The Secret Mathematic is an original novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your spelunkulatory host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the twenty-eighth installment.
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, the story continues:
Beneath the Island of Montreal three natives in mining helmets ply the dark tunnels of a monster tree's inverted roots, following a trail of unholy mink prints in the dirt.
They trudge on as the way meanders south-west, then west by south-west, on a slow but steady rise closer to the surface. Etienne's GPS unit can't get a signal but its internal compass continues to operate and report. They slow as they pass another length of tunnel cluttered with old bones, fragments crunching beneath their feet. Most of the bones are small -- the size of rodents and birds -- but others seem to have come from more substantial animals. Etienne says, "This reminds me of the story of the Kiwakw, marching in the shadows of caves and old woods to prey on the lonely."
"Now that's a cheerful thought," says Gerard darkly.
"You don't believe in spirit animals," Etienne replies.
Gerard frowns. "I don't know what I do and don't believe in anymore."
"Then believe in Odzihozo, the self-created titan with no legs whose dragged body lends the world its contours." Etienne gestures to Mr. Mississauga. "I believe we walk with him now."
"Oh yeah?" says Gerard. "So what happens to him in the end of the story?"
Etienne pauses. "Odzihozo...well, he was turned to stone."
"Great. That'll help."
Mr. Mississauga chuckles, then comes to a halt. He holds up a gloved hand. "There's something in the tunnel up ahead," he says quietly.
Gerard and Etienne pause, attending to the muffled scratching sounds just barely detectable. Suddenly Gerard spins. "It doesn't sound like it's ahead of us..." he croaks.
And it isn't.
The shifting cloud of noise crystallizes as it nears, the echoes aligning to mark clearly the direction a split second before the men can discern that the tunnel behind them glitters with the reflections of a hundred eyes. The walls and floor shift and crawl, coated in rushing layers of moos-bas minkoids, dark fur cut by the bobbing lobes of inflated skin on their backs. The tunnel has become a roiling maw of creatures, bearing down with unbelievable speed.
"Be still!" bellows Mr. Mississauga. "Stampedes part around obstacles!"
A wash of dust rolls over the men just before the first legions of creatures dart between their legs and scamper over their heads. Gerard squeezes his eyes shut and groans as the torrent of fur blasts around him; Etienne stands like a statue, staring them down, a small patch of skin under his left eye twitching.
As quickly as it began it dies down, ebbing to a trickle of stragglers. Gerard steps over to take Etienne's arm. "Are you alright, Et? Did you get bit?"
Etienne opens his mouth to answer but stops, brow rising. A cluster of five or six moos-bas have slackened their pace, turning their wriggling noses toward the two Abenaki. Mr. Mississauga's eyes narrow. "Step away from him!"
Gerard stumbles backward. The moos-bas look to track the motion. Paler patches of circumocular fur exaggerates the apparent size of the creatures' eyes, lending them a fixed air of zeal and fervour -- despite this expression, their interest is waning. The advance toward Etienne tapers off. They sniff, fret, turn in place, and then begin trotting off down the tunnel after their fellows. "They're...not even interested in us," decides Gerard with relief, sidling toward Mr. Mississauga.
Mr. Mississauga shakes his head firmly. "They are."
The pack of stragglers has slowed again, one and then another glancing back over their little shoulders as Gerard steps up next to Mr. Mississauga. The detective says, "It is a matter of density."
Etienne frowns. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Step closer," says Mr. Mississauga.
Etienne cautiously does so. In response the moos-bas begin edging back down the tunnel, sniffing the air as they close the distance to the men. Mr. Mississauga's unnaturally solid arm swings up to shove Etienne and Gerard in opposite directions. They stumble. He himself takes a pace backward, opening up the space between them.
The moos-bas slow. After a moment they lose interest completely and disappear the way the others had gone. Etienne grunts. "They can't notice only one of us, can they? They need a group."
Mr. Mississauga nods. "I believe so, Monsieur Corbeau. The moos-bas are indeed interested in us, but not if we are too few or spread too thin. The object of their design seeks a mass gathering of human beings: a crowd."
Gerard wipes his hand down his face. "What would mink do with a crowd?"
"Consider a skunk," says Mr. Mississauga. "Once it has expended its supply of defensive effluvium, it must spend a week to generate a fresh supply. As a matter of biological economics, a skunk is obliged to be selective in whom it targets."
"You're saying these things are going to start spraying people?" says Etienne. He hovers at an awkward distance, drawn to seek safety in numbers but spooked by the moos-bas. "I think I'm following you, Detective. You think they'll get the best bang for their buck if they're attracted to crowds, right. You think they're somehow rigged up that way."
"Then they're not really moos-bas, are they? Not really."
"I'm not a taxonomist, Monsieur Corbeau."
"They're something else entirely. This isn't about the Ghost World at all...this is about a weapon."
Gerard swallows. "What weapon?"
"Gas," says Etienne. He points uptunnel. "For the city."
"Christ," says Gerard. He wipes at his brow and looks to the detective. "We should go back and call the cops, right? Or maybe animal control. Or the army -- I don't know. But we gotta call somebody."
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "We must act."
"What the hell are we going to do, a bunch of dumb Indians sweating in the dark?"
Etienne's face hardens. His chin rises as his eyes narrow. He barks, "Close your mouth, Gerard! You whine like a white man, and doubt like one, too." He pauses, jaw working. More quietly he adds, "If I hear you speak against our kind again, I'll thrash you as if you was still a kid. Right?"
Gerard is pale. His eyes flit. "Right," he says quickly.
"Being Indians isn't our weakness today. It's our strength. Remember that. We're hunting animals in the dark. We are in our element. You will not spit on the memories of our ancestors by being a coward."
"Right," says Gerard again, trying to stand taller.
Etienne grunts as he slowly bends down on one knee. He scoops up two fingers of rot from the tunnel floor and ceremoniously smears it across his cheeks and forehead in the manner of an old Abenaki warrior. He unhitches his GPS unit and drops it. He then draws a knife from a leather sheath on his belt, straightens and faces the detective. "We will track them with our feelings. When I was young, I could smell a deer's walk after the rain."
Mr. Mississauga nods.
They move in a shallow scalene triangle with the detective at the head, Etienne at the mid-point, and Gerard trailing at the rear with regular glances over his shoulder. They freeze when bursts of gas-laden moos-bar rush past them, then carefully resume walking as the last of them scamper away into black invisibility ahead. "The pattern of surges is tapering off," observes Mr. Mississauga after another hour. "I believe they may be nearing critical mass."
"Look!" says Etienne, turning to scan the tunnel wall: it has changed in character, and the sides are now composed of cobbled stone. He jogs forward and discovers a rude but decidedly human archway. "We must have penetrated through to the old catacombs, eh?"
Gerard crinkles his brow. "What catacombs, Et?"
