There is a certain class of dining establishment that is ubiquitous across the American landscape. These are the "mid-range" restaurant chains that sprouted up across the nation in the 1980s and 90s in order to serve the tastes of the aspiring yet faltering middle classes who had neither the time nor money to spend on higher quality fare, but wanted an option they felt was better than fast food and more "upscale" than the local mom-and-pop eateries that had supported the entertainment economy for so many decades. These chains not only drove many local restauranteurs out of business, but pulled the overall national food quality levels into line somewhere between mediocre and bland.
After Katie and Seth exchanged a few text messages, arrangements were made and he had naturally chosen one of these godawful chain restaurants: that tribute to the lowest common denominator in American Cuisine known as Crabbapple's. Oh, and look! The walls were covered with re-creations of trinkets and signage from the Great Depression through the 1960s. Quelle suprise! Never mind the fact that O'Keefe had probably been exposed to all sorts of interesting cuisine from all over the world—no, he just had to choose the blandest among America's many bland dining offerings. The worst of it was that even though it had been many years since she'd been to the Columbus area, Katie knew it was full to the brim with high-quality dining options. Oh well—at least they have a bar.
Katie walked into the abominable excuse for a restaurant, ignoring the hostess and going straight for the bar. She had chosen to wear a bright blue cocktail dress with a mid-thigh hemline and a deep-cut front. She hoped that with the combination of strong drink and a bit of flirtation she'd succeed in keeping O'Keefe distracted enough to talk freely.
Politely yet firmly, she turned down the offer of a drink from the man sitting at the other end of the bar and ordered herself a dirty vodka martini. As she sat at the bar sipping on her cocktail, she made up her mind that come hell or high water, she was going to get some real information out of O'Keefe—tonight. She just wasn't sure she had it in her to meet with him yet again—besides, she wanted to determine whether she needed to commit to this job for a longer term or whether she could instead take up the promising new offer she'd received last night from Copenhagen.
This is a surprisingly well-mixed martini. Katie nodded for the bartender's attention, though she knew she already had it. She wanted a different kind of attention from him, though, so she handed him a fifty and explained that a friend would be joining her shortly, and anything he ordered should be made especially strong. After a suspicious look from the man, she assured him that she wasn't up to anything nefarious.
"He is dear friend," she explained in her Svetlana voice. "But he finds himself in much stress, as you say. He does not open up easily, and so I hope to help him relieve himself."
After a snicker at her use of the phrase, the bartender agreed. "I'll be sure his garnishes are always gold," he said, offering her a sly wink. "Wouldn't want you to get them mixed up, now, would we?"
There he is. She spotted O'Keefe through a window. (These places always had plenty of windows.) He'd done his usual job of parking—he was out in the middle of the lot near no other cars whatsoever. He approached the restaurant at a brisk walk. She could see that he was wearing jeans again, but these were less worn than his others. He'd also put on a dark green button-up shirt with a button-down collar and even tucked it in. What do you know? She thought. He owns something beside t-shirts after all. She watched as she told the hostess he'd be needing a table for two, but was waiting for the other party.
She waved for his attention. Once he noticed her, he let the hostess know he'd be waiting at the bar, pointing out that his company was already there to meet him.
"Oh, Seth!" She exclaimed as he approached her, pronouncing his name Set, as usual. She leaned over from her barstool and kissed him on the cheek, which produced exactly the effect she'd desired: he blushed. "I am being so glad to see you again. How was your busy day?"
He took the stool next to hers and responded, "Oh, fine, I guess. Just work."
"Might I buy you a drink?"
"Umm, sure … what are you having?"
"Sounds good." He nodded, as if to someone across the bar, but there was no one there. "In fact, that's my favorite drink." That was odd.
They made small talk as they sipped their drinks—his with a little gold-colored plastic sword through the olive, where hers was red—and discussed Central Ohio weather patterns and how they compared to the Baltic coast. Just as they were finishing their second round, a host arrived and guided them to their seats. He handed them menus and described for them the bland specials that were available, finishing up by inquiring as to whether they wanted more drinks, which they did.
"Is tough cleaning up laboratories I expect, yes?" Katie wanted to keep the early talk light, but steer O'Keefe towards his work.
"Yeah, well, you have to be careful, you know?"
"How do you mean by this?"
"It's these scientist-types. They're smart and all, but some of them tend to be sort of absent-minded. They work with some pretty dangerous stuff, and they're not always diligent about putting away their toys when they're done with them."
"I see, so you mean they might leave out the dangerous chemicals and equipment and so?"
"Yeah, there's that. Also, they eat while they work and just leave food lying around all over the place," Seth continued. "It's a wonder one of 'em doesn't die of eating some poison, or catch a disease or something."
"They work with diseases?"
"Sometimes, yeah," Seth winced almost imperceptibly, then blinked three or four times in rapid succession before continuing. "They're always looking for cures to things, but sometimes that means they have to cause the disease in a rat or a monkey or something before they can test the cures."
"Why, this is awful! These poor animals!"
