"If four people in a row told you the man fleeing from the scene wore a red jacket, what would you expect the fifth witness to say?"
"That the man was wearing a red jacket." The man sitting across from me wasn't wearing any jacket at all, instead clutching a briefcase to his chest.
He let go long enough to raise a finger. "Listen carefully to the following series. One squared plus zero. Two squared plus one. Three squared plus zero. Four squared minus one. Can you tell me what comes next?"
Pattern recognition had always been my strength in school, that and the ability to locate missing lunch money. "Five squared plus zero."
"Exactly!" He leaned forward, his eyes shining. "I knew I came to the right person. The correct answer is in fact five squared plus zero. You figured that out in seconds and yet They expect us to believe the next element in the series is five squared minus four. Minus four!"
I needed to stop meeting potential clients in my office. Witnesses might just see this joker fleeing in a straightjacket. "Who is They?"
"That's one of the things I'm hiring you to discover."
I glanced at my desk calendar. Full moon wasn't for another week. "Actually, I'm not sure I'll be able to take your case. I'm leaving town on business and the return date has not yet been set."
"I assume you're familiar with the alphabet." His knuckles turned white from his grip on the briefcase. "We are told there are five vowels: A, E, I, O, and U."
"And sometimes Y."
I might as well have said nothing. "A is the first letter. One squared plus zero equals one. E is the fifth letter. Two squared plus one equals five. I is the ninth letter. Three squared plus zero equals nine. O is the fifteenth letter. Four squared minus one equals fifteen." He paused for effect. "U is the twenty-first letter. The obvious next element in the series, five squared plus zero, equals twenty-five."
"And twenty-five is not twenty-one."
He grinned. "You begin to see the problem."
My problem was that I didn't have a switch that would allow me to drop his chair through the floor. "So?"
"If I'm not mistaken, and I don't think I am, They rearranged the last six letters of the alphabet, the true alphabet."
"To break down communications, keep us weak and divided." He quickly glanced over his shoulder before continuing. "It gets worse."
"Since the first vowel is the first letter of the alphabet it only stands to reason that the last vowel should be the last letter. If U is moved to its rightful twenty-fifth position, there are four slots between T and U in which to fit the remaining letters."
I counted off with my fingers. "V, W, X, Y, and Z. That's five."
"Exactly. One of those five is an imposter."
Perhaps if I humored him, I could then pass him off to one of my competitors. "Do you have any suspects?"
He nodded. "W sounds fabricated. X serves almost no purpose. As you yourself mentioned, Y has some strange properties."
"What about V and Z?"
"Notice they rhyme. Other than that, they are suspiciously innocuous."
I took a deep breath. "As I said before, I can't take your case due to prior commitments, but I'd be glad to refer you to one of my colleagues."
"No. I've already talked to the others. You were the first who could say what came next."
I wasn't sure if I should be honored to be first or insulted to be the last asked. "I don't know what I can do for you then."
He cracked open his briefcase just wide enough to snatch out a sheet of paper. "I've made a list of the leading linguists in the country. While the switch must have been made years ago, They has to be an ongoing society charged with maintaining the fiction, making sure no one discovers the secret. They couldn't afford not to."
I took the list from his outstretched hand, glanced at the names and addresses before laying it on my desk. If he wouldn't take no for an answer, I'd wait a week and tell him I'd failed. "This could be very expensive."
"Money is no object."
Maybe I'd wait a month. "I'll call you as soon as I have anything to report."
"Be very careful. I know you probably think I'm insane but the danger is real and They are not the only ones who have something to lose if the truth comes out."
"What do you mean?"
"Dictionaries and encyclopedias will have to be reprinted. File cabinets will have to be reorganized. Alphabet songs will have to be rewritten. Why, every single index will be incorrect. The cost will be staggering."
"Then why not leave well enough alone?"
"Because I, like you, am dedicated to righting wrongs. An injustice has been done and things need to be set straight."
I glanced again at the calendar to make sure the full moon was still a week away. Seeing the dates, I realized I hadn't been paying enough attention to what he said and carefully slid open the drawer containing my gun. "There's something that doesn't add up, or rather, it does."
He tensed. "What do you mean?"
"Five squared plus zero is twenty-five. Y is the twenty-fifth letter. That means U are the imposter!"
As he flung his briefcase at me, I dove from my chair to evade the projectile. By the time I stood, gun in hand, he was gone.
After closing the door and turning the lock, I went to the window to peek through the blinds.
If he was part of They--and he did seem to be smack dab in the middle--he must have been sent here to determine whether I was a threat to their organization. He'd used to truth to bait the trap but I'd managed to escape.
The only question now was, what came next?