The Secret Mathematic is a science-fiction novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your investigative host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the eleventh installment.
News: Ephemera Bound's new hardcover edition of my novel Simon of Space is available now via Amazon and Barnes & Noble or direct from the publisher (as of this writing, B&N has the best price). Please consider picking up a copy in order to help me make the case to the media barons that stories like these are stuff people care about.
Multimedia: Listen to the The Secret Mathematic Overture in MP3 format, by Syntax Error.
Related reading: Stubborn Town, Three Face Flip, The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer, The Extra Cars
And now, our tale continues:
It's winter in Winnipeg, and colder than you care to imagine.
The little bungalow on Heathrington Avenue is covered in snow, and surrounded by lines of yellow police tape that flap in the wind. The boulevard is crammed with cruisers. A supervisor car draws up beside them, nosing into a narrow gap at the end of the ice-choked driveway. The engine quiets and the red bubble lights on the roof stop spinning.
Lieutenant Blake steps out, grimaces, and hunkers lower into his coat. The constable standing at the curb offers him a nod. Blake nods back.
Inside the small house a dozen men and women work to document the scene. Camera bulbs flash, then whine as they recharge. Investigators wearing rubber gloves label and tag objects, then draw diagrams of where they sit. A pair with filters over their faces use white tape to mark the outline of the corpse curled into a foetal position on the carpet beside a worn easychair splattered in bloody vomit. Blake puts his hands on his hips, frowning critically. "Alright people," he calls, "let's get this stuff bagged and boxed."
"Wait," calls a voice. "Not yet, sir!" Blake turns.
Blake works to avoid rolling his eyes as the youngest and least usefully jaded member of the force scampers up to him, tucking a loose lock of red hair back into her bun and then straightening smartly. "There's a special consultant coming, Lieutenant. He's asked that we leave everything in place until he's had a chance to look around, sir."
Blake's frown deepens. He stares down the neophyte until her cheeks flush. She's pretty. He wonders if she's got a trigger finger for sexual harassment complaints. He grunts. "A special consultant? Who?"
"S. Mississauga, sir."
Blake rubs his stubbled chin. "Mississauga, Mississauga...where do I know that name from?"
"He's applied to the force, sir. Several times, actually."
Blake sniffs. "Oh yeah? Why'd we turn him down?"
"He's handicapped, sir. The captain said he's not physically fit for duty, no matter what his scores are on the detective exam."
"What kind of handicap we talking about here, Wainwright?"
She shifts uneasily, eyes leaving his. "He's got no arms and no legs, Lieutenant."
Blake blinks. "You want to say that again?"
"He was a thalidomide baby, sir."
Blake drags his hand down his face, blinking wearily. "And what makes you think this freak has an angle here?"
"I liased with him at the academy, when those trainees went missing in Assiniboine Forest. He's got a gift, sir. He just...figures things out. I've never seen anything like it."
"He's not another goddamn psychic bullshit-artist, is he?"
"Nossir. No bullshit whatsoever."
Blake grunts again. While Wainwright's gaze is averted he takes the opportunity to look her up and down. Not bad. Small tits, but a highly forgivable ass. "I'll give him thirty minutes," he says flatly. "Thirty-one minutes from now I want the coroner's car loaded and the rest of this evidence on its way downtown. No ifs, no ands, no buts."
Wainwright nods. "Absolutely, sir."
They turn in concert as a measured rapping sounds at the front door, which then swings open to reveal a tall native with close-cropped black hair and a long tan overcoat. His eyes are ringed by surprisingly thick haloes of lashes, his cheeks high and hard. With a stiff, black-gloved hand he plucks the end of a hand-rolled cigarette from between his thin lips and casts it into the bushes. He exhales fumes. "Constable Wainwright," he pronounces, his voice a low rasp.
"Mr. Miss," she says. "You're here just in time. This is Lieutenant Blake. Lieutenant, allow me to introduce S. Mississauga."
Blake licks his dry lips. He glances briefly at the newcomer, then looks back to Wainwright. "Thirty minutes," he says. Without looking over again he addresses Mr. Mississauga: "You want a run-down of the situation?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga.
Blake frowns, but continues. "There's not much to it. I'm not even sure we need you here today, Mississauga. Indigent native male, mid-fifties, imminent foreclosure on the property, a run of liquor and valium cocktails chased by drain cleaner. Open and shut."
