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"What's the status of your latest computer run?" Justice asked.
Pretorius grimaced, peering at the screen from behind the same black-rimmed computer glasses he'd owned for the past twenty years. "Based on the parameters you've given me, I've found half a dozen possibilities that score at eighty percent probability or higher."
"Hell, is that all?"
"We're lucky to have found even that many women considering your list of requirements. I mean, no one with black hair? What was with that?"
Justice grimaced. He had no intention of explaining any of his prerequisites, especially that one. "Well, if my choice is limited to six, then I'll just have to make do."
"Make do?" Pretorius swiveled his computer chair in a swift one-eighty, eyes the same unique shade of gold as Justice's glittering in outrage. "Are you mad? You're talking about the future Mrs. Sinjin, Incorporated here."
Justice waved that aside. "Next issue. Are they a half dozen you can handle having here at the estate? There's no way you can avoid running into them on occasion. It's not like I can keep them locked up and out of sight. Something tells me they won't agree to that particular condition."
Pretorius shuddered. "Well, so long as it's one at a time and not all of them together in a horde. Can't handle a horde." His chair drifted closer, the casters skating freely across the wooden floor. "Justice, are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"It's because of that car wreck, isn't it? It caused more than memory glitches. It's changed you. Changed your long-term goals. Changed how you look at the world."
Justice retreated behind an icy facade, one that never failed to stop even the most pushy person dead in his tracks. Not that it intimidated his uncle. Damn it all. He'd do anything to avoid this conversation, perhaps because it sliced too close to the heart of the matter.
Without a word, he crossed the generous expanse of the computer room and picked up a silver sphere consisting of small interlocking sections, each one engraved with a mathematical symbol. It was one of his inventions, one he hadn't released to the general public. He called it Rumi, short for ruminate, since he played with it whenever he needed to work through a problemwhich was basically most of the time.
Maybe he should have called it Obs for obsessive.
Pretorius pushed off with the toe of his sneaker and sent his computer chair shooting back toward his endless bank of computers and monitors. "You can't avoid the discussion, Justice. If you plan to go forward with your plan, I deserve the truth."
"I know." Justice's fingers moved restlessly across Rumi's surface, pushing and pulling the various sections until he'd transformed the sphere into a cylinder. Instead of smooth and flowing, it appeared jagged and disjointed, the symbols a chaotic jumble. These days the shapes were always a chaotic jumble. They'd been that way for over a year, a full six months before the accident.
He changed the topic, hoping it would distract his uncle. "Will all the women be at the symposium for Engineering into the Next Millennium?"
"Ridiculous title," Pretorius muttered.
"Agreed. Stay on target. Will they be there?"
"I made sure of it. Two weren't planning to attend, but I" He hesitated. "Let's just say I arranged for them to change their mind."
Justice knew better than to request specifics. "Excellent."
"Talk to me, boy. Why? Why are you doing this?"
Justice shook his head, not certain he could put it into words. He attempted to coax the cylinder into a double helix while struggling to give voice to the realization he'd made after his accident. How did he explain the nothingness that had become his life over the past few years? Hell, he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt any emotion, whether anger or happiness or somethinganythingin between.
With each passing day his feelings, the drive to invent, even his ambition had slowly iced over. While each minute ticked relentlessly by, everything that made him a "normal"and he used the word in its loosest possible contextliving, breathing human eked away. Soon only a cold, hard shell of a man would remain. He tossed Rumi aside, frustrated by its refusal to assume a clean-cut functional shape.
"It's just something I need you to accept," Justice finally said. "For my sake."
"Call and cancel," Pretorius urged. "Before you do something we both regret."
"I can't do that. I'm the keynote speaker."
Pretorius switched gears. "What in the bloody hell are you supposed to say about engineering into the next millennia? That's a thousand damn years. It's impossible to predict whether there will even be a human race in a thousand years, let alone the status of engineering over that period of time." "And you claim I swear a lot."
"What can I say? Your vices are rubbing off on me. Justice, you haven't made a public appearance in five years. This isn't the time to change that."
"I haven't made a public appearance in five years because I haven't had a damn thing worth saying for five years. When I do have a damn thing worth saying, I'll start making public appearances again. Until then, I can manage one little symposium without falling flat on my face."
"The media will be all over this one little symposium now that your name is connected with it. After such a lengthy absence they'll expect you to offer something of vital significance. I don't suppose you have something of vital significance to say to them?"
Justice waved that aside. "Don't worry about my speech, old man. I'll make something up. The ironic part is, if I claim it's possible, some fool in the audience will believe me and go out there and invent it. Win, win."
"But why? Just give me one good reason why you're doing this."
Justice dropped a hand to his uncle's shoulder with a sigh. He knew going into this would be hard on Pretorius, but something had to change. Now. Before time overcame opportunity. "I haven't invented anything in a solid year."
"Your creativity is just blocked. We can find a way to unblock it without going to such extremes."
"I don't see how it's possible for my creativity to be blocked since I don't possess any. I'm an engineer."
This time Pretorius sighed. "Inventors are creative people, Justice."
"That's a damn lie and you know it. Now take it back."
It was a running joke between them, but for some reason it lacked its usual humor. Maybe because he found it more and more difficult to laugh about his current situation.
