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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 17

Sunset on Somerset West. Dundonald Park. Men stand in the bushes.

Mr. Mississauga walks the path, smoking, overcoat trailing out behind. His shadow is long. The light is bronze, the sky bloody. Parliament's spike is in silhouette. The capital is small; he spies senators and spots spies, but names aren't acknowledged in the park. Mr. Mississauga cruises on, gaze averted.

"How old are you?"

"Are you a cop?"

"No."

The kid asks to be called Jack. Mr. Mississauga doesn't offer a name. They take a taxi to his building, then stare at the elevator numbers illuminating in patient sequence. Their bellies quiver and the doors part.

No. 906: Mr. Mississauga unlocks the door, his leather glove creaking as his fingers buzz. The door swings open. Jack wanders forward into the gloom. He's patting his pockets. "It's cool if I have a smoke?"

"Yes."

The light snaps on. Jack slows. Mr. Mississauga is closing the door. Like everything in the small apartment, the door is swathed in a layer of white quilting. So too the walls, the ceiling, the cupboards, the refrigerator -- coated in woolen blankets of blanched curlicues and lozenges, dimpled swirls and nubby-edged squares.

Mr. Mississauga holds out an ignited lighter. Jack blinks, draws out a cigarette, then pokes his face at the flame. "Did you...did you like sew all this yourself?"

"No. I buy the quilts used from a place in the ByWard. I just bleach them out and hang them."

"What for?"

"To keep the noise in."

Jack licks his lips. "You play a lot of loud music?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I don't sleep soundly."

"Oh, so it's so's you won't be disturbed or nothing?"

Mr. Mississauga shakes his head. "No," he says, then nods toward the refrigerator. "Can I get you something?"

"Like a drink?"

"I don't keep any alcohol. Water?"

"I'm fine," says Jack, smoking. He shifts his weight. "You want to go lie down?"

Mr. Mississauga nods. "This way."

Later, the sky turns a murky shade of brown and the lights of the downtown core stand in place of stars outside the windows of No. 906. A helicopter lingers over Parliament Hill. Ambulance sirens babble and whine, echoing away.

The window is open. Mr. Mississauga leans by it, preparing tobacco.

Jack lounges in bed, tugging the covers over his smooth shoulder against the chill. He smokes languidly. He watches the tall native at the window, half revealed by the city's orange glow: at his shoulders and below his pelvis the soft shine of skin is lost to matte straps and gleaming buckles of his four artificial limbs. His bum is brown, taut and muscular.

"Todd told me about you," says Jack, gaze roaming. "He works Ogilvie. Been with you a few times."

Mr. Mississauga half-turns, lighter flaring. He puffs his hand-rolled cigarette alive, thin lips flexing. He looks back outside the window, trailing fume. "He won't see me again. I've lost my job. I don't walk down Ogilvie any more."

"Shitty. Which do you do?"

"Detective."

"I thought you said you weren't a cop."

"I'm not. I was with intelligence."

"You're like a spy?"

"No, a case investigator."

"So what do you investigate?"

He faces outside as he speaks, half his words escaping on the breeze. "Have you ever heard about military and airline pilots spotting UFOs? I'm the man who writes down their stories, and takes pictures of their burns." Mr. Mississauga drags and exhales. "Did you read about that woman from Nova Scotia who could whistle whatever song you were thinking about in your head? I interviewed her, and oversaw her testing."

Jack smirks. "Are you serious? It's actually somebody's tax-funded job to follow up on crackpot stuff?"

Mr. Mississauga nods humourlessly. "Yes," he says. "Or, rather, it was."

Jack props himself up on one elbow. "You got fired?"

Mr. Mississauga looks over at him and shakes his head. "Laid off. CSIS has a new mandate from Parliament to balance the budget. Our field of inquiry was deemed...non-essential. So they shut down the whole department."

"Did you get a gold watch?"

"Ten weeks pay and a handshake."

Jack stabs out his cigarette and shivers. "What're you going to do? Find a new job?"

