By Jenean McBrearty
Image by Jack Bryson
Rhonda Heath, like the six Highland inspectors before her, had become as pragmatic as she was baffled by the Schuler case. “The devotees and their guru have disappeared without a trace.” She slipped the three-inch file held together with three thick rubber bands into the file cabinet and returned to her desk where George McClarren sat staring out the window.
“I can’t believe nine people evaporated into thin air, Ms. Heath,” he said. “Dr. Schuler was a con-man not a wizard. Certainly not a saint.” He’d just arrived from London and the space heater and hot toddy Heath had waiting in her office for him hadn’t brought him an ounce of comfort.
“Well, you’re the one with all the newfangled technology, Sir. According to your instruments, there is no ground or tunnel egress from the temple compound. Three years of hunting has netted us bumpkus. Schuler, like Hazzeltine, Bohr, and Jones before him, allegedly extracted his followers quicker than a quark.”
McClarren sniffed. “Nothing is faster than the speed of light, Ms. Heath, and a quark is a particle, so far unobservable.”
Heath leaned forward on her elbows, and hoped her grin conveyed her pleasure. He’d read Schuler’s notes and talked to the same physicists she’d interviewed. Notably, Professor Carrie, the youngest member of the Council for Mathematical Sciences and currently serving the Royal Society of Edenborough. Carrie was no Archibald Howe or David Wallace, but he was accessible and knew Schuler and his ilk personally.
“Quarks … a case of the theoretical being treated as factual. You don’t find anything odd in that, but reject Schuler’s theory as the answer to what’s happened to the followers of Rowland’s Route,” she said.
McClarren grabbed his hat and squashed it on his head. “Are we driving to Schuler’s Institute or not?”
“Happy to oblige any man seeking enlightenment, Sir.” She put on her raincoat and scarf and headed for the door.
“You can enlighten me on how Schuler persuaded eight of the world’s most well-educated people to sign over their earthly assets to his institute, is what you can do.”
Heath drove North through Golpie’s immaculate streets for a mile to Dunrobin Castle, then turned left towards the Highlands. “We’ll talk to whomever we meet along the way,” she told McClarren, but they saw no one on the road along the five-mile stretch to Schuler’s white stone chapel.
“It looks like a mosque to me,” he said as they neared the walled-in golden dome.
“Wait ‘til you get inside. It looks more Hindu than Arabic. There are pictures of the Indian pantheon. Some of the folks around here, including the Catholics in Brora, call it an ashram.”
“Who owns it now? McClarren asked. “Pyramid Scheme Inc.?” I know one thing; they wore woolen socks if they stayed through a winter here. Good grief, it’s cold!”
Heath hadn’t thought much about that. People in Golpie said Schuler’s Chapel had been occupied for about a year before the disappearance of its devotees, but they never mentioned if they’d actually seen anyone from there once they arrived by boat. Only Schuler came into town, it seems, to pick up supplies every Friday for perishables, and got a box off the boat occasionally. “They had a generator for heat and light. It’s outside the backdoor of the kitchen. Gas and solar options, I think,” she said.
She unlocked the police lock that secured the compound’s front door, and they stepped inside. The buildings were arranged in a semi-circle beginning with four attached motel room-like cottages connected to the domed chapel by a covered corridor. To the right, another corridor led to a two-story cottage connected to three more rooms. “Let me give you the grand tour. We’ll start with the four bedrooms,” Heath said and led him to the left. “Each has its own bathroom in the rear, and a small kitchenette with a back door that opens up to a small fenced-in patio.”
They stepped inside, and McClarren ran his fingers over the windowsill. “No dust. Beds made. Empty closets.” He rummaged through the drawer of a small desk under the front window. “No stuff, you know what I mean? They cleaned this place really good. Did you get any finger prints?”
“Not even off the coat hangers?” McClarren said.
“It’s like they all wore gloves every day. Good idea as cold as it gets here.”
McClarren rolled his eyes. “Are all the bedrooms the same?”
“Except for the art-work. Cabin three has a picture of Ganesh on the wall.”
“Who’s that, you mean. He’s a Hindu god with the head of an elephant supposed to shower blessings on people.”
“I suppose. Cabin number two has a picture of St. Teresa.”
“Which one?” he said.
“I see you know your saints.”
“With a name like McClarren does that surprise you?” he said.
She shook her head no. “This one’s Tereasa of the roses. As in stop and smell once in a while. Funny how the Hindus have all these incarnations of God, and the Catholics have all the saints that are supposed to be the same thing.”
“Yeah, except, those batting for our team have to earn their way to divinity,” he said as they walked through the last of the bedroom apartments and started down the corridor. “Do you mind if we leave the chapel for last?”
They inspected the first room to the far right, as big as two of the bedrooms, and dominated by a huge fireplace to the right, flanked by floor to ceiling bookcases. Two sofas perpendicular to the hearth faced each other across from a wooden coffee table. The other three walls were barren, and in the middle of the room were four, six-foot tables and a dozen straight-backed chairs.
