Chapter Five: The Outlier

 

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
– Christine McVie and Eddy Quintela

Slater could tell she was thinking furiously, recognizing she had said the wrong thing. It was almost amusing. She’d be regrouping, he thought, trying to get things back on track. This wasn’t sporting, of course, but the scotch was having its usual effect and he could feel the caring slipping away. She looked around the room, perhaps pretending to be casual, that this was just another natural break in conversation, when he noticed her brighten slightly.

Bloody Yank. Always showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other hand, perhaps that second scotch wasn’t such a bad idea after all

She smiled her perfect smile, and nodded towards the bar. “I think we shall have some new company now, Professor.”

Slater turned to follow her gaze and his heart sank. There was no fear of confrontation; there was little emotion at all. The day had been long and draining enough. First the woman, his stalker, at the funeral; his concerns for Michel and the project; Sabine laying it on with a trowel, and now this. Bloody Yank. Always showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other hand, perhaps that second scotch wasn’t such a bad idea after all; a second glance showed the American was a little unsteady as he threaded his way through the crowd.

“Hello Bradley,” Slater began, “you know Sabine, of course?” He deliberately patted Sabine’s hand, resting on the bar beside his.

“We’ve met,” Brad said, and turned back to Slater. “Funny you should be here though, Professor.”

“Oh? Why would you think that?” Slater replied, amusement now creasing his eyes as he realized what was on the American’s mind. One look at his face when he patted Sabine’s hand had given the game away.

“After all, Charlotte was working in my lab for quite a while before she moved onto new things.” He paused, just long enough for Brad to draw a deep breath, the prelude to a diatribe he’d rather not hear. Turning quickly to Sabine he continued,

“Bradley here is our resident Good Old Southern boy, aren’t you Bradley?” He paused, relishing the confusion on Brad’s face.

“Well, I’m from Louisiana, but I’m not a good old boy,” Brad said, haltingly.

“A Yankee then perhaps?” Slater offered, smiling broadly.

“I ain’t no Yankee, neither,” Brad said, frustration and the effects of the alcohol causing his carefully neutered accent to fall away, his deep Cajun roots suddenly showing.

“Oh, of course, my apologies. Louisiana would be Confederate wouldn’t it?” Slater asked politely, continuing before Brad could confirm or deny.“Yes, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to come from the losing side, haven’t you, my dear?” He glanced at Sabine, noting the amused look on her face. “Tell me, old boy,” he said, “why are you all so proud of coming from the side that lost?”

“Now look here mister – ” Brad began.

“Yes, Dr Pettier?” Slater said, flatly, harshly. “Not all things can be easily retracted, young man.”

Brad flushed with old anger and humiliation.

“Yeah, well. Sorry, I guess I’m just tired,” Brad mumbled, “long day in lab and all. I’ll see y’all later.” He turned quickly and pushed his way through the crowd towards the exit.

**********

Max was so relieved to see it was that freakish Dutch zombie from the lab down the hall – as opposed to Slater, who might reasonably be pissed off to find two non-lab members hanging around his territory – that he nearly burst out laughing.

“Relax, Mike.” Max sat back down on the stool, hoping that Toni was playing it similarly cool. Yes, Max was a coward, but this familiar face did not qualify as threatening. “We’re just chatting here, waiting for Sabine to get back – she asked me to meet her here. No need to ring anyone up.”

“And I was just keeping him company,” Toni said, sauntering into Max’s field of view and perching on one of the other stools. “We were just thinking of taking off, as obviously Sabine has stood Max up.”

Thanks a lot, Max beamed resentfully at Toni, but she was too busy smiling at Michel and showing off her legs. As if the freaky Dutchman would ever change expression at a glimpse of leg – Max had never seen him smile, not once.

Max didn’t trust people who didn’t smile.

**********

People lie.

Michel knew that much now. Not at first – he’d always taken people at their word, not understanding that there could be such a gulf between words and the world they described.

But then, painfully, the truth had hit him. The first time was when he was eleven, discovering that the man who slept with his mother was not, as she had claimed, his father. He spent the next five nights wandering the streets until he was found, half-starved and freezing, on the banks of the Maas. The Noorderbrug tramps treated him as one of their own, sharing their own meagre resources to keep him alive. When, finally, the man he had called ‘papa’ caught up with him he beat Michel – again – but disappeared the next morning, incidentally taking his mother’s savings and the last of her self-respect.

After that, Michel retreated into his schoolwork, not noticing or caring for the swirling human intercourse around him. Then he had won the scholarship to Cambridge, left Maastricht and finally, thank God, met people who were interesting, who talked about ideas. He met Slater, and spent three wonderful years in his lab before taking up a post-doc at MIT. He would have liked to remember fondly the long nights in the lab, discussing papers and doing experiments, sharing a joint in the darkened loading bay. The six months he spent with Karen were the happiest of his life, until he discovered the lie. Again, the disbelief; but when he confronted her she just laughed, mocking him, and walked away.

