The next morning Kevin is speaking at hyper speed and I am drinking espresso almost as fast. Josh remains calm and after our first run through of our presentation he makes an executive decision and announces that we are fully prepared and it is time to leave. I hope his enthusiasm is justified. Josh has backed up our presentation onto two stick drives. One is a backup should the other one fail. The rest is up to us. We take a taxi over to the conference center so as not to jinx our luck by getting lost or someone falling on the pavement. Kevin and I keep quizzing each other as Josh just listens.
“Guys relax. My mother may not be betting all her cards on us but I know Dr. Morehouse. If we were not ready, he would have drilled us like you wouldn’t believe. Trust me. I have seen him in action when I was at Hopkins. He takes care of his people.”
We arrive almost an hour before we are due to give our presentation. Josh walks to the back of the stage where the audiovisual crew is located. Meanwhile I sit in a corner going over my notes while Kevin starts walking in circles. A security attendant approaches and hand delivers a note to me.
The note reads, “You seemed quite interested in my research. I can meet you at La Piccola Veranda, Piazza del Volontani, at 1PM, if you would like to discuss it further. Dr. Monteverdi.”
I’m not sure what to make of the note. Is it a trap or has someone told him why I’m interested in it and he wants to help? I only consider it for a moment as Josh comes to get Kevin and me. We head to the tech room to double check our work one last time.
Walking onto the stage is disconcerting at first. There are over a thousand people in the audience and to the right of the stage are translators from various nations who have requested translational services. Josh starts off the presentation by introducing the team and giving a historical background of the genetics of pedophilia. He then introduces the objective of our research and the study design. When he finishes, he hands off the microphone to Kevin to describe the statistical analysis. Kevin is stiff in his presentation but I had practiced with him on looking out at the audience and he manages to keep eye contact throughout his portion of the presentation.
I go last and present the results and conclusions of our research study. As I speak, I feel my voice becoming stronger and more confident. I’m in my element when I discuss genetics. As I conclude my portion, Josh and Kevin gravitate back towards me to help field the questions. The room erupts in applause, which surprises the three of us, in a good way. The question and answer period begins. Most of the questions are benign, and generally intelligent. As we are wrapping up, one of the attendees starts aggressively grilling Kevin on both the statistical analysis and his exclusively designed statistical program.
After answering the first several questions, Kevin starts to falter and a pregnant silence fills the auditorium. Josh throws me a look as if to say how do we get out of this. Sensing Kevin’s discomfort, I step forward and engage in a strained dialogue with the obnoxious audience member. It soon becomes obvious that whoever is aggressively attacking our analytical methods is trying to discredit us. The male attendee has a pronounced, affected British accent. From Katharine’s previous warning, I speculate he is from the Oxford group. Fortunately, in preparation for the conference Kevin had given me a tutorial on his statistics program and helped me do an extensive, comparative analysis of other available programs. As the discussion becomes increasingly heated, the audience becomes silent as we go head to head. I refute every one of his arguments and in the process strengthen our case. At the conclusion of the argument, I have the final word. I thank the questioner for helping to delineate the strength of our research. I know my last statement is self-gratuitous, but I can’t help it. The bombastic audience member was beyond annoying. The audience responds with enthusiastic applause. As we exit the stage, I breathe a sigh of relief. In fact, I’m not sure if I’m breathing at all.
Josh throws his arms around me. “You were magnificent.” I remain quiet as I collect myself.
Simultaneously, Kevin keeps saying “thank you” repeatedly with tears in his eyes.
“We did it. It’s over and it went really well.” Josh is beaming from ear to ear. He doesn’t let go of me. I now realize Josh was more worried about the presentation than he had let on.
“She certainly was magnificent. You all performed exceptionally well.” Katharine Lucas interrupts our brief moment of much needed relief. It feels like our balloon has just been popped. “Analia, you handled Dr. Morgan from Oxford better than anyone I have ever seen. He is a pompous fool. Morgan always tries to upset young scientists. This was an incredibly successful conference. Congratulations to all of you. There are a few researchers out there who want to discuss the findings who I need to speak to in the atrium.” As she leaves, Dr. Morehouse approaches us.
