4. MATH GRENADES

– /

Somehow she sleeps, or approximates it, through the famously bad hour and into another mirror-world morning.

Waking to an inner flash of metallic migraine light, as if reflected off wings of receding dream.

Extrudes her head turtle-wise from beneath the giant pot-holder and squints at the windows. Daylight. More of her soul has been reeled in, it seems, in the meantime. Apprehending self and mirror-world now in a different modality, accompanied by an unexpected surge of energy that has her out of bed, into the shower, and levering the Italian chromed head to stinging new foci of needle jets. Damien’s reno has involved hot water, lots of it, and for that she is grateful.

It is as though she is inhabited now by something single-minded, purposeful, yet has no idea what it plans, or wants. But she is content, for the moment, to go along for the ride.

Blow-dry. CPUs include the black jeans.

Mirror-world milk (which is different, though she couldn’t say how) on the Weetabix, with a sliced banana. That other part of her, that other self, moving right along.

Watching as that part seals over the cigarette burn with black gaffer’s tape, the ends tooth-torn, a sort of archaic punk flourish. Pulls on the Rickson’s, checks for keys and money, and descends Damien’s still-unrenovated stairwell, past a tenant’s mountain bike and hip-high bundles of last year’s magazines.

In the sunlit street, all is still; nothing moves save the cinnamon blur of a cat, just there, and gone. She listens. The hum of London, building somewhere.

Feeling inexplicably happy, she sets off down Parkway toward Cam-den High Street, and finds a Russian in a mini-cab. Not a cab at all, really, just a dusty blue mirror-world Jetta, but he will drive her to Netting Hill, and he looks too old, too scholarly, too disgusted by the very sight of her, to be much trouble.

Once they are out of Camden Town she has little idea of where they are. She has no internalized surface map of this city, only of the underground and of assorted personal footpaths spreading out from its stations.

The stomach-clenching roundabouts are pivots in a maze to be negotiated only by locals and cabdrivers. Restaurants and antique shops rotate past, punctuated regularly by pubs.

Marveling at the luminous shanks of a black-haired man in a very expensive-looking dressing gown, bending toward the morning’s milk and paper in his doorway.

A military vehicle, its silhouette unfamiliar, bulk-browed, tautly laced beneath its tarpaulin. The driver’s beret.

Mirror-world street furniture: bits of urban infrastructure she can’t identify by function. Local equivalents of the mysterious Water Testing Station on her block uptown, which a friend had claimed to contain nothing more than a tap and a cup, for the judging of potability—this having been for Cayce a favorite fantasy of alternative employment, to stroll Manhattan like an itinerant sommelier, addressing one’s palate with the various tap waters of the city. Not that she would have wanted to, particularly, but simply to believe that someone could do this for a living had been somehow comforting.

By the time they arrive at Netting Hill, whatever rogue aspect of personality has been driving this morning’s expedition seems to have de-camped, leaving her feeling purposeless and confused. She pays the Russian, gets out on the side opposite Portobello, and descends the stairs to a pedestrian tunnel that smells of Friday-night urine. Overly tall mirror-world lager cans are crushed there like roaches.

Corridor metaphysics. She wants coffee.

But the Starbucks on the other side, up the stairs and around a corner, is not yet open. A boy, inside, wrestles huge plastic trays of cello-phaned pastries.

Uncertain what she should do next, she walks on, in the direction of the Saturday market. Seven-thirty, now. She can’t remember when the antiques arcades open, but she knows the road will be jammed by nine. Why has she come here? She never buys antiques.

She’s in a street of what she thinks are called mews houses, little places, scarily cute, still headed toward Portobello and the market, when she sees them: three men, variously jacketed, their collars up, staring gravely into the open trunk of a small and uncharacteristically old mirror-world car. Not so much a mirror-world car as an English car, as no equivalent exists, on Cayce’s side of the Atlantic, to mirror. Vauxhall Wyvern, she thinks, with her compulsive memory for brand names, though she doubts that this is one of those, whatever those might have been. As to why she notices them now, these three, she later will be unable to say.

No one else in the street, and there is something in the gravity they bring to their study of whatever it is they are looking down at. Careful poker masks. The largest, though not the tallest, a black man with a shaven head, is zipped like a sausage into something shiny, black, and only approximately leatherlike. Beside him is a taller, gray-faced man, hunched within the greasy folds of an ancient Barbour waterproof, its waxed cotton gone the sheen and shade of day-old horse dung. The third, younger, is close-cropped and blond, in baggy black skater shorts and a frayed jean jacket. He wears something like a mailman’s pouch, slung across his chest. Shorts, she thinks, drawing abreast of this trio, are somehow always wrong in London.

