Abnormality #1: Beepers
by Tom Lichtenberg
Dillon Sharif had plenty of time. As the 29 year old grandson and sole heir of billionaire global data collector, Wilkins Sharif, he had few matters more pressing than trimming his slight movie-star mustache and admiring his angular good looks in his grandmother’s oracular gold mirror, yet he never knew boredom. Ever since he’d posted that viral video depicting the unlikely correlations between hat styles, virility, and lucky numbers for women, he’d been more and more deluged with requests from people all over the world entreating him to solve the most peculiar and abnormal occurrences. Evidently everyone believed that if Dillon didn’t already know the answer then at least he had the information and the intuition to come up with it. He enjoyed these little games, which sometimes turned more serious, even dangerously so, than originally expected.
Most mornings he looked forward to sorting through the requests which arrived in bulk, though lately the volume was becoming unweildy. He would go through them in the same order every time; first the physical notes, beginning with the postcards, then the international envelopes, and then the regular domestic mail. After those he would proceed to the digital variety, beginning with instant messages sent to his phone, then the emails to his personal address, and finally those sent to the address he had specifically designated for just this purpose and prominently advertised as such. He would shake his head over his morning juice at the absurdly high percentage of requests which expressly ignored his stated delivery preference, but he glanced through them all just the same. Just the same, every day, with his glass of orange juice, his cup of half-caf skinny flat white, his toasted raisin bagel and a tiny wicker basket full of fresh picked blueberries. There was not much point to being a billionaire, he reasoned, if one could not have fresh picked blueberries every morning.
An even more ridiculously high percentage of requests betrayed an acute awareness of his pecuniary status within the first few phrases. Dillon was constantly treading through minefields of more or less well-camouflaged gold diggers, who were often quite creative in their attempts to lure his attention. Of course they all knew, as everybody knew, that he was quite happily situated as one of the several famous lovers of that polyamorous whirlwind, the actress and provocateur Karen Clyde. She was his little rich boy, and he didn’t really mind. She was more than enough woman for Dillon, who would rather splash about in muddy puddles of data than hit the night scenes or over-indulge his scrupulously well-maintained physique. And Lord only knew that no one man could ever be enough for Karen, whose collection was sorted and aligned according to her personal catalog of types. If Dillon was her North pole, than her South was Joey Mangiamo, a first rate Fiat mechanic and genuine proletariat. To the East would be Jasper Coleridge, the part-time celebrity chef and full-time hipster accountant. Finally, the West was largely occupied, and “largely” indeed, by the reigning heavyweight wrestling champion of the world, Vitaly Fleschko. Nevertheless, women and girls, men and boys from all over tried every day to ensnare Dillon Sharif and his billions.
Dillon lived befittingly in a luxury penthouse apartment overlooking the great tech capital city of San Francisco. He lived alone, with his fat gray cat Dolores and his tropical tank of unusual crustaceans. He only used half of the apartment; the living room, kitchen, balcony and one master bedroom. The other three bedrooms and a designated family room were permanently locked, shuttered and abandoned. He rarely entertained, and never had overnight guests. His private elevator was reserved for his use alone; only he and his right-hand woman had the key, and he never shared it with anyone else. He had always valued seclusion, from his time as a child growing up on his grandfather’s island, the only child of parents he had never known, raised by an eccentric pair of geniuses who had by ingenious mechanisms managed to procure the perpetual and indelible rights to all of the information ever to be produced by anyone who existed on this planet, or any other planet for that matter, although this latter fact was buried so deep in the small print that Dillon might have been the only other person who knew of it.
Wilkins Sharif, a Turkish-Egyptian prince, and his equally mad wife, Japanese-Maori punk royalty Kintara Soh, had embarked on their respective careers as corporate attorneys, hooked up during a hostile takeover involving most of Madagascar, some of Sri Lanka and all of Mozambique, subsequently worked their way into the sacred heights of data storage and founded the powerful AllDat Corporation. From infancy, Dillon had accompanied them on their singular quest to amass every bit, every byte, every syllable, every word, every letter ever penned or etched or typed or whispered or spoken or heard or transcribed. It wasn’t actually that hard, and the three of them spent many enjoyable evenings on their tropical beach-front patio examining this or that utterance, one or another phrase, certain cellular facts and amazing discoveries. They were a highly relational family, able to associate the most disparate items into utterly remarkable correlations. Wilkins delighted at his grandson’s talent for selecting, querying and joining the most unexpected columns and tables, so he was the least surprised of all at Dillon’s amazing discovery involving caps, sperm, and lottery winners. It was Wilkins who produced the video that took the world by storm, and Kintara who set about advertising her grandson’s willingness to help any member of the public at large who had a seemingly insoluble or inexplicable issue.
