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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 23

Drago stands across the street from the Queue de Cheval, watching the diners through the front windows. He's hungry as hell but he doesn't dare move.

It's a quiet, humid winter evening. The lights of the skyscrapers seem to scintillate through a veil of snowflakes which melt as soon as they touch the sidewalk. The sewers steam. To the south, on the frigid St. Laurent, a cargo ship bellows.

Drago can see Dr. Felix and his date. They're waiting for him, sipping wine and asking after a second bread basket. He watches Dr. Felix check his watch. A moment later Drago's telephone shudders and buzzes inside his pocket.

He fumbles it out. "Hello Zoran?"

"Drago, where are you?"

"I'm on Rene-Levesque."

"Oh, splendid -- so you're almost here, then."

"I'm right outside."

"We'll order you a drink."

Drago makes a face, looks away from the restaurant. "I can't...I can't to come in, John. I'm stuck."

"You're what?"

"I'm stuck."

"Whatever do you mean?"

Drago licks his lips and clears his throat. "There's mens, John. Mens outside. And I don't like the look of these mens."

A pause. The handset is muffled. Dr. Felix returns a second later. "What sort of men, Drago? Tough guys?"

"No."

"...Drago?"

"I'll just wait until they're quit from here, okay? You start without me. I don't mind at all. Apologize to your lady-friend for me, John."

"Drago, this is absurd. It's got to stop. You simply cannot spend your life being afraid of every --"

Drago hangs up.

He bats at a clump of wet snow in his hair, takes a steadying breath, then turns to face the restaurant once more. He's startled: they're looking right back at him, their faces flashing between the cars...

Four men in long black coats and black fedoras, their features peeking out from a peyes frame of brown beard and strands of curled locks at the sideburn. They stand grim, stiffly erect, their gazes locked on Drago.

Drago blinks. They're not looking at him any longer. The four men have shifted in concert to watch Dr. Felix emerge from the Queue de Cheval's stoop. He frowns at the sky, dusts snow from the shoulders of his sport jacket, then spots Drago and gestures at him to cross the street. "Come on then, Drago!"

Drago glances at the Hasidics. Dr. Felix looks over, then rolls his eyes.

Drago sighs, tucks in his shirt, and jogs across the lanes between bouts of traffic. At the slushy curb he looks up nervously. Dr. Felix strides over directly in front of the Hasidics and claps Drago on the shoulder, then steps backward to bring him onto the sidewalk proper. "What's all this about?"

"It's just a bad feeling."

"Drago, those men are Orthodox Jews! They won't hurt you. They're religious -- men of peace, contemplation, what have you. My goodness, have you never come across them before? This is Montreal for crying out loud."

Drago fidgets. "These ones are different. They look at me." He pushes in closer to Dr. Felix, practically whispering in his ear: "They look at me like the blue pants people do."

Dr. Felix sighs, rubbing his temples. "The blue pants people again, is it? I'm starting to worry about you, my boy."

"This is serious."

"This is infantile. Now come on: I'll escort you past them. Will that make you happy?"

Drago nods reluctantly.

Dr. Felix sweeps him past the Hasidics as he begins to babble about laboratory minutiae, talking loudly and carelessly, drawing the door open for Drago and gesturing theatrically for him to pass inside. Drago does, risking a parting look over his shoulder. He shudders and scurries in.

Dr. Felix continues to hang onto the door for a moment, raising his brow at the Jews. "Fancy a steak, gentlemen?" he calls.

They say nothing.

"Alright, then," he says tartly, stepping in and letting go of the door.

One of the Hasidics looks to him. Just before the door has yawned closed he gives Dr. Felix a subtle, curt nod and says, "Protect him."

Dr. Felix catches the door. "I'm sorry?"

"Protect him, John."

He blinks. "How do you know my name?"

In perfect lockstep the four men turn and walk away down Reve-Levesque, the snow swirling at their heels. Feeling a chill, Dr. Felix lets the restaurant door swing shut. He turns around and crashes into Drago.

"What did he say?"

"He wanted a donation. Some sort of relief fund. Look, here's our table."

