Division with Prime

The café had a grudging little strip of awning because outside seating was expected, but the wealth and society of the place was inside. The well-dressed young man was not interested in those, but in a bit of privacy. He took possession of a tiny table, hardly wider than either of the two chairs, then pulled a flat black box out of his vest.

He had the privacy of anonymity not obscurity, because several curious onlookers watched as he flipped open the box, removed a silver-gray handkerchief and spread it on the table, then carefully poured all the chips into one of the cups. He poured the chips back and forth between cups in the prescribed manner, then emptied one cup into his hand and cast it down on the handkerchief.

Seventeen. Of course. He saw the pattern for seventeen plain, though the puzzled onlookers might not have. He could spot seventeen items anytime, anywhere. That was at the heart of the problem.

Tensely, he sat on the frail iron chair and, apparently, addressed the other chair: “I have always supposed all of you are omniscient, so you must know already, but I will talk it out as mortals must. I must leave off! Stop! Quit! Don’t think I’m ungrateful. All the tips and directions!” And he gestured up and down the fine suit, the good, matching homburg, the silk tie, the custom gold watch. “And the warnings. Even just yesterday.”

He shredded his minimal privacy even further by hopping up nervously. He spoke to the empty chair even more loudly.

“And, and first, it was so … I felt so privileged! To see where all the numbers came from and where they go, and why. But I couldn’t stop seeing them. Seeing you. You lot. But I care about … more. Every number is a number of something, isn’t it? Do you understand? You must. You aways did. Or you never can.

“I need to live in the referred. In the concrete, the content! So. Much thanks, please don’t be jealous—What do they say? ‘This is a “me” problem.’—But I’m quitting. All of it. No numerology. No Pythagoreanism, not even the diet. Not even astrology. Certainly no gambling.

“If you– if you might, please don’t– Oh, what kind of fool worries about you missing the likes of me! Anyway, we must inevitably see each other around, the way you lot are implicit in everything. I am grateful. I’m not even sure that makes sense, but I think it better to be grateful. I just … have to get out from behind the wall of numbers, into the … content. Thank you again. Thank you. Goodbye.”

He walked away from the table, leaving all the apparatus of his art behind.

A little buzz of gossip followed. After it died away, another young man, not nearly so well-dressed, came up to the table. Standing behind the chair the previous man had so transiently occupied, he looked the table over. The chips on the silvery cloth were like tiny othello pieces, circular, black on one side, white on the other. They were tossed in a random constellation. He tried to see pattern, logic in it. Plenty of triangles, white and black. Could they count? Toward what? That looked a bit like the Big Dipper there. There was a patch of seventeen white chips in the center of the heap.

He looked to the opposite chair. Quite empty.

A farm hand may have a very useful sense of smell, recognizing good hay, rotting hay, the animals, the maturity of the vegetables, good cooking. But all basic. It is quite another story to notice and recognize the smell of some amazingly delicate perfume riding on the scent of a freshly clean woman.

Was something like that going on here? He sensed nothing. He had no uncanny perceptions. It was just that the idea had occurred to him. Why? It was not his usual kind of fantasy.

He gazed a little more, then took his courage in his hands and spoke softly: “Are you the– the spirit of this game?” Nothing. But he wondered what being would bother with a rhetorical omen. Again, an odd new imagining.

“I know that man. Or about him. He’s famous in town as a gambler. And an investor. Good at both. Was he doing it by magic? By your magic? And did he just … dismiss you? Because… if you wanted a new…” (‘Master’ was clearly not the word here.) “…partner, I would be delighted!”



Marc Brigs went straight to his therapist, reported, was congratulated, and took a hypnotherapy session.

He sold the fashionable city apartment and bought a charming cottage with a walled garden, off in a Midlands village. He stood in his new home and looked around. It was empty; old Mr. & Mrs. Dinwiddie had died several years back, and their children had taken the entire contents, in part, perhaps, to make the place more showable. He cracked his knuckles and considered what moves to make with his remaining knowledge and contacts, now that he had abandoned numerology.

He won the provisional approval of his new neighbors by preserving the fine old cherry trees in the garden, bringing in someone to prune them. The neighbors were puzzled, though, that he occupied the bulk of the garden with mint and wildflower patches.

He brought from town his cynical old black poodle, added a bouncing baby schnauzer and two bewildered calico cats, and set himself the project of training them to live together in a civilized manner.