Dillon still spoke with his grandparents daily, though they stubbornly clung to the warmth of their equatorial home while he chose to reside in the midst of the common thoroughfare, a city boy despite his own intense self-imposed isolation. Kintara had the habit of glaringly disapproving of his wardrobe each morning when he called to greet her. Wilkins always wanted to know if any interesting cases had come up, and if they had, well by gum young Dillon had better bring him in on it. Wilkins would rub his hands together in excited anticipation of the possible marvels they might have to grapple with. He loved a puzzle, and Dillon liked to humor the old man, who also had a sharp eye for the adventurers who were only after his prize heir.
“What do we have today, boy?” was how the old man began every call.
“Nothing much, pops,” Dillon all too often had to reply. The truth was that interesting cases were few and far between, despite the dozens, even hundreds of requests that came hiswayevery day. The sort of things that people considered extraordinary were astonishingly not, and were all too often repeated. There was the man whose morning commute led him to miss every single streetlight every day. There had to be a cosmic explanation! There was the case of the girl who was unable to hold a quarter in her hand for more than thirty seconds. Somehow it would always fall out! There was the woman who had never been able to see a New Moon, the man who couldn’t keep a job, the old lady who was unable to turn a photograph into a memory. So many sad stories, but so few that Dillon could effectively help. He could only act on problems that contained multiple variables, and most people’s consisted of only one, or at most a couple. Such issues were merely continuums, where all that was needed was an adjustment of ratios.
“Surely there must be something,” Wilkins scowled into the webcam. “You received seventeen postcards, nine international envelopes, asixty three domestic letters, ninety seven instant messages, a hundred and six personal emails and three hundred eighty nine AllDat Corporation notifications!”
“You need a secretary!” his grandmother said. “Didn’t I already tell you to get one?”
“Yes, ma’am Yes, sir” Dillon nodded, “but for all that, there was only one item of possible interest this morning, and that only because it reminded me of another one I got two days ago.”
“And what was that?” Wilkins grunted impatiently and tapped his fingers on his shiny obsidian desktop,
“Something going beep in the night,” Dillon replied, searching for the email he was sure he’d filtered into the Possible Box. It wasn’t there, so he had to search through the ProbablyNot’s and the Definite’s and the No’s before he found it in the WTFs Box. He wondered how it had ended up in there. Had he really found it WTF-worthy?.
“Well?” Wilkins demanded. He had not become one of the richest and most powerful people on Earth by patiently waiting for the information he desired.
“Here it is,” Dillon stalled, glancing again at the contents. “I mean, it’s probably nothing, but anyway, listen. Dear Mister Sharif. I know you get a lot of dumb stuff and this is going to sound like another one but every night for the past eleven nights I have been awokened (that’s what it says, awokened) by the dim sound of something beeping inside of my house. At first I thought it was a truck in the alley backing up but quietly sort of but I looked out the window and there was no truck and anyway the beeping was not coming from that direction but from the other direction, like from the kitchen or the hallway. So I went and I looked and I mean I really really looked and I did this every night and nothing. I did not find anything making that noise, that beeping every nine or ten seconds kind of like this: beep beep beep beep beep. And it does it every night for exactly more or less twenty two minutes.”
“Does this person not understand that the word ‘exactly’ does not have the same meaning as the phrase ‘more or less’?” Dillon’s grandfather mumbled.
“Exactly!” Dillon said, “I knew you’d see that right away. It’s the twenty two minutes that’s the interesting part.”
“It is?” Wilkins asked.
“Are you really going to wear that shirt again?” his grandmother scolded beforeshe wandered off to grab another glass of Kool-aid.
“Yes,” Dillon answered them both with a word. “You see here, the other day I got a message from a forty four year old woman in Boston with exactly the same issue. Beeping, but not loud, with no discernible source, in the middle of the night, lasting twenty two minutes.”
“Both from Boston you say?” Wilkins mused. “I knew this man from Boston once. He had an especially unsavory interest in horse meat.”
