Hired for Secrets

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Into the great unknown

Sofie leaned against the door frame. This was the place. It had been a while since she was here last but she remembered it well. The pale-white neon lights flickered against her skin, creating deep shadows under her eyes. And the strange chemical smell made her stomach turn. Or was that because her head was still spinning from her conversation with Phil. They could have had a future together had she not screwed it up. Had she not -- once again -- used him as a stepping stone. Proved that she was incapable of seeing people as more than her informants.

“We should have gone to a hospital.”

Phil watched her walk unsteadily into the dimly lit room, holding on to the wall for support. This place wasn’t a medical facility. It didn’t even have the right implement. It was the cellar of an office block, stuffed with laboratory equipment that looked outdated and barely operational. The style and color of the bench tops was mismatched and the fume hoods had different heights. The whole lab looked salvaged and barely more functional than a scrapyard.

Before Sofie could answer, a plump man with black hair and terracotta skin entered the room. His tattered lab coat hung off one shoulder and he was slightly out of breath. He had been running to get here.

“Sofia! Meu carinho,” he shouted with a heavy Brazilian accent. Storming toward Sofie, he planted three wet kisses on her cheeks before surveying her doleful condition. “So, what did you get yourself into this time?”

“Oh you know, this and that.”

Staying lighthearted was her defence mechanism. She held up the syringe she snatched while Phil had Lee pinned against the wall.

“I have a sample for you to analyze, Perro.”

“Always happy to peel the pineapple for you, Bebê.”

Even though Perro had been living in the UK for a decade he still translated Portuguese expressions one to one, creating the oddest phrases.

He put on gloves. The latex slapped against his skin, blowing out a little puff of talcum powder. He took the syringe and held it up against the light.

“Not much left,” he commented to no one in particular before pipetting the remaining content into a small plastic vial. When he finished he nodded towards Phil.

“So, who’s the observer?”

“I can’t tell you. You know that.”

“Sure, I’m not looking for horns on the horse’s head.” Sofie had no idea what that meant but it sounded defensive. “...it’s just. I thought this was our thing.”

“You aren’t jealous Perro, are you?” Sofie forced a laugh. In the past, they barely exchanged three words beyond the excuberat welcome. Especially not about personal things. It had been easy and efficient, and Sofie liked it that way.

Perro took the hint and laughed as if Sofie made a joke rather than a poignant observation. He picked up the sample and returned to work when Phil interjected.

“He’s not jealous. He’s worried that you won’t come back. That he won’t be part of your investigations in the future.”

“What?”

Sofie was gobsmacked. How did Phil get all that from one question?

“Well,” Perro admitted, “I could understand if you wanted to use a better lab. But I thought you came here...” His eyes searched hers. “Because you liked my work.”

Sofie gave him a reassuring smile. She breathed out a small sigh, she knew what this was about. Perro wanted to have his ego stroked.

“You are the most brilliant scientist I know. So why would I go to a flashy lab when they probably can’t find the answers I need. No Perro, you’ll always be my go-to scientist.”

Perro’s cheeks flushed, giving Phil a smug sideways look. “That means a lot coming from you, Sofia”. He cleared his throat. “Ok, let’s see what’s in the sample.”

He pressed a button of one of his machines and a deep rumble started inside the metal casing. As Perro studied the readings on the touch screen, Sofie threw a scolding look at Phil. Why had he been kicking up dust? But the look he gave her back was that of sad confirmation. It said ‘You did it again. You used him’.

“Results are ready.”

Perro’s voice interrupted the accusing silence that was growing between Sofie and Phil like a storm front on an autumn’s day. With a final ping the screen changed from showing the run statistics to plotting the result. It was a graph with a black horizontal line and three large spikes.

“That’s strange,” Perro mumbled. “Only sodium chloride.”

“What’s that?” Sofie queried.

“The chromatogram, here...” He pointed to the spiky graph. “It only shows sodium chloride as the largest peak. And the other two are just the signature of H2O.”

“And in English?”

“It seems your sample only contains salt water.”

Sofie let out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding. It was a relief to hear it confirmed, even if she was pretty sure she’d guessed right.

“Yes, that’s good.”

“Oh? You’ve been expecting that?” Perro sounded disappointed.

“Yes,” Sofie laughed. “Not everything can be explosives or poison. I’m sure the next sample I’ll bring you will be more exciting again. Thanks for your help Perro, this was really important to me.”

A satisfied smile stretched Perro’s lips.

“Hang on, what are those squiggly lines?” Phil pointed to a couple smaller peaks at the end of the graph.

“Oh that? It’s just noise. Some random atoms the machine picked up.”

“Atoms of what? I feel like we are missing something.”

“Missing? It’s all right here. And I tell you: it’s nothing.”

“Humor me. What if those peaks were higher. What would they stand for?”

“Silicium and a couple of different metals. Probably minor contamination from the needle.”

“I somehow sense this is important.” Phil rubbed over the stubbles on his chin. Something was bothering him.

“What are you thinking?” Sofie asked.

“Not sure yet. He was hiding something. Something to do with the sample.”

“Your sensing?” Perro mocked. “C’mon, Sofia! Who’s the clown? Some sort of psychic?”

“No such things as psychics,” Phil replied, ignoring Perro’s derogative tone. “I read people.”

“Their minds? Or what?”

