Sunday, April 7, 2013

Grand Romantic Delusions Chapter 17: The Café

     Another day. Another café. Sometimes—when on the job—Katie felt as though all she did was go from one coffee shop to another; talking to different people in each one, exchanging notes or packages. She could imagine a worse life—sometimes she felt as though she'd lived several worse lives already—but it grew tiring at times.
     This one was quite busy; unlike the book store she'd spent the evening in with O'Keefe. She suspected Lewis Wright had known it would be busy. He had been more than a little skittish and didn't want to meet with her at first, but when she had said they could meet in public and even let him pick the location he finally relented. Why is my life so full of fearful, paranoid men?
     The table he'd designated wasn't open when she'd arrived, but she had watched and waited like a vulture and snagged it as soon as the occupants had left. That was one of many reasons why she always arrived early to these things. 
     She wore a dark blue pin-striped pantsuit with a white lily pinned to the jacket. This was how she'd told Lewis to identify her. She had her hair tied back in a tight bun and wore a pair of wire-frame glasses with non-prescription lenses. All of this, of course, helped her get into her May Parker: Serious Scientist persona. 

     She sat in the corner, reading a local arts paper, sipping a latte and watching various people come and go. 
She looked at the clock painted onto the wall which was designed to look like one of Dalí's watches pouring out of a coffee mug. Cute, that. The face read 12:47—seventeen minutes late. She had just begun to wonder whether he would show up at all, when that tingly feeling struck her—that feeling that told her she was being watched.
     Turning the pages of her paper, she took the opportunity to look about the room in as nonchalant a way as she could manage. There! The skinny man seated near the counter. He was definitely watching her from the corner of his eye.
     He had short, light-brown hair that was greying in places. He appeared to be tall, though it was difficult to tell, due to the slouched-over way he was sitting. He also had a large book with which he was trying to conceal his surveillance of her. Initially she thought perhaps Labelle had sent someone to keep tabs on her. A few seconds of watching him told her this was a man with absolutely no experience in spy-craft. This led to her second hypothesis, which was that he might have something to do with O'Keefe. He certainly had that way about him. She dismissed this thought almost immediately, however, as she believed O'Keefe would be more likely to put on a bad disguise and try to follow her himself.
     Then it occurred to her that this man was likely to be Lewis Wright. He'd probably decided to watch her for a bit before committing to the meeting. I don't have time for this, she thought as she drained the remainder of her coffee, put down her paper, stood up and grabbed her briefcase.
     "Mr. Wright," she said, approaching the man while reaching out her hand in greeting. "You are Lewis Wright, yes?"
     The man looked up at her, startled, before replying. "Umm … er, who … what now?"
     "Mr. Lewis Wright?"
     "Yeah." He put his book down on the small, round table, stood up and took her hand. "How—how did you—?"
     "It's quite all right, Mr. Wright. I'm Dr. Parker." She gave him one of her warmest smiles. "I understand your reticence. May I?"
     She motioned to the seat across from him.
     "Huh?" His response was slow, but he got there. "Yeah, please," he said and they both sat.
     "Thank you for meeting me, Mr. Wright."
     "Yeah, sure—no problem."
