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My name is Robbie Brownlaw, and I am a Homicide detective for the city of San Diego. I am twenty-nine years old. My life was ordinary until three years ago when I was thrown out of a downtown hotel window.
No one knows it except my wife, but I now have synesthesia, a neurological condition where your senses get mixed up. Sometimes when people talk to me, I see their voices as colored shapes. It happens when they get emotional. The shapes are approximately two by two inches and there are usually between four and eight of them, sometimes more. They linger in the air midway between the speaker and me, about head high. They fade quickly. I can move them with my finger or a pen if I want.
Shortly after my fall I used graph paper and colored markers to make a chart of which words and word combinations triggered which colored shapes. This was time-consuming and not always pleasant, due to some very painful headaches. I also observed that blue triangles generally came from a happy speaker. Red squares came from a deceptive one. Green trapezoids usually came from someone who was envious -- green really is the color of envy, just like we were always told.
But as the weeks went by, I noticed that identical words and sentences could sometimes trigger very different shapes and colors. I was afraid that I had posttraumatic swelling in my brain and worried that my synesthesia would worsen to the point where I'd spend the rest of my life drooling at invisible shapes while people tried to talk to me.
I spoke my fears to Gina one night and noticed that when she told me I "shouldn't worry about it," her words came to me as the black triangles of dread. I looked them up on my chart just to make sure. It was then that I began to understand that the colorful shapes are provoked by the emotions of the speaker, not by the words themselves.
So I have what amounts to a primitive lie detector, though I'm not certain how reliable it is. I think a remorseless psychopath could fool me, or even an accomplished liar. Who knows what colors and shapes they might cause? In my line of work, people will lie to you about the smallest and most trivial things.
Synesthesia is considered a gift by synesthetes -- the people who have it -- but I'm not convinced that it is. There's a San Diego Synesthesia Society, and for over a year now I've been thinking about going to a meeting. I browse their Web site and note the date and time of the next meeting, but I've never attended one. I'm curious, but a little afraid of what I might discover. The condition is hard for me to talk about, even with Gina. Although she's tolerant and wonderfully opinionless about how others view the world, it annoys her that even her white lies announce themselves to me as bright red squares. It would annoy me, too.
When I was thrown out of the window I hit hard. You have no idea how hard cement really is until you land on it from six stories up, even if your fall is largely broken by a canvas awning. During the fall I came to believe in God. It is true what they say about your life flashing past when you believe that you are about to die, but it is not your entire life. Obviously. I should have died, but only a few bones broke, and I'm in perfect shape again, other than the large scar on the back of my head, now hidden by hair, and the synesthesia.
One benefit I got from that fall was two very quick promotions. As soon as I proved I was in great health and could do the job, doors opened right up. From Fraud to Sex Crimes to Homicide just like that. Everyone expected me to die from the fall. All of the media coverage made the department want to reward its unlikely hero. The reporters nicknamed me "the Falling Detective." And my superiors sincerely felt that I deserved a little something extra for all I'd been through. Anyway, I'm the youngest detective in Homicide, but nobody seems to resent me for it. I'm part of Team Four. Our case-cancellation rate last year, 2004, was eighty-eight percent, which is considered excellent.
I got the call from our lieutenant at four that morning. An anonymous caller had tipped us to a body in a car near Balboa Park. Patrol had confirmed a black Ford Explorer parked in the trees near the Cabrillo Bridge, which spans Highway 163. The lieutenant told me there was a man slumped dead in the driver's seat. Blood, sidearm on the floorboard, probable gunshot.
I called my partner, McKenzie Cortez, then poured a cup of coffee. I sat for a minute on the bedside in the dark, snugged up the sheets around Gina and kissed her.
In the weak light of the breakfast nook I wrote her a note saying I'd be careful and I loved her. Spouses worrying about their loved ones getting killed on the job is what ruins a lot of cop marriages. And I like Gina to have something nice to wake up to. She works as a hairdresser at Salon Sultra downtown, which is top of the line. She cut Mick Jagger's hair when the Stones played L.A. not long ago. Just a trim, actually. Mick flew her up to his hotel in Beverly Hills in a helicopter. Paid a thousand for the cut and gave her another five hundred for a tip.
The drive from my house in Normal Heights took twelve minutes. It was a cool, clear March morning. There had been rain the night before, more than enough to leave shallow black puddles along the freeway. The stars were bright in the sky and the . . .
Excerpted from The Fallen by T. Jefferson Parker. Copyright © 2006 by T. Jefferson Parker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.