The Novel of Financial Deception
Enters Its Third Year Online
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Casing Wal-Mart
Miller Risk Advisors

Rigged Chapter 18



Ross M. Miller
Posted August 9, 2004

I looked over Tara’s shoulder for several minutes as she analyzed the stocks in Ken’s fund. While Tara was waiting for the results of a computation, I asked her, “You don’t mind missing the game, do you?”

“No, whatever’s hiding inside all this data is more interesting than preseason hoops. In any event, Celts games aren’t the same anymore. I remember going with my father and brothers to the old Boston Garden. My friends were all Larry Bird fans, but I was head over heels with Kevin McHale. He signed this huge poster for me at Filene’s and I hung it up in my room.”

“I remember the final series against the Lakers in eighty-four. Larry and Magic. Those were epic match-ups. I never saw the Celts in the Garden, it must have been something.”

“It was! As I kid it never registered on me that the Garden was crumbling, I saw it as another part of Boston history and much of its appeal came from its being so obviously old. The new place isn’t built for people; it’s built for corporations and politicians.”

Tara’s laptop spit something out. While she tended to it, I went back to my room. I surfed the television to see what GNN and the other cable news networks were covering. I briefly watched a high-speed chase in Burbank not far from where some friends had once taken me to a party thrown in honor of a strange fellow known only as the Pod Mind. Unengaged, I went back to the living room. On the way, I stepped on the scale and discovered that I had lost five pounds.

I sat down across from Tara and watched her watching the screen. After a minute, she said, “This is sooooo frustrating.”

“Why don’t you put it down for a while and attack it with a fresh mind later on,” I suggested. I know that usually works for me.”

“Maybe you’re right, but I feel like I should be doing something.”

“Sometimes the best something to do is nothing.”

Tara placed the computer on the coffee table, snapped its lid shut, and said, “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.”

“Why are you quoting from a movie with blatant Christ imagery?”

“What did you expect? I was raised a nice Irish-Catholic girl.”

It was time to change the subject. “All this talk of Paul Newman reminds me that we should do something about dinner.”

“If you don’t mind, I’m not in the mood to go out.”

“That’s alright. We can order room service. I’d suggest going down to the restaurant, but it’s the same food and up here we can talk about business without having to worry about being overheard.”

“That’s fine with me,” Tara said with one eye still on her computer.

I picked up the room service menu, handed it to Tara, and phoned in our dinner orders. Tara picked salmon and I choose cod. (I wondered about the Sacred Cod sign outside the State House, considered asking Tara about it, and then remembered something about not asking a question for which you don’t know the answer.) We would share a truffle-infused risotto and the house salad. Consideration of dessert was deferred. After I hung up, I looked at Tara and said, “They tell me it’ll be up in forty minutes or less.”

I tried not to stare at her, but this was the first time that I could remember seeing her look unhappy and I found it rather appealing. I don’t know if it was natural or part of her upbringing, but Tara was one of those rare people who spreads joy wherever she goes. In less enlightened times, it’s easy to imagine her as a nurse. Her beauty was certainly part of it, but it went far deeper. Observing this touch of sadness opened a new window into her being for me—it made me want to comfort her.

After several seconds, Tara sensed that something about her made me uneasy and so she lightened up and said, “You know. When you put down your laptop, you do literally fold it. With cards, it would probably upset everyone if you folded them in half when you didn’t like your hand.”

I laughed and said, “That’s a good way to start a fight.” I then thought back to Harvey and added, “I never thought in terms of liking or not liking the cards. They’re just there. Anyway, the first lesson in poker is to fold a bad hand regardless of your feelings. It may seem like a waste of time to just sit there while others play their hands, but that’s the most important part of the game—watching your opponents. Unless you know what you’re doing, trying to make something out of nothing is the quickest way to lose everything.”

Tara, looking unhappy again, said, “So, we’re just folding.”

“For now. I expect to be dealt some better cards tomorrow.”

“My, aren’t you the optimist.”

“No, I’m a realist. But I would have thought you’d be the optimist. Maybe it’s just the red hair, but I can imagine you playing Annie and singing about the sun coming up tomorrow.”

Tara smiled. “I remember making my mother take me to that movie three times. Of course, I wanted to be Annie and I adore Ann Reinking.”