"We try not to think about it too much," he said, frowning. "I mean, I feel bad for the animals, but if it helps cure some terrible disease, I suppose it's probably worth it, you know?" He hesitated and furrowed his brow. A look of pain crossed his face briefly. "At least, that's what I tell myself. I still—I don't know … I still feel pretty bad about it." He tossed back the remainder of his drink. "They make 'em strong here, huh? I don't think he put any vermouth in there at all!"
Katie found herself surprised at the depth of emotion O'Keefe seemed to display about the lab animals. According to his records, O'Keefe had been through some punishingly brutal training—not to mention his involvement in some hard-core military operations. Could that be why he was no longer in the service? Had he not dealt well with violence? There was nothing in his file about problems acting under fire or signs of PTSD or anything of that sort—but then so much of his record was redacted, it would be difficult to know anything about his military career with any real certainty.
Katie could recall the first time she had had to kill someone. It wasn't a pleasant experience, but she got over it. There had been half a dozen since—all in the line of duty, of course. It never grew easy—at least for her it hadn't—but you did what you had to do. That's why people like them had to have such extensive training. You had to have that to fall back on when things got tough—whether physically or emotionally.
Lost in her reverie, she failed to notice the waitress addressing her. "I am being so sorry," she said. "I was lost in my thinking."
"Oh, that's OK, dear," the woman said. "Are you ready to order?"
"What you think I would like here?" Katie looked at Seth admiringly. "I am not eating in a place like this before. Is much nicer than we have in Russia." May as well flatter his choice of this terrible, bland place, she thought.
"Oh, I don't know," he hesitated. "It depends—do you like spicy food? Or seafood? Or …" He trailed off.
"What is it you are having?" She smiled coquettishly.
"I guess I'll just have the steak and shrimp platter, medium, with the garlic potatoes."
"I will have same," Katie said. "But medium-rare and with rice." She addressed Seth, then. "Are you sure of this garlic potato? It seems like it might make the breath not so good, yes?" She winked at him.
It took him a moment to realize what she was implying, but when he did his cheeks flushed. There was no way in hell this man had been a sailor!
"Um, yeah, I'll uh … change mine to rice, too, please. I forgot how much I like rice."
More drinks. More small talk about food, weather, video games, and local news items. Food was served and eaten. During this time Katie took every opportunity to make O'Keefe feel relaxed, familiar, at-ease. She touched his hand or arm whenever possible. She took her shoes off and instigated little foot games under the table.
O'Keefe was very attentive and asked follow-up questions to everything she had to say, which made it difficult for her to keep up her end of the conversation. She had prepared a basic background for Svetlana long ago, but she'd never had to carry on an in-character conversation at such length.
"You seem to know much of many things," she said. "Tell me, Seth … have you traveled much?"
"No, I haven't really," he replied. "I grew up around here. Outside of a few vacations, I haven't spent much time away. I —" He faltered and then stopped, looking at the ceiling. The act of thinking appeared to suddenly come very difficult for him. "I—I think I remember wanting to join the … Air Force, maybe? I know I wanted to go to … space—walk on the moon. I … I wanted to travel—to see the world. But, I—" He sat silently for a moment.
"Seth?" Katie nudged his knee under the table with her foot. "You did not join the services?" Katie waved at the bartender for another round of drinks.
"Huh? No," he suddenly snapped out of his fugue state. "No, I—I never joined. I think I wanted to fly. But, I never finished—never finished college. I just sort of … never did … anything."
"But you seem to me like a man who has had training," Katie replied. "You carry yourself like military man." She sat up straight and stiff and gave him mock salute, then smiled and leaned forward, taking both of his hands in hers. "I do not think you learn this in boy scouts, yes?" She winked at him.
"No, I just never left—never got around to ... you know ... going anywhere. Though to be honest a big part of my life is a blur."
"You did the drugs?"
"What? Drugs? No, I never really—" He trailed off again, shook his head. He added, "I smoked a little pot in college, but doesn't everyone?"
"Perhaps in the States," Katie replied, laughing. "I have been doing no such thing, and I am college student!"
"I guess it's probably different in Russia, but over here almost everyone smokes a bit in school. I think. Well, maybe not. I guess it just seems that way thanks to movies and TV. I wasn't in college long, though, so I don't have a lot of first-hand experience."
"So, you did not finish school and did not join service. You are local boy. Now you work as cleaner." Katie arched a skeptical eyebrow at him. "And yet you worry that government is watching you in secret?"
"Are you trying to say I'm crazy?" Seth finished off yet another martini.
"Far from this," Katie said. "I think you are very interesting man. I think you are hiding things." She leaned back in the booth, pouting. "I think you are still not trusting me."
"Don't feel bad, Svetlana. I don't trust anyone."
"Why is this?"
"You really want to know?"
"Of course I wish to know!"
"All right, I'll tell you."
"Save room for dessert?" The waitress grinned down at the two of them.
"I am thinking not," said Katie. "Unless you would split a little something with me, Seth?"
"Umm … I guess so, sure," said Seth. "What did you have in mind?"
"This chocolate cake with the ice cream looks pleasant," she said, winking. "But you must promise to eat at least half or I will not order it."
"Sure," he replied, turning to the waitress. "We'll have one of those to split."
"Also bring us Irish coffees, please?"
"I'll have it right out," she said, and left them again.