666 – The Number of the Bus

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666 – The Number of the Bus by Chris Green

Mr Saxx who taught us Maths in Year 11 was obsessed with probability. In his classes, we were required to calculate the probability of many unlikely scenarios. Based on historical performance and the profile of those players currently available for selection, what was the probability that Chamberlain House would win the Fives trophy this year, he might ask? What were the chances that Jarvis Vest would beat Dish Price in the Upper School Middleweight Boxing Final? Would Bogey Yates win Bully of the Year again, or would it go to Marty Wheeler? Mr Saxx even started up a class bookmakers so that we could practice calculating odds and understand how to be successful in beating them. Each day we had to read The Sporting Life to learn the ins and outs of bookmaker’s odds. I won a tidy sum of money when Bucket of Rum won a Handicap Chase at Fontwell Park at 66-1. This was enough to spark my interest in Maths. I came top of the class that year. Sadly, Mr Saxx was struck off for malpractice, but I was on my way.

Many people see chance and probability as slippery customers, hard to pin down. To make progress here, you need to understand a little about how they operate. Let’s look at probability. How many people would you imagine it would need to be in a room before there was a 50/50 chance that two of them would share the same birthday? You might think at least 50 people would be necessary. After all, there are 365 days in a year. There are a lot of possibilities. But the answer is just 23. It’s the 50/50 element of the question that catches you out. This is possibly why many people are afraid of mathematics and steer clear of numbers. Numbers, it is true, can be treacherous.

A car travels a distance of 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. How fast would the car have to travel the same 60-mile distance home to average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip? Most people say 90 miles per hour, not realising it is a trick question. The first leg of the trip covers 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. So, this means the car travelled for two hours (60/30). For the car to average 60 miles per hour over 120 miles, it would have to travel for exactly two hours (120/60). Since the car has already travelled for two hours, it can’t average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip. It is important to read the question carefully and not rush into coming to a conclusion.

With a basic understanding of mathematics, I learned to avoid sucker bets like the lottery and scratch-cards. These were a complete con. A large proportion of the pot was creamed off to give to worthy causes. Not good at all for the punter. Maths also enabled me to quickly calculate the odds of my hand winning in any given situation when playing poker. While I may have missed out on the excitement of bluffing with a pair of jacks, this was more than compensated for by a fatter wallet at the end of the night. But where was the fun in being risk-averse? What on earth was the point of having a fondness for numbers and a skill with them without looking for ways to beat the odds? Surely, life without taking chances was no life at all.

I was leaving the casino one evening when, to my surprise, I bumped into Mr Saxx. He was getting out of a shiny silver Bentley. I hadn’t seen him since he was dismissed from my school, several years previously.

Hello, Mr Saxx,’ I said. ‘Nice motor.’

Ah, Davy, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘You’ve just come from The Flamingo, have you?’

I told him I had.

How did you get on?’ he asked. ‘Not too well, I hope.’

Why’s that, Mr Saxx?’ I asked.

It’s my casino, Davy,’ he said. ‘It’s one of a chain that I own.’

You’re not teaching Maths any more then, Mr Saxx.’

Charles! Call me Charles!’ he said. ‘No, Davy. Those days are in the past. You like my new car then. Better than the old Mazda I used to drive, isn’t it?’

I had heard of high-yield investment schemes, of course. They were basically Ponzi schemes. Initially, the operator pays high returns to attract investors and entice current investors to invest more money and in turn, new investors. When new investors join, a cascade effect begins. The operator pays a return to initial investors from the investments of the new participants, rather than from genuine profits. I was surprised when Charles Saxx suggested I might like to manage such a venture for him.

It’s all right, lad,’ he said. ‘You won’t need to put a penny in. I’m offering you the opportunity because I recall how good you were with numbers back when I used to teach you. I still remember the conversation we had in class about Graham’s number, the biggest number ever used in maths, a number so big that even if each digit were written in the tiniest writing possible, it would still be too big to fit in the observable universe. Way bigger than a googolplex, I remember you pointing out.’

At first, I was wary. I had grown up in a world where the common-sense view was that if something seemed to be too good to be true, it probably was too good to be true. But I quickly discovered this was no longer the case. Now everyone seemed to believe they could get something for nothing. With the carrot of easy money dangled before them, it was remarkable how gullible people could be. Even when we called one of the investment opportunities Scammer, they still lapped it up. And it wasn’t just the punters. This one got a recommendation on YourMoney.com. Their advisor, Dudley Bills described the initiative as the perfect place for your nest-egg.

