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A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange by Beth Bernobich

Beth Bernobich lives in the wilds of Connecticut, in a town where the cows outnumber the people, and the view from her office includes wild turkeys, woods, and the neighbor’s horse paddock. Her short fiction has appeared in various venues including Strange Horizons, The Nine Muses, and Sex in the System, and she is currently working on a fantasy novel about magic and pirates. In her first story for Asimov’s, she takes us to an alternate time and place where we can embark on . . .
 

 

Like every other visitation room in Aonach Sanitarium—and Simon knew them all—this one was painfully bare, with narrow windows set high in the walls. In spite of the brilliant September sunlight, the air felt chilled, as though the thick glass had leached away the sun’s vitality, and a faint astringent smell lingered, a hospital smell that Simon associated with having his tonsils removed when he was twelve. He shivered and wished he had kept his frock coat with him.

Across the room, his sister sat cross-legged on the floor, her white gown billowing around her thin body.

“141955329. Times two. Exponent 25267. Add one.”

Gwyn spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable with painful care. Even so, her voice sounded furry—a side effect of the drugs, Simon knew.

“1031980281. Times two. Exponent 25625. Subtract one.”

When Gwyn first began these litanies, Simon had immediately recognized the numbers for simple primes. As the months and years passed, however, the numbers swelled to fantastical lengths, surpassing all the known tables. Simon could only assume these were primes as well.

Tara Gwyn Madoc. Twenty-three. Her age too was a prime number, as was his. Twins who had once been so close . . .

The faint bleating of a horn filtered through the windows—most likely from a motorcar as it pressed through Awveline City’s crowded avenues. Simon rubbed his forehead, trying to massage away an incipient headache.

Sit quietly with her, the doctors had advised. Your presence serves to heal.

He saw no sign of it, however. When had their lives changed from velvet curtains and silk-knotted carpets to this whitewashed room? Even the walls had been stripped bare, the carpets removed, and the floors sanded to eliminate splinters. Formerly, they had allowed him a stool, but one day Gwyn seized the stool and flung it at Simon’s head.

“1031980281. Times two exponent 25625 add one, Simon. Add one.”

Simon snapped up his head. Had she really said his name?

“353665707. Times two. 25814. Minus 1. 353665707*225814+1. 1958349*231415-1. 1958349*231415+1.”

The numbers poured out so fast that Simon could barely distinguish between them.

“1958349 times two exponent—”

Gwyn broke off, her face stricken as she groped for the next number. A moment’s hush followed, so profound Simon could almost hear the sunlight beating against the windows.

“Gwyn?” he whispered, hoping she might hear him today.

His sister’s eyes went blank, and she began to rock back and forth, keening. That too fit the pattern of their visits—numbers, confusion, silence, grief, then anger.

Still keening, Gwyn lifted her hands toward the barred windows, which cast faint blue shadows over the floor. In the brilliant sunlight, the silvery scars on her wrists and palms stood out against her pale skin. There was a theory associating particular numbers with certain colors. So far there were no practical applications, but several recent papers from Lîvod University in Eastern Europe claimed to support the theory—

Without warning, Gwyn launched herself at Simon. They crashed against the wall and rolled over, he grappling for her wrists while she tore at his face with her fingernails, shrieking, “Simon Simon Simon Simon Simon Simon.”

The door banged open, and five attendants burst into the room. Four of them dragged Gwyn away. The fifth helped Simon to his feet.

“You’ve taken a cut, sir.” The young man dabbed Simon’s forehead with a handkerchief.

Simon pushed away the attendant’s hand. “Thank you. It’s nothing. Do not trouble yourself.”

“No trouble at all, sir.”

Meanwhile, Gwyn shrieked and cursed and sobbed as the other attendants wrestled her into submission. Her pale blonde hair fell in snarls over her face, ugly red blotches stained her cheeks, and her mouth looked swollen. Simon could not tell if one of the attendants had struck her, or if she had injured herself in the struggle.

I was right here. I should have heard a slap.

Before Simon could say anything, the four attendants bundled Gwyn out the door. The remaining man gave one last dab to Simon’s forehead before he too departed. Simon drew a long breath. He flexed his hands, which ached as though he’d been clenching them.

“Mr. Madoc.”

Doctor Lusk came into the room. His placid gaze took in Simon’s bleeding forehead and rumpled clothes. “A difficult session,” he said. “But not unexpected.”

“We were too optimistic,” Simon said.

“Hardly, sir. Say, rather, that we were hopeful. Despite today’s setback, I still believe your visits comfort your sister. Minz and Gerhardt speak of the soothing effect of familiar faces, and their latest research shows great promise.”

Simon murmured, “Of course,” his thoughts still on Gwyn. Had she sounded more desperate today? And, yet, she had remembered his name. That had to be a positive sign.

