Las Vegas; 1983.
The bar at The Dunes Hotel & Oasis Casino popped, fizzed, and ordered one more drink.
Crushed velvet curtains cornered off VIP areas where the lighting was too dim to betray the age of its more glamorous clientele, but just bright enough to catch their jewellery.
Professor Van Peterson and his new assistant, Tadashi Finjoto, sat patiently, having ordered a pair of Whisky Sours that now looked like an advertisement on silver doilies.
The professor wasn’t interested in his drink.
Whenever a tuxedo approached he would look up.
On realising that it wasn’t who he was waiting for, his gaze would return to the mirrored table where he would quickly become lost in his own reflection.
Tadashi stubbed out a cigarette in the crystal ashtray. “Twenty years is a long time,” he said.
“I imagine that my little conference is being monitored from all over the inquisitive globe,” explained the professor.
“He was your boss?”
Van Peterson sat up, finally admitting to himself that the wait would be much longer than expected. “He was a fund manager of sorts. They call it risk assessment these days. We would be tasked with challenges and invited to discuss possible solutions before he would file his report on the likelihood of a successful outcome. Convince Jimmy and you had the money, that’s what we used to say. We would meet to discuss projects designed to test the very boundaries of reality itself. We were like a club and he became, well, just like one of us really, but we knew he wasn’t. He was there to observe. That was how it worked back then. Much more civilised. None of this dirty stage business.”
The assistant was surprised. “You’re not looking forward to the Spiritual Science conference?”
“The universe has decided that I must sing for my supper, Tadashi, but I am not a fan of public karaoke.”
“With respect, I am excited to witness the regression first-hand.”
The old man laughed. “That is kind of you, but I will allow you to make your judgement after the main event.”
Van Peterson tried to focus on a small group that had entered the bar. He looked disappointed when he realised that his contact wasn’t in the crowd.
“Were all of your projects funded by Mr Carlton?”
“Of course. We had plenty of work. We were busy. We were . . . necessary.”
Tadashi moved in closer, just as he’d seen in the American espionage movies. “C . . . I . . . A?” he asked in a whisper.
Van Peterson wasn’t sure if he should be talking about his work at The Office, or if twenty years was enough to pass the government embargo.
He checked over his shoulder and replied in equally hushed tones, just for dramatic effect; “C . . . I . . . A . . . D . . . S . . . T.”
Tadashi looked mildly confused.
“Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Science and Technology,” explained Van Peterson. “And there’s really no need to whisper.” He tutted, suddenly annoyed by remembering an event that had happened such a very long time ago and was now consigned to a nagging memory.
Tadashi watched a diamond necklace cling tightly to a low-cut top on its way for a cocaine refresher in the bathroom. “Professor,” he asked, “tell me about the Stargate?”
Van Peterson laughed and tasted his whisky, savouring the flavour before he replied. “Bless you for being so curious, but we’re not living in one of your, whatever they are, those games. We’re not in a movie about a little lost extra-terrestrial.”
Tadashi was humbled to have been invited to document the Spiritual Science conference, let alone chat informally to the man he admired so much. He didn’t want to risk the opportunity by coming across as naïve. “I am very sorry,” he said, lowering his head. “I ask you too much.”
The professor let out a deep sigh.
Despite the constant questioning, Tadashi’s enthusiasm was actually quite welcome.
Discussing past endeavours had brought them closer. It had just been so long since he was the focus of as much attention.
“No. It’s me who should be apologising. Maybe it’s the thought of seeing him again after all these years. Those days were cold and calculating, my boy, but it was a very long time ago. Times have changed. Hah, Bobby Dylan. There’s nothing wrong with a little curiosity. And, since you’re asking, the Stargate didn’t actually work.”
He laughed to himself as though enjoying a private joke and reached out to pat his young assistant on the shoulder. “Which reminds me of the last time I would have seen Jimmy. During Operation Acoustic Kitty.”
Tadashi’s eyes brightened at the prospect of another anecdote.
Van Peterson indulged with a reassuring smile.
“Operation Acoustic Kitty, yes. I remember it well. Implant a radio microphone in a moveable and yet inconspicuous object . . .” he explained with an authoritative tone, “such as a small cat, and you may well believe that you have designed the perfect cold war spy; adaptable, portable, so very cute. But, expect your kitty to stay within earshot of the target and exactly where you want it? Total disaster.”
He cradled the tumbler in the palm of his hands and leant in.
“We had reams and reams of tape, Tadashi, mostly recordings of angry kitchen staff, hotel valets ushering our kitties out from under parked cars, firemen climbing ladders to rescue them down from trees. One lady even took a kitty home. Now, technically that’s theft of government property.”
There was a spark of mischief in the old man’s eyes.
He was enjoying himself. “Did you know that tomcats make a very husky growl when fucking? It’s really quite vigorous.”
The assistant felt it appropriate to take a slug of whisky.
“That particular project turned out to be a little too unconventional for our friends in the suits. Jimmy marked the results as unsatisfactory. So The Office and I parted ways before too many little cats lost their tails in the name of science.”
Tadashi pulled a face and made a note to look the case up later. “Then you joined the Accademia del Cimento?”
Van Peterson rolled the ice cubes in his tumbler and didn’t answer.
The hotel bar spun in a twisted carousel of silver drinks trays, the constant popping of champagne corks, long blonde hair, and longer black dresses.
They had been waiting for almost an hour, but there was still no sign of the man from The Office.
Tadashi finished his whisky in a few large gulps and considered ordering another but the old man had hardly touched his. He took a moment to watch the decadence of the room, allowing time to pass, but couldn’t resist the opportunity of trying to tease out a story one more time.
“Tell me about the project . . . MKUltra?”
The professor looked uncomfortable.
“Did you really manage to harness the power of the psychotropic?”