Could it be that people simply didn’t understand the basics of arithmetic, I wondered? Without inspiring teachers like Mr Saxx, had Maths in their schools been so dull that they could not recognise sleight of hand? That because of their lack of insight into how numbers worked, they were always destined to be victims of their ignorance? It was certainly a possibility, but not one that I would lose sleep over. When you are rich, you never have to take responsibility for your actions. Others with a lesser understanding of figures will always be there to carry the can for your misrepresentation when the time comes. So, exit strategies for this scheme and others like it were merely a formality.

Yet it was not plain sailing. Like many others, I had been led to believe that money could buy you happiness. If you were wealthy, your life would be easy. You would have infinite leisure time. You would be the picture of health. You would have beautiful women falling at your feet. As it turned out, not all of these were true. Certainly, money could act as a women magnet, but what was often overlooked was that the women wealth attracted were likely to have their own agenda. In a word, they tended to be gold-diggers. I discovered this to my cost. My leisure time disappeared. Life was anything but easy. And each time the inevitable acrimonious break-up occurred, my assets were halved. As a result, my health deteriorated. I should have learned when Rachel took me for a pretty penny, but I didn’t. Charmain was charming and Desirée desirable, but both had the same idea. They were not interested in happy families, they both wanted money. That’s what they wanted. My money. And now the same thing was happening with Sarah.

I decided to seek Charles Saxx’s advice. I had from time to time read about his successes in the paper. Hardly a week went by without the launch of some new venture. Charles was clearly loaded and yet he seemed to manage to keep his boat afloat. How had he avoided the gold-diggers? What was his secret? Although I hadn’t seen Charles for a year or two, I dug out the number he had given me and called him. He seemed pleased to hear from me. It had been too long, he said, and he invited me round for canapés. I found his large new house, Robles Altos, a mile or so along a steep, private road leading to the common. His new McLaren was parked on the drive. I pressed the button on the entry phone on the iron gates and he let me through.

I did not think it was appropriate to come right out with my problem. This was something that needed to be slowly worked into the broader conversation. I allowed Charles to tell me a little about his background. He told me he grew up in the west country. He was an only child and had had few friends. He said he had always been in awe of his cousin, Roy.

Roy had six siblings and lots of friends, he said. Not only that, but Roy also had vision. He was an innovator. I can’t imagine anyone else coming up with a USB frog, an invisible kettle, or a luminous badger. Or a self-cleaning, solar-powered smartdog.’

I knew I had heard the name Saxx somewhere else,’ I said. ‘So, Roy, the inventor of the inflatable Buddha and the bouncing tortoise is your cousin.’

From an early age, Roy was always creative,’ he said. ‘I realised I could not compete. The best I could come up with was a digital mojo.’

What on earth was a digital mojo? I began to wonder if perhaps all the Saxx family were oddballs. Might Trevor Saxx, the presenter of Underwater Football on The Marine Channel also be related? However, kookiness didn’t seem to have been a significant handicap to the Saxx’s success.

Not being able to compete with Roy was what drew me to mathematics,’ Charles continued. I needed something I could rely on. I did well at Maths at school so naturally, I went for Maths at university and came out with a First. Even the notoriously difficult Numerology module presented no challenge. My degree should have opened up opportunities right away,’ he continued. ‘But I guess I was a bit lazy. I saw the post at the school advertised and thought I’d give it a go. I could have plodded along, teaching calculus to spotty fifteen-year-olds, but I thought I could put my own stamp on it. Make it more interesting. Then as you know, I was dismissed. This was what spurred me into action. I realised that everything in this material world revolved around numbers. Understanding numbers gave me a huge advantage over others. So I thought, why not go for it?

You’ve certainly done very well for yourself since you ….. moved on, Charles,’ I said. ‘I wish I could say the same. But each time I think I’ve got it made, it seems to get taken away again.’

What do you mean?’ he said.

In a word, women,’ I said ‘Either I’m a poor judge of character or they spot that I am rich and home in on me with one thing in mind. To exploit my vulnerability and make themselves a quick buck. In quick succession, Rachel, Charmain and Desirée all fleeced me. When the time came, they all came up with up fearsome matrimonial solicitors. And now Sarah is doing the same, and we are not even married. When my solicitor, Mr Shed of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed heard we were up against Mr Glock of Stipe, Stipe and Juttner, he told me we might as well throw in the towel. We stood no chance of getting a result.’

Do you think you maybe wear your heart on your sleeve, Davy?’ he said.

I had to acknowledge Charles had a point. Once I became attracted to someone, I tended to dive straight in. I may have even proposed to Desirée on the first night.