Still distracted by that possibility, Simon only half-listened as Lusk escorted him to the sanitarium’s foyer, speaking in general terms about Gwyn’s condition. It was a familiar topic, this discourse on madness and obsession, and how a brilliant mind often shattered under unbearable pressure, only to seek refuge in that which had driven it mad.

For Gwyn was mad from too many numbers, and the damage appeared irreversible. However, they were trying kindness, as far as that went, and with Simon’s permission, they employed some of the more exotic cures—combinations of music and drugs, the newest electrical therapy, and other techniques Simon didn’t want to examine too closely. Lusk spoke of finding the root cause, as though Gwyn were a complex number whose illness they could calculate.

They came at last to the sanitarium’s foyer, a vast room filled with the sweet scent of roses, and decorated with opulent rugs and rich hangings. Several women dressed in promenade gowns sat in plush chairs by the windows. A lone man occupied a couch by the empty fireplace, apparently absorbed in a book. As Doctor Lusk took his leave from Simon, the man stood and approached.

“Pardon me. I’m told you might be Mr. Simon Madoc.”

He was a tall man, with a lean tanned face that certain women might call handsome. His eyes were warm and brown, his gaze direct. He wore a well-cut black frock coat and silk vest. Obviously an educated man, though his accent was hard to place.

Simon held out his hand. “I am Simon Madoc. But you have the advantage of me, sir.”

They shook hands, and the man smiled briefly. “Perhaps I should start again. Commander Adrian Dee is my name. I’d like a few words with you, if I may.”

He spoke politely enough, but something in his manner told Simon that the question was a perfunctory one. “What about?”

Another one of those business-like smiles. “I’d rather talk outside, Mr. Madoc. There’s a park nearby. I thought we might walk along the Blackwater.”

All the clues shifted—Dee’s manner, the way his gaze absorbed every detail—and Simon knew why Dee had sought him out. He’s come about the murders.

He studied Dee with greater wariness. “I’m happy to assist you in whatever way possible, Commander, but if you’ve come with questions about the cases from last spring, I’ve remembered nothing new.”

“I didn’t say you had, Mr. Madoc. Please. Come with me.”

They exited the foyer and set off along the sanitarium’s graveled pathways. Simon expected Dee to begin his questions at once, but Dee remained silent, gazing from side to side as they passed along a winding path bordered by late-blooming lilies, their rich scent hanging heavy in the warm air. Though it was still early afternoon, the grounds were nearly empty, and, from certain angles, Simon could almost imagine himself at home on his estates. It was for that reason, as well as its reputable doctors, that he had chosen Aonach Sanitarium for Gwyn’s confinement.

“You are a man of impressive wealth,” Dee said.

Recalled abruptly from his reverie, Simon nearly stumbled. “And you a man of abrupt turns, Mr. Dee. Or should I call you Commander?”

“As you wish,” Dee said with a faint smile. “And I merely observed the fact in passing. Forgive me if I trespassed into your private concerns.”

“Of course,” Simon said automatically. “Besides, curiosity and questions are part of your trade, are they not, Commander?”

“They are, Mr. Madoc. And for you as well, am I right?”

Simon shrugged. “As the poet once said, ‘The tools of mathematics are a curious set—the eye, the hand, the pen, the brain. It is with these instruments, we cast our net. And bring to earth a flight of numbers fantastique strange.’ ”

Dee smiled with recognition of the lines. “Henry Donne. Obscure Anglian poet of the late sixteenth century.”

“Obscure for many reasons,” Simon replied. “His meter falters more often than not, but I find his sentiments true.”

They had come to the outer gates, which opened onto a pleasant boulevard, filled with carriages and the occasional motorcar. With Dee leading, they crossed into the park, where a series of well-tended footpaths soon brought them to the Blackwater, a dark and sluggish river that wound through Awveline City’s heart. It was a sunny day and other pedestrians strolled the walkways—women in silk-lined pelisses, their faces hidden beneath sweeping hats; men in stiff-collared shirts and bowlers.

“As you’ve guessed, I’ve come about the murders last spring.”

Dee’s voice was curiously light, as ethereal as sunlight. Simon’s skin prickled at the sound. “I thought the police gave up their investigation for lack of evidence.”

“The department merely suspended their inquiries; they did not close the case.”

“And now?”

“And now we have reopened it. Or rather, the murderer has.”

Simon stopped abruptly. “What do you mean?”

“We’ve had another death, Mr. Madoc. A young woman named Maeve Kiley.”

The news struck Simon like a physical blow. He’d talked to Maeve just yesterday afternoon.

“When?” he whispered. “How?”

“Last night,” Dee said. “We haven’t definite word yet, but we think sometime after midnight. A groundskeeper found her body at dawn, near the commons.”

Simon stared at Dee, still unable to take in the news properly. All around them, the autumn day continued, serene and lovely. A half-dozen balloons drifted across the skies, their motors silent at this distance—blue messenger craft heading across Éireann’s Sea to neighboring Albion or the Anglian Dependencies. Grand air-yachts in silver and emerald. A single red balloon floated above them all.