“The other one was from Boston. Today’s came from Austin, Texas,” Dillon said.
“So what do you think?” he asked. “Do you think it’s anything?”
“No,” his grandfather declared, “but we’ve been in a dry spell lately. I hope it’s not a trap, though. They’d probably want you to spend the night, and you know how they try to trick you that way.”
“This boy’s only twelve,” Dillon said, “and the Boston lady seemed sincerely puzzled.”
“Well, do what you want,” Wilkins said, “only if it was me I’d wait for a third.”
Dillon agreed, and spent the rest of the day lounging around his apartment, reading books from the Southern Hemisphere, watching movies made in 1977, and shopping online for dark glass dessert plates with concentric rings in blue and gold colors unevenly distributed. In the evening, Karen Clyde called and he didn’t answer. He needed to be working on a case to get his libido going. It was a definite thing with him. The current dry spell had lasted for more than two weeks already, and his energies were at a low ebb. His only thought, while the phone was ringing, was “let her go wrestle.”
The next morning brought relief in the form of a third and definitive beeper dilemma. This one came from a middle aged man in Brooklyn, New York. The man was used to noises, he said. He knew them all, but this one was driving him crazy. Was it all in his mind? He’d thought so at first, but then he’d enlisted a friend to come and stay the night, and the friend could vouch for his sanity. The beeping was real, and it was coming from nowhere. There was nothing in the walls and nothing in the floors, and he could say that for certain, having built the whole place by hand by himself and having lived there for more than twenty years.
“Here we go!” Dillon told his grandparents. “We got us a live one!”
The next order of business was physical. Dillon kept his elliptical machine on the balcony and spent precisely one hour every morning performing his workout. He also used that time to dictate important business correspondence to his personal robot spider, which double-checked his grammar and corrected his vocabulary to make sure everything sounded as professional as possible. The spider also dispatched these messages in the appropriate formats to their proper destinations. To the boy in Texas Dillon requested that, if possible, he leave a Triscuit cracker somewhere near the spot where the beeping seemed to emanate from. A plain Triscuit was best, but a Rosemary Olive Oil flavored one was also acceptable in this instance. He also notified his acceptance of the case to the woman in Boston and asked her to place an empty truck-stop matchbook somewhere near the source of her own mysterious beeping. Also, if it were not too much trouble, to write, on the inside top flap of said matchbook, the words “tremulous quaking”.
Dillon liked to work up a sweat during this regime, and after showering and starting up the laundry (he insisted on washing, drying and folding his own attire), he carefully inspected his current wardrobe. He had a subscription to Wearabulous Inc., the monthly fashion delivery service, which rotated his clothing on a regular basis. He was picky about what he wore. If it were up to his grandmother, he’d go around in nothing but vintage torn punk rock t-shirts, cut-off jeans and sandals (she was also continually presenting him with original ideas for butt tattoos, which he had so far successfully resisted), but Dillon preferred an East Coast metropolitan style, contemporary business formal, nothing too colorful but well-cut, sleek and suave. He could easily spend up to a half an hour selecting an outfit and admiring himself in it. This day he was eager to get going, though, and kept it down to twenty minutes. He calculated a fairly long day ahead.
First he had to contact his personal transport system, his right hand woman, the spectacularly efficient Commander Bethany Rush. Ms. Rush had been acting in this capacity for several years, from even before the first time he had celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday. She lived in the building, one floor below, and as his driver and pilot had only to be available at any moment, day or night. Otherwise her extravagantly well-paid position gave her unlimited freedom and opportunity. Commander Rush was short and round, with a head and haircut to match, and the two made a comical appearance together. They would have fit that classical stereotype summed up in the children’s rhyme “Fatty and Skinny went to bed. Fatty rolled over and Skinny was dead” were it not for the fact that they did not have that sort of arrangement.
Dillon never inquired into the Commander’s personal life. He had no idea whom she might have gone to bed with, or the consequences of her potential rolling over. Despite her shape, Commander Rush was strong and fit enough for any occasion. She was infallibly loyal, perfectly discrete, and kept her own abundant eccentricities to herself. She was also as blunt an instrument as could be desired. Her most frequently uttered phrase was “Yes, sir”. She refused to utilize the inverse under any circumstances.
