When they entered the Ministry they saw a uniformed man at the far, front desk. It was late, after hours, and there was no one else in the large hall, except to one side, a cleaning man with a broom. He glanced back at them nimbly. They assumed he was an informant.
Slv&Elin walked forward through the almost empty, echoing hall, this institutional design applied with a brutal optimism, hoping that all construction was monolithic and permanent. The hall would stand, forever. Forever you would be able to file a report, triple stamp an inquiry, wait in a line to find out you'd need another form. The building radiated a stale confidence that came from a wellspring of suppression and politics. They were no stranger to it.
They were sure the officer at the front desk was a fixture of his post, a life-long employee of the Ministry, accepting his duties without humor, without patience, utilizing a minimum of activity. He saw Slv&Elin. As they walked toward him he made a slight gesture with one hand—he pointed to a smaller elevator off to one side, away from the large ornate doors that were full of Ministry business during normal hours. They believed this was the service elevator. The officer's eyes remained fixed on a daily broadsheet he cradled in front of himself, occasionally and suddenly animating to turn each page with grouchy exclamation.
After closing the squeaky gate behind them, they pressed the button, keeping an eye on the front desk as the elevator descended. When it settled at the very bottom floor with a disconcerting, high pitched screech, they opened the lethargic gate and saw, more clearly, a poorly lit hallway. Against the walls, at intervals that allowed passage, were stacks of boxes. They assumed, due to their relentless uniformity, these boxes contained paper work, countless sheets of standard office sized accounting, requests, memos and counter-memos. And yet there was a haphazardness and desperation about the placement of the boxes—a managerial cry for help. The boxes overflowed, obscuring parts of the hallway.
Their destination was an office at the end of this miserable chain of bureaucracy. Certainly the choice of this location was a perverse statement by the Garde, although that message remained obscured to them. Slv&Elin believed they'd already devoted too much time trying to interpret, analyze, and predict their actions. The Garde's behavior, as they understood it, couldn't be perfectly, consistently meaningful. Some events must be meaningful by adjacency, actions left open for influence and interpretation. Utilizing an adversary's over-thinking was a powerful tool, they'd been taught this much. They believed the choice of location, a poorly run, overworked bureaucracy, wasn't a perfectly meaningful choice, but intended to let them create an internal narrative the Garde could exploit. Slv&Elin were familiar with behavioral redirection, of producing circumstances that facilitated eventual clarity, but they believed the Garde did exactly the opposite—improvising with anything available to produce haze and indecision in their prey.
Slv flipped the stone in her pocket over and over. The smoothness of it, it made some small mental noise, a popping, like a bubble bursting, over and over as she turned it. The world became saturated, going from one state to another, where edges jumped into prominence, then back to geometries of light and shade. Delineation was jogged. As she flipped the stone the changes to the world became a rhythm, one that lulled her nervousness into abstraction. Parts of the whole, she thought, I'm flipping the world end over end.
Given the incrementing office numbers, their destination was farther down the hall. They negotiated passage around the tall stacks of boxes, careful not to brush against them, worrying that they might tip over. When they arrived at the office, where they were to meet the Garde, they saw the door was cracked and the light was on. Pushing the door open, there was no one there. The number was correct, this is where they were told to meet. The office was small and depressing. There were no windows since they were far below ground. There were several chairs of different, municipal eras placed without thought.
Slv&Elin entered and sat down. Soon they heard approaching footsteps. The Garde entered the room without hesitation, already aware that Slv&Elin had arrived. He sat in a chair opposite them, arranging himself fluently to face them in an open and comfortable series of self-conscious adjustments.
"Here we are," the Garde said, "It's a pleasure to meet you, I've heard a lot about you. We really should've gotten together much sooner."
Initially not short or tall, not thin or fat, not ugly or handsome, the more Slv looked the more she realized she could see him. She flipped the stone. Flip. There was a face. There was a specific, notable physique. And the clothing, it was expensive but old. It was threadbare in one spot. He was a man in his early middle age, paunchy. She could characterize the build and appearance as a man who enjoyed expensive vices. She looked quickly over to Elin—was she also seeing the Garde uncamouflaged? Slv would normally be able to understand what Elin understood, by proclivity of minute telegraphing of thoughts through slight movement and vocal intonation. This had always been important during interviews. But Elin was concentrating intensely, Slv could tell nothing else. Maybe she was seeing him too.
"These kinds of meetings are not part of standard procedure," Elin stated.
There it is, Slv thought, she also sees him.
The Garde's face reacted with disappointment. The kind of frustration a child might show when you aren't playing their game properly. He had a face that was not used to being seen, and so it acted like it was animated by a series of strings glued badly to a skull.
