The Vaults took up nearly half a city block. Files arranged in shelves arranged in rows; files from every case handled in the City for nearly the past century; files arranged, cross-referenced, and indexed. So complicated and arcane was the system that at any given time only one living person understood it. At this time, that person was Arthur Puskis, Archivist. He was the fourth Archivist, inheriting the position from Gilad Abramowitz, who had gone mad in his final years and died soon after taking his leave of the Vaults. Abramowitz had mentored Puskis for the better part of ten years, explaining, as best as his addled mind allowed, the logic behind the system. Even so, it had taken Puskis most of the following decade to truly understand. He was now in his twenty-seventh year in the Vaults.
As happened every day, several times a day, O’Shea, the messenger from Headquarters, had brought a list of files to be pulled. Several items on the list were preceded by an asterisk, which meant that Puskis was to pull all cross-referenced files as well. Puskis had a file cart that he wheeled down the long aisles, searching for the appropriate shelves. The cart had a loose wheel that squeaked rhythmically with each rotation.
Puskis completed his rounds and returned to his desk with the requested files. He opened the files that had been asterisked and took down the numbers of the cross-referenced files. He then took the file cart and went to retrieve those files. Each aisle was illuminated at thirty-foot intervals by a bare electric lightbulb. Every journey consisted of walking from an illuminated area into a more twilit space and then back into illumination. None of the bulbs ever seemed to burn out, and Puskis was vaguely aware that the City sent someone around to check them periodically. Their collective hum was like some primal sound, one that could have emanated from the earth itself.
He was at the shelf for the C4583R series, in a dimly lit stretch, when he found the two files. He was searching for C4583R series, subseries A132, file 18. It was in the correct location, just after C4583R series, subseries A132, file 17. He put the file in the file cart and, out of habit, checked the next file to make sure that it was C4583R series, subseries A132, file 19. Abramowitz had suggested the method; an episodic way to check on filing accuracy in place of doing periodic audits as Abramowitz’s predecessors had done. The files were too voluminous now to make that feasible.
Initially, when he saw the adjacent file, C4583R series, subseries A132, file 18, he assumed he had made a mistake and retrieved the wrong file to begin with. He checked the file cart and found that he had in fact taken the correct file. This meant that there were actually two C4583R series, sub-series A132, file 18s. Puskis removed the spectacles from the end of his long, thin nose, rolled his head around to loosen his neck, replaced the spectacles, and looked at the files again. Nothing had changed. The two files bore the same label.
He opened the one that had been left on the shelf. It was the file for a Reif DeGraffenreid, FACT identification number such and such, with this particular address and so on. He opened the one in the file cart. Again, the name was Reif DeGraffenreid, same FACT number, address, etc. Duplicate files? Puskis could not imagine himself capable of such sloppiness. A puzzle. Puskis put the second file in the file cart and returned to his desk to address this vexing problem.
Puskis took the two folders and, with his skeletal fingers, laid them on opposite sides of his barren desk. He removed the contents one by one, first from the file folder on his left and then from the one on his right. Puskis had, from years of experience, acquired an especially keen sense of paper of various ages. He would have told an inquisitive soul—if he ever actually interacted with one—that it was an instinct. The truth was that it was an acute understanding of the paper stocks of different decades and the effect that aging had on them, making them dry, crisp, and discolored—but each stock in a minutely unique way.
He noticed that the papers from the two files were not of identical age. The paper from the file to his right was not eight years old—too moist, it bent limply from his fingers, without the rigidity that crept into older paper. Taking a greater interest now, Puskis estimated the paper on the right to be three or four years old. He held the more recent paper up to the light to confirm this estimate. The Department’s paper supplier for years had been Ribisi & Porfiro. They had imprinted their paper with a distinctive sea-horse watermark. Five years ago, however, they had been acquired by Capitol Industries, and to cut costs the corporation had done away with the watermark. The more recent sample, then, bearing no watermark, must have been created in the last five years. Puskis checked the paper from the older file, and as he suspected, it carried the watermark. Somebody had typed the more recent pages at least two or three years after the original file had been created. It was curious.
