“A tremendous novel—droll, savvy, original. An invigorating blast of fiction.”
—William Boyd, Author of Any Human Heart and Restless.”
A hurricane sweeps off the Gulf of Mexico and, in the back country of Alabama, assembles a passenger jet out of old bean cans and junkyard waste. This piques the interest of the enigmatic Directorate of the Extremely Improbable. Their fascination with this random event sets into motion a madcap caper that will bring together a hilarious cast of characters, including: an eccentric mathematician, last heard of investigating the physics of free will; a lovelorn Cambridge postgraduate who has set off to America with a ring in his pocket and hope in his heart; and a member of the Directorate with no capacity for imagination. What ensues is a chaotic chase across a fully realized, hyper-real America, haunted by madness, murder, mistaken identity, and conspiracy. The Coincidence Engine is a lively, boisterous debut that heralds the arrival of a major new talent.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Sam Leith is a freelance writer and critic. A former Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph, he now writes regularly for the Evening Standard, Guardian, Spectator, Wall Street Journal Europe and Prospect. He lives near North London's picturesque Suicide Bridge with his fiancée Alice, daughter Marlene and son Max. His cat is called Henry.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"They've found the pilot."
Twelve hundred miles away in New York, Red Queen breathed out.
"What do we know?"
"More or less nothing. Hospital sweep sent up flags. Field agents in Atlanta called it in. He's in Mobile. Name of Arno Fisk. I'm headed over there now to talk to him."
"Cuts and bruises. Some-well. They're saying some cognitive issues."
In the background, Red Queen could hear wind across the mouthpiece of the phone. Behind that, the sound of heavy traffic moving fast: trucks pounding south on the interstate.
"It's not clear. He was dressed as a pilot, but he's not a pilot. There's nothing on him in the FAA database. He was unconscious for some time. What I hear-"
The wind picked up and the next few words were inaudible.
"-consciousness. I need to go."
"OK, go," said Red Queen.
The phone went down in its cradle.
Red Queen's desk was broad and made of dark wood. The top was covered in red leather. It was out of place. It belonged among other antiques-not in this oblong box with its ozonic air conditioning and its twenty-four-hour fake sunlight. There were no books in the room. An uncomfortable two-seat sofa, against the wall, faced the desk. On the other wall there was a locked cabinet. There were no windows.
A corner of the leather surface of the desk looked like it had been chewed by mice. Red Queen picked at the leather with a fingernail for a moment, staring at nothing.
Then Red Queen turned to the computer, waggled the mouse to bring the screen alive, and brought up the Intercept to read it again.
Bree, on the highway, hung up the phone on the timber wall of the Snacky Shack and walked round to the door. It was late morning and the sun, already hot, bounced off the dusty glass and winked at her. She'd been driving for three hours already. Red Queen could wait half an hour while Bree got waffles.
Bree was the only person in the place-an awkward L-shape that had once been a barn, or an auto-shop or something. Formica tables, pairs and fours. Booths lined the window onto the highway and Bree sat in the furthest one of those, with her back to the corner wall. She sat a while, watched the traffic tick past, waited while the waitress finished scratching in her hair with her pencil.
The waitress leaned down by the chef-a good-looking Latino wearing a greasy checkered dishcloth as a bandana-and produced a laminated menu the size of an occasional table. She dropped it wordlessly in front of Bree, left, returned with a clear plastic beaker of iced water, set that wordlessly down, fished a pad from her pouch and pointed at it, expectantly, with her head-scratcher.
"Morning," said Bree.
"Mornin'," said the waitress.
"Belgian waffles," she said. "Three eggs over medium, Canadian bacon, chicken sausage and sourdough toast; two rounds."
The waitress wrote it down.
"You want a side of fries with that?"
Bree's eyes flicked up from the menu.
"No fries," she said. "And no grits."
The waitress looked at her. Bree looked back.
"Thank you," said Bree, and smiled sweetly.
Thirty minutes later Bree was back heading south in the brown Chrysler with the windows up and the air conditioning on, and by mid-afternoon, she was rolling into Mobile. She left the interstate and took Airport Boulevard.
Providence Hospital was a white building west of the center of town. Bree drove in under a quaint old archway, swung the front of the car round and parked up under a shade tree, just out of the sight line from the main entrance.
She got out and the weather hit her. It was as if the humidity had tugged the leash on her breath. She'd worked up just enough of a sweat for it to chill on her, unpleasantly, when she stepped into the air-conditioned lobby. She ignored the potted palms and crossed to the desk.
"Visiting Fisk, room 325," she said. "Helen Fisk. I called earlier."
She showed the woman her ID. The woman didn't seem interested. Bree wrote "Helen Fisk" in the register, went to the elevator and went up.
It was a nice hospital. Someone cleaned it. Her flats didn't stick. She'd been in hospitals where only people in heels-and Bree hadn't worn heels since she could remember-were really qualified to make it down the corridors.
