What is it they say about going bankrupt? Slowly at first, and then all at once. As we crossed the precinct yard and I saw the scale of the operation in real terms, the vehicles crowded into rows, still more throbbing outside, as I heard all those boots, I knew the slow part was coming to an end.
I stood at the car as the others loaded up. The late afternoon light hummed something to me about the absurdity of the local force leading out this mission of supposedly unspeakable importance. The light’s inclusion was as chance as ours, it seemed to say, our roles entangled, a collective witness, it the light and we the eyes. My colleagues called from inside the car and I stooped in and shut the door.
We rolled past familiar sights, the rusted gates of old mills, the sagging roofs of tanneries, the husk of the shoe factory that defied demolition, tattooed with graffiti inside and out. We beheld them in glassy eyes, our thoughts communal. All the bristling and division of the previous weeks seemed redundant, replaced by a palpable relief to be so far down the clearance list, so removed from the frowning, pacing people we’d watched through the blinds of the chief’s office. The weight they bore, the towering science irreducible to anything we could be expected to understand. And yet, we surely sensed the change, as intangible as ownership, rippling out in waves as our convoy carved a line between before and after. Our little town would not sleep that night.
[Fig. 7 – Remains on ice rink. Barton Thewes, Toronto, Canada, 1997]
Our other car peeled off west on a decoy run to divide unwanted attention. Who and what was in the trucks rumbling along behind us, half of which turned off after our other car, it was not our job to know. Maybe our car was the decoy. Of all the deflections and analogies they’d used, none worked better for me than referring to the whole thing as an ‘operation’. It most certainly resembled surgery, an intrusion under the glare of lights, of figures moving in and out of focus, beyond awareness, of terminology shared behind masks.
We gazed out the windows, wary, our sense of place in soft dissociation. The looming slant of the train station, the red-bricked menace of the old hospital reconciled into quiet obsolescence as we moved forward, dragging the future behind us. As we approached the broad river channel, I closed my eyes against the swathe of sunlight. I didn’t need to look around me. Our town wasn’t exactly a place people visited, but there was this view up and down the river between bridges, a reflection of a brief golden age, a blip of prosperity our forefathers had chosen to enshrine in oddball architecture. The turrets of slick, green tiles with the round windows at the top, the mosaic of battlements and hanging balconies, where the men behind these buildings, owners of mills, tanneries and shoe factories, could stand and admire themselves in the warp of the river below. As kids, we’d learnt to be charmed by this fairytale skyline. As teenagers, we learnt to squint and spit at its small-time vanity. By the time we were adults, it was a reminder that a short-sighted, grandiose artistry ran within us all. To think big, but not too big.
The sun was blocked off again and I opened my eyes and the people on the footpaths swam in the blue shade, watching us obliquely like fish on a reef.
[Fig. 4 – Taxi stopped in traffic. José Almeida, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1999]
We headed south along the avenue. I was glad I’d been assigned to this car. LKJH was in the other. I knew his leg would be twitching, that he’d be taking notes, still urging the others to think, to ask themselves why things were happening the way they were. This was our town, he’d be saying, and we were its local police. There would be no peace, however brief or superficial, in that car. Someone would surely have had to tell him to stop, to just let them be.
The chief had called myself and LKJH into his office a couple of weeks back and told us an international investigation of some sort had apparently identified our town as the most likely site for the next November event. LKJH began trembling, questions coming so fast he was unable to verbalise them. The chief asked if this was the same business our dads had had a thing for. We nodded. The chief sighed and said he’d never understood what they were talking about. He asked us to prepare a briefing for the senior crew. I could feel LKJH looking at me, but I didn’t look back. The chief rubbed his moustache just under his nose and asked if all this was real, if someone was really going to just. I felt LKJH nod. The chief leaned back in his chair and squinted at the wall.
Outside, LKJH had hammered me with questions though I knew it was just to hear his own voice. What international investigation? When had that started? Who was behind that? How could they predict location? What parameters were they using? What sort of tech? He said crazy stuff about destiny, about the two of us as integral parts, how our whole lives had led us to that point. I stopped him there. I told him he was on his own. There was no ‘us’. But I don’t think he heard me. He was talking about calling by his mother’s place to get the stuff, telling me to imagine what our dads would have said. An event happening here. But I didn’t feel like imagining anything. Our dads were dead and gone, as was my interest in the events, as was my attachment to many things, I found right then as I tried to get myself away, as he followed me for a while, asking me where I was going, asking me how I could deny our destiny. But it wasn’t ‘our’ anything.
