Oops!

Oops!

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Bob Burnt swayed as the view outside the matter transmitter booth flickered from the street outside his apartment to his store. Damn, I hate using these things. He squeezed his eyes shut until the dizziness passed. Most people closed their eyes when they transmatted, but that made him nauseous.

Bob stepped out of the booth and walked across the showroom. Ronnie sat at the front desk, looking sexy for the customers, and an aerobics class was in session in the glass-walled gym in the back. Bob smiled when he spotted an older couple fidgeting on the sofa in the waiting area, prime marks from the look of them. He smoothed his carefully groomed hair and patted the wrinkles out of his silk ascot and codpiece. The driving bass from the aerobics class drifted through the room as the couple stared at the hot-pink laser sign in the front window. “New U, Inc.” it flashed. “Never Grow Old!” declared the sign underneath.

Bob felt the pleasant tingle in his gut as he settled into the rhythm and mind-set of his trade. A quick sale would set up the day nicely. If he could sign these two by noon, he’d blow off his afternoon appointments and get in nine holes. Bob strolled to the reception counter.

“Ronnie honey, what have you got for me?”

His receptionist turned and smiled. “Hey Bob, you’re late. You have Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs waiting.” She handed him the computer printout.

Bob glanced over the form. They were the typical, plain-vanilla clients he saw every day here at New U. Old, fairly well off (according to the credit report), and in reasonably good health (according to the on-line medical files). “What’s your reading? Easy sale or hard sale?”

“They’re a couple of old farts, starting to worry about dying. He won’t be hard to sign. He couldn’t keep his eyes off my breasts when I served coffee. Just stick to the young and sexy angle and he’ll buy.”

Bob nodded. The men were rarely difficult. But the wives, they were something else. They came in old, wrinkled and gray, yet they fought the idea of being young again. “And Madame Jacobs? She doesn’t look too happy.”

“Oh, she’s a proper old biddy. Her mouth has been tighter than a bull’s asshole during fly season since she came in the door.” Ronnie made a prune face and giggled. “I bet she needs a crowbar to crack a smile. She’ll be the holdup.”

“Just leave her to me, beautiful. You’re the wrong sex to thaw her out.” Bob glanced across the room at the dreary old woman. “Maybe even the wrong species.” Ronnie giggled again.

Bob considered himself the consummate salesman. Since dropping out of college, he’d successfully sold everything from used family transports to timeshare condos on the Lagrange Point satellite resort. His mentor, Fast Eddie Fullbright, had taught him well. “Opening the sale is as important as closing. First you gotta break their mind-set. If they ain’t throwing money at you when they walk in the door, they ain’t inclined to buy. Shake ’em up and confuse ’em. If you play by their rules, you lose.”

Bob snapped on his 150-watt smile, threw his arms wide and strode across the room as if he’d found a long-lost relative. “Folks!” he boomed. “How are you doing this fine day? I hope you realize this is probably the luckiest day of your lives. Welcome to New U, Incorporated. I’m Bob Burnt, President and Chairman.”

He clasped Mrs. Jacob’s tiny hand in his own, and turned up his smile a notch. The thin, gray-haired woman shifted nervously. “What can I do for you?” he murmured as he brushed his lips across the back of her hand. She blushed furiously.

“Well, Mr. Burnt, we saw your ad on the 3D-vid and decided to stop in,” Mr. Jacobs said. Bob settled on the sofa next to Mrs. Jacobs. “Emma and I are getting up there in years, we certainly wouldn’t mind not growing any older. But is it really possible?”

“That’s a good question, Sam. I can see you’re a bright fellow. But you needn’t worry. Nothing we do here at New U involves experimental technology. The science behind our revolutionary Forever-Young System is well known. You folks used the matter transmitter to get here, right?” Both of the Jacobs nodded.

“The revolutionary Forever-Young System simply takes this basic technology one step further. We’ve developed a method of permanently recording the molecular pattern transmitted by the booth. After that, it’s a simple matter for the Forever-Young equipment to reconfigure your own tissues according to the recorded pattern. In effect, we can stop the hands of time for you.”

Mr. Jacobs frowned. “But why would I want to stay the way I am forever? I’m 67 years old. My joints ache, I get winded walking up stairs, and I’m tired all the time.”

“I understand perfectly, Sam. But the reconfiguration is only part of the Forever-Young System. We have several physical therapists on staff, like Ms. Debbie there in the gym. She’ll get you in the best physical condition you’ve ever been in. You’ll feel younger. We also have several prominent cosmetic surgeons who consult with New U clients. You’ll look younger. And then, when you are at your peak of youthful appearance and vigor, we re-record your pattern. You won’t have to grow a day older after that.”

While Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs whispered together, Bob noticed two blond women speaking urgently to Ronnie. Now that’s odd. Twins.

“It sounds good, but I don’t know,” Mr. Jacobs said.

“No problem, Sam. Talk it over with your lovely spouse. All we need to decide right now is if you’re interested in hearing more. There are a lot of details and paperwork to discuss. I’ll tell you what, if you’ll agree to hear me out I’ll take you to brunch. I’m so confident in our system, I’ll treat.”

This last hook was another of Fast Eddie’s lessons. “I’ll be damned if I understand it, but the marks seem to think that breaking bread with a guy makes some sort of holy seal on the deal. Like I can’t lie my ass off after sharing a pastrami sandwich with somebody. Go figure. But I tell ya, you can sell anything to anybody so long as you feed ’em first.”

Mr. Jacobs whispered to Mrs. Jacobs as she nodded. Bob smiled. He could feel in his gut he’d sign them before lunch. Bob’s reverie was broken by angry shouts from the reception counter. “What the hell!” he mumbled.

The blond twins were standing nose-to-nose yelling while Ronnie shushed them. This just pissed them off more until Bob thought they might attack Ronnie. Any other time, Bob would have enjoyed watching the two blonds fight. But not when he was about to reel in a prospect. “Excuse me folks. I’d better take care of these two before they get out of control.” The Jacobs nodded as Bob stood and walked away.

“Ladies, please! This is a place of business. You’ll have to take this outside.”

“Mr. Burnt, I’m Valerie Johnson,” the lady on the right said. “I bought a Forever-Young System from you six months ago.” Bob glanced at Ronnie, who nodded.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Johnson, I haven’t seen you in a while. What can I do for you? And your sister?”

“That’s not my sister!” Mrs. Johnson snapped. “That is my next-door neighbor, Rosalie Perez. I let her try my Forever-Young booth yesterday, and look what happened! You’ve got to do something.”

Bob felt his heart thump once in his chest as a chill ran up his spine. The engineer who’d sold Bob the designs had assured him the system was foolproof. Even the safety features had safeties. “That’s impossible! The Forever-Young system computer controls prevent the system from operating if you’re not in the booth alone. The computer checks the occupant against six unique traits of the Forever-Young client before operating. If this is a joke, it’s not funny.”

Both of the women flushed and looked at the floor. The lady on the left said, “Well, my son was fooling with the computer last week. He said he’d removed a lot of software we didn’t need. But it worked fine after that!” Bob’s stomach fluttered as he absorbed this. He wasn’t a technician, that’s why he paid the science people big bucks. But he certainly understood that anything could go wrong if some smart ass intentionally messed with the equipment.

“Mrs. Johnson, how could you be that stupid? You’re lucky to be alive! Did you happen to have the system on record mode when your neighbor used the unit?”

“No!” the other woman said. “And don’t talk to her. I’m Valerie Johnson. That’s Mrs. Perez. I told her not to push the button. It’s been a nightmare ever since. She won’t go home! She wanted to climb into bed with my husband last night.”

Visions of lawsuits danced in Bob’s head as he considered this. There were two copies of the man’s wife. Was it bigamy? Polygamy? “Um, what does Mr. Johnson have to say about all this?”

“The bastard thought it was funny,” one said.

“Yeah! I think the creep likes the idea of having two wives to jump into bed with,” the other added.

“Don’t you talk about my Jimmy like that!”

“Your Jimmy? You even think about touching him, and I’ll snatch that bleach-blond head of yours bald.”

“Bitch!” the lady on the left shouted, and pushed the other hard. That one grabbed a handful of hair and cracked her twin in the eye with a left jab. In seconds the two were rolling on the floor, punching and screaming. Bob had a sudden thought. Screw Mr. Johnson, he’d get his jollies one way or another. But what about Mr. Perez, now that there was no Mrs. Perez? She’d gone to the neighbors and disappeared. Had he called the cops?

Bob didn’t take his eyes off the women as he backed across the room. When he felt the door to his office against his back, he jerked it open, stepped through, and slammed the door shut.

Bob could hear the screams of the two women through the heavy door. There was a room full of people in the gym watching the fight plus the Jacobs in the showroom. Someone would call the cops.

Time to go. Rosalie Perez didn’t exist anymore. Was that kidnapping? Murder? No doubt someone’s tenders would be hanging on a meat hook before the day was over and he’d be damned if they would be his.

