The Affair


The Magic Coin - a short story by Robert Burton Robinson
GENRE: Suspense/Sci-Fi. LENGTH: 4,100 words. SYNOPSIS: A brilliant inventor has more secrets than anyone could have imagined. But after he’s caught cheating on his wife, the illusion of their marriage dissolves, revealing the shocking truth that nobody will believe.

I got an email from a woman who said she wanted to hire me to write a book based on her husband’s life. She said he was a brilliant inventor.

I wrote back and politely told her that I don’t write biographies. My thing is novels and short stories. However, she replied that that was okay because I could turn his story into a novel, and she would pay me well, and I could keep all the profits from the book—as though there would be any.

I’ve turned down similar offers, but this one intrigued me because these people lived in the area, and it might be fun to meet an inventor. Then I pictured some old guy with a long, white beard in dirty overalls tinkering with parts from worn-out lawn mowers, garbage cans, and old tape recorders.

But who knew? Maybe this guy really was a genius, one that I’d never heard of, living right under my nose. Not likely. I told her I would need five thousand dollars, in advance, to write the book, and that it might cost even more if I had to do a lot of rewrites. I figured that would scare her off.

But it didn’t. She asked me to drop by the following night around seven, assuring me that she would have a five-thousand dollar cashier’s check ready to go.

How could I resist?

**********

It was a big, two-story house in a nice neighborhood. I parked on the street because my car leaks oil.

I walked to the front door and rang the bell. A stunning young woman appeared, wearing a black evening gown and pearls. She looked like she was ready for a night at the symphony.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve obviously got the wrong house or the wrong time.”

She smiled. “No, Mr. Robinson, this is the right place and the right time. I’m Julie Borgenson. I’m the one who emailed you. Please come in.”

I stepped inside. “Beautiful home.” Why did I say that when I’d only seen the foyer? The rest of the place could have looked like Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse for all I knew.

She thanked me and said, “Let’s walk as we talk. My husband is a brilliant man, Mr. Robinson, and I want the whole world to know it.”

“Please, call me Robert. Can you tell me about some of his inventions?”

“I think it’s better to let him show you because I’m sure you’ll have a lot of questions that I can’t answer.”

We reached the back of the house and she opened the door. “Just follow the sidewalk to his shop. When you two are finished, you can come back through this door and tell me how it went. Okay?”

“Sure.”

“Oh, and when you get to the shop door, say, “Julie sent me.”

“Okay.” It made no sense, but I figured I’d understand once I got there.

The fence at the perimeter of the property was probably eight feet tall and was completely covered with thick greenery. And the fence glowed—illuminating the entire yard. I’d never seen anything like it.

When I reached the shop, a glass border around the doorframe lit up in red, and a male voice said, “Password phrase?”

“I don’t have a password phrase.”

“Password phrase, please.”

The red border around the door began to flash—as though something bad was about to happen if I didn’t come up with the correct answer.

The voice sounded irritated. “Password phrase?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have a password phrase.” Then I remembered what Julie had told me. “Julie sent me.”

The border turned solid green. The door popped opened, and a blazing shaft of light blinded me. I couldn’t see a thing. I stepped inside anyway. I was afraid the door might slam shut if I didn’t move quickly.

“Who are you?” a man asked.

As my eyes adjusted, he began to materialize in front of me, and I thought, this can’t be Julie’s husband. He’s a good thirty years older than her.

I held out my hand. “Hi, I’m Robert Burton Robinson. I’m the writer who’s supposed to turn your life’s story into a novel.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’ve got to get back to work. I can’t imagine why Julie let you in. Leave.” He turned and walked away.

I didn’t know what to do. I had already grown fond of the idea of that five thousand dollars going into my checking account. “But, Dr. Borgenson, I didn’t initiate this. Your wife contacted me. So the least you can do is hear me out.”

He stopped and looked back. “No. The least I can do is nothing—which is exactly what I’m going to do. Goodbye.”

“So, you don’t want the world to know about your amazing work?”

“I couldn’t care less.”

One last shot, I thought. “But your wife cares. She’s awfully excited it.”

He paused, and I knew I had him. “How much of my time would you need?”

“Just a few days.”

“I’ll give you two hours—tomorrow night. Be here at eight o’clock sharp.”

“That’s not enough time.”

“It’ll have to be—because that’s all the time I can afford to give. I’m in the middle of several important projects.”

“But—”

“Julie will fill in the rest of the details for you.”

He walked away.

**********

When I got back to the house, I found Julie waiting just inside the door. “So, how did it go?”

“Okay, I guess. Although he’s only agreed to a two-hour interview. He said you could fill in the rest of the details.”

She shook her head. “That’s Wilbert for you. Sure, I can do that. No problem.” She reached inside her bra, took out a check and unfolded it and handed it to me.

