I doubted that. "Give me an example," I said. "Certainly," she replied, eager for the invitation. "One of the tools we use to compare fractal objects is the concept of fractal dimension. For example, the coastline of Great Britain has a fractal dimension of approximately one point two-five, but the more rugged coastline of Norway has a fractal dimension of better than one point five-six."
"I'll take your word for it." "I'm sorry." She sighed. "I've probably told you more than you need to know. I hope I haven't bored you."
"No, it's interesting." Not as interesting as the way her delicate bra straps traversed her bony shoulders, but interesting nonetheless. "This will all make sense in a minute. I promise." She sipped her coffee, and I noticed a silver Navajo bracelet on her right arm. No wedding ring on either hand.
"Take your time," I urged. Despite my strong preference that people get right to the point, experience had taught me that the best way to conduct an interview was to shut up and listen. "As I said," she continued, "my specialty is fractal geometry." I noted the Ph.D. from Harvard on the wall to my right. "Last year I began working on a paper I intended to present at a conference this fall. It's publish or perish, you know."
"So I've heard."
"When I completed my draft, I wanted someone else to critique it." She finished her coffee and set the mug to one side. "The last thing you want to do is publish a paper that contains a flaw."
"So you have your colleagues read it in advance to see if they can poke holes in it?"
"Yes, but my colleagues here wouldn't be much help. Fractal geometry is a rather narrow specialty, so I compiled a list of five of the most respected people in the field and attempted to contact them to see if they would be willing to critique it." Her slender neck became visibly tense and I thought she might be having trouble breathing.
"Are you all right?" I asked. She took a deep breath and nodded affirmatively.
"Mr. Keane," she continued, "when I attempted to contact these people, I learned that two had been murdered and a third had committed suicide." "Over what span of time?"
"All within six months of each other," she said. "Do you know the odds against that?" It was a rhetorical question, but I had a hunch she could tell me the odds right down to the decimal point if she wanted to.
"And you want me to find out if these deaths were related?" "Yes."
"Did you report this to anyone?" I asked. "I called the police." "And they said it wasn't their problem?" "Yes, because none of the deaths had taken place in Boulder. They suggested I call the FBI."
"Did you?" "Yes." "They do anything?"
"Not from my point of view," she said coldly. "Two agents from Denver interviewed me. I explained that the odds of it being a coincidence were astronomical. Six weeks later they told me they couldn't find any connection and had closed the case." Her nostrils flared. She was not a woman accustomed to being taken lightly.
"When was that?" I asked. "About two weeks ago. I've been struggling with what to do ever since."
"Did you know any of the victims?" "I knew Carolyn Chang. We met at a conference in San Francisco a few summers ago."
"Did you stay in touch after that?" "Not really," she admitted. "We exchanged Christmas cards, that's about it." We were silent for a moment, perhaps both recalling the names and faces of people who had briefly been friends but had long since been consigned to the category of memories.
"And," she said suddenly, "she sent me a note last year complimenting me on something I'd written for one of the journals. That's the only time someone ever took the time to do that." She seemed on the verge of tears, and I wondered how long it would take her to remove a tissue from the ceramic dispenser on her desk. Like her coffee mug, it boasted a colorful Southwestern design. "Did you know the others?"
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Cohen
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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