Mr. Mississauga turns back toward the window and pulls it closed. "No." He pauses, eyes unfocused. Jack watches his reflection in the glass. "I'm still working on a case," says Mr. Mississauga flatly. "And if CSIS isn't going to pay my way to pursue it, I'll go it alone."

"How you going to pay the rent? You going to start hanging around in the park with me?"

"I can't pay the rent. It doesn't matter, because I can't stay here. The case is moving, and I have to follow it."

"The case moves?"

Mr. Mississauga nods, looking over his shoulder at the youth. "It isn't really a single case, but rather a matrix of connected cases. The more I investigate the more I'm able to build up a coherent picture of the pattern of occurrence, and hopefully learn what's at the heart of it all." He takes a breath. "And put a stop to it."

Jack looks at him quietly for a moment, then blinks. "Are you pranking me, or are you for real?"

Mr. Mississauga offers him a small, tight smile. "Real," he says.

Jack licks his lips quickly and draws his knees to his chest, hugging his own shoulders as he rocks lazily on the sheets. "So what happens? What are the cases about? Is it aliens? You can tell me."

Mr. Mississauga smokes, considering this as he leans against the window frame. "I don't know," he decides. "Someone reports something unusual. We look into it. Most of the time it's nothing -- contagious hysteria stemming from a misunderstood natural phenomenon. But sometimes it turns out to be...something more difficult to explain."

"Something impossible?"

Mr. Mississauga shakes his head curtly. "No. Something improbable."

"What's the difference?"

"The impossible never happens; the improbable seldom does."

Jack shrugs. "That doesn't sound so bad."

Mr. Mississauga tightens his mouth into a grim line. "Improbable developments can be trivial in a simple setting -- a rock that against the odds breaks loose and suddenly rolls down a hill, a stream that cuts an unexpected path one spring." He drags on his smoke, then exhales slowly, speaking through the haze. "But consider how things change when you introduce objects of highly compressed complexity, such as a Mammalian brain...objects that simulate and mirror aspects of the real world within themselves symbolically, which then lead to decisions -- often consequential decisions -- based on rule-based manipulations of those symbols."

"You lost me."

"Think of it this way: it's one thing for an unlikely event to occur in the world, but it's another thing altogether -- on a whole new order of magnitude -- for an unlikely event to occur in the virtual world carried around by a creature whose choices have ramifications in the real world."

"It's like double the trouble?"

"A geometric rise in the potency of the smallest seed of improbability, amplified through the complexity of living things by virtue of their own inherent, sheer unlikelihood."

Jack nods. "Oh, sure. That. Well." He drops his knees sullenly, gathering the covers at his chest. "And you're going to stop that how exactly? With a wrench? With a tank? With a nuke?"

"I don't know," says Mr. Mississauga, his voice hollow and uncharacteristically meek. "But I'll manage."

Jack flops back flat on the bed, staring at the quilted ceiling. "That's heavy," he says. "Why don't you forget about it for a while? Come on: let's screw."

"I never forget."

"Let's screw anyway."

In the morning Jack wakes up alone in the bed. Sun streams in through the windows. A woven dream-catcher hangs from the frame, casting a long, bobbing shadow across the quilted wall. Birds chirp.

Jack wanders to the washroom. Over the tub hangs a trapeze-like contraption of pulleys and braces to accommodate Mr. Mississauga's lack of mobility when his limbs are detached. The toilet's arrangements are simpler: a single piece of knotted rope hangs beside it. Jack bats the rope with his free hand while he pisses.

In the livingroom he finds his host sitting in a faded armchair. "Did you sleep out here all night?" asks Jack, knuckling his eyes.

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I didn't sleep."

Jack looks sheepish. "Is that my fault?"

"You nodded off. I didn't want to disturb you. Don't worry about it."

"You can't sleep with anybody else around, eh?"

"I can," he replies, "but no one else can." He gestures at the quilted walls. "You see, I scream."

Jack blinks. "You what? You scream -- like all night?"

