Twenty-two year old Seth McLeary bolted up three flights of stairs in the Wolman’s Hall dormitory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. At five-foot-seven and a buck forty-five soaking wet, he had his father’s facial features and his mother’s lean physique. His dark blue eyes complemented his fair complexion and a smile with perfect teeth, traits he’d inherited from both parents.
When he reached his room, he wiggled his key in the lock and entered the ten-by-twelve living space with cinder block walls and a window overlooking the quad. He tossed his jean jacket on a framed futon bed and dropped his keys on the kitchenette counter by a box of leftover pizza. A fifteen-inch MacBook Pro occupied a computer desk beside a bookshelf with textbooks on computer programming, fuzzy logic, neural networks, regression analysis, and advanced number theory, each marked with colored tabs sprouting from the top.
He found the TV remote buried between a stack of newspapers on a multi-purpose crate he used as a foot stool, a dining table, and on occasion, an arm wrestling bench with his brother. He clicked on the flat screen mounted on a bracket in the wall. He surfed the channels until he found the station airing the Maryland Lottery numbers. Waiting for the commercials to end, he dug a lottery ticket from his back pocket. Seven, three, twenty-two, twelve, and five were the numbers his beta program had selected the night before—the same numbers he hoped would put an end to his money woes and thrust him on the path to financial independence.
He turned up the volume and watched the announcer’s manicured fingers turn the first numbered ball in the transparent chute. “And our first number is… Seven.”
Seth clenched the lottery ticket in his fist. Dueling stereos in adjacent dorm rooms pitted rap against heavy metal music, drowning out a John Denver tribute from the country music fan across the hall.
“And tonight’s second lucky number is… Three.”
Seth ran his hand through his short, brown hair parted to the right with ragged sideburns in need of a trim around the ears. “Come on… This is it. No more student loans. No more credit card shuffle.” He parked himself on the futon bed beside the plastic crate. A photo of his girlfriend reminded him to count his blessings. Win or lose, he had Marcy in his life, and no software glitch would ever take that away.
“Our third number is… Twenty-two.”
“Two more,” Seth shouted. He pumped his fist in the air, his heart racing in anticipation of seeing the fourth number he’d derived from an algorithm designed to predict the unpredictable. He left the futon and paced in front of the television. He had an American Literature final in the morning and hadn’t studied in weeks. Dodging more classes than he’d attended, he’d justified his absence as time better spent on his lucky number program. His brother would lose the bet. His girlfriend would finally take him seriously. And for once in his life, he would own the bragging rights to something he’d accomplished despite the persistent doubts from his former teachers, friends, and most of all, his fraternal twin brother, Brian.
“And tonight’s fourth lucky number in our power ball drawing worth twenty-six million dollars is… fifty-seven.”
He slumped in the chair behind his computer workstation and typed the screenlock password on his MacBook. He checked the program’s results from the night before on the slim chance he might have copied the numbers wrong. Mad at himself for expecting too much too soon, he examined the source code for the millionth time, searching for some kind of explanation or revelation as to why his algorithm failed.
There is no randomness. Only random events dictated by forces I can model and predict.
His American Literature text loomed on the bookshelf beside him like an owl on a midnight watch. With his elective grades on a downward slope, he needed an “A” on his American Literature final to keep his perfect GPA afloat.
He rubbed his eyes and got up to grab the foam rubber basketball from the back of his closet door. Too frustrated to think clearly, he lobbed a shot at the plastic hoop with a sky-hook gone awry and cursed himself when the ball hit the rim and bounced out.
He tore a slice of pizza from the leftover box and started on the crust. The grease congealed on the hardened cheese like cold Crisco in a frying pan. He chewed through half the slice and called it quits when he felt his tooth crunch on something hard. His drive to perfect the neural network algorithm kept him up at all hours of the night. What had started as a pet project three years ago had become all-consuming, stealing basketball time with his brother, quality time with his girlfriend Marcy, and study time in school. He’d skipped classes, appointments, and Marcy’s two-year anniversary—a mistake she held against him with bouts of intense flirtation followed by weeks of painful abstinence, until at one point he’d convinced himself his balls really were turning blue.