"I had an interesting talk with your bookseller friend," said the Garde, tapping one knee impatiently and scowling. Slv flipped the stone, the world turned around, flip. They could dismiss any worry for Konrad, it wouldn't make sense for the Garde to be telling them this if he'd killed Konrad. Slv flipped the stone, the saturation of the room changed. The Garde continued, "Yes, he thinks highly of your abilities and integrity, but he worries about you, and this case of yours."
"Really? Worries?" Slv said.
"The case is very involved, isn't it? So many deeply invested interests, so many possible directions, but so little actual evidence. He thinks you may be in over your head—I mean, he clearly has confidence in you, but given his experience in these matters, I would have to agree with him, the bounds of your investigation have become, let's say, overextended." The Garde seemed to be glancing around the room, avoiding eye contact with them.
"There is nothing outside the bounds of our investigation, we are Inspectors. Our prerogative is to find out everything, nothing remains hidden, and no one can legally prevent us from doing this," Elin said. She said it completely without emotion, uttering fact.
"Yes, yes," The Garde said dismissively. "I've heard this before you know, this creed of the Inspectors. I'm sure it's true—but only to a point. There are no absolutes. Surely you must realize that." Then he smiled and looked at them, the smile was diluted and forced. "If you hadn't realized it, then why would you have reached out to meet me?"
"We understand the Garde have their own means and their own sources of information. We also understand you have an interest in the Master Compiler project that Ove ran," Elin said. Slv&Elin had spoken at length the night before about keeping this meeting focused—it would be the Garde's strategy to foster confusion and drift, to inject doubt and deterrence.
"We wanted to meet for several reasons. First, to make clear our intention of pursuing the case, to the Garde. So that there are no dangerous misunderstandings," said Elin.
"Second, to inquire if you have any relevant information about the disappearance of Ove and his assistant Jon," Slv added.
As she looked at him, noticing the pockmarks on his cheeks, the circles under his eyes, the receding hairline, she flipped the stone inside her coat pocket. She realized there was a discrepancy that might explain them being able to see him. There were three minds here, Slv and Elin and Slv&Elin—meetings with the Garde were typically one on one, and she wondered if the abilities of the Garde were limited, or anticipatory, to these circumstances. If that were true, what did it mean that the Garde subjected himself to possible recognition? Perhaps he wanted something very badly from them. She wondered what his masters, the Sovereigns, had said. How strenuously did the Sovereigns want resolution to the situation and what particular resolution did they prefer?
"I see," The Garde said, "So this is to be one of your interviews?" He exuded disdain.
"This isn't an interview. This isn't standard procedure," Elin said.
"We're willing to exchange information since our goals overlap. But we can't stop our investigation, and we can't accept interference with the investigation," said Slv.
"You let us finish the investigation and, afterward, you can continue as you have been, with your interests," said Elin.
"Oh?" The Garde seemed amused, interest aroused. "And what if I was the one who removed Ove? What then? Wouldn't you be obligated, by your rigid reliances on procedure, your love of absolutes, to arrest me?"
"We know we can't—or rather, it would be impractical to try. And that's beside the point—we're sure you didn't. We know you want Ove back, we know that he's crucial to your project, and the last thing you'd do is remove Ove," Slv said.
"I'm glad you're being sensible about this. That's true, we aren't responsible for his disappearance," the Garde said. "It isn't in our collective interest. I can speak for the Sovereigns in this matter. It is not in our interest to get into a pissing match with the Division. We've done it before, as I'm sure you've heard from your old bookseller friend. It wasn't productive. It wasn't profitable. However..." The Garde looked up then back down as if divining some verbal dictation from the air, surmising what techniques of manipulation might be attempted or fitting, "...if you make any moves to attack us, or implicate us, we will retaliate. We will retaliate with the power of the Sovereigns. We will not endure another circus with a Garde on trial. Ridiculous. Our fundamental requirement here is that this project is again operational. I admit, a lot of the technicalities of it is beyond me. And, I suspect, beyond you too. Not to belittle your abilities. But we're talking about specialists here. Incredibly advanced machinery and theories. But I think the direction is inarguable. We're talking about a project that may define the future. As much as you have a sworn duty to some notions of discovery and truth, we have a dedicated purpose to the profits of the Sovereigns. This is why we would rather conduct this investigation ourselves—because it is our property. Ove is our property. The Master Compiler is our property. The Director is our property. The laboratory is our property." The Garde punctuated his words with a set of raised, relatively bushy eyebrows, as if what he was saying was the most obvious, sensible thing in the world.
Elin said, "We're aware of these realities. We have to consider everything in the investigation."
"Anything you know about Ove, the disappearance of Ove and subsequently his assistant, will expedite our investigation and then you can return to managing your properties," Slv added.
"Any information you give us, we consider confidential. And we're willing to exchange information—given the special nature of the relationship between the Division and the Sovereigns," said Elin.