“We’ve notified Lord Kiley about his daughter,” Dee continued in that soft strange tone. “And we are talking to certain people who might have useful information. However, I would appreciate your silence until we make our formal announcement of the crime.”

With an effort, Simon recovered himself. “How do you know it’s the same murderer?”

“The evidence so far supports our theory.”

He could be speaking of mathematical theorems and their proofs, not of a young woman slaughtered by a madman. Dislike sparked inside Simon, and he had to consciously keep that reaction from his voice. “And you want it kept a secret. Why?”

“Let me say only that your Provost pleaded strongly for discretion. He plans on making a general announcement tomorrow. You knew the girl, did you not?”

“Of course I knew her!”

The words burst out of him, loud enough to startle a passerby. Simon wiped his forehead and tried to calm himself. “Of course I knew her,” he repeated quietly.

A pretty girl with delicate features and creamy skin, all the more fair against her coal-dark eyes and hair. Simon remembered how her cheeks flushed when she argued a theory in lectures. It was hard to take in that she was dead.

A breeze ruffled the Blackwater’s surface, drawing silvery lines over the dark waters—waters that had cradled the murderer’s first victim. The season had been early spring, the soft twilight air filled with newly blooming flowers.

“Did you like her?” Dee asked.

Simon thrust his hands into his pockets to still their trembling. “I—I respected her greatly, Commander Dee.”

“What about the others?”

“Are you asking if I liked them, or respected them?”

“Both. I’m sorry to disturb you with these questions, when you’ve surely answered them before.”

You know I have not, Simon thought. When they questioned him five months ago, the police had merely requested an accounting of his activities for every night the murderer struck. No one had asked Simon about personal matters, nor had they requested his opinion of his fellow students’ abilities. He suspected the Provost had used his political influence to shield the students, and thus protected the University against further scandal.

But Dee was evidently waiting for some kind of response. “I knew them all,” Simon said. “In some cases, I knew more than I liked. It’s a large university, but a small department—the graduate department, that is.”

Dee nodded. “The Queen’s Constabulary is much like that.”

Simon’s pulse jumped, and he had to suppress a start. The Queen’s Constabulary of Éireann did not normally concern itself with anything outside royal affairs. But with Maeve being Lord Kiley’s daughter, the matter had become one for a higher authority.

“You look unsettled, Mr. Madoc.”

Simon rubbed his hand over his face. “Of course I am unsettled, Commander. You bring me distressing news. Very distressing.”

“Understood. Come, let us keep walking.”

He motioned toward the path. After a moment’s hesitation, Simon shrugged and set off down the path. Dee kept pace with him with long easy strides. He seemed unsurprised by Simon’s outburst, nor did he seem impatient to ask more questions. “I’ve read about the new research in mathematics,” he said. “Some of the newer theories, those from Lîvod and Estonia, are quite intriguing, if somewhat whimsical.”

This time, Simon guessed that the abrupt shifts in conversation were deliberate. “You mean the theory of colors and numbers?”

“Yes, those. But also the ones concerning electrical properties of certain equations.”

Surprisingly, Dee seemed well informed about the current theories, even about the exotic corner of number theory Simon had chosen for his doctoral thesis.

“How numbers affect the dreams,” Dee said. “Is that a fair description?”

“Not quite,” Simon said. “My theory depends upon the concept that numbers have both abstract and tangible qualities. That is, we use numbers to measure and quantify, but we also use them to express theories completely divorced from the physical realm. I believe we might take that concept one more step—that numbers have a spiritual quality as well.”

“Some might call that numerology.”

Dee spoke politely enough, but Simon’s face immediately heated up. “How would you know?”

“Because I studied mathematics myself. I never completed my degree, which I sometimes regret. However, I read the journals still.”

So the detective was a failed mathematician. That would explain much. “My apologies, Commander Dee,” he said, somewhat stiffly. “I’ve had many arguments about my thesis. I’ve become somewhat sensitive on the topic.”

Dee shrugged. “We all have our prickly moments. I understand your sister also intended to study mathematics at Awveline University. I spoke with your advisor, Professor Oswalt, this morning, and he mentioned her name. He said she had begun work on prime numbers before the illness overtook her.”

“What does that have to do with your investigation, Commander?”

“Nothing, Mr. Madoc. I was merely expressing my sympathy, however clumsily.”

They had reached the next bridge. One of the main boulevards crossed the Blackwater here, leading into the city’s financial district. Simon stopped and faced Dee. “Have you any more questions, Commander?”

Dee tilted his head and studied Simon a moment before answering. “None for today, Mr. Madoc. The official investigation begins tomorrow after Doctor O’Neill makes his announcement. I’ll send someone by your quarters to take your formal statement.” He smiled, and this time it seemed genuine. “I thank you, Mr. Madoc, for your company and your patience.”

He held out his hand. Simon shook it, noting the strength in his grip. “Good day then, Commander.”

“Good day to you, Mr. Madoc.”