“I don’t like to talk about it—but I will since I brought up the topic—I was in the Broadway musical for a week. It was the original run with Andrea McArdle. She was amazing, not that I got to know her or anything. She really deserved a Tony, but at least she got the nomination.”

“You’re putting me on.”

“No. I really was. I’ve got pictures of myself onstage somewhere.”

“You weren’t Daddy Warbucks, were you?” Tara joked. “The Mighty Quinn could fill that role nicely, though he doesn’t seem like a song-and-dance man.”

“You’re right, he’d make a fine Daddy Warbucks. No, I was a street urchin. I did little more than take up space on stage.”

“Still, that’s exciting. How did you end up on Broadway?”

“My mom’s sole ambition in life was to be a stage mother. I started taking lessons—voice, dance, and all that jazz—when I was five. This old guy—he must have started out in Vaudeville—ran a school out of a dumpy studio near the Broadway theatres. Many of his students got bit parts in shows and a lucky few went on to become big stars. It was like the Actors Studio for the prepubescent set.”

“So why aren’t you on Broadway or in movies?”

“I was cute back then and could learn any musical number or dance routine after hearing or seeing it once. I did a few shows, but never had more than a token speaking role. I didn’t have the hair for Annie and, like many other things in life, cuteness fades.”

“It takes more than hair,” Tara said as she looked at hers. “Anyway, why should things be any better tomorrow? Thursday, that is. It’s a day away, but it’s still just another day.”

“But it’s not. It’s the next day of our voyage. And that relates to the second lesson in poker.”

“Which is?”

“It’s not enough to automatically play only good hands, you’ve got to know when to fold great hands and play lousy ones.”

“Doesn’t that contradict the first lesson? I thought you were supposed to fold the lousy ones.”

“Didn’t some guy from around here say that a foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of small minds?”

“Ralph Waldo Emerson. Most people forget the ‘foolish.’”

“Not me. I make it point to remember the foolish,” I said with a smile.

“Why would you play a lousy hand?”

“Because you think that all the other hands are worse, or at least bad enough to make it worth going for the pot. Or you think that you get can everyone else to believe your hand is the best so they fold theirs.”

“That’s bluffing, isn’t it?”

“Or semi-bluffing, depending on just how lousy the hand is. And getting caught bluffing isn’t all bad.”

“Why’s that?”

“It makes your opponents more likely to stay in the pot on your good hands.”

“How do you know what cards everyone else is holding and whether or not they will fold?” Tara asked.

“From their actions.”

“Such as?”

“Mostly, how they’re betting in the context of all their previous bets—not just in the current hand, but in every hand I’ve ever seen them play. Beyond that, some people either have or develop a sixth sense that helps get inside the heads of the other players.”

Tara looked at me suspiciously. “And you’re one of them?”

“I can be. There’s no greater feeling of power than sitting at a poker table and being able to know precisely what everyone else is holding. To me, at least, that was the thing that made the game so addictive.”

“Can you read people’s minds?”

“Not exactly, I don’t believe that anyone can, but I can do something.”

“Can you read my mind?”

I have been have asked that question several times and I learned the right answer through painful trial and error. “You’re too complex for me to read,” I said.

Tara looked pleased. “In the movies, some poker players are supposed to be good at reading little quirks in their opponents that gives away their hands, I think they’re known as tells. Like how they stack their chips or eat their food when they’re bluffing. Is that how you know?”

“Occasionally,” I said. “Tells look good on film because they’re visual. In real life, things are rarely so simple. When a pro has a tell, it can be a decoy. And against a great player, even a sixth sense is useless. But how the cards are played always provides useful information. That’s just basic game theory.”

“That’s something you should know about. So how does all this relate to the Lowell situation?”

“What game theory tells you is that the cards that you are playing against—the ones that have not been folded—are not randomly distributed because the people who hold them have made a conscious decision to go after the pot. At The Lowell Group, the things that we’ve been experiencing aren’t random either.”

“I’m getting that feeling as well,” Tara said. “Things are working out much better than they should, even if they may never let us in the door again.” Tara didn’t have to say why that was, she just let her words sink in. “My sixth sense tells me that we were expected to figure out what was going on with Ken’s fund, though not nearly as quickly as we did. We didn’t just come across all this information by chance.”

“What do you think happened?”

“Someone at Lowell had an idea of what was going on and tipped Roland off.”