Mr. Mississauga walks into the front hall. His motion is methodical but unsettling, his pelvis swinging side to side to cast his artificial legs ahead a step at a time, the knees locking and unlocking with practiced tosses of momentum. "Christ," whispers Blake. "He walks like the goddamn Tin-Man from The Wizard of Oz."
Mr. Mississauga says nothing as he passes the uniformed duo, his head bobbing under the influence of his strange locomotion. Blake unconsciously shrinks back slightly toward the wall. Mr. Mississauga wobbles into the livingroom, slowly circling the easychair and the body. The forensics team looks up at him, their expressions surprised and uncomfortable. They look over at Blake who offers them a vague nod.
The consultant makes a few slow rounds about the livingroom, bending to stare at a pack of playing cards on a tray, then pausing to sniff the foam face of a set of cheap speakers, his blade-like nose twitching. He patiently examines every object along the cluttered mantel.
"What the hell is he doing?" whispers Blake.
Wainwright says, "He's just looking. That's what he does. He looks everything over, memorizes every detail, and then he somehow just works it all out."
"What's a pack of cards got to do with a suicide?"
Mr. Mississauga turns toward them from the far end of the room. "I do not know, Lieutenant," he says. "Thus, I cannot presume to ignore it."
Blake coughs awkwardly. "Fine, fine," he says dismissively. "Just get on with doing your thing, Mississauga. We don't have all day." In a much smaller voice he says to Wainwright out of the corner of his mouth, "He's got a helluva sense of hearing, this guy."
"Yes," agrees Mr. Mississauga, limping into the diningroom to squint at rows of dusty glasses in a scratched, paint-peeled hutch. "I do." He pauses to peek under the table, then carefully moves each chair aside in turn and examines the depressions their feet have left in the stained rug. He disappears into the kitchen next.
Blake is frowning again. "Kind of gives me the creeps."
Wainwright shrugs. "He can't help it, sir."
"Yeah, well, I don't like the idea of him wandering around all by himself. Escort him through, Wainwright. And stay close."
She catches up with him as he approaches the bedroom, rocking back and forth to keep each lifeless foot shuffling in the narrow corridor. The forensics boys in the bedroom are chuckling to each other as they work. "In the end, man, it's just another dead Indian..." says one, trailing off as Mr. Mississauga's shadow falls over him. "Um, hi," he says. "Are you the consultant?"
"Take a break," snaps Wainwright, jerking her thumb over her shoulder.
The forensics boys wordlessly slip by, sucking in their guts to avoid grazing Mr. Mississauga on their way out. He ignores them, patrolling around the periphery of the bedroom and then stopping to examine each object and piece of furniture quietly. Wainwright watches him with her arms crossed, leaning at the jamb.
"Back at the academy," she says, "you told me you became a detective to track down your father, Mr. Miss..."
Mr. Mississauga says nothing.
"So," she continues, "did you ever find him?"
He looks up, his chocolate brown eyes deep and unreadable. "Yes," he says crisply, then resumes his examination of the waste basket behind the closet door. Next he turns his attention to the closet itself, noting and briefly sniffing each outfit on the rack.
"Just another dead Indian."
Wainwright looks down at her feet. "I'm sorry," she offers. "What happened to him?"
Mr. Mississauga straightens and faces her, his legs clicking quietly as they lock in. "He happened to him."
"What do you mean?"
He gives her a small, tight, humourless smile. "Not every case presents a mystery, Constable. More often than not people end up dead for the simplest of all reasons: the way they lived." He pauses. "My father drank until his body failed. He was utterly alone, so no one tried to stop him. He was native; such a fate was not unexpected. There was no fuss."
Wainwright falls silent for a moment. "What about your mom? Is she still around?"
"You're looking for her, too?"
"No," he says, manoeuvring one gloved, artificial hand to pick up a dog-eared address book from the dresser. He flips through it, eyes flitting. "I know exactly where she is. But she's lost."
Wainwright isn't sure what to say.
Mr. Mississauga looks up from the address book. "What about you, Constable? Is being on the force everything you had hoped?"
She knits her fingers together. "It is and it isn't," she says guardedly. "I'm thinking of going out for the Mounties, actually. You know, going federal...getting a chance to work the big cases."
"There are no small cases," claims Mr. Mississauga, replacing the address book the dresser. "Only small detectives."
