Interphase: Exodus – Chapter 4

As he reached for his water glass, Mike tried to reflect on the number of awkward dates he’d been on, both in his personal and professional life, and judged that only a few of them could compare to this evening.

Dr. Sarah Douglas sat across from him with her gaze firmly fixed on the menu. Her glasses had almost slipped to the end of her nose, but she seemed too nervous to notice as she stared at the page with what Mike recognized as growing panic. He sighed to himself. Maybe Horizon had been the wrong choice. He’d thought the view of the Manhattan skyline offered by the skyscraper-perched restaurant would have been a good conversation-starter, but he was coming to realize this was not her kind of place.

She hadn’t seemed so nervous when he’d caught her on the way out of the lab that afternoon and asked her to dinner. Surprised certainly, since the two of them had hardly interacted outside of shared pleasantries when Olivia had business in the lab, but she had accepted without much seeming reservation.

Such a drastic shift in her demeanor… was it nerves, or was there something to Olivia’s suspicions?

Sarah had certainly made an effort with her appearance. The usual jeans and t-shirt that she wore beneath her ever-present white coat had been swapped for a black velvet evening gown. Her short hairstyle had been carefully combed, and a pair of diamond stud earrings winked in the candlelight. If anything, the finery only enhanced her unease. The straps of her dress were constantly being readjusted, and on the way up to the restaurant she occasionally wobbled in her high-heeled shoes. She had a habit of worrying at her lips whenever there was a lull in the conversation, and as a result most of the lipstick she had put on was already gone.

If he was going to make any headway in this investigation, he needed to find a way to get her to relax.

“Are we ready to order this evening?” their waiter asked politely.

Sarah looked up at him, then down to her menu. “I, um… well,” she stammered, blushing feverishly. “To be honest, I don’t even know what most of these words mean.”

“Oh, thank God,” Mike breathed, affecting a bashful grin. “I thought it was just me and I was about to make myself look like an idiot.”

They shared a relieved laugh while the waiter looked down at them both with an indulgent smile. Mike played up the cluelessness and had the gentleman explain in detail a few choice entrees before they both settled on the fish. At the question of wine, Sarah surprised Mike by declining and ordering seltzer water instead. “I don’t drink,” she explained apologetically.

“Perfectly fine,” Mike said, mentally scratching off social lubricant from his list of conversation tools.

When the waiter departed, he leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “I don’t think he likes us very much.”

Sarah gave a soft moan of embarrassment, pressing her hands over her face despite her glasses, but the faint smile she coupled it with was strangely endearing. Mike reached across the table to touch her arm. “You’re doing fine,” he told her.

“Say that a few more times and I might start to believe you.” She looked around the candlelit, white-tableclothed room. “I’m just surprised you aren’t doing any better than me in an extravagant place like this.”

“I’ve been here a couple times,” Mike confessed, “but only as a bodyguard, never as a customer. It’s one of the GSC’s exclusive spots to entertain visiting dignitaries and foreign heads of state. They always looked like they were having a good time, so I thought I should try it out myself the next time a special occasion arose.”

Though the smile stayed in place from his flattering comment, the look in Sarah’s eyes flattened as she toyed with her napkin. “Mmhmm. Let me guess. One of the councilmembers’ trust funds slash foundations owns the building?”

“Director Woods herself, actually,” Mike replied.

Sarah gave a bitter snort. “Of course.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I’m charging this evening to my boss’s expense account.”

“While I appreciate the gesture, that doesn’t get me my research back.” She leaned back in her seat and regarded Mike beneath her long eyelashes. “This wasn’t the director’s idea, was it? A way to try and placate me after ripping the rug out from under me and my team?”

Mike offered her a smile. “I can assure you, Dr. Douglas, that this evening was completely my idea.” Which was the absolute letter of the truth.

Sarah rolled her eyes and stared out the window, where the skyscrapers glittered like gem-encrusted monoliths. Mike noticed that her previous nervousness had vanished, replaced by an unconcealed resentment. “We’ve spent over a year working on this treatment. And now all of a sudden this Harvard upstart absolutely has to have our facility? Like he’s the only one who ever worked on a cure before? I’d love to know how much he offered the director to sideline us.”

“You mean Dr. Harris?” Mike asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I know his type. Loves the high-profile work, the accolades, getting his name in all the medical journals. You should have heard the canned speech he gave to my team. Ego’s gotten too big for his head, so he’s out to prove that he’s still God’s gift to science and jump all over the next disease to appear on the radar. Believes he’s destined to save the world from itself.”

The edge grew in her tone with every sentence. Either she was unused to guarding her tongue, or she was the best misdirection artist Mike had ever encountered. “From what I’ve heard, it really was the GSC that gave him his marching orders,” he offered, curious what her reaction would be. “Director Woods ran him over, the same as everyone else who crosses her path.”

“Then someone’s lost their marbles,” she declared, ignoring the comment about the director, “because suspending research devoted to curing Loeman’s right now, of all times, makes no sense whatsoever. If we don’t find a cure soon…” Her voice trailed off and her eyelids lowered with what appeared to be concern.

Curiosity tempted Mike to inquire as to her last comment, but he had a job to do first. “You could always try hacking his email,” he suggested with a devilish grin.

Sarah’s lips curled in a delighted sneer. “Maybe. Have anyone on your team I could borrow?”

“Why not do it yourself? You forget, Doctor, I’ve seen your file. While you’re a brilliant oncologist, you also know your way around a computer if my team’s work is to be believed.”

She laughed, as a flush of embarrassment rose to her cheeks. “I guess it’s true what they say about permanent records. Very well, you caught me, I confess. I was never actually a hacker myself, though. More like a…” Her face grew as crimson as the single rose on the table. “A hacker groupie. So, there was this one dancer in college…”

Amidst teasing and innocuous-sounding remarks, Mike recorded the pertinent details of her story, determined to verify it once he got back to the campus, but his instincts grew more relaxed. For all that he’d bought into Olivia’s suspicions, the events of the evening had largely cleared Sarah as the culprit in his mind. The conversation flowed better as their meals arrived, and around the edges Mike found himself enjoying Sarah’s company. The flash of annoyance he experienced when his cell buzzed in his pocket was genuine, until he noticed that it was the security station back at the research lab.

As soon as the report was done, he stood and set his napkin on the table. “I need to get back to the campus,” he stated, reaching out for Sarah’s hand. “Come on. We’re getting a lift back.”

“What’s happening?” she demanded, accepting his grip.

“Dr. Harris and a few of your team members brought in a patient who has the disease. They just took him down to the lab.”

“They did what?” Sarah’s eyes betrayed a hint of admiration beneath the layers of shock.

They left the restaurant and moved to the elevators, but Sarah flashed Mike a bewildered look when he hit the button for the roof instead of the lobby. “I thought you said we were going back to the GSC.”

If he hadn’t been so focused just then, he would have flashed her a smile. Instead he made a nondescript sound in the back of his throat and watched the floor numbers flash by until the doors opened to the sight of a helicopter waiting for them, blades already churning.