Slater saved him; an email saying that the Wellcome had awarded him a project grant and would Michel like to come back?

People lie.

Except Slater. He was always truthful, always honest; sometimes brutally so. Yes, he teased Michel, but there was nothing ill-natured about it. It felt how he imagined a father, a real father, might treat a favourite son. Not that he would have been able to tell if Slater did lie; the subtle body language cues that the books said gave liars away were invisible to him, despite everything he did to try to be normal.

Michel put down the telephone and walked to his bench.

“Yes. I am sorry you missed her. It is perfectly reasonable for you to wait here in the dark and save electricity. You would make a good Dutchman.”

There was a sudden burst of coughing from Toni as she swallowed a laugh. Michel turned to talk to her while Max glared at the back of his head.

“But you also must be a friend of Sabine?” he said, “I am Michel de Kooij. It is pleasant to meet you.”

“Toni. As you say, a friend of Sabine’s. We should have a drink together, because your work sounds fascinating.” She held out her hand, but Michel just nodded politely before picking up a well-used notebook and a pen.

“Yes. But now you must excuse me. I have work to do. Please, I think you know the way out even in the dark.”

Max took Toni’s outstretched hand and led her to the door.

“Come on Toni. Let’s leave him to his viruses or whatever.”

“Oh!” breathed Toni excitedly. “Viruses? We must talk!”

“Later!” snapped Max, dragging her into the corridor.

Michel sighed. It had been a tiring day, and he was in no mood for this kankerhond and his inveterate mooching, or his manners.

“Max!” he called after them, “I think the party is at the Volunteer. But I think Sabine was going to meet Brad, the American? I am sorry, Max.”

**********

Toni felt Max’s hand tighten abound hers for a second. He stopped walking and turned towards Michel. Toni got the impression the Dutchman had said it a little too reservedly, as if he didn’t really care while knowing that Max would.

“Huh? What do you mean?” Max said to Michel, a frown on his face.

“She said goodbye to me, and I heard them talking in the corridor.”

“Oh Max, they probably wanted to say something about work.” As soon as Toni said it she knew he wouldn’t believe her. On the other hand, Michel – what kind of name was that anyway? – looked like he was about to make true his earlier threat. Toni let her hand slide into Max’s again and tried to stop him from approaching Michel.

Shit, he wouldn’t pick a fight over that comment now, would he? Guys and their pride. She sighed inwardly and tried to think of something else to do.

“I don’t know why Sabine would want to meet him.”

It seemed to upset Max more that Michel couldn’t – or wouldn’t – give a straight answer, but at least he couldn’t move more towards Michel while she held his hand.

“Are you leaving? Or do I have to call security?”

Michel again reached for the phone by the door. The look on his face was tired and bored. Maybe Max was right, maybe he was the quiet type. He hadn’t looked at her legs nearly as much as other men would do when she flaunted them like this. Max was clearly distressed that Sabine had not told him that she was at the bar, and frankly Toni could understand that. On the other hand, she would get nowhere if Michel called Security.

“Oh, don’t be silly. Michel was it? We’re on our way out.” Toni smiled apologetically. “Come on Max, let’s go. You know Sabine will be at home waiting for you.”

“But why?” Max’s voice quivered. He was still upset, but now he sounded more confused than angry.

“Never mind, Max! Let’s go.” Toni dragged him the other way and hissed at him, “We can always come back tomorrow morning if she lied to you.” She waved at Michel as she put on a small smile. “Maybe we can meet another day and you can tell me about the fascinating work you are doing with viruses?”

“Well, maybe we can.” Michel sounded as noncommittal as before, but put the phone down and followed them with his eyes as they left, Toni dragging rather than leading Max away from the sombre Dutchman.

“What do you mean, ‘come back tomorrow’?” Max asked when they were halfway down the stairs.

“Well, if you want to find out if this Brad guy is up to something with Sabine, maybe we should just check him out. His lab I mean? We can always meet tomorrow and see if we can find anything there.”

Max actually looked interested now, rather than horrified. God, what guys could do when they are jealous, Toni thought.

“I guess that would be okay.”

They were on the first floor now and, turning towards the exit, Max seemed more determined than before, less like the snivelling little boy he had resembled earlier.

“Well, I’ll meet you here tomorrow then, Toni?”

They were outside now. It was starting to seem like she would get somewhere with this story after all. Toni nodded and gave him a quick hug.

“See you tomorrow, Max! Shall we say about seven? Don’t fret about Sabine too much now – everything’s going to be just fine.

Richard P Grant

About the author

Richard Grant is our Deputy Editor. A British molecular cell biologist and structural biochemist, he now specializes in strategic content at a pharma comms agency in London. He writes fiction under the pseudonym 'rpg' and tweets as @rpg7twit. In addition to helping to steer LabLit's editorial direction, he helps edit fiction and poetry. He blogs at Confessions of a (Former) Lab Rat on Occam's Typewriter.