There was a knock at the door, so the Professor begrudgingly took his eyes off the television. “Damn Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he muttered to himself. “I swear, this time I’ll just punch them in the face and be done with it.”
The Professor rose from the chair, his back aching with the effort. He was an old man now. He had no hair left on his head, his belly hung far over his belt and his thick eyebrows were whiter than his shirt. Slowly, he made his way across the carpeted floor of his living room into the small kitchen. He moved even slower across the tiles of this room. As he passed it, he noticed the clock. Eleven thirty-six. Opening the front door to his small home, he was honestly surprised at who he saw.
“Professor Ludlum! I must speak with you!” The Professor hadn’t seen Keith Bradford in four years, but he looked much the same. Suit, tie, glasses, thin moustache, neatly combed hair. He must be closing in on forty now, but looked younger.
“I’m retired dammit!” the Professor said. “Leave me alone!” He pushed the door, but Bradford’s arm shot in and kept it from closing.
“Hear me out, Professor! This is important!”
The Professor rolled his eyes and kept pushing the door. “It’s always important with you people! You play God all day and that’s the most important position in the whole damn game isn’t it? Now go back to your important people with your important games and leave an old man alone with his soap operas!”
“Professor,” Bradford began. “Professor, I… What I… Professor, you’re hurting my arm!”
“Well, I’d appreciate it if you stopped.”
“Professor, listen! I’m not with the organization any more! I work for myself now and this really is important!”
“You left the organization?”
“A year ago!” Bradford nodded, a tear beginning in his left eye. “Please, this hurts!”
The Professor eased up on the door and Bradford quickly retracted his arm and began rubbing the spot that had been pinched. The Professor then opened the door fully and looked outside. Bradford was still driving the same green Ford Taurus he had been half a decade ago and it was parked in the Professor’s otherwise unoccupied driveway. Across the street Charlie Cain wore an ugly orange and green shirt as he mowed his lawn. Two houses up the Professor could see the Watkins boys playing, the older one driving his bicycle as the younger drove a toy truck along the walkway leading to their home’s garage. There was no traffic and nothing out of the ordinary.
“Get in here then,” the Professor said. “I don’t want the neighbors to see me talking to a wuss like you.”
Bradford sat in one of the three wooden chairs that surrounded the small dining table pushed up to the wall in the kitchen. He still absently rubbed his sore arm as he spoke.
“I left for much the same reasons you did. Judith and I both. You were absolutely correct. The organization does play God. As I left they were working on something they actually named ‘Project Deity.’ Remind me to tell you all about that doozy at some point when we are less pressed for time.”
“Maybe I will,” the Professor said as he closed the blinds to the window that looked out into the front yard, peering up the street until the very second they were entirely obscured. “But right now I want to know what was so important that you just needed to go bother old men about it.”
“Ah, yes. To put it simply: I’ve solved the Pomegranate Problem.”
The Professor’s eyes widened. In all his fifty-four years as a scientist, the Pomegranate Problem was perhaps the one thing he regretted leaving behind when he retired. It was truly a baffling riddle. “You’re sure? You’d better be damn sure to be making that claim.”
“I swear to you,” Bradford fixed his eyes on the Professor. “I’m one hundred percent sure.”
“Who have you told? Judith? Danny? Anyone?”
“Only Judith knows. I’m not foolish enough to spread the word about something like this. I came to my solution three nights ago. The two days after Judith and I went through everything to make sure it was correct. I began searching for you as soon as we were certain. If I’m to explore this further, there’s no man I’d rather be working beside than the so-called ‘Shotgun Professor’.”
The Professor harrumphed. “I was beginning to hope they’d forgotten that nick-name by now.”
“In any case, will you at least come with me to my lab and examine my experiment? It needn’t be today, if–”
“No,” the Professor cut him off. “You were right, this is important. We’ll go and we’ll go as soon as I get my things together.”
“Superb!” Bradford rose to his feet and grinned.
The Professor began shuffling into the living room and rose his hands to his mouth as he did so. He then let out a sharp whistle, to which Bradford cocked an eyebrow. The Professor continued into the living room.
