"Only by reputation," she said. She started to reach for a tissue, but caught herself. She would not cry. "I'd read some of their papers," she continued, "and seen their names in professional journals. You have to understand, these were some of the most brilliant people in the field. Professor Fontaine's textbook is the bible of fractal geometry."
"You never met them or spoke with them on the phone?" "No."
"Ever correspond with them?" "No."
I leaned back and laced my fingers together behind my head. "You said you had planned to ask five experts to critique your paper?"
"Yes." "And three are dead?" "Yes."
"Who were the other two?" "Norbert Solomon at LSU and Mimi Townsend at MIT." A math professor named Mimi? "Did they review it?"
"Yes." "Anyone else?" "I've asked several others to look at it. I still expect to present it this fall."
I closed my eyes for a moment to process what I'd learned. "How many people in this country would you say are experts in fractal geometry?"
"I think most major universities now offer at least one course in the subject." My years as a trial lawyer had so conditioned me that my first instinct was to rise and object to her answer as non-responsive.
But I didn't. She wasn't on the witness stand and I was no longer practicing law. I rephrased the question.
"Would it be correct to say that not everyone who teaches a basic course in fractal geometry is an expert?" "Yes, I suppose that's true."
I leaned forward. "How many people really know this stuff?" I asked. "How many people know it well enough to critique your paper or write a textbook?"
"Gosh," she said, "I don't know. Fifty?" "Okay," I said, "can you think of anything that distinguishes these three from the other forty-seven?"
"Well," she said, "Fontaine was certainly one of the best-known people in the field." "And the others?"
"They were all highly regarded." "Any other connection?" I asked.
She opened a folder on her desk and removed some papers.
"It may not be anything," she said, "but each of them attended or taught at Harvard." She handed me three biographies she'd apparently photocopied from some sort of who's who in mathematics. I studied them.
"It doesn't appear there was any overlap," I finally said. "Fontaine left Harvard while Carolyn Chang would've still been in high school."
She finished her coffee and poured more. "Yes, I noticed that." Her intellect recognized the significance of the fact, but her voice told me the Harvard connection concerned her.
"I'm sure many experts in fractal geometry spent time at Harvard," I said.
"I keep reminding myself of that, but it hasn't stopped me from having some sleepless nights." I suspected guzzling high-octane coffee late in the afternoon wasn't helping the problem, but I kept that to myself.
"Okay," I said, "each of these people taught fractal geometry, each was highly regarded, and each spent time at Harvard. Aside from those things, can you think of any other connection?"
"No," she sighed, "I've been racking my brain about that, but I just can't come up with anything."
I closed my eyes and massaged my temples. "So," I finally said, "three math professors are dead, two of whom you never met." "Yes."
"But you're willing to spend your own money to determine if there's a connection?"
"There is a connection," she shot back. "Besides, if I don't do it, who will?" I thought for a moment. The same logic had governed my actions more than once.
"How did you pick me?" I asked. "I was impressed by your ad. Law degree. Federal prosecutor. I didn't see any other investigators with those credentials." "It doesn't mean I'll find anything."
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Cohen
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