You think I play my cards too early, don’t you?’ I said. ‘Would it be better if I were to apply poker tactics?’

Exactly,’ he said. ‘Or the same attitude you had with regard to our investment scams. Take no prisoners. Now, look! What’s done is done but you must get a more ruthless legal representative this time around. Don’t go for a regular divorce solicitor. What you need is a different approach. Nolan Rocco is good. He will be more than a match for this Mr Glock. He will surprise you, that’s for sure.

Nolan Rocco, it turned out, was a pseudonym for the speculative fiction writer, Phillip C. Dark. Phillip spotted straight away what was required. He didn’t even need to face Mr Glock. He had a novel solution. He was going to get rid of him completely, along with Rachel, Charmain, Desirée and Sarah. To do this, he would use a mathematical sleight of hand. Numbers, he said, were the key. Naturally, this met with my approval.

I was 36 years old. So Phillip C. Dark planned to rewrite my story by adding 1 to 36, halving the high number to get the number of pairs, 18, then multiplying 37 by 18. This, as I knew it would, came to the magic number, 666. He then simply deleted 666 words from my biography. This took the story back to exit strategies for my investment scams being a formality. I was once again in a good position. From here, I could move on to better things. No need to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part or any of the other commitments that came with getting one’s rocks off. These were optional extras and ones I would not be signing up for.

Paul Gauguin trailblazed the idea of leaving his old life behind and starting afresh on a tropical island. In search of meaning in my own life, I made the decision to follow in his footsteps. I needed a new direction. Having been a stockbroker in Paris, Gauguin too had a numbers background. There, alas, the similarities ended. Art was something I had little talent for. But to let this get in the way would be defeatist? After all, I had money to support me and I had plenty of time to learn how to paint.

I headed for the volcanic island of La Gomera, the least populous of the Canary Islands. La Gomera was Columbus’s last port of call before crossing the Atlantic in 1492 with his three ships. He stopped here for a month to replenish his crew’s food and water supplies. Since then, little of any note had happened on the island. La Gomera was Trip Advisor’s idea of a quiet place. It was described as the perfect place to look at the night sky. There were usually clear skies and little light pollution. It seemed like an ideal spot to take stock and regroup.

I had not been on the island very long when walking though San Sebastian de la Gomera, among the brightly coloured shopfronts, I came across a darkened single-storey building, set back a little from the others. It was painted black with thick blinds drawn. Above it was a dark display board with 666 written in large white Gothic numerals. No letters, just the number 666. Not exactly what you would expect to find among the market stalls, cheese shops and tapas bars. 666 is, of course, the magic sum of the first 36 digits, the sum if you like of the numbers on a roulette wheel. Was this then a gambling den? Or something more sinister? 666 was also the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation, the so-called Devil’s Number. Although 666 appeared to be closed, it seemed reasonable to assume something iniquitous took place here.

I had rented a house close to the town and in the short time I had been resident, I had got to know one or two of the locals. None of them seemed to have any idea what went on at 666. It never seemed to be open, they said. Perhaps it was used to store contraband. Perhaps something of a maritime nature. It would be closed for months on end while ships were at sea. Pablo, however, who was teaching me how to paint landscapes, was sure there must be a Satanic connection.

It’s all too easy to jump to Satanic conclusions,’ I said. Was this an attempt to get him to elaborate or was I trying to be clever?Some people take the diabolic associations of 666 so seriously that they avoid anything related to the digits 6-6-6. This is known as hexakosioihexekontahexophobia. I think I’ve got that right. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? 666 has zillions of references in popular culture, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, The Phantom of the Opera, Escape from LA, to name but a few. But look, Pablo! The number 666 has other associations too. Apart from being the number of the Beast, it is the sum total of the numbers 1 to 36, which is known in mathematics as a triangular number. In Roman numerals, it is DCLXVI, all the numeric symbols in decreasing order. And there are any number of biblical connections. And what about the trigonometry of the Golden Mean? It is an all-round special number. And 666 is the number of the bus to Oxborough where I used to live.’

But, my friend, none of these would explain the dead goats that have been found around here,’ he said. ‘Miguel from the panadería tells me he has seen them at night in their dark cloaks.’

Did I really want to think about dead goats? I had come to La Gomera for a quiet life and to learn to paint. I couldn’t recall seeing dead goats in any of Gauguin’s pictures. 666 could wait.

Anyway, Pablo, what do you think of this painting I’ve done of the hills over the back?’ I said to change the subject. ‘Perhaps you could tell me a little more about chiaroscuro.’