"The Hochelaga Catacombs," says Etienne, resuming his slow walk. "Four hundred years ago the Iroquoians built them, to hide their people from Champlain. They moved underground rather than die at the feet of France."
"I've never heard of that before," says Gerard.
"White people don't know about it," replies Etienne coolly. He calls ahead to Mr. Mississauga, "Do you know the legend, Detective?"
Mr. Mississauga nods without breaking from his limping march. "The Hochelaga Iroquoians disappeared. Over two thousand of them in a single season. They left no descendants, no words, no graves."
"Some say they went deeper," continues Etienne, casting his voice back toward Gerard. "Some say they moved to the centre of the Earth, and that they're still there: living in peace, where Europe can never touch them."
As they proceed the catacombs unfold around them, tiny slices revealed in the glows of their headlamps: fallen causeways, water-rounded steps, crumbling architecture. At one point they pass through a cosy square ringed with the ruins of stone-mud huts, each of them centred around a blackened hearth pit beneath chimneys carved upward out of the bedrock itself. Gerard stoops to retrieve an arrowhead. "Hey," he says, "I'm Indiana Jones."
The square darkens as the other two move on ahead. Gerard takes an apprehensive look around at the gloom and then hurries after them.
He gasps and stumbles as he runs right into Etienne. Etienne, in turn, tumbles forward to be caught by Mr. Mississauga, whose artificial arm buzzes angrily as it fights to keep the old farmer from dropping into the black chasm open before them. The sounds of their shuffling and hitching breaths echo hauntingly in the cavernous space.
"End of the road?" whispers Gerard, shrinking back against his own echoes.
"No," says Mr. Mississauga crisply. He points his headlamp. "There's a bridge."
Gerard does a double-take. He looks to his father-in-law, whose headlamp is still, his eyes unmoving as he stares where the detective indicates. A narrow ribbon of concrete vanishes out into the abyss, the buttresses beneath it lost in ink. "That's not a bridge," says Gerard; "that's a freaking eavestrough!"
"It's an aqueduct," grunts Etienne.
"It's like two inches wide!"
"We'll manage," says Mr. Mississauga, stumping along the narrow path against the chasm wall. He awkardly steps over a small pile of debris from a collapsed archway, then works his way out onto the aqueduct, one foot on either side of the narrow channel along its middle. The channel is a bilge of mink scat and mud. He begins shuffling forward.
Etienne and Gerard follow him. Mr. Mississauga taps his boot on the stone, then pauses to listen for the echoes ahead that would signal the distance to the other side. He hears nothing.
Gerard also pauses to listen. He cocks his head. "You can hear something down there," he says.
"It's the wind," says Etienne, concentrating on his feet. "It's air moving, right. You hear it in caves. It's nothing."
Gerard kneels down, his ear trained over the edge of the teetering structure. He closes his eyes. "It's getting louder."
Etienne looks up ahead of him. "Detective? Do you want to give this a listen?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga, continuing purposefully onward.
Gerard lifts his head. "You know what it almost sounds like? I swear I could almost hear a train down there."
"The metro lines don't run this deep..." says Etienne slowly. "Detective?"
Mr. Mississauga doesn't turn around or slacken his pace. "Keep moving," he snaps.
Etienne frowns. "But, Detective!" he presses. "This could be important. I hear it, too. It's receding now. Quiet: can you hear?" He looks back at Gerard. "It is a train. Could it be the lost Iroquoians?"
Mr. Mississauga stamps his boot sharply on the aqueduct, causing it to sway. A rain of dust falls from the bed. Etienne and Gerard both look up. Mr. Mississauga clears his throat. "In my experience, Monsieur Corbeau, people who wonder too freely about inexplicable subterranean railways tend to meet unpleasant ends." He tightens his mouth, turns on heel, and continues along the aqueduct. "Trust me."
"But what is it?" cries Etienne. "You know, don't you!"
"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga without looking back.
"So what's down there?"
A whisper of scuttling and hissing rises behind them. Gerard swings his headlamp around, eyes wide. "Speaking of nightmares, here comes another surge!" He jumps to his feet, pinwheeling his arms for balance. "Run!"
Mr. Mississauga moves doggedly forward, tapping out for the echoes. Etienne breaks into a shambling run, his arms cast out on either side. Gerard drops into the channel and takes to leaping forward, one foot in front of the other; he looks like a ballerina having some kind of fit. "Oh shit -- oh shit -- oh shit!" he stammers.
The aqueduct shudders as the first moos-bas scramble onto the far end.
Mr. Mississauga lets escape an uncharacteristic whoop as he detects the reflected sounds from a wall ahead. He doubles his pace, limbs banging in an accelerating tattoo on the ancient stone rims. Part of the edge crumbles beneath his boot but he counterbalances quickly, regaining himself just three steps later.
He clambers up onto solid ground in the mouth of a new stretch of cobble-stoned corridor. "Come on!" he shouts back at the two headlamps bobbing in the dark toward him. "The end is here!"
Gerard catches up with Etienne, taking his arm to guide him. The channel beneath their feet pounds with the scores and scores of paws beating against it in the dark behind them. A loud crack sounds. The aqueduct shifts violently, spurting billows of dust. The crack's report echoes around the cavern until it rises like thunder. The final section of aqueduct, right before the tunnel, falls away with a hiss and scrape of liberated stone.
Etienne goes down. Gerard throws himself against the slanting channel and grabs his father-in-law with both hands, a cry of effort breaking from his mouth along with a spray of spittle. Gerard wrenches backward with everything he's worth, dragging Etienne back to the last solid section.
They get to their feet, swinging their lamps around to check the advancing horde of animals piling toward them along the narrow run. Before Etienne can say anything Gerard grabs him, rears back and, with an adrenaline-powered thrust, propels his father-in-law bodily over the gap. Etienne crashes to the floor at Mr. Mississauga's feet. He flips over, fighting to catch his breath. "Gerard!"
Gerard makes the jump. Etienne and Mr. Mississauga catch his wrists and haul him upright. All three turn to see the leading edge of the moos-bas begin pouring over the end of the fractured aqueduct, squealing as they tumble end over end into the yawning chasm below.
Gerard fights to slow his breathing. "Holy crap," he wheezes. "I can't believe we all made it!"
Etienne puts his hand on his chest and checks his pulse, then begins to nod. "I owe you my life, Gerard," he tells him. He reaches out to touch the younger man's arm. "You have shown your true spirit, son."
They both flinch and duck as a furry shadow flashes between them. It hits the floor, rolls, then skitters away into the dark.
Witnessing the example, the rest of the moos-bas start launching themselves off the end of the aqueduct. Most of them fall but some of them don't, scratching lines in the dirt as they haul themselves into the mouth of the corridor to resume their run. "Split apart!" cries Mr. Mississauga, rocking away from his companions. He falls badly. He feels one of his legs disconnect and slip away.