“If you will. Only 7% of our conversations are words. The rest are small subconscious clues, like the tone of our voice or the gestures we use. I know how to interpret the subcontext. Hear the 93% of what we don’t say.”

“Oh yes? Then tell me what I’m thinking right now,” Perro challenged.

“It’s not a party trick.”

"Humour me.”

“Fine, you are thinking ‘if this clown wasn’t here I’d ask Sofia out for ice-cream’.”

Perro stared at Phil. The embarrassment had turned his ears red and he was chewing his tongue as if to bite back insults.

“Well you are wrong,” he finally spat, before turning to Sofie. “I take it you have all you need from me. Because I have things to do.”

“Yes, Perro, thank you again for your help.” Sofie tried to ignore his humiliation.

“Anytime.”

With a last glare towards Phil, Perro walked out, leaving the two alone in his makeshift lab.

“How did you know what he was thinking?”

“He’s obviously fascinated by your work and wants to know more. He probably wanted to ask you out for a couple of visits now.”

“Ok. But why ice-cream. That’s oddly specific.”

“He’d never ask you for a dinner date. He’s too insecure for that. And coffee is too cliche for a scientist. So, ice cream is suitably casual, yet creative enough for his standards.”

“That’s a hunch.”

“He kept licking his teeth whenever he looked at you. It wasn’t anything sexual, he isn’t the type to objectify women. And...” Phil grinned, “I saw him walk in with a flyer from a newly opened Gelato place just around the corner.”

“You cheated...”

“What? I knew what he wanted to do. Knowing where he’d taken you was just the cherry on top. Literally.”

“Fine,” Sofie smiled, before becoming more serious. “So, you know how to read people but you can’t read me?”

“Who says I can’t?”

“You see me as some kind of manipulative monster who cons people into helping.”

“Sofie it’s alright. I’m not judging you. It’s human nature to manipulate when it’s for the greater good. I guess that’s why it’s called a ‘white lie’.”

“What do you mean?”

“At uni we learned about this one experiment where people had to think of a number between 1 and 6,” Phil recalled. “Then they rolled a dice and if the number they thought of matched the eyes on the dice they got 5 Pounds. Guess how often people were right.”

“Easy, 1 in 6. If they didn’t cheat.”

“Exactly. But they observed a success rate of 2 in 6. So a couple of people pretended they thought of the right number to pocket the money. There are always some crooks. Right? But what do you think happened when the money was instead donated to charity?”

“It went down to 1 in 6, I guess. There’s no incentive to lie, if they can’t keep the money.”

“Sounds plausible,” Phil nodded, “but instead almost all participants started to cheat. With money going to a good cause, cheating had turned into a ‘white lie’.”

“What’s your point?”

“You manipulate people to get to the truth. And for you that’s ok because you make the world a better place. One story at a time.”

Sofie took a deep breath, trying not to feel hurt.

“I might persuade my informants to talk. Maybe manipulate them into giving me more than they intended to. But that’s not what I’m doing with you. I feel...”

“Stop the games Sofie. I didn’t tell you how I felt to get a response or make you feel bad. I just wanted to end the secrets between us before I have to go back to Elandra.”

“Ok. Yes, I was playing a game at the beginning, but then...” Sofie suddenly felt self-conscious. “Everything changed. I have feelings for you, Phil. And it scares me. Because when I let my guard down, people die.”

He studied her. Hearing what she wasn’t saying.

“That’s what happened to the last man you loved, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

What would Damien say to her right now? Would he blame her? Be angry? Or give her permission to move on? With Phil? When she regained her composure, she asked the question that had been on her mind since Phil gave himself up to Lee.

“Why are you really going back to Elandra?”

“To protect you. It’s the only way I know how.”

“But I don’t need protecting.”

Sofie had to smile when she saw Phil’s expression. He looked as if she had single handedly killed chivalry.

“I have drug cartels, crime lords and dodgy governments wanting to kill me already. By now, adding a murderous London business man to the list is a drop in the ocean.”

He did not reply. Was he offended? Or shocked?

“No more secrets. Right? That goes both ways. As far as I’m concerned you are the one who needs protecting.”

“From what?”

“From the people who hunt me, I guess. If you were to come with me. Nothing would ever be predictable again. It’s the great unknown.” Sofie’s eyes sparkled. “You once said that at Elandra you get to talk to ‘interesting and accomplished’ people. Well, I can give you that and more. With me you’d be free to travel the world. Talking to people who need our help and the ones who need to be brought to justice. You will have to be the smartest person in the room.” She lowered her voice. “Because if you’re not you’ll probably die. It’s dangerous. It’s underground. And the line between right and wrong sometimes gets blurred. It would be very different to what you are used to. So the question is can you handle that -- just to be with me?”

Phil swallowed.

“No, Sofie, the only question I need an answer for is can you accept my help. You’ve been working alone. Calling all the shots. Deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. But if I’d join you we would be a team. Making decisions together. Be equal. Can you handle that?”

His question was going straight to the core. It was open and vulnerable. There was no need for games anymore or layers to hide behind. She had finally met the real Phil. And she liked what she was seeing.

“Yes,” she smiled. “Under one condition: you need to learn the rules first before you get any say in our decisions.”

“Deal.”

He leaned in to kiss her. His breath was warm and minty and Sofie could see her whole future reflected in his eyes.

“Let’s go back to that crappy little house of yours and do something where I do know the rules already.”

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