"Are you trying to be funny?"
He looks into her eyes briefly, shrugs, then stumps past her back into the corridor to the kitchen. She shakes her head and then turns to follow. In the livingroom the coroner's people are hauling the corpse up onto a stretcher. Mr. Mississauga ignores them. They find doing the same difficult, stealing glances at the strange, wobbling native from the corners of their eyes.
"Watch it!" yells one, catching the corner of the stretcher before it falls. The body slumps precariously toward one edge.
"Sorry," mutters the other, refocusing on the task at hand.
A second later everyone in the room jumps as the stereo starts blasting a raucous strain of bluegrass music, banjos plucking deftly around a chorus of harmonious vocal lament. It cuts out almost instantly. All eyes turn to Mr. Mississauga as he leans over the receiver, apparently oblivious to the commotion he has caused. He placidly ejects a cassette tape, sniffs it, then pulls it partway out with one black gloved finger to read the hand-lettered label. His hand buzzes quietly as the fingers move, then click as they snap into place.
He drops the tape back into the receiver and turns around. He gives Wainwright a brief bow of the head and then without a further word hobbles to the front door, opens it, and leaves.
Blake blinks. "Where the hell is he going, Wainwright?"
She swallows. "I think he's going to take a nap, sir."
"A nap?" Blake cries, face colouring. "How much is the department paying this clown?"
"It's his way, Lieutenant. That's how he comes up with the answer."
"He sleeps on it, sir."
Blake closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. He appears to be counting to ten silently, but when he opens his eyes he doesn't seem significantly more calm. "This was your recommendation?" he asks darkly, gaze locked on Wainwright.
She shrinks slightly. "Yessir. And...I stand by it. Mr. Miss'll solve this for us. You'll see."
"Solve what? A suicide? Jesus Christ! Remind my wife to send him a congratulatory glazed ham!"
This is the beginning and not the end of Lieutenant Blake's diatribe, and three hours later every syllable of it is still knocking around destructively inside Wainwright's head. She slouches at her desk, attempting to generate a typewritten report from her colleagues' illegibly scrawled notebooks. The fluorescents buzz; the typewriter hums. She looks down at it and sighs, noticing that the last line has been mangled by words from her subconscious: Assessment of the victim's property does not indicate goddamn creepy-assed indian.
"Does anybody have whiteout?" she calls forlornly over the cubicle tops.
Blake rushes by pulling his coat on over one shoulder. Wainwright jumps up from her chair and jogs after him down the aisle. "What's up, Lieutenant?"
"McGuiness scared up a lead. It looks like it may not be suicide after all. I'm rolling with Klein to check it out. I want those reports done by the time we get back. Got it, missy?"
"I'd like to come, sir."
He scoffs. He figures if he can make her feel small now it will increase the chances she'll give in to dinner, to make it up to him. "Just finish the goddamn paperwork, Wainwright. I think you've screwed up enough today."
She stops at the reception desk, mouth tight. Klein rushes around from the other side wagging a file folder in his meaty hand. "Lieutenant!" he calls, dusting doughnut powder from his shirt, "we've got a name!"
Blake breaks into a satisfied smile. "Give it here."
The telephone rings. The extension for Wainwright's direct line is flashing. She reaches over the counter and picks up the receiver. "Wainwright."
Klein hands the file folder to Blake. He flips it open and scans the page.
Wainwright hangs up the telephone. "George S. MacLellan," she says.
Blake pauses. He looks up from the file, blinking. "That's...right," he says slowly. "That's Klein's lead."
"That was Mississauga on the line, sir," she says quietly.
"What did he say?"
"That is what he said: he said, 'George S. MacLellan,' and hung up."
Blake shows her the file. It features a booking photo of a fat, sour-looking white man labelled GEORGE STEPHEN MacLELLAN and then a long list of priors. Klein swallows the end of his doughnut with a loud gulp. "Who the hell is Mississippi, and what's he got to do with my lead?"
Wainwright shakes her head curtly. "It's not a lead," she tells him. "If it comes from Mr. Miss, it's a collar."
Blake is staring at her seriously, assessing her expression. After a moment he nods. "Okay. Klein, bring your car around. Wainright: you'll roll with us. Now let's bag this bastard and get him in for questioning."
Wainwright grins. "Yessir."