(June 4th, 2013) What’s the special role of the Scienticks’ colleague Frieda Meier and their supervisor David Sondermann in this story?
When Walter Bauer received a violin from his mother at the age of four, he found the notes on the strings by himself. When Walter’s music teacher recommended that he apply to the music school, he did. Walter knew it would have been be easy for him to get in, and it was. His mother reasoned, “Wally, you have the perfect pitch. It’s a Gift that cannot be trained. Every orchestra will want you.”
Walter knew that deep inside he was different from the other boys. He didn’t understand why they spent so much time doing their homework and wasting energy arguing with their parents for wanting to play soccer.
For Walter, doing homework was simple, like eating breakfast. Playing with other boys was strenuous, like waiting for the rest of the class to learn the fingering of a song. Deep inside, Walter knew that it was more than just his talent that made him different. In his mind, there was the world and then there were the children, who he had met at Home Camp.
It was called Home Camp because all the children were similar to each other, like a family, explained Benjamin the camp counsellor. He called it the place for the Gifted. Everyone had a Gift and they were unique. But the thing that drew Walter close to Home Camp was that he felt he belonged.
Ever since the first time he had attended Home Camp at the age of four, he hoped that his mother would take him back there again in the next summer. This she did. And in return, Mrs. Bauer received a modest remuneration from Benjamin every summer. They kept that information away from Walter.
It was at Home Camp, where Walter knew he was meant to be something greater than a violinist. It was at Home Camp, where Walter met Wendy who played the cello.
They didn’t speak to each other much. That was because Benjamin and Ixod had grouped them together in the music session. Instead of speaking, they played music and listened through the voices of their instruments. It was a relationship based on a conversation in musical growth. Walter drowned in the romantic music of Chopin, while Wendy tackled the virtuosity of Mozart’s scores.
The sound from Walter’s violin grew warm and mellow. It was a perfect compliment to Wendy’s strength on the cello. He softened the sharp edges for her and she expanded the gentleness in his tones. Together, for a brief period in their lifetime, they were the golden pair at Home Camp.
So, in the summer when Walter and Wendy were 17, Walter became furious when his mother said to him, “Wally, we are leaving the city, to bring you to a better school.” It was also the last year of Home Camp for Wally and Wendy’s year.
“We have bestowed and nourished the Gifts in you. Now you are ready for the world and to find your own homes,” Benjamin said to the Home Camp graduates.
Walter panicked. He took Wendy to the closest coffee shop and tried to have a conversation with her without their instruments.
“Wendy, will you come with me?” Walter’s voice was gentle, as if he was afraid to disturb the precious space between him and Wendy.
Wendy reached over the table to rest her hand on Walter’s. She whispered, “Wally, I have been invited to play at the Science Gala next year. I must stay and rehearse the repertoire with the rest. You must understand that, don’t you?”
Behind the mirrors in the coffee shop, Benjamin and Ixod sat hidden.
“The table sensors indicate a differential response between the subjects,” said Ixod.
“The male’s temperature has increased dramatically,” added Benjamin.
“But curiously, not the female’s,” said Ixod. “This recording shows the opposite of how she is reacting. It’s impossible to know how she feels simply by looking at her actions.”
“That’s incredible! Based on the chair sensors when they played together, her attraction level to him was as high as his,” added Benjamin.
“An attraction dependent on a common factor, it appears,” said Ixod.
“When the common factor is removed, the attraction is non-existent,” said Benjamin. “She doesn’t love him.”
“Who is the best candidate at the Science Gala?” asked Ixod.
“A PhD student in Neuroscience called David Sondermann,” said Benjamin. “Ambitious, driven, A-type personality. He is the best fit for the equation.”
Ixod nodded and watched Walter storm out of the store. She asked, “What about the subject male’s next candidate?”
“This will be a tricky one. We’ll have to organise a regional science fair in their town, let her win the travel award to bring her there.”
Ixod scribbled down some notes and asked, “What’s her name?”
“Frieda Meier,” said Benjamin.
In the pile of debris she swept up, there was dust, hair and food crumbs. Each day, the cleaning lady observed and sketched the personalities of the researchers in the building. It was not difficult to paint the people’s characters, especially by observing their bench spaces, desks and personal garbage.
