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The visitors' lots were full, so I parked my aging F-150 in a faculty lot. I ejected my Creedence tape, placed my "U.S. Government-Official Business" sign above the dash, and set out for the math building. I no longer worked for the government, but I'd paid enough taxes during my legal career to consider myself an honorary employee.
I had spent seven years at the university, but that was long ago and I'd taken great pains to avoid math classes. Now I was a private eye in search of a math professor. Unable to find anything resembling a campus map, I finally asked for directions. The first kid wasn't much help. But for the safety pin fastened to his left eyebrow, he looked like a neo-Nazi skinhead. He had no idea where the math building was and his surly demeanor suggested disgust at the notion that anyone would want to find it. I shook my head and said a prayer for the gene pool.
The next man I approached was a foreigner, probably Nigerian. Skin black as coal, trace of a British accent. He was polite and possessed a wonderful smile, but sent me on a trek that took me past the old field house-where I'd spent many an afternoon running sprints-and ended up at the alumni relations office. I could've sought directions there, but I hadn't contributed to my alma mater since changing occupations and I feared some eager assistant might strike up a conversation that would end with a plea for my time and/or money.
The third time was a charm. She was a studious-looking young woman with dark eyes who stared at her feet and talked to herself as she walked. She wore black jeans, a black vest over a gray T-shirt, and black shoes with crepe soles. Her hair was long, dark, and in need of conditioner. The lost daughter of Morticia Addams. She said she was a math major and gave me detailed directions.
It was the first Monday in May. Seventy-six degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Frisbees flew, stereos blasted, and leggy coeds abounded. I recalled the night Scott McCutcheon and I had sculpted a giant snow penis in front of the administration building.
Probably not the first college freshmen to engage in such foolery, but a fond memory nonetheless. It seemed like just yesterday, but more than twenty years had passed. Time passes more quickly as you age, but that's one of the disadvantages of growing up.
The math building, a three-story fortress, was right where dark eyes had said it would be. Not far from where I'd parked. I had expected it to be named the Chester Q. Hollings worth Hall of Mathematics or some such thing, but the sign above the entrance read simply, mathematics building. It was a newer structure, but the design was consistent with that of most others on campus.
Exterior walls consisting of long slabs of rough-cut Colorado sandstone, all capped with a red tile roof. This warm architectural style dominated the campus and created an atmosphere reminiscent of a rural Italian village.
I entered unafraid. I was forty-four years old and nobody was going to ask me to bisect an angle or test my ability to solve a quadratic equation. That's one of the advantages of growing up. There aren't many, so I savored it.
The inside was about what you'd expect. The walls were covered with announcements and advertisements of every sort-typing services, bands in town, something about the Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance, a sign touting an upcoming lecture by a visiting professor, and so forth. One bulletin board was devoted exclusively to graduate programs at other universities. It was plastered with glossy posters and brochures. A young man wearing a pocket protector and carrying a beat-up briefcase studied them with interest. Probably the next Unabomber.
The lobby directory indicated the office of "Jayne Smyers, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Mathematics," was on level three. I took the stairs two at a time in my gray summer suit, hit the third floor, and started down a narrow hallway. It looked and sounded devoid of life. I glanced in each open office I passed, but only one man looked up. Tall, blond, and in good shape. The nameplate on his door identified him as "Stephen Finn, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Mathematics." Papers covered his desk. He couldn't have been much older than twenty-seven, but his wire-rimmed glasses gave him a maturity beyond his years. "Can I help you?" he asked.
Not hostile, but not friendly. My presence had broken his concentration. "I'm looking for Professor Smyers," I said.
"Four doors down, on the right," he said with a forced smile. He pointed for me.
"Thanks," I replied. He did not immediately return to his work, and I felt his curious gaze as I continued down the hall.
I arrived at 3:20 p. m.-five minutes late. She was seated behind her desk and immersed in an academic journal of some sort.
"Pepper Keane." She rose from her chair and extended her right hand. I shook it. She was as tall as me and thin as a rail.
Thirtyish. Luxurious dark hair-straight, full of body, and worn short, but not so short as to be butch. She'd been blessed with high cheekbones and white teeth. Bright blue eyes. Small, firm breasts. Smooth, milky skin. She wore designer jeans and a white cotton blouse. Except for pink lipstick, I detected no makeup.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice," she said. "I'm sorry I'm late," I replied. "It took a while to find a parking space."
"Yes," she agreed, "parking is a real problem here. Sometimes even the faculty lots are full." I smiled, said nothing. She motioned to two sturdy wooden chairs in front of her desk and said, "Please, sit down." Feeling liberal, I took the one on the left.