Marc figured out which nights were best to visit the pub. He took the dogs, which did much to reconcile the poodle to the schnauzer and gave the cats a break. There, he became popular as one who would stand a round readily and was good in a conversation. (The astute noticed he was best at the listening half.)

Folk wondered if he might be an unassuming annuity baby and he left the rumors unchallenged. Other folk wondered if he was on a rural retreat for his health and he half encouraged this; it was so close to the truth.

The pub crowd asked what Marc intended to do with the old Dinwiddie cottage. He said he liked flower gardening, especially irises, and was going to try breeding them as well as growing them. (“Takes a long time.” He replied, “I’ve got that,” an answer much discussed behind his back.)

He added that he was going to do plenty of vegetables out past the wall of the back garden. The folk listening said that would be fine and looked shifty, feeling guilty they had let their own gardening slack.

“Hard time keeping animals out,” someone observed.

“Good point,” he admitted and looked thoughtful.

After passing certain interviews, he set up hives for bumblebees and (discretely) wasps. Up-and-comers moved in. Wasps aren’t supposed to be out at night, when rabbits poach, so the rabbits felt very put-upon, getting stung on their forays, after he started the vegetable gardens.

He was invited over for dinners and invited back. Of course, half the fun of such things is looking at other peoples’ menus in action. His menus were vegetarian, but, “I’m happy to do eggs and dairy,” he assured his guests ,“and beans,” he added with an odd defensiveness.*

The meals were unusual but savory, not off-putting, and the deserts verged on the decadent.

The second half of the fun of such things is using the new clues to speculate about your host. Was he, for instance, gay? Well-groomed young man mainly interested in gardening? “Yeah, but he don’t seem interested in other young men, either. Or women.” “Anyway, there’s all these new gender-things now, bi and aces and cis and such.” “They’re not new!” “Yeah, they are.” “Anyway, we’re cis.” And the rest of the drive home was continued in great pointlessness.

The last word on their host was, “He sure knows how to have fun with potatoes. He give me the recipe.” “Nice.”

Marc was able to make a modest beginner’s contribution to the harvest festival. There, the vicar’s daughter, Judith Wooltallow, deftly and politely tried to feel out his religious views, since he had not been around the church much before this. These views were exceedingly complex but, at the moment, amounted to a humble desire that the One would let him live in peace a while. He flipped the script and asked if something could be done for Mrs. Dinwiddie.

When Judith needed more, he said, “She’s obviously unhappy. About one night in three, she wakes me up, weeping in the bedroom. When I try to talk to her, she shrieks and flies up the chimney. The cold weather’s coming, but I really don’t want to start fires while… Though I don’t suppose it could hurt her. But it’s not … friendly.”

The vicar and his wife were as close to Humanists as possible, and regarded all forms of fringe belief with open disdain. This had naturally bred a lively interest in the subject in their daughter. She and the curate both knew, for instance, that the church housed a churchgrim, and had a gingerly friendship with it.

Judith stared at him openmouthed for a few seconds, then agreed something should be done and she would ask about. She added that it was now clear to her why the cottage had stayed on the market so long. He agreed. “Only emergency medics and cops get a better view of such things.”

“Better than clergy?” she asked.

“It depends on the clergy.” She thought of her parents and nodded.

Two nights later, with Hallowe’en getting near, Marc heard a knock at his door. He opened on a big black dog, like a shaggy XL in black Alsatians. No one with hands wherewith to knock. His own dogs had cut off in mid-clamor. Looking behind, he saw both peering wide-eyed from the kitchen entrance.

Turning back to the newcomer, he asked,”Are you from the vicarage?” It grinned back and held its head high. This brought to attention a tag, a small plate on a coarse length of iron chain collar: DOMINI CANE (“the Lord’s Dog”). Marc stepped back and gestured. “Please come in.”

It padded in, went straight to the hearthrug, and gazed at him expectantly. Fair enough, but that didn’t tell him what was expected. Guessing, he supplied a large saucer of cream and, while it lapped, told the churchgrim all he knew about Mrs. Dinwiddie, which it probably knew already. When it was done, it stretched out and closed its eyes.

“I was just going to do the dishes and go to bed,” he said to it, “unless you’d, uh…”

It flicked its right ear twice, dismissively. Carry on.