[Fig. 4 – Armchair and fireplace bearing remains. Lukás Koller, Senec, Slovakia, 2000]
Up a ramp off the national into suburbs that stretched before us into hills all the way up towards The Shoulder, the low mountain that rose before us. The wild green ruffles against a golden biscuit stone. A view worth considering too, perhaps, I thought, with our town’s stock about to rise. Someone said that one of our colleagues lived out this direction. After a moment, someone else asked why he’d said that, if that was important. We drove on for a while and the first said no, that just maybe that was why he was in the other car. Someone asked if any of us in our car lived out this way. No, we said, one by one. Again someone asked if that was important. The silence spoke for itself.
I was two years older than LKJH. We’d gone to different schools and our dads had served in different units. If they hadn’t bonded over the events, then me and LKJH would probably have never even met as kids. We only became cops because that was what our city was like. The doctor’s kids became doctors, the shopkeeper’s kids became shopkeepers, and so on. Some didn’t, of course, but many did. Some specifically tried not to, myself included, but ended up doing so all the same. There was a saying in our city, or used to be at one point, that childhood was an apprenticeship.
The radio bleeped, directions coming turn by turn, next left, second right, again and again, and each time we moved more slowly, more uphill. For security reasons, they’d told us, we couldn’t be given our destination. After every turn, the radio asked for our location and someone ran it off, we listened to our accent, its sound making more sense than all the procedural talk of this whole undertaking. These were the nice neighbourhoods, the places we were taught to aspire towards, places where we could quite literally look down on the rest of the town. I looked at the long, high hedges, the pedestrian crossings, the broad pavements, the cafés and florists, the jolly shop fronts and school railings, a cushioned playground where a swing trembled.
[Fig. 5 – Office canteen showing event radius. Zhou Chen, Baoding, China, 2004]
When the date came around each year, our dads held what they called an ‘observation’ in LKJH’s dad’s garage. Boxes of filings and photos taken down from the skewed shelves and spread across a workbench, a big old map hung in the corner, covered with pins and curling notes. The junk was moved back so our dads could sit in fold-out canvas chairs, with us two cross-legged on stinking upturned fruit crates. All in the light of a single candle lit for the latest victim. By the time we gathered there in the evening, the event had sometimes already happened, and our dads told us to do the paperwork, the logbooks, to stick the pin in the map. If it hadn’t happened yet, we sat in the stale, vegetable air and waited for the phone to ring. Our dads quizzed us, made us name the year, the victim, the location and circumstances. LKJH bouncing on his crate when I didn’t know an answer, as our dads urged me to think, told me it was easy. LKJH with his hand raised, punching the air, and it was always my dad who’d eventually ask him, and he’d get it right and all three of them wondered how I hadn’t known such an easy one.
When our dads had drunk all their beer, LKJH’s dad would reach behind one or other pile of junk and produce a bottle, unlabelled and wrapped in a rag. They jokingly called it the ‘magic potion’. They passed the bottle and mulled over theories. They improvised freely. Talk always turned to speculation about an event occurring in our town. The intrusion from outside, our townsfolk forced to reckon questions without answers. LKJH sitting rapt. They grew less and less coherent, and spoke of rebirth in death, of the need for sacrifice. If someone had to go, they said, then why not one of us? If there was no way to avoid it, should it not instead be sought? The bottle passed like a pendulum between them, and each November, they reached the conclusion with the soft, malicious ambiguity our region is famous for, that it might have been the best thing that could happen to us.
Eventually, the radio gave us an address. As we slowed and peered out for house numbers, the trucks swelled past us. They already knew where they were going, someone said. It was only the locals kept in the dark. Too close to be trusted. Why have us leading out then, someone else said. Why have us there at all? They fell silent then, aware that this was pretty much what LKJH had been saying for weeks, that we’d been told next to nothing, that our role in proceedings seemed little more than a front for something much deeper, much larger, and very far from random.