It was a typical faculty office. Small, equipped with an old metal desk and black filing cabinets. Linoleum floor tiles designed to resemble white marble were partially covered by a Navajo rug. Bookcases overflowing with textbooks and professional journals.
She had made an effort to decorate it by placing cacti here and there. National Public Radio was barely audible on the small radio by the window behind her. There was one poster. It proclaimed: "A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle." I hadn't seen one of those in at least fifteen years.
"Would you like some coffee?" she asked. I noticed a small coffee maker on one of the shelves to her right. The kind that brews only two cups at a time. There was also an electric grinder and a package of gourmet beans. She bought her coffee at Starbucks. I usually buy mine at the Texaco.
"No, thanks." "You sound like you have a cold. Can I make you some tea?" "Really," I said, "I'm fine." I had downed forty-four ounces of diet Coke on the drive down and didn't figure to need liquids for awhile.
She poured some coffee into a mug and said, "It's one of my few vices." The mug boasted a colorful Southwestern design featuring a coyote howling at the moon.
"Everyone needs a few vices," I said. She forced a smile and sipped her coffee. "You're probably wondering what this is all about?"
"Well, Professor, I have to admit you've aroused my curiosity." She'd told me nothing on the phone, saying only that she would prefer to discuss it in person.
"I apologize for the secrecy," she said, "but I've never been involved in something like this." She paused. "Would you mind closing the door?" I reached back, gave it a good push, and listened as the latch found its place in the metal doorjamb. She took a deep breath, leaned forward, extended her long arms across the desk, and clasped her hands together. Her nails were short, but she wore polish and it matched her lipstick.
"Do you know much about mathematics?" she asked. "Not much," I said. "I took calculus twenty-five years ago and it was the low point of my academic career." She forced another smile. "My specialty," she said, "is fractal geometry. Do you know what a fractal is?"
"A fractal," she said, "is a type of geometric shape." She paused. "I don't know quite how to explain it to you." She tilted her head slightly, paused again, then said, "Picture a coastline." "Okay." I didn't know much about geometry, but I'd been a marine officer for three years and I knew about coastlines.
"If we take a small section of that coastline, we can use a straight line to represent it on a map. But if we look closely at that section, we will see that it is made up of many small inlets and peninsulas, right?"
"Sure, and each inlet and peninsula has its own smaller bay sand headlands."
"Yes," she said, "that's exactly right." She sipped her coffee. "And if we continue to look at smaller and smaller sections of the coastline, we'll find that this pattern is always present." "Right down to the last grain of sand."
"Yes. That's the interesting thing about fractal objects: Their pattern remains more or less the same no matter how closely you examine them."
"So a fractal is just a shape with a random pattern?" I took the white handkerchief from my pants pocket, blew my nose, folded it gently, and placed it back in my trousers.
"Not a random pattern," she said, "an irregular pattern. Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as a random pattern. The two words are inconsistent. It's an oxymoron, like military intelligence."
I let that pass without comment, though my high and tight haircut should've suggested I had once served in uniform.
"You're saying the shape of a coastline is not random?" "Not in a mathematical sense," she said. "Each point on a coastline is linked with the points next door. If it were truly random, one point would have no relationship to the next. Instead of gradual curves, you'd see lines going all over the place. One point might be up here, the next might be way down there."
"Okay," I said, "I'll buy that." I waited for her to continue, confident that sooner or later the reason for my presence would become apparent.
"Did you study geometry in high school?" "Tenth grade." I wondered what Mrs. Clagett was doing these days. Probably in the Aspen Siesta nursing home suffering recurring nightmares about McCutcheon and me.
"The problem with traditional geometry," she continued, "is that triangles, squares, and circles are abstract concepts. You can't use them to describe the shape of things like mountains, clouds, or trees."
"Or a coastline."
"Or a coastline," she agreed. She was becoming more animated; she clearly enjoyed the subject. "Traditional geometry-what we call Euclidean geometry-has to ignore the crinkles and swirls of the real world because they are irregular and can't be described by standard mathematical formulas. Then, about twenty years ago, a man named Mandelbrot invented something we call fractal geometry."
"Fractal geometry," I repeated. I sensed the lesson was nearing its conclusion.
"Mandelbrot realized that although many natural phenomena appear to be chaotic, there is frequently a hidden order in them. In fact, he called fractal geometry the geometry of nature." Another sip of coffee. "No two coastlines are identical, yet they all possess the same general shape, so there is a certain order there. Do you follow me?"
"I think so."