“I wonder what they read,” McClarren whispered as he scanned the shelves. “There must be room for a thousand books at least. What happened to them?” He turned to heath. “Did Schuler ship any boxes?”
“No, and most of the shelves were empty. They had internet up here. The executor of Schuler’s will had everything boxed up and warehoused in Golpie. There’s a storage company near the dock. An auctioneer named Annie Stirling made inquiries last week. There are a few classics, of course. Shakespeare. Homer. Hugo. Chaucer. But most of the books were science texts by people I’ve never heard of. Planck. Schrodinger. Carroll.”
“Does that door go to the other rooms?” McClarren said.
He followed her into two more rooms, one of which looked like a classroom with its blackboards and tables with computer wiring wells and the other filled with wall cabinets, drawered tables and counters. “A lab and a classroom. Makes sense.”
“The families got the Leavers’ personal effects,” Heath said. “I talked to them in depth. They were all resigned. Said their good-byes to their loved ones, and that was that.”
McClarren turned to her and shot her a skeptical look, “Sure. Come on, woman, not one of them asked their loved ones where they were going?”
“If they did, they didn’t tell me is all I’m stating. Maybe they didn’t trust a woman with the information. Maybe they were like you. Do you want to see the chapel? It’s getting late and we can see the house tomorrow.”
“Is this a real church?” he said as she unlocked the front door.
“You tell me.”
She turned on the six, soft-white lights that hung from ten-foot chains from a sky-blue ceiling, the same sky-blue that covered the walls except for their pastoral frescos. There were no pews, or chairs, just a magnificent wood inlay floor with strips of mahogany making a giant cross. Above a white marble altar was a huge gold sunburst surrounded by reddish gold swirls that made the disk glow. “The carpets are in storage too,” she said.
McClarren started toward the altar on the right side, inspecting the pictures. “Maybe they were an Egyptian cult? Wasn’t Ra the Sun God?”
“Maybe, but there were statues here too. One of Odin with his wolves and ravens, and one of a warrior angel. Maybe you’d recognize it, I don’t.”
“Could be Michael, the Archangel,” McClarren said, “Was he fighting a dragon?”
“I do remember a monster at his feet,” she said.
“You’re right, Sir,” someone said, and man dressed in suit covered by heavy wool coat came out of the shadows. “It was St. Michael. God’s slayer on evil.”
“Who the hell are you?” McClarren demanded.
“I didn’t mean to scare you. I thought you heard me come in.”
“We didn’t, so skip the howdys and identify yourself,” McClarren demanded.
“I’m Dr. Schuler. Erstwhile owner of this compound and physics investigator extraordinaire.”
Heath was now by his side. “Dr. Schuler, you can imagine our surprise,” she said calmly. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“No. Not dead. Just checking on the whereabouts of the compound contents for a friend. She came last weekend and found … well, nothing except some furniture. Is that why everything’s gone, people think we’re dead?”
“What are we supposed to think?” McClarren said. “That nine people blended into the ether and set up housekeeping in another realm?”
Schuler’s eyes widened with pleasure. “That’s it exactly, old boy!” Hew tugged at an earlobe. “I didn’t expect you’d be the one to figure it out so soon or put it so succinctly.”
“Annie Stirling?” Heath said. She’d taken out her cell phone to record their visitor. Schuler didn’t look like any scientist she’d ever seen. They were supposed to be wild-eyed and frizzy haired and wear rumpled clothing. And where were his glasses?
“They’re having a marvelous time, as only egg-heads can have. I’m sure they consider it heaven. Seeing all the people they’ve known who left this vale of tears, and are now living in another vale of tears but together. As for me, I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome for my experiment. When Annie brings the next group of Leavers here, she’ll try to replicate it, and we’ll know if Schrodinger’s cat can finally get out of that box!”
McClarren walked to the doctor and Heath, and said amiably, “You’re under arrest, Dr. Schuler.”
“Murder. Fraud. Extortion. As many crimes as I can find to charge you with so you’ll reverse your “experiment” and bring those people back to earth. Assuming you’re a god who can raise the dead.”
“But I just told you, they’re not dead.” He heaved a sigh. “Alright, let’s go into the kitchen and sit down. Maybe I can make you understand. By the way, what are your names?”
“I’m Inspector Heath, and this is Captain McClarren, Scotland Yard,” she said.
“I’ll have to restrain you,” McClarren said as he removed a pair of cuffs from his belt.
“That will be a problem, Mr. McClarren, but you can try.”
“We’re not letting you get away, Schuler.” He slipped an opened cuff over Schuler’s wrist, and it fell limp. He hesitantly pushed his hand against the man’s coat, and felt nothing. “He’s not real …,” he said.
“Are you a hologram, Doctor?” Heath said.
“Oh, no, no, no. My physical being is here, but it isn’t … that’s the beauty of the whole many worlds theory.