People didn’t take much notice of her. In the odd times when she was greeted, it was because of an upcoming holiday. The conversation would begin like this: “Have a nice long weekend…” And then an empty pause would arise, allowing the natural instinct to call out the cleaning lady’s name to be suppressed in the subtle manner that all scientists have learned to do. No one remembered her name and all have forgotten to ask. The conversation would end with the cleaning lady closing, for example: “Have a nice weekend, too, Frieda.”
The cleaning lady didn’t mind that people couldn’t remember her name. In fact, she enjoyed remaining unheeded. It made her disguise much simpler and her real job convenient. She was selected because of her talent. Human behaviour fascinated her, especially humans in research institutions.
The cleaning lady was the only one in the building who was aware of Frieda’s secrets. She simply looked at her desk. At first glance, Frieda’s desk seemed like a space belonging to an ordinary person. Through the cleaning lady’s eyes, it was a maze of meticulous pretence. She had positioned the computer screen in a way so that, when the sunlight hit it, a shadow covered her face. No one would be able to see her expression and who she was watching. Instead, Frieda could observe the entire lab from her seat with the reflections from the cabinet’s glass doors. Like with a motherly instinct, the cleaning lady knew Frieda was hiding something, although she couldn’t quite tell what it was.
It was her batter of keen observational skills and talent that attracted the cleaning lady to The Scienticks.
“How well are you at keeping secrets, Adele?” The Deliverer asked the cleaning lady the first time they met.
“I don’t have a husband and I don’t plan to get one,” Adele responded.
According to Adele, human behaviour was easier to comprehend, when there were no humans around. This character allowed her to see through Frieda and more importantly, the unique gift in Jakob, who was clueless of what was happening to him. She waited until the seasons passed and for the right moment to let him know that he was a special one. Letting him know too soon would have been disastrous, like teaching a child how to swim butterfly before he can float.
Adele’s cleaning trolley was the perfect vehicle to disguise her mission. Although it was a piece of public property, the researchers treated it like the cleaning lady’s personal space. They averted their gaze from it, some out of respect and some out of disdain. Therefore, it was the most convenient hiding place for the messages she forwarded to Jakob’s friend, Ardevan. Likewise, it was completely ordinary to park a cleaning cart anywhere in the research building, including the basement, beside the animal facilities. No one would find her suspicious.
“We should start with the smart one,” the cleaning lady said one day. She reported her findings to the Deliverer on a regular basis.
“Ardevan? Yes, it would make most sense to get to him through Ardevan,” the Deliverer explained. “It will take time until this mission is complete. Then Jakob and his friends will start looking for us. Ardevan should be able to find us, with their help, but they must do it on their own. This first letter contains the clue.”
The cleaning lady received a letter from the Deliverer. It was written in mojibake, a language Adele read like her mother tongue. She had learned it when she was recruited 10 years ago.
“How long should we wait?” the cleaning lady asked.
The Deliverer lowered his gaze, leaned back into the plastic chair, and folded his hands on his warm belly. “For as long as it takes, Adele,” he said. And then he added, “Keep an eye on them, will you? They have good hearts, play too much by the rules. So they get scared and become anxious.”
“Of course,” said Adele.
“Alright then,” said the Deliverer.
Adele’s feet stayed where they were.
“What is it, Adele?” asked the Deliverer.
“The Frieda girl,” muttered Adele. “She’s unstable.”
“Hmm, more so than a month ago?” asked the Deliverer.
“Yes, she has been pretending to be more organised than ever before. The notes written in her lab book don’t make any sense. They are completely unrelated to her experiments,” said Adele.
“I see,” the Deliverer paused for a moment and then he asked, “Do you think it’s related to the incident?”
The cleaning lady nodded.
“Alright, I will have a chat with Walter and Wendy,” said the Deliverer.
(February 26th, 2013) Finally, time has come to test the mysterious drug on their humanised mice.
Jakob’s hand shook when he picked up the mouse by its tail. He was excited. Like the fingers of a pianist before a performance, no matter how much he had practiced, he couldn’t control the adrenaline pumping. Tonight, Jakob was going to find out the result of the months-long experiment. Unlike the pianist, whose hard work is paid off by practice, Jakob may find a negative answer, or worse, no answer at all.