Drago is surprised by Dr. Felix's companion. He has become used to an endless line of earnest, pink-cheeked girls but sitting alone amid the ornate woodwork of a luxurious corner booth is a lady, instead -- a grown woman. Her face is lined but lush, her green eyes lively. Her elegant black outfit makes Drago feel underdressed. "It's a pleasure to meet," he says, shaking her hand.

"I can't believe it's taken this long. You're a very big part of John's life. He talks about you endlessly -- Drago this, Drago that." She laughs. She hasn't let go of his hand yet.

"Are you with the university?" he asks, breaking contact to find his seat.

Dr. Felix shakes his head. "Sandra's in finance, Drago. She's been helping me put together a trust plan that could fill out our operating budget for the next five years."

Drago nods vaguely as he wrestles with an elaborately folded napkin. "Oh yes, yes," he mumbles. "John, I wanted to talk to you about the relocation project --"

Dr. Felix holds up hand. "Now now, Drago, this is dinner. We're here to drink, to eat, to chat, to enjoy the company. Let's leave the lab at the lab, shall we?"

Drago nods. "Yes, of course. Forgive me, Miss Sandra."

"Not at all," she says quickly. "I'd like to hear more about your work. John is always so infuriatingly vague. I think he thinks I lack the neurons for it."

"Nonsense. You're the smartest woman I've ever met."

She smirks. "See? He can't help but qualify it." Sandra presses up against Dr. Felix and takes his arm, squishing it under her breasts affectionately. "John's misogyny is adorable, in its way. So adolescent, so terrified."

Dr. Felix smiles uncertainly. "Please, stop. I'll blush."

She laughs again. They're interrupted as a waitress comes to take the drinks order. When she's gone Sandra turns her sharp eyes on Drago. "You've had a scare tonight, I think."

Drago knocks over his ice-water glass.

"No," chuckles Dr. Felix, passing over his napkin. "He's just a naturally nervous individual, my dear. It's a side-effect of his cognitive gifts, I'm afraid."

"I'm just clumsy," explains Drago, blotting his shirt.

"Around the lab we say that his relationship with the physical world is, at best, a truce," adds Dr. Felix, laughing heartily as he claps Drago on the back.

"No..." says Sandra, tilting her head curiously. "I can see the adrenaline in you." She reaches across the table and touches his hand. "What happened, Drago?"

Drago shrugs, staring down at her hand. "Just some mens. It's nothing."

"You were mugged?"

Dr. Felix forces another chuckle. "Honestly, dear, it was nothing. Our Drago just gets a little jumpy sometimes. Isn't that right?"

Drago nods. "Nothing."

Drinks arrive. Dr. Felix and Drago watch the wine being poured. Sandra watches them watching. The waitress retires. "Well," says Dr. Felix. "I'd like to propose a toast. It's a two-part toast, actually." He raises his glass. "To unlocking the secrets of the universe...and to beautiful, vivacious women. The former I direct to Drago, the latter to our charming companion."

Sandra smiles demurely and sips. Drago sips and grimaces.

Despite Dr. Felix's insistence on leaving business aside, he devotes much of the conversation over steaks to the details of Sandra's trust plan initiative, pausing only to refill his glass. Sandra nods along and supplies Dr. Felix with the occasional term or small correction, but largely lets him prattle on while she looks at Drago and smiles at him when he meets her eye. She silently mouthes, "Boring!"

Drago covers his mouth with his soaked napkin as he giggles. He glances down at his thin wrist to check his watch.

"...The best part is," blathers Dr. Felix, "we can re-lease the utility contract through the operating corporation, and thereby continue to qualify under the educational facility tax credit despite everything else. It's genius, I tell you, pure genius! We'll have payed for the relocation in twenty months."

Drago coughs. "I wanted to talk to you on that, John. On the relocation."

Dr. Felix drains his glass and refills it. "You don't like something about the new facility?"

"Yes, it's great, John. But I'm thinking maybe, for security reasons, we should be moving."

Dr. Felix does a double-take, coughing through his wine. "But we just moved because of so-called 'security reasons' -- Drago, be sensible! Nobody is going to steal our work. Nobody is going to take our credit."

Drago shakes his head. "There are too many peoples in the city, John. We need to leave Montreal."

"Are you mad, Drago? This isn't agricultural studies -- moving further afield is out of the question! How could we ever justify it to the chancellor? You've simply got to try to have a level head about this, my boy."

