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Chapter 56

The condemned man showers, shaves, puts on most of a suit, and realizes that he is ahead of schedule. He turns on the television, gets a San Miguel out of the fridge to steady his nerves, and then goes to the closet to get the stuff of his last meal. The apartment only has one closet and when its door is open it appears to have been bricked shut, Cask of Amontillado-style, with very large flat red oblongs, each imprinted with the image of a venerable and yet oddly cheerful and yet somehow kind of hauntingly sad naval officer. The whole pallet load was shipped here several weeks ago by Avi, in an attempt to lift Randy’s spirits. For all Randy knows more are still sitting on a Manila dockside ringed with armed guards and dictionary-sized rat traps straining against their triggers, each baited with a single golden nugget.

Randy selects one of the bricks from this wall, creating a gap in the formation, but there is another, identical one right behind it, another picture of that same naval officer. They seem to be marching from his closet in a peppy phalanx. "Part of this complete balanced breakfast," Randy says. Then he slams the door on them and walks with a measured, forcibly calm step to the living room where he does most of his dining, usually while facing his thirty-six-inch television. He sets up his San Miguel, an empty bowl, an exceptionally large soup spoon—so large that most European cultures would identify it as a serving spoon and most Asian ones as a horticultural implement. He obtains a stack of paper napkins, not the brown recycled ones that can’t be moistened even by immersion in water, but the flagrantly environmentally unsound type, brilliant white and cotton-fluffy and desperately hygroscopic. He goes to the kitchen, opens the fridge, reaches deep into the back, and finds an unopened box-bag-pod-unit of UHT milk. UHT milk need not, technically, be refrigerated, but it is pivotal, in what is to follow, that the milk be only a few microdegrees above the point of freezing. The fridge in Randy’s apartment has louvers in the back where the cold air is blown in, straight from the freon coils. Randy always stores his milk-pods directly in front of those louvers. Not too close, or else the pods will block the flow of air, and not too far away either. The cold air becomes visible as it rushes in and condenses moisture, so it is a simple matter to sit there with the fridge door open and observe its flow characteristics, like an engineer testing an experimental minivan in a River Rouge wind tunnel. What Randy would like to see, ideally, is the whole milk-pod enveloped in an even, jacketlike flow to produce better heat exchange through the multilayered plastic-and-foil skin of the milk-pod. He would like the milk to be so cold that when he reaches in and grabs it, he feels the flexible, squishy pod stiffen between his fingers as ice crystals spring into existence, summoned out of nowhere simply by the disturbance of being squished.

Today the milk is almost, but not quite, that cold. Randy goes into his living room with it. He has to wrap it in a towel because it is so cold it hurts his fingers. He launches a videotape and then sits down. All is in readiness.

This is one of a series of videotapes that are shot in an empty basketball gym with a polished maple floor and a howling, remorseless ventilation system. They depict a young man and a young woman, both attractive, svelte, and dressed something like marquee players in the Ice Capades, performing simple ballroom dance steps to the accompaniment of strangled music from a ghetto blaster set up on the free-throw line. It is miserably clear that the video has been shot by a third conspirator who is burdened with a consumer-grade camcorder and reeling from some kind of inner-ear disease that he or she would like to share with others. The dancers stomp through the most simple steps with autistic determination. The camera operator begins in each case with a two-shot, then, like a desperado tormenting a milksop, aims his weapon at their feet and makes them dance, dance, dance. At one point the pager hooked to the man’s elastic waistband goes off and a scene has to be cut short. No wonder: he is one of the most sought-after ballroom dance instructors in Manila. His partner would be too, if more men in this city were interested in learning to dance. As it is, she must scrape by earning maybe a tenth of what the male instructor pulls down, giving lessons to a small number of addled or henpecked stumblebums like Randy Waterhouse.

