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David Epperson

The Third Day

Chapter 1

The line between brilliance and insanity is often quite blurred.

I had always known this — after all, the artist Van Gogh sliced off his own ear — yet as I looked back on the past few weeks, I could only hope that I would never again see this principle demonstrated so convincingly; or at such grave risk to my own life and limb.

My unusual journey began with a simple request, as such things so often do. I had retired from the military a few years earlier but wasn’t yet ready for the rocking chair.

Since one of my postings had been in Intelligence, an old friend suggested that I hang out my shingle as a private investigator. She even referred me to my first client, a “widow” whose husband had faked his own death in an attempt to avoid going to prison for embezzlement.

Success with that case led to others, and before long, I had grown more prosperous than I deserved, sifting through the detritus of human folly.

Thus, it came as no surprise that one fine spring morning, I found myself in Greenwich, Connecticut, seated in the office of Jonah Markowitz — the manager of one of the city’s innumerable hedge funds — listening to his suspicions about a physicist he had hired three years earlier.

He held up his cell phone.

“I haven’t been able to reach him in over a month,” he complained. “We used to chat at least once a week. I try not to micromanage, but it is my money they’re spending.”

I had worked with Markowitz before and knew he had a paranoid streak — reinforced by years on Wall Street — so my first instinct was to discount his grumbling. Nobel Prize winning physicists didn’t just vanish into the ether.

“What about Juliet?” I asked. “What does she say?”

Henry’s wife, Dr. Juliet Bryson, had shared in his Nobel Prize.

“She told me he had been burning the midnight oil and needed a break. First, it was an offshore fishing charter; now, he’s supposedly spelunking in New Hampshire somewhere.”

I considered this for a moment. “Places with conveniently limited cell phone reception?”

“It’s hard to stay out of touch that long unless you’re really trying.”

I glanced down at the phone I had laid on Markowitz’s desk and sighed. Fewer than ten minutes had passed, and the counter already displayed eleven unopened emails.

“We all have reasons to try, Jonah,” I said.

Markowitz had no hard evidence that the good professor had done anything other than take a well-deserved break from his labors.

But if I had learned anything during my years of investigative work, it was that happy clients pay better than unhappy ones — and faster, too. Since my firm had conducted the initial background check, I agreed to run the traps to find out what was going on, just to be sure.

I sent my assistant a quick message to retrieve the Brysons’ file while I spent the next half hour fighting traffic on the way back to my office and pondering what might be happening.

The notion of physicists working in the investment world was no longer out of the mainstream. For the past two decades, leading Wall Street houses had raided university physics and mathematics departments in an ever escalating arms race to develop the algorithms that would give them the slightest edge over their competitors.

In the intense, aggressive world of high finance, the burgeoning hedge funds soon joined the fun — much to the joy of the scientists themselves, who had undoubtedly grown weary of scraping by on university salaries while their colleagues in the computer and biotech fields struck it rich.

Markowitz, a man whose net worth Forbes had recently pegged at $3 billion, had snatched the Brysons away from MIT with a mandate to develop a state-of-the-art trading algorithm and to build the quantum computer on which to run it. He told me at the time that he had envisioned spending up to $200 million on the venture — though he’d recoup the money in weeks if all went according to plan.

I had the average layman’s comprehension of quantum mechanics, which is to say I knew slightly more about the subject than did a house plant. Quite frankly, the concepts — electron spins and simultaneous states of matter, being both here and there at the same time — made my head hurt.

Still, my time in Army Intelligence had given me enough exposure to the topic to make me aware of the enormous advantages that would accrue to whoever managed to develop a working prototype of a quantum device.

***

I pulled into the parking garage and made my way up the stairs to my desk. What I found in the Brysons’ file confirmed my recollections. Other than being the two smartest people I had ever met, I couldn’t remember anything particularly unusual about either one.

The couple lived in a quaint brownstone a few blocks from campus, which they had decorated with tasteful but not overly expensive furniture. They drove ordinary middle-class cars. By all appearances, Henry and Juliet Bryson lived the quiet, modest lives of career academics.

They met their teaching requirements in a tag-team fashion which proved highly popular with MIT’s undergraduates. The only complaint I could recall was that the couple were not known for being liberal with partial credit — though neither was the world; something these students would learn soon enough.

The Brysons had few hobbies, which came as no surprise. Their only real interests outside of work consisted of Henry’s fanatical devotion to the Boston Red Sox and the couple’s odd fascination with creation stories across the globe — though I suppose that was only natural for scientists whose research explored what had happened during the most infinitesimal fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

I couldn’t blame them for wanting to cash in, either, since the proposition carried such little risk.

If their venture with Markowitz blew up, they could always return to what they had been doing before. In fact, MIT, unwilling to admit their stars had moved elsewhere, persisted in calling their departure a leave of absence.

Still, people changed; and in my experience, usually not for the better. People disappeared all the time, too. The FBI’s database listed over 51,000 missing adults in the US alone, though I doubted any of them had picked up prizes in Stockholm.

I called in one of my newer associates, a CPA I had lured away from one of the big firm sweatshops, and assigned her the task of updating the Bryson’s financial records. I thought about driving to Boston to ask Juliet directly, but Markowitz had instructed me not to provoke a confrontation until we had better information.

Chapter 2

Susan, the CPA, greeted me a couple of days later with a worried look on her face; the kind that told me she knew something was wrong without being able to explain why.

That was a feeling I knew all too well. The solution, in my experience, was just to lay everything out on the table and let the chips fall where they may, though as soon as she did so, I wished that she hadn’t.

I stared at the figures and turned pale.

“762 million dollars?”

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