Sandra reaches out to touch Drago's hand again. "What is it you're concerned about, Drago, if not academic espionage?"

Drago starts to speak but closes his mouth. He looks at Dr. Felix.

Dr. Felix toys with his napkin and then sets it on the table. "Sandra, Drago is under the impression -- the very strong impression -- that there are people interested in our work outside of traditional academia."

She raises a brow. "Corporate espionage?"

Dr. Felix shrugs awkwardly. "Er, no. Religious, actually."

"Religious espionage?" She turns to Drago. "What does he mean?"

Drago licks his lips. "My mathematics, they're expected."

"What?"

"There are old stories...legends. They know about me."

Dr. Felix puts his arm around Drago's shoulders and squeezes as he chuckles. "Drago's quite the folklore enthusiast. I think sometimes the intensity of his fascination blurs the line between fantasy and reality. What can I say? He's an eccentric, and we love him for it."

"My father told me," persists Drago. "He showed to me my destiny."

Dr. Felix turns to Drago seriously. "Drago, listen to me. I'm your mentor, I'm your colleague, and I'm also your friend. You simply must consider the things your father said from an appropriate perspective. I'm not sure he was a well man."

"Of course you think he was crazy," snaps Drago. "Let's not to argue that again. But he showed me myself in the history books -- it is no fantasy!"

Dr. Felix pauses significantly, folding his hands before him. Sandra looks back and forth between the two men. Dr. Felix clears his throat. "Drago, I haven't told you this before but I'm going to now: I looked into your father."

"You what?"

"I did some research, and do you know what I found out? Ratko Zoranovic is on record as the father of twenty-two children. Twenty-two. And do you know what? He named all of them Drago. Do you hear me, my boy? Is it so remarkable that one of you became a mathematician when he cast his net so wide? He stacked the deck, Drago. One of you was bound to resemble the myths he was obsessed with, to a greater or lesser degree."

Drago's face is flushed. He speaks slowly, carefully and quietly. "Why you did not tell me this before, John, about my father?"

"I've indulged you, and maybe that was wrong. It seemed to excite you -- to propel you -- to imagine that you were participating in something greater. But destiny doesn't make our accomplishments for us, Drago. Our hard work does. It isn't fate, it's effort. That's what I believe." He hesitates, trying to decode Drago's tight-faced expression. "I've been willing to coddle your delusion so far as it motivates you, but now you're threatening to seriously undermine this project. I mean, you're afraid of Orthodox Jews! Can you even come close to appreciating what would happen, in this city, if you developed a reputation as an anti-Semite?"

Drago's eyes bug out. "An anti-Semite?" he echoes incredulously.

Dr. Felix nods. "Once again, Drago, you fail to include in your view the bigger picture."

Sandra straightens in her seat. "Gentlemen, let's calm down a bit. John, Drago's had a scare, whether you think he ought to have or not, and his nerves are on end: he's bound to react poorly to these challenges. And Drago --"

"And Drago nothing," he interrupts. "There is nothing more to be said if John insists on being anchored to such pedestrian concerns."

"Don't be rash, my boy," offers Dr. Felix soothingly. "I only mean to highlight certain --"

"Nevermind, I don't care," says Drago. He checks his watch and then stands up abruptly. "I have to go. I'm sorry to be a spoiler of the evening."

"Drago, wait," says Dr. Felix, looking up at him. "We can find a way to --"

"I have to go, John. I have an appointment."

"What appointment? What do you mean? When do you ever have appointments?"

Sandra squeezes his shoulder. "John, you're being an ass. Control yourself."

Dr. Felix brushes her away irritably. "Nothing to say, my boy? Off to consult another soothsayer? Another quack? Another mystic swindler salivating at the prospect of taking advantage of your naivete?"

Sandra flushes. "John, for God's sake!"

But Drago is already gone, sprinting between the rows of tables, shouldering the doors open and stumbling out onto the sidewalk. The snow is falling in earnest now, the cold flakes contributing to a thick fog roiling up from the streets that lends the city a muted, ghostly pallor. He takes a breath of cool air, feels it nip at him from the inside.

He hails a taxi. From the shadows, the Hasidics watch...