“That’s plausible,” I said. “Who do you think it was?”

“If it was anyone at the meeting, it was probably Karen.”

“And if it wasn’t her?”

“That leaves Ken and the traders,” Tara said. “I don’t see why the traders should care one way or another, but Ken—”

“Had the motive to see that this stopped and provided me with the silo clue. Now, it could just be coincidence.”

“Do you think Ken was part of the conspiracy? Assuming there was one.”

“No,” I said, “but I think he either figured out what was going on or had his suspicions. It’s unlikely that he could access all of Lowell’s databases, must less rip them apart and piece them back together the way we did.”

“And the only people that Roland could trust to do that by the end of the week—”

“Were hidden away in Alaska.”

“So, you’re thinking that by similar reasoning, Planet X should be in Florida.”

“Not the planet itself, but the next clue. Which may have nothing to do with Planet X?”

“Why’s that?”

“My third lesson in poker.” I said with my own brand of smugness.

“You’re so predictable.” Tara groaned.

“Don’t you want to know what it is?”

“If I said I did, then I’d be predictable.”

“I don’t have to tell you.”

“Go ahead,” Tara said. “I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.”

“The third lesson in poker is that no matter how good are, you can never be so good that there isn’t someone out there who can fool you.”

Tara looked unhappy again. “So at this very moment we might be on the wrong track?”

“We should seriously entertain that possibility. There may not even be a Planet X.”

“Which gets us back to why we’re doing nothing.”

“Well, as long as you’re doing nothing and we’re waiting for room service, maybe I could entice you to play something on the piano.”

“I would be honored,” Tara said as she made a hint at a curtsy. “My repertoire is limited, but suggest something and maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“Know any Satie?”

“Is the first Gymnopédie all right? I hope it’s not too pedestrian for you.”

“No, that’s great.”

Tara got up, walked to the piano, and began to play while I melted into the sofa. The piece is not technically difficult, but the performer must have emotional depth to play it properly. Tara had depth in abundance. I was so carried away by the music filling the room that I was able to overlook that the piano was a bit sharp, something I failed to notice on her earlier Bach piece. She played the last note before dinner arrived.

The dining area of the suite had a table that seated eight. I sat at the far end and Tara sat across the corner from me. Our server arranged the plates, pulled out our chairs, drew open the curtains, dimmed the chandelier, and removed the cart from the suite at my request. Napkin in hand, I saw the city lights refracted off Tara’s emerald eyes. Outside, the clouds were dense, but it had not yet begun to rain.

I cannot recall ever having been “on a date”—things always seemed to happen of their own accord—but this must have been what one felt like. It was not so much having dinner alone in my suite with a brilliant and beautiful woman, as it was the sense of restraint.

The risotto was heavenly; neither of us said a word as we savored every grain. Before we got to our seafood entrees, Tara said, “I’d like to ask you a question, but only if you’ll promise not to laugh and to answer it honestly.” She spoke slowly and made serious eye contact with me across the table. Just about everyone I had dealt with—mathematicians, gamblers, and Alaskans—were as good at avoiding eye contact as Tara was at making it. My forte was staring people down.

“Can I hear the question first?” I asked, trying not to get lost in her eyes.

“Will you laugh?”

“I’ll try not to.”

“Then, will you answer it truthfully?”

“It depends on the question,” I said.

“For certain questions, you’d lie?”

“Not outright. I might not answer some questions, while for others courtesy might dictate that my response be less than candid.”

“You don’t have to be courteous with me.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Oddly enough, this is the second time in two days that the issue of truth has popped up.”

“What happened yesterday?”

“Kenneth Paine seemed to think that I was a deluded truth-seeker and he talked about Plato and Jung.”

“Lucky you. Why didn’t you mention that before?”

“It didn’t seem relevant to the task at hand,” I said. “But then, on the walk back from the my meeting with Roland, I saw an inscription by John Winthrop outside Boston Common.”

“The one about the city upon the hill.”

“Right. That one. What gives there?”

“It’s from a speech that Winthrop made on the Arbella during the trip over from England,” Tara said. “It’s all about the covenant that the Puritans made with God.”

“I figured as much. It seems to me a lot like Plato’s noble lie—something that Ken didn’t feel the need to mention during our chat.”

“I see the connection. Plato said that the aristocracy should lie to the masses and say that the system of three distinct social classes was dictated by a higher power.”