He lived to attain the unattainable. It wasn’t about the money, or the bragging rights, though his brother would argue otherwise. It was about achieving the unachievable and doing something no one had never done before. Thumbing his nose at the mathematicians and the statisticians whose theories of randomness and probability had stood the test of time. In the end, it boiled down to four words of inspiration mumbled by Dr. Rogahaughry, his high school calculus teacher, and Ph.D., who prided himself on harping, it can’t be done.
Without publicly responding to Mr. Rogahaughry’s overt challenge, Seth had accepted it nonetheless and spent the next four years developing an algorithm to analyze years of previous lottery numbers and learn to predict the ones to come. At least in theory, which flew in the face of modern probability and various mathematical abstractions of non-deterministic events.
He pulled the American Literature textbook from the shelf and stuffed it in his laptop case along with his MacBook, convinced he’d never finish his reading assignment outside the confines of the school library, his only sanctuary from the constant distractions in his dorm.
He powered off the TV as the door to his room swung open behind him. “I thought you had practice,” he said with his back to the visitor he assumed was his twin brother, Brian.
“Practice is canceled,” announced the uninvited guests.
Seth spun around to find the last two people in the world he’d expected to see again. A pair of high school dropouts who worked for a mutual acquaintance. “What are you guys doing here?”
Dimetrie shut the door with his sidekick, Roland, standing between Seth and the only exit. Both men towered over Seth in leather jackets with faux fur collars. Both wore enough gold jewelry around their necks and wrists to feed a third world country.
“Going somewhere?” said Dimetrie, who spoke with an Eastern European accent. He had a boyish face with patchy whiskers on his chin as if his razor quit working in mid-shave. His breath reeked of vodka and sushi.
Seth took a step toward the door. “I need to get to the library. You might have heard of it—or not.”
Dimetrie glanced at his partner Roland, a rangy pot-head with big teeth and big ears on a head with a bald spot the size of a mini crop circle. “You think we’re stupid?”
“What do you want?”
Dimetrie cracked the mini refrigerator and helped himself to an open Gatorade.
“I pissed in that one,” Seth announced with a straight face.
Dimetrie spit the contents on the floor and wrinkled his nose at the bottle. “You like to tell jokes?”
Trapped inside his own dorm room with the cast from Dumb and Dumber, Seth lowered his laptop case to the floor. He could feel the bass thumping from the adjacent room. “Where’s Mr. Calvin?”
“You’re late,” said Dimetrie.
“Our payment,” said Roland.
“I don’t owe you anything. I tutor Mr. Calvin’s son in math. He floats me some funny money.”
Dimetrie checked the pizza box. “I don’t think my money’s funny.” He squinted at Seth and smiled with a gap between his top front teeth. “You owe four thousand.”
“I don’t owe you shit,” Seth replied, flabbergasted by the bogus number. “Don’t you guys have an all-you-can-eat buffet to find?”
Dimetrie peeled a photo of Seth and Marcy from the white board on the wall. “Cute girl. She belong to you?”
“Look, I don’t know what your game is, but I don’t owe you guys jack. Talk to Mr. Calvin…”
Dimetrie wandered about the room and knocked a bookshelf over.
Seth reached inside his pocket for his phone. “I’ve been meaning to dust behind there.”
Dimetrie nodded to his partner who pulled a large-caliber revolver from his front jacket pocket. “Enough! You pay us now! Understand?”
Seth put his hands up. “Hey! What the hell is this? Talk to Mr. Calvin. He’ll explain it to you.”
“You don’t work for Mr. Calvin anymore.”