She can’t resist glancing into the trunk.

Grenades.

Black, compact, cylindrical. Six of them, laid out on an old gray sweater amid a jumble of brown cardboard cartons.

“Miss?” The one in shorts…• _

“Hello?” The gray-faced man, sharply, impatient.

She tells herself to run, but can’t.

“Yes?”

“The Curtas.” The blond one, stepping closer.

“It isn’t her, you idiot. She’s not bloody coming.” The gray one again, with mounting irritation.

The blond one blinks. “You haven’t come about the Curtas?”

“The what?”

“The calculators.”

She can’t resist, then, and steps closer to the car, to see. “What are they?”

“Calculators.” The tight plastic of the black man’s jacket creaking as he bends to pick up one of the grenades. Turning to hand it to her. And then she is holding it: heavy, dense, knurled for gripping. Tabs or flanges that look as though meant to move in these slots. Small round windows showing white numbers. At the top something that looks like the crank on a pepper mill, as executed by a small-arms manufacturer.

“I don’t understand,” she says, and imagines she’ll wake, just then, in Damien’s bed, because it’s all gone that dreamlike now. Automatically seeking a trademark, she turns the thing over. And sees that it is made in Liechtenstein.

Liechtenstein?

“What is it?”

“It is a precision instrument,” the black man says, “performing calculations mechanically, employing neither electricity nor electronic components. The sensation of its operation is best likened to that of winding a fine thirty-five-millimeter camera. It is the smallest mechanical calculating machine ever constructed.” Voice deep and mellifluous. “It is the invention of Curt Herzstark, an Austrian, who developed it while a prisoner in Buchenwald. The camp authorities actually encouraged his work, you see. ‘Intelligence slave,’ his title there. They wished his calculator to be given to the Fuhrer, at the end of the war. But Buchenwald was liberated in 1945 by the Americans. Herzstark had survived.” He gently takes the thing from her. Enormous hands. “He had his drawings.” Large fingers moving surely, gently, clicking the black tabs into a different configuration. He grasps the knurled cylinder in his left, gives the handle at the top a twirl. Smoothly ratcheting a sum from its interior. He raises it to see the resulting figure in a tiny window. “Eight hundred pounds. Excellent condition.” Dropping an eyelid partially, to wait for her response.

“It’s beautiful,” his offer finally giving her a context for this baffling exchange: These men are dealers, come here to do business in these things. “But I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“You’ve had me out for nothing, you silly cunt,” snarls the gray man, snatching the thing from the black one’s hands, but Cayce knows that it’s the black man this is meant for, not her. He looks, just then, like a scary portrait of Samuel Beckett on a book she owned in college. His nails are black-edged and there are deep orangey-brown stains of nicotine on his long fingers. He turns with the calculator and bends over the open trunk, to furiously repack the black, grenade-like machines.

Hobbs,” the black man says, and sighs, “you lack all patience. She will come. Please wait.”

Bugger,” says Hobbs, if that’s his name, closing a cardboard box and spreading the old sweater over it with a quick, practiced, weirdly mater-nal gesture, like a mother adjusting the blanket over a sleeping child. He bangs the lid down and tugs at it, checking to see that it’s closed. “Waste my bloody time…” He hauls the driver-side door open with a startling creak.

She glimpses filthy mouse-colored upholstery and an overflowing ashtray that protrudes from the dash like a little drawer.

“She will come, Hobbs,” the black man protests, but without much force.

The one called Hobbs folds himself into the driver’s seat, yanks the door shut, and glares at them through the dirty side window. The car’s engine starts with an antique, asthmatic shudder, and he puts it into gear, still glaring, and pulls away, toward Portobello. At the next corner, the gray car turns right, and is gone.

“He is a curse to know, that man,” says the black man. “Now she will come, and what am I to tell her?” He turns to Cayce. “You disappointed him. He thought that you were her.”

“Who?”

“The buyer. Agent for a Japanese collector,” the blond boy says to Cayce. “Is not your fault.” He has those straight-across cheekbones she thinks of as Slavic, the open look that comes with them, and the sort of accent that comes with learning English here but not yet too thoroughly. “Ngemi,” indicating the black man, “is only upset.”