Standing beside him, watching, were Ardevan and Leona. They have worked together for a year now but it felt like they had known each other for a decade. When Ardevan saw Jakob’s shaking hand, he knew, without any doubt, that he did not get a good night’s sleep.
“Too much coffee, Jake?” asked Ardevan, positioning the video camera towards the experimental cage.
Jakob placed the mouse in his hand in the holding chamber, “Yeah, I couldn’t sleep last night.” He then took a deep breath and whispered: “Here we go.”
Leona handed Jakob the feeding spoon. It contained either plain water or water spiked with sugar. Only Leona knew which type of water was on the spoon.
“Thanks, Leo,” Jakob inserted the spoon into the holding chamber. The mouse gave the water a quick sniff and then started drinking.
As soon as the spoon was empty, Jakob opened the trap door to release the mouse. It headed straight for the lever closest to Ardevan – the lever that meant “pleasurable”.
Once the mouse pressed the lever, it waited for its first reward. Jakob handed it a chocolate flavoured pellet.
Then it was Ardevan’s turn.
“Aye? Iyo?” spoke Ardevan.
The mouse made a sound, “Aiiii”.
Ardevan handed it a second pellet and returned the mouse to its home cage.
“Was that Miceonian?” asked Leona.
“In fact, it was Oromo, a macro language of Ethiopia. I thought I would teach them the language of the land of their creators,” clarified Ardevan. “By the way, it said ‘yes’. Shall we proceed to the next subject?”
Soon, all four mice were given the test. After each animal had been tested ten times, Jakob spoke, “It’s not possible. How can they all say ‘yes’ to every stimulus?”
“If the drug works then it makes sense,” responded Ardevan.
“What about the controls?” asked Leona.
“Of course, Leo!” Ardevan took out another mouse cage from underneath the kitchen cabinet. “Meet the untreated siblings.”
“So, if these mice answer ‘no’ to the unsweetened stimulus, it would mean that the drug had worked?” asked Leona.
“And a victory,” Jakob smiled back. His candid confidence tickled Leona’s heart.
By midnight, the gang was finished with the control mice.
“Alright, we have all the data now,” said Jakob. “Let’s reveal the blind experimenter’s data.”
It had worked and they were in shock.
“Guys, this means that we have found the perfect drug for people who can’t resist sweets! It will work for obesity, diabetes, the options are endless!” Jakob cheered.
“Slow down, Jake. How will we publish these data?” Leona brought him back to reality.
Jakob became sombre and slouched into the couch. He felt worse than he had this morning. After a sleepless night and all the adrenaline rush, he realised that he was not able to tell the world about their discovery.
“In any case, we deserve a celebration,” Ardevan appeared with a bottle of sparkling wine. “To us, The Scienticks!”
“To Ardy, the mastermind,” smiled Leona. “We have successfully interrupted Frieda’s publication!”
“I could not have pulled it off without you guys,” smiled Ardevan. “Hey, why don’t you guys just stay over tonight? Jake is going to have a stressful day tomorrow.”
“Oh, no! I’m going to have to repeat all these experiments again with Frieda with the real Hans Peter, Kris and Neils,” moaned Jakob. “My PhD is training me to be a liar!”
The guys transformed the couch into a sofa bed for Leona, and Jakob wriggled himself into Ardevan’s sleeping bag.
“I still don’t understand. It seems like Ixod and The Scienticks always knew what we were up to. It doesn’t make any sense that she would just let us finish the experiment without any more information,” pondered Leona aloud.
“We did bring down the Coryphodon,” interjected Jakob.
“Something just doesn’t feel right,” Leona shuffled on the sofa bed. “Ardy’s mojibake lessons, the mysterious cleaning lady, the sudden appearance of the drug from TickTechs, they all must have some sort of a connection.”
“Oh, Leo! You think too much,” groaned Jakob. “I just wish I could publish this and tell the world about our findings.”
“Not in this academic world. Who is going to believe the humanised mice and not question the origin of a mysterious drug?” grumbled Leona.
Before Jakob could respond, Ardevan shouted, “The academic world! That’s it!”
