Short Story: “Outlier”

This series began withRiffing the Life Fantastic“.

by P. Orin Zack
(Part 4 of a series)

Alluis Benoit was so relieved by the familiar memory of what was about to happen that he missed part of Kaylee Strumble’s brainstorm. “I— I’m sorry,” he stammered, “what was that about commercial résumé aggregators?”

The owner of Chicago’s premiere handcrafts conglomerate shook her head in agitation. “Look, Ben,” she said sharply, “I only agreed to let you participate in this launch because of your record in getting businesses off the ground. But if you’re going to flake out before we’ve even posted the press release, I’ll just have to cut you loose. Don’t think I’m not aware that you were also instrumental in the demise of your first two businesses.”

Ben’s heart raced momentarily at the prospect of being shut out of his fourth fortune, and then it quickly dropped as his memory of the unfolding incident overlaid the reality of it. He knew that Bob was about to intervene on his behalf, and glanced expectantly at the older man.

They’d met when Robert Verdun pulled over to see if Ben was okay after hitting a rock and trashing his motorcycle on the Interstate. Once the businessman’s Passat was back in traffic, Bob overheard the cell call he knew would lead to his third fortune, and used his memory of the unfolding event to position himself as Verdun’s partner in the enterprise. While the two were at a conference in Chicago, they’d spoken to Ms. Strumble after her presentation, and now, Ben knew, his memory of the future was about to multiply that fortune.

Verdun, however, did not look pleased, and this ran counter to the memory unreeling in Ben’s head. Instead of leaning forward into the role of gracious intermediary, he sat back and crossed his arms. “You know something,” he said evenly, eyeing Ben with unblinking animosity.


“You’re too relaxed. What are you holding back? What were you so focused on a moment ago that you couldn’t pay attention to what’s going on here?”

Ms. Strumble glanced at Bob, and shook her head. “So that’s it. You know, I’ve dealt with your kind before. Always ready to step in and benefit from others’ ideas, and just as ready to throw it in their face—.”

Ben panicked, and glared at Verdun in disbelief. “That’s not true! I was just…” he fumbled for an explanation, desperate to realign the meeting with his memory of it.

“Just what? Scheming? And I suppose you played me for a fool, too, after I stopped for you on the highway.”

“No! I—.”

Ms. Strumble rose so vehemently that her chair fell backwards into the man at the next table. Before he’d even had time to look around, she threw her crumbled napkin into Ben’s soup, splashing him with noodles, and stormed towards the exit.

Ben flinched, grinding his teeth angrily. He was too shocked to breathe. Blackness crowded his vision. He lost his footing, pitched over towards the table, and…

…and opened his eyes to find himself tumbling from his seat into the aisle. He reached out to steady himself, and looked around. He and Bob were still on the bus, and he’d fallen asleep. The businessman in the Passat hadn’t stopped for him the day before, and the only reason he’d met Bob was that the State Trooper had flagged down a Greyhound for him. Without Bob, he wouldn’t even have been able to pay for lunch yesterday, much less this trip to D.C.

Righting himself, he looked out the window. The bus was just pulling into the station, and passengers were busily collecting their things, preparing to leave.

Bob, in the window seat beside him, was grinning. “Dreamt you were falling, did you?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Ben said weakly. “Sort of. Look. Did you say we were meeting someone in DC?”

“Mmm-hmm. An old friend of mine. Works a few blocks south of here, just off Columbus Circle.”

Bob didn’t offer any further explanation, so Ben tried to shrug it off and wordlessly followed him off the bus. The unasked question dogged him for nearly half a block before he gave in to it. “So, um, who’s this friend of yours, anyway?”

“Remember that sculpture I said instigated the idea for my antiques and collectibles business?”

“Sure. Mentioned in a Dickson novel, wasn’t it?”

“The Laughing Unicorn” by Darlene P. Coltrain

“The Laughing Unicorn.” He held up his hand and spread his thumb and middle finger. “Gorgeous piece, about this big. Darlene Coltrain told me she only made one more of them before the mold wore out. I bought it at the 1982 Chicago WorldCon art show auction. My friend was the auctioneer.”

Ben slowed. “Your friend?” He thought for a moment. “Can, um… can an auctioneer rig a sale?”

“At a science fiction convention? First of all, it was a volunteer gig, just like all the other jobs at the con. And second, he was too busy studying the bidders to be concerned with anything else.”

“Studying the bidders?”

“Well, yeah. He’s a mathematician. The pattern of behavior in auctions fascinated him. He’d been making the rounds of convention art shows and volunteering to be one of the auctioneers. He watched the bidders, and after a while, he started predicting which of them would win based on their body language.”

“Too cool,” Ben said happily. “I think I’m going to enjoy meeting this friend of yours. By the way, does he have a name?”

“Franklin Goertz. He’s a reseacher at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is that building over there.”

Ben flinched as they entered the lobby and he saw the security checkpoint. “Maybe,” he said warily, “I should just wait outside.”

“What?” Bob asked. “Why would you want to do that?”

“Security. I wasn’t exactly riding east on I-70 for a lark. My business partner on the last go-round was none too pleased with what happened.”