"No, in cycles."

"You have crazy nightmares?"

"We all do," says Mr. Mississauga crisply. "Only you don't remember yours."

"Damn."

"Do you want to go out to get some breakfast?"

Jack's stomach quakes and groans. He looks sheepish again, then shakes his head and starts toward the bedroom. "It's fine. I got to get going anyways."

"It's on me."

Jack hesitates. He turns slowly, smiling. "You like waffles?"

For some reason beyond fathoming the waitresses at the waffle emporium are dressed as Mediaeval wenches, complete with tightly laced midriffs cinched to upthrust the young bosoms peeking out from scandalously low-cut peasant blouses. Jack looks up from the menu to be confronted by a morass of mammaries. "Can I get an extra scoop of blueberries on the side?"

"Verily, sire. And it cometh with whipped cream included."

"Right on." He raises his brow at Mr. Mississauga. "What's for you?"

"Nothing," he rumbles.

"Nothing?" echoes Jack.

The waitress smiles nervously. "Prithee allow me to tell you of today's specials, sire?"

"No," replies Mr. Mississauga in a tone that brokers no argument. The waitress escapes his gaze gratefully, tucking her notepad away and making eyes at her colleagues.

"You're not hungry?" asks Jack, sipping coffee.

Mr. Mississauga extracts a red and white can of Campbell's Scotch Broth from a pocket in his overcoat and sets it down on the table. His next manoeuvre reveals a compact camping-style can opener. His motorized hand buzzes as he works it patiently around the can's top. "I only eat food whose preparation is disconnected from me personally," he explains. The lid creaks as he folds it back. "Experience has made me prudent."

"You're just going to eat it cold like that?"

"It's pre-cooked."

"But it's not even warm."

"The tea is warm," says Mr. Mississauga as he brushes aside the paper-packaged teabag in favour of one he plucks from his own coat. Like a mechanical prize claw his gloved hand hovers over the pint-sized metal teapot, and then his fingers spring open and the bag drops inside. "It evens out."

Jack sips his coffee again, hiding his expression. The mug knocks on the table as he puts it down. "So, entertain me. Why don't you tell me more about these weird cases of yours?"

"I once visited an Inuit town that had been moved after mining eroded the stability of the underlying bedrock. The inhabitants went to bed in the new town, and awoke at the site of the old."

Jack whistles. "Okay, that's pretty weird. And it wasn't a trick or nothing? You checked it all out?"

"I checked it all out. No trick."

"Tell me another one."

"I once met a Manitoban with a topiary maze in his back garden. Despite the fact that the walls were deeply rooted cedars, the configuration of the maze tended to change over time."

"What else?"

"Back in the department in a special freezer we keep a glass of water that can't be drunk. If you pour the liquid into your mouth nothing reaches your belly and the level of water never changes. The Mounties brought it to us. They found it in the Northwest Territories in a smuggler's den."

"That's creepy."

"And then, of course, there are these," continues Mr. Mississauga, reaching into his pocket again. He withdraws a chess piece and places it gingerly between them on the table.

Jack squints, then blinks. It's a white rook. It sports a pair of breasts beneath the battlements and a set of plump labia at the base. Jack picks it up. "I always thought of rooks as guys," he observes. "But she's hot -- you know, for a game piece."

"I have recovered eroticized pieces such as this from over a dozen different locations."

Jack puts the piece down again. "What's it mean?"

"I don't know yet," says Mr. Mississauga. He inserts a spoon into his cold can of soup and shovels in a mouthful. He looks up as the waitress approaches with Jack's steaming plate of Belgian waffles. She frowns at the soup.

"We don't normally, uh, alloweth outside food," the waitress ventures.

Mr. Mississauga says nothing, looking back at her placidly.

"Thanks," says Jack as he reaches up and takes the plate from her fingers. The waitress accepts this cue and retreats. Jack digs in with relish, speaking around his food: "You're going to find out what's causing all the weirdness? Like maybe it's some chemical or something? Or a secret government experiment?"