Drago's appointment takes him to a low-rise apartment building on De Maisonneuve. It has stopped snowing. The night is warm and the air moist. It is very quiet on the stoop. He fumbles in his pocket for a scrap of paper, consults it, then chooses a buzzer. "Yes?"

"Hello Zoran. I am here for Asha, yes."

The front door clicks as the lock disengages. "Two twelve. Please be wiping your feet."

The lobby smells strongly of curry. A faded livingroom set several generations out of date sits beside the elevator. On the coffee table is a porcelain elephant with rosy cheeks that seems to watch Drago as he advances to press the call button.

The elevator doors slide closed with Drago inside, hiding him from the nosy elephant. The cabin chugs upward wearily, its cables singing out stuttered groans as they twist.

Apartment 212. Drago knocks and the door is drawn back instantly by a prune-faced woman wrapped in a brazenly bright orange and purple silk sari. Her grey hair has been gathered into a bun, the tension of the knot lending the edges of her face a strange, smooth severity. The bindi dot on her forehead glistens like blood. Tartly she says, "Doctor Zahran, sir."

"Yes, Madame."

"You are having the ninth position in queue. Sit. You will be called by the number sixty."

"Yes, Madame."

There are seven people in the sitting room. The furniture is almost an exact duplicate of the set in the lobby, down to the statue of the elephant on the coffee table. Drago narrows his eyes suspiciously at Ganesh as he sidles inside and scans for an open chair.

He finds a spot in the corner, on a loveseat otherwise occupied by a young, brown-skinned man with skinny ankles and delicate wrists. His chin is propped up on one of those wrists as he stares into space. He blinks when Drago sits down. "You don't mind if I'm sit?" Drago asks before he's fully settled.

"Be sit, be sit," says the young man, nodding. "Or even sit down. It's just grammar, a word which came to us from glamour, which means of course magic. Be sit or be seated, it's all pixie dust to me, brother."

Drago smiles uncertainly. "So it's okay, yes?"

"Yup."

Drago relaxes into the loveseat. A wrinkled knot of a man with a long grey beard sitting on the opposite side of the room gives him a friendly nod. The portly woman in a headscarf next to him has her eyes closed, her mouth exercising silently over some mantra. On the next couch is a skeletal brown-skinned woman wearing a scarf over her baldness, a girl in a fluffy sweater whose tears have made her eyeliner run, an older gentleman in a tweed suit fondling a row of beads, and a younger gentleman in shirtsleeves who appears to be unconscious. "It makes you wonder whether Asha ever sleeps, doesn't it?" says the fellow at Drago's elbow, shifting poses in bouts of frenetic energy.

Drago turns. "Perhaps she sleeps during the day." He pauses, then offers his hand. "My name is Drago, I should say."

"Jason," says Jason. "She doesn't sleep during the day, I'm afraid, no that's not it. She sees people during the day. She saw my sister during the day. She's been in the city for three weeks and she's been seeing people for three weeks, non-stop. What do you think of that, Drake?"

"Drago," says Drago. "She must sleep sometimes, yes. Peoples can go a long time, okay, but not forever."

"It's funny you say peoples."

"Is wrong, I know. English I learn not so long ago. And I'm not too perfect in any language with the grammar."

"Glamour," corrects Jason, wagging one long finger. "It's not funny because of that, though, right, but because it's apt. Really apt. How much do you know about dolphins?"

"Dolphins?"

"Sea-mammals, right, descended from land-living ungulates. They can't breathe underwater any more than a hippopotamus can."

"A hippopotamus can't breathe in the water?"

"Hell no, brother, hell no. And neither can you. And neither can I. Dolphins need to go to the surface to take a breath. The thing is, it's a conscious behaviour, right? It's not automatic. It's a decision. So, you tell me, what happens when a dolphin needs to sleep?"

Drago shrugs. "He takes a very big breath?"

"No, brother. Dolphins only sleep one half of the brain at a time. First the right hemisphere takes a snooze while the left keeps watch on the world, then the left hemisphere gets a nap and righty takes over." To illustrate this, Jason winks back and forth with alternate eyes.

Drago blinks. "So Asha is like a dolphin?"