Bob ducked his head conspiratorially. “I thought you said you lost that fortune to bad judgment.”

“I did. But it wasn’t all my money. And I did leave the state.”

“You know you could just claim that was the State Trooper’s idea.”

“Even so, I think I’ll just—.”

“Louis Benoit?” The calm voice belonged to one of the uniformed security agents. Another one flanked Bob.

Ben sighed. “It’s Alluis, sir. That’s why I prefer people to call me Ben.”

“Ben,” he said with a slight smile, “would you come over here please.” He nodded at Bob. “You, too, Mr. Verdun. We’d like to have a word with both of you.”

They followed the agents to a roped-off area to the right of the checkpoint. There were several metal and red-plastic chairs, but Ben was too nervous to sit. Until yesterday, he’d led a charmed life by playing to the memories of the future he’d been born with. Being fingered before even showing his ID did not bode well at all, and he didn’t have a secret copy of the script to help him out.

The first security agent held his iPad up for Ben to look at. “Is this yours, Mr. Benoit?”

It was a photo of his crumbled motorcycle, probably taken by the State Trooper. “Yes, sir. Is there a problem?”

“The registered owner of the vehicle thinks so, sir. I believe he was your business partner. He had reported it as stolen, and a warrant was issued for your arrest in Kansas.”

Ben let out an anguished breath.

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “that information was not available to the Trooper who had arranged for your bus ride to Topeka. When you didn’t get off at that station, and Mr. Verdun instead paid for your continued fare east, he became an accessory after the fact.”

Bob grimaced. “Oh, great,”

“To complicate matters further, Mr. Verdun, the incident you fostered with a Ms….” he paused to check the pad “…with a Ms. Strumble among the clients of the Chicago Unemployment Security office yesterday afternoon brought you to the attention of Homeland Security. Since you had told several people that you two were planning to come to D.C., they thought it would be wise to intercept you and ask a few questions. A search of Mr. Verdun’s former associates included an employee in Labor Statistics with access to sensitive information, a Mr. Franklin Goertz, so we were forwarded the information, and asked to detain you.”

Ben was stunned. “I… see. So now what? What do you need to know?”

“Well, we’ve asked Mr. Goertz to come down for a moment, and perhaps we can straighten this all out.” He glanced toward the elevators. “Good. Here he is now.”

When Bob caught his eye, he called out, “Hi Franklin. I’ve found that black swan you warned me about.”

“This him?” he asked as he entered the roped-off area. “Well, I should have guessed. How else would you end up under Homeland Security’s ever-watchful eye?”

“Excuse me, sir,” the security agent said, perplexed, “a ‘black swan’?”

Goertz nodded. “Yes, well, it’s shorthand for an unpredictable event – in this case a person – that has an outsized effect. I’m a statistics junkie, so I’m as much interested in people and events that don’t fit the Gaussian probability curve as Homeland Security appears to be, but for different reasons.”

“So you’ve spoken with Mr. Verdun about him?”

“At length. BLS is tasked with characterizing the labor pool. We break it down by industry and into general categories. That enables us to project future trends, so all manner of planning can take place. But Robert was adamant that our focus on patterns was also blinding us to some important things, specifically the ability of people and events that don’t fit those patterns to affect the shape of the future.”

“Things like…?”

“Well, take the weather for example. You can toss out the readings for a hundred-year storm as an exception. But what happens when those storms start to happen more and more frequently? At some point, you have to start including the data, which then changes the definition of what a hundred-year storm is. Robert had used Alluis as a case in point. I mean, how can you predict what a person who remembers his own future will do next? There’s no way for us, or for Homeland Security, to know what those memories are, so Alluis is pretty much a cipher. Or as Robert says, a black swan.”

Ben gaped.

“That was pretty much our take on him, too,” the security agent said, nodding agreement. “But it doesn’t change the fact that charges have been filed.”

“So, um…” Ben said meekly, “what happens to me now?”

“Well, we’re not going to do anything, but I suggest you contact the people who are looking for you back in Kansas.”

He closed his eyes and exhaled. “Thank you. I will.”

“Great!” Bob said happily. “Now that that’s all cleared up, can we go in and speak with Franklin?”

“I’m afraid not, sir. If we check you through the checkpoint, you’ll end up as a data point in the Homeland Security event tracking system, and they’ll give you all sorts of grief about the ruckus you stirred up in Chicago. As Mr. Goertz pointed out, they’re all about looking for terrorists.”

“So, of course,” Goertz said, “that’s what they’ll find. To them, a black swan is a confirmed positive, and I think both of you gentlemen would prefer to hide within the curve. It’s safer there.”

“Indeed we would,” Bob said, extending his hand in gratitude.

“Look,” Goertz said suddenly, since I’m already here, how about we take a walk and grab a bite to eat. There a really good Thai place I know.”

“Lead on,” Bob said as they exited the roped-off area.  He glanced over his shoulder and grinned at the security agent they’d spoken with. “I really didn’t see that coming.”

“Of course not,” Franklin said, chuckling, “that’s why they call them black swans.”


The story continues in “Toasted Roles

Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack


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