Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Love Bomb

by Craig Cornwell



All the reporters in the packed hall burst into laughter, more than mere laughter it was hails of real guffaws. Many sides were clutched, some eyes were wiped and even a few thighs were slapped.

Professor Raif Random cleaned his glasses calmly; it was an old habit which he used to give himself a few moments to consider his next move. "Ladies and gentleman, I know that it sounds implausible in the extreme," he said. "But it isn't much different from a lie detector. It works on a similar principle to the ones that William Marsdon worked out in the nineteen thirties. I am sure you do not want me to attempt to explain it to you but if you'd like to read my study, it's all in there."

An attractive blonde stood up, she was big and small in all the right places, with big blue eyes and killer dimples. "Holly Harlow, Daily Globe," she said. "Professor Random, are you seriously suggesting that you have invented a love machine?"

Cue more laughter.

"Nothing of the sort," Random said. "What I have invented is an emotion detector; it can monitor the existence of emotions and measure the strength of the feeling."

"So no lying spouse is safe?" Holly said.

Random ignored the ripple of laughter, what did he care about the opinions of those who could barely hold a coherent conversation? He just wanted publicity and funding to continue his research. "Miss Harlow, the 4641 has a lot more uses than a simple love detector. It can detect the presence of any feelings you care to mention, hurt, anger, depression. Its uses are numerous; it will change the way that we live."

"Such as?"

"Divorces!" a wag suggested.

####

Random threw his jacket in the general direction of the hook and wandered into the living quarters part of his tenth floor apartment-cum-laboratory. "Those pinheads," he said to his pet goldfish, Bluey. "What do they know? Can't they see that the 4641 can determine whether someone has depression, or repressed memories? Imagine how that would help with mental care."

The fish declined to answer.

Random was about to continue with his monologue of moaning but he was interrupted by a knock at the door. He stopped mid syllable, what was someone doing knocking on the internal door, what happened to the entrance phone? It must be Miss Eves from downstairs, he told himself. She was always popping up to borrow a cup of sugar, or something, most of the time it was just an excuse for a chat.

He was wrong.

He opened the door to be greeted (if their dour countenances could be described as greeted) by a man and a woman in grey suits, with matching expressions of greyness and cheerlessness.

"Good evening, Professor Random," the man said, placing a business card in Random's hand. "My name is Samuel Leighton and this is my associate Danni Baines."

The other man nodded.

"We are lawyers with Ginge, Skanke and Skanke, Solicitors. You may have heard of us; we recently represented the mayor of London in a very high profile case."

"Err...well, I don't really follow the news much," Random said.

Leighton smiled falsely. "Of course you don't, a busy man like yourself."

He pulled himself together a little bit; he was taken aback by the lawyer's verbal assault. "Can I help you gentlemen?"

Leighton continued with the smile. "Indeed, it is more how we can help you."

Random frowned, he harboured, as do many people, a natural mistrust of lawyers which is quite unfair when you think about it but what are you going to do. "Is it?"

Leighton nodded. "May we come in and I will explain all."

Random glanced down at the card he had been given. It was a deep red color and quite plain. It had Leighton's name emblazoned in silver and the name of the law firm in slightly smaller letters and that was it, no address, no telephone number, nothing.

He looked back up into the face of Leighton, who wore a chummy grin. "Oh, sorry," he said quietly. "Do forgive my manners; come in. It's been a very long day."

"The press conference for the 4641?" Baines asked as Random led them into his living quarters.

Random nodded. "You were there?"

"We were indeed," Leighton answered. "Professor Random, let me get to the point of our visit. We represent a client who wishes to purchase the 4641."

Random smiled, ah, so it was good news. "They wish to make an investment?"

Leighton shook his head. "No, they wish to buy the patent rights to your invention."

Random raised an eyebrow. "Is this a wind up?"

Leighton's face was solemn. "I can assure you that we are not joking in the slightest."