Etienne rushes past him. Gerard drops next to him. "Give me your hand!"
"Get away from me! Split apart, you fool!"
Mr. Mississauga covers his face with his gloved hands and rolls into the corridor wall as dozens of moos-bas flit over and around him. Some pause, others join them. They nip at his jacket, claw at his pants. He can hear their frenzied breathing just beyond his ear. His hand is bitten by several at once and shook, then pulled.
Suddenly the creatures are flying off him, shrieking as they are struck. Gerard has picked up Mr. Mississauga's separated leg and is swinging it like a golf club, sending moos-bas careening away to bounce off the walls or drop, mewling, into the chasm.
The torrent ebbs. The aqueduct is empty. Mr. Mississauga rolls over.
Etienne stands a dozen meters uptunnel, cornered by three moos-bas. "I'm moving away," he calls in a quavering voice, "but they're not leaving me alone here. Help! Ger? Detective? Help me!" He backs away, his lined face shining with perspiration. The creatures advance. "Come to me, raccoon spirit -- I've never needed you more!"
"Screw the raccoon," grunts Gerard, unholstering a handgun from his belt. He sways back and then launches the weapon in a smooth parabola, the butt coming within an inch of the corridor ceiling before arcing back down directly at his father-in-law. Etienne catches it, squirms to hold it steady in his slippery hands, then cocks and aims.
"Don't!" yells Mr. Mississauga.
But it is too late. Four shots echo away, three moos-bas lie dead. The distended organs on their backs deflate as a thick, yellowish smoke bubbles up from pores at the base. Etienne throws his arm over his mouth and nose as he coughs, stumbling backward.
Gerard and Mr. Mississauga's lamps cut luminous cones through the gas. It diffuses slowly, rolling as a body up toward the ceiling, fading into curling streamlets as it sloshes back upon itself. The men hunker close to the cool, grimy floor, watching apprehensively as the thinning fog washes overhead and begins pouring out into the chasm. They cover their faces with their shirts, peeking over their collars. "Etienne!" yells Gerard, voice muffled through fabric.
Slowly, Etienne sits up. Vapours swirl around his helmet. He blinks.
"Et, speak to me!"
He looks at Gerard vaguely. "Hi," he says.
"Are you alright?"
Etienne gets to his feet, licking his lips thoughtfully. "I have to go," he says simply, moving toward them.
"I have to go north," says Etienne with more certainty, speeding up from a brisk walk to a jog. "Wiyasakami," he says dreamily, "Wiyasakami, Wiyasakami..."
"You can't get north! The way is broken! Stop!" cries Gerard.
He makes a running dive, but stumbles in the dark and falls short. His fingertips brush his father-in-law's pant cuff as Etienne runs past Mr. Mississauga and then headlong out of the mouth of the corridor. He sails downward, striking the broken aqueduct bed with his torso, then is sent careening down into the black chasm. His bones break, but he does not cry out. In an instant he is lost from sight and sound.
Gerard stares at the edge. His chin quivers. "Christ, Et," he whispers. "Oh no."
Mr. Mississauga takes a tentative breath. His nostrils flare. "The compound breaks down very quickly," he remarks. "Lighter than air, fragile. To have a significant effect it may need to be released in an enclosed space."
"It seemed to have a pretty fucking significant effect on Etienne!" Gerard shoots back.
"It was a highly concentrated dose," says Mr. Mississauga quietly. "I am sorry for your loss, sir."
"That didn't just happen," blubbers Gerard, wiping at his eyes with his filthy hands. Though he cannot know, he has just smeared the dirt on his face into a clear, symmetrical semblance of a raccoon.
"It did happen," says Mr. Mississauga. "And it was a glimpse of what's to come."
Gerard shakes his head, then rises to a kneeling position. He scrapes up a layer of grime from the floor and spreads it ceremoniously across his cheeks and forehead as Etienne had, then gets to his feet and crosses his arms like a brave of old. "I think I've gained more than I've lost today," he says simply, face tight. He looks down at the detective. "Let's keep moving. It's what he would've wanted, right. You with me?"
Mr. Mississauga nods. "Yes. There's just one thing..."
Gerard frowns. "What?"
"Would you pass me my leg, please?"
"Oh -- yeah, sure. Here."
After another half kilometer of somber, silent progress, the corridor widens into a great hall with a vaulted ceiling reinforced by concrete columns, their faces cracked and flaking, smeared green and brown with waterstains and mould. Around the sides of the hall are crumbling constructions: a semi-collapsed temple platform, a raised dais and podium studded with pale mushrooms, the stone foundations of rotted wooden walls. The dark ceiling chirps and sings and rustles. "Awa-hon-do?" guesses Gerard.
"Bats," says Mr. Mississauga, his headlamp illuminating a dense blotting of guano covering the floor. "The last inhabitants of New Hochelaga."
Gerard sweeps his beam over the ruins. "It's...it's incredible. How could this -- it's practically a whole city -- be sitting here underground, under Montreal, for four hundred years with nobody knowing about it?" He turns in place, marvelling. "Where did all the people go?"
Mr. Mississauga presses his lips together grimly, but says nothing.
Gerard pans his light along the guano-encrusted floor. "The mink tracks go off this way. Come on. Any idea which direction that is?"
"You got a compass built into that trick leg of yours, guy?"
"No. I just keep track."
A quarter hour later the pair passes through a freshly demolished wall, and they find themselves standing in the oldest quarter of Montreal's municipal sewage system. The air is fetid. A river of sludge with leaves floating in it gurgles in a filthy concrete trough edged with narrow sidewalks, spray-painted at regular intervals with numbers and notations in French. A couple of dead moos-bas drift by. "They've been in here somewheres," nods Gerard. "Do you think we should go right or left?"
Mr. Mississauga's legs tick and creak as he slowly kneels. He prods at the sidewalk surface, squinting, then looks down the length of the round tunnel. "To the right," he decides.
"You see prints?"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga, pointing. "I see the light."
Gerard looks. Hovering over the river of swill is a tiny orb of amber light, swaying slightly to and then fro, dropping and then lifting again. The motion is organic and unpredictable, smooth and oddly hypnotic. Mr. Mississauga stands and begins stumping off toward it. Gerard jogs up behind him. "What the hell is that? It's just hanging in the air...too big to be a firefly."
Mr. Mississauga cocks his head with curiosity, then his features soften. "It's a faerie."
They stop on the narrow sidewalk ledge beside the dancing glow. At its centre is a tiny figure, wings beating madly as it flies in tight, slow circles. It turns to face them, fixing them with two large black eyes.
Gerard gasps and steps back. "It's looking at us!"
