”
“They were going to,” says the second officer. “And then they didn’t. He disappeared.”
“Vanished, into the moonlight. They found this,” he holds up a tuft of what appears to be brown fake fur. “And this,” he holds up a pair of black goggles. The officers stand hunched over the interrogation table, examining the evidence.
“Look, am I free to go or aren’t I?” Robert says, finally.
“Yes, dammit, yes,” says the first officer. “Did anyone once say, this entire time, that you weren’t free to go?”
“I’ve never seen anyone die before,” Viola tells the FBI agent. They’re sitting on the bed of the FBI agent’s motel room eating peanut butter crackers bought from a vending machine by the motel-room door. Viola twists each pair of crackers apart before she eats them. “You’ve seen people die before, right?”
“Not that I’m at liberty to divulge.”
“Oh, sure, not that you’re at liberty to divulge. Right.” Viola twists apart a pair of peanut butter crackers and leaves them sitting peanut-butter-side-up on her lap. She thinks. She says, “I would have thought it would be terrifying, but it’s more complicated than that. The man practically died in Robert’s arms, and there’s part of me that’s, like, envious. I’m trying to figure out how to articulate it.” The FBI agent sits with a patient expression on his face, while she tries to figure out how to articulate it. “It’s stupid,” Viola says. “Never mind.”
The FBI agent drives Viola to a large concrete building on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Inside the building are other men in suits like the FBI agent’s. Every time Viola and the FBI agent come to a door he punches in a code on a keypad and puts his eye in front of a scanner for a retinal scan. Each room they enter into gets colder, until Viola can see her breath. The walls of the last room are lined with drawers. The FBI agent pulls out a drawer.
“That’s not him,” Viola says.
The FBI agent pulls out another drawer.
Viola and the FBI agent both look at the body of the dead researcher. He looks like Santa Claus.
“What do I do?” Viola says.
The FBI agent shrugs. He starts to put his hand between her legs. Viola slaps his hand away.
“I mean, am I supposed to mourn him? Or am I supposed to feel some sort of, like, awe?”
“He has a family,” the FBI agent says, looking at the man’s chart. “We’re investigating the family, though we don’t suppose that will turn up anything.”
The FBI agent and Viola leave and get back in the car. On the radio an actress who had achieved success early in life talks about how it wasn’t easy on her, achieving success early in life. Viola suddenly feels sad and self-conscious. She wants to ask the FBI agent to turn the radio off, but she’s worried that he will intuit how sad and self-conscious she’s feeling right now. Then she asks him to turn off the radio anyway. The FBI agent says that the actress is one of his favorite actresses, but turns off the radio.
“It’s like I’ve got a hole inside me where I should have an assurance of love,” Viola says. “I look at other people going about their day, doing the kinds of things people do, shopping for groceries, driving cars, picking up and putting down objects of various sizes, and the only way I can imagine that they can keep doing all of that is that somewhere inside them they have an assurance of love. They don’t even have to think about it, because they know it’s there. But I think about it all the time, because it’s not.”
The FBI agent frowns at her.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Viola says. “I don’t know why I said it.”
Then later, she says: “When I was first dating Robert, I used to steal things from him. Little things, things I was pretty sure he wouldn’t notice: pens, a tie he never wore, one or two out of about a bazillion wine glasses he had. The way I thought about it was this: He liked me then, sure, but there was absolutely no guarantee that he was going to keep liking me in the future. But if I had things of his, I knew they weren’t going anywhere.”
“Do you still have them? The stuff you stole?”
“One of the wine glasses, I think. I think the other stuff got lost the last time we moved.”
In the motel parking lot Viola and the FBI agent do an awkward kind of hug, and Viola goes to her car and leaves.
Photo by Katie