“What is it, Ardy?” asked Leona.
Ardevan explained, “The numbers that Ixod wrote in the letter. She said that we should only use it when we are in academic danger.”
“Oh yeah!” responded Jakob and Leona.
“‘Only in the most extreme cases of emergency, you may find the Deliverer at 204880808685689. Remember, only establish contact when you are in academic danger’ That’s what was in the letter,” repeated Ardevan word for word.
“But, what do the numbers mean and who in the world is the Deliverer?” ask Leona.
Ardevan paused for a moment and said, “I have no clue.”
(January 8th, 2013)
Frieda was the kind of person who enjoyed saying her thoughts out loud in the lab. However, it wouldn’t take long to figure out that she filtered what comes out of her mouth with impeccable choice.
With devious care, she made the most unnecessary remarks to the colleagues around her. The purpose of the conversation was to make the others respond to her, perhaps out of politeness, perhaps out of pity.
“This buffer always takes forever to thaw!” Frieda would complain.
“You can put it in your back pocket,” Jakob would respond promptly even though it was a reminder that everyone already knew.
Frieda performed this one-sided conversation proudly and carefully. She would not have bothered, for instance, to complain about her unthawed buffer if she knew she was alone. How embarrassing would it have been, had she been caught? It was this kind of self-surveillance that had prevented her from talking whenever she was training her mice on Rack 1, Row 3, Cage C. Had she even mentioned a typical day to them, she would have discovered that the mice were not Hans Peter, Claus, Kris and Neils. More so, they could talk.
“Tomorrow is the day,” said Frieda at the lab meeting on Thursday morning, “Three months of conditioning and three days of treatment.”
“Excellent!” exclaimed Dr. Sondermann, “Is everything prepared?”
“Everything is going perfectly. They have been trained to press the levers in response to the pleasurable or non-pleasurable stimuli, with over 99% accuracy.”
“What about the drug treatment?” asked Dr. Sondermann.
“No side effects. I’ve followed the dosage instructions from Ticktechs. We won’t be able to determine the drug effect until the behavioural test is complete.”
“Very good! Who was your blind experimenter again?” Dr. Sondermann looked around the room, searching for a responsible expression. “Ah, Jake! It’s you, right? Have you been shadowing Frieda throughout the experiment?”
Jakob nodded submissively, “Yes, Dr. Sondermann”
Sondermann scribbled something down in his notebook. He added with a fanciful smile, “If this all goes well, we may have the paper published this year.”
Frieda nodded in agreement and her piercing gaze made Jakob shudder. The message was clear, if Jakob makes a mistake, she would have to perform the experiment again.
The rest of the meeting was unremarkable and it ended unusually early, mostly because the person who normally asked the majority of the questions, Ardevan, was in deep internal thought. Afterwards, Ardevan, Jakob and Leona huddled in the hallway. All three exchanged concerned glances until everyone else has scurried away.
Ardevan cleared his throat, “Ahem! Early lunch at Chow Chow’s, everyone?” It’s safer to talk there, he thought.
“Sure, I’m hungry,” said Jakob. It’s safer to talk there and I’m hungry, he thought.
“Good idea, Ardy,” said Leona. We’ll be safer there, thought Leona.
Chow Chow, the neighbourhood Chinese fast food restaurant, played music that broadcasted to the customers that they are entering a Chinese restaurant. A few of them sat scattered by the window. Ardevan chose the corner table in the back, next to the fish tank, where a variety of zebra fish suddenly converged to the tank wall, surveying the incoming human shapes.
Ardevan leaned forward on his chair and spoke, “I have been giving the vocal training for these animals since our exchange. Tonight I swap back the animals, and put Hans Peter, Claus, Kris and Neils back on Rack 1, Row 3, Cage C. Our humanised mice come home with us.” Ardevan pulled out a chain of keys and removed one. He handed it to Leona.
“Shall Jake and I wait at your place, Ardy?” asked Leona.
“Actually, I need you with me, Jake. Just in case someone shows up. You have a better reason than me to be in the mouse room,” explained Ardevan.