"No," says Mr. Mississauga. He points, his leather glove crinkling as his index finger slowly extends and then clicks into place. "Observe carefully. That is the underside of the head. The apparent eyes are false, like the eyes on a butterfly's wing. Watch, as it turns: there -- much tinier eyes, on either side of the antennae; those are the real ones."
Gerard leans closer, furrowing his brow with concentration as he tracks the flitting thing, the bio-luminescent abdomen leaving tracks of green afterimage in his vision. "It's kind of like a stick insect...or maybe a praying mantis. It's just a bug, eh? But why does it look like it has a freaking face?"
Mr. Mississauga frowns pensively. "I can't be sure without taking a nap. Can I use your lap for a pillow?"
Gerard gives him a sidelong look. "You're out of your mind, guy."
"Just a joke," says Mr. Mississauga. He shrugs sheepishly and admits, "I'm not very funny."
The detective offers him a small, tight smile. "There are any number of reasons why one species might grow to simulate the appearance of another, but I do not think the usual forces of natural selection are in play here. This is like the mottling on the awa-hon-do carapaces, or the white patches around the eyes of the moos-bas: an external agency has acted upon their lines, to artificially select for human resemblance."
"But why would someone do that?"
Mr. Mississauga shrugs. "Like I said, I can't be sure without testing it in sleep, but one possibility does suggest itself."
"The same reasons people have ever had for rendering human likenesses: to aid in the formation of a relationship with a non-human object. It is totem, sir." He pauses, turning to face Gerard. "This is why the megaliths of Easter Island have faces. This is why our architecture is designed according to the proportions of the body. It is an age-old way of subverting the social emotions and repurposing them, to stimulate a bond and thereby sensitize perceptions."
"I think you lost me."
"A large part of the brain, sir, is devoted to navigating the subtleties of a bio-social existence. This powerful subsystem can be harnessed for other purposes. People have done so for at least a hundred thousand years: anthropomorphizing aspects of their environment in order to engage with them using social tools." Mr. Mississauga looks out at the faerie once more. "The brain is a highly flexible organ, but its emotions leave their mark. I believe these animals may have been bred by someone alienated from society. As servants and substitutes."
"So some lonely freak made faeries out of bugs?"
"It is possible. We have no way of knowing. But their current function seems clear enough: they are signposts, lighting the way." He blocks the glare of the insect his with glove, then points further along the sewer. "Observe, in the distance: there is another. And another after that."
"I heard following faeries is bad luck."
"No doubt," agrees Mr. Mississauga, turning to go.
The men follow the lighted trail. Gerard tries not to stare at the faeries, as their motion makes him feel dizzy.
In the dark the next transition of architecture is difficult to discern, but after wandering through a damp, concrete grotto peppered with puddles of raw swage Gerard suddenly stops and sprints over to a square pillar, shining his light on the spray-painted markings there: a series of pink fluorescent symbols which mean nothing to Mr. Mississauga, but Gerard nods knowingly. "We're coming up to a pumping substation."
"How do you know?"
"I used to work for Public Works, when I was teenager, right. This gives us the direction and distance to the pump -- a hundred and six meters north-by-northwest." He pauses, scratching his head. "Unless I'm totally lost, though, I can't figure out why we'd be near a substation. I mean, the water pressure is managed centrally on the island itself. Except..."
Mr. Mississauga looks over. "Except?"
Gerard's eyes widen. "Except for The Big O, guy. Except for the freaking Stade, right? Oh no." He turns his head to shine his light on the next pillar, noting the spray-painted markings. He looks back at Mr. Mississauga, expression somber. "We're heading right underneath the Olympic Stadium, Detective. And it's a summer weekend night...there could be sixty thousand people up there."
Mr. Mississauga pales. His mouth opens in surprise. And then, in a rare moment of self-indulgence, he expresses his dismay in as profane a way as he is willing. Darkly, he says, "Dung."
They pass among the water-stained foundations of the grand stadium. Gerard shoulders open a door into a rain-runoff cistern and manages a smile as he spots a metal maintenance-access ladder leading upward. Gerard tugs on the nearest rung, releasing a hail of rust flakes. "Think it'll hold us?"
"There is one way to be sure," says Mr. Mississauga, reaching to the bars and then hoisting himself up, his arms whining as they work.
Gerard nods and follows him.
After only a dozen meters Mr. Mississauga's progress slows, then stops. Gerard frowns as he hears the detective's arm clanking repeatedly against the ladder. "What's wrong?"
"My right arm is dead."
"You don't even have a right arm, guy."
"I mean that my artificial limb has run out of power. It may have been drained when I caught Etienne at the chasm."
"Shit. Can you get along with only one arm?"
Mr. Mississauga grunts. "No," he confesses quietly. "Not climbing."
"So what do we do?"
"Once we get out of here you can turn the key to wind up the auxiliary motor. I'll only be able to move my digits and wrist, and not with much strength, but it will have to do until I can get to an electrical outlet."
Gerard shifts. "Yeah, but how are we going to climb out of here if you can't climb?"
Mr. Mississauga clears his throat awkwardly. "I will be forced to presume upon your strength, sir."
Gerard looks up at the tall detective hanging over him. "Oh. Great. This is going to be fun...I can just tell."
"Come up beneath me. I will...I will sit on your shoulders."
Gerard sighs. "I guess we got no choice." He takes a deep breath. "Okay, guy: allez-oop." He climbs up another few rungs, his head disappearing under Mr. Mississauga's coat. He winces as the man's weight settles onto his shoulders, the fake legs hanging lifelessly down his chest. "Ready?" he mumbles.
Gerard strains upward, heaving his own weight and the weight of Mr. Mississauga up to the next rung. Mr. Mississauga's good hand takes a hold and helps to pull. Gerard's biceps quake as beads of sweat draw lines through the dirt on his face. "Only don't tell anybody about this, okay?" he gasps from between the detective's thighs. "It just seems kind of gay."
"I am gay," says Mr. Mississauga.
By the time they emerge from the top of the ladder they are slick with mud and sweat. With a bellow of exertion Gerard heaves Mr. Mississauga out of the maintenance hatch, whereupon he tumbles to a concrete floor in a dimly-lit custodial locker. Gerard climbs out after him, putting his foot directly into a mop bucket and then falling over himself. Both men lie on the cold floor, gasping for breath.
Mr. Mississauga sits up first. The lamp on his helmet is now feeble and orange, but it is enough to illuminate the rows of maintenance equipment hanging on hooks along the widest wall: self-igniting flares, industrial vacuums, portable generators, fire extinguishers, fire axes, gas masques, and finally a wrinkled pin-up of a young lady spreading her labia with two fingers while making a saucy face. Mr. Mississauga points to a set of brown custodial coveralls. "Let's get dressed."
Gerard is zipping up a pair of coveralls over his own mud-encrusted pair when a faint but insistent thrumming begins to vibrate the walls and floor. "What the hell is that?"