Randy takes the red box and holds it securely between his knees with the handy stay-closed tab pointing away from him. Using both hands in unison he carefully works his fingertips underneath the flap, trying to achieve equal pressure on each side, paying special attention to places where too much glue was laid down by the gluing-machine. For a few long, tense moments, nothing at all happens, and an ignorant or impatient observer might suppose that Randy is getting nowhere. But then the entire flap pops open in an instant as the entire glue-front gives way. Randy hates it when the box-top gets bent or, worst of all possible worlds, torn. The lower flap is merely tacked down with a couple of small glue-spots and Randy pulls it back to reveal a translucent, inflated sac. The halogen down-light recessed in the ceiling shines through the cloudy material of the sac to reveal gold—everywhere the glint of gold. Randy rotates the box ninety degrees and holds it between his knees so its long axis is pointed at the television set, then grips the top of the sac and carefully parts its heat-sealed seam, which purrs as it gives way. Removal of the somewhat milky plastic barrier causes the individual nuggets of Cap’n Crunch to resolve, under the halogen light, with a kind of preternatural crispness and definition that makes the roof of Randy’s mouth glow and throb in trepidation.

On the TV, the dancing instructors have finished demonstrating the basic steps. It is almost painful to watch them doing the compulsories, because when they do, they must willfully forget everything they know about advanced ballroom dancing, and dance like persons who have suffered strokes, or major brain injuries, that have wiped out not only the parts of their brain responsible for fine motor skills but also blown every panel in the aesthetic-discretion module. They must, in other words, dance the way their beginning pupils like Randy dance.

The gold nuggets of Cap’n Crunch pelt the bottom of the bowl with a sound like glass rods being snapped in half Tiny fragments spall away from their corners and ricochet around on the white porcelain surface. World-class cereal-eating is a dance of fine compromises. The giant heaping bowl of sodden cereal, awash in milk, is the mark of the novice. Ideally one wants the bone-dry cereal nuggets and the cryogenic milk to enter the mouth with minimal contact and for the entire reaction between them to take place in the mouth. Randy has worked out a set of mental blueprints for a special cereal-eating spoon that will have a tube running down the handle and a little pump for the milk, so that you can spoon dry cereal up out of a bowl, hit a button with your thumb, and squirt milk into the bowl of the spoon even as you are introducing it into your mouth. The next best thing is to work in small increments, putting only a small amount of Cap’n Crunch in your bowl at a time and eating it all up before it becomes a pit of loathsome slime, which, in the case of Cap’n Crunch, takes about thirty seconds.

At this point in the videotape he always wonders if he’s inadvertently set his beer down on the fast-forward button, or something, because the dancers go straight from their vicious Randy parody into something that obviously qualifies as advanced dancing. Randy knows that the steps they are doing are nominally the same as the basic steps demonstrated earlier, but he’s damned if he can tell which is which, once they go into their creative mode. There is no recognizable transition, and that is what pisses Randy off, and has always pissed him off, about dancing lessons. Any moron can learn to trudge through the basic steps. That takes all of half an hour. But when that half-hour is over, dancing instructors always expect you’ll take flight and go through one of those miraculous time lapse transitions that happen only in Broadway musicals and begin dancing brilliantly. Randy supposes that people who are lousy at math feel the same way: the instructor writes a few simple equations on the board, and ten minutes later he’s deriving the speed of light in a vacuum.