Dee turned to the bridge walkway and soon blended into the crowd of clerks and messengers. Simon lingered a moment longer by the river banks, taking in for the first time the sunlight upon the autumn leaves, shimmering like so many raindrops. His gaze returned to the river and he shuddered. Douglas Kerr’s body had been discovered not far from this bridge, his throat slashed and his face hacked into a purpled bloody mass.

Before the University had recovered, other murders had followed. Harry Sullivan. Agnes Doyle. Timothy Morgan. All of them graduate students—three in the mathematics department. The newspapers had focused immediately on that fact. They dwelt in loving detail upon university politics, the youth of the victims, and any irregularities in their past. That the murderer had mutilated his victims with a knife only heightened the titillation.

A madman, said the newspapers.

Surely not one of us, said the Provost, thinking first of his reputation, so entwined with the University’s.

The police had made no public statements, preferring to ask their questions in private. In the end they had run out of questions, and the cases remained on hold.

Until now.

Simon glanced up. Above the city, the skies arced clear and blue, empty of balloons for the moment. Then he glimpsed a speck moving across the brilliant sky—the red balloon from earlier, floating higher and higher toward the sky’s limit.

 

He arrived at the mathematics quadrant just moments before the clock tower struck the hour. Cursing his lateness, he ran up the steps and into the lecture hall. A quick scan of the room showed him that Emmett and Susan had saved him a seat near the back. He sidled along the row and sank into the chair between them.

“Late,” Emmett murmured.

“Within reasonable deviation,” Simon replied.

Susan shook her head. “Certain combinations do prove to be predictable.”

Simon managed a smile at the familiar exchange, which had hardly varied over the four years they had known one another. Susan, dark and neat and practical. Emmett, tall and fair and angular, his looks so much like Simon’s that many mistook them for brothers.

“How was Gwyn?” Emmett asked.

“The same. Always the same.”

Emmett glanced around the room, then leaned close. “A detective came by the library this morning. A man named Dee. I told him where he might find you. I hope that was right.”

Simon made a show of arranging his pens and books before saying, “He’s with the police, Emmett. Of course you did right.”

He ought to tell them about Maeve, in spite of Dee’s orders, but he could not think how to phrase it without sounding trite. Hello, did you hear? Maeve died last night. Murdered by a lunatic.

A door rattled at the front of the lecture hall. Professor Oswalt stalked through to his podium, his arms filled with books and papers, his white hair floating in an unruly halo. The next moment, a side door banged open. Seán Blake, a third year graduate student, darted through and made for an empty seat behind Simon. Papers spilled from his books, and he had a hurried, disheveled look.

“Ne’er a cab to be found,” he commented with a grin.

Simon shrugged, aware of Emmett’s sidelong glance and how Susan had pursed her lips in obvious distaste. Blake ordinarily did not speak to them, except in passing before exams. He was a student of the fringes, dabbling at his studies in between gambling and other questionable pursuits. His family had little money, and Simon often wondered how he could afford to stay at University.

Now Blake leaned over his desk, between Emmett and Simon. “No luck today,” he whispered to them. “But I can try again tomorrow. Will that do?”

His breath smelled sour, as though he’d been drinking already. Emmett shuddered and looked away determinedly. Simon turned around. “What are you talking about?”

Blake smirked. “Oh, so we’re the chaste and pure today. I thought you two might not dare—”

He broke off, and Simon was suddenly aware of a thick silence around them. Professor Oswalt was gazing fixedly at them. “My apologies for being tardy,” he said. “Please do not let it overset you, Mr. Madoc, Mr. Blake.”

Simon bent over his desk, his face hot. Blake muttered something unintelligible, but resumed his seat. Oswalt nodded. “Today’s lecture,” he rapped out. “Electrical impulses and higher-order numbers. Mathematics? Numerology? Or gin-fantasy?”

Someone in the back row barked out a laugh, just as quickly smothered. Oswalt gazed steadily at the culprit, one eyebrow lifted. “Perhaps someone experimented with these theorems last night,” he said dryly. “Indeed, that might explain your appearance, Mr. Blake.”

Emmett coughed. Susan, more discreet, covered her smile with her hand. The rest of the students settled into quiet, and with a last glance around the hall, Professor Oswalt launched into the day’s lecture.

 

The first incident took place during the winter holidays, shortly after their nineteenth birthday. Simon had attended his first semester at University, taking advanced classes; Gwyn had elected to remain with their aunt and uncle, pursuing her private research. When he arrived home from the train station, Simon learned that Gwyn had gone out walking in the gardens. She had left word for him to meet her there.

Footprints led him through the gardens and topiary, past the sunken garden with its pool lying silvery and quiescent beneath the gray skies. Once or twice, he thought he saw a flickering movement between the evergreen shrubs, but when he called out Gwyn’s name, no one answered.

He found her, at last, huddled under a thorn bush near the gamekeeper’s old hut. She was barefoot, dressed only in a thin shift. The tatters from her winter frock hung from one of the bushes.