“That’s how I remember it,” I said.

“And similarly, this whole city-upon-a-hill thing can be viewed as an updated version of the same lie, which can then be used as the moral justification for doing whatever you want.”

“That’s right.”

“And if we talk about this long enough,” said Tara, “I’ll never get to ask my question, much less hear your answer to it.”

“You got me. Okay, what’s the question?”

“How long has it been since I sat down at the piano?”

I didn’t laugh, but I did ask, “Why would you ask that of someone who doesn’t wear a watch?” I was relieved. I could imagine much stickier questions from Tara.

“I’m curious. Just tell me. Guess. How long?”

“Fifteen minutes?”

I had no idea how long it had been.

“According to my watch,” Tara said authoritatively, “it’s been forty-three minutes.”

“Really. That’s odd. I usually have a superb sense of time; otherwise, I couldn’t manage without a watch. Why did you want to know?”

“I’m conducting an experiment,” Tara said, looking not entirely serious.

“On time perception?”

“You might say. I thought I’d use you as a guinea pig to test one of Einstein’s theories.”

“Don’t tell me that this hotel has been hurtling through space at close to the speed of light.” I tried to look shocked.

“I hope not or you might miss your plane tomorrow if we don’t reset the clocks. No, Einstein said that sitting next to a girl for two hours seems like two minutes.”

“I remember reading that somewhere, though I thought the girl was beautiful. It has something to do with relativity. Right?”

“No,” Tara said sternly, “Einstein said the girl was ‘nice.’ And yes, it was his way of explaining relativity to the masses and it has the advantage of not requiring tensor notation.”

“It would seem that either his theory is off by a factor of more than twenty or you’re not a nice girl.”

“Which do you think it is?”

“The theory needs refinement, but Einstein may have had a point.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“And what made you think that.”

“Personal experience,” Tara said and then she paused as if she might leave it at that. “Your moment in the spotlight on Broadway reminded me of how when I was little I wanted to join the Boston Ballet. My Aunt Meg had taken me to see them when I was six and when I got home I was dancing around the house nonstop. I took lessons for several years and then—it seemed like overnight—I just sprouted and the world changed.”

“How so?”

“For one thing, people stopped calling me ‘beanpole.’ For another, I was getting a lot more attention from the boys at school and the girls who had been my friends would have nothing to do with me. I had read the books in the library about growing up, but it never registered on me that it could be quite so dramatic.”

“Aside from my brief stage career, is there any other reason for this experiment?”

“Two of them, both having to do with Lowell. First of all, did you notice the clocks on Lowell’s trading floor?”

“I think so, but I was paying attention to other things.They had seven of them on the wall didn’t they? Large analog clocks with the minutes the same, but the hours different to reflect the time zones.”

“Yes, they had one for Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Melbourne, Tokyo, Zurich and London. This afternoon I saw someone carefully adjusting them to put the minute and second hands back in sync and I wondered what Einstein would have thought.”

“Where did I put my comb?”

“Nice try. My point is that those clocks make a mockery of relativity. The London clock really isn’t a London clock because it’s physically in Boston.”

“Does it matter?”

“Not under normal circumstances. At the heart of Einstein’s special theory is the notion that not only is the universe without a hub, but also that time isn’t uniform throughout the universe. In other words, the universe doesn’t have a single clock where time is kept. Time doesn’t just move at a different rate for astronauts hurtling through space at a fraction of the speed of light, it moves at a different rate for everyone, even when they are seemingly standing still. Every point in the universe keeps its own time. Lowell can get away with having the London clock in Boston because any discrepancy is so many decimal places out that it is of practical significance to no one.”

“Except maybe for the Mighty Quinn,” I said. “What would it take for the discrepancy to matter?”

“The appearance of a massive object near London, say a black hole, would do the trick. It would cause time to move much more slowly in London than it would here. Indeed, once London was sucked into the black hole, it’s unclear—Big Ben notwithstanding—that time would have any meaning there. Of course, Boston would likely get sucked in after it. But until then, its London clock would be incorrect. Massive objects both warp the space around them and slow the passage of time.”

“So, Einstein’s nice girl must be astronomically obese.”