He pours the milk with one hand while jamming the spoon in with the other, not wanting to waste a single moment of the magical, golden time when cold milk and Cap’n Crunch are together but have not yet begun to pollute each other’s essential natures: two Platonic ideals separated by a boundary a molecule wide. Where the flume of milk splashes over the spoon-handle, the polished stainless steel fogs with condensation. Randy of course uses whole milk, because otherwise why bother? Anything less is indistinguishable from water, and besides he thinks that the fat in whole milk acts as some kind of a buffer that retards the dissolution-into-slime process. The giant spoon goes into his mouth before the milk in the bowl has even had time to seek its own level. A few drips come off the bottom and are caught by his freshly washed goatee (still trying to find the right balance between beardedness and vulnerability, Randy has allowed one of these to grow). Randy sets the milk-pod down, grabs a fluffy napkin, lifts it to his chin, and uses a pinching motion to sort of lift the drops of milk from his whiskers rather than smashing and smearing them down into the beard. Meanwhile all his concentration is fixed on the interior of his mouth, which naturally he cannot see, but which he can imagine in three dimensions as if zooming through it in a virtual reality display. Here is where a novice would lose his cool and simply chomp down. A few of the nuggets would explode between his molars, but then his jaw would snap shut and drive all of the unshattered nuggets straight up into his palate where their armor of razor-sharp dextrose crystals would inflict massive collateral damage, turning the rest of the meal into a sort of pain-hazed death march and rendering him Novocain mute for three days. But Randy has, over time, worked out a really fiendish Cap’n Crunch eating strategy that revolves around playing the nuggets’ most deadly features against each other. The nuggets themselves are pillow-shaped and vaguely striated to echo piratical treasure chests. Now, with a flake-type of cereal, Randy’s strategy would never work. But then, Cap’n Crunch in a flake form would be suicidal madness; it would last about as long, when immersed in milk, as snowflakes sifting down into a deep fryer. No, the cereal engineers at General Mills had to find a shape that would minimize surface area, and, as some sort of compromise between the sphere that is dictated by Euclidean geometry and whatever sunken-treasure-related shapes that the cereal-aestheticians were probably clamoring for, they came up with this hard-to-pin-down striated pillow formation. The important thing, for Randy’s purposes, is that the individual pieces of Cap’n Crunch are, to a very rough approximation, shaped kind of like molars. The strategy, then, is to make the Cap’n Crunch chew itself by grinding the nuggets together in the center of the oral cavity, like stones in a lapidary tumbler. Like advanced ballroom dancing, verbal explanations (or for that matter watching videotapes) only goes so far and then your body just has to learn the moves.

By the time he has eaten a satisfactory amount of Cap’n Crunch (about a third of a 25-ounce box) and reached the bottom of his beer bottle, Randy has convinced himself that this whole dance thing is a practical joke. When he reaches the hotel, Amy and Doug Shaftoe will be waiting for him with mischievous smiles. They will tell him they were just teasing and then take him into the bar to talk him down.

Randy puts on the last few bits of his suit. Any delaying tactics are acceptable at this point, so he checks his e-mail.



Subject: The Pontifex Transform, as requested


You are right, of course—as the Germans learned the hard way, no new cryptosystem can be trusted until it has been published, so that people like your Secret Admirer friends can have a go at breaking it. I would be in your debt if you would do this with Pontifex.

The transform at the heart of Pontifex has various asymmetries and special cases that make it difficult to express in a few clean, elegant lines of math. It almost has to be written down as pseudo-code. But why settle for pseudo when you can have the real thing? What follows is Pontifex written as a Perl script. The variable $D contains the 54-element permutation. The subroutine e generates the next keystream value whilst evolving $D.

#!/usr/bin/perl -s
while length ($o)%5&&!$d;
$o=~s/X*$// if $d;$o=~s/.{5}/$& /g;
print"$o\n";sub v{$v=ord(substr($D,$_[0]))-32;
sub w{$D=~s/(.{$_[0]})(.*)(.)/$2$1$3/}
sub e{eval"$U$V$V";$D=~s/(.*)([UV].*[UV])(.*)/$3$2$l/;

There is also one message from his palimony lawyer in California, which he prints and puts into his breast pocket to savor while he is stuck in traffic. He takes the elevator downstairs and catches a taxi to the Manila Hotel. This (riding in a taxi through Manila) would be one of the more memorable experiences of his life if this were the first time he had ever done it, but is the millionth time and so nothing registers. For example, he sees two cars smashed together directly beneath a giant road sign that says no swerving, but he doesn’t really take note.

