The Strange Case of the Cat’s Collapse

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I only spoke to Dr. Rigby twice in his life: he asked one question during my interview, and he greeted me at the reception welcoming me to the physics department. Perhaps that’s why I kept my wits better than the rest of the office when he died at his desk.
His secretary, Ms. Coretta, shrieked loudly enough to rattle the hallway. I put my head out of my office just in time to see her stumble back from Dr. Rigby’s door, knocking into the undergraduate student behind her in her haste to reach the safety of her desk, a fortress with battlements of stacked paperwork and pulp novels. The clicking of my shoe heels in the linoleum hallway gave me enough authority to walk past them both and into Dr. Rigby’s office, where I found the elderly professor collapsed on his desk, a little too still and a little too crumpled for living flesh.
I smelled blood, a metallic stink out of place among the dust and coffee, before I saw anything amiss.
I made the long walk around his desk before touching him. He’d put the desk against the wall, perpendicular to the door. His thin white hair was spilling over a pile of exams, and when I reached to move it away from his face, I spotted a brass letter-opener buried to the hilt in his ribs — not visible from the doorway. His skin was cold.
I retreated from the crime scene without touching anything else. As I came out of the office I spread my arms wide to catch the undergraduate student and Dr. Rigby’s graduate assistant, Devin, and steered them away from the open door.
“They’re asking if anyone here knows CPR,” Coretta said. She was cradling a black telephone in both hands.
“That won’t help,” I said. “He’s been killed.”
“He’s really dead?” asked the undergraduate. He looked like a scared child with his eyes so wide, although he must be nearly twenty. He carried a paper in his hand, and I recognized Dr. Rigby’s handwriting on the red ink that covered it.
“Murder!” Coretta exclaimed breathlessly. A bit of color returned to her cheeks as she placed the handset down on the edge of her desk, on top of a pile of forensic thrillers. “Oh, it’s just like a mystery story with a locked room! I’ve been at my desk all morning, and it’s only you three that’s come in.”
“But I just got here,” protested the student. He was broad-shouldered, a brawler in a baseball cap who’d have no trouble overpowering an old man.
“You’re coming back,” Coretta said, “And you were so angry when you left his morning office hours. And you,” she said, lowering a finger to encompass both me and Devin, “you two move up now, don’t you? Someone gets his classes.”
The three of us formed a circle of challenging, uneasy glances. “Well, no one will leave until the police arrive,” I said, smoothing my skirt. Neither of the young men moved.
“Oh, if only you did useful science here,” said Coretta. “A detective could just ask questions and solve it so cleverly.”
I bristled. “Quantum physics is useful,” I announced.
“But not for solving murders.”
I fixed my gaze on her. “Who opened the door and first observed Dr. Rigby?”
“I did,” she replied.
“Then you’ve killed him, Ms. Coretta.”
“I have not!” she cried. “He was dead!”
“Not until he was observed,” I said.
“Schrödinger’s cat,” said Devin. He was pale. “You’re saying that Dr. Rigby was dead, and he was alive, until she opened the door?”
The student groaned. “I hate the cat thing.”
“I’m saying even more than that. You assume that there are only two possibilities: yes or no. The universe explores every branching decision that you can imagine, and some you can’t. And it all happens at once.” I smiled at Coretta. “Until you opened that door and found him dead, and picked the one we are living.”
“I didn’t,” Coretta sputtered.
“The real world doesn’t work that way,” the undergraduate student protested. His face was reddening, and he crumpled the paper that he was holding in his fist.
“It does work that way, every little particle,” I said, turning my smile to him.
“Particles, not people!”
“Are you angry that you are having to question your intuition?” I asked. “How angry?”
Devin cleared his throat. His lips were pressed thin. “In the thought experiment, the device that potentially killed the cat depended on a single particle that triggered a poison if it decayed, so stabbing isn’t exactly...”
I faced Devlin. My smile was now wide enough to split my face. “I didn’t say anything about stabbing,” I said.
Ms. Coretta gasped loudly.
“Grab him!” I shouted, and the undergraduate obediently seized Devin’s opposite arm. I took the near one.
He didn’t fight us, but he did slouch forward.
“Do you think the operator got all that?” I asked, inclining my head toward the phone.
“Oh, I’ll ask,” said Coretta. She lifted the handset to her ear happily. “So clever. And it’s even recorded.”
“I see, now. That was all to trick him,” the undergraduate student said, nodding at me over Devin’s head. “Of course Dr. Rigby was dead, whether or not we looked.”
“I was completely serious,” I said. “He was both alive and dead, until observed.”
“Until observed, but it didn’t have to be us observing,” I said. “Devin was there when he stabbed Dr. Rigby. Did you really think you’d get away with it?”
The murderer lifted his head. “I thought,” he said, “that it was a possibility.”