He did the dishes (dogs hugging his ankles), then returned. “I’ve thought of something that might help. Toss it if you don’t like it.”

He lay a piece of paper on the table nearest the fire and wrote:

Dear Mrs. Dinwiddie,

Go in peace.

Travel well.

He then laid two old-style pennies on the paper. Over the pennies, in the air, so that the pen point never touched penny or paper, he added the line:

Don’t come back.

There was no hint of magic here; he had done none. But the secret final line was part of the history of the paper now. Maybe it would help. He went to bed.

Somewhere in the deeps of the night, he jolted upright to a noise. Perhaps. What–? Something hit him in the chest. It was one of the cats. It quickly joined the other cat and the dogs, huddled around him under the cover.

He stayed upright, listening and considering. Had he heard a noise? A shriek? Of terror, or of fury? Or, just perhaps, the whoop of delight from a woman who has finally seen the way out.

After a few minutes’ silence, he settled back down, reclaimed some territory under the sheet, and went back to sleep.

Next morning, the churchgrim, the note, and the pennies were gone. The day was autumn-crisp and clear. Marc toured the drowsing garden, picked out a place for the woodpile, and began wondering about a little greenhouse. With the dogs, he looked over the spent vegetable garden, then started on a brisk walk.

He brought trays upon trays of what began to be known as his “special potatoes” to the Guy Fawkes celebration. He helped with greening the church. He listened to a highly ethical Christmas sermon that never mentioned how “peace is put in impossible things / Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings / Round an incredible star,” then joined the congregation in belting out the old, half-pagan, wholly miraculous song-spells. He gifted friends (he had friends!) with astonishing little planters of forced winter irises, miniatures in white and wine red. He saw the New Year in at the pub, having joined friends and neighbors in a slightly bibulous crawl around the neighborhood.

There was the long, slow slog of winter, spent learning useful crafts from his neighbors. There was another annual insurrection against Pastor Wooltallow, on the Matter of Easter.

The anniversary of Marc’s arrival came, and was commented on favorably by several neighbors. (“Glad to have you with us.” “If the Dinwiddies could see what you’ve done with their old place, they’d be proud.” “Don’t just sell it at a profit and skip off, now, right?”)

He glowed. He felt ready, willing, and able to do it all again, many times.


Then, as spring first started to get hot, Jeremy went missing.

Jeremy was the almost-three-year-old son of Mason, a divorced father who had fled back to the village to resume his job as garage mechanic and to escape his ex-wife, real name Fraya but generally called “Ophelia” in the village, for sufficient reason.

With that generally known, it took very little time for the village to start looking for Ophelia. Marc first learned of it in a text on his phone, a channel that normally just warned of bad weather:

Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Jeremy or Ophelia was to please answer the text.

Anyone with ANY useful information was to please answer the text.

Everyone else was to please keep the line clear.

Anyone else with useful information NOT on whereabouts was to please NOT use the line but send information to the constable’s number.


Marc pocketed his phone. He had useful information, or he could get it, but—his breath accelerated—it could mean throwing away this past year and more. It would mean going back behind the wall of numbers, leaving the world of things for the world of counts. If he did that, could he walk out again?

What a blessing he did not have his box.

Blessing. How much blessing must Mason be feeling? How must Jeremy be feeling? What blessing could they expect? Well, he … could offer other help. Get out on search teams. Study a map, figure out where to drive. None of which would be as good. He closed his eyes, inhaled, waited for the decision he already knew.

He sat at his desk, popped open his laptop, and started searching. He needed Jeremy’s true full name. Or it would be a great help. His earlier career had already put him in possession of many interesting search engines. What was the boy’s family name? Look up garages in town, look up the lists of employees. There was Mason: Mason Walsh.

He set his hounds out across the net for Jeremy Walsh. Baptismal records? It didn’t appear he had been baptized. Appeal to Caesar, then: birth records. Jeremy Dylan Walsh.

He noted the spelling, the capitalization, the exact date and time. He cross-referenced to the zodiac bases to find Jeremy’s rising, zenith, and setting stars, and their current positions.