“That was an excellent presentation. The chairman is correct, you did put Morgan in his place, where he desperately needed to be put.” He adds dryly. “More importantly, you put together this presentation under extreme duress. Most scientists have months to prepare and you weren’t given much time. Would you like to join me for dinner tonight, just the four of us?” He says it with the emphasis on us. “There are some things I would like to discuss. I understand you will be leaving for Rome tomorrow.”
“Thank you Dr. Morehouse. You have been incredibly helpful.” I finally find my voice again. “Where would you like to meet?”
“How about La Veranda at seven o’clock?” He looks directly at me when he says this. His face is inscrutable but I think it is his message that the lunchtime meeting with Dr. Monteverdi is safe.
I respond. “That would be great. We’ll meet you there.” Dr. Morehouse exits and the three of us collect our presentation material from the audiovisual people.
Josh looks to Kevin and me. “Do any of you want to stick around for the rest of the conference?” Kevin and I shake our heads no.
“Let’s head out to the foyer. Mingle a little bit and make my mother happy. Who knows, we may get a few job offers today that will be helpful in the future.” Josh winks as he says this.
We walk outside and several attendees approach us with both questions and congratulatory remarks. Katharine Lucas is busy talking to several of the attendees and looks over in our direction several times. Josh walks over to her and explains that we are going to take a breather from the conference and go out to lunch. As soon as we exit the building, Josh starts to head for the taxi stand. I stop him and ask Josh and Kevin to walk for a few minutes.
“Just before we went on stage, a security attendant handed me a note. It was from Dr. Monteverdi, the doctor who developed the memory altering serum. He asked me to meet him in an hour at La Piccola Veranda. The strange thing is that Dr. Morehouse asked us to go to dinner at La Veranda tonight. Do you think it is a coincidence?”
Josh considers the question for a minute. “I doubt it. I don’t believe in coincidences. It may be his way of signaling us that Dr. Monteverdi is on the up and up. Otherwise I would be worried about a possible trap. Dr. Morehouse probably knows quite a bit about what goes on at the Institute. Let me check the address on my burn phone and see where it is.”
“Are we all going to the meeting?” Kevin asks me.
“That’s also what I am wondering about. The note was only addressed to me. Do we all go?” I look to Josh for his input.
“Why don’t we just walk over and find a café near the restaurant. It’s only a twenty minute walk. I think Analia should go alone to meet Dr. Monteverdi and if Dr. Morehouse shows up, she can call us to come join them if we are invited. Otherwise, we can just keep an eye out and see if anyone else is watching the café. Luis sent someone to keep an eye on us here. I will notify him to check out the restaurant and surrounding area before we get there.”
We walk to the Via Corso and head west. It is not the most picturesque route but it is direct. Josh stops for a minute and sends the message. The three of us resume walking. After breathing a monumental sigh of relief after the presentation, adrenaline is now coursing through the three of us. I notice that Kevin’s tic is firing on all cylinders again.
“Kevin, you did an amazing job during the presentation. That man from Oxford was a jerk. There’s always someone like him at these conferences who tries to cause trouble.”
“Thanks Analia. I am so glad you were able to step in like that. That prep work was worth it. I just wish that we could have enjoyed our success for at least an hour but now we are engaged in more cloak and dagger stuff.”
“I hear you Kevin. We’ll get a break tomorrow in Rome. All we will do is celebrate. We won’t follow a schedule and there will be lots of eating and drinking.” Josh pauses for a moment. “And of course sleeping.”
We reach the Sempione park and walk past the Arch of Peace. Kevin and I stop at an espresso stand and order. Everywhere we look there are elderly, Italian men with their dogs and thousands of pigeons; people living ordinary, unharried lives. A lifestyle that seems out of our grasp. Josh takes a phone call as Kevin and I drink our espresso.
“Who just called you?” I ask as Josh finishes the call.
“That was the bodyguard I mentioned. I told him about the meeting at La Veranda and he checked the café for surveillance and also told me where to take Kevin when you meet with Dr. Monteverdi. Let’s keep walking: I need to stretch my legs.” We slow our pace through the park and try to relax as much as possible.