[Fig 29 – (c) Graph of Van Allen radiation belt and (d) SAA zone.]
LKJH had taken care of the briefing himself. He’d set up the shaggy old map in the office, the tables spread with the files and charts. The senior bunch passed photos around as LKJH told them about Toronto. The ice hockey game. Local fan Barton Thewes, rink-side with his family. The event happened, all over the glass, all over the people around him, into the air, raining down onto the ice. It happened just off camera but the panic was live. An infamous image of steam rising from the bright remains on the rink. It was news for a while, though when investigations produced nothing, it was soon outpaced by other matters, and left to linger on hard drives, what they’d scooped from the ice kept in a forensic deep freeze somewhere. LKJH swept his hand across the map. Every event had been investigated thoroughly, but none had produced anything useful. The investigators were asked to confirm at least that the events were linked but from a strictly scientific perspective, successive teams explained, it wasn’t conclusive whether they were or not. Public records and chronicles were examined for inexplicable events, anything occurring on that date, parameters so wide there was any number of potentially linked events; sinking ships, disappearing livestock, strange lights in the sky.
The senior bunch leaned, arms folded. So what you’re saying, someone said, is this is going to happen in our town? LKJH said that it was going to happen somewhere, but he didn’t know about any way of predicting an event with the local and temporal accuracy they were talking about. Then why, someone called up, was this international investigation saying it would happen here? LKJH shook his head, said it was the first he’d heard about it. There hadn’t been any interest at all for years, and nothing concerted or sustained. He had no information on who was behind it or how they were operating. But members of the international team were due any day, he said, and then we’d know more. He took his phone from the desk and poked at it with his thumb and chimes came from phones around the room. Some links, he said. Sites, more background, some thought. The senior bunch took out their phones, looked at screens. I saw how he savoured their downturned heads, as he watched them wonder what exactly was awaiting them.
[Fig. 12 – Detail (6a) from Aboriginal artwork, The Kimberley, Australia. Detail (6c) from graffiti in Utrecht, The Netherlands.]
In the back room at The Bell, where the wooden panelling shone, polished by generations of unofficial policework, the discussion grew heated. They demanded to know if it was happening or not, what exactly he was saying. I watched LKJH explain that no one actually knew when the events had begun. They might have always existed. There were holes everywhere in the records, years with nothing reported, other years with numerous conflicting accounts of disappearances. This was not the senior crew’s modus operandi. They opened the small hatch doors in the wall and bellowed for more beer. Why were they only hearing about this now? Why wasn’t this common knowledge? LKJH told them that was exactly what they should be asking themselves. Eventually, our malicious ambiguity emerged, that it was just one person, that it hardly mattered. Others nodded. Maybe, said LKJH, though what if it’s one of us? The frayed patience tautened again.
The trucks gathered on a corner, where houses all around sat hidden behind hedges. We passed around the grid of coloured squares we’d been given back at the precinct. We found our space at the end and radioed in and sat still as other vehicles moved past towards their place. The radio crackled again, calling our car number, telling us to move out. We popped the doors and the air throbbed with engines. Someone said at least we knew who the decoys were. The biggest vehicles were stopped end to end, creating a sort of barrier around the corner. Still more pulled up tight, waved into place by back-pedalling figures. Any gaps were quickly filled with international troops in mirror shades, weapons high across their chests. Boots planted on tailgates as equipment was unloaded onto trolleys. We showed our badges and were directed to a channel between vehicles where a large white forensics canopy with zipped doorways was being erected. Technicians waved us on.
Inside was a generous, sloping, L-shaped garden with bark-chip paths and tiered flower beds. We went up three slate steps to where the house stood behind fan-like shrubbery, the broad front door under a dark wooden porch. From there we stood and looked back down towards the technicians bringing metal cases through the plastic portal and lining them up on the lawn. The engine throb, the distant pounding of boots, the close-up clack of the handles springing closed against the metal cases.