They remained neutral. They had an idea that he wanted to extract a reaction from them, that he would feed off this, and they wanted to starve him. The Garde paused, thinking, then let out a short awkward laugh. "I could swear we've met before. Perhaps it's your confidence and focus that reminds me of another time. It's refreshing. Believe me when I say that I trust your word, and your devotion, to your craft. Also believe me when I say that if the Garde agree to something, you can trust us to keep a contract. But we would only enter into a contract if we consider it worthwhile. The only thing that is worthwhile here, to us, is the resumption of the project. A project you have shut down."
Elin said, "We want to let the project continue as soon as possible. As soon as the investigation is complete."
"Do you believe Ove is still alive?" asked the Garde.
Slv&Elin looked at one another briefly. This was being played out with less complexity than they'd prepared for. The Garde, exposed, seemed to be falling into a discursive path they found predictable. This assured them their approach was correct. Perhaps there was a game underneath the game, but for the moment they didn't want to react. Slv flipped the stone. There was a point, a moment when you understood the way in which a path would unfold, with almost total assurance, that everything was in place, the known things were known, the unknown things were defined, the scope of the interview was a finite event you could grasp. New possibilities would be illuminating.
"To give you a piece of information, we would need a piece of information in return," Slv said.
"I see. So, a contract. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But—to reiterate this point—you've agreed to not pursue conviction of any Garde, and you've agreed to let us manage our property as we see fit after the investigation—is that right?"
"Yes, that's right," Slv said.
"That's what we agree to," said Elin.
"You have our word," said Slv&Elin.
"And you have my word. The word of the Garde. So, is Ove alive?"
"No. Although there's no body, we are certain Ove is dead," Elin said.
"How can you be so certain?" the Garde asked.
"A few reasons."
"First, the glasses."
"Ove had two pair of glasses. One pair was at his home. The other pair at his office in the laboratory. If he'd simply left, because of some financial pressure, a romantic affair, or stress, it's inconceivable he would've neglected his glasses given he's a scientist and not a young man. He had bad eyesight. If he were leaving the city by train, for instance, he'd need his glasses at the station, he'd need them for his ticket, he'd need them to read the paper. If he did go somewhere else without them one of the first things he'd do is have new glasses made. That hasn't happened. We checked. We were thorough."
"I'm sure," the Garde said.
"Second. His last known location."
"He signed into his laboratory at the front desk, as usual. However, he never signed out. Our inspection found no signs of a struggle or forced doors. While the security staff weren't perfect, we could reasonably discount conspiracy or collusion. These things, spread across many people, would require coordinated narratives and vigilance about keeping a story integral. The staff was much too lazy and disinterested for this level of engagement. The obvious conclusion is that there was a flaw in the security plan or procedure that allowed Ove out of the building. But who could coerce him out of his laboratory, without a struggle, without his glasses? Someone he must've known. And promising a short absence from his work. This leads to our first suspect, the Director."
"In routine surveillance of the Director we noted a visit—and we can extrapolate previous visits due to fuel records—to the Estate."
"While we might have discounted the Director, particularly due to lack of motive, this highly unusual honor, of being allowed to personally visit the estate of a Sovereign, renewed our interest in the Director, and frankly, brought us to you."
The Garde was grinning wearily. "I see. Yes, as I've said before, the project is important. And so the Director has been allowed into the Estate. But, I wonder, what about the possibility Ove was kidnapped, without a body you can't declare him deceased."
"We are allowed this power, we may declare it if we think it is certain and efficacious," Elin stated.
Slv added, "We're certain but not absolutely certain. Another reason we're talking to you. If there were any other information we're not aware of, it could change this assessment."
Elin said, "As far as kidnapping, there haven't been any demands, no contact, no other indications that this has happened—especially as time has gone on. So we have eliminated it."
The Garde shrugged. "Your methods are more rigorous than mine I suppose. Our realities might overlap, but mine isn't driven by worshiping truth, or the idea of truth like yours. We understand that the only predictable things in the world are people's capacity for lies and evasion, their greed, and their fear." The Garde sat back, relaxing a little, saying, "Are there any other suspects? What about Compiler Hedvin, surely he must be a consideration."
"Ah yes, Compiler Hedvin. But, as per our agreement, quid pro quo," Elin said.
So the Garde was aware of Hedvin. This was important.
"Fair enough." The Garde grinned again, but widely and with obvious pleasure. "What I know, which you don't know, is that Ove was a drug addict."
"Drug addict? What kind of drug?" Slv asked.
"You've never heard of it," the Garde said, "it's called Vermilion."
"How long was he addicted?"
"What are the effects?"
"Months, at least. It produces a profound sense of clarity. And of connectedness, I guess you'd say. Ideal for a scientist," the Garde said.
"Where did he get this drug?"
