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CHAPTER ONE The Vaults took up nearly half a city block. Files arranged in shelves arranged in rows; files from every case handled in the City for nearly the past century; files arranged, cross-referenced, and indexed. So complicated and arcane was the system that at any given time only one living person understood it. At this time, that person was Arthur Puskis, Archivist. He was the fourth Archivist, inheriting the position from Gilad Abramowitz, who had gone mad in his final years and died soon after taking his leave of the Vaults. Abramowitz had mentored Puskis for the better part of ten years, explaining, as best as his addled mind allowed, the logic behind the system. Even so, it had taken Puskis most of the following decade to truly understand. He was now in his twenty-seventh year in the Vaults.
As happened every day, several times a day, O’Shea, the messenger from Headquarters, had brought a list of files to be pulled. Several items on the list were preceded by an asterisk, which meant that Puskis was to pull all cross-referenced files as well. Puskis had a file cart that he wheeled down the long aisles, searching for the appropriate shelves. The cart had a loose wheel that squeaked rhythmically with each rotation.
Puskis completed his rounds and returned to his desk with the requested files. He opened the files that had been asterisked and took down the numbers of the cross-referenced files. He then took the file cart and went to retrieve those files. Each aisle was illuminated at thirty-foot intervals by a bare electric lightbulb. Every journey consisted of walking from an illuminated area into a more twilit space and then back into illumination. None of the bulbs ever seemed to burn out, and Puskis was vaguely aware that the City sent someone around to check them periodically. Their collective hum was like some primal sound, one that could have emanated from the earth itself.
He was at the shelf for the C4583R series, in a dimly lit stretch, when he found the two files. He was searching for C4583R series, subseries A132, file 18. It was in the correct location, just after C4583R series, subseries A132, file 17. He put the file in the file cart and, out of habit, checked the next file to make sure that it was C4583R series, subseries A132, file 19. Abramowitz had suggested the method; an episodic way to check on filing accuracy in place of doing periodic audits as Abramowitz’s predecessors had done. The files were too voluminous now to make that feasible.
Initially, when he saw the adjacent file, C4583R series, subseries A132, file 18, he assumed he had made a mistake and retrieved the wrong file to begin with. He checked the file cart and found that he had in fact taken the correct file. This meant that there were actually two C4583R series, sub-series A132, file 18s. Puskis removed the spectacles from the end of his long, thin nose, rolled his head around to loosen his neck, replaced the spectacles, and looked at the files again. Nothing had changed. The two files bore the same label.
He opened the one that had been left on the shelf. It was the file for a Reif DeGraffenreid, FACT identification number such and such, with this particular address and so on. He opened the one in the file cart. Again, the name was Reif DeGraffenreid, same FACT number, address, etc. Duplicate files? Puskis could not imagine himself capable of such sloppiness. A puzzle. Puskis put the second file in the file cart and returned to his desk to address this vexing problem.
Puskis took the two folders and, with his skeletal fingers, laid them on opposite sides of his barren desk. He removed the contents one by one, first from the file folder on his left and then from the one on his right. Puskis had, from years of experience, acquired an especially keen sense of paper of various ages. He would have told an inquisitive soul—if he ever actually interacted with one—that it was an instinct. The truth was that it was an acute understanding of the paper stocks of different decades and the effect that aging had on them, making them dry, crisp, and discolored—but each stock in a minutely unique way.
He noticed that the papers from the two files were not of identical age. The paper from the file to his right was not eight years old—too moist, it bent limply from his fingers, without the rigidity that crept into older paper. Taking a greater interest now, Puskis estimated the paper on the right to be three or four years old. He held the more recent paper up to the light to confirm this estimate. The Department’s paper supplier for years had been Ribisi & Porfiro. They had imprinted their paper with a distinctive sea-horse watermark. Five years ago, however, they had been acquired by Capitol Industries, and to cut costs the corporation had done away with the watermark. The more recent sample, then, bearing no watermark, must have been created in the last five years. Puskis checked the paper from the older file, and as he suspected, it carried the watermark. Somebody had typed the more recent pages at least two or three years after the original file had been created. It was curious.