[Fig. 14 – Japanese investigators bow at press conference, Yokohama, Japan, 1998]
When the international team had indeed showed up at our precinct, accompanied by government officials who briefed us on our role, LKJH’s hand was up from the start. The officials eventually paused and LKJH asked if we were the first city the ‘operation’ was being conducted in, if this predictive model had been tried elsewhere. He asked who was behind the international team, why there was this sudden concerted revival of interest in the events. The chief told him to stop, but LKJH repeated his questions. The officials reminded him our full cooperation was expected, but he asked what exactly we were cooperating in. Why now? Why here? He began to quiz the international team in broken English, name the year, name the victim, the location and circumstances, till they shook their heads, and the man in charge, a tall, thin man they’d introduced as the ‘Doctor’, frowned at the government officials, who told LKJH to shut up, and when he didn’t, to get the hell out.
Down at The Bell, some of them had a go at LKJH. Who the hell did he think he was with his raggedy old map and his photos? He asked them why he was the only one standing up to them. For all our badges and oaths, for all our local swagger, he said, we’d been silenced, made redundant, marginalised in our own town. He reminded us that we were police officers, and we should have been investigating, asking why all this was suddenly being treated so seriously, asking whose interests this whole international operation was serving. Did they really think it was chance that had brought them to our little town? Or did they think this was just what our town needed? A little sacrifice to get the blood flowing again. Exasperation became anger and voices were raised until the barman had to stoop to the hatch doors and plead with us to keep it down. It was up to us, LKJH said as he necked his beer and stormed out, meaning, once again, that it was up to him.
When LKJH left, the senior crew asked me what his problem was. I shrugged. When they asked if I really believed an event was going to happen here, in our town, I said the only honest thing I could: ‘why not?’
I didn’t tell them that one time during an observation our dads had made us fight. They said we had to toughen up and learn to protect ourselves. This was deep into the magic potion. I refused, but they goaded LKJH till he came squealing at me and hit me and both of them were bellowing at me to hit him back and even LKJH hung off a bit, waiting for me to do something. The intensity in his eyes, the fear, not of violence, but of disappointing our dads. I stood there lumpen as he tried a few more exaggerated, theatrical punches, his eyes swelling with mortification.
[Fig. 9 – Wedding ring, flowers. Máire Donovan, Castlebar, Ireland, 2020]
The chief called me into the office. He asked if LKJH was okay. I asked what he meant. The chief paused. Could LKJH be trusted, he wanted to know. With what, I asked. The chief squinted at the wall. LKJH was taking things very seriously, he said. Very personally. How was he supposed to take things, I asked softly, rhetorically. I liked the chief. He sat silently, focusing on a seemingly tiny but essential piece of the wall. He rubbed his moustache just under his nose. He said people were constantly telling him what a big deal this was for our little town. I shrugged. I said I didn’t know. The chief then said that people were calling for LKJH to be removed. Distanced. I asked if it was our people asking. There was a knock on the door then, and people came in, and we apologized to each other as I left.
The observations were the first thing I rebelled against. One year, I said I wasn’t going. I can’t remember how old I was, but I was as tall as my dad. I told him the events were stupid. He asked if I was denying them. No, I said. He asked what was I talking about then. I couldn’t say what I meant. It was an affront to something I couldn’t define at the time, but I knew I was right and stood my ground and refused to go. The dads sent LKJH over to try to convince me to come. He said what they’d told him to say, tried to make it his own as they’d told him to. ‘Our little tradition,’ he said. ‘Our thing.’
I told him to get real, that the events were trivia, for trivial people, that nobody else gave a shit about them. He went back and repeated that pretty much word for word, and I don’t think my dad ever really forgave me.
The years went by and our dads retired, pottered around, grew slow, and died. LKJH had a son and a daughter who’d shown little interest in the events despite his best efforts. The older they got, the more they dismissed him, out in the garage, the sick photos and yellowing charts. They eventually used it against him in the custody hearing. For me, the events became all but forgotten, a low throb once a year when LKJH would find me, follow me down a corridor, tell me the details of the latest, letting me know me he’d update the records, gather some info. I’d nod till he went away and took his empty throb with him. Sitting alone in the garage, staring at the map, year after year. A single candle lit.
Maybe I should have told the chief these things. He knew I had no kids, no wife to fight for them. He could have used this knowledge to frame my contributions, to temper the breach of confidence, staring at the wall as he factored them in, factored them out. Maybe I’d been distracted by what the chief didn’t ask; why I wasn’t taking it more personally. If he’d asked, I’d have told him something. But he didn’t. As I said, I liked the chief.