With his head loaded, he loaded the pockets of his jacket and stepped out the door. Last chance to not. Could he even remember how to do a search-sum? All those therapy sessions. No, he could remember. First term, second term, third term. First sum…

He found he had turned left. First term, second term, third term. Second sum…

It was horrifyingly easy to keep up the summing while fishing out his phone to check the map. He glanced in passing at the emergency news: someone had a toy drone out looking around. First term, second term, third term. Third sum…

The wall of numbers was back: every house and car and curve of land came to him as a composition of Platonic solids. He knew how many steps he had taken since he started summing, how many breaths. He felt his heart freezing. First term, second term, third term. Fourth sum…

He should have a sufficient approximation for a useful bearing. There. And range. There. And check the map. First term, second term, third term. Fifth sum…

Now. He called the constable’s number. Constable Joe was bellowing for everyone to be quiet. “Now–” Joe began, but he cut in, “Ophelia is headed west on Canon White Road, back to Lefgate. Moving fast.”

“What?” demanded Joe. “How do you know?”

A perfectly reasonable question Marc had not anticipated. He didn’t have a lie ready. He didn’t want to lie and was terrible at it. It was … naughty, and dangerous to mix with magic, when you are mapping your will to the world. “Like a drone,” he fished up. “I’m on foot,” he added, changing the subject, “near my house on Wistwick Road. So I can’t overtake.”

“I’m on it,” announced Judith.

The seventh sum moved through the back of his mind. Far enough along to extrapolate. Intercept Judith in three minutes, 48 seconds. She must be driving like a madwoman. He cherished the little human observation.

Marc knew himself to be one of three kinds of failed mage. You might simply be not much good at it. You could stagnate, develop a limited bag of tricks and then stop. Or you could be obsessive. That was him. Sometimes—often—such mages refused to regard this as a form of failure. They were fools. Art was not life. You could not live in maps with no territories. You lived in a house, not coordinates.

The terms came slower as you went on, but they were no harder for him. The interpretations were still second-nature. He felt a little sour pride in that. Tenth sum.

He had walked away, a bit over a year ago. Quit cold-turkey. Could he do it again? There was a group that met in the church basement to help each other not drink. He couldn’t very well stand up among them and announce, “I’m Marc and I’m a Pythagorean.”

Twelfth sum. Behind him was the growing hum of Judith’s jeep. Thirty-three seconds to intercept. Thirty-two…

She meant to pull up next to him so he could board, but, caught up in the spell, she didn’t stop, just slowed. He opened the passenger door and hopped in, never looking at her. Really cool, the back of her mind thought.

“Still on Canon White,” he announced. “Intercept in six minutes and a bit.”

What? She looked him over for a drone control or the like, but there was only the thousand-yard stare. She shrugged and accelerated.

A few seconds later, she began, “How do you–?” but he cut her off, saying only, “Five minutes, 54 seconds now.”

Soon, they came to Canon White Road and she turned left for Lefgate. Ahead was a pale yellow dot. She decided Constable Joe and the Lord would see her through this, and piled it on. She had always envied Constable Joe’s job more than her father’s, and here was opportunity glittering gold.

The extrapolation had taken account of her then-future decision to pile it on. That was what made extrapolation so dangerous: you could not change what you foreknew. You were stuck with it, good or bad. He had, with practiced determination, not looked beyond the moment of intercept.

The vicar’s daughter thought she half-recognized the little yellow car ahead. Anyway, there was no one else about, and he seemed so sure. Caution began to struggle with exhilaration in her mind. It was getting on for the magic six-minute mark. “I don’t think she knows we’re tailing her,” she said to the thousand-yard stare. “If she does and panics, something awful–“

She inhaled a shriek. He had pulled a revolver out of his pocket, leaned out the window, and shot.

A back tire of the yellow car collapsed, followed by the whole wheel. Two seconds later, both cars were halted. He jumped out of the jeep a bit before that and dashed up to the yellow car.

She arrived a few seconds later to find three shrieking people. Well, only Ophelia was really shrieking. (How nice that it was Ophelia and not some random stranger.) Jeremy was crying and didn’t seem particularly traumatized to her eyes, expert from years of Sunday-schooling. Her erstwhile gunner was stuck in a cycle of dry sobs, as he looked Jeremy over with obsessive care. He had got past the intercept without disaster.

The car was still running. She reached across, turned it off, and pocketed the keys. Ophelia’s shrieking took on a wailing note and she started to fumble at her seat belt. This caused Judith to notice the bitch had not bothered to buckle Jeremy in, much less provide a baby seat—just popped him in and, apparently, gunned it.

