Constance was a meandering kind of fellow; he knew this about himself. He also knew he was inclined toward the poetic when he held a tumbler. These qualities caused him to elaborate in detail as he told the senior agent about the streets of Laconte’s neighborhood: how they were dreary, the houses small and slightly unkempt if not downright shabby. The lawns were tall of grass, roofs were missing shingles here and there, and the fences were all badly faded. “It mighta been my imagination,” Constance said, “but the place gave me the impression that the owners were waiting for disaster.” If it was true, these neighbors would have been more correct than they could possibly have known. Of the Agency’s three objectives, its most important was that of knowledge-suppression. They must bastion the world against knowing its ultimate powerlessness.
Constance knew that in the first days, the Agency was mostly a military force. Their original reason for existing was to break German and Japanese codes. Other organizations, to their fame, proved to be viciously effective toward this goal, whereas the Agency’s work was merely excellent.
They nearly subsided entirely. But in 1945 physics began to change in small ways. Small change that goes against the system is anathema to physics, and the Agency began to investigate. This became their prime concern. They sought out these flukes and repaired them when they could. It was the Agency who named the breakdown “the Degredation,” and it was in fighting the Degredation that the Agency cohered and grew. They took on a three-part mission: to suppress the Degredation, find ways to reverse it, and hide knowledge of its existence from the general public. As Constance’s fellow agents often said, “Contain, Fix, and Cover.”
Of course, he could not tell Laconte any of that: a fact of which Constance had reminded himself before knocking on Laconte’s door.
“So, you’ve arrived. I knew you’d come around sooner or later,” said Laconte, speaking to Constance on his doorstep.
“You know who I am?” said Constance.
“The black suit. The taciturn demeanor. It’s not hard to guess, man. You’re here about my little windfalls recently . . . though I thought I’d kept them quiet.”
Constance was impressed at Laconte’s ability to greet him, a stranger with a “taciturn demeanor,” as coolly as if he were an old friend, evincing no consternation whatsoever.
“I’m here for the sake of security, that of your fellow Americans, but also your own, Mr. Laconte,” Constance said. “Since we’re already past any need for pretense, I’ll tell you what brings me.”
Laconte laughed. “I hate pretense. Go right ahead.”
“I’m here because you’ve done a terrible job keeping your luck quiet,” said Constance.
“How sweet of you, Mr.—what’s your name?”
Constance told Laconte his name.
“All right, Constance. Thanks. But I don’t want to talk to you. What are my odds on you going away now? Am I that lucky?”
“If I went away, things would happen to you. Bad things.”
“You’re threatening me already?”
“It’s not me who’s the threat. Several forces are at work that are larger than you or I.”
“What would you have me do? Give back the money?”
“No. You can keep the money,” said Constance—though he knew that Laconte had already spent most of what he’d won so far. “What we need of you is a little more intricate.”
“Listen, I like that the whole shedding of pretense thing. I’m going to invite you in, but it’s only because you threatened me. Don’t pretend otherwise. Then, we may get along,” Laconte said.
Later, as Constance told the story to Lamb, drinking in the motel room, he would not give all the details of this first conversation. He would allow Lamb to get the idea that he had pressured Laconte very effectively; that he had practically forced his way into Laconte’s home. That behavior would have been more in line with Agency regulations than was a frank conversation with, at worst, vaguely unfriendly undertones.
Constance’s job always boiled down to some combination of three objectives, which were a reflection of the tripartite nature of the Agency’s reason for being. The point of his mission was always to keep someone quiet, to stop someone from exploiting the Degredation, or to procure information. In this case, the most important mission parameter was to keep Laconte quiet: to initiate him, as it were, into the body of Those Who Knew.
They sat in his living room. Constance did not endeavor to exchange pleasantries. “We need you to desist from using your talent. And don’t tell anyone about your incredible luck.”
Laconte scoffed. “Why should I refrain? It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I’m not authorized to tell you any more detail about why you must be quiet or why you must stop. I can only tell you what’s in your own future if you don’t reach an agreement with me.”
“All right. Goodbye, then Mr. Constance.” Laconte rose from his seat—but he was clearly flustered.
As Constance always did at this juncture during a mission, he felt like a bit of a shit. He could relate to Laconte, at least to some extent. He could imagine how he would feel if someone in a black suit showed up at his own home and started issuing vague threats. What he could not imagine discovering that his every roll of the dice was kissed by Lady Luck herself.