I wasn’t expecting Phillip C. Dark to call me, but I was pleased he did. I had no idea how my Canary Island adventure was going to turn out. He had obviously given it some thought, after all, as a writer, this was his job. He told me he had it in hand but I would have to wait and see.

Will it be a happy ending?’ I asked. From what I could remember, some of Phillip’s stories ended happily and some of them didn’t. I estimated the percentages might work out at about 52 – 48, although some of the endings were so enigmatic, it was difficult to tell.

Like I said, you’ll have to wait and see,’ Phillip C. Dark said.

I waited. As I distanced myself from the idea of 666, my painting came on in leaps and bounds. Spring was perfect for capturing the landscapes of La Gomera. I especially relished painting the spectacular sunrises. At first light each day, I would make the effort to be in place to take advantage of the natural beauty. I got up early as usual on June 6th and found my spot. At 6 a.m. the sun was just coming up when I noticed a group of hooded figures in dark cloaks coming over the crest of the hill. They were heading my way. They were carrying lighted wooden torches. They appeared to be chanting something in low voices. Were they returning from some nefarious night-time activity or were they just setting out? While I was debating which way I should run, I woke up. To my alarm, I was back in England. At home in Crowley Crescent in Oxborough. At the breakfast table with Sarah. She was angry about something I had done. Some unforgivable transgression. She had had enough, she said, she was leaving me. I had better think about getting myself a good solicitor. Even though we hadn’t been together long, were not married and her name was not on the deeds, Mr Glock had told her she ought to be looking to come away with at least half of everything.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

 

Room 404

room404

Room 404 by Chris Green

I wasn’t supposed to see the information. Room 404 was strictly off-limits. I shouldn’t have been in there, let alone be logged on to the server. Everything on the Level 4 Server was Top Secret. No-one at my pay grade was allowed access to Classified documents. Maybe there was an oversight in staff rotas but security on the base appeared to be remarkably lax that day. My access to the room was somehow tied up with confusion over the fire drill. There was uncertainty about whether Level 4 was scheduled to be evacuated. At the last moment, it seems someone may have decided it was on the schedule. I’m not even sure how I came to be on Level 4. I must have absent-mindedly got out of the lift on the wrong floor. I found myself alone, with access to Room 404. I couldn’t resist taking a peek inside.

I quickly read the document on the screen and was found I was able to open others. The IT department appeared to have messed up because information of this sensitivity would normally have been encrypted and password protected. Yet here was the information on the screen in front of me. In English. In 12 point Times New Roman. I even had time to copy the files to a flash drive that I had inadvertently taken to work that day. The drive, which was the one I was using to store some mp3s on, had inexplicably escaped the scanners at the gate. It was an impulsive move to copy the files and certainly risky. But by the time the Fire Marshal came around to check that Level 4 had been cleared, I was long gone.

I speculated that perhaps only a handful of people would know what was being planned here. Ж, Ђ, a few senior people in GCHQ perhaps, a Minister or two and some Heads of State. But, once you have seen something you cannot un-see it. Having stumbled on the information in this way though, what could I do with it? It would be foolhardy to think I could put something like this into the public domain. You only had to look at what had happened to other whistle-blowers who over the years had spilled the beans on sensitive issues, all of which would be considered far less sensitive than this. What I had been reading was shocking, heinous, apocalyptic. It would be suicidal to share it. There would be an immediate witch-hunt and it would not take long to discover where the leak had come from. I would be on camera in Room 404. There was nothing I could do about that.

The question was, would it only come to light if they realised there had been a security breach or would they be alerted to my action, anyway? Hopefully, there would be no reason for anyone to check the cameras so long as no-one was aware that anything was wrong. But would they not investigate the mix-up over the fire drill? I agonised about this for the rest of the day. No-one came to apprehend me. But did this mean I was in the clear? Whether or not this was the case, the burden of knowing about the plan and not being able to tell felt like it would be a heavy one.

When I got home, I found Sara in a buoyant mood. She had had the day off and was playing her Billy Joel CD.

Good day at work, pet?’ she asked.

So-so,’ I said, hoping that I didn’t seem too out of sorts.

Never mind, Rob,’ she said. ‘I’m going to cook samphire and lemon salmon linguine.’

Sounds good,’ I said, although I had no idea what linguine was. Or samphire.

I’m really looking forward to our holiday in Italy,’ she said. ‘It’s not long now, you know. I’ve ordered some new sun-dresses. I’m having them specially made from those fabrics we saw. Suki says they will take about two or three weeks but that’s plenty of time. Would you like to have a look?’

