Editor’s note: Today, we are introducing a special new feature, the first installment in a 15-part, serialized mystery by Oakland’s Robin Sloan, the New York Times best-selling author of “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” and “Sourdough.” Hang on. It’s going to be a delightfully bumpy ride.
CHAPTER ONE: The Woman Who Vanished
The burrito cannons blared at noon, and into the sky above the city, a fusillade of foil tubes went sailing: carnitas, carne asada, veggie supreme. They traced high glinting parabolas, hanging perfectly still at the apex, then accelerating earthward until their napkin-parachutes deployed. Pedestrians turned, arms outstretched. Cyclists pulled over; the moving catch, though tempting, was nearly impossible.
In the old days, you’d use the phone, call in your order like an artillery scout, shouting your cross streets and hoping for the best. But now the ordering and targeting is all done with software, the burritos guided by miniscule GPS chips. If you return one to the taqueria, they give you a free agua fresca.
Every day, Stella Pajunas caught her lunch on the sidewalk in front of Alta Bay City Development headquarters. As the chief executive of the ABCD, she didn’t have to catch it herself; she could have sent an underling scurrying to the sidewalk. But Pajunas was smart. Her daily appearance marked her as a woman of the people.
On a sunny Tuesday in June, Stella Pajunas missed her burrito. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that multiple pedestrian onlookers watched her step onto the sidewalk, reach upward and vanish. Burrito, splat.
Dramatic enough way for a mystery to begin.
My name is Will Portacio. I have been an archivist, a librarian and a Lyft driver. Until recently, I was the assistant to the Bay Area’s greatest detective. I am publishing this now because of what happened to Stella Pajunas and the detective and all of us.
Annabel Scheme kept an office in Rotten City. The locals love to call it that, insisting endlessly on their neighborhood’s sinister character; in fact, it’s utterly sweet, a mix of old houses and new condos, espresso bars and metalworking shops, all of it softened by trees, plum and palm and ginkgo.
Scheme’s office occupied the top floor of a narrow brick building that also housed a rare book dealer, a biotech consultancy and a website that reviewed electric bicycles. On the ground floor, there was a jam factory. I couldn’t quite see the railroad tracks from my desk, but when the high-speed to Fresno shot past, it made a little sonic boom that rattled the windows.
Scheme had conducted investigations for the city of San Francisco and the Port of Oakland; for Google and Dragoman; for Chevron and Chez Panisse. Her specialty was the anomalous, the irrational. When something seemed like it must be a ghost, but surely it wasn’t, you called Annabel Scheme.
It was only ever sometimes a ghost.
The ABCD itself was a steady client, thanks to its security chief, whose name was Arbusto Slab. It was Slab who stood now in Scheme’s office, perfectly quadrilateral, wide-shouldered and wide-hipped. It was Slab who had just described to us the strange fate of his boss.
He squinted at me, jabbed a finger. “Who’s the nerd?”
“I am the nerd,” Scheme replied coolly. “My very hip partner is a renowned analyst of the digital and the occult.”
No one truly hip has ever been called hip, but I appreciated the gesture.
Arbusto Slab gazed at me and whatever evaluation he made, he mentally crumpled it up and threw it in a wastebasket. He looked back at Scheme.
“Well, anyway, she’s been gone a whole day now, or near enough, and the board of directors … they are not calm people, Scheme. Not calm at all. It’s a big operation, the ABCD. I really think — ”
“I’ll take the case,” Scheme said. “We’ll meet you on the bay.”
Scheme’s electric pickup was parked across the street. The jam factory was simmering 300 pounds of seascape strawberries; the air was thick with them. One of the website’s editors was pedaling a cargo bike up and down the block. Rotten City.
Scheme took us blasting south on Interstate 1080, windows down, her red curls whipping in the wind. The big cities of the bay flashed by on either side: busy Moletown, glittering San Leandro, Asparagus Flats with its high-rise greenhouses.
I wondered if Scheme had worked up any theories.
“Sure. Most likely explanation is, Stella Pajunas was never real to start with. Ectoplasmic projection. Mass hallucination, maybe.”
Scheme was theorizing that the ABCD — really, the whole Bay Area — had been managed for 10 years by a mass hallucination?
“It would explain some things, wouldn’t it?”
We crossed into the sprawl of Peralta City. On the other side of 1080 was the Island of the Cats, which was neither an island nor home to any special concentration of cats.
Scheme was still theorizing. “It matters how she disappeared. If there was a flash of light, that’s one thing. Smell of brimstone, totally different thing. I hope she didn’t just vanish between frames.”
“Here one millisecond, gone the next. The best explanation for that kind of phenomenon is that we’re living in a computer simulation, and I am going to be PISSED if we’re living in a computer simulation.”
Scheme’s phone rang, warbling the theme to “Vertigo.”
“Slab,” she said into the air. “We’re on our way.”
The security chief’s voice rumbled in the pickup’s speakers. “Yeah, well. She’s back.”
“Pajunas? The one who disappeared?”
“Yeah, and she’s screaming a lot.” In the background, we heard a shriek. “Stuff about the bay. How they didn’t fill it. I don’t know. What did she just say, Lucy?” A voice replied. “Okay, yeah. She just said, it was all a mistake and now — yeah, she’s crying. Anyway. I still think you should come.”
Scheme pushed the pickup even faster, the whole boiling megacity of the bay a blur on either side of us, and I wondered where Stella Pajunas had been for the last twenty-four hours. What she’d seen.
“Call in some burritos, will you?” Scheme said. “We’ll catch them when we get there.”
Tomorrow, Part 2: “As Easy as ABCD.”
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