Random looked at the two grey faced solicitors and guessed quite rightly that they probably weren't the joking type. "So someone wants to buy my work. Who?"

Leighton gave a dry chuckle; a split second later Baines followed suit.

Random frowned at the near silent Baines.

"I am afraid that I'm not at liberty to divulge the name of our client," Leighton said.

"You can't?"

They both shook their heads (Leighton and Baines). "Our client is a man who sees the great potential in your work," Leighton said. "For humanity and for your impending wealth. He is a shy man and all he asks is that his anonymity be honored."

Random shook his head. "It doesn't matter anyway, because the 4641 is not for sale. I am looking for investors, not people to buy it outright. It's only a prototype, there's years of testing ahead before it will be ready for the public."

Leighton didn't seem to hear, or care. "You only have to name a price, Professor. You are a relatively young man; imagine retiring to enjoy your youth, never having to worry about money again."

"My work is my life, Mr. Leighton," Random said. "Without it I would go crazy within six months. There is so much to discover in the universe and I only have so much time."

Leighton smiled pleasantly and for a split second Random would have believed that he was a decent enough chap, if you didn't know he was a lawyer, of course. "Very well. I can see that you don't want to make any decisions on the spur of the moment. I will simply leave our clients opening offer and be about our business."

The lawyer produced a piece of paper and wrote something on it and handed it to Random. "This is my client's first offer."

Random looked, blinked and then looked again. "Fuck me!"

"Imagine how much research that would pay for," Leighton said smoothly.

Random opened his mouth to speak, decided against it, and imagined the cash. It was more money than he would ever need to continue research into anything. Too much. Why would anyone want the 4641 so badly?

"It's a generous offer to be sure," he said evenly; the lawyers were making him feel uncomfortable now, and he wanted time to think. "Do you think I could have a few days to think about it?"

Leighton smiled like a snake, if they could smile which I am sure they can't. "Of course, Professor, take all the time you need. We'll be in touch in 48 hours."

Random let out a sigh of relief when the two men had left. He didn't know why; they seemed normal enough for lawyers, a bit stiff and formal but certainly not sinister.

The phone rang, jolting him out of his reverie.

"Hello, Professor Random?" a female voice said.

"Who is asking?" Random said, always a good answer.

"It's Holly Harlow, Professor, you may remember me from earlier, from the Daily G-"

"I know who you work for. Goodbye Miss Harlow," Random interrupted, and went to put the phone down.

"I want to apologise for making fun of you today," Holly said quickly.

Random hesitated. Like most men he was willing to forgive a beautiful woman, or at least give her the benefit of the doubt. "Do you?" he said coolly.

"Yes, I feel badly about making fun of you and I would like to make it up to you," Holly continued.

Random was instantly suspicious, as everyone should be when confronted by the press. "And how do you propose to do that? By giving me the research funds that I might have lost, thanks to the behavior of the gutter press at my demonstration?"

"Kind of... I want an exclusive interview with you; it will give you a chance to tell the world about the 4641."

"Or at least the people who read the Globe."

Holly laughed. "That is the world, professor Random, believe me."

####

Ed's Funky Diner was a popular bar near where Random lived, which was one of the reasons he agreed to meet the reporter there. It was very expensive and as the reporter was paying he was more than happy to be interviewed there.

Holly was there when he arrived, she was less business like than before, probably to make him feel more at ease, he guessed.

It worked, for the first few drinks they just chatted about themselves, off the record, it wasn't until their fourth cocktail that Holly brought up the subject of the 4641.

"Professor, tell me --"

"Please, Miss Harlow, call me Raif," Random interrupted, the effects of the drinks and Holly's easygoing and likeable manner working to the good (for her).

Holly smiled. "It's Holly. So tell me about the 4641; is it really as accurate as you claim?"

Random sipped his Pimm's. "The results have not dropped below 98.4%. That's as near to perfection as you can get."

"And that is across all of its uses?"