The room that the man who seemed to be called Fisk was supposed to be occupying was down a long corridor and through some doors. Bree had a pretty good sense of direction. West, it should be facing, over scrubland and away from the parking lot and the main part of the hospital. She listened at the door a little, then when she was satisfied nobody was in Fisk's room, knocked softly.
She didn't wait for an answer, but opened the door, slipped in, closed it behind her.
The room did face west. The blind was half lowered, and afternoon light came through the bottom half of the window and slanted across the foot of Arno Fisk's bed.
Fisk was awake but he looked a little glassy. He had dark hair, spilling from a bandage wrapped round the top of his head, and a purple, very shiny bruise bulbing out the right side of his forehead and casing the orbit of his eye. Underneath his right eye the skin was wasp-striped black and yellow.
There was something dark-looked like dried blood-in his nostrils, and a single butterfly stitch on his lip. He was a mess. Bree couldn't see what was going on under the blanket, but both the arms above it-resting side by side on the tray table over his waist and looking uncomfortable-were in casts to the elbow.
She'd been in the room for a couple of seconds before his eyes rolled toward her, as if in surprise, and focused a foot or two behind her left shoulder. They were shiny, and such a dark brown that the pupils and the irises, at this distance, were hard to tell one from the other. Even smashed up, he was a handsome man, though more tanned than Bree thought was ideal.
"Come in," he said. It came out: "Cerrm urh?" Then he looked surprised again.
Bree walked up to the bed. She didn't bother affecting hesitation. According to the medical notes the agents in Atlanta had skimmed, there had been no permanent brain damage or intracranial bleeding. Just a prize-winning compendium of fractures, breaks, and abrasions-consistent, one of Bree's colleagues had said, with the rough prognosis for an eight-year-old child with rickets spending a half-hour in an industrial tumble dryer.
This spaciness was probably just drugs. If they had him self-administering he'd be no use to Bree, or anyone.
"Mr. Fisk," Bree said.
His eyes said, "Who wants to know?" and his mouth said, "Urr?"
"Mr. Fisk, my name is Dana Hamilton. I'm from the Federal Aviation Authority."
She reached into her top pocket and showed him Dana Hamilton's business card. He frowned at her wrist. Closer up, she could see where his pupils ended and where his irises began. His irises were fingernail-thin, chocolate-colored halos. He looked like a badly mangled bushbaby.
"Federr avuh urrdurr?"
"Yes, Mr. Fisk. And may I say what a pleasure it is to meet you today?" Dana extended her hand. There were four fingers extending from the cast on his right arm. Dana shook two of them.
There was a chair by the bed. She pulled it round and sat on it.
"I've come to talk to you about your accident. I work as an insurance assessor for our pilot outreach branch, unexpected eventuality division."
"Whur durr?" said Arno Fisk.
"There are certain anomalies in our records regarding the events of August 11th. We need to straighten out our files. Mr. Fisk, I'm going to level with you. We have no record, precisely-and this is very probably our fault; the full-spectrum security audit ongoing since 2001 has, to be honest, caused as much confusion as it has cleared up-of your pilot's license. You were admitted to the emergency room without ID, and the FAA-under the WelfAir insurance scheme-covered your bills during the time you were unconscious. We're now reaching a stage where we need to action an alternative funding stream for your medical care."
Something stirred in Fisk's face. Somewhere at the murky bottom of his consciousness, what Bree was saying had snagged. That was the idea. If he wasn't too stoned to know he was in the hospital, maybe he wasn't too stoned to realize that whoever was paying for him to be there could stop paying for him to be there.
"Mr. Fisk, we need to establish your eligibility for continued treatment. We need to find some way of reconnecting you to the FAA's database."
This was not strictly true. Bree didn't give too much of a damn about the FAA's database, though she was curious as to who the hell this guy was. No ID, no known next of kin. They'd found his name through teeth while he was still out-busted crown done eight years previously back home in Illinois.
Arno Fisk, thirty-five years old. Born in St. Charles. Moved away when he graduated high school. Moved back, apparently, for long enough to go to the dentist. Moved away again. He'd ended up in Mobile somehow, though he didn't seem to have driven there. There were three Arno Fisks holding driving licenses in Illinois and two in Alabama, and none of the five of them was this guy.
"I'm nurr a pilurr. I tole the pleezmann." He looked tired. "Anno whurr huppen."
"But you were found near the wreckage of a 737," Bree said. "You were found in the wreckage of a 737. Strapped into what was left of the pilot's seat."
"You know what happened?"
"You don't know what happened?"
Fisk subsided slightly, and his eyes refocused dead ahead.
"Mr. Fisk, you were dressed as an airline pilot." She reached a little. What the hell. "As I'm sure you know, there are federal penalties attached to the improper impersonation of an officer of the Federal Aviation Authority, or an accredited pilot of that same body." She softened her voice. "We're sure you meant no ...
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