Jakob beamed of excitement. Tonight, they were going to find out whether the experiment had worked. It had been so long ago since they had decided to bring down the Coryphodon, to dampen her unscrupulous demeanour. It was not fair how Dr. Sondermann sugar-coated her. Somebody had to do something about it.
It was the dark cycle in the mouse room. Jakob shone his headlamp at the cage of the humanised mice – the offspring of the first transgenic mice sent to Ardevan. The rodents were busy fighting for the treadmill, like football players piling on top of each other.
“They have grown so big!” remarked Jakob. “So how do you get them to talk?”
“You talk to them, but we should get going,” cautioned Ardevan. “I’ll show you when we get to my place.”
The bike ride felt painstakingly long. Ardevan struggled to find a comfortable speed for the mice in the basket of his bike and to suppress the urge to be at home as quickly as possible. Once they turned the last corner, they could see that the flat was already lit. “It looks like Leo is already there.”
“What took you guys so long?” greeted Leona.
“Check these guys out,” Ardevan uncovered the mouse cage.
“They look just like the others. Amazing!” said Leona.
Jakob prepared the experimental chamber. It consisted of two levers on each side of the chamber. He pressed on a lever and a window appeared at the wall. “We give them the reward through this space – a chocolate-flavoured pellet – if they make the correct choice. This was the conditioning.”
“What are the stimuli?” asked Leona.
“Plain water or water spiked with sucrose,” said Jakob.
“I have table sugar,” said Ardevan.
“That will do,” said Jakob.
“What about the drug?” asked Leona.
“It was a 3-day treatment to enhance the mice’s ability to perceive pleasure. In other words, they are supposed to love water and be ecstatic with minimal amounts of sugar,” explained Jakob.
“How convenient!” commented Ardevan. “What would happen if they tasted a Death by Chocolate Cake?”
Leona flashed a smile at Ardevan and giggled, “And what about the humanised vocal cords?”
“That’s the interesting part,” Ardevan explained. “In theory they have the tissues like you and I. However, they lack the complex network of the human language centre.”
“So what does that mean? They speak Miceonian?” asked Leona.
“In a way, they do. The mice are able to respond vocally in their own language by expressing whether the stimulus was pleasurable or non-pleasurable,” Ardevan explained this to Leona as if he was reading from a textbook. “Jake, shall we begin with the data recording?”
Jakob smiled and noticed a feeling he has not felt for a long time. It had probably happened back in Grade 1 Science.
(November 26th, 2012)
Twenty years ago.
“Everything will be alright, Wally,” reassured Walter’s mother, more herself than her son. “It will just be like the last time but more fun. I’ll see you soon, in 3 months.”
Walter was old enough to remember last year’s Home Camp. They were split into groups of six for the activities. He liked Benjamin, his group’s counsellor, and had hoped that Benjamin would be leading his group again.
Walter was so excited that his hand was shaking in his mother’s hand. When they arrived at the reception, Benjamin was already waiting.
“Good morning Mrs Bauer. Good morning, Walter! Very nice to see you again,” Benjamin’s overexcitement made Mrs Bauer uneasy. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Hanging on his chest was an access card with his picture printed on it. Walter let go of his mother’s hand to take hold of the access card and found the familiar keychain in the shape of a mouse. Walter pressed on the mouse’s nose and its tail spun in a circle. He giggled and pressed its nose again.
“Hey buddy, I’ll lend you Micky for 5 minutes if you promise you won’t feed him any candy,” said Benjamin, as he removed Mickey from the key card. Walter giggled again.
“Mrs Bauer,” Benjamin pulled out an envelope from a binder. “This is for you. We have already transferred it to you. Thank you for bringing Walter for the study.”
Mrs Bauer pulled out a receipt from the envelope. The amount was correct. “Take good care of him, Benjamin.” She turned towards Walter, “Come give mommy a hug, Wally!”
Walter ran towards Mrs Bauer, holding Micky tightly in his fist.
“Have fun with your brothers and sisters, okay, Wally?”
Walter’s arms were still hanging on to his mother’s neck. He pressed Micky’s nose again and smiled, “Okay.”
Walter’s hand found Benjamin’s and they entered a room painted in colours that could be found in a children’s school. Walter climbed onto the rocking chair with Micky in his hand.
“Alright, Walter, are you ready?” smiled Benjamin.