It was a cashier’s check for five thousand dollars—as promised. When I actually saw the five with those beautiful zeros behind it, I felt my eyes widen.

“Isn’t that the correct amount?”

“Yes. Yes, it is. Thanks.”

“Good.”

“So, he wants me to come back tomorrow night at eight. And then, maybe I could interview you the following day.”

“That would be fine.”

“Okay. Then I guess I’ll be on my way.”

She touched my arm with her hand. “There’s one more thing.”

“What’s that?” I could see that she was upset about something. “Are you okay?”

A tear rolled down her face and she wiped it away. “I’m sorry. I feel like a fool.”

“What is it?”

“My husband is…I think he might be…seeing another woman.”

“You’re kidding? No, I’m sorry—of course you’re not kidding, but I just don’t understand why. I mean, you’re so…”

“Young and beautiful?”

“Well, yeah.”

“I’m probably just being paranoid. But he spends all day and all night out there in his shop, and he hates it when I go out to see him. He always says I’m bothering him.”

“You two don’t spend any time together?” I couldn’t believe I was getting involved in their personal lives.

“We have dinner together, and sometimes we have a movie night—although we haven’t done that in weeks.”

“Well…I’m sorry you’re having marital problems, but I’m not the right person to help you with that. Have you considered marriage counseling?”

“Wilbert would never go for that.”

“But, you know, just in practical terms…when would he have time to see anyone else? You said he’s always in his shop.”

“Yeah, except for once a week, when he goes out for drinks with an old friend named Jim. He’s a college professor. I’ve never met him. I don’t even know his last name.”

“How long does he stay out?”

“Two or three hours.”

“So, you think he’s lying about Jim? You think he’s meeting a woman instead?”

She nodded.

“Well, I wish there was some way I could help, but I don’t know how. Maybe this isn’t a good time for me to be writing this book. We should just call it off.” I held out the check.

She put up her hand. “No. We’ll do the book now. But…would you mind keeping an eye on him and telling me if you notice anything suspicious?”

“Look, Julie, I’m not a private eye. And I’m not gonna spy on him.”

“It’s okay. Forget about it. You’re probably right anyway. It’s probably all in my imagination.”

**********

The next night, I arrived at a few minutes before eight. Julie and I exchanged a few pleasantries as she walked me to the back door. Neither of us brought up the subject of spying, but I hoped she would reconsider the idea of marriage counseling.

I walked toward the shop, ready to give the password phrase. But then I wondered, would the one from last night still be good, or should I have asked Julie for a new one?

I was about to turn around and go back to the house when I heard, “Good evening, Mr. Robinson.”

I jumped.

Dr. Borgenson was standing a few feet to my left. I don’t know how he slipped up on me. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”

I followed him to the fence. The night before when I’d seen the fence from a distance, I thought it had strands of tiny lights strung all over it. But up close, I could see that the fence itself was glowing. There were no light bulbs.

“This is one of my inventions,” he said.

“A fence?”

“Look closely.”

I leaned in. “I thought these vines were growing on the fence, but—”

“The vines are the fence,” he said.

“Well, what holds them up? Is there wire inside here somewhere or what?”

“No. It’s nothing but vines.”

“But the fence is so straight and even. What did you do—use a form to mold the vines and make them stiff?”

“No. I programmed the vines.”

Programmed them?”

“Let’s go into the shop, and I’ll show you.”

I followed him inside and he took me to a workbench. He picked up something tiny. “This little module contains a computer chip that I inject into a special vine pod that I’ve developed. The chip gives instructions to the pod on how to build a section of fence. Each section is programmed to intertwine its ends with other sections that are placed next to it. The sections grow to four-feet wide and eight-feet tall, as programmed.”

“That’s amazing. What about fence posts to hold up the sections?”

“They’re unnecessary because the vines also grow downward, four feet into the earth.”

“How long does it take for a section to grow to full size?”

He motioned for me to follow him to a large flower bed. “I planted one of my special pods right there. Now I just need to activate it.”

He took a remote control out of his pocket, pressed a button, and the vines began to sprout and twist and create a fence section like the ones I’d seen outside.

“How do you make them grow so fast?”

“If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.”

I laughed.

He didn’t crack a smile. “You cannot tell anyone about this particular invention—which means, of course, that you can’t include it in your book. Do you understand?”

“Sure, I understand. But why aren’t you selling these things? They must be worth a fortune.”

“I’m still working out a few bugs.”

“In the software or the vines?”

“You’re not very funny, are you, Mr. Robinson?”

“I guess not.”

“But to answer your question, I’m talking about bugs in the software. The vines are impervious to insects. They’re a hybrid of organic and synthetic materials.”

“I see.”

I asked him how he got interested in becoming an inventor. His answer was brief and unrevealing. My only hope was that Julie could provide some interesting background on him.

