Better Living through Physics by James C Clar

Two Honolulu police detectives come up against a college professor with some rather unique ideas about settling a domestic dispute

Jake Higa and Ray Kanahele parked in front of the Sunrise Villa condominium on Wailana at the corner of Ala Wai Boulevard in the faded heart of Waikiki. Traffic, always an issue along the canal, was at an absolute standstill due to all the commotion. Gold shields affixed to their belts, the two men made their way through the cordon of uniformed officers with a discrete wave here and a restrained 'shaka greeting there. Building maintenance was hosing down the white coral sidewalk in front of the structure with an air of nonchalance. To look at them, you'd think that this sort of thing happened around here 'all the time'. Russet-stained water ran in sparkling rivulets to a storm drain at the curb. No Dumping, read a warning sporting the image of a stylized fish stenciled in black on the concrete curb. A few blocks makai, the runoff merged peacefully with the warm, amniotic waters of the Pacific.

The Sunrise Villa was an older building, probably built during the boom years of the late 60s or early 70s. An open staircase painted a pastel or "ocean" green zigzagged its way up the outside. The afternoon was uncommonly hot. The trade winds had died and the Kona winds were blowing. Visitors and locals alike - maybe even most especially the locals - deplored the sudden change in the weather. Despite the heat and humidity, Higa took the stairs on his toes, two-at-a-time. Kanahele muttered "shit" as he huffed and puffed his way behind his leaner, more agile partner. The door to 11B stood open. Two beefy HPD officers were inside with an elderly man who reminded Kanahele of an older, even wiser-looking Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. That flick being one of the detective's favorites from when he was a teenager.

The Pat Morita lookalike was seated on a rattan couch done up in a plumeria pattern. To his right was a sliding glass door that led to a spacious lanai overlooking the Ala Wai Canal. Without preamble, Higa moved an upholstered chair to spot five feet or so opposite the man. Kanahele propped himself on the edge of a nearby desk. It groaned under his weight. The Hawaiian detective took note of a bookcase whose shelves were nearly covered with an extensive collection of seashells. Out beyond the lanai, to the left of the Ala Wai Golf Course, he could just make out a baseball game in progress on the immaculately manicured diamond of the 'Iolani School. From the colors of their jerseys, he guessed the opponent to be Punahou, or maybe St. Francis. The perfect arc of a rainbow was just visible as it spanned the width of the Manoa Valley above and beyond the dark line made by the H-1 as it passed through Kaimuki in the distance to the northeast.

Before speaking, Higa consulted his battered, black Moleskine notebook as well as a sheaf of report forms that one of the patrol officers securing the door had handed to him as he entered the room. Those unacquainted with Higa's methods might have considered the notebook an affectation. His partner, however, knew the extent to which the veteran Japanese-American investigator used the ongoing, anecdotal record of their cases as a way of making connections, drawing inferences and keeping track of the 'big picture'. Higa was not anti-technology by any means. Still, he did his best thinking with an old-fashioned ballpoint in his hand.

"OK, Mr. Maeda, I'm Detective Higa and this is my partner Detective Kanahele," Higa began. "We obviously have a few questions for you."

"That's 'Doctor' Maeda, detective. I'm a PhD, though, not a physician. Fire away."

In Ray Kanahele's limited experience of academic types, only those from Europe - or those who were arrogant pricks - insisted on being called 'Doctor'. Before he could pass on his observation, however, he was silenced by a knowing, cautionary look from his partner.

"My apologies," the unflappable Higa continued. "Were you and your wife arguing this morning?"

"Not at all. In fact, she had basically just come in. I had an early class and was already home, sitting at my desk right over there grading Physics tests. As I'm sure you know by now, I teach up at UH... the Manoa Campus."

Kanahele looked at the desk upon which he was so precariously perched. Sure enough, scattered across its surface were what he took to be test papers covered with all manner of obscure technical diagrams and arcane mathematical symbols. Here and there, red ink decorated the margins of more than a few of the papers. The red ink was something with which he was well acquainted from his own high school and college days. As for the rest, they might have been Egyptian hieroglyphics as far as he could tell. In fact, ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs would have made more sense.

"Still," Higa countered, looking down at the report forms in his hand, "according to our records the two of you have been arguing of late, correct?"

"Yeah," Kanahele spoke for the first time, "your neighbors have called the police, what, twice in the last three weeks because of the noise."

"It's true. Why should I deny it?" Maeda leaned forward as he replied. He adjusted his glasses and ran a hand through hair that, although probably jet-black at one point, was starting to turn gray.

"We've been having some issues. We've been married for twenty-five years and Celia has never really understood how demanding my job is... how much quiet and concentration it requires. That's the case with most people, I think; they underestimate how difficult teaching really is. Until they try it. Many can't handle it you know. It's not just the money."

Overworked and underpaid, agreed Kanahele without speaking. That just about sums it up for cops... nurses too. His wife, Maile, was a good example of the latter. His hours were bad, no doubt, but hers were the pits. Between their two schedules, they could go weeks basically seeing one another only in passing. Fiery as Maile was, they hardly ever really argued. Maybe their careers were the secret to their own twenty years of marriage. They spent so little time together that, when they did, they were genuinely glad to see one another.

"How long have you been up at the university, doctor?" Higa continued quietly. The impassive detective, too, was thinking about what it would be like to be in a long term relationship. Never having been married, Higa could hardly conceive of the patience, self-discipline and emotional commitment involved. As it was, he was struggling to come to grips with his growing attraction and attachment to a young woman he and Kanahele had encountered in the course of one of their investigations. His great fear was that Mary Nakamura's interest in him stemmed more from the fact that he had developed a profound rapport with her strange and precocious eleven-year-old son, Toshio, than it did from any real attraction on her part.