Mr. Mississauga touches his cheek against the wall and closes his eyes. He opens them a second later. "Rock'n'roll," he reports, then glances upward. "There's a concert going on up there."
Mr. Mississauga passes him two gas masques. "This one is for you; the other is so you can save someone," he explains as he loops the tether from his own spare around his shoulder.
Gerard looks uncertain. "Seems like a lot of trouble to save just one person, doesn't it?"
"It's a life," says Mr. Mississauga curtly.
The service elevator requires a key. Mr. Mississauga feels out the tumblers with a slim, metal pick in his left hand while Gerard holds the tension wrench steady, looking up and down the dimly-lit concrete hall. The fixtures buzz in time to the unheard music.
The lock turns. The elevator door rumbles aside.
Mr. Mississauga tucks his tools away, his right arm hanging limp, while Gerard scans the array of selector buttons. "What do you think? Main concourse?"
"Executive skyboxes. We could use an eagle eye view."
Gerard depresses the button and the door closes. The car chugs upward but stops at the lowest parking level. A young custodian wheeling a cart of cleaning supplies shuffles in, eyes down, ears plugged into white earbuds. His head nods in time to the tinny music leaking out. He makes his selection, stands back, and then his nose begins to twitch. He looks up. "Man, what have youse guys been cleaning up?" he asks. "That's some serious funk."
"Uh, sewage backup," says Gerard.
"Gross." He blinks. "You're heading all the way up to the boxes?"
"It's a hell of a backup."
The door opens on the skybox level, releasing the pair into a carpeted corridor with framed photographs of sports heroes along the walls. Mr. Mississauga approaches the closest door and raps on it. "Maintenance."
There is no reply. He pushes open the door and Gerard quickly follows him inside, eager to get out of sight.
They find themselves in the midst of a toast in progress.
A ring of whites in their evening finery stands frozen, glasses of champagne held aloft, staring with open mouths as the two natives in custodial coveralls come to an abrupt halt, swill squelching out of their boots, long-handled fire axes over their shoulders. Gerard shifts awkwardly, then shoves his gas masque up higher on his dirty forehead. "Um, did somebody call in a clogged toilet?"
A grey-haired woman in a sequined scarlet gown wheels on them. "Certainty not! This is a private function for the Monsanto Company; I'll thank you to leave immediately."
"I'll call security," offers a young man in a tuxedo, reaching for a house telephone on a glass coffee table. He jerks his hand back as Gerard's axe cuts through the telephone and shatters the table.
"The phones are out of service, guy."
"Is this some kind of robbery?" cries the grey-haired woman.
"No," says Mr. Mississauga, shouldering past her to approach the front windows. "It's just a maintenance issue."
A tall, tuxedoed man with cold blue eyes and a mane of white hair steps up and spins Mr. Mississauga around forcibly. "Stop this at once," he hisses, his face's falling into deep lines of habitual scowl. "I don't know what sort of tomfoolery this is, but you will leave this instant -- and I advise you to collect your personal effects, because within an hour you'll be without jobs."
"Sir," says Mr. Mississauga calmly, "you are interfering with an official custodial investigation."
The man roars, "Do you have any idea who I am?"
"No," replies Mr. Mississauga, "but I do know that is a question that is only ever asked by people I don't care for."
The important man pulls a mobile telephone out of his tuxedo jacket and tosses it to the grey-haired woman. "Summon the police, Mrs. Gillis." He turns to two men hovering at his elbow. "Dirkwood, Pullman -- throw these drunks out of here."
"Hey!" shouts Gerard. "I resent that! Just because I'm an Indian and I'm disrupting your shit doesn't mean I'm drunk. That's racism, eh?"
Dirkwood and Pullman hesitate until they're barked at again. "But, sir, they have axes!" cries Dirkwood.
"You're fired," says the important man. "Pullman!"
Pullman runs at Gerard, who fends him off with the handle of his axe, sending the tuxedoed executive stumbling into a plasma monitor embedded in the wall. Gerard swings the axe around in a neat pirouette, letting loose a hauntingly loud Abenaki war cry. "Who's next?" he challenges, raising his chin.
The whites shrink back. The important man's lined, pinched face is turning red. "Where are my agents?" he sputters. His people back away from him, leaving Mr. Yohann in a growing void. "Why aren't any of you doing anything?"
Dirkwood opens the door to the corridor. "You can go straight to hell, Mr. Yohann," he says as he leaves. Several others follow him.
"We should leave, sir," urges Mrs. Gillis. "The authorities are on their way."
"Coward," he snaps without looking at her. She seems scandalized, her eyes twitching as if she might cry. Mr. Yohann shakes his white-maned head in disgust. "You would rather squirm and scamper to save your pathetically small life," he continues, eyes locked on Gerard. "I'm not surprised. I never am anymore. Flee, Mrs. Gillis, but don't bother coming to the office tomorrow or ever again."
"Silence. For sport and victory, I will clear this up personally." At this the distinguished and disgruntled gentleman draws a polished Magnum handgun from inside his jacket. He levels it at Gerard who obediently drops his axe and puts his hands up. "Do you see?" sneers Mr. Yohann. "Taking control of a situation is simply a matter of preparation and decisiveness. You -- brave -- on the floor."
Neither of them move. Mr. Mississauga turns away from the window, his expression placid. "We're working to avert a tragedy, sir. Your actions imperil thousands."
"Let's not play games," snaps Mr. Yohann, finger steady on the trigger. "First, you're going to lie on your front with your hands laced behind your head. Second, you're going to tell me why you have gas masques."
"I prefer to stand," says Mr. Mississauga. "Bad back."
"Tell me why you have gas masques!"
The important man's eyes widen, his pupils dilating. Mr. Mississauga notes the reaction, turning to offer Gerard a significant look.
"Detective?" whispers Gerard nervously.
"We have to get out there," replies Mr. Mississauga. "He is part of this."
"Make no mistake," hollers Mr. Yohann; "I will shoot you both! I own too many judges to bother thinking twice about it."
Gerard nods, takes a breath, and then picks up a steel-framed chair. He spins with it and then releases, launching the chair at the wide bank of windows that front the skybox. He flinches in anticipation of the crash, frowning and then dodging as the chair bounces back at him, clattering to the carpet. The windows shudder but do not break.
"Damn," mumbles Gerard, scratching his head. "That always works in the movies."
Mr. Yohann fires. Gerard ducks, then twists around to see a spider-webbed bulleye of white cracking in the middle of the windows. Mr. Mississauga swiftly raises his left hand, the glove drawn into the shape of a make-believe gun. He lunges forward menacingly, index finger trained on their opponent.
The ruse is effective -- Mr. Yohann ducks.