How could I tell her that the dresses might not arrive or that we might not be going to Italy? I muttered something non-committal.

And later I might show you the new underwear I’ve bought,’ she said. ‘That is if you are interested.’

As it wasn’t all about to go down just yet, I felt I should oblige. Making love to my beautiful wife could only help my fragile state of mind.

Perhaps we might do that now,’ I said.

…………………………………..

That night, while Sara was dreaming of sunnier climes, I lay awake wondering if the knock would come. Would burly men in dark coats bundle me into the back of an unmarked van and take me to a dank cellar for interrogation? While reason suggested that interrogators would need to be in on the secret and in themselves might present a security risk, it did not stop the dark thoughts from coming. They would be instructed to extract a confession. By any means necessary. I tried to recall what waterboarding was. They could of course just take me out and have done with it. Given what was in the pipeline, it wasn’t as if there would be any consideration for propriety. Unless they thought I had already passed the flash drive on or stored the information in cyberspace. Once they had got rid of me, this would be more difficult to establish.

I tried to take stock. If it had come to light at all that I had been in Room 404 and copied the files, that was it. There was no doubt I was in grave danger. But this may not have come to anyone’s notice. My prospects rested on whether anyone had taken a look at the security footage. In light of this, I realised I needed to do something with the drive. There was no sense in just destroying it. They would not believe that I had. Then there would be the waterboarding. There was no sense in wiping the drive. They would just assume I had copied it beforehand, which of course I would have been a fool not to have. Just in case.

Perhaps it was best to give it twenty-four hours to allow me to fully consider the options. To see where I stood at the end of the day. It was a tough decision but having weighed up the pros and cons, I decided to go in to work. At what point should I tell Sara, I wondered as I edged the Qashqai through the morning traffic? How much did she need to know? Who else should I tell and when? Might it be possible to trickle out the information little by little without being found out? Not that there was a great deal of detail. It would be all or nothing.

I had skim-read the documents in the night. They were marked Draft and did not yet have the Top Secret watermark on. There were large gaps on some of the pages. This suggested there was some way to go in the planning. But while they were short on specifics, the intention was clear and the project aim was chilling. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide were to be wiped out through contamination of food and water supplies. It was to be a synchronised operation with the bare minimum of administrators briefed at the last minute on a need to know basis. It would be over quickly. To avoid a major revolt, it was expedient to conduct the preparation in complete secrecy. Genocide was hardly the kind of thing you could be open about. Many had accepted that some adjustment to numbers was needed. The planet could not support seven billion people. But no-one had yet been willing to act on it. Reduction of numbers required subterfuge, treachery and callous indifference.

…………………………………..

I said hello to Dmitri, Lorenzo and Ruth and nervously settled at my desk. Everything seemed to be as I had left it. There were no notes lurking there and my laptop booted up as normal. My phone rang. I looked at it for several seconds hoping this would somehow stop it ringing. Finally, I answered it. It was Phil Dark from Level 3.

Is that Robert?’ he whispered.

Yes, it is,’ I said.’

Can I run something past you?’ he said. ‘It won’t take a minute.’

Sure,’ I said, looking around to make sure none of my colleagues was listening. ‘Go ahead.’

I was surprised to hear from Phil as over the years, I had had very little to do with him. He kept himself to himself at work and so did I. Also, he had long hair and dressed like someone on his way to Glastonbury. I did not want to draw attention to a drugs conviction I had from years ago. I had not declared this on my job application.

I don’t know if you are aware that I am a bit of a writer in my spare time,’ he said. ‘Speculative fiction, mostly.’

I had vaguely heard of Phillip C. Dark, the science fiction writer. I think perhaps my friend Zoot had read something of his. But I had never made the connection with this fellow. I asked Phil about it

Yes, I am,’ he said. ‘Look, Robert! This is a bit delicate. But please bear with me. Why I’m calling is that yesterday I was changing a couple of bits and bobs in one of the chapters of my stories at my workstation. Yes, I know I shouldn’t use office computers for private matters. Anyway, in the middle of this, we had the fire drill. In my haste, I accidentally saved a draft of my files to the Level 4 server. I only realised what I’d done once I was outside the building. I managed to delete it all later and I was hoping no-one had found out. But while it was quiet early this morning, I was able to check the CCTV footage for Level 4 and you came up on camera in Room 404. It looked as if you might have been reading the draft of my story. If you did, I just wanted you to realise what it was. A story. That’s all.’

No worries!’ I said. ‘I figured it must have been something like that. I mean, come on! No-one is going to go around killing billions of innocent people, are they?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved