Excerpt from The Incrementalists

# Ren #

I couldn't get the wi-fi in my room to work, but I had a nice apology gift certificate from Liam for the hotel café, so I went downstairs with my netbook and nooked into one of the high-backed booths. I ordered matzo ball soup because I thought it was funny to find it on a casino menu, but I worried about it as soon as the waitress left. Theirs might be good. Maybe even as good as my nana’s, but it didn’t stand a chance against my memory of hers. I flagged the waitress down and changed my order to a veggie burger, which would have offended my grandmother to her beef-loving soul. Then I opened Google Reader.

It was late for lunch and early for dinner, so I had the place mostly to myself when he walked in looking like all the reasons I’ve never wanted to go to Vegas. He wore a ball cap pulled down over predator's eyes in an innocent face, and I couldn't tell whether the hunt or the hunted was real. Still, there's no conversation you want to have with a tall, dark and handsome who sidles up to your table in the cafe of a Vegas hotel. I knew better. I put my earbuds in, and I didn't look up.

"Hi," he said, like he just thought of it.

I unplugged only my left ear, slowly, like it hurt me. "Sorry?"

"Hi," he said again with one of those smiles that means "I play golf!"

"Um, hi." I touched the molded plastic of the earpiece to my cheek, but he kept a hand on the backrest of the chair beside me. He squatted next to it, graceful on his back foot, bringing us eye-level, and I stowed every detail to bludgeon Liam with.

"I know you're not looking for company, but when I travel I'm always curious where the locals eat. Just wanted to let you know you've found it. There's no better bowl of soup in town."

"Good to know," I said. Liam would actually feel guilty about this.

"But if you want a drinkable cup of coffee, you have to get out of the hotels."

"I don't drink coffee."

"You'll be okay then, as long as you're only here a day or two."

"Because you drive tea-drinkers out of Vegas with pitchforks?"

"Oh, no. We just leave them to starve."

The serious nod that accompanied his starvation of the caffeine-adverse made me laugh. Maybe all the earnest was a game. I was pretty sure I could see a dimple twitching under the edge of his mustache.

"I will leave you alone if you want," he said. "I'm just talking to you on a theory."

"What theory is that?"

"That you have absolutely no trouble fending off sleazy pickup attempts, and you like talking to interesting strangers, and you can tell the difference pretty quickly."

I hesitated. "Okay," I said. "Any insider tips beyond coffee?

"Do you gamble?"

"No."

"Then no."

"And if I did?"

"I could tell you where not to."

"And why would you do that? I'm guessing you're not universally generous with your insights."

"You might be surprised," he said, and I caught a whiff of sincerity through a crack in the banter. "But I'd offer you all my secrets, if I thought you'd invite me to sit down. My knees are locking up."

"Here's your tea." The waitress put it down just out of my reach and turned to him. "Get you anything, Phil?"

He glanced at me. Then she did. And whatever anonymous pleasure I'd been getting from a stranger's privacy in public places seemed like less fun. I shrugged. "Have a seat."

"Coffee would be great, Kendra." He stood just slowly enough to make me think his knees ached and slid into the booth. He told me secrets for eating cheaply and well in Vegas, until the waitress came back with a bowl of matzo ball soup. It wasn’t the sandwich I had ordered, but with its two delicate dumplings floating in a broth that smelled like sick days when Mom had to work and took me to her mother’s, I decided to risk it.

"Shall I let you eat in peace?" he asked, with enough Yiddish inflection to make me check his eyes for a joke.

He smiled at me and, maybe feeling daring because my matzo gamble had paid out so tasty, I smiled back. "No, stay," I said, "and tell me what the locals do here besides eat."

#

# Phil #

I decided that that part had been harder than it should have been. "I'd love to say something clever, like, laugh at tourists. But the fact is, get away from the Strip and locals do the same things they do anywhere else."

"And in your case, what does that involve?"

"Poker."

"Just like everywhere else," she said.

I felt a shrug asking to be let out, but suppressed it. "It sounds more glamorous than user interface design, but when you're running bad, you miss the steady income."

There wasn't even a delay and a double take; she got it instantly. She nailed me in place with her eyes and said, "If you claim that was a lucky guess―"

"Not at all, Ren. Usually, I'd call you Renee until you okayed the nickname, but I know how you hate your dad's French aspirations."

She sat back. "Who the hell are you?"

"My name is Phil, and I'm here to recruit you to a very select and special group. The work is almost never dangerous, and best of all we don't pay anything."

Her eyes narrowed.

"Yes?" I asked.

"What I'm trying to figure out," she said slowly, "is why I'm not calling security."

"I can answer that," I told her. "Mostly, it's the soup. It tastes like your grandmother's. Also, if you listen closely, you can hear Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert singing 'The Keeper Did A-Hunting Go.' And if you look behind me―"

"Oxytocin," she said, staring at me.

I was impressed, and I didn't mind letting her see it. "Good work. That saves a lot of explanation."

"You're triggering memories to make me feel trusting."

I nodded again. "Just enough to get the explanation in before you have me thrown out. And so you'll believe the impossible parts at least enough to listen to them."

"This is crazy."

