Customer fifty-seven approached the counter and collected her burger and fries. I stopped paying attention after hearing the number; she wasn’t relevant.

“You ever wonder what the order of the numbers means? They never just go in order.” Mary asked. It wasn’t a question I expected to hear from someone who didn’t already know.

“Well,” I answered, “if you sum the digits in fifty-seven you get twelve, the mystic number of completeness. So they’re probably saying that they successfully accomplished whatever the last secret message said to do.”

“Funny. And what would that be?”

“I don’t know; I didn’t hear the numbers.”

“What’s forty-three?”

“I don’t know. It’s prime, it sums to seven, forty and three are both numerologically significant…whatever it means, this one is probably important.”

“Couldn’t those be coincidence?”
“No, they’ve had centuries to pick the best meanings for each number. There haven’t been coincidences in a long time.”

“All right, I’ll play along. If you’re right about those meaning it’s important, there’s probably some other message for it to be a more emphatic version of. What number could that be?”
“It’s got to be something that isn’t prime, doesn’t sum to seven, but does have some connection to 43. And it can’t be too numerologically significant itself, or there’s no need for a stronger version of it.”

I started cycling through numbers in my head, checking their numerologies. I’m not great at this, but I’ve had some practice.

“How close to 43 should it be?” she asked, before I got very far.

“Good point.” I hadn’t thought of that. The numbers tend to move upward, and are generally fairly close together. They could only get away with deviating a few numbers up or down. If they skipped from 20 to 70, people might get suspicious.

“They have to be able to pick between 43 or whatever the other number is, so it must be pretty close. Say between 33 and 53?”

“It should be closer than that. If their margin of error is 10, then any time they were saying numbers around 53 they’d be able to say 43 but not a number near 33. Maybe forty-three plus or minus five, so 43 is in range any time this number is.” Mary’s a sharp one.

“38? 38 and 43 are both considered unlucky numbers. Maybe something’s going wrong for them.”
“Very wrong, if that’s it. They picked the prime number that sums to seven and all that.”
“I hope it didn’t go too wrong. I still want my burger.”

Maybe I should explain more. I was trying to investigate a conspiracy, a group I knew only as Them. I knew more about them than probably any other outsider, and that was still barely anything. I knew they were running some secret organization under cover of a fast food restaurant, and that they were using the numbers to communicate. And that was about it. Who they were communicating with, I couldn’t say. I didn’t even know their goals, or how powerful they were, or much of anything really. The only information I had was stuff I had overheard or conned them out of or, in one case, stolen.

Mary: “Hey, let’s try this with our order numbers. What do you have?”

“48. It’s pretty boring mathematically. Mystically, it means mental superiority, deduction, and logic, but it’s not considered a lucky number because it doesn’t imply anything about how it turns out when you try to use the information.”

“So is that supposed to describe you?”

“Not really. It just means that the time when I get my order is determined by when they want to send a secret message involving that description.”

“I have 47. Prime is good, right?”

“I like prime. 47 is a prime, a cousin prime, a sexy prime, a safe prime, and another sexy prime all at once, so I’d say it’s a pretty good number.”

“That’s mine; I’ll be right back.” I left, showed my receipt, picked up my order, and went back to my seat.

“But 47 is pretty bad numerologically, right?” Mary said. “Bad luck and warnings and all that.”

We have an order ready for Mary Celeste, Mary Celeste we have your order.

She got up to go, and I got to thinking. They called her up by name. I had been watching them on and off for years, and had never seen them do that. So they definitely knew who she was. And she didn’t react when they used her name, so she must have already known they knew her. She must be one of them. So they knew who I was, and this was a trap. Not good. But they didn’t know that I knew they knew me, so I still had an advantage. Temporarily.

I had to do something. As long as they didn’t know I knew my cover was blown, they’d think that anything I did was part of a plan. Could be useful for keeping the upper hand.

I marched up to the counter, keeping my face turned at a particular angle and ignoring the line, and said “Excuse me. I’d like to order something off the secret menu, please.”

The agent behind it didn’t break character. He just said something along the lines of “order what?” and gestured vaguely at the line I was still ignoring. I noticed that his right hand was inching closer to the point I identified as most likely to hide a silent alarm.

“This isn’t about food.” I had thought he would have gotten the hint. “I said the secret menu.” He didn’t respond. Maybe my cover hadn’t been blown after all. Too late; it was blown by now. “Whatever.” I gave up on plausible deniability. “Beware the green monkey.”

That got his attention. He moved his hand away from where the alarm might have been and apologized for not recognizing me. He used the word sir, which I found funny. I was enjoying knowing that that password still worked, but then I heard the voice over the speakers.

Ninety-one. They had only counted up to the sixties so far, so this one was a big jump. There couldn’t have been a customer 91 yet, so it was definitely a secret message. Under the circumstances, it was probably about me. Ninety-one is the only two-digit number that looks prime but isn’t, so they must have seen through me. Again.

And I was out of ideas. “Well, Mary,” I said, “what’s all this about, anyway? I know you’re behind it.” I didn’t turn around; no reason to show the security cameras my face. They almost definitely already had me, but old habits die hard.

Mary’s voice came from behind me. “How did you figure that out?”

When asked that type of question, it’s usually safer to lie. “You knew a lot more Chaldean numerology than someone who wasn’t involved would.”

“Oh. It wasn’t because they used my name? You were supposed to pick up on that.”

I changed the subject. “So what happens now? You have your people dispose of me and keep going unopposed?”

“Actually, this was less of a trap and more of an audition. I was hoping to offer you a job.”

She told me some story about what their organization is trying to do, and her explanation of why I should be on their side was good enough that I could plausibly pretend to have been converted. She (and They) can’t have missed that I’m still trying to investigate them, but they haven’t interfered in any way that I’ve noticed.

So, that’s how I wound up here, working for a conspiratorial organization with dubious goals and unknown methods. Anyway, you want fries with that?