She dashed over to the driver’s side. Being of a constabulary disposition, she had brought along some pull-ties. She used them to bind the distracted Ophelia’s wrists to the steering wheel. The shrieking doubled. On the other hand, the dry sobs had faded away. “Take him away from this woman!” she commanded.

As she helped him gather the boy up, she asked, “How did you do that shot?”

He had no resources left over for feigning. “There’s a gift called Perfect Accuracy.”

“That’s not one the Holy Spirit gives out.”

“No. No, it’s not.”

“And gifts are free. This seems to have a cost.” Because he was still shaking and pale, and looked like he was trying to decide if he had appendicitis.

Marc slung Jeremy’s head over his shoulder, found his balance, and began striding as fast as he could. Jeremy worked down to a steady snuffling. “We’ll take you to daddy,” he told the boy. He wasn’t certain how much language the boy had, but it couldn’t hurt. Jeremy appeared to take no heed. He pounded on.

He was in much better shape than when he arrived, but force-marching with Jeremy began to take its toll. He kept on forcing.

A voice said beside him, “You will collapse seventeen minutes from now, from emotional hysteria, if you keep on at that rate.” Turning, he saw a tall woman striding easily beside him. She wore a sweeping, gauzy gown, and a wide-brimmed hat with silk roses. Above her head, she carried an embroidered parasol with seventeen divisions. All her garb was in tones of light grey. Her eyes and hair were dark—perhaps dark grey. Her skin was almost too fair to be human and flawless over an expression of calm interest. She sounded no tread and cast no shadow.

“I have never seen you before,” he said, slowing his march, “but I recognize you.”

She nodded. “We have met often, in other ways. Now that you take a sabbatical, it is appropriate that we meet in a new way. This is how I appeared when last in this mode. Stop and sit with the child.”

He obeyed and looked up at her. “We are still on good terms?”

“We are. Insofar as we are beings at all, we owe much of our entity to the attention of you actualites. We have had the choice of good and evil set before us and have chosen good—to be benign to you. We part in peace. If we meet again, we will meet in peace.”

He let out a long sigh and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, she was gone. Just in case, he said his thank-you’s.


In the end, Ophelia was hauled away raving, Jeremy and his father were given considerably more help, Judith avoided official reprimand because everyone kept citing “the emergency situation,” and no one quite got around to asking how Marc had done his tracking.

Except Constable Joe. He came by and, “as a courtesy,” gave Marc a copy of the official report. There was nothing in it about gunfire; the car was supposed to have blown out its own tire in the chase. Joe did ask Marc how he had done his tracking. Marc sputtered, did not like to lie to Joe, tried to suggest clever use of a satellite imaging app, and nodded grateful agreement when Joe asked, “Is it like when they bring in a dowser to find a dead body?” As mentioned, cops, along with nurses and doctors, real estate agents, and the right kind of cleric, are not wholly unacquainted with the very odd.

“Yes. A lot like that. I … will dowse for the living or the dead, if you ask, but…”

Joe smiled, rose, and shook his hand. “We’re not some murder-mystery village. Doubt it’ll come up. What are you planting in your back forty, there?”


Marc got involved early with work on the next harvest festival. It had just become sincerely autumnal when he invited all the folk involved to his house for a planning-session-plus-party. So many people were hardly needed for the planning, but that was where the “plus-party” came in.

The house was already full of cheerful chatter, but the dogs still alerted him when the pizza delivery guy arrived. He bore three boxes of jumbo sixteen-slice pizzas. Marc found the labels illegible, so he opened them to ascertain contents. “Ground beef and pepperoni for the carnivorous. Half broccoli and cheese for the opposition, and half mushroom-and-onion. Half multiple cheese and half– Huh.”

Laid across the face of the third pizza was a stray slice. “Wonder how that got there,” the delivery guy said. “Well, there you go: a seventeen-slice pizza.”

“Yes,” Marc agreed, smiling bemusedly. He fished up the slice. It was another multiple-cheese concoction, but a different color, so you couldn’t assume the contents. No telling the number of ingredients, or what kind. No telling the number.

He paid the man while chowing down the slice. “Thank you,” he said, as the man made his exit. He broke the crust and tossed it to the dogs. “Thank you,” he said again, out into the night.

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