Dear Randy,

The worst is over. Charlene and (more importantly) her lawyer seem to have accepted, finally, that you are not sitting on top of a huge pile of gold in the Philippines! Now that your imaginary millions are no longer confusing the picture, we can figure out how to dispose of the assets you actually have: primarily, your equity in the house. This would be much more complicated if Charlene wanted to remain there, however it now appears that she has landed that Yale job, which means that she is just as eager to liquidate the house as you are. The question, then, will be how the proceeds of the sale should be divided between you and her. Their position appears (not surprisingly) to be that the huge increase in the house’s value since you bought it is a consequence of changes in the real estate market—never mind the quarter-million you spent shoring up the foundation, replacing the plumbing, etc., etc.

I assume you kept all of the receipts, cancelled checks and other proof of how much money you spent on improvements, because that’s the kind of guy you are. It would help me very much if I could pull these out and wave them around during my next round of discussions with Charlene’s lawyer. Can you produce them? I realize that this will be something of an inconvenience for you. However, since you have invested most of your net worth into that house, the stakes are high.

Randy puts the page into his breast pocket and begins planning a trip to California.

Most of the ballroom dancing freaks in this town belong to the social class that can afford cars and drivers. The cars are lined up all the way down the hotel’s drive and out into the street, waiting to discharge their passengers, whose bright gowns are visible even through tinted windows. Attendants blow whistles and gesture with their white gloves, vectoring cars into the parking lot, where they are sintered into a tight mosaic. Some of the drivers don’t even bother getting out, and lean their seats back for a nap. Others gather beneath a tree at one end of the lot to smoke, joke, and shake their heads in dazed amusement at the world in the way that only your hardened future shocked Third Worlders can.

Since he has been dreading this so much, you’d think Randy might just sit back and savor the delay. But, like jerking a bandage off a hairy part of the body, it is a deed best done quickly and suddenly. As they pull to a stop at the back of the line of limos, he shoves money at his surprised driver, opens the door, and walks the last block to the hotel. He can feel the eyes of the gowned and perfumed Filipinas playing across his husky back like laser sights on commandos’ rifles.

Aging Filipinas in prom dresses have come and gone across the lobby of the Manila Hotel for as long as Randy has known the place. He hardly noticed them during the early months when he was actually living there. The first time they appeared, he assumed that some function was underway in the grand ballroom: perhaps a wedding, perhaps a class-action suit being filed by aging beauty contest contestants against the synthetic fibers industry. That was about as far as he got before he stopped burning out his mental circuits trying to figure everything out. Pursuing an explanation for every strange thing you see in the Philippines is like trying to get every last bit of rainwater out of a discarded tire.

The Shaftoes are not waiting by the door to tell him it was all a joke, so Randy squares his shoulders and stomps doggedly across the vast lobby, all alone, like a Confederate infantryman in Pickett’s Charge, the last man of his regiment. A photographer in a Ronald Reagan pompadour and a white tuxedo is planted before the door to the grand ballroom, shooting pictures of people on the way in, hoping that they will pay for copies on the way out. Randy shoots him such a fell look that the man’s shutter finger cringes back from the button. Then it’s through the big doors and into the ballroom, where, beneath swirling, colored lights, hundreds of Filipinas are dancing, mostly with much younger men, to the strains of a reprocessed Carpenters tune generated by a small orchestra in the corner. Randy shells out some pesos for a corsage of sampaguita flowers. Holding it at arm’s length so that he will not be plunged into a diabetic coma by its fumes, he commences a Magellanian circumnavigation of the dance floor, which is surrounded by an atoll of round tables that are adorned with white linen tablecloths, candles, and glass ashtrays. A man with a thin mustache sits alone at one of those tables, back against the wall, a cellphone against his head, one side of his face illuminated fluoroscopically by the eerie green light of its keypad. A cigarette juts from his fist.