[Fig. 7 – Forensics teams mark remains on rocks. Abidemi Eze, Enugu, Nigeria, 2018]
From where we stood under the porch, I could see through a gap in the two houses opposite, a broad slice of our town below, a wedge of oblique, cryptic crossword dozing in the valley haze. This light of ours, I noted, that hung like kind, wise words, reminding us of the onset of dusk. The sun would soon dip behind The Shoulder and the valley would be left to measure itself against deepening shadow. We didn’t pay enough attention to our light, to its daily saga, to its glorious demise. We took nightfall for granted when we locked our doors and thought that nobody could hear us think. We yawned and lay down and dreamt of an innocent morning we never suspected might not come.
Someone said listen up, that no matter what happened inside, we were going to The Bell afterwards, okay, just us lot, nobody else, that the first round was on him. We hummed agreement. Then someone else said sorry but if it was a child, he didn’t think he’d be able to. That he was sorry, but if it was a child, no way. There was no acknowledgement. The technicians stacked the last of the cases and stared back at us across the lawn.
[Fig. 10 – Overlaid graphs of mean age, height, weight and blood type]
Our colleagues from the other car came through the white portal into the garden. They approached up the steps, looking drawn. Someone asked what they were doing there. What was the point of a decoy if we all ended up in the same place? One gave a thumb over his shoulder, and said ask him, and we looked and saw LKJH enter, taking his time, turning, inspecting the rows of cases. When he reached the porch, he asked what we were doing. Someone said we were waiting for the chief to arrive with the first contact team. LKJH frowned and said they were already inside. Someone asked him how he knew that. Police work, he said. We stood and reckoned on this.
Someone asked if that meant we were all decoys.
[Fig. 11 – Aerial view of rioting in Lyon. Rochelle Ngogo, Lyon, France, 2022]
To be approached one day at your own front door and have a local voice tell you were a key piece in an ongoing worldwide project. To be told its purpose was to discover something solid, something to confirm that a methodology was sound, that answers lay therein. To hear how profound a victory this would be. To be led back to your sitting room or kitchen and told that they needed you to be strong, needed you to trust them, and then to watch as they stood back to weigh your stammered confusion, to note how you searched their cold, foreign faces for impossible explanations.
The trucks fell silent and we heard the sound of the forensics portal being zipped shut. The front door creaked open and we turned. The chief leaned out, gave us a soft nod, and went back inside, leaving the door open. LKJH swept past me and straight in. Troops stooped to the handles on the equipment cases. I looked across at the image of our town between the two houses, how snug it lay in the hazy lavender sunset, though for all my romanticism I knew news of this operation would by then be rushing through its veins, and would infect the oncoming dusk with a mental neon glow. I turned back to the gaping hole of the door and stepped inside.
The first thing I saw was the photo hanging in the hall. Parents and kids. A family smile. Low curses from those who followed me. The hallway led into a broad living room, its thick carpet and mantelled, candlesticked table, where numerous people in fatigues or lab coats already moved around. The chief stood, absently rubbing his moustache. I went and stood beside him and he said something as light as breath that I didn’t catch. There was a man and a woman holding each other on a sofa. They looked up at the matt-metal cases, the uniforms and helmets in their living room. Technicians compared readings from hand-held devices, others set up tripod stands. LKJH crouched by the couple. I heard him telling them not to worry, that the local police had their back, that the whole thing was a bit of a mix-up. That it was an exercise. At best a simulation. The international community, he said, with a familiar malicious ambiguity. The couple held each other tightly. The chief called him back in a hollow voice. LKJH stood up again, hands on hips, labouring under the weight of the rest of what he wanted to say.
[Fig. 13 – Excerpt from the Popol Vuh. Guatemala, transcribed in 1550CE approx., from Mayan oral tradition]
The white-coated team asked the man to make space as they worked around the woman, leaning her this way and that, whispering necessity, fixing a sensor to her temple, another on her neck. She acquiesced wordlessly. They slipped a small black ring onto her fingertip, a tiny red light with the rapid blink of her pulse. The process was distracting enough to allow her to look past them again, past us all, and just then there were muffled shouts and two little girls came running, squeezing between bodies, crying in unison, terrified. The team members who’d been assigned to them followed and reached, but stopped short as the woman took the children together, shushing and calming them, smoothing their hair. As they begged her to come, their mother’s voice washed over them, sound beyond words, a trembling melody to linger in their ears.