“Since his accident this afternoon,” said Roland. You might have heard it on TV—or not.” He yanked open a dresser drawer and rifled through Seth’s clothes.
“What are you doing?”
Roland pulled the second drawer off its tracks to dump the contents on the floor. Shirts, papers, postcards, and a stash of old receipts fell in a scattered pile. He started for the third drawer, then paused when a velvet ring box caught his eye. He opened the box and found a receipt inside. “I see where our money went.” He pointed the gun at Seth. “Where’s the ring?”
“I don’t have it.”
Dimetrie waved Marcy’s photo at Seth. “Then maybe we pay your girlfriend a visit.”
Seth folded. “It’s in the freezer compartment. Behind the tray.”
Dimetrie found the solitaire diamond in a yellow gold setting. “What else do you hide in here?”
Seth took off his Citizen watch. “Take this. Take the TV. Just don’t take the ring.”
Dimetrie snatched the watch. “This is shit.” He looked at Roland again.
Roland stuffed the gun back in his jacket and cracked his knuckles. He grabbed Seth’s arm, twisting it behind his back to force Seth against the wall face-first.
Dimetrie pulled Seth’s wallet from his back pocket. He opened the leather bi-fold to find a Jackson and a pair of singles.
Seth winced from the sharp pain in his arm. “The ring is worth three grand.”
Dimetrie watched his partner bend Seth’s right index finger to its maximum range of motion. “What else you got in here?”
Seth cried out, his agony drowned by a heavy metal riff. “Just the ring!”
“What’s a matter? Nothing funny to say?”
“Yeah,” Roland added with a chuckle, “no more funny man now.”
Seth endured the tidal wave of pain sweeping through his arm. “I’ll call the cops!”
Dimetrie held the ring to the light. “No police.”
Roland squeezed Seth’s finger, prepared to snap it in half like a frozen carrot stick when the door burst open and Brian McLeary rushed in.
“Where the hell have you been?” Brian started, baffled by what he saw. Several inches taller and a good bit heavier than his brother Seth, he shoved Roland aside and made a fist, his muscles heaving beneath his Hopkins lacrosse jersey. “Who the hell are you?”
“This isn’t over,” said Dimetrie, who acknowledged the crowd of witnesses loitering outside the hall and gave Roland the signal to leave.
Brian watched the two strangers bust out and slam the door behind them. “Who were they?”
Seth cradled his right hand above his elbow. His finger swelled. “I should get this examined.”
“You should get your head examined.” Brian picked up books from the floor. “What happened in here?”
“They didn’t like my sense of humor.”
“Tell me you didn’t borrow more money from that Calvin guy.”
Seth rubbed his hand and gathered his laptop case. “I don’t borrow from him. He pays me to tutor his son.”
“We don’t need that kind of trouble, Seth. If the school finds out about our tuition scheme—”
“They won’t. All right? Just chill. Do some pushups or something.” Seth bent his bruised finger at the knuckle to convince himself it wasn’t broken. “Everything’s under control.”
“No, it isn’t. You’re obsessed with your stupid lottery program. It’s all you think about anymore.”
“This from someone who chases balls with a stick four days a week.”
Brian followed his brother outside the room, dodging a Frisbee and an errant Nerf football in the hallway. “Is your arm okay?”
“I’ll live.” Seth flicked his brother’s Baltimore Ravens cap and said, “The Ravens suck.”
Brian dodged a squirt gun blast and ventured toward the stairwell entrance. “They whipped your Giants like a dead horse.”
“That Super Bowl was fixed.”
“You still owe me twenty bucks.”
“That was ten years ago.”
“Twelve,” Brian corrected him. “And there’s no statute of limitations for being cheap.”
“I’m not cheap,” Seth insisted. “I’m frugal.”
“You’re lucky those guys didn’t break your arm.”
Seth pulled the real engagement ring from his pocket. “I’m lucky they’re too dumb to know the difference between diamonds and glass.”