Simon knelt beside his sister. “Gwyn? Gywn, what happened?”

Gwyn looked around vaguely. She must have been here for hours, Simon thought. Her skin was red, her lips chapped, and tears gleamed in her eyes. “It was a number, Simon. I followed it. . . .”

Her voice trailed off, and she frowned, as though confused.

Simon touched her arm gently. “Gwyn,” he said softly. “Did someone hurt you?”

Her eyes went wide and blank. Her mouth worked, as though she would speak. Then she screamed.

 

I was a coward. I said I was fetching my uncle, but I was really running away.

Simon tapped his pencil against his palm in an irregular rhythm. A blank sheet of paper faced him, one edge faintly darkened where he’d rubbed his thumb absentmindedly. Unable to face ordinary conversation with Emmett and Susan, he’d sequestered himself in the library, leaving only to take supper at a nearby tavern. Now the mutton lay heavily in his stomach, and the over-cooked vegetables had left an unpleasant taste in his mouth.

Maeve was dead. The phrase echoed inside his head. Strange, he still could not quite take in that she was gone.

He glanced out the window. A harvest moon hung low in the sky, its orange disc sharply drawn against the black night. He and his uncle had called the doctors that same day; within a week, they had removed Gwyn to the hospital in Awveline City.

Only the best for her, he thought now. The best drugs. The best treatment—

The floorboards creaked behind him. Simon twisted around to see Emmett Moore standing quite close.

“Why didn’t you tell me about Maeve?” Emmett said harshly.

Simon hesitated, not certain how to reply. Emmett must have mistaken his silence for a refusal to answer, because his mouth twitched into a grimace. “Confused, Simon? That’s not like you.”

“No, I—”

“That’s why that detective wanted you, isn’t it? He told you about Maeve Kiley.”

“He did. He asked me not to say anything until tomorrow. Who told you?”

“Her sister.” Emmett pressed both hands against his cheeks, as though to suppress an ache. “I thought it peculiar when I heard about O’Neill’s assembly tomorrow,” he said in a muffled voice. “Even when I didn’t see Maeve at her afternoon lectures, I didn’t think anything amiss. I knew she was spending extra time with her advisors, and that I’d see her at supper. It wasn’t until she didn’t show that I—”

His voice broke. Simon started to speak, but Emmett waved for him to stay silent. He soon mastered himself. “I went to her rooms. Her sister was there with a crowd of servants, packing Maeve’s belongings. She told me what happened.”

Simon touched Emmett’s arm and felt him trembling beneath the apparent control. “Emmett, I’m sorry.”

His friend drew a shuddering breath. “Thank you. Whatever that means. I was so angry. Not with you. With—”

“I understand,” Simon said softly. “Come. It’s nearly ten. We’ll go back to my rooms for coffee.”

Emmett wiped away his tears. “I would like that.”

Outside, the wind had picked up, and clouds raced across the moon’s face. Simon and Emmett buttoned their overcoats and turned up their collars before venturing from the portico’s shelter.

Emmett shivered. “Last week I boiled in the lecture halls.”

“It’s the turning point of seasons,” Simon said. The sound of the wind sifting through leaves recalled Gwyn’s voice, reciting her numbers, and he had the unsettling impression of memories blurring together, like photographs of dancers whirling across the stage. He shook his head to dispel the sensation.

They set a fast pace across the empty green, while leaves whirled and danced about them. Few students were about at this hour, and the buildings loomed against the night sky. Simon could taste rain in the air. Soon frost would silver the pathways, the winds would strip the trees completely, and the world would become like an ink sketch, with sharp black lines and shades of gray.

A harder gust of wind caught him full in the face. Simon ducked his head, blinking away tears. Ahead, he heard Emmett’s footsteps slow, then come to a stop.

“Simon.”

Simon looked up to see Emmett pointing toward a spot farther ahead. Squinting against the wind, he made out a dark mass sprawled upon the brick walkway. Whatever it was lay motionless, except for a fluttering edge of cloth, as though a blanket or cloak had worked loose from the body’s weight.

His skin prickled. We don’t know it’s a body.

Emmett took hold of Simon’s hand. “Come on. We have to see.”

Together they approached the thing. No, a man. Simon could make out the head, resting on the grass. One arm was invisible beneath the cloak, the other extended, as though reaching for something in the last moments of life.

Emmett knelt and pulled back the cloak, exposing the face. “It’s Colin Rees.”

Simon couldn’t make sense out of his words at first. Colin? Dead? Numb with disbelief, he knelt beside Emmett and touched Colin’s face, which looked white and stark beneath the strong moonlight. Blood trickled from the slack mouth, painting a black trail over Colin’s cheek and onto his collar. Simon jerked back his hand.

“We’ll have to contact Commander Dee,” Emmett said.

“Shouldn’t we call a doctor first?”

“He’s dead, Simon. He’s past any doctor’s help.”