We reach the tratorria the bodyguard had recommended to Josh across from La Piccola Veranda. I would prefer outdoor dining but it is safer to stay out of view as much as possible. We order a plate of antipasti and three glasses of champagne to celebrate followed by an assortment of focaccia and cheeses. As much as possible, we start to enjoy the conclusion of three months of around the clock work.
“What project do you think we would have started next if we didn’t have to disappear next week?” Kevin asks in between bites of food. “I could live in Italy. The food is unparalleled.”
“You can live pretty well in Italy, especially if you like to eat.” Josh takes another bite as he speaks. “My guess is that we would continue mapping the whole pedophilia network of genes. Hopefully, we can continue the work one day.“
“Unless that Dr. Morgan gets to it first. His lab group has been studying the genetics of pedophilia for some time. Has anyone met any genetic researchers from Brazil or even South America at the conference?” Kevin still looks disgruntled about the heckler.
I jump in. “I did. I was introduced to a Dr. Giselle Ribiero yesterday. She’s from Sao Paolo. I don’t think it is a big program, but she is quite intelligent.”
“Are you thinking of working down there?” Josh laughs as he asks the question.
I smile in return. “We might have to consider it if we need to eat. Although, I really hope we come back to the New York area one day. It’s almost time to go. Wish me luck.” I lean over and kiss Josh. I see Josh tense all over as I walk out the door.
“Are you sure it’s safe for her to go alone?” Kevin also looks worried.
“I don’t like it, but our security guy is already in the restaurant to keep an eye on her.” Josh stares at the restaurant but it is impossible to see into it. He murmurs to himself. “God, I hate waiting.”
Meanwhile, upon entering La Veranda, the maître de informs me that my party is waiting in the back room. I follow him back and find Dr. Monteverdi and Dr. Morehouse seated at the only table in the room partaking of lunch.
“Thank you for coming Analia.” Dr. Morehouse speaks first. “I believe you met Dr. Monteverdi yesterday and you seemed quite interested in his memory serum. I thought it might be prudent if you two met and discussed the issue further. In private.”
“Thank you.” I address Dr. Morehouse and then turn my attention towards Dr. Monteverdi. “It is good to see you again, sir. I am sorry we took you away from the conference.”
“I am always happy to discuss my work. Especially with someone as intelligent as yourself. I saw your presentation. Your research is top rate. Can I ask why you are interested in the memory serum?”
I look at Dr. Morehouse and speak tentatively. “I believe that some people close to me have been threatened with its’ use. I would like to know if there is an antidote?”
Dr. Monteverdi shakes his head. “I was afraid of this. I was developing that serum as a potential treatment for patients with posttraumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately my computer with all my research was stolen from my lab in Geneva while it was in in the early stages of development before I could refine it to work on specific memories. They must have had someone very good crack my password. Fortunately, I always back up my work so I have all the initial notes and findings.” Just then the waiter interrupts us to take our order. I have no appetite and just order an appetizer.
We exchange a few pleasantries about the conference as we wait for the waiter to leave. “How does the serum work?” I ask.
“The serum interferes with neurons in the hippocampus. In theory, it temporarily interferes with the retrieval of memories but in early studies on chimps, it had long lasting consequences. The chimps had difficulty recognizing new playmates or caregivers, although some did display recognition of former caregivers related to long term memory retrieval.”
“So in effect, the chimps developed iatrogenic Alzheimers?” The waiter appears with our appetizers as Dr. Morehouse finishes his question. For a few minutes, we eat as the waiter hovers around pouring wine.
Once the waiter leaves, Dr. Monteverdi answers. “Yes essentially. We have been working on a more basic anatomic level hoping to hit only those regions of the hippocampus that regulate traumatic memory using tagged isotopes. We hope to achieve this within the next year.”
“I was hoping you could tell me if there is any way to reverse the effects of the memory altering serum.”