"Fractal geometry provides a way to identify patterns where there appears to be disorder. It allows us to model and predict the behavior of complex systems. It's a language," she said. "Once you speak it, you can describe the shape of a coastline as precisely as an architect can describe a house."
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.
Excerpted from The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen Copyright © 2004 by Mark Cohen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 20, 2007
University of Colorado math professor Jayne Smyers hires Pepper Keane, former Marine JAG turned PI, to investigate the deaths of three other math professors. The Feds have investigated and found no link between the deaths. Jayne is convinced there's a link. Pepper is skeptical at first but agrees to look into it. There's plenty of bad blood between Pepper and FBI agent Polk who did some of the investigating. This history adds to Pepper's determination to investigate these deaths. As Pepper digs deeper into the deaths, he begins to see some similar threads that continue to propel him forward. With romance in the air, Pepper worries that Jayne may be the next victim. Can he decipher the pattern and unmask the killer before anyone else is killed? Can he protect Jayne as well? I thoroughly enjoyed this refreshing mystery. Pepper is a fabulous character, even with his baggage. It is explained throughout the book, so we aren't left floundering. His interactions with Polk, Jayne, detectives where each mathematician was killed, his brother, his neighbors, and his best friend really help us to get to know him. I found the math to be explained in plain English so that it was easy to understand. It also didn't detract from the investigation it actually enhanced it. I am not a mathematician, but I really enjoyed this book. I hope he writes more in this series. I can't wait to read them. I highly recommend this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 21, 2004
Cohen's protagonist, Pepper Keane, is a former Marine JAG turned private eye who lives in a hippie community west of Boulder, Colorado, with his two dogs - Buck and Wheat. Keane is a tough guy who can wisecrack with the best of them - and often does - but he is also an introspective idealist who secrety reads philosophy for fun. He has an encylopedic knowledge of music trivia and a Diet Coke addiction. When math professor Jayne Smyers discovers that three other mathematicians, all specialists in fractal geometry, all died under mysterious circumstances, she notifies the FBI. When the feds conclude the deaths were unrelated, the attractive (and single) Jayne hires Pepper to find the connection. With his sidekick, a hot-headed unemployed astrophysicist named 'Two toe' McCutcheon,Pepper begins looking for clues on a journey that takes him to a national forest in the middle of Nebraska, a city in Kansas known for black squirrels (or 'Squirrels of Color'), and the math department at Harvard, to name a few. As the clues add up, the suspects multiply, but ultimately the best bet to be the bad guy is the very FBI agent that told Jayne the three deaths were unrelated. And that agent, Mike Polk, just happens to have been Pepper's classmate in law school -- a long-time enemy that Pepper still holds responsible for his girlfriend's death 20 years ago. Don't let the math bother you. Cohen has a gift for explaining complex concepts through dialogue that any six year-old could understand. I learned more about math and philosophy from this book than I did in four years of college, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Cohen's wit and writing ability are evident on every page. My only criticism is that the book leaves you hanging at the end because you are dying to know whether Pepper and Jayne are going to get together. Evidently Cohen is saving this for a sequel. Pepper Keane is what you might get if you could combine the writing of Robert B. Parker, Kinky Friedman, and Bertrand Russell with the punching power of Mike Tyson and the wry wit of Mark Twain.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 30, 2004
University of Colorado math professor Jayne Smyers sent her paper on fractal geometry to five of her peers. However, three are unable to respond because they died within a few months of one another. Jayne, used to finding patterns where none seemingly exist, believes the probability of this pattern in her relatively small populated field too astronomical to consider as random................................... She hires former US Marine¿s judge magistrate Pepper Keane to set aside his Gordon Lightfoot collection and investigate the three deaths. The link seems nebulous at best with the only commonality being math. However, Pepper becomes a bit suspicious of FBI Agent Mike Polk, who insists coincidence is the only connection since parallel lines never meet. Pepper realizes that his hatred for Post might be causing him to see a radically different pattern as he blames the Denver based agent for the death of his lover, but feels that contrary to Euclid these parallel cases connect at a vertex, which leads back to Post.................................. Mark Cohen furbishes an entertaining private investigative tale that provides fascinating insight into fractal geometry. Snowflakes and shorelines aside, the mystery is fun to follow as Pepper looks for the pattern that ties the dead trio together while Jayne explains her expertise to him even as he hungers for a closer look at her shape. Don¿t let the geometry keep you from reading an enjoyable solid analytical mystery that plainly works on several hyperbolic levels with a final twist in which the sum of the angles of a triangle do not equal 180 degrees...................... Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 28, 2011
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