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The Numbers Man is Back

Middle-eastern arabic astrolabe in brass from 1291 AD

“Numbers?” Dance asks in an almost-voice, and there’s a lull in the wind, he can hear his own rasp, surprising and deep.

“Jesus, Auren gave them to me, yeah, numbers…” Barret closes his eyes. “It’s hard. They’re in there, but–” and he gasps, suddenly, “what if I can’t–” the wind eases down a degree more.

“Stage fright,” Dance gets out, then, gravelly, grinning. “Be easy, they’re in your underpants, yo.”

Barret laughs, and then he does it. He starts pulling them out of his ass, God knows how. It’s a chant, as solemn and careful as Tibetan throat-singing, modulated on multiple notes, with a weird little echo as the wind sounds on harmonics of his voice. He has to repeat some of them when they’re hard to hear. Dance asks him to repeat, he has a need to hear the chanted note, not just read the number he gives. Dance points at the things written by tail, goes over it twice.

“That’s it,” Barret says, then, in another lull, and shakes his head like a dog, blinking.

They look at the notebook awhile in silence, while the storm tries to rip off the siding, and the pressure on the joists and studs shivers through the floor. Dance lets the notebook in his tail-tip grip drop to the floor a moment and he coughs, feeling the sore belly muscles protest. It feels like he’s got junk building up in his lungs, junk that his sinuses hate, it’s too packed up to get rid of it.

There’s a brief lull, long enough that Barret hears Dance cough. Looks at him, worried.

Dance is gravelling out, scraping loudly as a truck on a bad road. Dance sees the heads of his lovers pop up; Emma curls back up in her coat, and Drin rests his head in his hand in his chair, blinking. Drin has the abstract distant look, maybe he’s coming from a very long way away, pulling all those fragmented bits slowly together as he comes, but he’s back.

Dance only gets one good long look at him, relieved to see that much, before he’s too busy controlling his own body. Slow down that impulse to thrash and to struggle. Just cough, let it happen, don’t avoid how it hurts, relax with it. Like riding the wind down to the lull, so you can talk.

He hears Drin moving around. “I’m bringing you things,” Drin says in the lull. He marches up at Dance with a wad of tissues, and what’s left of a glass of water, with a straw in it.

Dance manages to lift the notebook up to a decent height with his tail, and the other man swoops down to catch the notebook, so Dance can forget about that and just get on with trying to clear his lungs. Dance feels another spasm of it coming on, and he turns his head to one side, awkwardly, and lets himself do it, lets it hurt his belly, to get rid of the junk.

Drin holds up the notebook, waving it, eyebrow hoisted up. Barret nods, and Dance’s tail makes a flipping gesture, like a hand waving, for him to go on.

“The numbers man,” Dance says hoarsely, in the next lull, and he sees Barret smile.

Barret makes an eager gesture at the markings, urging Drin to look at it. Drin scans down the page and he frowns at it. Dance knows that look, too.

old curtain at frame with cracked paint
wind coming

Dance waits, listening awhile to the howling of rain. The stronger gusts go tunneling by at a speed that may blast paint off the walls. Amazing noise. He wonders how Barret might use it, in one of those not-so-random compositions, because Barret’s got his head cocked listening to that, as if he’s taking notes mentally on it. Dance is tempted to say something about the wildly modulating notes he hears on the wind, but he leaves it, to avoid distracting them both.

Then Drin looks up, and waits past a squall. In the relative lull afterward he shapes his lips exaggeratedly, not loud but clearly, so his words make sense to them. He says, “Well, there’s several things it could be. The most obvious code that occurs to me is either squaring or taking the square root of these numbers. They’re all even numbers that make nice tidy square roots, like four and sixteen, and so on. We could try that as a first sortèe at the code layering involved.”

“Why do you think it might have multiple layers of code?” Barret asks softly.

Drin looks at him. “This is Auren we’re talking about who set up at least part of it, right?”

Barret sighs. “Point taken. He likes to be careful.”

Drin accepts the pen. Quick, precise, down the list he goes. “There you are.”

“In your head?” Barret stares at the rapid scribbles in his notebook, and hands it down to Dance.

Drin just gives a shrug. “Lots of practice from work. I can’t be more help when I don’t know what those numbers apply to. Their meaning, in a code.”

Dance frowns. “Notes? Bars? Köchel numbers for Mozart?”

“They look like K Numbers to me,” Barret says, blinking. “Yes, they do. You’re sure Emma’s right about the Locatelli connection? He doesn’t have K numbers.”

Dance is sure, and says so.

“Do you know them?” Barret asks. He yells into the start of the next gust then. “I mean, what the K-number and the actual Mozart piece are.”

“No, but Emma knows,” Dance says. He smiles. “The numbers woman.”

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