     "As I said on the phone this morning, I represent Labelle Research Laboratories. In addition to our own research, we often partner with various universities for mutual benefit—"
     "Yeah," Lewis interrupted. "I get that. And yes, I was part of a couple of experiments in college."
     "What can you tell me about the experiments?"
     "You probably know more about them than I do."
     "I'm afraid you're mistaken," she replied. "Unfortunately the records of a number of projects from the 1990s are incomplete."
     "Don't government contractors have to keep better records—?"
     "You are correct, Mr. Wright," she interrupted him. "But, let me explain. You see, I don't actually work for Labelle. I'm an independent investigator hired by the new administration to look into some of the things the previous administration funded—to find out why there are so many gaps in their records and to do my best to fill them. To that end, I am following up with every lead I can find, and you are one such lead."
     "I see. So … the old guys, they were up to some shenanigans?"
     "I doubt Labelle would characterize it in quite that way, but that is the concern. Of course, it may simply be a case of bad record-keeping."
     "So, you just want to ask me … what, exactly?"
     "Primarily, we just want to know more about the experiments," began Katie. "But after my talk with your ex-wife, I grew concerned that you might be having some … problems as a result—"
     "Are you two going to order anything?" The young man who interrupted them had an impatient air about him. "There are waiting customers here who could use this table, you know."
     "Oh, of course—I'm sorry," apologized Katie. "I'll have another latte. What about you, Mr. Wright? It's on me."
     Lewis sat, frozen, staring at the menu board behind the counter. "I—I—I don't—can't … I want—no, I—" he stuttered.
     "Mr. Wright?" Katie had never seen anything quite like the scene before her. Lewis seemed to be attempting to cover his eyes and ears at the same time. "Are you OK?"
     The barista stepped back in surprise. He held his round tray up before him as if to shield himself from the waves  of crazy he imagined to be emanating from Lewis.
     Lewis clenched his fists and slammed them into his lap, before saying in a small but clear voice: "I am having trouble with this."
     "With the coffee?" Katie realized she was beginning to pull away from the table and stopped herself. She made herself lean forward instead. "Is it the crowd? Should we go outside?"
     "No. It's—choices. Can't make choices. Can't decide on coffee. Espresso … cappuccino … latte … hot or iced? Fat? No fat? Soy? Caramel, chocolate, cinnamon, hazel … it's … too much."
     "Let me order for you," said Katie. She turned to the frightened man. "Get a nice cup of hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream—two of them. Forget the latte."
     "Yes, ma'am!" He fled behind the counter and set to work.
     "Thank you, Dr. Parker." Lewis began breathing deep, calming breaths. "Thank you so much."
     "Take your time, Mr. Wright." She reached across the table and put a reassuring hand on his arm. "Everything is fine. We'll just sit here and have a nice cup of hot chocolate, and we'll just talk. How does that sound?"
     "Good, Dr. Parker," came the response from Lewis, whose breathing was now beginning to come more easily. "I think that's—that's good."
     "Good, good—and please call me 'May' if that helps, Mr. Wright."
     "Sure, Doc— May. Sure. And you can call me Lewis."
     "Now, Lewis, let's just sit a minute. And when you're ready—but not before—I want to ask you a few questions. They will be simple questions. They will be about things you should know, and not things you will have to make decisions about, understood?"
     "Yeah, sure," he said. He sat more upright now. "I think that will help."