Emmett’s voice sounded muffled and strange. The wind, Simon thought, or was it the pounding in his temples that distorted his friend’s voice? He stumbled to his feet, then fell down, sprawling to avoid Colin’s body.

“Simon, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I—”

Emmett gripped his arm and pulled him upright. “It’s the body,” he said. “You’re faint because of seeing the body.”

Simon shook his head. “I don’t know.” He gulped down a lungful of cold air. Another. He was about to say he felt better, when he saw a shadow among the trees, not ten feet away. At first, he thought it was just branches, swaying in the wind, but then the moon broke through the clouds, and he distinctly saw the figure of a man.

“Emmett, look,” he whispered.

Emmett straightened up. “What do you see?”

The stranger turned and ran.

“Stop!” Simon shouted. He sprinted after the man, ignoring Emmett’s shout. The man dove in the alley between two nearby dormitories. Before Simon could follow the stranger down the alley, Emmett overtook Simon, and yanked him to the ground.

“Are you mad?” Emmett wheezed, falling to his knees beside Simon. “What were you doing?”

“Didn’t you see him?” A cramp took hold of Simon. He doubled over, retching.

“Who? I see that you’re sick. Here, let me wipe your face.” Emmett took out a handkerchief and cleaned the mud and vomit from Simon’s face.

Simon pushed Emmett’s hand away. “There. Can’t you see him? There!”

He pointed frantically toward the dormitories. A shaft of moonlight illuminated the alley, plainly showing the man at the far end, but just as Emmett turned around, the stranger vanished around the corner.

 

“Tell me where you spent the afternoon, Mr. Madoc.”

Simon pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. Hours had passed since he and Emmett had tracked down the night sentries and led them to Colin’s body. By now he wished only for the solitude of his rooms.

“I was in the library,” he said, “writing up notes from Professor Oswalt’s lecture. I—how much do you want to hear?”

“Everything. Do not worry about boring us, Mr. Madoc.”

“Yes. I see. Well then.” Simon massaged his face again. He could still smell the blood and vomit on his skin. “I spent some hours writing my notes. Around seven o’clock I went out for dinner, then went directly back to the library. May I have more water?”

Dee signaled the nearest uniformed policeman, who refilled Simon’s glass. Simon drank half the water in one swallow, grimacing at its metallic taste. Dee waited patiently until Simon set the glass down.

“You attended Professor Oswalt’s lecture after we parted,” he continued. “Is that correct?”

“Yes. Emmett Moore can tell you that I was there. Susan Liddell can as well—”

“—and if I need confirmation, I shall surely ask them, sir. Right now, I wish to hear your account. Did you walk to the University or ride?”

“I took a cab.”

“Directly to the lecture?”

“No, not directly. Cabs aren’t permitted on the grounds. In any case, my rooms are in the square opposite the East Gates. I stopped by to fetch my gown and notebooks for the lecture.”

“Anything else?”

“Some pens and a book I had promised to Susan.”

“Did you meet anyone, talk to anyone, between your rooms and the lecture hall?”

Simon shook his head. “No. No one.”

Dee studied him a moment. His eyes, which had appeared so warm that afternoon, now appeared hard and bright in his weathered face. It was, Simon thought, as though Dee had stripped away every superfluous quality, leaving behind only that relentless curiosity.

“Very well,” Dee said. “What next? You came to the lecture hall. Whom did you first see?”

They covered Simon’s activities from when he and Dee parted by the Blackwater, to when the police arrived at the murder scene. Throughout, Dee’s voice remained calm, his manner detached, but his attention to detail was meticulous. In the background, Simon could hear the scratch of pens moving over paper. Three officers were taking notes in parallel, as though Dee did not trust the account to a single chronicler.

Eventually they reached the point when Emmett Moore approached Simon in the library.

“What was the hour?” Dee asked.

“Near ten. I remember the hour bell ringing just as we left the building.”

“And how would you say Mr. Moore appeared?”

Simon paused, sipped more of his water. “Upset, of course.”

“At you?”

“No!” Simon slammed the glass onto the tabletop, sloshing water over the sides. Hands shaking, he mopped up the spill with his handkerchief. “I’m sorry for my outburst, Commander. It’s been a long day.”

“To be sure, Mr. Madoc. We are all a bit weary and shaken. Tell me, if you can, exactly how Mr. Moore appeared. Upset, you said. Did he seem angry? Grieving? Nervous?”

His mouth tasted like cotton, but Simon resisted the urge to request more water. “Do you suspect him? Surely not?”

Adrian Dee’s expression remained bland. “I suspect everyone, Mr. Madoc. Did you know Colin Rees?”

The sudden shift in topic caught Simon off guard, and, for a moment, he couldn’t collect his thoughts into an answer. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I knew him. Not as well as Emmett does—did. But Colin attended a number of mathematics lectures, so we talked from time to time.”

“About electrical impulses in numbers?”