"This is my fifth year. I was in the University of California system before relocating to Oahu. My contract is up for renewal."

"Has that added to your stress level?"

Maeda smiled knowingly. He sat back and re-crossed his legs. Damn, Kanahele, thought, he looks ready to deliver some sage advice on life and the fine points of Karate to young Daniel!

"I see what you're getting at, you know. But, yes, I'd have to say yes. The pressure to publish in my field can be intense. Securing funding, research grants, is competitive to say the least. At this level, simply being a competent teacher isn't enough. And, as far as that goes, there's the more mundane grind of preparing lessons and grading."

Higa glanced across the room at Kanahele. The sound of traffic and the faint susurration of the palms in the nearly still air could be heard as soon as the big man opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the lanai. The heat seemed to rise up and wallop him like a left hook. He immediately registered the overturned table and the potted yellow hibiscus that lay on its side. Across the canal, it looked like the baseball game was over. The players had gathered on the infield and were shaking hands. They appeared tiny from that distance and from that height. Kanahele knew better. High school athletes were huge these days. They all worked out like maniacs. He figured he needed to spend more time in the gym. Either that, or take up that exercise routine Jake followed so religiously. He reentered the room and pulled the door shut behind him with a faintly pneumatic whoosh.

"Dr. Maeda," Higa picked up where he left off. "We'll take you at your word, for the time being at least. You and your wife weren't arguing today. But, by your own admission, you two have been having a rough go of it lately. What we'd like, then, is for you to run through the events of this morning for us."

"Alright, detective. You have a job to do and I'm not trying to hide anything. As I mentioned, I was already home trying to get some of my grading done. It's nearing the end of the term, you know. Celia came in and, immediately, turned on the television. She raised the volume so that she could hear whatever nonsense she was interested in while she was in the kitchen. Obviously the noise was quite distracting."

"I'll bet," Kanahele muttered from where he had resumed his position on the corner of Maeda's desk. "Hey, doc," he asked, "what did your wife do for a living? She a teacher too?"

"Oh, no," Maeda answered before continuing with his story. "She's a real estate broker... that is, she was a real estate broker. Anyhow, I vowed not to say anything. I was in no mood to start another round of pointless bickering. But, still. I just couldn't concentrate. Her lack of consideration also rankled. It was at that point that one of the problems I was correcting gave me a rather inspired idea."

"What idea, Dr. Maeda?" Higa interrupted. "Tell us about that."

"It had to do with Newton's Second Law of Motion. Surely you remember that from your high school Physics class, detectives? One version of the formula is... oh well, never mind. Starting from a position of rest and acted on by gravity, in other words, and put in laymen's terms, an object's speed will increase at the same rate no matter the mass of that object."

Higa and Kanahele looked at one another in silent commiseration.

Noticing their lack of comprehension, Maeda's eyes twinkled as he slipped into lecture-mode.

"Of course I'm alluding to the old conundrum about which falls faster, a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks. Well, I decided to conduct my own impromptu experiment. I unplugged the damn television and carried it out onto the lanai. I hadn't noticed, by the way, how muggy it had gotten today. I propped the television up on the railing with one hand and took a penny from my pocket with the other. Of course they didn't fall at the same rate - air resistance you know. Nonetheless, the impact was rather spectacular."

"What happened then?" Higa asked without hurry or trace of emotion.

"Well," Maeda looked at the two detectives and smiled. "Celia came out of the kitchen and onto the lanai when she heard the noise. Come to think of it, maybe it was because she noticed that the sound of the television was missing. Whatever the case, and as the kids today say, she was not a 'happy camper'.

"Is that when you... you know"? Kanahele prompted.

Maeda raised his eyebrows archly. "Until I speak with my attorney, detectives, let's just say that's when I reached for another penny."

Jake Higa stood and motioned toward the two uniforms standing sentinel at the door. They escorted Maeda out into the hallway and to the elevator in handcuffs. The two detectives followed a few seconds later. Higa, of course, decided to use the stairs again. With notions of force, gravity and acceleration swimming inchoately in his head, Kanahele followed his partner. He took particular care during the descent.

Later, Higa and Kanahele sat at a bench at the St. Louis Drive Inn on Waialae Avenue in the quaint neighborhood of Kaimuki. The private schools in the area had just dismissed and, so, the two men were surrounded by school kids in multi-colored uniforms jostling and kidding one another noisily as they lined up at the counter.

Higa was eating a bento. Kanahele was digging into a teriyaki steak plate lunch with all the trimmings.

"Jesus, Jake," Kanahele said between mouthfuls, "just when you think you've heard everything. Damn Kona winds are making even 'Dr. Science' go off the deep end."

Higa shrugged his shoulders and waited. After nearly a decade of working together he knew that, sometimes, it was best to let Ray have his say.

"Anyhow, if I see Maile starting to play around with stray pennies I'm staying off the lanai, that's for sure!"

Higa smiled, somewhat of a rarity for him. Even he couldn't resist an opportunity like that to poke a little fun at his friend. He motioned with one of his chopsticks toward the Styrofoam container in front of Kanahele.

"Keep eating like that, Ray, and you've got no worries. She'd never be able to lift you over the railing."

It was as though a light bulb had gone off in Kanahele's head. The big Hawaiian stood up and tossed his empty lunch container into a nearby trash receptacle emblazoned with the state motto. Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono - "the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness." As he walked toward the service window to queue up with the kids, he looked over his shoulder at Higa.

"Now you're talking. I think I'll have another after all. 'Better living through Physics,' right Jake?"

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