The Garde replied, "Ah, now. Quid pro quo, as you proposed. I'm no Inspector, but I'm guessing the information I just gave you might make a few things fit together." The Garde winked, in earnest.
"It might be helpful," Slv&Elin said.
Elin said, "Compiler Hedvin is a suspect, but only in some ancillary sense. His arguments with Ove were vitriolic. We know he's a radical who's involved with a dissident group inside the Cyclopaedia."
"He's hiding something from us, he has some involvement, but we don't believe he's directly responsible for Ove's death," said Slv.
"Did Compiler Hedvin supply Ove with this drug?" Slv&Elin asked.
"Yes," The Garde said, nodding.
"Do you consider this drug your property as well?" Slv asked.
The Garde guffawed. "I'm afraid we've become a bit lopsided in our agreement, our quid pro quo. It's extremely important to follow contracts as they've been agreed upon." The Garde stood, pulling his waistcoat down over his slightly protruding belly. "I believe we've reached the end of our session. It's been fruitful, however, well worth the time," he said.
"One more. You can ask anything in exchange," Slv said, immediately regretting the hastiness and openness of her offer.
The Garde sighed in a forced, dramatic manner. "Alright," he said.
"Where does the drug come from, who supplies it? We have no intention of interrupting your interests in this specific commerce, but how did Compiler Hedvin end up distributing it?"
He sat back down, but on the edge of the seat, hands on his knees. "Effectively Hedvin is the source, believe it or not. Hard to understand how he came upon such a thing, he obtains the drug from some primitive tribe up north. I don't know where. Eventually we'll know, but at the moment, at this scale, it's not that important. New business, new venture. See, one of the differences between us is that we, as an organization, always think in very long terms. I don't need to tell you that, I'm sure you've realized that through your research and informants. We both have our informants." The glare of the Garde was unsettling. "Of course Hedvin is temporary. You must see this too. He believes in revolutions, he believes in the individual, he's an idealist. He believes in the ideology of the Cyclopaedia instead of the business of the Cyclopaedia. You and I are different—but I'll bet we can see the same things there, in Hedvin, the same impressionability, the same qualities found in his antique Compiler brethren. The drug comes from the Compilers. For now. It comes from their sense of oath, their ideas of a collective heroic story... I can't claim to understand it. All in good time. But Hedvin, he's your source, inevitably. And now, as we agreed, I get the final question."
"As we've agreed, yes," said Elin.
"What's it like being paired?" The Garde asked.
"Excuse me?" replied Slv.
The Garde said, "It's fascinating, the training regimen of Inspectors. And those who are paired, I hear, are particularly valuable."
"I don't see how–"
"–how this is relevant to the matter at hand."
"It is precisely relevant. Precisely. You have certain skills, and advantages. They are used in this case," the Garde said, "Regardless, our contract. Quid pro quo."
This wasn't the first time Slv&Elin had been asked this question, but it was rare, and considered intrusive or impolite. And coming from the Garde it was, in a way, juvenile. He must not want any more information about the case, they thought, he's come to conclusions and now just satisfies his personal curiosity. Or he was concluding the meeting by trying to make them uncomfortable. They felt obligated, but they refused to be made to feel uncomfortable.
"The academy collects rigorous, expansive profiles," Slv said.
"They attempt to find overlaps and matches for possible candidates," said Elin.
"Finding an actual match is relatively uncommon. Their criteria is quite strict."
"And those that are matched don't necessarily pair."
"You can't know until a year into training whether pairing will work."
"It's not like we're one person, as some have poorly presumed–"
"–it's more like the combination of the two of us makes up a third person, one that we have to work to maintain."
"The advantages are combined intelligence, a confirmation of observations by the two of us for the third."
"Where some people might find statistical thinking awkward or unnatural, it has become an intuitive ability for us, or it."
"And the disadvantages?" asked the Garde.
"Quid pro quo," Slv said. She allowed herself a slight grin.
The Garde was briefly disappointed, saying, "Ah, well, there we have it. It's best to conclude here. Fascinating however." The Garde stood. "Since expediency of the investigation is the primary concern, I will leave this more efficient means of contact with you in case you need to get in touch with me. Perhaps we can repeat our little game."
The Garde took a small card from his vest pocket and placed it on the desk next to himself.
Slv&Elin also stood, taking note of every aspect of him, as he turned slightly to put the card on the desk, they noticed every angle of his face, its marks and folds, creases and pattern of neatly shaved beard. What they hadn't told the Garde was that they could see him, and that one of the advantages of being paired was acute visual memory. Out of a crowd of a thousand people, even a million, they would recognize him—they would know him instantly, and the word of officially paired Inspectors on this account could never be doubted. They didn't know if a Garde had ever been identified like this before. It was an asset they intended to keep quietly.