At a murmur from the doctor, the minders stepped forward again and whispered the girls’ names and the crying grew intense, the strength of a child’s cling, the arms reaching for mama and papa as the minders worked on each grip, blocked and ushered the children out. The man on the sofa blinked red-eyed confusion. The little voices grew more desperate and even the closed doors and distance along the hallway couldn’t block the sound.
They began setting up cameras on tripods and draped light plastic sheeting across the furniture, taping more to the ceiling and letting it hang. The woman asked why, and the man stood up, mouth hanging, overwhelmed, the creak of troops leaning in. The man trembled as he asked what they were filming and the doctor rubbed the point between his eyes and the man pushed back at the figures leaning in and limbs quickly tangled and he was shouting that he just wanted to hold her, that he wouldn’t leave her, that he would protect her, but she said no, no, to be calm, that he had to take care of the girls, that he had to go to them. He struggled against the words but she said again that it was fine. That it was just a simulation. The man’s desolate appreciation of her, barely resisting as he was taken from his own sitting room. He sobbed from the hallway that she’d be fine, that they’d all be together in no time. That the girls needed her. That he was blessed to know her. That they loved her so much.
[Fig. 15 – Screenshot from redacted government documents, on Project Argus, London, UK, 2009]
The doctor nodded and someone threw a switch and lights came on and the plastic glared and we all looked down. The small cameras were trained and technicians nodded to each other. Surrounded but alone, the local woman sat straight in her chair blinking through tears. She asked if we were recording and someone said yes and she stared into space, into time, and controlled her breathing and began speaking again to her absent girls. She told them she wasn’t afraid. Her trembling smile as she removed tears with the heel of her hand. She wasn’t afraid. It was an exercise. There was nothing to fear. We sat around and listened, in our big boots and bulletproof shields. The sound of tapping at a laptop computer, looping differently to the woman’s speech. She paused every now and again, as if to let it catch up.
All through which, I kept my eye on LKJH as he paced about in a corner, as it all dissolved in his hands. He asked the chief what exactly the woman had been told. The chief shushed him but he asked again, and the chief turned a pained look and said please not now, but LKJH turned to the doctor and spoke in English, clear enough to make the tall man wince. LKJH turned back to us. She doesn’t know, he said. They didn’t tell her anything about the events. Voices of compressed urgency ordering him to stop speaking, but he turned back and stepped right into the doctor’s personal space and both troops and lab coats converged to block him. LKJH told the doctor straight to his face that he was full of shit. At the doctor’s terse, glassy patter, the troops grabbed LKJH and wrestled him swiftly towards the door. Gurgling through the choke-hold as they dragged him past, he locked desperate eyes on me and I thought he trying to say something about destiny, a disoriented final appeal to ‘us’. I hope all he saw on my face was that this had never been about him and he knew it. Then he was gone and we were left alone with the only sound in the room, the woman sitting on the sofa, speaking softly to her girls.
I only became a cop because I rebelled against it so hard, threw myself into the wild life so completely that in the end it was the only job I could have possibly got. An apprenticeship of its own. It reached the point where my dad had left me flat on my back and leaned over me and told me I could either sign up or leave town. All those times I’d told my dad that the events were irrelevant, that more people died in their bathtubs, more were killed by their pets. Maybe it was all just because I knew I’d end up here.
White coats whispered things, called off numbers and letters. I heard one say something about contact and people grew utterly silent. In this room, in our town of all places, it was understood that something, no matter what, was favourable to nothing. It was nothing, essentially, that scared us more. Nothing wasn’t absence; it was totality, a reset to chaos every time. In that room, we understood that sometimes a sacrifice was needed.
Should I have spoken out when I saw all the cameras were trained on her, as she sat alone, strong, beautiful beyond words? Should I not have asked for one camera at least to be turned in my general direction? Asked for a sensor or two? A ring for my fingertip? I began to feel a strange sensation of having reached some undeniable truth. A sense of completeness, of fullness, of being far too much for this little town.