by Alex Rosenberg and Theo Drivas
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Four Days After the Demonstration
Sparks flew as the circular saw made its noisy way. The campus police officers stepped back toward the wall of the metalworking studio.
The deafening buzzing stopped.
“Kind of hollow,” the droopy-mustached metalworking instructor called, taking off his goggles as he turned toward the officers.
Inspector Civetta looked at Deputy Chief Schwab meaningfully.
“I’ll keep going?” the instructor asked.
“Might as well,” Schwab said.
The instructor nodded and fixed his goggles back in place, then started the circular saw up again. Pretty soon there was a loud snap and the twin thunk of two halves rocking back.
What had once been a cloudy steel sphere the size of a classroom globe now sat split on the workbench. Within one half glinted something strange.
“Yep,” the instructor said. “There it is.”
Schwab and Civetta approached the workbench. “May I?” Schwab asked. The instructor stepped back.
The metal was hot to Schwab’s touch. From the glinting half he pried out a battered piece of brass, no bigger than a sparrow, that looked something like a sundial.
“I think that’s a gyroscope,” Civetta said.
Schwab flipped it over. “What’s that?”
“It’s a … machine for spinning. Powered by batteries, looks like.”
Schwab extended his hand and felt its weight. Then he brought the implement close to his face. “Which is where the extra energy came from,” he said eventually.
“So he really … I mean, they actually … like, there really was …”
Schwab, a broad man whose grey hairs were cut into a neat flattop, was gritting his teeth and shaking his head. Then he looked up at his shaggier companion. “We’ll stop back for handcuffs.”
Two Days After the Demonstration
Wind Gate College is an ugly school built in a beautiful place. Nestled in the shadows of snow-capped desert mountains, it’s a square mile of poured concrete and rusting outdoor art.
Charles stood squinting at its biggest building, a wet-sand-colored monstrosity spiked with loud exhaust pipes. Eventually he trudged inside and down a long hallway, stopping at a door marked “Wind Gate Police Department.” He grimaced as he knocked.
“I don’t know,” Charles told Schwab for the third time since entering the windowless room. Civetta was standing behind Schwab’s chair, jotting down notes in a pad.
“I didn’t ask if you know,” Schwab said gently. “I asked if you thought it was an accident. In your opinion.”
“I mean, he said that if he pushed it too hard, it could hit him. So, isn’t that probably what happened?”
“Do you think that’s what happened?”
Charles furrowed his prematurely wrinkled brow. “I don’t know.”
Schwab opened a manila folder in front of him, studied the top sheet, and closed the folder again. “You oversaw all of Frish’s experiments?”
“That’s what the lab tech does,” Charles answered.
“Including this experiment?”
“I wouldn’t really call it an experiment.”
“What would you call it, then?”
“And you oversaw all his demonstrations?”
“And did the teaching assistants help as well? Kat and – Julia, I think?”
Charles nodded at the names, then shook his head at the question. “Not really.”
“But they did know what experiments – or demonstrations – Frish was planning?”
“And they had keys to the classroom.”
“And did anyone else with keys to the classroom know what Frish was planning to do yesterday?”
Charles looked into the corner of the windowless room. “Guess not,” came his eventual reply.
Schwab nodded and consulted the page in his folder. “You had been on the tenure track here, is that right?”
“You were an assistant professor in Physics?”
“And Professor Frish was the Physics chair when you — when they decided not to grant you tenure?”
“And did you harbor any ill feelings toward him because of this?”
Charles rubbed his nose hard with three fingers. Then, for the first time since he’d entered the windowless room, he held Schwab’s gaze. “What do you want me to say? I didn’t like the man. Is that what you’re asking? Was I happy I didn’t get tenure and can’t be a professor? Is that what you want to know?”
Schwab’s face betrayed nothing.
“My feelings were a little ‘ill,’” Charles continued. “Which has nothing — obviously has nothing to do with anything, okay? But you asked.”
“It’s a tragedy,” Julia told Schwab and Civetta as she sat in the chair Charles had occupied.
“What do you mean by that?” Schwab asked.
Julia, a long-faced young woman with immaculately combed brown hair, drew a noisy breath. “He was a real force in physics. A real — his thoughts, his work, it has a great — force. Clarity. Beauty.”
“And you worked with him closely.”
“He was my academic champion. And personal hero. He taught me so much, and —” Julia took another shuddering breath. “If not for him, I don’t know how I could have—”
“Could have what, Julia?” Schwab gently prodded.
“How I could have made some of the discoveries—I mean, just small advancements— just observations — that I…” Julia’s brown eyes were filling with tears. Some internal strength prevented gravity from pulling them down her cheeks.
Schwab nodded in understanding. “And now – take a minute if you’d like, but I do want to ask a few questions about yesterday.”
Julia didn’t look ready, but she did give a rapid nod.
“What do you think happened?”