"Exactly!" says Jason, drumming on his thighs rapidly for emphasis. "Exactly, Durango my brother. Only she has two brains, so she can dream like the rest of us: she sleeps the left hemisphere of one brain with the right hemisphere of the other, then switches. Voila! She's fully awake and fully asleep, at the same time. Her consciousness is interlaced, brother, half here and half whenever we go when we're not. That's how she knows."

Drago recoils slightly, dropping his voice to a whisper: "She has two brains? How is that possible?"

Jason smirks. "You'll see, brother." He looks up as the severe woman in the orange and purple sari calls, "Fifty-tree!"

"Gotta go," he declares, stands up smartly, and leaves.

Drago is left looking at the room. The bearded man gives him another nod, and then purses his lips and makes a kissy face at him. Disturbed, Drago looks down at the porcelain Ganesh. Fifty-four goes in, followed by fifty-five. Nobody comes out. A hard-faced, dark-skinned mother with an infant child arrives and takes a seat beside Drago, her head bowed modestly.

The child looks up at Drago and watches him with wide, watery brown eyes. Drago smiles.

"Fifty-savan!"

He plays a few rounds of chess with Dragana.

"Fifty-nine!"

Drago is called. He passes through the far door, whose jamb is shaped like an onion. The mouth is beaded. The beads slide off his shoulders and he finds himself in a short corridor. The first door he opens is the linen closet. The next door is ajar, thick incense fumes wafting through the gloomy crack.

He feels eyes on him, but doesn't know whose. With a shiver he slips inside the incense room. Through the thick air he picks out a lamp decorated with a stained-glass image of Ganesh, and a wheelchair decorated with braided green ropes and Sanskrit glyphs folded from twists of tin-foil.

Between them is a bed. Beside the bed is a stool. Next to the stool reclines a young girl of nine or ten wrapped in a scarlet red silk shift embroidered with Arabesques in gold. She gestures at Drago to advance, and then smiles at him -- with two sets of shining white teeth.

The window is open. Drago can see an old-fashioned iron fire-escape. For a second, he fights the compulsion to use it to flee. He forces his gaze back toward the young girl and her bewildering deformity.

"Zoran," he whispers. "Drago Zoran."

Both of her mouths smile again. "Come," says one. "Sit," invites the other.

Drago draws back the stool and kneels upon it. "I wanted to ask --" he begins, but the child holds up her central hand and his mouth closes.

"I need no words now, Drago Zoran. Allow me to be looking at you, only. Be calm."

Drago freezes. Asha adjusts her position on the bed, the covers shifting too ambiguously to describe the play of possibly unfamiliar limbs. She leans forward, the muscles of her thick neck tightening as they balance the unusually wide skull. Her inky hair has three parts: one centred over each black bindi dot, and one running the length of the cranial valley where her two heads are fused. Her faces -- symmetrical, identical, childishly bright -- peer out at a forty-five degree angle from one another. She rolls her shoulders to direct the sparkling amber eyes of one face at Drago, then rotates to give the second face its view.

All four eyes blink in unison.

Drago clears his throat. "With the respect," he says, "is Asha one girl or two girls?"

"I am twins," say both mouths in perfect concert. "Quiet now," adds the left face as the right arm reaches out and gently turns his chin. "I am looking," says the right mouth.

Drago breathes raggedly, his pupils locked on those of the left face. Her eyes are ringed in dark smears of kohl, the lashes large and thick. Her fingers are soft and impossibly small, like a doll.

"What do you see?"

"I see you are not so different from me, Drago Zoran."

"What do you mean?"

She points to his heart. Her voice is small but earnest: "There are two of you in there." She points to the air around his head. "I have never before seen Subtle Anatomy such as yours, except when I am looking into a glass. Two beings, interleaved in a single field. Your Shakti is folded."

Drago glances down at the zipper on his trousers. "My what?"

"Shakti," repeat both mouths simultaneously. "It is the medium of communication between Chakra nodes, the network that binds them and gives rise to the whole. Shakti is the reservoir of possibility a being taps to make a choice, and the pool that is filled by his decision."

Drago blinks. "Okay."

The child continues to study him, gently turning his face one way and then the other. She examines the palm of his left hand, and then his right. She applies gentle pressure to a spot on the back of Drago's neck as she stares into his eyes, then hovers her fingers over his forehead but does not graze it. Finally she settles back on the bed and laces all three of her own hands together into a meditative weave. Four eyes blink. "You have a question, Drago Zoran."