The three of them went into the two-story’s expansive kitchen and sat at the table. Schuler took a note-pad and pen from his coat pocket. “I’ll make basic quantum physics simple.” He drew an atom, two dots representing electrons, and their paths of encircling it. “You see these electrons? Their paths look like orbits of tiny planets. But they aren’t particles to me. No, sir. They’re actually waves, and if we could see them….” He drew another atom and what looked like a mushroom wearing a skirt over it. “They would be behaving like the sea instead of like orbiting planets. Got it?’
“Okay, so far,” Heath said. “So what?”
“So what …. Every time scientists try to see the wave, it fools us. Like I’m fooling you now. Treat me like an orbiting planet by trying to put handcuffs on me, and you can’t do it because I’m really a wave from a different reality, from one of the many worlds in which other Dr. Schulers exist. I’m here, but I’m also there at the same time. You think we’re all dead, but we’ve just jumped worlds and we’re with our other selves, only one with them and the other people who have jumped worlds.”
“Like reincarnation?” Heath said.
“In a way. Except, when I’m reincarnated, I’m not insect or a tree. I’m me. Memories, personality, preferences … all intact. Think of me as an astral projection.”
“Why the trappings of religion in the Institute, Dr. Schuler? Why not just advertise trips to Nirvana or something?” Heath said. Schuler’s hand moved over hers, but she felt so weight of flesh on it.
“Do you know how tenaciously people hold on to this life? The hardest part about the quantum physics theory is getting people to accept that there are many worlds. I understand. Most people have to really die to this world before they make the journey to another world. I, and my companions didn’t want to wait. We wanted to make a leap of faith together, and we did. To you, it seems I’ve come back from the dead … like a ghost, and perhaps that’s what ghosts and apparitions have always been. Simply people who were able to jump worlds.” He turned to McClarren “Imagine if everyone could harness the energy to jump worlds. Do you remember the story of Alice in Wonderland? Certainly, people would go around wondering what was real and what wasn’t if God didn’t separate the many worlds into distinct realms. People couldn’t, wouldn’t get anything done. Law enforcement wouldn’t be possible, right, Mr. McClarren?”
“Nobody would believe us even if we told them the truth,” McClarren said.
“At least the worst they’d do now is give us drugs and vacations in a mental ward,” Heath said. “Our ancestors didn’t fare as well when they showed off their energy harnessing skills.” She pretended to yank a rope about her neck.
“You’re not afraid, Ms. Heath?”
“I’ve too many loved ones in one of your many worlds,” she replied.
“Would it help if I gave you a solutionary explanation and the evidence to back it up so you could prove murder and close the case in this world?” Dr. Schuler offered.
McClarren nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes, that’s exactly what we need. A confession. I have a pad and pen in the car. Wait here. Make a good story.”
There was also a blanket in Heath’s backseat, part of an emergency kit she carried. In the case of electron waves, not seeing them made them behave, according to Schuler. Alright, McClarren decided, he wouldn’t see what he knew was there. He’d force Schuler to behave like a particle.
He grabbed a yellow legal pad and stuck it under his left arm and put a pen in his shirt pocket, just in case they turned as he entered the room. He unfolded the blanket, the hem of which he held in his left hand and draped it over his right arm. Stealth, he remined himself, was the great equalizer when dealing with an enemy as cunning as science. He approached the couple from behind with a cheery, “Got just what we need,” as they sat together in the kitchen. They didn’t turn around.
Heath had moved her chair next to Schuler’s, anticipating his dictation —he didn’t know Schuler’s had once again laid his hand on Heath’s, his right hand on the wrist which he wore a large dialed, metal watch-looking apparatus. He let the tablet fall, and threw the blanket over Schuler’s head with one quick move.
And heard only an echo of Heath’s last words: “I’m not afraid, Doctor Schuler …”
Was it true? McClarren lifted the blanket from the empty chairs. He touched them. Felt their hardness and warmth. It made sense. Schuler was light and where’s there’s light, there’s heat. But Heath? She was alive. He felt the space above and around the chairs. Schuler and Heath were there. He knew they were there. Saw them, heard them. The guilty man and a … woman who’d never harmed a soul.
What would he tell the authorities? He’d find Annie Stirling. They wouldn’t believe her any more than they’d believe him, but at least they’d know he was sane before they locked him away for life. She was his only hope of escape. He wrapped the blanket around him and fled to the chapel. Before the altar, he sat on the floor, staring at the golden sun with regret and terror coursing through his veins. Had he just committed murder? He’d wait for an answer. He’d meditate. He’d wait for Annie Stirling. He pulled the blanket over his head, and sat in darkness, wretched and alone and cold, waiting for St. Annie.
About the Author: Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred print and on-line journals. Her how-to book, Writing Beyond the Self; How to Write Creative Non-fiction that Gets Published was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color. She lives in Kentucky and writes full time when she’s not watching classic movies and eating chocolate.
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