Dillon kept a small fleet of unassuming vehicles in the building’s underground garage, and it was always the Commander’s choice which one would be selected. She preferred electric or fuel cell vehicles whenever possible, and Dillon enjoyed the quiet smooth ride to the airport, where the Commander left the car with a valet and proceeded to lead her boss to his personal aircraft, which she flew with the same calm confidence and skill. The flight across the country to the borough of Brooklyn was accomplished in as little time as possible. Dillon, as was his habit, kept himself occupied by studying diverse unsuspected connections between the most remotely flung data points. That particular day he realized that the distance navigated by harbor seals between mating seasons was equal in proportion to the blossoming cycle of three-year-old cherry trees divided by the size of the cache maintained by temporary eRAT system files when sorted by date. He never knew when that sort of insight might come in handy.
Commander Rush kept her eyes on the skies while she piloted the small craft and arranged for transport on the ground upon arrival. Their destination would be well within range of a virus-battery powered car, but she couldn’t be certain of the mileage her boss might accrue during this assignment, so she opted for a hybrid with a diesel modification. She had a mind for such specifics, but refrained from voicing any curiosity about the details of his missions. She only required to know the minimum needed. Too much information could only interfere with the smooth operation of her will. Her philosophy was the opposite of Dillon’s, for whom there could never be TMI. The Commander’s brain stored mainly dates and times, locations and durations so that her boss didn’t have to if he didn’t want to. 1218 Pewanee Avenue meant nothing to him, but Bethany Rush had already plotted the route and visualized the drive long before landing the plane and picking up the car. Although she hadn’t been summoned until ten in the morning, she had taken him across the nation and right to the door of the beeping house by four seventeen in the afternoon.
She also served as his personal security squad, and so she left him in the vehicle while she verified the identity of the inhabitant and thoroughly checked out the habitation. In the meantime, Dillon selected an appropriate hat for the occasion. He had brought several, each one with a potentially critical role to play. It was important to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Dillon’s appearance had become quite well-known and he was easily and often spotted in public unless he was wearing the proper hat. He was in prime sports-fancountry now, where people identified way too strongly with teams both local and remote. Any kind of professional logo would draw scrutiny, yet at the same time anything other than a baseball-style cap would also bring unwelcome attention. He chose a light gray, worn and frayed cap with the insignia of a plumbing company half rubbed off the front. This would provide him with enough of a manliness quotient to ward off potential homophobes, yet not nearly enough to evoke a second glance from any self-respecting New York City female.
He emerged from the vehicle on cue from the Commander, and found his hat selection irrelevant for the moment, as there was no one else on the street at that moment. He was able to walk to the door completely unnoticed by anyone but Mr. Harley White, the owner of the house and hearer of the beeping. Mr. White was in his fifties, with more gray in his short wiry hair than his amount of years would suggest. He had a definite paunch of which Dillon couldn’t help but disapprove, though he felt uncomfortably like his own grandmother at such moments. It was as if he were looking at the man through her eyes. The man was smiling but formally, not with any genuine emotion behind it.
“Please come in, sir,” he said, glancing at the Commander to make sure she noticed how he’d followed her explicit instructions not to mention Dillon’s name out loud. Dillon entered the small, brick house and immediately began taking mental notes of its contents. He observed the good condition of the wallpaper, the neat linear arrangement of brass-framed photographs hung along the hallway, the solid appearance of the floorboards, the cleanliness and order of each room as he inspected every one.
“Your house is well-maintained,” he informed Mr. White, who nodded with pleasure.
“I do everything myself,” he beamed.
“Excellent woodwork,” Dillon said, running a finger along the edge of the fine dining room table. “I would think that you also hand-crafted this.”
“Yes, sir, I did,” Mr. White said. “How did you know?”
“You are present in all the details,” Dillon told him. “Besides, I see that you were once an accomplished semi-pro ball player.”
“Not good enough,” Mr. White replied, confused as to how that even connected to the subject of carpentry.
“Good enough to turn your own bats,” Dillon remarked, gesturing at a photograph above the kitchen stove.
“Those were the days,” Mr. White said.
“Where can we stay?” Dillon asked. “I’d like to be as close as possible to the source, which I believe to be in the main hallway if I’m not completely mistaken.”
“Yes, sir, it’s been right by the door to the TV room, pretty much right over here,” Mr. White pointed at a spot in the molding.