Random nodded. "Yes. Well, not quite. It's strange, but the love detection function is the most accurate. It's never wrong, not in over 2000 trials. If it wasn't my project, I would have believed it to be a fake."

Holly was about to answer then stopped and leaned closer to Random. "Don't make it obvious you're looking, but those two men by the main doors -- are they friends of yours?"

Random glanced quickly and none too subtly towards the door. "No, never seen them in my life. Why?"

"I think they are watching us," Holly said matter of factly.

Random laughed. "Watching you, maybe. Who would recognize me?"

"I'm serious," Holly insisted. "I noticed them earlier."

"You must be mistaking me for one of those super hero types you report on. Why on Earth would they want to watch me?"

Holly shrugged. "I have no idea, but my instinct tells me they are up to no good."

"It's like being out with Lois Lane," Random said with a smile.

Holly smiled. "She's a close personal friend of mine, but listen, I am deadly serious here. In fact, let's put it to the test. Indulge me. Let's go to another pub -- The Scruffy Daisy is only across the road."

Random finished up his drink. "Will it make you happy?"

Holly shrugged. "Probably not, but it will prove my point."

####

Holly gestured with her cocktail towards the far corner of The Scruffy Daisy public house. "Now do you believe me?"

The two men had entered the pub shortly after them.

Random was beginning to get a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. The night was taking a turn for the worse.

Holly noticed that he had a worried look. She'd been a private investigator before she had made the switch to journalism; she knew when someone's bottle had just gone. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"Something else happened tonight," Random said.

Holly raised a quizzical eyebrow, Spock like. "Continue."

Random quickly told her about the visit of Leighton and the offer to buy the 4641.

Holly listened carefully to every word without comment, she only spoke when she was sure he had finished. "I know of Leighton and his firm, Ginge, Skanke and Skanke. They act for all manner of dodgy customers, including the Law Society. I wouldn't mind betting it has something to do with them. I used to be a litigation lawyer before I was a private investigator; I know a thing or two about them."

Random was confused. "The Law Society? The one than governs all the solicitors in this country?"

Holly nodded getting a little more enthusiastic as a plot unfolded in her head. "Think about it. Your invention could affect every single case in the country if used right, couldn't it?"

Random was impressed, it seemed like Holly had actually read the press release. "Yes, it could, and will. However, I don't see what that has to do with the Law Society. They don't act as lawyers."

Holly shrugged. "So then they sell the invention to the highest bidder, it could be worth billions of pounds."

Random began to laugh but the seriousness of Holly's face stopped it in his throat. Her face was set in investigative reporter mode now. "The Law Society is not all sweetness and light. They have a dark underbelly that they like to keep hidden from the public," she said.

"Hence it's an under belly," Random said wryly.

He took a sip of his still water; he had drunk far too many cocktails. This was madness, the Law Society a sinister group of shady villains buying his invention and selling it to the higher bidder?

Then again, there were people following him.

"So who are those guys over there?"

Holly didn't know. "I would guess that they are from whoever is Leighton's client, come to rough you up and convince you to sell the 4641."

Random was horrified; the slightly sick feeling had become nausea. "What?"

Holly realized she might have gone a little too far. "Keep calm, they are probably just following you to make sure that you weren't talking to anyone else about selling your invention."

"And that's okay?"

Holly patted Random's arm. "Don't panic, I'll protect you."

"You?"

"Trust me, Raif, I know what I'm doing."

Random wasn't placated. "That doesn't make me feel any better."

Holly smiled thinly. "Sorry, I'm just looking out for you. You know what though? They could be from any number of people interested in the 4641. The greeting card people for example, I bet their business would be affected by a device that told people how much someone loved them."

Random groaned inwardly. "It does more than that. That was just the hook to get people to invest in it." He shook his head; he wasn't far short of wishing that he had never developed the damn thing.

"I realize that it has a lot of uses," Holly said. "But they won't necessarily...ooh, here we go, look natural. They're coming over."