He glanced at the matter transmitter booth in the corner, a very special booth Bob had ordered when he’d first opened New U. Fast Eddie had taught him one final lesson before sending him out into the world. “I don’t care how legit your operation is. Always, always, always have a getaway plan! You could be selling bibles to monks or ice to Eskimos, and someone will come along and screw it up.”

Bob opened a small safe set in the wall with a five-digit code and pulled out two computer disks. One held Bob’s pattern, recorded the day before he opened the doors to New U. The second executed a special program on the New U computer system.

Bob slid the two disks into the control panel of the booth and stepped inside. Bob smiled and muttered, “It’s really better this way. It’s been nice knowing you, Bob.” He punched the activation button.

* * * * *

“Mr. Schnee, the Court has heard enough on this issue.”

Bob glanced at the harried prosecutor. The man had been arguing with the judge for over an hour. Bob’s attorney sat cool and quiet, smiling slightly.

“But your Honor, the State still has much more to offer to support the charges against Mr. Burnt. Murder and theft by fraud are just the beginning of the list.”

“Do these charges relate to Mr. Burnt’s alleged operation of the New U business?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Then I’m not interested in hearing any more.” The gray-haired judge paused and glanced over the packed courtroom. Bob followed the judge’s gaze to the reporters in the back row. The papers still didn’t know how to play the case. He’d been billed as everything from a mass murderer to a saint.

The judge cleared his throat and sat up. “This is the preliminary hearing on the fifteen count indictment of the State versus Robert Burnt. For the case to proceed to trial, the State bears the burden of proving that a crime has been committed and that the accused is the person responsible for those acts. Here, we are confronted with a clear conflict which this Court must resolve.”

“With the agreement of all parties, the State conducted a full memory scan on the defendant last week, and it shows that Mr. Burnt has no knowledge of the operation of New U. He admits today that he was involved in the formation of the business, but ended his involvement before the business opened last year. His own memories confirm this. This is significant, as the criminal acts that form the basis for the charges took place after that date.”

“So the Court is left with the anomaly that a number of witnesses have identified Mr. Burnt as the perpetrator, yet the unequivocal evidence of the State’s own expert is that he did not. I’m afraid that the Court finds this expert testimony too compelling to ignore.”

The prosecutor jumped up. “Your Honor! The witnesses. This is unheard of!”

“I heard the testimony, the same as you. But this man has no knowledge of the crimes. And it’s an essential element under criminal statutes of this State that the accused must have criminal intent to be convicted. Here we have no mens rea, no guilty knowledge. Your expert admits this man has no knowledge of the operation of New U and never did. How can he be guilty of criminal acts of which he had no knowledge? Based on that evidence, this Court must dismiss the charges against Mr. Burnt.”

The noise of the audience surged up. In the back of the courtroom, the newsmen scrambled for the door. Bob’s attorney rose and shouted, “Your Honor! There’s one more thing.”

The judge frowned. “Well, what is it, Mr. Jones? Your client is a free man.”

“There’s still the matter of the Motion For Forfeiture filed by the State. Mr. Burnt’s bank accounts and other assets are frozen.”

The prosecutor nodded vigorously. “Yes, and the State asks that the preliminary order of seizure remain in effect. This man has millions of credits in bank accounts and real estate and no evidence of any legitimate source of income.”

The judge shook his head. “Mr. Schnee, forfeiture is a penalty the State uses to recover profits from unlawful activities. That’s reasonable when a person commits a serious criminal offense. I’ve just dismissed the charges involving Mr. Burnt. Does the State have evidence of some other criminal activity to offer?”

The prosecutor grimaced and shook his head. “The funds were shuttled through dozens of accounts just before Mr. Burnt’s arrest. All of the computer records of New U were erased at the same time. It’ll take years for us to unravel the trail.”

“And you ask that this man’s property be held indefinitely in the hopes that you might find a valid reason to seize it? I don’t think so. The court will dismiss the forfeiture proceeding as well. This court stands adjourned!”

The noise of the crowd rose again as the judge walked out. Mr. Jones shook his head and turned to Bob. “I’d love to know how you pulled it off. I mean, I saw you at New U. Is this memory lapse real?”

Bob nodded. “I had no idea what they were talking about when they arrested me. I remember setting up the office one day, and was walking into the lobby of the Rio Hilton the next.” He shrugged.

Mr. Jones laughed. “Well, what are you going to do now? New U’s defunct.”

“Yeah. It’s just as well. Too much heat. But I was thinking of franchising.”

 

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