“Then I’ll stay in the TV room,” Dillon said, and gestured at the Commander, who immediately undertook another inspection to determine the bedding requirements. In moments she was on the phone ordering special equipment, ignoring Mr. White’s comments that the sofabed already in there could fold out nicely and was actually quite comfortable.
“Thank you, Mr. White,” Dillon added. “Is there somewhere else you can go?”
“Yes, I’d like to have the place to myself if that’s all right with you. I’d prefer no distractions, no external variables.”
“Um, okay, I guess so,” Mr. White paused to consider. “I can stay with my sister, I suppose.”
“We don’t need to know where you are,” the Commander informed him. “Just go, now if you please.”
Dillon remained standing in the hallway while Mr. White packed up a valise and left as quickly as he could. Shortly thereafter a panel truck arrived with a feather down queen size bed which the workers installed in the TV room, hauling away the sofabed and the lazy boy chair which was also in the way. Commander Rush supervised these events while Dillon made tea in the kitchen and held a brief conversation with his tablet.
“Now, then,” he said to his assistant, after the moving was done, “where would you like to sleep?”
“Shall I take the bedroom upstairs?”
“Whatever you like. We’ll be free until late. You can go out if you like.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll stay here with you. Perhaps there is something good on TV?”
“That would be new,” he remarked. “But no, let’s watch something bad.”
They ordered takeout Chinese and chose a crummy old Western followed by a horrifying American vocal talent show. After that, a bit of the ever-alarming local news broadcast, and then finally it was time for bed.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” Dillon muttered, as he settled into the soft cozy mattress for what he hoped would be an interesting night.
He had barely snuggled beneath the vintage Amish quilt when the phone rang.
“I’m in New York,” he answered bluntly.
“Ooh,” Karen Clyde cooed on the other end, “does that mean the dry spell is over?”
“I don’t know yet,” he replied. “It could be nothing. What does the number twenty-two mean to you?”
“Um, let me think,”she said, and then after a pause added, “it’s how old I was when I married my first husband.”
“Anything else come to mind?”
“It’s a kind of gun, isn’t it? As in ‘I blasted him with my 22’?”
“That’s more the caliber bullet, I think,” Dillon said, “and anyway, you can’t really ‘blast’ anything with a 22.”
“Oh,” she sighed, “Well, I suppose there must be some kind of decent Bible verse with that number, isn’t there? A Bible verse always comes in handy.”
“Hmm,” he said, “maybe. Sure. There’s chapter 22 in Genesis where God tells Abraham to kill his beloved child.”
“Yeah, one of my faves,” Karen chuckled. “So, when can I pencil you in?”
“Like I said, I don’t know yet,” he told her. “I should know more in the morning. Where are you now?”
“I’m at Joey’s.”
“Okay then, tell the big lug …”
“Tell him what?”
“Dang, I don’t know. I thought I had a good quip but I‘ve got nothing.”
“All right, I’ll tell him that.”
“No!” he said, but she’d already hung up the line. Darn it, he thought, I can never come up with a good quip when I want to.
He was always trying, though. He felt it would be appropriate to make some decent light banter with all of Karen’s other guys, to sort of cement the fellowship as it were. There had to be an etiquette where that kind of thing was settled, an Emily Post-type Guide to Polyamory Comraderie. He searched in his mind for references and even asked his tablet but all he came up with were anecdotal blog posts and comments. That’s a job waiting for someone to do, he thought. There was money to be made. Of course, he shrugged, there’s always money to be made.
The house was abnormally quiet. Dillon and the Commander had scoured the place for any source of noise, disconnecting all the clocks and lamps and everything else plugged in, even the refrigerator. The Commander was ensconced in the upstairs room and making sure to be ultra quiet, while Dillon snoozed lightly in comfort and style. The only sounds came from the occasional car passing by, and once a raccoon clattered a garbage can lid in the backyard. Bethany briefly considered gunning it down but decided not to add more noise to the noise. She silently wished she had brought along her crossbow.
And then she heard it. Dillon heard it too. A definite beeping at a 1000 Hz pure tone, not loud, perhaps around 30 decibels, like a whisper in the night. Dillon sprang to his feet and stepped into the hallway. There was no doubt about it. Every nine or ten seconds, there it was. He checked his watch to make sure of the starting time. He crept towards the apparent source of the sound, which was right where Mr. White had said it was. Dillon knelt and put his ear to the molding just above the floorboards, and listened. Mr White had recently torn out the molding and the drywall behind it, but then restored it all after conclusively proving there was nothing that could beep inside of there. And now that Dillon could hear for himself, it became clear that the sound did not come from behind the molding at all, but from somewhere in the air just an inch or so in front of it.