Also curious were the pages: same cover sheet, same personal information, same testimony—DeGraffenreid had been on trial for the murder of someone named Ellis Prosnicki—same verdict: guilty. The sentence had been “Life-PN,” which was not the approved abbreviation for “penitentiary”—just another vexing detail of the unthinkable duplication that Puskis had discovered. Yet here, too, was an interesting difference. In the margin of page 8 of the testimony was a handwritten notation. It read “Do not contact—Dersch.” An arrow pointed to the name Feral Basu, who was mentioned by DeGraffenreid as the man who had introduced him to Prosnicki. In the file to the right, it was written in green ink. In the file to the left, the ink was blue.
He looked closer. The writing was nearly identical, but not quite. Where the n’s tailed off in the blue ink, they ended suddenly in the green. The angles at which the arrows were drawn, too, were slightly different. It was, he decided, as if someone had deliberately copied the notation from one file to the other as exactly as he could. Or not quite as exactly. He studied the two notations, trying to discern the forger’s intention, before eventually conceding that, from the scant available evidence, this was unknowable.
Finally, he came to the photographs. The photo from the left-hand side (the older file) was a head-and-shoulders shot of a man with sunken eyes, a blunt, crooked nose, and receding hair. His mouth was slightly open, providing a glimpse of crooked and broken teeth. It might have been cropped from a mug shot. The photo from the file on the right was of a completely different person. This man had long, thin features, hollow cheeks that he had tried to conceal with extensive sideburns, and sparse hair parted in the middle. Most striking to Puskis was the man’s stare, as though unaware of the camera, which could not have been more than ten feet away. It was, Puskis thought, haunting.
This was a troubling development. Puskis picked up his phone and, for the first time in over a decade, dialed out.
Puskis felt more uncomfortable than usual in the Chief’s office. He rarely deviated from his three destinations: his apartment, seven blocks from the Vaults; the grocer’s around the corner; and, of course, the Vaults themselves. Anywhere else and he realized how eccentric—even grotesque—his nearly three decades in the Vaults had left him. He was alarmingly thin and stooped, the latter a consequence of years leaning to read files in the too dim light. His face was pale, and he sweated more than he liked when he was in the open air. He wore thick, wire-framed glasses, as the reading had left him nearsighted. Inside the Vaults he did not need to see beyond four or five feet.
The Chief was looking at Puskis with mild bewilderment. During his first years as Archivist, Puskis had occasionally come with some kind of request—a different kind of paper, a newfangled sprinkler system, a lockable door between the elevator and the Vaults, a bathroom—that the Chief could not possibly fund. In time, the consistent fruitlessness of these requests put an end to Puskis’s visits. Now, after a decade, he was back. This was something quite different.
“Two identical files?” The Chief’s jowls quivered when he spoke.
“Yes, sir. Two files in the C4583R series. An individual by the name of Reif DeGraffenreid.”
“And the problem?” The Chief was polishing a badge of some sort with his tie.
“Well, sir, you see, there were two different photographs. The files were for the same person, but the photographs were of two different people.”
“I’m not sure that I understand the problem, Mr. Puskis.”
“It’s just that, sir, well, it’s just that there can’t really be two Reif DeGraffenreids in the city with the same FACT number and address and everything else. It’s just, well, not possible.” At some level, Puskis himself did not necessarily believe this statement. But such was his faith in the unerring accuracy of the files in the Vaults that there seemed no other explanation.
The Chief sighed. “Mr. Puskis, it seems quite evident to me that somebody made an error in filing one of those photographs.”
“But why the two files, sir? In my twenty-seven years in the Vaults I have never seen a duplicate file, and now, when I do, there are different photographs in each.”
The Chief shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Puskis.”
“That’s exactly my point, sir,” Puskis said somewhat desperately. “That is just the point I’m trying to get across to you. I don’t know what to make of it either. I am bringing it to your attention so that an inquiry can be initiated.”
“Into who misfiled the photograph?”
“No. Please, do not take this lightly. There are two Reif DeGraffenreids in this city, sir. They are different, but they are the same person.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“Neither do I, sir. That is the point that I am continuing to try to get across to you. I don’t know what I mean either. It makes no sense, yet there it is. Sir.”
“Maybe it’s the files that are wrong,” the Chief suggested in a softer voice.