Random didn't have time for a 'what?' before the two well dressed men reached their table and loomed over them. He looked anything but natural.

Holly stood up. "It's time we were on our way home, Professor Random," she said, loud enough so that the entire pub heard.

Random went to stand up and found a large hand on his shoulder. He looked up at a smile that promised much nastiness if he didn't stay put.

"Professor Random, I presume," the owner of the smile said.

"Yes, and we're just leaving," Holly said. Her voice could have been heard across town.

The speaker smiled, or continued to smile. "There is no need to shout, Ms Harlow. Neither I nor my colleague are hard of hearing."

Holly flashed a smile of her own. "I am glad to hear it," she said. "Then you should hear me when I said we're leaving -- try to stop us and you will regret it."

The guy laughed, as did his colleague. He then reached out to push Holly back onto her seat. That was his first and last mistake. Holly ducked under his outstretched arm and kneed him right in the groin. He bent double in agony and she chopped him on the back of the neck.

The remaining 'suit' reached inside his jacket. Holly hit him with her chair and he joined his unconscious partner. Random was rooted to his chair in shock and a fair bit of horror.

For an encore Holly kicked the first one in the stomach and then pulled his wallet out from inside his jacket. "Amateur," she muttered. "Fancy carrying ID."

Random opened his mouth. Nothing came out so he shut it again. He had never been so close to brutal violence before and it wasn't something he wanted to repeat.

"How did you...? Where did...?" he managed to say.

Holly tossed the man's wallet on the table. "I'm an investigative reporter, it comes with the job," she said matter of factly. "Plus, I used to be a karate teacher before I was a lawyer."

"Did you?"

"This is worse than I thought," Holly continued. "These goons are from the Society of Law."

"The Society of Law?"

Holly nodded, then turned to the nearest gawping onlooker and ordered them to call the police as she had been assaulted. "They are a splinter group from the Law Society, very powerful and dangerous. We're in deep trouble."

Random didn't like the sound of that; he had that sick feeling again. "I didn't realize the 4641 was going to be so hazardous to my health."

Holly grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. "We can talk about it on the way."

"On the way where?"

"Anywhere but here."

####

There were three men waiting for them outside the pub, Holly barely broke stride, leaving them behind her clutching various delicate parts of their anatomy.

"Impressive," Random said.

Holly hailed down a cab with one whistle and bundled Random into the back seat.

Random looked back at the pile of groaning bodies as the cab sped off. This was getting completely out of hand. What sort of world reacts so crazily to an invention designed to help people?

The real world, his inner voice told him.

There was only one course of action open to him. He lent forward, "Take me home -- 111 East Street, Bromley."

Holly gave him a knowing look. "Raif, I am not sure that going back to your home is the wisest course of action."

Random nodded, his mind made up, he had to end his insane situation. "It is if we intend to destroy that damned machine."

####

"Good evening, Professor Random."

Random stopped in the doorway. His kitchen was occupied. Two men and a woman in dark suits were drinking his coffee, eating his chocolate hob-nobs and fussing around the 4641.

"Leave that alone," Random snapped. "What are you doing in my apartment?"

"Your doorman let us in," the woman said. "Please excuse our rudeness but we were most anxious to speak with you. My name is Barbara L. Jones, and this is Mr. Hope and Mr. Crosby. We represent Mallhart Ltd."

Random was less than impressed. "The greetings card people?"

Jones nodded. "We are here to make you an offer to do with your invention."

Random groaned. What else?

Holly pushed past Random and confronted the three suits, her PDA at the ready to take notes. "Hi there, allow me to introduce myself. I am Holly Harlow from the Daily Globe, and could I take your names again for my story?"

Jones's slick smile never waived for an instant. "Your story?"

Holly nodded. "Yep, I can see the headline now, 'Top greeting card company in breaking and entering scandal.'"

"That's not very catchy," Jones said.