He cupped his hands around that spot and when the beeping beeped again, he thought he could feel a slight vibration in his palms. He glanced up to see the Commander standing nearby, firearm at the ready. He motioned for her to stand down and return to bed. Then he closed his hands more tightly around the spot, and gradually narrowed his grasp until he was practically holding the beep in his hands. The vibrations were definite and carried across his skin up to his elbows before fading out. Whatever it was obeyed the gravitational laws of this world.
Dillon pulled his hands away and dashed into the TV room, emerging moments later with a penlight and a high-powered hand-held magnifying glass, capable of up to nine hundred thousand times resolution. On his hands and knees he shone the light and magnified to the max, but there he could visually detect no abnormalities in the particles floating in the midnight dust. Fortunately, the glass could also record, so he filmed the space for more careful scrutiny at a later time. If the source of the noise was detectable by modern science, he would have a decent chance to do so. But all of this took time, and before his inspection was as complete as he would have preferred, twenty two minutes had elapsed, and the beeping ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Dillon was left with his audio and video files, a pair of sore knees, and a genuine headache from observing so little so closely.
He slept soundly the rest of the night, and only arose when the garbage trucks hit the rounds around nine o’clock in the morning. He found the Commander in the kitchen, drinking coffee and holding up a large folded paper thing that turned out to contain the morning news.
“I found it on the front steps,” she informed him. “I suppose he gets one every day.”
“Fascinating,” Dillon replied. “Is there anything of interest in it?”
“Possibly,” she said, “if you’re in the market for a used car. There seem to be a lot of those available at low, low prices.”
She gathered up the paper by its corners and tried putting it back together, but soon gave up and dumped the thing in a heap on the table, revealing that she’d been using it to hide a surprise.
“Orange juice, half-caf skinny flat white, raisin toast (they didn’t have bagels , sir, but I’m told this toast is quite the thing the thing these days – it’s supposedly hand-made) and fresh hand-picked blueberries, sir,” she announced with a grin.
Dillon clasped his hands together with pleasure and smiled.
“I don’t know how you do it, Commander. I really don’t know. Hand-made toast! Who knew?”
“It’s called effort, sir,” she said. “One tries and one does.”
“You certainly do,” he agreed, settling down to enjoy his breakfast. “We’ll be going to Boston today. No particular hurry.”
The Commander nodded and said,
“Yes, sir,” and immediately set about accomplishing a raft of chores, making calls and arranging things. Everything was ready by the time he’d finished eating, showering and selecting his wardrobe. For the day at hand he made several stylistic sacrifices, opting for blue jeans, flannel shirt, leather bomber jacket and bright orange running shoes. He had a definite hat in mind – practically anything with a ‘B’ on it would suffice – but set that aside for later.
They were gone before Mr. White returned to find his house restored to normal, all furniture replaced and no trace of his visitors remaining, except for the note Dillon left on the kitchen table, which read, “Dear Mr. White. Thank you for your hospitality. It is very much appreciated. Rest assured that your case is well in hand and I will contact you again shortly. In the meantime, please let me know if any characteristic of the beeping undergoes any transformation whatever. I would especially be interested in changes in volume, pitch, interval and/or overall duration. Thanks again. Your guest, Dillon Sharif.”
The Commander handled all the various issues of traffic congestion and airport delays. Such matters remained completely opaque to her passenger, who was absorbed the entire time in queries and formulations. He reviewed the overnight video several times, frequently in slow motion and stop action mode. There was something about the hyper visualization of air and dust molecules that was particularly entrancing. It was as if he were being plunged into a different universe entirely, one in which random chaos made absolute sense, in which uncertainty seemed rational and motion the only measure of value, and everything moved, constantly and continually, whether in some sort of order or no kind at all. Particles were here and then there, they danced with one another, attracted and repulsed, spun and leaped and twirled like spastic ballerinas. There was a rhythm to it, and that rhythm was defined by heat. When the action was too close and too intense, Dillon zoomed it out and slowed it down and saw a bigger picture, and as he kept zooming out incrementally, all sorts of patterns came into view until at a certain point that very real world of the essence of things vanished entirely and he was left with floorboards, molding and wallpaper, that layer of human visibility which concealed the true nature of things in exchange for simple, basic sanity.