"I understand that you need a woman. I don't object to that. Go go find someone." To Justice's amusement the tips of Pretorius's ears turned bright red. "Let nature take its course. Once it has, you can come back all refreshed and revitalized."
"It's not that simple. I need"
How did he explain? Ever since the accident he realized he needed more than just some temporary woman. More than a single night, or even a month of single nights. He longed for something permanent. Something enduring. Something that he could count on today and tomorrow and next month and next year. Someone who gave a damn. Someone he could call when if
"Mr. St. John? Is there someone we should notify?" Those words continued to haunt him, even after all these months. As did his answer, "No." There was no one.
"I need more," Justice whispered.
His uncle fell silent, then nodded, reading between the lines. He understood the subtext, even if he was reluctant to accept it. "It means you'll have to stop swearing so much. Granted, it would make for a nice change."
Justice's mouth twitched. "I'll work on that," he assured gravely.
"It would also mean we'd have some decent food around here." Pretorius warmed to the idea. "And a clean house."
"Somehow I don't think the woman I marry would appreciate knowing I picked her because I needed a housekeeper with privileges." Justice leaned over his uncle's shoulder and pushed a button. The laser printer sprang to life, shooting out sheet after sheet of material. "Which brings me back to my main concern. If I marry, you'll have to put up with her, too. You've read the information on these women. Can you handle one of them living here permanently?"
Pretorius frowned. "Is that why you haven't married before this? Were you worried about how I'd react to having our home invaded?"
Invaded. Justice suppressed a sigh. This was going to be a tough sell. "No, I haven't married because I've never found someone I could tolerate for longer than a week."
His uncle nodded morosely. "That's where my computer program comes in, I assume? I've done my best to transform the Pretorius Program from a business application to a more personal one. The parameters remain similar. Finding the perfect wife isn't all that different from finding the perfect employee."
"Exactly. It just requires inputting different data." He ran through his requirements. "An engineer, therefore rational and in control of her emotions. Brilliant, of course. I can't handle foolish women. Physically attractive would be a bonus. But she must be logical. Kind. Someone who won't make waves. And she must be able to handle isolation."
"I thought we were talking about a woman."
"If she's an engineer, chances are she'll already possess most of those qualities. More important, she'll fit in around here."
"Okay, fine." Pretorius straightened, assuming a professional attitude. "If you're determined to go through with this, I've narrowed the choices down to a half-dozen women, all of whom will be attending the symposium."
"With a little help from you."
"That was the easy part," Pretorius said grimly.
He picked up the stack of papers the printer had coughed out and fanned through them. Justice caught a glimpse of charts and graphs, photos, as well as curricula vitae, anddear Godwhat appeared to be reports from a private investigator. Never let it be said his uncle wasn't thorough.
"And the hard part?"
"Women are odd creatures, Justice. They tend to have a negative reaction when you invite them for a cup of coffee in one breath and in the next tell them you want a wife."
"Well, hell." He hadn't thought about that.
"You could always make up an excuse for needing a bride so quickly. I'm sure they'll buy it. After all, you are The Great Justice St. John. Or so all the scientific journals claim."
"Or you can listen to the not-quite-as-great Pretorius St. John, who's actually considered that small detail."
"And you're not attending the symposium in order to find a wife. You're there to find an apprentice."
His uncle caught him off guard with an abrupt left onto an unmarked road. It took Justice a moment to brake, make a swift U-turn and input the new course. "I don't need an apprentice."
"Yes, you do. At least, that's what you're going to tell these women. It's the only way to get them in your clutches. Once you settle on someone you think you can stand for longer than a month, get her to move out here. Work with her for a bit. Get her to fall in love with you and then marry her. That way she won't think you're some sort of kook. Or with luck, once she realizes you are, it'll be too late. She'll be wedded and bedded, with possibly a TGJSJ, Jr. on the way. And maybe she'll even cook and clean just because that's what women do." Pretorius shoved the stack of papers into Justice's hands. "In the meantime, study these. The symposium lasts three days which divides out to two candidates a day. You have that long to come back with an apprentice/wife we both can live with."
"And if it doesn't work out?"
His uncle folded his arms across his chest. "I've been thinking about this. And even though I don't want a strange woman wandering around here, poking her nose in where it doesn't belong, I've realized something."
"Which is?" Justice asked warily.
Pretorius stabbed a stubby finger in his direction. "You have a lot of knowledge and ability going to waste. You have an obligation to share it with others. Even if she doesn't work out as a wife, you'll have invested in the future either by providing inspiration for some brilliant young thing or, if you get lucky, you'll pass on your genetic code to another generation."
"That's a hell of a way to put it."
"Don't forget this was your idea, boy. Whether you realize it or not, that genius label you carry around comes with a price tag attached. You owe a debt to the universe."
"I gather the universe sent a bill?" Justice asked dryly.
"And you neglected to pay. That's why you're blocked. You've hoarded your knowledge instead of spreading it around. If the wife thing doesn't work out at least you'll have passed along your know-how to a worthy successor. And that I can live with since it'll only be temporary."
"And if she happens to fall in love and it's not temporary?"
Pretorius narrowed his eyes. "You think she's the only one who'll fall in love? Not the both of you?"
Justice knew better than to expect that. He doubted he was capable of love any longer. "Just her," he confirmed.
"In that case, I like my dinner served at six."