Holly shrugged. "I don't do the headlines; that's someone else's job. I just write the stories."

"Whatever," Jones said. "We did not break into Professor Random's apartment, we came to make him an offer on the love machine."

"You want to buy it?" Random said.

Jones shook her head. "No, we want you to destroy the machine and your notes, and sign an agreement never to do further research in this area."

"What?"

"Think about it," Holly said. "Mallhart makes billions of pounds a year from its greeting cards. Imagine how much that would be affected if people could tell how much someone loved them? The market could collapse overnight."

Random groaned for what seemed like the millionth time that night. "It does more than that," he said quietly.

"I know it does," Holly said with a smile. "So do they, but they don't care; all they see is the money. That's all they care about."

"Is there anything else that matters?" the smooth voice of Leighton said.

The rest of the lawyer was in the doorway. Behind him Random could see Baines and the three men who had briefly tried to stop them when they'd left The Scruffy Daisy. The latter trio shrank back a bit as they recognized Holly.

The five of them entered the kitchen. It was getting extremely cramped in there.

"I thought you were going to come back in a few days," Random said.

Leighton shrugged. "I was intending to, but that was before I discovered that you were intending to sell the 4641 to Mallhart." He nodded to Jones. "Barbara."

Jones nodded back curtly. "Samuel, we do not wish to purchase the 4641, we wish to see it destroyed and we have a hundred million pound cease and desist contract to prove it." She produced a plastic coated folder and threw it on the kitchen table next to the 4641.

Leighton pointedly ignored the folder. "Indeed, I can see why it would make sense for you to destroy the 4641. However, I am certain that my client will match any offer that you care to make."

"Save the bull," Holly said. "We know exactly who your clients are. The Society of Law pays well these days, I gather?"

Random sighed. The situation was getting ludicrous, not to mention cramped in his tiny kitchen. Who were all these loons who thought they could barge into his life and try to buy him off like he was a piece of meat?

Except Holly, of course, as she was helping him.

Random snatched the 4641 from the table, which was no easy matter as it weighed twenty kilos. "Listen up people, no one is getting the 4641. I'm taking it and my notes and going away. I'd rather sell the damn thing on e-bay than to any of you people."

Leighton stepped forward. "Professor Random, please don't do anything hasty! My client is making you a very generous offer."

Random moved back from the oncoming Leighton, and the others for that matter. He was struggling under the weight of the 4641 both physically and metaphorically. He was going to launch into an 'it's for the sake of humanity' speech but as it was pretty lame and utterly cliché, he didn't.

"More money than you can ever imagine," Leighton continued.

"I don't care," Random said. "I'm leaving right now. Good night."

Of course, with so many people squeezed into the kitchen there was no chance that he was leaving; Leighton and his cronies were blocking the way.

"Is there anything I can say that will change your mind?" Leighton said.

Random shook his head. "Move aside!"

Leighton's smile finally dropped, and Random thought it strange that he didn't really look any different. "I think not, Random. Gentlemen, please relieve the professor of his burden."

"Hold it, Samuel, what are you doing?" Jones demanded, stepping forward herself.

Random backed away from the oncoming thugs, only to walk straight into Jones and her cronies who were moving forward. "Now, let's not do anything hasty," he said.

It was too late. All of a sudden Leighton made a grab for the 4641, as did Jones. Random resisted and within seconds a major scuffle broke out.

Holly punched one of Leighton thugs and felled another with a stool but the others grabbed Random and attempted to wrestle the 4641 from him. Jones and her gang were likewise trying to relieve the professor of his invention.

"Careful," Random bellowed, gripping the machine for dear life. "This has a delicate chemical balance! You'll damage it."

"Then let go and let us have it," Leighton said. "Then we will leave you in peace and very rich."

"No, the invention must be destroyed," Jones said.

Random struggled on until he felt something shudder within the machine. He knew exactly what it was and it wasn't good. "Back off! It's going to blow," he said.