“In the city, you cannot tell what ought to be,” his grandmother cryptically informed him as they chatted during the flight. They had also watched the video by then, Kintara seemingly more curious than Wilkins.
“What do you mean?” Dillon asked, puzzled.
“All the machinery interferes,” she explained. “Think of all the man-made gadgets and equipment going on buzzing all the time, at a whole wide range of frequencies. If you can hear it it’s because of the vibrations in the air they cause, and there’s more you cannot hear above and below our limited range. All of it moves the air about, all of it shifts and jostles and juggles and disturbs. Even in the countryside these days there’s no getting away from it. High-powered electric lines, tractors and mowers, dams and can-openers and cellphones and light bulbs even, all of it kicking the sky and all its particles.”
“Hmm,” Dillon considered, “so you’re saying there’s no way to detect any abnormality in the field around the beeping?”
“Too many variables,” Kintara nodded, “and no possible baseline for comparison.”
“Besides,” Wilkins put in, “who‘s to say it’s that localized?”
“Yes, I was considering that,” Dillon replied. “It could well be a displacement effect. In that case, there would be a lot of math involved. Reflections, resonance, materials, surfaces, quotients, all that sort of thing.”
“Acoustics is a bitch,” Wilkins agreed.
‘Don’t get too lost in the details, dear,” Kintara advised before signing off. “Think big picture too.”
Dillon didn’t notice the big picture until he found himself being driven in a small electric car through the streets of some part of the city of Boston he’d never seen before. Here all the buildings were brick and tightly packed together, three or four stories high with nothing to tell them apart except for the different curtains in the windows. It seemed to go on for miles, these warehouses full of humans and their dramas, some of which were being played out on the streets, in and around the cars piled close on curbs and sidewalks and corners. The people had run out of room to put their stuff and it was spilling out all over the place. He nodded as the Commander slowed to a halt, and he placed his Boston Bruins hockey team cap upon his head.
The Commander had found nowhere to park and expressed concern about Dillon’s safety, but he felt certain that he’d be fine. He’d slip out of the car and into the building with no one even noticing his existence, thanks to the hat and the magic of how clothes make the man. He was right. The Commander could join him later, he said, and he made his way without incident to the second floor apartment in which lived Bermuda Hills, the forty four year old resident of bean town who had heard the beeping in the night.
She was home, as per the Commander’s request. Normally at this hour she would be volunteering at the community center down the street, where she helped little kids learn how to play kickball without biting one another. In the mornings, she cleaned houses. In the evenings, she cooked meals. At night, she often babysat. It was one odd job or another, and her schedule was never entirely secure from one week to the next, but it got her through the month, the rent was paid and food could be obtained. Certainly her late husband’s paltry military benefits were not able to suffice. Dillon did not appreciate the smell of the halls, and was already anticipating an extra quick visit, but was surprised when Bermuda opened the door and warmly invited him inside. It wasn’t just her calm and friendly manner that filled him with an unexpected warmth.
There was a restfulness and beauty about the whole apartment. The walls were filled with paintings of wildflowers done in all sorts of styles and colors, and hung about haphazardly rather than the straight lines which had characterized Mr. White’s collection. Bermuda’s home had orange and yellow painted floors, blue and green walls and all kinds of colors everywhere. Her small kitchen table was stained glass, with three round wrought iron chairs gathered around it. The one bedroom was barely large enough for the double bed it contained, but the comforter which covered it somehow made the size seem absolutely right. There was only one window he could see, behind the kitchen, facing an endless set of brick buildings identical to the one they were currently inside of, but at least there were pretty curtains set about it, a light blue cloth depicting children in black outline flying kites and jumping into waves.
“Can I offer you anything?” Bermuda asked, as she guided him to a seat at the table. Dillon shook his head, but relented when she mentioned coffee. He had intended only to ask her to point out the location of the beeping, but as she sat across from him he remembered his other plan, and thought again that he might have been correct in his initial hunch about her.
“Do you have the matchbook?”
“Right here,” she replied, and handed it to him. As he had requested, she had removed all the matches, and written the phrase “tremulous quaking” in a very neat script. He smiled.
“I wonder if you would do something for me,” he said, pulling out a stack of printed papers from his jacket pocket and placing them on the table.