Simon thought he heard mockery in Dee’s level voice, and his cheeks turned hot. “Yes.”

“But you were not friends.”

“No. Colleagues.”

“Respected colleagues, you might say. I understand. Do you know if he formed any closer ties with the other mathematics students?”

So far he’d answered freely, but now Simon began to mistrust the shape of Dee’s questioning, which seemed designed to draw out his opinions in dangerous ways. “Not that I know of.”

Dee favored him with another thoughtful look, but apparently he had no further interest in Colin Rees, because he went back to the step-by-step questions, asking Simon about his departure with Emmett Moore from the library, what they saw from the portico and walk, who first noticed the body, and when Simon observed the unknown fugitive.

“Man or woman?” Dee asked.

“A man. At least, I believe so.”

A pause. “Tell us exactly what you saw.”

Simon considered how to phrase it. “First I only saw a movement. I thought it was the wind, moving the tree branches, but then I clearly saw a shadow amongst the trees. I said something to Emmett, and whoever it was started running.”

“Yet you are certain it was a man.”

“I am.”

“So. A man, standing in the shadows. He ran, and you gave chase. Very foolhardy of you, Mr. Madoc.”

“I know. I wasn’t thinking very clearly. Emmett shouted for me to stop, but all I could think was that I had to catch the murderer before he escaped.”

Dee nodded. “I see. Go on.”

Simon licked his dry lips. Without a word, the same policeman refilled his glass. Simon drank the entire glass, trying to ignore how Dee watched him. “I chased him across the green,” he said, “and toward the first-year dormitories. Emmett caught up and tackled me to the ground. By that time, the stranger got away. But before he did, I had a clear look at him in the moonlight.”

“You saw his face?”

“No.” Simon closed his eyes, trying to recall exactly what he had seen. Mist and shadows. The knife-cold wind blurring his vision. The hiss of leaves sliding over leaves. A dark figure outlined against the stone wall of the dormitory.

“He wore a strange squashed hat—nothing like the usual tall hat—and a loose coat. What with his hat pushed low and the moonlight, I could not make out his face. But it was a man.”

“Are you certain of what you saw? Mr. Moore says you took ill by the body.”

“I am quite certain,” Simon said evenly. “I knew by his height and his clothes and the way he stood.”

“Just so.” Dee exchanged a glance with one of his colleagues. “Mr. Madoc, I should tell you that we’ve spoken with Mr. Moore. He does not recall any stranger, man or woman.”

“Impossible. Emmett ran after me. He threw me to the ground and said I was a fool to chase the man.”

“Mr. Madoc, your friend was quite clear about that point. I saw no one, he told us, but with trees and darkness and clouds over the moon, I’m not surprised.

Simon shook his head. “I cannot believe he said that. Sure there were clouds, but the moon was bright enough to see by.”

Dee’s expression did not change, but there was a flicker in his eyes, as his gaze shifted from Simon to the other policeman. “Tell me about your meeting yesterday with Seán Blake,” he said.

“I had no meeting with Seán Blake.”

“Do not lie to me, Mr. Madoc, else things will go badly.”

Simon reached for his water glass, then remembered it was empty. In a level voice he said, “There was no meeting, Commander. Not yesterday. Not ever. No matter what he said—”

“Seán Blake said nothing, Mr. Madoc. My sources are other witnesses. Three students have commented on seeing two men outside the dining halls near dusk. One was Seán Blake. The other was a tall fair-haired man, well-dressed. Normally they would have thought nothing, except that the fair-haired man seemed quite agitated.”

“Any number of men could fit that description.”

“No, sir. No, they could not. We have a list of those who resemble this description, who are also commonly seen on the University grounds. You are on that list. So are three others, including your friend Emmett Moore. Do you deny meeting with Seán Blake?”

“I do.” His voice came out as a whisper. Louder, he repeated, “I do deny it. I cannot explain it, however. You shall have to take my word.”

“That we shall, Mr. Madoc. That we shall.”

Simon thought the interview done, but Dee launched into another series of questions about Simon’s activities for the previous week—every lecture, every session in the library, every person who spoke to him, or who could confirm his whereabouts. “We are not singling you out, Mr. Madoc,” Dee said, during a pause. “We are asking everyone the same questions. Mr. Moore sits in another room at headquarters, and Mr. Blake in another yet. Tomorrow we shall interview Miss Liddell. I cannot expect you to like our methods, but I do expect your cooperation.”

“I am cooperating,” Simon said wearily.

“Yes, you are.” But to Simon’s ear, Dee’s tone sounded ambiguous. “Tell me,” he went on, “about the arrangements you have with your uncle. He manages your estates, does he not?”

“He manages our estates,” Simon said, with a slight emphasis. “My sister and I own the lands jointly. Why do you need to know this?”

“To complete my understanding of your circumstances, Mr. Madoc. Your parents left everything—land and money—to you without division, is that not so?”

“Yes. We had talked earlier about dividing the property—the will allowed us to alter the original arrangement once we came of age—but then my sister took ill.”