No one paid him the slightest attention.

"I mean it," Random said.

Leighton laughed mockingly. "Random, do you really think that we would fall for that old ruse? I mean do you think we're that -- oof!"

"That should keep him quiet," Holly said, preparing to swing the stool into action one more time.

The 4641 shuddered again and this time Random took his own advice and backed off, first dropping the 4641. "Get back," he warned.

For a split second there was nothing, then the 4641 burst into flames. The flames spread swiftly to the table cloth.

Then they all moved.

There was a very undignified but somewhat unsurprising scramble for the door, with all nine of them trying to squeeze through the kitchen door at once.

####

Random stood with Sub Fire Officer Belton and watched the blaze being dowsed by at least twenty firemen. As it was a posh area the fire brigade had turned up in en masse in record time.

"It was a miracle that no one was hurt," Belton said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Do you have any idea what caused the blaze?"

Random shifted uncomfortably and shrugged.

"Don't worry Professor, we'll get to the bottom of the cause, we always do...say, you have a lot of equipment in there. Do you have a fire certificate for it all?"

"Err..." Random began.

Any further conversation was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Holly. She grabbed Random's arm and dragged him away from the inquisitive fire officer.

"What's up?" Random asked.

Holly thrust a pen and a handful of papers at Random. "Sign these before Leighton and his thugs find us."

"Wh-?" Random began.

"No questions, just do it, here comes Leighton and he doesn't look too happy."

Random was still 'hmming' and 'ahhing', Holly looked him directly in the eye and smiled. "Trust me, Raif, I know what I am doing. Do you trust me?"

"Random!" it was Leighton.

Random glared at the lawyer who he held directly responsible for all this mess and made his decision.

Holly snatched the forms back and scribbled her name as a witness. She turned and faced Leighton and Jones, who was a little way behind.

"You're too late, people," she said with a smile. "Professor Random has signed the contract with Mallhart Ltd. agreeing to destroy his invention and all related notes and agreeing to never work on anything like the 4641 again."

The pair stopped dead in their tracks.

"What?" Jones said.

Holly continued to smile smugly. "You heard. He has signed the contract which means he will be paid by Mallhart and left alone by everyone else."

Leighton's face was livid, he looked like he was going to say something, but he didn't. He merely glared at Holly and Random and then stalked off.

Jones remained, smirking. "Nicely played, Miss Harlow."

"I thought so."

"Of course, you know that Leighton will have you tied up in litigation for a thousand years?"

Holly nodded. "I am aware of that."

Random was too now, although he would have preferred not to have been.

Jones turned to leave, then stopped. "Mallhart Ltd. has a lot of lawyers," she said, "and they do like a happy ending." She walked away into the night.

Random let out a sigh of epic proportion. He felt like he had aged twenty years in a single night. The fact that he was now one of the richest people in England didn't console him greatly. "This will make a hell of a story in the papers tomorrow."

Holly shrugged. "Maybe."

Random was puzzled. "You're going to write this up, aren't you? I mean, weren't you interviewing me, wasn't this what it was all about?"

Holly shook her head and turned to face Random. "You know underneath that mop of hair and those 1970's glasses you are quite cute, Professor Random. How would you like to go for a celebratory drink?"

"I can't think of anything else I would rather do," Random said.

"Excuse me, Professor Random," the voice of Sub officer Belton cut through the night. "I believe we have located the suspected cause of the fire and would like to ask you a few questions."

Random groaned inwardly, sighed outwardly and smiled thinly at Holly. "Perhaps later," he said.

THE END


© 2012 Craig Cornwell

Bio: Craig Cornwell says "I am 44 years old and have been writing for many, many years. I have had short stories published in many magazines, both online and in print and have had two novels published…selling in excess of half a dozen copies each!
I have previous had stories published in Aphelion, although not for a number of years (not since Rain, September, 2007).

E-mail: Craig Cornwell

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