S T U F F

Fermat's Last Stand
The detective, Jake Binneli, sought answers. His partner would officially be on disciplinary leave for two more weeks, so he'd be alone on this one. But, this was Philadelphia and officially didn't mean shit, rules were sometimes bent to conform to the demands of circumstance, a good enough rationalization as any.

He'd recently left the crime scene, nothing more to be discovered there that he could see. Later, after he'd gathered more information, he'd return when the hoopla had died; sit quiet and take it all in. That worked for him sometimes. Alone he could focus on the vic's last moments, the immediate atmosphere might reveal something of importance not noticed in the quick run through in the beginning, when the crime scene investigators and police and coroners were tromping all over the place.

The body of a young woman, a coed, had been found early that morning in the school library on the floor near the stacks devoted to science and mathematics, the vicitm of a single gunshot to the back of the head, assasination style. He'd have to wait for the M.E.'s report to know if she'd been raped. No shell casings or signs of a struggle. Except for the blood spatter on the rug and some books, it was neat and clean. And no witnesses.

During vacation break the library was fairly deserted. Apparently she'd been alone far in the back of the top floor, the one reserved for graduate students. Her purse hadn't been taken and money and credit cards were still in a side pocket of her suede jacket. He held one piece of evidence in his hand, an enigma he was sure no one in the precinct would be able to decipher. He'd have to ask her professors; she'd been a graduate student in the mathematics department.

The piece of tablet paper had been curled in her hand. The note read simply: A to a prime power is congruent to A modulo that prime. What the hell? Did it have anything to do with her death or was it simply something she'd been working on at the university? He needed to find out so he arranged a meeting with her advisor, a Doctor Wilkinson.

He rendezvoused with his partner, Mary Ann Foley, at the diner where they usually had breakfast. They were both divorced and living alone, Foley had a cat named Jezebel. He filled her in on the particulars as they drove to the University of Pennsylvania, a sprawling campus located midtown. Traffic was abysmal so Foley had plenty of time to stare blankly at the note found in the vic's hand.

"What the hell is this?" she blurted between bites on a sugar donut.

"That's what I said," shot back Binneli. "It can't have anything to do with her gettin' killed." He leaned on his horn and cursed. "Could it?"

"I don't see how, but, stranger shit has happened." She sipped coffee through a straw, a habit that always irked Binneli, especially in midtown traffic.

"Why don't you drink like a human, for Christ's sake. Aren't you embarrassed?"

"No," she laughed. "At least I don't spill it all over myself like a pig."

"Pig? That only happens when you drive." He blared the horn again as he turned onto 34th street.

"Park there," Foley pointed with her straw. "There, what are you, blind? There."

He pulled in front-first and jammed the brakes; her container of coffee almost flew out of her hand. She gave him one hard disgusted look and opened the door. It was going to be one of those days, she thought.

It was spring break and only the most dedicated of students was on campus. They asked several where the math department was located before finally running into someone who could actually give coherent directions. Just because they couldn't afford to go away, like to Fort Lauderdale or some such, didn't mean party time wasn't going on.

The outer office of Doctor Wilkinson consisted of three desk-sized tables covered with papers in folders, stacks of books precariously arranged and loose sheets containing what appeared to be equations, figures and graphs. A long bulletin board filled one wall; it too was almost covered. Some notifications and announcements were clearly outdated, an audit was needed. Binneli knocked on the inner sanctum door, the opaque glass top-center rattled a bit. After a few seconds the door opened and there stood a short, roundish bespeckled man with a receding hairline, offset by bushy eyebrows, and cropped beard. Somehow he managed to look distinguished. His eyes, thought Jake, sharp enough to bore through lead.

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A Day In The Life Of...
It was spring, the field mice had overrun his small, hole-riddled trailer set in the dense woods near a narrow, shallow, yet fast-moving river. He had been kept awake all night long by the sounds of their foraging, sitting up to shine his flashlight in the general vicinity of a disturbance whenever it got too annoying, then screaming at the offender to scare it out, a temporary cessation, very temporary. So, he laid in his bunk, just waiting for the next mouse scratching and shuffling amidst an otherwise still and quiet night, the faint rushing sound of the river in the background.

Around dawn he was exhausted and felt defeated, his nerves worn thin. He had no traps and no money to buy any. It had been three days since he'd eaten, all he had was coffee which he drank constantly, it added to his already frazzled temper. He was ready to raise the white flag. That morning, he sat outside in a lawn chair purchased at a thrift store the previous fall. The sun brought solace, comfort, and warmth after a long winter of what seemed like continuous rain and chill. He sat very still, sipping coffee, watching the butterflies, bees, and birds going about their business. They looked purposeful, they had jobs to do and no time to waste. Time was all he had, and he was very good at letting it slip through his fingers. He wanted someone to visit him, but nobody ever did. He was alone with the birds and the butterflies and the mice and the river.

He had long since stopped trying to direct his thoughts in any kind of meaningful way. Memories and images welled-up unbidden; he treated them with indifference as though they were someone else's for whom he didn't care.

He sat this way for most of the morning, nobody came, there were no sounds except for an occasional bird and, of course, the river. He wished he was part of the river, he wished he could just walk into it and become one with it, going wherever it went, cascading over rocks, slipping quickly past the banks, onward to the sea. He roused himself to walk down that way and stood on the bank watching its swiftness and certainty, it decisiveness. The river harbored no doubts about itself, it knew what it was and reveled in it; it had power and purpose and meaning.

He closed his eyes to listen, trying to absorb and infuse his soul with the sense of it. For a moment he forgot himself, letting the strength and determination of the river saturate his dried-up and depleted spirit. Then it passed; he stood detached, separate, and alone.

Suddenly, a gust of wind from downriver ruffled the thick brush along the banks; the towering fir, cedar, and maple began to sway causing him to look up. A solitary twig broke loose, falling silently to the forest floor, one among many already there, lost in the confusion. Then, as quickly as the wind had arrived, it too passed and all grew still again. The self-contained bubble of air seemed also to have purpose, to be on a mission of its own, traveling fast with no time to dawdle.

He walked back up the hill to return to his chair in the secluded clearing in front of the trailer; he poured himself yet another cup of coffee, now lukewarm.

He sat very still, the sun coursed the blue sky, the butterflies and birds continued about their business; nobody came to visit, he didn't care. A mysterious peace filled him, he was no longer anxious and unnerved, no longer worried and uncertain.

He sat in the sun sipping coffee listening to the river as the Earth slowly turned under him.

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