Now ten seconds had passed and Bradford was wondering about the whistle, when he heard an answer. Thudding sounds came from a room somewhere beyond the room the Professor was in. Bradford tilted his head intrigued, and noticed the sound was getting closer. Suddenly, a massive shape burst from around a corner and time seemed to slow down for Keith Bradford. It was a huge light brown Mastiff, the single largest dog that Bradford had seen in his life. And it was running directly at him.
“Good Lord!” Bradford yelped and then tried to turn for the door. He was too late. The dog jumped up and landed her forepaws on him, sending him to the floor. His glasses clattered onto the tile next to him and his face was instantly smothered in tongue. “Gah! No! Help me! Professor! Yaaah! Help!”
“This is Sissy-Mary,” the Professor said as he re-entered the kitchen. “She comes with us.”
Sissy-Mary took up the entire back seat of the Ford Taurus. Bradford watched her nervously in the rear-view mirror, expecting her to make some sudden move for his throat, but she was content with staring out the window. Professor Ludlum, with his briefcase in his lap, also gazed out his window. The Watkins boys were still playing in their yard and both stopped to watch as the car drove past.
“So,” the Professor said halfheartedly. “How’s Judith?” And thus began the small talk that carried them for thirty minutes of the trip. The Professor was actually unable to focus on anything but the Pomegranate Problem, though he was willing to wait until they got to the lab before he’d ask about it.
As the car turned onto a mildly busy highway, Bradford was in the middle of a story about his last day at the organization. This subject was, in truth, very interesting to the Professor, but he found his mind wandering off topic easily. Bradford must have caught on for he said that he’d “save that story for another day” and the two drove in silence for another twenty minutes.
It was then that the Professor noticed a small strangely-shaped object flying just above the horizon. “Stop the car,” he said.
“What is it?” Bradford asked even as he complied. “Your bladder? I knew I should have told you to go before we left.”
“No, it isn’t that, dammit.” He pointed. “Look up there.”
“I see. What is that?”
“My guess?” The Professor fingered the handle of his briefcase. “That’s them.”
“The organization? But how could they know?”
The Professor unfastened his seatbelt and opened his door. “Knowing things is their business, isn’t it? It’s what they’re good at.”
As the Professor stepped out of the car, Bradford reached over and opened the glove compartment. There was a pair of binoculars inside, which he took, then joined the Professor outside.
“Let me see,” Bradford said raising the binoculars to his glasses. He moved his head to the left, then up, then said: “I fear you may be right. It does appear to be a small spy craft of some sort. High-tech. It’s getting closer.”
Bradford turned to the Professor. “Would you like to see?”
“Nah.” The Professor opened his briefcase and reached inside. Bradford looked through the binoculars once more.
“I assume it runs silently. Or at least it is too quiet to be heard over the traffic. I do believe there’s a camera lens on the very front that seems to be scanning the highway. It is certainly–”
“Pardon?” Bradford turned just a moment too late to see the shot leave the barrel, but the loud ‘BLAM!’ of the explosion was enough to make his heart leap into his throat. He very nearly fell over. “What in God’s name are you doing?”
“I told you to cover your ears,” the Professor said as he put his shotgun back into the briefcase. “Now shut up and look.”
The strange object fell into the woods surrounding the highway, leaving a trail of smoke behind it. Bradford stuck a finger into the ear that had been nearest the gun and massaged it. Sissy-Mary wagged her tail attentively from the back of the Taurus.
“Was that really necessary?” Bradford asked. “Is it possible that retirement has actually made you more trigger-happy than before?”
“We’ll find out. Because as of this moment, Professor Herbert Ludlum is officially not retired any longer.”
The Professor got back into the car and Bradford made his way around to the driver’s side.
“We’ll go check on that thing, then we’ll get to your lab as soon as possible.”
NEXT TIME: The Pomegranate Problem
Patrick D Ryall, the D is for Chocolates
Originally posted on Contains2 Wednesday 05 November 2003