The Magic of Science

by Jason K. Chapman


"I didn't kill his wife." The odd little man stared across the desk. He was all balled up in the chair as if he were freezing to death.

Nodding sagely at the man's declaration, Canton Doherty leaned back in his chair. He winced as the springs made that awful clack that signaled the chair's impending death by old age. He was careful to keep his fingers steepled in front of the year-old grease stain on his tie. "Product liability isn't really my area, Dr. Lovika--Lovakli--."

"Just call me Dr. Love." The man shivered in a way that might have been a shrug. "No one ever gets my last name right."

"Neither is medical malpractice." In fact, Doherty's only real specialty seemed to be slowly drowning in debt while mesmerizing himself into believing he could make it in his own practice. In school, they'd called him "Can Do." He indulged himself in a tiny sigh. At least he could pick up a referral fee. "There are specialists I can send you to," he said.

"I've tried. They won't talk to me." Dr. Love's head drooped even further and he stared out through the thick brush of his eyebrows. "And I can't afford them anyway."

Great. Doherty glanced at the screen of his battered old autosec. It showed fifteen messages waiting. He'd screened them already. They were all from bill collectors. "Why don't you tell me the details as you see them?"

***

Zack and Lisa Lehman should have been perfect for each other, and for a while they believed they were. They were both rising young stars in the biotechnology business. He was in marketing and she was in sales. They met at a conference in Miami. The fact that they worked for competitors didn't deter them in the slightest. Zack believed it added spice to their relationship. He said the competitive pressure and the tension of dueling non-disclosure agreements would make them appreciate each other more.

Sure, they had their tiffs. What couple doesn't? Zack just chalked it up to the cost of having careers. It was the kind of sacrifice one had to make.

Then little Zeke was born. In Zack's mind, that was supposed to be love's little super glue. No matter what, nothing could be more important than family. They would be together forever. By that time, they were both mid-level executives and working for the same company. The hours were longer and the pressures more imposing. Sadly, the fights came like lightning in a gathering storm, more frequent, more heated.

***

"Dr. Love, can we just skip to the relevant details? If I need the background I can get it later."

Dr. Love pouted. The expression scrunched his face into something gnome-like. "It's important."

Doherty's chair sproinged loudly as he leaned forward to rest his forearms on the cratered surface of his desk. "This is a wrongful death suit. The case will likely hinge on the technical and medical details of your treatment. Which are what, by the way? Your message said something about brain chemistry and implants, but your card reads," he glanced at the creased business card lying on his desk blotter, "'Marriage Counseling and Relationship Repair'?"

Somehow, Dr. Love's smile did little to dispel his resemblance to a gnome. "Do you believe in magic, Mr. Doherty?"

What hope Doherty had been harboring for the case melted away in a puddle of cold sweat. "Dr. Love, this is a serious matter."

"Of course you do!" The man bounced to his feet. He wasn't much taller standing than he had been sitting. "People routinely live to a hundred, serious diseases have been eradicated, information flashes around the world instantly, and common folk can live on the moon, if they want to. Do you know how it all works? Hmm? No, you don't. So it may as well be magic, no?"

"That's technology, Dr. Love."

"Pah. To the average person, it's all signs and wonders. Computers make you smarter. Cell phones make you safer. They're talismans."

"They're tools."

Dr. Love clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing along the front of the desk. "My family comes from a very old line. We came to this country from Romania via Slovakia. We have some very strong beliefs passed down through the generations. Whether it's magic or technology is largely a matter of how you view the world."

"I need facts, Dr. Love."

"That's what he said."

"Who said?"

***

Zack Lehman leaned against the acid-stained lab counter, heedless of the vicious crease he was putting in the bottom of his suit jacket. "I need facts, Dr. Love."

"Facts? Of course." Dr. Love straightened his lab coat and picked up a cutaway model of a human brain. "The fact is that love is largely a chemical process. Certain stimuli trigger certain reactions which begin chains of neural responses and voila! You're in love. Now, sometimes, two people who are perfect for each other in every other way hit a snag."

"What's that?"

Dr. Love smiled. "The chemistry just isn't there."

"Look. You come well recommended, Dr. Love. A friend of mine credits you with saving his marriage." Zack folded his arms into a dominating power pose that seemed well-suited to the kinds of board rooms that shaped the world. "I'm not asking you to give me trade secrets or anything, but I'm going to need some details."

Dr. Love pointed to one part of the brain. "Smells trigger memories, no? As well as feelings?"

"Yes."

"As can sights and sounds?"

"Of course."

"So." Dr. Love tossed his brain on the counter and, hands behind his back, began to pace. "Tiny implants in key portions of the brain, implants linked to the pleasure center, can provide the proper reaction to help things along."

Zack stared at Dr. Love. There was no reaction on his face. "Go on."