Gerard bends down and retrieves his axe. Mr. Mississauga grabs him and tugs him along to the extreme left side of the windows, and only as he is whisked through it does Gerard appreciate the fact that the last window is, in fact, a door leading to a narrow balcony running along the front of all the skyboxes.
They bang the door shut, and Mr. Mississauga dogs it by jamming the handle of his fire axe into the latch. On the other side of the windows Mr. Yohann, now completely alone in the skybox, rages. His yells are muffled and profane.
The sounds of the stadium, however, are no longer muffled: Gerard and Mr. Mississauga are assaulted by the mass susurrussing of the tens of thousands of fans packed into the seats all around them, the darkness punctuated by a sprinkling of lit lighters and the play of coloured gels on the curved ceiling. The crowd whistles and hoots, stamping their feet, chanting an unintelligible word over and over.
Gerard looks to the stage. "Wow..."
Mr. Mississauga turns. The stage is lit with a wash of blue and green spotlights. At the wings stand giant Inukshuk figures of piled slabs of stone-like material, and these traditional Inuit sculptures are wearing oversized T-shirts emblazoned with a cluster of bright red cherries. Striding out between the drum set dais and the bassist is a brown-skinned woman dressed in furs, her inky hair elaborately braided and streaked with scarlet and gold. She carries an electric guitar slung over her shoulder, her head tilted back as she drains a bottle of water.
Gerard gapes. "Do you know who that is, guy? That's freaking Cherry Nuk-Nuk -- the world's most kick-ass Inuit pop singer!"
"I know who Cherry Nuk-Nuk is," says Mr. Mississauga, smiling strangely.
They are startled from this exchange as two more shots sound from inside the skybox. The splintered windows begin to sag, cubes of reinforced glass streaming onto the balcony like spilled water. "Shit!" yells Gerard. "We gotta bail!"
His suggestion is underscored by the arrival of teams of security guards, bursting out of the skybox doors on either side of the Monsanto box. Some of them are stadium guards with the word SURETE emblazoned on black bomber jackets while others, more menacing, are private agents in dark suits. Their shouted orders overlap into an authoritative cacophony. "Arret! Drop your weapons! Get on the ground! Freeze!"
Gerard looks over the edge of the balcony, then swings back to face the detective, a wild look in his eyes. "How do you feel about crowd surfing, guy?"
The Indians fly.
Gerard hits the gaily striped canopy of a radio station's broadcasting tent, knocking off the foamcore call letters and then sliding spread-eagled down the canopy's length before toppling over the edge and hitting the ground hard amid a cluster of milling fans. He stumbles and spins out of control, striking a railing by the bleachers and then falling over it into the lap of a large black man with a cup of beer in each of his mitt-like hands. The man's heroic reflexes keep both his beers aloft and out of harm's way as Gerard slides off his lap to impact with the plastic back of the seat ahead.
"Whoa, fella!" shouts the man angrily, though his expression changes as Gerard reappears wielding an axe.
"Sorry!" calls Gerard, stepping over the man's seat and diving back into the melee caused by his landing. The disc jockeys under the canopy are frozen in place, stopped dead in the midst of attacking one other with aerosol cans of fluorescent silly spray.
Gerard pushes people aside with the handle of his axe until he comes upon Mr. Mississauga lying prone, half-hidden beneath a table overflowing with cabling and broadcast equipment. "Detective!"
"I'm fine," reports Mr. Mississauga breathlessly, blood oozing from a cut over his left eye. "But my legs are smashed."
Gerard drops his axe and puts his hands under Mr. Mississauga's armpits, dragging him into the clear as the crowd steps back. The splintered remains of the detective's legs remain lodged under the counter, the sight of which causes a female disc jockey to start screaming shrilly as she clutches at her face. "His legs! Oh my God -- his legs!"
Her horror is drowned out as the sound system throbs with Cherry Nuk-Nuk's amplified voice: "Okay, Montreal -- this is a new one, called Lick my Laurels. Ready? One, two, three, four!" The speakers then erupt with a violent collision of amplified instruments and frenetic drumming.
It is due to this noise that the spread of the panic is slow; but Gerard sees a section of floor seats suddenly abandoned, and though he cannot hear the people's shrieks he can see their far away mouths opened in O-shapes of fear, revealed as the light-show sweeps over them. A hail of dirt flies out from the abandoned chairs, followed by a wriggling mass of shadows Gerard identifies immediately: moos-bas. "Here they come!" he bellows.
"We have to empty the stadium!" Mr. Mississauga yells back from the floor.
Mr. Mississauga holds up his lighter. "Fire alarm!"
Gerard snaps up the lighter and then vaults over the counter and into the broadcast tent, upending the disc jockey's chairs and sending a fat, bearded man with a pierced nose sprawling to the floor. Gerard scoops up the disc jockey's can of silly spray, poises the flame before it and squeezes the actuator. An aerosol propelled cloud of fire belches forth, hissing as Gerard pans it back and forth across the canopy of the tent.
The bearded disc jockey tries to grab his arm but is rebuffed by the sight of Gerard's axe. The disc jockey squirms away. "What are you doing, buddy! Tabernac -- somebody call security!"
Gerard scrambles over the counter again, upsetting the microphones, running clear just as the flaming canopy begins to sag, raining cinders into boxes of promotional pamphlets and T-shirts.
People scream and run. Two golf carts full of security guards squeal to a halt on either side of the fallen detective as he pulls flares from his coveralls, cracks them to life, and hurls them in all directions. The guards turn as a unit to watch the broadcast tent erupt into a furious inferno.
Gerard feels the heat on it on his back as he strides into the midst of the guards. Without hesitation he pulls the nearest guard out of his cart and then shows the second one his axe. The guard dives over the side of the golf cart and starts yelling into his radio. Gerard calmly scoops up Mr. Mississauga and drops him into the driver's seat. "Can you drive this thing?"
"Not without my legs."
Gerard snatches up one of the detective's artificial limbs and shoves it at him. "Here."
The security guards have lost interest in them completely now, torn between the spectacle of the burning tent and the slowly unfolding terror spreading across the floor seats. The driver of the second golf cart stands up on his seat, pointing. "There's a pack of dogs on the field!"
Fire alarms begin to tweet from all sides. Cherry Nuk-Nuk's music suddenly cuts out, replaced by a tense voice: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a fire situation. Please exit the stadium in a calm and orderly manner. Attention, attention: this is not a drill. Please exit the stadium at this time."
As the announcement is repeated in French Mr. Mississauga takes his leg in hand and shoves it down into the footwell, searching for the pedals. He finds them and the golf cart bucks forward. "Steer right!" screams Gerard from beside him, pointing to the row of seats they are about to plow into.
"I can't steer!"
"Re-wind my arm!"
