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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 10

In an alley older than the New World's oldest cities Drago T. Zoran shuffles, stumbles and laughs. The ancient cobbles are tagged by fresh spray-paint; graffittoed over a run of trash cans is emblazoned the phrase LES PASSIONS IMPATIENT! Drago whirls and titters. Before he plants himself in the swill-burbling gutter he's caught by a friend, thrust upright, then caught again on the far side as he overbalances. "Whee!" squeals Drago.

"Watch it, watch it," warns Ray Chin. "I can't carry you home."

"Who needs for carrying when I can to fly?" Drago asks the sky, head flung back carelessly. "Oh look, there's Betelgeuse."

(This is Paris in summer. This is a night so perfectly temperate it feels like a warm bath. These are two boys who've submitted their doctoral theses -- two boys who for the first time in months have nothing to do of an evening but drink deep and breathe easy. This is freedom.)

"We should go home, Dragu," advises Ray. "It's late."

"I should have made you to drink more," says Drago. "You're far too sober, Mr. Ray. I can only to chalk up this failure to being from my own inexperience with the alcohols."

"You're probably going to throw up later. You do know that, don't you?"

Drago belches dangerously. "I'm fine," he claims.

Ray pinches the bridge of his nose and almost laughs, shaking his head. "You know, I think your French is actually better when you're drunk."

"Go on, go on -- teach me more Chinese."

"Not now. We should get moving. Have you finished your piss or haven't you?"

"I'm done finishing, yes."

The two boys totter back into the road. Ray starts walking toward the stairs down to the metro but stops when he realizes he's lost Drago. He turns. His friend is standing in the middle of the abandoned sidewalk, transfixed by green neon curlicues illuminating the painted glass of a small, semi-derelict looking storefront: MADAME GOGOASA, DEVIN.

Ray rolls his eyes. "Dragu! We'll miss the last train!"

Drago glances over at Ray but doesn't move. He pulls his wallet out of his pocket and peeks inside the billfold. There are still a few francs left inside. Voltaire's face is folded rudely against a crumpled receipt and a transit ticket. Drago looks up at his reflection in the glass. "Do you think it's expensive?"

"Do I think what's expensive?" asks Ray irritably, walking over.

Drago points to the neon curlicues. "A divination."

"Are you crazy? Don't throw your money away." Ray shakes his head. "Come on. Let's go." He tugs on Drago's elbow.

Drago snaps his arm away, eyes still fixed on the storefront window. "It's open," he says.

"It's nonsense," insists Ray.

Drago wags a finger reproachfully. "Do not to dismiss so rapid what you do not to be understanding, Mr. Ray." He closes his eyes for a moment, his expression inscrutable. "Perhaps it is possible to talk with my sister. I could to tell her my news, yes."

"I don't think magic is going to help you there."

"Magic?" Drago cackles, shaking his head. "Magic is just a name for the awe we have when we to see something we aren't yet comprehending."

"Oh yeah? And what's it called when we do comprehend?"

Drago looks to his friend seriously. "Science," he says.

Ray looks back at the entrance to the metro station as the little sign at the top of the stairs goes dark. A moment later a clattering sound can be heard as a custodian drags the metal gate closed down below. The custodian is whistling Madonna.

Ray sags. "Okay, Dragu. Okay. Whatever you want. If you insist on burning the Shah's money, who am I to stop you?"

Drago grins, squeezes his friend's shoulder, then pushes through the door and into the little shop. A bell over the frame jingles. Ray sighs and then follows him.

The front of the shop is small and cramped, curios clustered on shelves and tables on all sides. The only illumination comes from a beaded lamp on the counter and the glow of the green neon tubes hanging in the window. There are Tarot cards and crystals, North American Indian woven dream-catchers and healing magnetic insoles for shoes. One shelf dips precariously under the weight of titles concerning the interpretation of dreams, the treatment of psychic diseases, lucky numbers and Feng Shui. There are idols, too -- miniature personifications of godlets and natural deities, long-forgotten shapers of the world rendered in clay, ceramic and Taiwanese plastic, copyright notices embossed on their bums.

Someone clears their throat. Drago and Ray spin to face the counter. From a beaded doorway has stepped a middle-aged woman wrapped in layers of translucent fabrics inlaid with intricate patterns, her hands studded with fat, sparkling rings, her wrists oozing with bracelets. "Good evening," says Madame Gogoasa. "I've been expecting you."

Ray sniffs. Drago ignores him. "How much is for a divination?" he asks. He's still holding his wallet in his hand.

Madame Gogoasa glances down at the wallet, then quotes him a price. Ray bites his tongue as Drago counts his money again. He drops a handful of creased bills on the counter. Voltaire stares up at him blandly.

The money vanishes quickly. Madame Gogoasa nods and smiles, her heavily made-up lashes batting. She gestures toward the beaded doorway. "Come," she says, turning and gliding away.

Drago and Ray follow.

The inner sanctum is dark. Madame Gogoasa walks the periphery of the room lighting candles. The walls are covered by tapestries. It is impossible to discern where their folds might hide other passages, other curios, even other people. They seem to sway slightly in an unfelt breeze, making the room feel faintly alive.

In the centre of the room is an octagonal, cloth-draped table. Drago and Ray take seats on one side of it and then Madame Gogoasa settles into the chair opposite them. On the table is a milky white crystal sphere in an ornate pewter bed circumscribed with runes.

"The reading is for you?" she asks Drago. He nods. From beneath the hem of the cloth she withdraws a shard of transparent crystal on a silver chain. "Put this around your neck," she tells him. He lowers his head and obeys. "Sit up straight," she adds. "Let the crystal hang over your heart."

Drago straightens. "Like this?"

"Perfection," she says soothingly. "Yes, perfection. I can already sense a very strong connection between the crystals. Can you feel it?"