Dr. Love smiled. "If these implants were properly tuned, olfactory recognition of a specific set of pheromone chemistries, or pattern recognition in the visual cortex, then the two of you would truly be made for each other. The balance would tilt and none of the petty details would matter quite so much, would they?"

***

"That can't be legal!" Doherty was on his feet, hands planted on his desk. He didn't care that his grease-stained tie was laid out on the desk blotter like yesterday's fish. "There are federal regulations, government approvals. You can't just stick things in people's heads."

"Tish tosh. What does the government know of love?" Dr. Love plopped onto the chair, which sounded an ominous crack. "I have all the certifications and approvals I need."

Doherty sat back down. He folded his arms to keep his hands from shaking. This case could be big. It could net him the kind of media attention that brought in lots of clients. Even if Dr. Love couldn't pay much, the others could. Of course, there was also the other possibility to consider--that Dr. Love was a raving lunatic who had clumsily butchered the brains of a wealthy power couple, resulting in the death of a young wife and mother.

Dr. Love shrunk back in his chair and snorted. "The theory is quite sound."

"Don't ever do that again."

"Do what?"

"Call it a theory. It sounds too experimental. Too risky. From now on it's a 'procedure' or a 'process', got it?"

"Then you believe?" The man's gnomish smile returned. "You'll take the case?"

"Let's not rush things." There was still the question of Dr. Love's sanity to settle. "I need to know what happened."

***

The Lehmans hesitated for a while, but in the end they put themselves in Dr. Love's hands. Why not? They knew the wonders that had come out of the biotech industry, even if it was at some distance from the technical details. They knew that anything was possible. But there was another factor that had seemed to drive their decision. Neither of them had ever known failure before. They were damned if they'd accept it now.

Dr. Love's follow-up prescription proved to be perfect. Each of them kept pictures of each other around them--on their desks, in their wallets--and handkerchiefs that the other had carried for a time. Whenever a disagreement arose, one glimpse of the other's face, a whiff of their scent, a touch, made it all seem insignificant. The problem was washed away in a warm tide of happiness and comfort. Nothing seemed worth fighting over. They were as deeply in love as two people could possibly be. They had nearly two years of heaven together.

***

"And then she died?" Doherty found himself leaning across the desk.

The strange little man nodded slowly.

Here it comes. Doherty was almost afraid to ask. "Of what?"

Love waggled his head and stared at his own lap. He mumbled something Doherty couldn't quite catch.

"Excuse me?"

"A brain embolism."

Doherty leaned back and stared at the nasty brown stain on the ceiling's plaster. Game over. There was no money in the case and no future. His practice would be gone by the end of the year.

Dr. Love sniffed back tears that would have played well for a jury. But this case would never see a court room. "I didn't kill her, Mr. Doherty."

Doherty let his gaze fall back down to the man who was looking less like a client every second. "How can you be so sure?"

"Do you believe in magic, Mr. Doherty?"

***

Doherty's prediction proved correct. The case never went to court.

Canton Doherty used every trick he could find to drag out the process, holding back on discovery and milking the press for all the exposure he could get. He was, after all, representing a callous, mom-murdering brain butcher. The local press swam in like a school of piranha.

Doherty himself was in heaven. He skipped paying his rent (again) to buy a new suit. Wading into the tangle of cameras and microphones, he gave his best "my client will be vindicated" statements with a regal air that played well on vidscreens. His autosec was swamped with calls and vidmails. It didn't matter that ninety-five percent of them were anonymous insults and ugly threats. The rest were potential clients.

At last, when he couldn't delay any longer, he played his hand. The conference room at the offices of Hillerman, Kleinberg, Stoufer, and Slade was appointed in that lush, imposing style meant to intimidate opposing counsel. There was a time when it would have broken Doherty's spirit just to see his loafers sink into the deep, sea-green carpet, but not this time. He strode in with Dr. Love in tow and occupied his side of the table. Lehman's legal team shifted uncertainly. The minnow they'd expected swam in like a shark. Then Doherty ripped their case to shreds.

At first, of course, they didn't want to believe it. Doherty laid out a list of medical experts he planned to call, a court order to exhume Mrs. Lehman's body, transcripts of interviews he'd done with Mr. Lehman's own friends and co-workers attesting to the miraculous change in the couple's relationship. He arranged the papers in a line on the gleaming wood surface as if daring them to cross it.

"Get any experts you wish, gentlemen." Doherty forced himself not to grin. Instead, he gave Mr. Lehman his softest, most sympathetic smile. "There is nothing to find. Do whatever scans you wish, there will be absolutely no conclusive evidence that my client tampered with Mrs. Lehman's brain. Imagine, if you will, a microsurgical technique so advanced, a technology so perfectly integrated into the brain's structure, that they're undetectable."

One of the Lehman's attorneys growled. "That's absurd!"

"Now," Doherty said, keeping his voice low, commanding attention. "Imagine a jury trying to imagine it."