“Well then,” Cayce ventures, “goodbye.” And starts toward Portobello. A middle-aged woman opens a green-painted door and steps out in black leather jeans, her large dog on a lead. The appearance of this Netting Hill matron feels to Cayce as though it frees her from a spell. She quickens her stride.

But hears footsteps behind her. And turns to see the blond boy with his flapping pouch, hurrying to catch up.

The black man is nowhere to be seen.

“I walk with you, please,” he says, drawing even with her and smiling, as if delighted to offer her this favor. “My name is Voytek Biroshak.”

“Call me Ishmael,” she says, walking on.

“A girl’s name?” Eager and doglike beside her. Some species of weird nerd innocence that somehow she accepts.

“No. It’s Cayce.”

“Case?”

“Actually,” she finds herself explaining, “it should be pronounced ‘Casey, like the last name of the man my mother named me after. But I don’t.”

“Who is Casey?”

“Edgar Cayce, the Sleeping Prophet of Virginia Beach.”

“Why does she, your mother?”

“Because she’s a Virginian eccentric. Actually she’s always refused to talk about it.” Which is true.

“And you are doing here?” /

“The market. You?” Still walking.

“Same.”

“Who were those men?”

“Ngemi sells to me ZX 81.”

“Which is?”

“Sinclair ZX 81. Personal computer, circa 1980. In America, was Timex 1000, same.”

“Ngemi’s the big one?”

Dealing in archaic computer, historic calculator, since 1997. Has shop in Bermondsey.”

“Your partner?”

“No. Arrange to meet.” He lightly slaps the pouch at his side and plastic rattles. “ZX 81.”

But he was here to sell those calculators?”

“The Curta. Wonderful, yes? Ngemi and Hobbs hope for combined sale, Japanese collector. Difficult, Hobbs. Always.”

“Another dealer?”

“Mathematician. Brilliant sad man. Crazy for Curta, but cannot afford. Buys and sells.”

“Didn’t seem very pleasant.” Cayce puts her facility with entirely left-field conversations down to her career of actual on-the-street cool-hunting, such as it’s been, and as much as she hates to call it that. She’s done a bit, too. She’s been dropped into neighborhoods like Dogtown, which birthed skateboarding, to explore roots in hope of finding whatever the next thing might be. And she’s learned it’s largely a matter of being willing to ask the next question. She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backward, asking the next question. She’s that good. “What does this ZX 81 look like?”

He stops, rummages in his pouch, and produces a rather tragic-looking rectangle of scuffed black plastic, about the size of a videocas-sette. It has one of those stick-on keypads that somehow actually work, something Cayce knows from the cable boxes in the sort of motel where guests might be expected to try to steal them.

“That’s a computer?”

“One K of RAM!”

“One?”

They’ve come out into a street called Westbourne Grove now, with a sprinkling of trendy retail, and she can see a crowd down at the intersection with Portobello. “What do you do with them?”

“Is complicated.”

“How many do you have?”

“Many.”

“Why do you like them?”

“Of historical importance to personal computing,” he says seriously, “and to United Kingdom. Why there are so many programmers, here.”

“Why is that?”

But he excuses himself, stepping into a narrow laneway where a battered van is being unloaded. Some quick exchange with a large woman in a turquoise raincoat and he is back, tucking two more of the things into his pouch.

Walking on, he explains to her that Sinclair, the British inventor, had a way of getting things right, but also exactly wrong. Foreseeing the market for affordable personal computers, Sinclair decided that what people would want to do with them was to learn programming. The ZX 81, marketed in the United States as the Timex 1000, cost less than the equivalent of a hundred dollars, but required the user to key in programs, tapping away on that little motel keyboard-sticker. This had resulted both in the short market-life of the product and, in Voytek’s opinion, twenty years on, in the relative preponderance of skilled programmers in the United Kingdom. They had had their heads turned by these little boxes, he believes, and by the need to program them. “Like hackers in Bulgaria,” he adds, obscurely.

“But if Timex sold it in the United States,” she asks him, “why didn’t we get the programmers?”

‘You have programmers, but America is different. America wanted Nintendo. Nintendo gives you no programmers. Also, on launch of product in America, RAM-expansion unit did not ship for three months. People buy computer, take it home, discover it does almost nothing. A disaster.”

Cayce is pretty certain that England wanted Nintendo too, and got it, and probably shouldn’t be looking too eagerly forward to another bumper crop of programmers, if Voytek’s theory holds true. “I need coffee,” she says.