Drago shrugs. "I don't know. I don't really know what it should to feel like."

Madame Gogoasa smiles. Her teeth are yellow from tobacco and coffee. "You are an honest person. This will serve us well tonight. An honest heart opens itself up to the crystal without strain."

"That's good," says Drago earnestly. Ray shifts in his seat beside him.

"What is your given name?" she asks. He tells her. She nods to herself, closing her eyes and repeating it a few times. She opens her eyes again. "Now, young Drago, I instruct you to take my left hand in your right. Perfection, yes. Look into the orb. Allow yourself to lose focus, to attach yourself only to the sound of my voice."

"Yes..."

Her hand is cool and dry. The rings click quietly against one another. Drago stares into the opalescent haze of the crystal ball. When he looks closely he can almost see a weak light, a gentle guttering glow emanating from its core. He imagines he can feel the heat of the thing on his face.

"You have seen pain in your life," states Madame Gogoasa.

"That's true."

"But also great love. This is not a life defined by a nightmare, but merely coloured by it. Many turmoils, but also hope."

"Yes," he agrees.

She pauses, studying the crystal. "You have a great destiny ahead of you, young Drago. You are not like other people. There is something unique inside of you. But you already know this."

He nods, barely perceptibly. He whispers, "I am Drago."

"You are not here to ask me about the future, though, are you? No, no you're not at all. I can see it fully now. You seek instead...clarity...with regard to...relationships..."

Drago involuntarily squeezes her hand. "Yes!" he says breathlessly.

"A particular relationship..."

He nods, leaning closer across the table.

"A girl," she concludes, eyes leaving the crystal briefly to meet his. "A girl for whom you care very deeply. I can see her. My goodness but isn't she beautiful? Both in body and in spirit. Very powerful."

Drago's eyes are wide, his hand breaking out in a clammy sweat. "You can see her? You can see my Dragana? Can I communicate with her directly?"

"Calm now, be calm, young Drago," urges Madame Gogoasa. "Your intense emotions can cause interference in the spiritual vibrations. Stay centred. Join yourself to the orb and the orb only. Do not let your eyes or your mind wander."

"Okay," he agrees, riveting his gaze on the white sphere.

Madame Gogoasa's face droops somewhat, her forehead wrinkling. She touches the side of her head as if it aches. "She's gone, your Dragana. She's departed this plane."

"Yes, yes," confirms Drago anxiously. "My sister she to died when I was still being small. I miss her terrible, yes."

Madame Gogoasa squeezes his hand. "She knows," she says soothingly. "She knows of your devotion and your love, Drago. It fills her with energy -- white light and the gift of healing. She is a very beneficient spirit, Drago, and you are the source of her power. That should make you feel good."

He nods, rapt.

"She takes power from this love, because she knows this love is very pure."

He cocks his head. "What does this to mean, 'pure'?"

"Untainted. Wholesome. Selfless," says Madame Gogoasa. "This is not the same as the love between a man and woman, this spiritual bond of siblings. There is no lust, there is no desire -- only an unsullied bridge of true caring and trust."

Drago frowns. "That's not right," he says quietly.

Madame Gogoasa hesitates, but then rushes ahead. "I see there is conflict, too. You did not always agree when she was still among us."

"No, no, no," says Drago, shaking his head. He tries to withdraw his hand but Madame Gogoasa pins it firmly. "You don't understand. Of course there is lust. Of course there is desire."

Madame Gogoasa's forehead wrinkles again. "I am losing clarity in the signal..."

"Every night in my dreams Dragana and I make the sex. How can you not to know this?"

Madame Gogoasa licks her lips quickly, like a lizard. "She...she never knew -- that you felt this way..."

"Of course she did!" cries Drago, tearing his hand away and then massaging it as if it were injured. "You have no idea the conversations we had without ever to use words! You have no idea..." He trails off, a vague look on his pained features replaced in a blink by a sudden hardening. He looks up from the crystal. "You have no idea. You really don't, do you?"

"The ways of the orb are sometimes complex --"

Drago's eyes bulge. He kicks back his chair and stands up abruptly. "You cannot to see anything in that glass ball, can you?" He runs a hand aggressively through his bramble of black hair, eyes flitting before locking onto Madame Gogoasa once more. "You're a phony. You're a liar! How can you to do this?" he cries, spreading his arms wide. "How can you to take the money of sad people for to tell them lies?"

"I bring comfort to those who --" she begins.

"Stop!" he bellows, face colouring with rage. "No more lies!" He sweeps the crystal ball from the table. It smashes on the floor, revealing a small light-bulb and a couple of rubber-coated wires. A pair of AA batteries roll under one of the tapestries.

Madame Gogoasa sits in her chair, stunned, mouth agog.

Ray grabs his friend's arm. "Dragu, stop! She's not worth this. Come on, let's get out of here before she calls the flics."

Drago nods, breathing hard. He allows Ray to tug him toward the exit.

They push through the beaded curtain and out through the front door into the street. Madame Gogoasa hurries after them. "Wait!" she calls and though Ray keeps walking Drago's pace falters.

Madame Gogoasa rushes up and holds out a fold of francs. "Here, take your money -- take it all back. I'm so sorry," she says in a small voice. She looks up at Drago with pleading eyes. "I only try to help."

Drago stares at her for a moment, then dashes her hand aside with a brutal swipe. The bills fly free. "Go to hell, charlatan," he hisses with undilute viciousness, then turns on heel and runs off to catch up with Ray, a sob catching in his throat.

Madame Gogoasa watches the boys go, shoulders slumped. And then, after a moment, she turns her attention to chasing down the money skipping along the street in the breeze.

Voltaire flips and spins, settling briefly on the edge of the gutter before dropping into a sewer drain.


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