Walter nodded and closed his eyes. He remembered this part from last year, and probably the year before that. The scent of artificial chocolate soon filled his nostrils. He felt tired and went into a deep, happy sleep. When Walter woke up, he found himself in a dorm room with a dozen beds. On each of the beds there were other children also waking up. They looked almost like Walter, but not quite.
“Wally!” a girl on one of the beds called.
“Wendy?” Walter called out Wendy’s name like a child calling out for Santa. He rushed onto Wendy’s bed and the two of them sprung, hand-in-hand, on the mattress, laughing hysterically.
“Wendy your hair grew. You look like the girly version of me!” exclaimed Walter.
“Then I must be prettier than you, Walter,” said Wendy.
“How is life in Inland?” Walter asked.
“England,” said Wendy. “It’s rainy. I got new rain boots for Christmas.”
“Benjamin!” Walter called the incoming Benjamin as if he was Walter’s hero. The other children turned to look.
“Alright boys and girls, welcome back to the Home Camp! We have breakfast ready for you. Six of you come with me and the other six go with Ixod,” Benjamin announced. “Wallace, Walter, Wanda, Warren, Wendy, and Whitney follow me.”
Walter watched the other children move towards Benjamin. They all looked like himself, but more different than last year. He remembered Wendy the most because of the special way she pronounced his name.
The children followed Benjamin and Ixod to the dining room. Benjamin’s group was served breakfast in a red bowl and Ixod’s group was eating from a green bowl.
What Walter didn’t notice this year and didn’t remember from last year, are the two people standing by the wall scribbling down every word and observations. When the children played hide-and-seek, they were there. When the children played Scrabble, they were there.
“It’s amazing how divergent they have developed from an identical genetic map,” the taller one said.
“The living conditions, of course, play a major role,” the other responded. “But don’t forget, we selected a few to mutate some nucleotides.”
“When do you think the phenotype will manifest?” asked the tall one.
“It’s difficult to tell at this point,” responded the short one with a tone of authority. “I suspect that we would have to wait for another decade or two.”
“What about Phase II?” the taller one asked.
“We’ll begin as soon as they hit puberty and teach them the protocols to attract their partners. We should select their partners by the way, without them knowing, preferably scientists. Most of us follow tradition and don’t think outside of the box.”
“I see,” the tall one continued. “What about the risk of drop out?”
“The surrogate mothers were hand-picked by our team. Their personalities, socio-economic status and DNA testing fit the profile. There is a less than 0.1% chance that the mothers will drop their children out of the study.”
“And once the children reach the age of maturity?”
“Hmm, that is difficult to tell at this point, even more so when the phenotype is apparent. One possible intervention is to facilitate peer pressure amongst the subjects to return to the Home Camp.”
“I would suggest to start with guiding their decisions to move into the same city once they are mature enough to move out of the surrogate mother’s home.”
“That won’t be so difficult. We can just hack into the admission system when they apply to university.”
“Not a bad idea. Ixod is very good with computers, for your information.”
The two people watched the identical children playing in the sand. Wendy was baking a sand cake. Walter was building a castle. Little did they know that in 20 years, Wendy would be compelled to be married to David Sondermann and Walter to Frieda Meier.
A man sat in the dark corner of O’Malley’s, watching people entering. He noticed that there were three kinds of people acting differently when entering the pub. There were the ones looking around to search for interesting-looking people. There were those looking around to see if people were interested in them. And then, there were those looking around to look for specific people. When Leona entered O’Malley’s, the man saw, that she was the type of woman entering a pub and knowing exactly who she was looking for.
Leona headed straight to the back of O’Malley’s, where Jakob and Ardevan were already at a table. Sitting next to them were Franscesco, the Italian post-doc and Sumita, the senior PhD candidate from India. Further down the table were three more scientists: Jüri, the Estonian virologist; Anders, the Swedish physicist; and Alan, the Australian biochemist.
“Hey Jüri, Alan, and Anders! It’s so nice to see you!” Leona found a space beside Jüri.
“What about us? Don’t you say hi to your lab mates?” protested Sumita.
“Leo sees you guys every day, of course she is going to get sick of you,” said Jüri.