“I—well, he started by telling the class that he wanted to demonstrate conservation of energy—”
“No, I mean – do you think it was an accident? We were told it wasn’t his first time doing this demonstration.”
“He did it every year, I think.”
“So do you think he… made a mistake?”
“He must have,” she said quietly.
Schwab opened up his manila folder. Civetta took the opportunity to ask a question of his own. “Is it possible he— I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t an accident?”
Julia opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Civetta continued: “He knew everything about what he was doing. Could he have somehow planned this himself, and done it as a suicide?”
“No!” Julia’s voice bounced off the windowless walls. Schwab and Civetta looked taken aback. “He was a strong, strong man,” Julia explained. “He never could have done that.”
“Okay,” Schwab said. “And I know this is difficult, so thanks for bearing with us. I was going to ask you about an … idea I’ve heard – a rumor, maybe – that you might not have always been given the credit you deserved. By Professor Frish.”
“When we worked together, you mean?”
“Right. I guess the idea is maybe he was—maybe you felt he was taking credit for your work sometimes.”
Julia’s slim shoulders crept up in a shrug. “Maybe. It’s possible I said something to that effect, I guess. ”
“Well, sure,” she continued. “And I mean, he was responsible for the big thinking. But, you know, I did some things behind the scenes. Little things, maybe. But he could have acknowledged that a little more. He could have said, ‘Yes, Julia, you’ve made a small breakthrough’ when I had.”
“But I guess that’s just how it goes. In physics. I mean, he was my mentor – my hero. The best professor I ever had. I learned so much from him. So much. So much. He made physics come alive for me. And…”
Julia didn’t continue. Schwab and Civetta watched a few rogue tears slip down her angular cheeks.
“I know there was something wrong,” Kat told Schwab and Civetta in the windowless room.
“Tell us what you mean by that,” Schwab said.
“I mean, you’ve been looking into this, right? Isn’t that what everyone else said?”
“Just tell us what you mean by that, please,” Schwab said.
Kat, an athletically built young woman with closely cropped blonde hair, upturned her two palms. “Well, like — think how much force you’d need for it to come back and hit him that hard.”
“We understand he said that if he pushed it by accident —”
“If he added force, it would go further, sure,” Kat said. “But not that far. Not that hard. I mean, come on.”
“So what do you think happened?”
“Couldn’t tell you. But it’s obvious there was some extra energy.”
Schwab opened up his manila folder. “Let me ask a few more things. Now, you’re not looking to stay at Wind Gate after your master’s, is that right?”
“No. I want to use what I’m learning.”
“Finance. Markets. You know, it’s amazing how similar markets are to physical systems. You think of stocks as being all about psychology, and maybe they are, but bundle up a lot of people’s different psychologies together and you’re back into physics.”
“And was Frish … supportive of this?”
“Not at all,” Kat said briskly. “Professor Frish says that physics belongs to the world, not the wealthy. He didn’t— I don’t know, I think he hated the idea I’d be making money off his theories.”
“And does that make it harder for you?”
“Of course. I’m not his first student to jump into hedge funds. The least he could do is make some introductions. No, that’s not true – the actual least he could do is provide me with a good letter of recommendation. But even that he said no to.”
“And did that make you angry?”
“Sure. I don’t know. Angry isn’t the right word. I understood his perspective, or where his perspective came from. But it did stand in my way.”
“I’ll have to find another prof, I guess. Hey, listen. Are you actually looking into this? Are you just asking questions to look like you’re doing something, or are you actually going to find out what happened?”
Schwab paused before responding. “This is an active investigation. Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering if you’re going to look at the physical evidence, too.”
“An autopsy is normally conducted in —”
“No, no, not the body,” Kat interrupted.
Schwab’s silence betrayed his curiosity.
“The ball,” Kat said. “The ball.”
The Day of the Demonstration
“Now, I can stand up here and talk about conservation of energy until I’m blue in the face,” Professor Frish said as he strode across the bright classroom in his leather jacket and pale jeans. “But I want to prove that I believe in it.”
The middle-aged professor grabbed the ball dangling from a cord in the middle of the classroom. Fashioned from cloudy steel, it was slightly larger than his own head.
Taking the ball in his two hands, Professor Frish stepped backward. A huge periodic table was fixed to the wall of the auditorium-style classroom. With his back against the wall, Frish’s wavy brown hair nearly came up to Einsteinium.
“Now here’s what I’m going to attempt, okay? I’m going to release this ball, and let it swing all the way to the other side of the room. Then it’ll swing all the way back. And you’ll see that it will stop exactly where it started. Right here, against my chin.”
He turned his head slightly so he could speak to his seventy-eight students while resting the steel ball against his stubble. “And I have to be careful,” he continued, “because if there’s any extra energy at all – even if I accidentally push this ball a little when I’m letting go – then it will go that much further when it comes back. And then this truly will be a mind-blowing demonstration.”
The students laughed, but there were nerves in their laughter.