Mr. Mississauga sips hot tea. "It isn't a secret government experiment. I've looked through the whole file, and nothing matches."

Jack sputters. "You mean there really are secret government experiments going on?"

"Well," admits Mr. Mississauga, consuming another spoonful of cold soup, "not currently. Like I said, Parliament's mandated balanced budgets all around which means anything in the books that's a challenge to explain has been put on indefinite hiatus."

Jack cuts into his second waffle. "Sure. Of course. Why not? Even shadow conspiracies need to worry about cashflow, right? Everybody's got bills to pay."

"There's no conspiracy. The government keeps programmes secret that have possible implications for national or international security. There's nothing nefarious or fantastic about it: stealth technologies, anti-missile systems, counter-hacking ops. It's about the defense of the country, simple as that."

"I forgot -- you're a company man. You toe the line."

Mr. Mississauga smiles tightly but humourlessly. "I toe no line. I'm not selling you on a vision of your government: I'm just telling you what I know from first hand experience." He pauses. "Also, you have blueberry juice on your face."

Jack mops up with a paper napkin. "What're you going to do next?"

"First of all I need a vehicle," says Mr. Mississauga. "Something suitable for surveillance. And for living in. A nondescript civilian vehicle with room in the back for cameras, equipment, a bedroll and a palette of soup."

Jack puts aside his fork thoughtfully. "Maybe I can help you out. I know a guy. You can do a cash deal, right?"

Mr. Mississauga nods.

"He's probably around this morning. It's not far."

Mr. Mississauga pauses again, spoon hanging over the can. The purple skin under his bottomless brown eyes quivers slightly. "I would very much appreciate that, Jack."

Jack grins. "Just let me finish my waffles, okay?"

The body shop is entered from an alley off Clyde. The heavy metal door meeps electronically as Jack pushes it open, then holds it for Mr. Mississauga. The garage is cluttered and busy, the flash and spark of arc welding flaring up from the furthest corner. Nearest to the door a crew of three work efficiently to strip the body panels away from a dark green minivan. Someone, unseen, is hammering metal on metal. A radio blares a distortion guitar solo tinnily.

"This is Shondel," calls Jack over the din, introducing a tall, high-foreheaded black man in a grubby coverall. "Shond, this is...this is my friend," he concludes lamely.

Mr. Mississauga extends a gloved hand. Shondel shakes it, pursing his lips in consideration of the slow, mechanically even grip. "You have a false arm," he says in a friendly way, his Caribbean accent lilting and low.

"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga.

"Are you a cop?"

"No."

Shondel smiles. His teeth are capped in gold. "Jack tells me you need someting to ride, am I right? And for campin' in? Tat's no problem at all. I got a black van wit integrated hot plate and a foldin' bunk, man. Does tat interest you?"

"A black van is too ominous. I need to blend in."

"You want a camouflage paint job? No problem."

"Urban camouflage. Maybe like a utility or service vehicle. Something normal."

"Someting normal for the serious man," laughs Shondel, clapping Mr. Mississauga on the back as if they are old pals. "Okay, no problem. I tink I'm on your wavelent now, my friend. And I've got the perfect ting."

Jack and Mr. Mississauga wait while Shondel leaves to look into it. The radio continues to blare. Jack winces. "What is this?"

"Cherry Nuk-Nuk," replies Mr. Mississauga, cocking his head. "The world's most famous Inuit pop star."

"Oh yeah?" says Jack. "I wouldn't have pegged you for a top ten music fan."

"I met her. She was born in the town I told you about, where the people were transported in their sleep."

Jack raises his eyebrows. Shondel returns, his domed head bobbing happily and keys clutched in his hand. "Gentle-men," he calls, beaming, "why don't you come wait out front while I fetch the ride and bring it aroun'? Tis way now. You're goin' to love it, man."

He escorts them to another metal door and then holds it open. Mr. Mississauga stumps past him, followed by Jack as he pats down his pockets until he finds his smokes. They emerge into a small parking lot fenced from the street by barbed-wire and sheet metal panels. Various sadly decrepit cars are parked by twin garage doors, heavily graffitoed.