He nods, dropping his gaze to his lap. "What does the future hold for me, Asha? Please, with so much unknown I need to hear only one thing, only one thing if that is all I can have, yes. I need to have something sure."

The right face nods back at him demurely. The left face says, "The future is fixed, Drago Zoran."

He looks up hopefully. "Then you can tell it to me?"

Asha continues, "...It is the past that is mutable. This is what you need to know, this secret. It is the soft underbelly of Brahman, and with this key the whole of the universe is unravelled."

Drago shakes his head. "The past is mutable, not the future?"

"Yes, Drago Zoran." Asha's hands unlace from one another and describe a circle in the air as she explains, "In the void, Shakti is inert. In the froth, it is uncertain." She turns from the left hand to the right, holding each forward in turn as if it held an example.

"Inert or uncertain..." echoes Drago, tracking her roving hands.

Two of Asha's palms come together over her head. "Where the twain shall meet lies a river whose current is propelled by mindfulness itself, Drago Zoran. Decision lends the river impetus; choice gives direction to the flow."

"How does it flow?"

"From tomorrow to yesterday," says the right mouth. The left continues, "The act of observation hardens the past, crystallizes it, sheds it of infinite possibilities and renders it fact. And so upon the crest of a wave of Shakti all mindful beings live, the troughs drawn ever away to gather in the first moment of time."

Drago licks his lips. "What happens then?"

The child grins. "It explodes." She points to the window. "Go look at the stars, Drago Zoran. It is exploding still."

Drago feels dizzy. He looks away, rubs his eyes, then changes the subject. "Why are you here? How do you know these things? Where are your parents?"

"My parents are sleeping; this is night," replies Asha in her unnervingly precise yet young, reedy voice. "They work hard, bringing me around the world to touch new beings. They tire, but they are happy to share this goodness. It is their duty as the recipients of a gift such as myself, knotted from the hem of Brahman's robes."

Drago swallows. "If you had been born in the West...they might have cut you apart."

She nods. "Yes, surely."

"Aren't you afraid they might find you here? Force your parents to treat you?"

Asha smiles, turning up her palms helplessly. "The future is fixed."

Drago is on the fire-escape. The iron murmurs as he shifts his centre of gravity, leaning into the railing. The city around him has been reduced to a series of murky silhouettes in the mist. Above him, however, a few of the brightest stars manage to shine through. From his vantage at the bottom of an atmospheric ocean they seem to glimmer.

Drago shuts his eyes. He can still see the stars. Against his will the afterimages seem to move without moving, to suggest more strongly than ever the motion implied in their spatter: he sees them as sparks, dynamic things, a frozen snapshot of their fleeting, violent attitudes as they churn and burn in the aftermath of a universal paroxysm.

"The stars are embers," he mouths to himself. "This world, a mote."

He feels small. He feels scared. Asha's cryptic words ricochet inside him, repeating, distorting, seeding. Dr. Felix's angry words come back to him, too, biting and eroding. He feels like an idiot instead of a dragon. He feels like a boy instead of a man.

His eyes snap open. Shadows have gathered in the alley below, craning their fedoras to silently peer up at him.

Oddly, this calms him. He may be unsure about his purpose, but the familiar watchers never doubt. Why would they position themselves to witness irrelevance? In their faith he finds his own.

"Go, Drago. You'll get cold if you stay here," prompts Dragana.

He nods. "Yes, yes." He blows on his reddening knuckles and stretches in place for a moment, restoring blood flow before proceeding up the slippery metal steps to the roof, his cane punctuating each move with a toll. At the roof he strides to the edge through a slurry of gravel and mushy snow, then leaps to the next roof without hesitation. He stumbles on the other side, his cane clattering away from him.

He laughs out loud, a giddy feeling rising within even as he feels the cold snow sting his scraped knees. "If I die on this roof tonight, why would they be watching me?" he says aloud. His eyes widen. "I can do anything!"

"Drago, be cautious."

He waves her off as he gets to his feet, brushing away pebbles and slush. "Why, sister? The future is fixed!"

"Perhaps," she agrees. "But that doesn't mean it cannot be broken."


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