“I’m going to close my eyes, because it really will stop right at my chin, and I don’t know if I can take that sight and stand still.” There was more laughter, with more nerves. “Well, here goes nothing.” The room fell silent as he slowly opened his fingers, closed his eyes, and let the ball fly.
It swung to the far wall of the classroom. And there was a palpable energy, an anxiety, a feeling of breath being taken and held, that rippled through the auditorium as the ball started to come back. Back toward Professor Frish. Came back and almost, absurdly, appeared to pick up speed. Began to move faster and faster as it made its way from the center of the classroom back toward the serene-featured head of the charismatic professor of physics. Closer and closer, faster and faster, and a girl in the front row screamed out. Professor Frish opened his eyes in time to see the ball and then …
The ridiculous thunk.
Every student screaming as one.
The mute head of Professor Frish slipping down the periodic table.
The ball making an oddly halting march back to the center of the classroom.
The body of Professor Frish hitting the floor with a clunk.
And Julia rushing the body to receive any last words.
And no last words escaping this former professor of physics.
Three Days Before the Demonstration
“These are the kinds of things kids remember from college,” Professor Frish told the small squadron assembled in his office. “It’s when learning comes alive that their brains light up, like, ‘Whoa, so that’s what that means!’ Right?’”
Julia nodded enthusiastically. “Totally. Totally.” Kat slumped into her seat and shrugged. Charles continued his examination of the tiles in Professor Frish’s office.
Receiving just one third of the reception he thought he deserved, Professor Frish turned his spinning leather chair toward the lab tech. “I thought you’d be all over this stuff, Charles. Experiments in the classroom – isn’t that right up your alley?”
“They’re not exactly experiments,” Charles muttered.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean in an experiment, you have a hypothesis, a control …” Charles looked bravely up at the esteemed chair of the Wind Gate Physics Department. “What you’re talking about is a demonstration. Just a cheap trick, almost.”
“Cheap tricks in the classroom, then,” Frish said.
“Don’t you think that’s—well, a little childish? This is supposed to be Advanced Physics with Applications.”
“I have an idea,” Julia said. “Maybe after the demonstration, I can show some of our findings from spinning electrons? So they can see how these principles get applied in modern science.”
“Oh, they don’t want to hear me give a book report,” Frish said. The professor leaned back into his leather chair and smiled obligingly from Julia to Charles. “What I want to do is just this: Illustrate – unforgettably illustrate – the basic principle we know as conservation of energy. The students may know the theory from their textbooks, sure. But they’re about to find out just how elegant it is.”
“Why not show them how an experiment really works?” Charles suggested. “Show them that a properly designed experiment can teach us new things about the world around us?”
Frish breathed deeply as he appeared to consider this. “Can it?” he finally asked.
“Haven’t we been over this enough times by now, Charles? Science is driven by theory, not by experimentation. What significant scientific innovations have ever come from the laboratory? Everything we’ve learned about the physical world in the modern era has sprung from pure thought.”
“A theory is only as good as knowledge of setting. You can’t know the full story without the experiment.”
“Oh, of course you can. It’s the theory, not the experiment, which tells us the story.”
“You’re playing games with my words!”
Kat looked from Frish to Charles with undisguised interest, like a tennis spectator following the ball. Julia was getting visibly anxious. “Oh, Charles, don’t—” she began.
The lab tech waved her off. “Rules based on pure theory threaten to be nonsense,” he said slowly. “We need experimentation to know that we remain on the ground.”
Frish’s eyes lit up. He waved an imaginary cigarette toward Julia. “On the ground, indeed! Wasn’t it Dirac who said, ‘A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data’? Why stay on the ground when the truth is floating all around us, just waiting to be discovered?”
Charles licked his lips and looked at Frish, just looked at him.
The professor turned up his palms in a saintly gesture of understanding. “Charles, listen. I know it’s been a difficult year. A most difficult year. But I’m so glad you’re still able to contribute to Physics as a lab tech. I just think you— you need to consider—maybe consider your role, and how you fit in here. And how the experimental sciences fit in. And maybe it’s not what you would do if you were chair of the department. But—” he shrugged as if to offset the harshness of his upcoming remark. “I’m the chair for now.”
“Of course,” Charles said quietly. He opened his mouth as if to make another point, closed it, then opened it again to repeat, “Of course.”
“I think — maybe we should end the meeting here,” Julia suggested, adding brightly: “We all have lots of work to do!”
The lab tech stood and swept out of the room. Julia caught up with him in the hallway.
“He was rough on you in there,” she said sympathetically.
Charles shrugged as he kept walking. “Frish isn’t as important as he thinks.”
He pushed open a metal door. Light poured from the campus green into the dim Physics building. He took a step out and held the door open. “Coffee?”
Julia shook her head. “I need to get back to work.”
“Those atomic gyroscopes, still?”
“No, I’m done with all that,” Julia said. “If I want people to know what I’m capable of …”
She paused. He waited for her to finish the thought.
“…I’ll need to work with something bigger.”
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