Mr. Mississauga turns to Jack as soon as the metal door has slammed behind them. "Shondel can be trusted? He's not going to screw me?"

Jack shrugs coquettishly as he lights his cigarette. "He might. I don't know if you're his type. I've had a few dates with him and he's pretty -- uh, gymnastic, right?"

Mr. Mississauga frowns. "I don't have a very good sense of humour."

Jack looks at the ground. "Yeah, sorry. Listen, Shond's mechanics are good if nothing else. So the thing should run at least, right?" He looks up, brow furrowed. "Are you okay with an engine? You know how to mess around with them?"

"Yes."

"I'm sure it'll be fine, Mr. Detective Man. Shond's cool. This'll all be cool."

Mr. Mississagua sniffs. Minutes pass. Jack keeps waiting for his companion to smoke, but he doesn't. Jack smokes another. Traffic drones and swishes beyond the locked gate, gusts from the wakes of big trucks rattling the chains. Mr. Mississauga, who has taken a package of plastic-sealed saltine crackers from the waffle house soup cart, wanders between derelict cars and feeds the birds.

Jack licks his lips, shrugs to himself, then doesn't drag on the smoke he keeps hovering by his mouth. "I guess you're not going to be around Ottawa much longer then, eh?"

Mr. Mississauga looks over. "No."

Jack takes a breath. "Maybe you could use some help." He smiles uncertainly.

Mr. Mississauga turns away, shaking out his stiff glove to broadcast crumbs. "No," he says. "I don't take on sidekicks."

"I don't have to be your sidekick. I don't know nothing about what you do. I could just help you like get around and stuff..."

Mr. Mississauga turns back sharply. His look is cold. "What does that mean?"

"I just mean because you're handicapped. I could help."

"I am not handicapped." He turns away abruptly and jerks his hand upward, distributing the last of the crumbs to the chittering sparrows.

Jack scratches at his forearm and then smokes. "Yeah," he agrees vaguely, ashing into the air. "I just thought I'd ask. You know."

Mr. Mississauga hobbles over to him with dignity, eyes now sorrowful. "I know," he says, nodding. "And I'm sorry."

Jack shrugs carelessly, then gestures with his cigarette at the clumps of sparrows Mr. Mississauga has attracted. "What's with the birds?"

"They spook easily."

Jack squints. "Huh?"

"Birds are a natural barometer for tension," he explains. "If they scatter when Shondel returns, then so do we."

Jack hunches his shoulders, hands in his pockets, and glances uneasily back toward the body shop. "It'll be fine," he mumbles around his smoke.

They both turn as the left-side garage door rumbles upward. The birds pause from their snack to look over curiously. A repeating beep sounds and an engine growls and chortles as a large vehicle begins to slowly back out into the parking lot.

Jack steps back, and so does Mr. Mississauga.

It moves out of the garage's shadow, sunlight reflecting brightly from the yellow-orange paint. It's a slightly rust-tarnished, mildly dented micro-schoolbus. The suspension squeaks as it comes to a halt, and a moment later red beacons at the corners of the canopy start flashing on and off. A scratched-up stop sign unfolds from the side of the bus and the passenger door chuffs open. Finally, there is a quiet buzz as a wheelchair access ramp extends from the base of the steps and then clangs hollowly when it hits the ground.

Shondel strides down the ramp and gestures at the schoolbus, beaming widely. "What do you tink of tem apples, my friend?"

Mr. Mississauga hobbles a slow circuit around the vehicle, looking it up and down. He stumps up the ramp, feet banging on the metal, and then walks down the aisle between the twin rows of torn, patched and sun-faded vinyl bench seats. He's nodding to himself as he steps back out into the light.

"So?" prompts Shondel. Birds hop around his feet, vying for cracker crumbs.

Mr. Mississauga looks up from the birds and gives him a tight little smile. "How much?"

Shondel grins.


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