"But you did do the surgery." Lehman was on his feet. He shook off the clutch of his nearest attorney. "Every time I see her picture. When I smell the clothes in her closet. When our son smiles the way she used to. I feel it! I feel the tingle, the pleasure. It's here in my head. And now she's gone!"

Doherty's client was sniffing back tears again. "You loved each other very much. You always did."

"But how? What about all those blood tests? The week in your clinic?" Lehman silenced his attorneys with a glare when they tried to salvage something from the case. "If it wasn't surgery, what was it? You had to have done something. You saved our marriage. You--made us happy!"

Doherty laid his hand on Dr. Love's shoulder as his client balled up into his seat. He leaned forward and spoke softly. "Do you believe in magic, Mr. Lehman?"

***

After that day, Doherty never saw or heard from Dr. Love again. The man had moved on, following whatever meandering path he'd laid out for himself through the world. Doherty's practice boomed. He had his own sea-swept conference room and a bank of autosecs for his autosec. He was more successful than he ever could have dreamed.

It was years later, while digitizing his old files, that he thought of the gnomish little man. The whole case had really been a gamble that had paid off handsomely. No amount of badgering had ever squeezed a straight answer out of Dr. Love. When his client assured him that there would be no evidence of any implants, he'd believed him, and he'd run that ball to the goal line. But "no evidence" wasn't the same as "no implants" was it?

In the bottom of the file, Doherty found a small sealed box. Dr. Love had given it to him the last time he'd seen him.

***

The slick name of Pete's Bistro Americain did little to hide the fact that it was just another greasy corner urban diner. The food was slick, too, but the place was cheap and friendly and Doherty didn't think Dr. Love would mind, since they had just succeeded in getting the suit dropped. As it turned out, the little man seemed delighted, even as he stared at the little pools of oil that were gathered on the surface of his single fried egg.

"Put this in your ear." Pinched between Love's blunt fingers was a tiny little gadget that looked like a plastic mushroom.

"What for?"

"For the food!" Love turned his head to show an identical blob in his own ear. "With this, any food will taste better."

Feeling a little foolish, Doherty squeezed the device into his ear. He raised a limp french fry to his mouth, staring past it to Dr. Love's foolish grin. As the soggy potato mush slid over his tongue, he had to admit there was something to it. It did taste better than usual.

"It stimulates the taste buds with vibrations in the eustachian tube. It's a little something I'm working on for children who don't like their Brussels sprouts, eh?"

Doherty shook his head. Whatever Dr. Love was, he was certainly a genius. Even a brilliant charlatan was still brilliant, wasn't he? But the food did taste better. And the Lehmans' relationship had blossomed. There had to be something to it.

After lunch, Dr. Love slid a grimy envelope across the table. "It isn't much, but it's all I can afford."

Doherty didn't even look inside. He slipped the envelope into his jacket pocket, already counting the fees from future clients. "I'm sure it's fine."

"And this!" The man pushed the salt and pepper aside to clear the stage for a small, sealed box. He put it down gently, as if it were fragile and precious. "Keep this in your offices at all times, Mr. Doherty."

The box was about the size of an earring box. Doherty pushed on one corner, turning it slightly. "What is it?"

Love's enormous eyebrows climbed high as he smiled. "It emits a certain frequency that will set up a sympathetic reaction in your own alpha waves. Trust me. You hang on to this and it will make you successful beyond your dreams."

"It'll make me smarter?" Doherty picked the object up. It was heavier than he'd expected, and warm.

"It will give you precisely what you need."

"I don't know." Doherty slipped the box into his jacket pocket and ate another french fry. It really did taste good. "I need a lot of things."

***

Doherty held the package in his hand. For the first few years, he'd kept it on his desk, stroking it like a charm before court appearances. But that had been two addresses, five interior decorators, and several million dollars ago. Somewhere along the way, he'd tossed it in the file and forgotten all about it. Now, the whole thing seemed absurd.

Shaking the box near his ear revealed nothing, but it was still slightly warm. "All right little gnome, let's see what you've got." He cracked the plastic seal and flipped the top back. Inside was a solid block of some translucent material. Things that might have been electronic rested in the center, floating forever around a tiny winking light. For all he knew about electronics, it could be nothing but a bauble.

Tucked in behind the blinking thing, Doherty found a small card. Printed on it was the word "confidence." He flipped it over. The back read, "Just the thing to bring back that 'Can Do' attitude!"

As he watched, the light slowed and faded. Finally, it went completely dark. Uncertainty crept into Doherty's mind. No, that was just foolishness. No silly brain wave box was responsible for his success. It had all been his own doing.

Hadn't it?

He laughed out loud, but there was an odd little warble to it. It had been a while since he'd heard that tremor in his own voice, that note of hesitation. He snapped the lid shut and threw the box back into the drawer. Hours later, he was still sitting there, trying to decide what to do next.

###