Also curious were the pages: same cover sheet, same personal information, same testimony—DeGraffenreid had been on trial for the murder of someone named Ellis Prosnicki—same verdict: guilty. The sentence had been “Life-PN,” which was not the approved abbreviation for “penitentiary”—just another vexing detail of the unthinkable duplication that Puskis had discovered. Yet here, too, was an interesting difference. In the margin of page 8 of the testimony was a handwritten notation. It read “Do not contact—Dersch.” An arrow pointed to the name Feral Basu, who was mentioned by DeGraffenreid as the man who had introduced him to Prosnicki. In the file to the right, it was written in green ink. In the file to the left, the ink was blue.
He looked closer. The writing was nearly identical, but not quite. Where the n’s tailed off in the blue ink, they ended suddenly in the green. The angles at which the arrows were drawn, too, were slightly different. It was, he decided, as if someone had deliberately copied the notation from one file to the other as exactly as he could. Or not quite as exactly. He studied the two notations, trying to discern the forger’s intention, before eventually conceding that, from the scant available evidence, this was unknowable.
Finally, he came to the photographs. The photo from the left-hand side (the older file) was a head-and-shoulders shot of a man with sunken eyes, a blunt, crooked nose, and receding hair. His mouth was slightly open, providing a glimpse of crooked and broken teeth. It might have been cropped from a mug shot. The photo from the file on the right was of a completely different person. This man had long, thin features, hollow cheeks that he had tried to conceal with extensive sideburns, and sparse hair parted in the middle. Most striking to Puskis was the man’s stare, as though unaware of the camera, which could not have been more than ten feet away. It was, Puskis thought, haunting.
This was a troubling development. Puskis picked up his phone and, for the first time in over a decade, dialed out.
* * *
Puskis felt more uncomfortable than usual in the Chief’s office. He rarely deviated from his three destinations: his apartment, seven blocks from the Vaults; the grocer’s around the corner; and, of course, the Vaults themselves. Anywhere else and he realized how eccentric—even grotesque—his nearly three decades in the Vaults had left him. He was alarmingly thin and stooped, the latter a consequence of years leaning to read files in the too dim light. His face was pale, and he sweated more than he liked when he was in the open air. He wore thick, wire-framed glasses, as the reading had left him nearsighted. Inside the Vaults he did not need to see beyond four or five feet.
The Chief was looking at Puskis with mild bewilderment. During his first years as Archivist, Puskis had occasionally come with some kind of request—a different kind of paper, a newfangled sprinkler system, a lockable door between the elevator and the Vaults, a bathroom—that the Chief could not possibly fund. In time, the consistent fruitlessness of these requests put an end to Puskis’s visits. Now, after a decade, he was back. This was something quite different.
“Two identical files?” The Chief’s jowls quivered when he spoke.
“Yes, sir. Two files in the C4583R series. An individual by the name of Reif DeGraffenreid.”
“And the problem?” The Chief was polishing a badge of some sort with his tie.
“Well, sir, you see, there were two different photographs. The files were for the same person, but the photographs were of two different people.”
“I’m not sure that I understand the problem, Mr. Puskis.”
“It’s just that, sir, well, it’s just that there can’t really be two Reif DeGraffenreids in the city with the same FACT number and address and everything else. It’s just, well, not possible.” At some level, Puskis himself did not necessarily believe this statement. But such was his faith in the unerring accuracy of the files in the Vaults that there seemed no other explanation.
The Chief sighed. “Mr. Puskis, it seems quite evident to me that somebody made an error in filing one of those photographs.”
“But why the two files, sir? In my twenty-seven years in the Vaults I have never seen a duplicate file, and now, when I do, there are different photographs in each.”
The Chief shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Puskis.”
“That’s exactly my point, sir,” Puskis said somewhat desperately. “That is just the point I’m trying to get across to you. I don’t know what to make of it either. I am bringing it to your attention so that an inquiry can be initiated.”