The announcer of the quiz night began, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to begin our O’Malley’s Quiz! The winning table gets a freeeeeee pitcher!”
Leona took this moment to catch a glance at Jakob. He was in a deep conversation with Ardevan. Leona tried to catch his voice but it was drowned in the roaring of the crowd.
“Hey Leo, what are you going to drink?” asked Anders, who had just caught the waiter for another round of beer.
“Shandy,” smiled Leona, “It’s a good Monday drink and a good starter for the Quiz.”
The announcer continued, “We are constantly zipping up our jackets, our jeans and our backpacks. Without zippers, we would be stuck with buttons! First question: who invented zzzzzippers?”
“It’s the Swedish guy, Gideon Sundback,” said Anders, who jotted down the answers for the group.
“Correct,” added Ardevan.
“So how was your weekend?” asked Jüri, in a way that beamed true interest in how Leona’s weekend was.
“Fine, Jake and I went to Ardy’s for dinner,” replied Leona. Really, they went to Ardy’s to check up on Hans Peter, Claus, Neils and Kris. Although there is nothing about Jüri that made Leona think he would be untrustworthy, it was just that the few people knew about the stolen mice, the better it was. “What about you? How was the French Riviera Marathon?”
“Painful! Although, I survived,” said Jüri. “The landscape was incredibly beautiful, but I was suffering. I finished in 2:32! My personal best!”
Leona had always wondered how Jüri was able to manage a PhD and run marathons. It seemed like he took pleasure in racing with his gels. “So where’s next?” she asked.
The announcer continued, “Since we are a pretty international crowd here today, this one is for you. Question two: Which country has the most official languages in the world?”
Sumita exclaimed, “India recognises twenty-three languages!”
“Bolivia recognises over thirty,” corrected Ardevan, who returned to his conversation with Jakob as if answering the quiz was as easy as sipping coffee.
“I think I’m going to register for the Run Across Ethiopia campaign,” pondered Jüri. “It’s for a good cause and only 48 km.”
Leona’s eyes widened, “Ethiopia?”
The commentator took a sip of beer and went on, “Aaaalright, warm-up is over. Now we will get to the fun stuff! Question three: Who was on the cover of the first Playboy magazine in 1953?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” smiled Anders, writing the answer.
“Who was it?” asked Ardevan, looking confused, because he didn’t know the answer.
“Marilyn Monroe,” smiled Alan and everyone else at the table, in a way that prompted Ardevan to protest, “What?”
“Jüri, how do you have enough money to fly to Ethiopia for a marathon?” asked Leona.
“I got a sponsorship,” said Jüri.
“Wow, of course! You are an excellent runner,” Leona praised. Getting a sponsorship was out of the question for her. Leona was fit, but getting sponsored to run a marathon was way out of her league. She took a gulp of the shandy and pondered how she was going to get enough money to fly to Ethiopia.
The commentator was enjoying the attention, “That was easy, wasn’t it? Here comes a haaaaard one! Question four: Which isotope is commonly used to date decaying organic matter?”
“This is not challenging enough!” complained Alan. “I’m going to go back to the lab.”
“Carbon 14. Anyone wants to object?” Anders scribbled down the answer.
Jüri explained to Leona, “Yeah, it’s funny. I think it’s because these guys are a small company and they need to get their names out there.”
“Oh yeah? Whatare they called?” responded Leona out of curiosity.
“Ticktechs,” said Jüri. “Funny name, don’t you think?”
“What? Ticktechs?” Leona felt a thump through her chest. It doesn’t make any sense. Have they also recruited Jüri?
No one had noticed that the man at the corner had stopped watching people. He started moving towards a figure, in a way that looked like an aged dog following his master on a rainy day.
The man slid himself into the space beside the figure. He raised his glass to greet the incoming one. His other arm found its way to hold the figure’s waist. It was a waist of a plump woman and his palm held the soft warm flesh as if it needed human support.
He looked back, not really looking for anyone, perhaps looking to see if anyone was looking at him. Leona was watching him, but he didn’t see her.
“Hey, isn’t that…?” asked Leona.
“Yeah, who is he with?” asked Jüri.
“No idea. She looks British though,” suggested Alan.
“Could be,” said Anders.