“And so you kept things as they were.”

Simon nodded, but his mind had wandered. He was seeing Gwyn’s face, chapped by hours in the cold, and hearing her sing-song voice as she talked about following a number. When Dee ended the interview, he stood and shook hands mechanically.

“I’ll have them call you a cab,” Dee said. “Remember that we might need to speak with you tomorrow.”

A uniformed policeman escorted Simon from the building and hailed him a cab. Simon climbed inside and collapsed. His entire body ached, as though he had worked every muscle from his scalp to his toes. When the cab stopped before his boarding house, he climbed down stiffly and was grateful when his valet met him at the door. Garret removed Simon’s grubby coat without comment and handed him a hot drink.

Simon drank down the tea in one long swallow. “Thank you, Tom. No need for you to stay up. I’ll take myself to bed.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Simon stumbled into his bedroom and closed the door. His hands were shaking again, and he nearly called Garret back to help him unbutton his shirt. It was then he noticed the stain on his sleeve. Blood, he realized, suddenly queasy. Colin’s blood, warm to the touch.

 

Their uncle invited Professor Glasfryn to visit the spring after they turned thirteen. Glasfryn was a retired professor, Uncle Niall told them, and had taught mathematics at Éireann’s largest university, in Awveline City. A man of considerable reputation, their Aunt Sophie added.

Glasfryn arrived at the house in mid-afternoon. Simon watched the liveried footman help the old man disembark from the carriage. He looked nothing like Simon had imagined. Old, yes. But with a face so brown and seamed, it was as though he’d spent his years laboring in the sun, not confined to offices and lectures halls. Gwyn stood silently beside Simon, but he could tell she was studying Glasfryn as intently as he did.

They took an early tea in the parlor while Aunt Sophie fussed over their guest, and Uncle Niall explained at tedious length about the twins’ schooling. Glasfryn stirred his tea and nibbled at the scones, but it was clear to Simon that he was ignoring their uncle.

“Let me talk to them,” he said, interrupting Aunt Sophie’s third inquiry about his health.

Aunt Sophie bit her lips, clearly irritated. Uncle Niall started to make excuses why he ought to remain present, but when Professor Glasfryn waved them away absently, their uncle rose and motioned for Aunt Sophie to come with him.

The old man began with straightforward questions about their lessons. They answered dutifully, just as they did with their tutors. Without their uncle to explain and repeat himself, the interview lasted only a quarter hour.

Glasfryn fell silent and studied them a few moments through rheumy brown eyes. “What do you think about numbers?” he asked suddenly.

Simon and Gwyn blinked. “What do you mean?” Simon asked.

“The ancient Greeks thought numbers were dead. Myself, I wonder if they were right. Maybe mathematics is like so much lumber. Take the sticks and build a house.”

Gwyn’s cheeks flushed pink. “What about Pythagoras?”

“Answer my question first.”

His tone was blunt, but Gwyn smiled, unflustered. “If you view numbers as dead, then you imply a dead house, and one that invites termites. Besides, the premise is wrong.”

Simon caught his breath at her words, but Glasfryn’s mouth widened into a slow pleased smile. “How so, young miss?”

“You assume a universal quality of men, just as your statement assumes a universal quality of mathematics, or even of numbers themselves.”

“Does it follow, then, that you believe numbers exist apart from mathematics?”

A slight hesitation. “I do.”

Another pause, while Glasfryn drank down his cold tea. When he spoke again, it was to ask Gwyn more questions. She answered—tersely at first, then with growing volubility. Glasfryn eventually turned his attention to Simon and, in the same way, drew out more and more of what the twins had worked at in mathematics, their private research as well as what they studied under their tutors.

Questions soon gave way to discussion. With the professor leading, they spoke of topics ranging from the mundane to the bizarre—of the origins of mathematics, of whether numbers had undiscovered properties invisible to the ordinary mind, and the newest theories from Brittany, Gaul, and the Dietsch Empire. Twice their aunt pleaded they stop for dinner. Both times, the professor waved her away. After another interval, a troop of servants brought in trays of covered plates and pots of tea, leaving them on the sideboard. Simon didn’t remember eating, but he assumed they did, because later the servants retrieved the piles of dirty dishes.

The bells were ringing midnight when the professor rose and held out his hands to them both. “We must have you at Awveline, and soon,” he said. “I shall speak with your uncle tomorrow.”

The old professor slept late and departed for Awveline shortly after luncheon. Simon and Gwyn watched his departure from the sitting room window. Once the carriage disappeared through the gates, Gwyn took Simon’s hand. “Come with me,” she said, leading him outside.

Simon retained only vague impressions from that walk. The sunlight upon Gwyn’s hair. The crunch of autumn leaves. The woodland scents of pines and damp earth and the warm pressure from his sister’s hand as she led him deeper into the wilderness…

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"A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange" By William Shunn , copyright © 2006, with permission of the author.

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