He showed me a few more of his inventions. None of them were as impressive as the vine fence, but I was fascinated with all of it.

“Time’s up.” He held up his watch. “It’s ten o’clock.”

“But I have a lot more questions.”

“Ask Julie. Goodbye.” He walked away.

**********

When I got back to the house, I set up an appointment with Julie for the next day and left.

I sat in my car in front of their house for a while, thinking about all the things Dr. Borgenson had shown me. But how was I gonna write a book that didn’t include his most impressive invention—the vine fence?

A car pulled out of their driveway. It was him. Was this one of his drinking nights with Jim? No wonder he had been so eager to get rid of me. Without giving it much thought, I followed his car, keeping my distance to avoid detection.

Unfortunately, I got stopped by a traffic light and lost him.

I drove a little farther to see if I could catch up with him, and I was about to give up when I spotted his car parked at a bar.

I pulled over and started to get out. Then I thought, what am I doing? He’ll recognize me. I grabbed a baseball cap from the back seat and put it on. It wasn’t much of a disguise, but I figured it would be dark in there, so…

When I walked in, I saw him sitting at the bar with a woman. She sure didn’t look like an old professor friend to me. And I highly doubted that her name was Jim. She was young and beautiful like Julie. I sat down at a table behind them, near the back wall, and ordered a Coke with chips and salsa.

There was a lot of smiling and whispering going on between Dr. Borgenson and the woman, and before long, they got up and walked out. I threw a twenty on the table and followed them. They were too interested in each other to notice me.

He took her to a motel. I watched them go into their room.

When I got out of my car, I could feel my heart racing. What am I doing? But I’ve come this far, so I might as well go full-on detective. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe they’re just having a private conversation about his inventions.

I started at the far end of the small complex and walked along the sidewalk, passing room after room, until I finally came to theirs. The shades were partially open, so I took a quick peek and saw the two of them on the bed—naked. I quickly walked away.

Well, that’s just great, I thought. Now I’m gonna have to tell his wife. I didn’t know if I could do that. I wanted to quit on the spot—just send Julie an email and tell her I changed my mind about taking the job.

Then I remembered the five thousand dollars. I had already deposited the check and paid some bills with that money, and I did not want to give it back. But if I told Julie what I’d seen, she’d cancel the project anyway.

I thought, everything would have been fine—if I just hadn’t followed him.

**********

The next day, I went back to the Borgenson house to interview Julie about her husband. She had a fresh pot of coffee waiting for me.

We had been sitting in the living room talking for ten minutes when I realized that she had been asking all the questions. I said, “Well, as much as I enjoy talking about myself, I need to start asking you questions about your husband.”

She smiled. “How about another cup of coffee?”

I said, “Sure.”

She stood up. Then she saw it in my face—the thing I’d been trying to hide.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Seems like something’s bothering you.”

I looked away.

“He’s cheating, isn’t he? Is that it?”

I got up. “I didn’t want to get involved in this.”

“What did he do?”

“I followed his car last night when he went out.”

“But you said you weren’t gonna spy on him.”

“I wish I hadn’t.”

“Where did he go?”

“To a bar—to meet a woman.”

“I knew it. Was she pretty? How old was she?”

“About your age.”

“What did she look like?”

“To be honest, she was very attractive—like you.”

“Is that all they did—have drinks?”

“I’m afraid not. After that, he took her to a motel.”

“Oh, Wilbert…”

“But I just don’t understand why he would do that because—”

“Let’s ask him right now.” She picked up the house phone.

“What? No, I don’t want to be here for this.”

She pressed the intercom button.

I started to back away from her and was about to make a run for the door when she grabbed my arm.

“Wilbert, get in here, right now!” She threw the phone against the wall. “He’s gonna admit it to my face.”

“Please, Julie, this is family business. I don’t want to get in the middle of it.”

“You’re already in the middle of it, Robert. You’re my witness to what he did.”

I thought, why did you follow him, you idiot?

I heard the back door slam. Dr. Borgenson yelled to her as he walked toward us. “This better be urgent, Julie. You know how I hate to be interrupted.”

“Oh, it’s urgent all right. You’re gonna wish you’d made me sign a prenup.”

“What you’re talking about?”

When he stepped into the living room and saw me standing there with her, he said, “What’s he doing here?”

“He came to interview me about you. Remember? For the book.”

“So, why did you call me in?”

“Mr. Robinson followed you last night—to the bar—AND to the motel.”

“What? That’s ridiculous. He was following the wrong car.”

“Oh, come on, Wilbert, do you really expect me to believe that?”

“Yes, I do. Why would you take the word of a stranger over your own husband?” He gave me the evil eye.

She started crying. “I’ve done everything I can to make you happy, Wil. Everything. Yet, most of the time you ignore me. You can’t stand to be in the same room with me.”