     They sat quietly for a while and waited on their drinks. Katie began to wonder just what sort of disorder was afflicting Lewis Wright. He clearly had a difficult time making decisions. This was, as his ex-wife had told her, exactly the opposite of the effect the TIER program had hoped to achieve. She wasn't kidding, Katie thought. No wonder this guy had experienced a breakdown.
     After the nervous server returned, Lewis regarded Katie over his cocoa. She tried another of her friendliest, most encouraging smiles, which seemed to help him a bit.
     "All right, Dr. … er, May," he began. "I'm sorry about earlier. I think I'm ready to answer your questions now."
     "That's quite all right, Lewis." She patted his arm again. "Tell me—what do you recall of the experiments in which you were a subject in 1993 and 1994?"
     "Not a lot, I'm afraid." He took another sip from his mug. "I remember they had us do some exercise. I think they were testing the effects of physical stress on our thinking, maybe?"
     "Is that what they told you?"
     "No. They didn't tell us much of anything, really."
     "So … what was the rest of it?"
     "Well, after we'd exercise they'd give us a drink, or in some cases we'd be hooked up to an IV. I guess to make sure we kept hydrated after the physical exertion. Then they would have us perform various mental exercises, such as solving complex equations. Sometimes we played video games."
     "What kind of games?"
     "Puzzle games, mostly. Stuff like Minesweeper or Tetris. Though occasionally we'd play combat games—you know, the ones where you're going through a maze or a cavern complex or something, and you'd have to shoot the other players. Sometimes we'd be on teams, other times it was a free-for-all."
     "Did you enjoy the games?"
     "I—I don't know. I mean, sometimes. The puzzle games I liked, if they weren't too fast-paced."
     "And you took part in these sessions for how long?"
     "It was just from late 1993 through the summer of 1994."
     "I'm sorry, I meant how long were the sessions?"
     "Oh! They were usually about two or three hours."
     "Tell me … about your condition—your problem with making decisions. Have you always …?"
     "No," he said, "I mean, I was never like, a super-decisive, take-charge kind of guy, but I never used to … to think so much about how my decisions … could—all of our decisions—could affect everything."
     "So, when did this start? Was it right after taking part in these tests?"
     "No, it wasn't," he replied. "In fact, if anything, I felt the need to be more decisive for a while."
     "How long did that last?"
     "Oh, I don't know … I guess just a few months."
     "So you started having these … issues about 1995?"
     "No, there was some time in between," Lewis said. "I didn't start having … this crippling sort of trouble until after Izzy was born."
     "Your daughter?"
     "Do you think maybe the sudden responsibility that comes with fatherhood could have triggered—"
     "No," he cut her short. "It wasn't that. It didn't start to get bad until she was a couple of years old."
     "Yes," said Katie, "but do you think maybe that could have played a part?"
     "No!" She was taken aback by his sudden forcefulness. "It wasn't Izzy's fault!"
     "That's not at all what I'm saying, Lewis," Katie said softly. "It couldn't possibly be her fault—of course not."
     "OK, just so you understand that." He closed his eyes and sipped his cocoa.
     "Have you been to see a therapist?"
     "Yes," he replied, squinting at her suspiciously. "But, it didn't work. And neither did any of the drugs: Prozac, Lexapro, Paxil, Cymbalta, Inderal … you name the flavor of the month, and I've tried it. They either had no effect, or they just made me depressed. Or worse."
     "Yeah, worse—angry and violent, in some cases."
     "I'm sorry to hear that. On another topic: have you ever heard of a psychological testing program called TIER?"
     "Tear? Like crying?"
     "No, T-I-E-R."
     "Can't say that I have."
     "And have you ever met a man by the name of Seth O'Keefe?"
     "No," Lewis arched an eyebrow at her before asking. "Why? Should I have?"
     "Not necessarily."
     "Was he another test subject?"
     "I'm sorry, I can't talk about that," replied Katie.
     "Of course you can't."
     "Well, Mr.— er, Lewis. Thank you for your time," Katie stood.
     "Wait just a minute, here! I have some questions for you, you know!"
     "I'm sorry, Lewis." Katie sat again. "I'll do what I can, but I may not be able to answer all of them completely—NDA, client privilege, you know … legalities."
     "Yeah, that figures," he scowled. "I knew I should have had coffee."
     "You ordered hot cocoa. That was the wrong choice. I think. I mean, I think I should have had … well, maybe tea would have been better. I just—"
     "All right, Lewis," she smiled at him again. "What would you like to know?"
     "OK," he leaned forward, lowering his voice. "First of all, what was the point of those tests? The real point, I mean."
     "The real point?"
     "Yes," he replied. "Look—you don't spend a decade married to a psychologist without learning a thing or two: like the fact that the experimenters never tell the subjects what the test is really about."
     "Oh, I see. Well, that's not always the case—"
     "Yes it is. And don't give me any of that 'testing effects of physical stress in problem-solving' bullshit."
     "Well, that really was what the experiment was about … at least partly."
     "And the rest of it?" He was beginning to feel edgy—like he was on the verge of doing something important, but he couldn't quite figure out what it was. He continued, "In fact, why don't I just cut to the chase here? What did they put in the drinks? What was in the IV bags?"
     "As far as I know, Mr. Wright, those were simple glucose drips." Katie tilted her head and furrowed her brow, feigning confusion. "I don't understand … why would they put anything in—"
     "Let me just stop you there," he interrupted. So we're back to 'Mr. Wright' are we? He knew he had to press her now. "I know you're concerned about long-term effects on the test subjects. A little exercise and some paperwork or video games wouldn't have any long-term effects. So, it must have been a drug trial of some kind, right? So what did they give us?"
     "I'm sorry, Mr. Wright." Katie knew she'd stepped in it now. Labelle was not going to be happy about this. "There's nothing more I can tell you."
     "Nothing more you're allowed to tell me, you mean. You have to protect your corporate paymasters, right, May?"
     "No, Mr.—I mean, Lewis, it's nothing like that. I just don't have any more information. That is why I wanted to meet with you, remember?"
     "Sure it is." He clearly wasn't buying it.
     She stood up, holding her bag. "I'm sorry Mr. Wright. There really is nothing more I know."
     With that, she turned and exited the café.

     Lewis waited for her to leave before going to the door to see where she went. He watched her get into a white Honda. He stepped outside, phone at the ready, and snapped a few shots of her and, more importantly, her license plate.

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