Constance remained seated and spoke in calm, even tones. “Wait. Please. You’re in danger if we don’t work this out.”
Laconte did not speak, either genuinely stunned or pretending not to have heard this last utterance: remaining quiet, perhaps, as a gesture meant to indicate his rage.
And next Constance said more words that he would omit from the debriefing with Lamb, later. “First, I’m supposed to try to get you to sign this agreement saying that, under penalty of life imprisonment, you will do as I request, leaving off of your gift entirely, telling no one,” Constance said. “But I’m not going to ask you to give up everything.”
“Again, you’re so sweet Mr. Constance. But I gather you’re not going to let me off the hook entirely?” said Laconte.
“I’m cutting straight to the second offer I can make you, a deal you may be more likely to accept.”
In this other version of the deal, which he was only allowed to offer after profuse threats of legalistic maneuvers, Laconte was permitted to use his talent. The catch was that he had keep it quiet. He would also have to give most of his winnings to the Agency.
Constance explained the deal to Laconte. He pointed out that Laconte could pretty much keep doing what he had been doing while he had been trying to hide his gift. “But there are some hard and fast limits,” he said.
“What kind of limits?”
It was a good sign that Laconte asked this question. Before he rejected this arrangement, he at least wanted to hear what it would cost him.
“There are localized limits and an overall cap. You can only take so much for yourself from any given joint. You have to lose a certain amount for each dollar you win—though of course, you are allowed to win more than you lose. Notice, Laconte, that these are the same secretive techniques you’ve already been using—trying to use, at least—as you’ve tried to avoid tipping us off. We’ll have some hints for you so you can more effectively hide this windfall, as you called it.”
“It wasn’t you I was trying to hide from, remember.”
“I didn’t know. The mafia or, shit, the EPA. Hell, I don’t even know who you are.”
“You can find out. Only if you put your talent to work for us.”
“How much is this overall cap on what I can keep?”
“Forty-thousand dollars per year.”
“Forty thousand damn dollars. You must know how piddly that sounds to me. You got any idea what I won so far?”
“We know exactly how much. $700,903.72,” said Constance
“Exactly right. My records show the same,” said Laconte.
“You’ve kept rigorous track of your winnings, then.”
“I kept rigorous track in my head. You saying I don’t seem like a rigorous kind of guy?” said Laconte. “Look, you’ve cut to the chase, and I appreciate it. Thanks for not trying to bully me with the first deal.”
“Now tell me the next version,” he said.
“Of the deal. I know you must be holding something back.”
“I’m afraid I’m not,” said Constance. “I’m being honest with you. I don’t like to deprive people of any more than I have to.”
“So, I work at making my forty-thousand a year. I go to work for you bastards, whoever you are. Or what? I go to prison for life? You have aliens show up and probe me?”
“It would be an ultra-high security prison. Also know that for the good of country, you would undergo some experiments, though nothing harmful.”
Laconte paced around the living room for a moment. “You come out of nowhere. I’m supposed to believe this?” said Laconte.
“I know how it seems.”
“Bullshit, man. I ain’t signing nothing.”
And there you had it. That was the tough part when his goal was to keep someone quiet: the secrecy. Constance’s job would be so easy if it weren’t for the stipulation that he must not tell about the Degredation.
Constance understood the necessity of secrecy. His employer had a fetish for it though, it sometimes seemed; an outright craving to avoid official appearance and knowledge in the media. Given the larger, physics-related circumstances, Constance believed that people should know more than the Agency’s tenets allowed . . . especially when it meant depriving a person of a gift like Laconte’s.
“You’ll work with me, or you’ll be deferred to the next agent.”
“That’s the part I hate. You haven’t even told me who you are, yet. I don’t even know if you’re part of the government for sure.”
“That’s the deal. You have to join to find out. Also, you should know the next agent won’t be as friendly as me,” said Constance. “It would hardly be work if you joined. You won’t have to do real work for another day for the rest of your life. If the forty-grand isn’t enough, we’ll take care of you.”
“Do you have anything else to say?”
“This may be your last chance,” Constance said. And unless Constance imagined it, this statement actually did give Laconte pause. “I can give you a day to think about it. No more. Twenty-four hours.” Constance said goodbye and left.