“No. I’m afraid not. The files would not be wrong.” Puskis did not mention the different-colored inks or the age difference in the papers. The former was a detail whose significance would escape the Chief. He would not understand the system by which the transcribers who assembled and notated the files worked. He would not understand the dramatic importance of the same comment appearing twice, but in different ink. What Puskis found most alarming was that he, Puskis, understood this detail to be of vital importance, but could not glean its meaning.
The Chief opened a file on his desk and leafed through its pages. Puskis watched the Chief’s inexpert handling of the papers, his fat fingers occasionally pulling two sheets instead of the desired one.
“Mr. Puskis, when did you last take a vacation?”
The question caught Puskis off guard and he stammered before answering, “I’m not absolutely certain, sir. Not for a long while, but I fail to see—”
“Mr. Puskis,” the Chief interrupted, his fleshy lips in a benign and sympathetic smile, “it was 1917. Eighteen years, almost to the day.”
Puskis conceded this point in silence.
“I am ordering you to take this next week off. Go back to the Vaults, pick up your things, and don’t come back until a week from Monday.”
“No, Mr. Puskis. The Vaults will be fine for a week. Take some time. Relax. The Vaults can get to you. Eighteen years. My God.”
Puskis, as he always did on his rare trips to Headquarters, received a ride back to the Vaults in a police cruiser. Outside the rear window a dismal rain lent a sheen to the road and sidewalks. People hurried, heads down under umbrellas.
“Nasty weather we’ve been having,” said the officer driving. Puskis had not bothered to listen when the man first introduced himself and did not listen now.
“Doesn’t matter down in the Vaults, I guess,” the officer offered. Again, Puskis did not reply. The officer, who had heard all the rumors, sighed and pursued it no further.
In the back, Puskis fingered the hat that rested in his lap. He had not bothered to wipe the raindrops from his spectacles. He thought about being away from the Vaults for an entire week. Eighteen years, the Chief had said, since his last day off. That seemed about right, though he could clearly remember that last aberration in the regular rhythm of his life. He had begun doing crossword puzzles, quickly realizing that he could identify ten key words, then fill in the rest of the puzzle without using the clues. It was just a matter of knowing the letter combinations. When this ceased to interest him, he had begun simply filling his own words into the puzzles, seeing if he could fill every square without revising. He had mastered this as well, then started putting letters at random spots in the crossword and filling in words. That had been Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday he had reported back to the Vaults and had reported every day since, including weekends.
The squad car pulled to the curb in front of City Hall. The Vaults were in the hall’s subbasement. Puskis put on his hat and got out of the car without a word to the driver. He walked up the broad granite steps, the rain soaking his coat and pants. Inside he touched the brim of his hat to acknowledge the four guards posted at the front doors and walked to the bank of elevators. One of the elevator operators, a squirrel of a man named Dawlish, called out to Puskis, who passed through the opened gate and into the velvet-lined elevator.
“To the Vaults, then, sir?” Dawlish asked, as always.
“Mmm,” Puskis said. As the elevator descended, he removed and wiped his spectacles.
“Here we are, then,” Dawlish said, opening first the elevator door and then the brass gate.
“Yes. Yes, indeed.” Puskis stepped out of the elevator, then hesitated.
“Anything I can do for you, Mr. Puskis?” Dawlish’s English accent could still be picked up in certain words, such as anything.
“Mmm. Actually, yes. Yes, there is something you could do for me. I’m, well, I’m going to be away for a week or so.”
Dawlish’s eyebrows rose. “Never known you to miss a day, sir.”
“Indeed. Indeed, that is quite true. But the fact is, well, the fact is that I am not going to be here for a week, and I was hoping …” Puskis hesitated.
“You were hoping, Mr. Puskis?”
“Yes, I was hoping that maybe you could keep track of if anyone goes down to the Vaults while I’m gone. I mean except for the courier from Headquarters, of course. And, I suppose, the usual cleaners.”
“I would be pleased to do that for you, Mr. Puskis. I will keep a list, sir. Though, as you know, sir, there’s no one goes down there except you and that courier you just mentioned. And, of course, the cleaners.”
“Are you sure? Are you absolutely certain no one else ever goes down?”
Dawlish, sensing Puskis’s urgency, narrowed his eyes in thought. “Mr. Puskis,” he finally said, “I can not think of a one.”
Excerpted from The Vaults by Toby Ball.
Copyright © 2010 by Toby Ball.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.