He walked up to her. “Now, babe, you know that’s not true. I just work a lot. And my work is important.”

“I can’t trust you anymore.” She walked away.

He went over to a stuffed leather chair. “Come over here and sit down, baby. You’re stressing yourself out.”

“I don’t want to sit down.”

He went to her, took her hand, and led her back to the chair.

“I just feel so hurt, Wil.” She sat down.

He walked around behind the chair and began to rub her shoulders. “Oh, baby, you’ve gotten yourself all worked up over nothing.” He massaged her temples.

I felt like a fool, having to stand there and watch it all.

Dr. Borgenson grabbed Julie’s head and twisted it to the side.

I heard a pop. Was he also a chiropractor?

Then he twisted her head even farther around.

I yelled, “Stop! You’re gonna hurt her!”

But he continued to twist—until the back of her head was facing forward. Julie’s head came off in his hands.

He was grinning.

I was terrified.

He held up her head and I expected to see blood gushing out of her neck. But, no. It wasn’t real. Julie was not human. She was…a robot.

“Pretty impressive, huh?”

“That’s…unbelievable,” I said.

Julie’s eyes fluttered and she smiled. “And it didn’t even hurt.”

He set her head on the coffee table.

I said, “She seemed so real. I had no idea.”

He walked over to me. “And the woman you saw me with last night—that was Abby. She’s a robot too.”

“How did she get to the bar? Don’t tell me she drove.”

“Why not? She’s got a driver’s license.”

“No, no. She can’t be a robot. I saw you in the motel room with her. You were both naked. You were—”

“She’s fully functional. Fully humanized. So is Julie.”

My jaw dropped. “When are these going on the market?”

“Why? You want to buy one?”

“No. I just…”

“Not until I perfect them.”

“They seem perfect to me.”

“That’s why I’ve been sending Abby out in public—to make sure nobody can tell.”

“And that’s why you got Julie to hire me to write the book, isn’t it? You wanted to make sure she was completely convincing. I was your guinea pig. And at the motel—you left the curtains open on purpose. You wanted me to see Abby naked.”

He smiled. “That’s right.”

“Oh, my gosh, she looked so real.”

“And maybe one of these days I’ll get you to write that book. In the meantime, you can keep the advance. But you cannot tell anyone about my robots or my vine fence. Understood?”

I was in a daze. “Wow. This is crazy. Okay. Yeah, I understand. Thanks, Doc.” I reached out and shook his hand. “But I’ve got to tell you, man: you really freaked me out when you twisted Julie’s head off.”

He laughed. “Yes, it reminds me of the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling: If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

I jumped in with the next line, “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you—”

“Can you trust yourself, Mr. Robinson?”

“What do you mean?”

“Can you trust yourself with the truth?”

“Well…sure.”

“Then I will trust you too.” He grabbed his head, twisted it off, and tucked it under his arm. “This is the truth.”

I stood there in shock, not breathing, for ten long seconds. Then I bolted out the front door.

As I ran down the driveway, my legs got weaker with each step. My car was parked on the road, just a dozen yards away, yet I wasn’t sure I could make it. But I got there, barely, and dragged myself inside the car and closed the door and locked it.

**********

The next morning, I woke up in my car. It was nearly noon. Why had I fallen asleep in my car? And why had I slept for so long?

The coffee. Julie must have drugged me. But why?

As I sat there trying to shake off the grogginess, I began to wonder: Did a human Dr. Borgenson even exist? Maybe he invented a robot version of himself and then died—leaving the robot to carry on his work.

There was one thing I knew for sure: I couldn’t keep it a secret. It was a crazy, incredible story, and I was about to start calling the news networks, but then I glanced at the house and saw a For Sale sign in the yard. I jumped out of my car, ran to the house, and looked through a window.

All of the furniture was gone.

There was a woman inside wearing a business suit and holding a briefcase, looking around. She spotted me peeping through the window and walked out the front door, smiling. “It’s a great house. So if you’re interested, you’d better move quickly.”

“How long has it been on the market?” I asked.

“It’s a new listing today.”

“And it’s completely empty? Even the shop in the back?”

“Yes. It’s ready for immediate occupancy. Would you like me to give you the grand tour?”

“No thanks.”

“Well, here’s my card, in case you change your mind.” She handed me it to me, and I left.

On my drive home, I wondered how it was physically possible to have cleaned out the entire house and the shop overnight? Then it hit me: with an army of robots.

I thought, nobody will ever believe me now.

**********

So…these days I’m paranoid. I’m trying to get over it, but it’s not easy. I think, what about that young woman over there? Is she another Julie? Is that another Abby? And that man—what about him? Is he really human?

The truth is…they could be everywhere.

I’ve even wondered about myself. But I’ve never checked my head—to see if it will twist off.

How about you?

THE END