Grandma Waterhouse insisted that seven-year-old Randy take ballroom dance lessons because one day it would certainly come in handy. He begged to differ. Her Australian accent had turned lofty and English in the decades since she had come to America, or maybe that was his imagination. She sat there, bolt upright as always, on her floral-chintz Gomer Bolstrood settee, the sere hills of the Palouse visible through lace curtains behind her, sipping tea from a white china cup decorated with—was it lavender roses? When she tilted the cup back, seven-year-old Randy must have been able to read the name of the china pattern off the bottom. The information must be stored in his subconscious memory somewhere. Perhaps a hypnotist could extract it.

But seven-year-old Randy had other things on his mind: protesting, in the strongest possible terms, the assertion that ballroom dance skills could ever be of any use. At the same time, he was being patterned. Implausible, even ludicrous ideas were suffusing his brain, invisible and odorless as carbon monoxide gas: that the Palouse was a normal landscape. That the sky was this blue everywhere. That a house should look this way: with lace curtains, leaded-glass windows, and room after room full of Gomer Bolstrood furniture.

"I met your grandfather Lawrence at a dance, in Brisbane," Grandma announced. She was trying to tell him that he, Randall Lawrence Waterhouse, would not even exist had it not been for the practice of ballroom dancing. But Randy did not even know where babies came from yet and probably wouldn’t have understood even if he did. Randy straightened up, remembering his posture, and asked her a question: did this encounter in Brisbane happen when she was seven years old, or, perhaps, a little later?

Perhaps if she had lived in a mobile home, the grown-up Randy would have sunk his money into a mutual fund, instead of paying ten thousand dollars to a soi-disant artisan from San Francisco to install leaded-glass windows around his front door, like at Grandma’s house.

He provides tremendous, long-lasting amusement to the Shaftoes by walking right past their table without recognizing them. He looks right at Doug Shaftoe’s date, a striking Filipina, probably in her forties, who is in the middle of making some forceful point. Without taking her eyes off Doug and Amy Shaftoe, she reaches out with one long graceful arm and snags Randy’s wrist as he goes by, yanking him back like a dog on a meat leash. She then holds him there while she finishes her sentence, then looks up at him with a brilliant smile. Randy smiles back dutifully, but he does not give her the full attention she seems accustomed to, because he is a bit preoccupied by the spectacle of America Shaftoe in a dress.

Fortunately, Amy has not gone in for the prom queen look. She is wearing a form-fitting black number with long sleeves that hide her tattoos, and black tights, as opposed to stockings. Randy gives her the flowers, like a quarterback handing off the pigskin to a runner. She accepts them with a crooked expression, like a wounded soldier biting down on a bullet. Irony aside, she has a gleam in her eye that he has never seen before. Or maybe that is just light from the mirrored ball, reflecting off cigarette-smoke-induced tears. He senses in his gut that he did the right thing by showing up. As with all gut feelings, only time will tell whether this is pathetic self-delusion. He was kind of afraid that she would go through some Hollywoodesque transfiguration into a radiant goddess, which would have the same effect on Randy as an ax to the base of the skull. The fact of the matter is that she looks quite good, but arguably, just as out of place as Randy is in his suit.

He is hoping that they can get the dancing over right away so that he can flee the building in Cinderellan obloquy, but they bid him sit down. The orchestra takes a break and the dancers return to their tables. Doug Shaftoe is comfortably sprawled back in his chair with the masculine confidence of a man who has not only killed people but who is, furthermore, escorting the most beautiful woman in the room. Her name is Aurora Taal, and she casts her flawlessly Lancomed gaze over the other Filipinas with the controlled amusement of one who has lived in Boston, Washington, and London, and seen it all, and come back to live in Manila anyway.

"So, did you learn anything more about this Rudolf von Hacklheber character?" Doug asks, after a few minutes of small talk. It follows that Aurora must be in on the whole secret. Doug mentioned, weeks ago, that a small number of Filipinos knew about what they were doing, and that they could be trusted.