“No, that’s where Einstein may be smarter than we give him credit for and leads to my second point. During the tour of the trading floor, I had the distinct perception that space and time were warping around me. And—I’ll have you know—I am not astronomically obese.” Tara said this as she looked down at herself and I tried not to. “It could be that I’m always warping the space-time continuum and never notice it anymore because I’ve been hanging around Alaska too long. And it could be that everyone warps the world around them, they just never notice.”


“Especially you,” said Tara.

“Really? How?”

“Around Alaska, you’re the big chief. I know that you try your best not to interfere, but people have to be on their guard when you’re around. And if their defenses are up, just imagine what you—what all of us—are doing to Lowell.”

“I never thought of it that way. So if you and I have this effect on the people around us, one can only imagine what sort of effect the Mighty Quinn has.”

“They don’t call him ‘Mighty’ for nothing.”

“It’s a good thing that he’s never been to Alaska,” I said. “That reminds me, I’m under the impression that where I’m going in Florida tomorrow, our fearless leader is no longer welcome.”

“That can happen when you warp the world too much.”

We turned our attention back to dinner for what I thought were several minutes until Tara spoke again, which was good because I was at a loss for what to say. “I hope you don’t mind answering another question,” Tara said.

“Is this another experiment?”

“No, I’m just curious.”

“Do I have to promise not to laugh?”

“No, it’s not that kind of question.”

That worried me, but all I could say was, “I don’t mind.”

“Why did you come to Alaska?”

I sat and looked down at my plate while I thought about her question. Tara was the first Alaskan who had bothered to ask me.

“If you’re not comfortable answering, then don’t,” she said. “It just seems that everyone has their own story.”

“I have no problem answering, but if I tell you mine, then you have to tell me yours.”

“Fair enough.”

“It’s hard to know where to begin. It’s not like a single thing brought me here, more like a confluence of events.”

“I’m patient,” Tara said. I waited while she apportioned the salad.

“At some point gambling became a real profession for me and that’s when the fun ended. I started out at the blackjack tables for a few weeks and did quite well counting cards because no one knew who I was and I knew enough to conceal what I was doing.”

“How does one do that?”

“For starters, don’t play a strategy straight out of a book and make a really dumb play every hour or so when not a lot of money is on the line.”

“Did your early theatrical training help?”

“It didn’t hurt,” I said. “Anyway, blackjack became a grind and one night the mood moved me to try some poker. I’ve known how to play for as long as I can remember, so I quickly got up to speed. I lost some money at first—actually, quite a bit—but I was back even within a month. I started out playing seven-card stud—it’s the perfect game for a game theorist with a good memory who’s hard to read—but I eventually found that there was more dead money in Texas hold’em.”

“Dead money?”

“That’s money from amateur players who don’t have a prayer of winning. In blackjack, all the money you earn comes from the slight statistical edge that counting cards gives you; in poker, it comes from the bad players, especially those who don’t realize or care just how badly they play.”

“So poker involves the redistribution of money from bad players to good players.”

“Over time. On a particular night, a bad player can get lucky. Furthermore, bad players can be a lot harder to read because their actions are considerably more random than those of a professional.”

“Then, game theory doesn’t do you a lot of good against them?”

“Not the classical variety. For me, the ideal opponent is just good enough. You know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Which relates to my fourth lesson in poker.”

“You have a fourth lesson. I thought this sort of thing came in threes.”

“I’m not so predictable, now am I? I keep extra poker lessons up my sleeve. The fourth lesson in poker is that who you play is more important than how you play. This is where game theory ends and reality begins. Game theory assumes that you are stuck playing the game you’re in, when the real problem is making sure that you’re playing in the right game.”

“Then why are you here and not still playing poker?”

“For the first year of my professional career, I got off on the excitement. Each night I’d figure out a new angle on the game and I could then analyze it and test it out the following night. It was just like the thrill I had doing math in college. But, no matter what anyone tells you, there’s a lot less to poker than there is to math. Not only did the novelty wear off, something happened that changed everything.”

“What was that?” Tara asked.

“I started playing in a few poker tournaments and did okay—I earned enough money by coming in sixth in one of them to make back all the entry fees and then some. On a lark, I entered the seven-card stud event at the World Series of Poker and managed to win my first time out. It’s not like I was the world’s champion—that’s the winner of the main no-limit Texas hold’em event and I wasn’t comfortable enough with that game to play it in the big tournament—but that gold bracelet quickly became a target over my heart.”