Gerard leans over and takes hold of the wheel, wrenching it to one side with a cry. The golf cart threatens to overbalance as it spins to the right, careening down an aisle between seating sections. Concertgoers attempting to evacuate are forced to dive aside to make way, the cart jostling violently as it rolls over the concrete stairs.
Those in the floor seats are running in a panic more pronounced than the others, stepping over one another in desperation to get away from the shrieking shadows that are spilling out of holes in the grass from every quarter, the entire field now roiling with subterranean invaders.
The crowd's screams change abruptly in pitch and intensity as blooms of yellowish gas begin rising from the piles of tossed seats. "It's a terror attack!" yells a man as he sprints up the aisle dragging a stunned teenager. "Mustard gas!"
The golf cart whizzes past them, rapidly closing on the metal barriers separating the bleachers from the field. Gerard slides his gas masque down over his face, then leans across and secures Mr. Mississauga's masque. A split-second later the cart rams into the length of barrier, the motor bleating unhappily as it fights to roll over the metal slats. "Give it more gas!" cries Gerard.
"It's electric," mumbles Mr. Mississauga, stabbing at the accelerator with his disembodied leg.
"Then give it some fucking volts, guy!"
Mr. Mississauga floors it. The golf cart jerks ahead and hits the grass, mud flying from its small wheels. It begins to bump and shudder as they run over dozens of moos-bas, the sacs on their backs rupturing and spewing thick coils of yellow smoke. Chairs smash aside.
"I can't see anything," calls Gerard, "but I think everyone's getting out!"
"Yes," agrees Mr. Mississauga through his gas masques, goggles locked on the fog as the cart barrels onward.
"So where are we going?"
"To save Cherry."
They blast out of the thickest part of the fumes and the stage becomes visible again. A wave of moos-bas is surging over the lip of the first risers, dashing between speakers and making straight for the performers. Cherry Nuk-Nuk meets the horde with a vicious swing of her electric guitar, knocking a line of animals aside and causing an unholy, amplified yowl from the abused instrument to roar through the sound system. "Cherry!" screams the bassist as he is subsumed by a platoon of mad mink at stage right.
A sheet of rolling yellow smoke spreads in front of the stage, blocking the view once more. The golf cart bucks and strains over the uneven terrain and then keels forward and stops as its front tires drop into a gaping hole in the field. Mr. Mississauga and Gerard tumble over the front and land in the dirt. Gerard recovers quickly and lifts the detective into his arms, pelting over the new furrows in a desperate dash for higher ground. The direction of the stage is revealed by the coloured spotlights carving swirling cones through the miasma, searchlights pointing the way.
Mr. Mississauga finds himself skidding on his back across the stage platform. Gerard hauls himself up after him, kicking at a moos-bas attached to his opposite boot. "I lost my axe!" he cries, running up to the immobile detective.
"I lost Cherry!"
They look around wildly. "There!" says Gerard, catching sight of a pair of figures rushing into the wings.
Moos-bas speed toward them, claws clattering on the stage, but Gerard takes a microphone stand and swings it at them. One of them sinks its teeth into the cable and is promptly fried, its sac bursting as the carcass smokes and jerks. The nearest animals scatter. Gerard heaves Mr. Mississauga over his shoulder and trudges as fast as he can into the wing, startled and disoriented as he bursts into a black corridor of tight turns, the edges marked with little strips of glow-tape.
They round the corner. Cherry and a thin man in red leather pants are climbing a tower of lighting truss, at their heels a platoon of fierce mink with unburst sacs. Gerard yells as loudly as he can with the detective's one good arm wrapped around his windpipe: "Heads up!" He then throws his spare gas masque up the tower. "Put it on! Now! Hurry!"
Cherry catches it, hanging precariously off the truss, then presses the filter over her mouth and nose. She pulls it away briefly to shout, "What about Bowie?"
Gerard gasps. "Holy crap -- that's David Bowie!"
"Help!" cries Bowie, coughing.
Cherry holds her breath as she passes the masque over. Gerard topples under a surge of animals, the wind knocked out of him as he strikes against an equipment trunk. Mr. Mississauga tumbles free and takes the floor on his shoulder. He bounces rudely into a dark corner, an upsidown torso lodged against a glow-taped stair. The fire alarm is abusively loud, the air thickening rapidly with effluvium.
Gerard rises from the floor, howling inside his masque, and stomps the closest moos-bas to death with his boots. He tears the spare gas masque from Mr. Mississauga's disconnected arm and throws it blindly up the truss tower before falling under a fresh volley of hissing, clawing beasts.
Cherry screams and Bowie gasps as the truss tower begins to lean and groan under their combined weight. Supporting lines snap, their loose ends whipping against the wall.
Mr. Mississauga turns into the corner, the masque pressing into his face and whistling as the ventilated is jammed. Claws rake at the back of his head. He is helpless, his vision swimming with stars and turning grey.
The truss collapses.
The sound is deafening inside the enclosed wing, a clattering jangle overlaid with grunts and squeals and the breaking of glass as spotlights hit the floor. The rush of air sweeps away a bank of the thinning gas. The debris settles, and for a moment there is near silence.
Gerard slowly stands, reaching out to hold the wall in support of a broken leg. He tests it, then winces. None of the moos-bas lying around him are moving. He looks up. "Hello?"
Cherry Nuk-Nuk and David Bowie extract themselves from the tangled tower, holding their gas masques into place, the straps hanging loose. Cherry looks at the departing fumes fading at the ceiling and then lets her masque drop. She takes an experimental breath, her nose wrinkling. "Are you okay?" she asks.
Gerard nods as he pushes his own masque up onto his forehead. "I think I broke my leg, but I'll live, eh?"
She looks down at his feet. "Did those...things all get squished?"
"No. They just...sort of died. All of 'em. Look. Even the ones on the stage."
"What's your name?"
Cherry smiles. "I think you just saved our lives, Gerard Odanak."
Gerard's eyes widen. "Holy shit!" he says. "The detective!" He hops on his good leg and then more or less falls into the corner, propping himself against the wall with one hand as he tosses dead mink over his shoulder with the other. He digs frantically and then leans back, sighing.
"Is there somebody under there?" asks Cherry, stepping carefully through the twisted remains of the truss. She stops abruptly as she sees the armless, legless bundle of trenchcoat stuffed roughly against the stair, spots of blood staining the collar. "Oh my God," she whispers.
Gerard carefully peels the masque away from Mr. Mississauga's face. His eyes are open and fixed. "...Detective?"
Mr. Mississauga blinks. His eyes roam, then look past Gerard to fix on Cherry Nuk-Nuk. The corners of his mouth twitch. Hoarsely he manages to say, "Hello, Aglakti."
"Hello, Sky," she says, a tear sliding over one cheek.
Bowie steps closer, drawing the masque hesitantly away from his narrow face. "Can I ask something at this point? Does anyone know what the devil is going on?"