"He was a mathematician. He was from a wealthy Leipzig family. He was at Princeton before the war. His years there did, in fact, overlap with my grandfather’s."

"What kind of math did he do, Randy?"

"Before the war he did number theory. Which tells us nothing about what he did during the war. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’d ended up working in the Third Reich’s crypto apparatus."

"Which wouldn’t explain how he ended up here."

Randy shrugs. "Maybe he did engineering work on the new generation of submarines. I don’t know."

"So the Reich got him involved in some kind of classified work, which killed him eventually," Doug says. "We could have guessed that for ourselves, I suppose."

"Why did you mention crypto, then?" Amy asks. She has some kind of emotional metal detector that screams whenever it comes near buried assumptions and hastily stifled impulses.

"I guess I have crypto on the brain. And, if there was some kind of connection between von Hacklheber and my grandfather—"

"Was your grandfather a crypto guy, Randy?" Doug asks.

"He never said anything about what he did during the war."


"But he had this trunk up in the attic. A war souvenir. It actually reminds me of a trunk full of Nipponese crypto materials that I recently saw in a cave in Kinakuta." Doug and Amy stare at him. "It doesn’t amount to anything, probably," Randy concedes.

The orchestra starts in with a Sinatra tune. Doug and Aurora smile at each other and rise to their feet. Amy rolls her eyes and looks the other way, but it’s put up or shut up time now, and Randy cannot conceive of any way out. He stands up and extends his hand to the one he fears and hopes for, and she, without looking, reaches out and puts her hand into his.

Randy shuffles, which is no way to dance beautifully but does rule out snapping his partner’s metatarsals. Amy is essentially no better at this than he is, but she has a better attitude. By the time they get to the end of the first dance, Randy has at least reached the point where his face is no longer burning, and has gone for some thirty seconds without having to apologize for anything, and sixty without asking his partner whether she will be needing medical attention. Then the song is over, and circumstances dictate that he has to dance with Aurora Taal. This is less intimidating; even though she is glamorous and a really good dancer, their relationship is not one that allows for the possibility of grotesque pre-erotic fumbling. Also, Aurora smiles a lot, and she has a really spectacular smile, where Amy’s face was intense and preoccupied. The next dance is announced as ladies’ choice, and Randy is still trying to make eye contact with Amy when he finds this tiny middle-aged Filipina standing there asking Aurora if she would mind terribly. Aurora consigns him to the other lady like a pork belly futures contract on the commodity exchange, and suddenly Randy and the lady are dancing the Texas two-step to the strains of a pre-disco Bee Gees tune.

"So, have you found wealth in the Philippines yet?" asks the lady, whose name Randy did not quite catch. She acts as if she expects him to know her.

"Uh, my partners and I are exploring business opportunities," Randy says. "Maybe wealth will follow."

"I understand you are good with numbers," the lady says.

Randy is really racking his brain now. How does this woman know he’s a numbers kind of guy? "I’m good with math," he finally says.

"Isn’t that what I said?"

"Nah, mathematicians stay away from actual, specific numbers as much as possible. We like to talk about numbers without actually exposing ourselves to them—that’s what computers are for."

The lady will not be denied; she has a script and she’s sticking to it. "I have a math problem for you," the lady says.


"What is the value of the following information: fifteen degrees, seventeen minutes, forty-one point three two seconds north, and a hundred and twenty-one degrees, fifty-seven minutes, zero point five five seconds east?"

"Uh. . . I don’t know. It sounds like a latitude and longitude. Northern Luzon, right?"

The lady nods.

"You want me to tell you the value of those numbers?"


"Depends on what’s there, I guess."

"I suppose it does," the lady says. And that’s all she says, for the rest of the dance. Other than complimenting Randy on his balletic skills, which is just as hard to interpret.

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