“So now you were Einstein’s nice girl.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes, and I didn’t like it. All of the advantages of anonymity were stripped away. I met Roland about a month after that. He was over at the Hilton giving the keynote address at a technology conference. He dropped by a satellite that I had just won and nudged aside a reporter to speak with me afterwards.”

“You won a satellite,” Tara said in mock astonishment. “When did you launch it?”

“Never. A satellite is a qualifying tournament whose winner gets into the main event without having to pay the full entry fee. I figured that if I couldn’t win a satellite, I had no business being in the tournament itself, not to mention all the money I saved.”

“So what about Roland?” Tara asked impatiently.

“He looked and sounded like a typical pro from the prairie. The sort of guy who got his kicks flying a crop duster during the day and playing high-stakes poker at night. Only later did I learn that he grew up in Indiana and ‘accidentally’ demolished his father’s Olds with a model rocket of his own design when he was ten. I didn’t know what to think of him until he told me that he had read a paper of mine, made some insightful comments about it, and took the opportunity to invite me to give a talk at the Research Lab. One thing led to another and here I am.”

“So you are.”

“Now it’s your turn to tell.”

“I will,” said Tara, “but I suggest that we move over to the sofa first.” She got up and I followed her to sofa. We sat down at either end and faced each other.

“You can go ahead any time you like,” I said.

“My story is not nearly as interesting as yours: No one had to rescue me from Sin City. I’ve been interested in the cosmos all my life. My family would go on camping trips for vacation and the first time that I saw the clear, moonless sky far out in the country was like nothing I had ever seen before. I know people say this all the time, but it was truly a religious experience. I was the youngest and the only girl in my family and often I felt . . . neglected. Not in a bad sense, mind you, it was just that my big brothers got all the attention. Sometimes I would pretend that my real family was the sky. I set out to learn all that I could about it.”

“Any science fiction? It seems many Alaskans were into that when they were young.”

“Not really.” Tara said. “Neither Lieutenant Uhura nor Princess Leia did it for me. The older science fiction was puerile and the newer stuff dealt more with political and social issues than with the wonderful things that might be out there waiting for us.”

“I can understand that. Some science fiction, for example, Philip K. Dick’s later stuff after the aliens or the drugs got to him, is truly weird.”

“Science fiction aside, it came as real surprise to everyone to find out that I was one smart cookie. I guess they just figured that girls naturally get good grades because they study more than boys. When I aced my college boards, that was harder to explain away.”

“I would imagine that it was.”

“So I went off to Harvard and stayed there for ten years—first as an undergrad, then as a grad student, finally as a post doc—but I felt like no one was taking me seriously. The faculty was happy to have me work at slave wages on research for which they would get top billing, but they were in no hurry to offer me a real position there. I had heard that GFF was big into astronomy, but it wasn’t until Chen and Steinhardt received their Nobels that the place really registered on me. I ran into some Pulsars—although I didn’t know that’s what they were called—at a conference in Barcelona. Like you, I was invited to give a talk, though mine was at the lodge, not the Research Lab. That’s my story. From what I hear, that’s how many of the newbies came to Alaska.”

“Pretty much. We know how to recruit. So, now you’re back at the hub of the universe.”

Tara chortled. “Actually, astronomers are less likely than other people to see the universe revolving around themselves. If, relativity notwithstanding, the universe has a meaningful hub, we are far from it. Lost on the outskirts, in the fringes.”


“And lonely. There’s a lot of time and space in the universe.”

Speaking as someone who was not sure that he had ever been lonely, I said, “But what about all those astronomers—I think Carl Sagan was one—who believe that the universe must be teeming with intelligent life, much of it probably a good deal more technologically advanced we are? Wouldn’t they be able to contact us eventually?”

“Assuming that they had any interest in doing so,” she replied. “But even if they did and there were millions of other civilizations out there, that’s like millions of grains of sand scattered across this planet. The odds of any one of those grains finding its way into my salmon are ridiculously small. Millions and millions isn’t a large number in a potentially unbounded universe.”

“I try not to think about the size of the universe. For that matter, I am unable to comprehend the billions of dollars that are riding on The Lowell Group right now. I excel at detachment. I never could have placed some of the bets that I did if I had thought about their consequences. In fact, like most gamblers, I denied that I was gambling at all, although, in retrospect, it’s clear that I was.”