He leads her into a ramshackle arcade at the corner of Portobello and Westbourne Grove. Past small booths where Russians are laying out their stocks of spotty old watches, and down a flight of stairs, to buy her a cup of what turns out to be the “white” coffee of her childhood visits to England, a pre-Starbucks mirror-world beverage resembling weak instant bulked up with condensed milk and industrial-strength sugar. It makes her think of her father, leading her through the London Zoo when she was ten.

They sit on folding wooden chairs that look as though they date from the Blitz, taking tentative sips of their scalding white coffee.

But she sees that there is a Michelin Man within her field of vision, its white, bloated, maggot-like form perched on the edge of a dealer’s counter, about thirty feet away. It is about two feet tall, and is probably meant to be illuminated from within.

The Michelin Man was the first trademark to which she exhibited a phobic reaction. She had been six.

“He took a duck in the face at two hundred and fifty knots,” she recites, softly.

Voytek blinks. “You say?”

“I’m sorry,” Cayce says.

It is a mantra.

A friend of her father’s, an airline pilot, had told her, in her teens, of a colleague of his who had impacted a duck, on climbout from Sioux City. The windscreen shattered and the inside of the cockpit became a hurricane. The plane landed safely, and the pilot had survived, and returned to flying with shards of glass lodged permanently within his left eye. The story had fascinated Cayce, and eventually she had discovered that this phrase, repeated soon enough, would allay the onset of the panic she invariably felt upon seeing the worst of her triggers. “It’s a verbal tic.”

“Tick?”

“Hard to explain.” She looks in another direction, discovering a stall selling what seem to be Victorian surgical instruments.

The keeper of this stock is a very old man with a high, mottled fore-head and dirty-looking white eyebrows, his head sunken buzzard-like between his narrow shoulders. He stands behind a counter topped and fronted with glass, things glittering within it. Most of them seem to be displayed in fitted cases lined with faded velvet. Seeing him as offering a distraction, for both herself and Voytek, else she be asked to explain the duck, Cayce takes her coffee and crosses the aisle, which is floored with splintery planking.

“Could you tell me what this is, please?” she asks, pointing at something at random. He looks at her, at the object indicated, then back at her. “A trepanning set, by Evans of London, circa 1780, in original fish-skin case.”

“And this?”

“An early nineteenth-century French lithotomy set with bow drill, by Grangeret. Brass-bound mahogany case.” He regards her steadily with his deep-set, red-rimmed, pinkish eyes, as if sizing her up for a bit of a go with the Grangeret, a spooky-looking contraption broken down to its component parts in their slots of moth-eaten velvet.

“Thankyou,” Cayce says, deciding this isn’t really the distraction she needs, right now. She turns to Voytek. “Let’s get some air.” He gets cheerfully up from his seat, shouldering his now-bulging pouch of Sin-clairs, and follows her up the stairs and into the street.

Tourists and antiques-fanciers and people-watchers have been steadily arriving from stations in either direction, many of them her countrymen, or Japanese. A crowd dense as a stadium concert is contriving to move in either direction along Portobello, in the street itself, the sidewalks having been taken up by temporary sellers with trestles and card tables, and by the shoppers clustered around them. The sun has come fully and unexpectedly out, and between the sun and the crowd and the residual wonky affect of soul-delay, she feels suddenly dizzy.

No good now, for finding,” Voytek says, clutching his pouch protec-lively under his arm. He downs the last of his coffee. “I must be going. Have work.”

“What do you do?” she asks, mainly to cover her dizziness.

But he only nods toward the pouch. “I must evaluate condition. Have pleasure in meeting you.” He takes something from one of the top front pockets of his jean jacket and hands it to her. It is a scrap of white cardboard with a rubber-stamped e-mail address.

Cayce never has cards, and has always been reluctant to give out particulars. “I don’t have a card,” she says, but on impulse tells him her current hotmail address, sure he’ll forget it. He smiles, goofy and somehow winningly open under his ruler-straight Slavic cheekbones, and turns away into the crowd.

Cayce burns her tongue on her still-scalding coffee. Gets rid of it in an already overflowing bin.

She decides to walk back to that Starbucks near the Netting Hill tube, have a latte made with mirror-world milk, and take the train to Camden.

She’s starting to feel like she’s really here.

“He took a duck in the face at two hundred and fifty knots,” by way this time of an expression of gratitude, and starts back toward Netting Hill station.

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