"It gets crazier."

"I can hardly wait. What are the impossible parts?"

"We'll get there. Let's start with the merely improbable. Do you like the MP3 format?"

"Huh?" Her brows came together.

"A functional sound format introduced and standardized. Do you think that's a good thing?"

"Sure."

"You're welcome."

She stared, waiting for me to say more.

"It almost didn't happen that way. That's the sort of thing you can do with oxytocin and dopamine and a few words in the right ears."

She was silent for a little longer, probably trying to decide if she only believed me because I was meddling with her head. Then she said, "Why me?"

"Because you almost got fired for telling truth to power in a particularly insulting way, and you did it for the benefit of a bunch of users you'd never met, and you expected it to cost you a job you liked. That's the kind of thing we notice. On good days."

Kendra came by and refilled my coffee, which gave Ren time to decide which of the ten million questions she wanted to ask next. I waited. Her fingernails―short and neatly trimmed―tapped against the teacup in front of her, not in time to the music. Her eyes were deep set and her face narrow, with prominent cheekbones that made me think American Indian somewhere in her background. Her brows formed a dark tilde, her nose was small and straight, and her lips were kissably inviting and led to creases at the corners of her mouth that acted as counterpoints to the laugh lines around her eyes. I wondered what a full-on smile would look like.

"Jesus Christ," she said.

"He wasn't one of us," I told her. "I'd remember."

#

# Ren #

Somehow, to my list of bad habits, I had recently added the practice of tapping my eyebrow with my index finger like an overgrown Pooh Bear with his absurd think, think, think. I caught myself at it and balled my fingers into a fist. Phil had his long body draped casually in his chair, but it stayed taut somehow anyway. He reminded me of a juggler, with his large hands and concentration. "Are you hitting on me?" I asked.

He laughed and relaxed. "No," he said, and I trusted him.

"Just checking." I sliced into a matzo ball with the edge of my spoon. "Because guys who ask to join me in restaurants, and make small talk, and recommend soups, and invite me into secret societies are usually after something."

"I didn't say I wasn't."

That shut me up. I ate some soup and pretended to be thinking. But mostly I was just drifting on chicken fat and memories. Eating hot soup in a cold café in the desert felt a long way from my grandmother's house. "My, what big eyes you have," I muttered.

Phil frowned.

"Little Red Riding Hood," I explained, but it didn't help. "I'm feeling like I've strayed from the path in the woods."

"Been led astray?" he asked.

"Maybe just led. How did you know to find me in Vegas?"

"We arranged for you to be here. Sorry about your date with Brian. But if he has any sense, he'll be waiting for you."

"Is my boss one of your guys, or Jorge?"

"No. But one of us helped one of Jorge's daughters a few years back, so it wasn't hard to arrange."

"So you have people in Vegas and New York. Where else?"

"Everywhere. Worldwide."

"Phoenix?"

"Not yet." His cheesy wink reminded me of the parrot in Treasure Island, the way source material seems cliché when you don't encounter it first.

"Why Vegas? Is the organization headquartered here?"

His laugh startled me, and made me smile, which startled me more. "No," he said. "There are only around two hundred of us. I’m the only one out here."

"So they brought me to you, specifically."

"Right." There was not a whisper left of his smile.

"You couldn't have come to me?"

"The World Series of Poker makes this a bad time for me to leave Las Vegas."

"So you wanted me enough to screw up my life in a couple of directions, but not enough to miss any poker?"

"Well, it's not just 'any poker.' It's the WSOP, but I would have come to Phoenix for you if I'd needed to."

"Why?"

"I already told you."

"No, you told me why me. Now I'm asking why you."

Phil put down his coffee cup. It made no sound when it touched the table. "I can't tell you that."

"You arranged for me to be where I am. You planned how you would approach me, what I'd eat―no matter what I ordered―and what music would be playing in the background."

"Yes."

I listened again. Sam Cooke. Family washing-up after dinner music―energetic, but safe. "And you've been manipulating me ever since."

"That's right."

"Manipulating me really, really well."

He inclined his head in something between a polite nod and a wary bow.

"I want to know how you do that."

His smile came slowly, but he meant every fraction of it. "That's what I'm offering," he said.

"You and this small but influential, international, nonpaying, not-dangerous secret society of yours?"

"Right."

"Like the mafia, only with all the cannoli and none of the crime."

"Well, we're much older."

"An older, slower mafia."

He looked a little disconcerted.

"And you fight evil? Control the government? Are our secret alien overlords?"

"Try to make the world a little better."

"Seriously?"

"Just a little better."

"An older, slower, nicer mafia?"

He stood up. "There's substantially more to us than that. For example, most people can't get Internet in the café. I've gotten about half the shockers out of the way, and next time we talk I won't be meddling with your head. Sleep on it." He took a small, plastic Fisher-Price dragon from his pocket and put it by my plate.

"I used to collect these things!" I said. "But you knew that, didn't you?"

Kendra the waitress stopped him on the way out, said something to him, kissed his cheek, and came to clear our table with her face still pink. I put my earphones back in and logged into Gmail using the wi-fi you can't get in the 24/7 Café to find two messages waiting for me...