“Does that make you different from anyone else?”

“What do you mean?”

“People gamble all the time without realizing it and without considering the consequences,” Tara said. “Even the most innocuous action, like walking across the street, has death as one of its possible outcomes.”

“With Boston drivers, it hard not to be aware of that possibility around here.”

“Maybe that’s a bad example.”

“Then what about being sucked into a bad hole?”

“Oh, black holes aren’t even necessary. A lightning bolt will do it. The thing is that life, as dangerous as it is, goes on because most people are able to filter such things out. In particular, they filter out that the fact that everything dies eventually.”

“Everything?” I said. “Not just people?”

“Everything,” Tara replied firmly. “People, countries, planets, stars, galaxies, the works. Everything.”

“I can’t accept that.”

“I know. You do excel at detachment. That’s why you make such a good hit man.”

“I think you mean would make not make.”

“No, I mean make.” Tara turned serious. “There may be a more delicate way of putting it—I don’t know—but what happened at Lowell this morning certainly looked like a ‘hit’ to me. You didn’t actually kill anyone, but I find it hard to believe that heads aren’t already rolling. Of course, they deserve to roll, but you’re the one responsible for setting things in motion. I’m an accomplice—so are Randy and Zero. Maybe it’s time that you became a little less detached and thought about what you are doing.”

Tara may have had a point, but this was no time to abandon my detachment, especially with the prospect of bigger fish. Whatever might come about because of my actions, I believed that what I was doing was right. I was used to poker players trying to psyche me out—it’s all in the game. But looking at Tara, I saw that I was with one more awesome that any who had sat across the table from me.

I felt an incredible calm, an incredible clarity.

Neither of us said a word.

I could feel time come to a dead halt.

The next thing that registered on me was the door clicking open and my other accomplices walking in.

“Thought you might like some donuts,” Zero said. He placed a box on the coffee table.

“Did you ever wonder why people in films set in New England are always eating donuts?” Randy said.

“Aggressive marketing?” I replied. “You’re back early.”

“Early?” Randy said. “It’s almost midnight. The other guys in the luxury box were going to a place in Revere where time is measured in songs, but we thought that it was better to head back to the hotel.”

“We’re flattered that you passed up a research opportunity to be us.” I said, still in a daze. “How was the game?”

“It’s hard to watch the game from a luxury box,” Zero said. “People mainly sit around, tell dirty jokes, and ignore the game. They were all GFF’s big customers who were in town for the convention; we were the only GFF employees, though we didn’t let them know that. When it came up, we said we were from Alaska and joked about our sled dogs.”

“Anything interesting happen?” I asked.

“The food was good,” Zero replied. “The guys in sales were whining about how hard a time they were having hitting their quotas. I’ve got a bunch of business cards and a place to stay if I’m ever in Toledo.”

“It wasn’t bad for a place named after an enema,” Randy said. “And while I was there this idea popped into my head.”

“Do tell,” Tara said.

“Some of the guys were talking about the problems that they were having with a computer virus last week and that got me to thinking: What if our black hole is a virus? Maybe it’s not a computer virus—or anything like it—but something that’s contagious, something that spreads by contact from company to company. That’s well outside the field of astrofinance, but it might be worth a shot.”

“Sounds good to me,” Tara said, “We were talking about the need for a fresh approach to things.”

“It’s worth a try,” I said. “I’ve got an early morning, so I’m going to turn in now. Feel free to crunch away as late into the night as you like, but sleep might do the three of you some good as well. My return flight tomorrow takes me back to the hive for a meeting, but I’ll be back here bright and early Friday morning.”

“When do we head home?” Zero asked.

“Soon,” I said, “but plan on staying here until I get back. I’ll contact you from the road; either by phone or through GFF’s secure messaging system. If you’ll purge all the Lowell stuff from it, I’ll take one of the laptops with me.”

“You shouldn’t rely on GFF’s messaging system being secure,” Zero said with the voice of experience, “but it’s certainly beats using a phone. The Lowell data can be history within the hour.”

“Great, good luck with your virus,” I said. I waved good night, walked into my room, and closed the door behind me. I set both my travel alarm and the room’s alarm clock for an ungodly hour and then arranged for a wake-up call. I took off my shoes and passed out on the bedspread.

Copyright 2004 by Ross M. Miller. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to