Cherry frowns. "Right on. Plus, what's that sound?"
She wanders out to the stage platform, carefully stepping her sequined mukluk boots between the bodies. Gerard hobbles out after her, followed by Bowie huffing and puffing as he drags Mr. Mississauga.
The source of the sound is apparent. It begins at their feet but quickly spreads all around them, and they all stare collectively in awe...
Every orifice of each dead moos-bas is erupting with a stream of tiny beetles, their iridescent carapaces marked with happy faces of cobalt speckling. They turn upon their hosts and begin to ravenously consume them, fur and skin and then muscle and sinew disappearing under the work of millions of small, black jaws. Between the bleats of the fire alarm the entire yawning stadium reverberates with the sick sound of the beetles' labour.
Bowie props Mr. Mississauga up against an amplifier. Cherry's smashed guitar lies nearby. She comes and crouches beside him, eyes cast at out over the macabre sight.
After only a few moments the crackling and crunching is dying down, fading, separating. And then, quite suddenly, the beetles drain away like a swirling ocean of ink, the happy faces on their backs glittering as they vanish inside the cracks in the eviscerated playing field.
Four people find themselves in an abandoned stadium. The floor area is a jumble of torn grass and toppled chairs. There is a smouldering stain where the radio broadcast tent had been pitched, a few feeble patches of fire sending tendrils of black smoke lazily upward to join the last vestiges of ochre gas slowly fading in the middle of the stretched kevlar roof.
Sirens wail outside the stadium, drawing nearer.
"Nobody's ever going to believe us, are they?" asks Gerard. He turns to look back at the detective, wincing as he shifts his balance. "It's all gone, just like that. Like it never happened."
"Except for those who received a sufficient dose," says Mr. Mississauga. "That happened. It won't be long before they develop the compulsion."
Cherry looks to Mr. Mississauga. "What compulsion?"
Gerard does, too. The detective shakes his head, says, "It's a long story. Don't trouble yourself, Aglakti. That way you'll have an easier time being honest when they come to ask you about the gas line rupture."
"Gas line rupture?"
Mr. Mississauga shrugs, his mouth pinched. "A lot of things that happen to me get written up as gas line ruptures. The authorities seem fond of it as a catch-all cover for destruction. To be honest, I don't know why the gas companies put up with it."
Bowie furrows his brow. "Yes, but what was it, in fact?"
"I don't know," replies Mr. Mississauga, looking over at him. "But it was purposeful and planned. Enormous resources were expended. And a certain Mr. Yohann in the Monsanto skybox seemed aware and possibly involved."
Cherry cocks her head. "Well, that makes sense. If there's one man with big-ass resources, it'd be Yohann. He's a billionaire. He's one of those guys trying to get a private spaceship thing going." She pauses, frowning. "And so now he's like King of the Killer Fart Gophers."
"Mink," mumbles Gerard. He can't meet Cherry's eye because she's too pretty. "We think they were based on mink," he explains to his boots.
Bowie sighs. "This is just the sort of thing my rider specifies I shouldn't have to tolerate. Even in Australia."
Gerard bites his lip and then blurts out, "You were awesome in that maze movie. You know, with the muppets and Jennifer Connolly?"
"Thank you," says Bowie.
The floodlights over the exits go out and the fire alarm silences. Fully helmeted squadrons of firefighters pour in through four sections at once. A brace of police cruisers drive right up to the edge of the field, stopping as they spot the torn up surface. A team of people in bright yellow hazmat jumpsuits appear next, waving sensing devices through the air. Radios squawk and beep.
"You may want to distance yourselves from us," Mr. Mississauga warns Cherry. "Mr. Odanak and I have some actions to account for."
"Bullshit," says Cherry. "Anything you did you only did to save people, Mr. Miss. We'll tell them. Right David?"
"We burned down the radio station tent, eh?" says Gerard.
"It was a crappy radio station, anyway," Cherry assures him. "Why are you standing all the way over there, Gerard? I think you should let me give you a hug."
Gerard colours. His free hand flits awkwardly. "Uh, the detective and me sort of slogged through some raw sewage earlier. We...we kind of smell, right."
"I don't care."
Cherry walks over and hugs him carefully, mindful of his wounded leg. Then she returns to kneel beside the detective at the amplifier. "You're really okay?" she whispers.
"Shut up. Want me to see if I can scare up a wheelbarrow for you?"
"That's not funny."
She smiles. "Yeah, maybe."
A platoon of firefighters rush in from the wings, calling the names of the performers. When they see Mr. Mississauga propped up against the amplifier they radio in a medical emergency. Cherry directs their attention to Gerard, instead. Mr. Mississauga inclines his head toward her. "Be mildly injured," he advises.
"Be mildly injured?"
"I'll see you at the hospital." He pauses. "Bring me a wheelchair, three pillow cases, a towel and two meter sticks." He pauses again, then looks up at her. "Please."
"And then we're going to bust out of the hospital?"
"I will, yes."
"Because you're in trouble?"
"Because I don't have time."
"But you'd be helpless."
"Meter sticks are very useful."
She chuckles and shakes her head. "You're not getting rid of me so easily this time, Mr. Miss. Cherry Nuk-Nuk is on the case."
"What about Aglakti?"
"Shut up. This is where we're supposed to put our hands together and then throw them off and cheer, right? But...you know." She smirks, stepping back out of the way as a team of paramedics arrive with a stretcher for the detective. She puts her hand on her hip and says, "I'm sidekicking you, Mr. Miss. And there isn't a damned thing you can do about it."
"No," says Mr. Mississauga.
A police officer rushes up to Cherry. "Are you hurt, Miss Nuk-Nuk? What happened?"
She touches her head and winces, wobbling unsteadily. "I think...the gas line ruptured," she says, then looks past the cop at Mr. Mississauga as he is hefted onto the stretcher. She winks theatrically.
"No," says Mr. Mississauga again as he is carried away. She smiles.
Gerard is carried by on his own stretcher. "It was really nice to meet you, eh?" he calls to Cherry. She waves.
Bowie is escorted past with a blanket over his shoulders. "I'll call you," he mouths to Cherry. She nods.
The cop clears his throat, hesitates, then pulls out his notebook and offers it to her along with a pen. "Would you sign this for my daughter?" he asks. "Marie-Claire."
"Sure." She signs. "Officer, that man -- the one with no arms and legs..."
"He's very special to me. Can you please see that he doesn't have any trouble?" She writes two telephone numbers on a fresh notebook sheet. "This number is my assistant. Let her take care of any details. This, down here, is my number. In case there are any problems. You know -- or whatever."
He tucks the notebook away and nods firmly. "Of course," he says, turning to follow Mr. Mississauga's stretcher offstage but then pausing. "Is there anything else you need right now, Miss Nuk-Nuk?"
"Yeah," she says. "Whiskey."