“I have devised a formula to reverse it, but it has not yet been tested on human subjects. I can’t be sure it will work, or even if it does, what other complications it can cause. We just started testing the antidote. I was devising the memory serum for patients with refractory posttraumatic stress disorder. Because of that, I have reason to believe EMDR therapy may also be helpful in restoring memory, at least partially, afterwards. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution at this time”
“Do you know what the potential side effects are, of both the memory serum and the antidote?”
“From mice experiments, we noticed behavioral changes and a disruption of sleep patterns after the memory serum. Some of the chimps became quite aggressive. I can’t even tell you about the antidote side effects because I don’t know yet.”
“If needed, could we get a copy of the formula?”
“I don’t give out my proprietary notes, but I have a vial of each of the serums with me that you can have. Just realize that it may not be the answer you will need. Please don’t let these get into the wrong hands.” The conversation pauses as the waiter arrives to clear the plates. Once the waiter leaves, Dr. Monteverdi hands me a manila envelope.
“Thank you. I greatly appreciate it. Can I ask why you brought these to the conference?” I take the envelope and bury it deep in my shoulder bag.
Dr. Monteverdi just looks at Dr. Morehouse. Dr. Morehouse answers the question. “We had met at another conference years back. I had collaborated with his group in Switzerland on a research project several years ago. I called him two months ago and asked him to bring the serums with him. When you started asking very pertinent questions yesterday, I realized you might need to speak to him privately. Going forward, you need to be careful Analia. If Katharine Lucas heard you asking those questions, she would be very suspicious.”
“Thank you Dr. Morehouse. Are we still on for dinner tonight?”
“Yes, but it is at La Veranda in the Four Seasons where we are staying.”
“Well, we will see you then. Thank you again, both of you. I really appreciate it.” I stand up and turn to exit the restaurant. Before I step through the entranceway to the main part of the dining room, a man grabs me and steers me back into the back dining room.
“You can’t leave through the front door. There is someone casing the restaurant outside. I had Josh and Kevin leave their café through the back entrance and will meet you around back here. He turns to the two scientists. I would suggest that you leave through the back entrance as well. I just paid off the wait staff to deny you were here. We don’t know exactly who was followed here, but best not to take chances. Let me see your phones”
The two doctors quickly settle the bill and walk towards the back entrance. I exit through the back door and Josh immediately pulls me to him. He has a taxi waiting for us. Our bodyguard instructs Dr. Monteverdi and Dr. Morehouse to go with him in his car and get down while Josh and I quickly clamber into our taxi. We quickly say our goodbyes and depart the alley.
A few minutes later, Josh expels a sigh of relief. “Thank god that ended well. I will never agree to send you anywhere potentially dangerous again. It was way too stressful. Kevin here has been drinking so much espresso that the blood in veins has turned to coffee grounds.” I look at Kevin who gives me a grin.
“Glad you are safe.”
My heart is beating so fast I can barely speak. I can feel Josh’s heartbeat through his jacket. “Thanks Kevin. Where do we go now?”
“Maybe we should drive over to the Sempione Park and walk from there. We can talk unhindered. I would guess our rooms might be monitored if they followed one of us to the restaurant. They could also have followed Dr. Morehouse for all we know.” Josh requests the driver to drop us off at the park.
“Sorry you worried. Let’s walk and I will tell you what I learned.” We walk back towards the hotel and I fill them in on my conversation with the two doctors. Josh receives a phone call from the security guard and stops to take it.
What did he say” Kevin and I ask in unison. “My mother’s security people apparently went into the restaurant and were asking about Dr. Monteverdi. They showed his picture to the wait staff at La Veranda. Our security guard’s partner was eating lunch and saw them come in.”
“Do you think Monteverdi is working with your mother?” Kevin asks.
“No. I don’t. We can ask Dr. Morehouse about it tonight at dinner. We may have to test the serum and antidote in Brazil to make sure they work. It is more likely that my mother is just following Monteverdi to see with whom he is talking. Remember, she stole the serum from him.”
We reach the hotel and Kevin announces he is going swimming to relieve the stress from the day’s events. We say goodbye at the elevator bank and Josh and I walk back to our room.
Josh whispers in my ear. “I have a different idea of how we can relieve our stress.”
“As long as we don’t have to leave the hotel room, I am yours.”