“Would you mind reading these?”
Bermuda picked them up and began to sort through them, and as she did she saw the first one contained a check in the amount of five thousand dollars made out in her name. She looked up and gave him a quizzical glance.
“For your time,” he replied. “You are holding twenty-five requests that I’ve recently received. I would like to know what you think of them. Take your time. Oh, but first, your beeping?”
“It’s from right over there,” Bermuda stood and walked over to the stove. “Right up here, about two inches above the back burner.”
“Ah, so you noticed,” Dillon nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “I know it’s nothing you can see.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’d like to take a look in any case,” and he got up and found his magnifying glass and began to scrutinize the spot. Bermuda sat back down and began reading through the correspondence. Dillon pretended to be engaged in his investigation long after he’d actually completed it, to give her enough time to finish. When he sat back down again she looked at him and said,
“You get a lot of this stuff?”
“Tons,” he smiled. “Every single day. I’ve got a heap at home I haven’t even seen yet. What do you think?”
“Most of it is nonsense,” she said, riffling through the papers, “except for this one here.” She plucked one paper out of the stack and handed it to him. Dillon gave it a glance and set it on the table.
“Was it that obvious?” she asked him.
“Not at all,” he shook his head, “but I suppose you knew there had to be one.”
“It was like a test,” she said.
“But it was not the most peculiar case.”
“Her boyfriend had three names.”
“Or did she had three boyfriends?”
“No. It was something that happened to the one. Something strange.”
“What do you think it was?”
“For no one to know but for you to find out?” she smiled.
“What I want to find out now is how soon can you move to California and work for me.”
Bermuda burst out laughing.
“Are you serious?”
“Absolutely,” he said, “I need someone to help me sort through all this. It has to be the right person, and I think it’s you.”
“I don’t know why you’d say that,” she said but he only shrugged and replied,
“Your answer? You’ll have a much nicer place to live in and I will pay you very, very well.”
“And I won’t be woken up every night by some god damn invisible beeping? Oh, yes. Yes I will.”
And that was all Dillon needed to know. The Commander arrived and as always was ready to take care of everything. Nothing surprised the Commander anymore. By the time they were airborne she had already arranged Bermuda’s new home on the same floor as herself, hired the moving company, bought her plane ticket, and practically had her luggage checked in. Dillon spent the long flight studying hypothetical sub-atomic particles and their theoretical points of resonance. There was a lot of math involved and by the time they got home he had quite a headache.
Dillon spent the next hour on the elliptical machine trying to sweat it all out. It was good to be back on his own balcony once again, and the city looked as beautiful as ever that night. The fog was only just beginning to spill over Twin Peaks, and the lights of the houses up there twinkled and shone in turn, reminding him of the comings and goings of the molecules in the particles of dust. It was all a matter of scale, he thought, replicated from the macro to the micro, all the way up and all the way down. The visible world is a veil, but it reveals the same patterns. No doubt if you could get all the way out into the vast Milky Way and looked back, you would see in the swirling of the planets and stars the same movements and vibrations as the bubbles on the foam on a half-caf skinny flat white. And then it hit him.
How could toast be hand-made?
“Tablet,” he commanded, and its screen came to life. “Tell me all about this allegedly hand-made toast.”
“A fad begun late last year, originating in Berkley, California but quickly migrating to other trendentious cities, including New York, Boston, Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Austin, Miami …”
“That’s quite enough of that,” Dillon said, “Tell me about the process.”
“Allegedly hand-made, but actually fabricated, the so-called hand-made toast process begins with the Lumpy Kneader, an electro-mechanical device invented by Patterson Ridgeway and Sons.”
“One moment,” the tablet replied. Dillon stepped off the exercise machine and paced up and down the balcony, impatiently grasping the tablet, which was producing a mechanical sketch of a small bread-making machine. Soon the simulation began and as Dillon observed its activity he fashioned queries for details about its operation. All became clear in a matter of moments. There was no doubt. The Lumpy Kneader was the source of the atmospheric disturbance which under certain nocturnal and urban conditions resulted in the resonant vibration of until-then merely theoretical subatomic particles, causing them them to emit a short-lived but regular tone at a displacement of zero point six five kilometers north by north west horizontal and thirty seven meters vertical. He didn’t even need to look up the addresses of the artisanal toast factories in New York, Boston, or Texas. He was just that good.