Las Vegas ached from the night before; feeling in its pockets for loose change, managing the comedown, hoping it wore a condom, trying to remember where it left its keys, wondering why the car wasn’t with the valet, hoping they would leave without asking any questions.
The spiritual science conference would start in an hour.
Mike wasn’t going to risk attending it sober.
Hiding behind dark sunglasses, he was sipping a frozen margarita for breakfast; fresh lime, Cointreau, Tequila Gold and plenty of crushed ice.
“Are you ok?” asked a curious voice. “You look terrible.”
Mike looked up and focused on the buffet hall. It was the newbie, Tadashi, holding a breakfast plate of tropical fruit.
“Looks can be deceiving. I feel great.”
Tadashi sat without being invited. “Do you really think you should be drinking?”
“Do you really think you shouldn’t?”
Tadashi ignored him and assessed his plate. He singled in on an individual piece of watermelon. “What happened to you two last night?” he inquired, nonchalantly.
“You and Sarah Clarkson?”
Mike blinked away acrobatic, orgiastic flashbacks. “We had some drinks.” He adjusted his sunglasses. “Elvis is alive, right?”
Tadashi attempted a flat smile, but failed.
Mike sat back in his chair. “I’m glad you came over,” he said. “I want to talk to you about Lori.”
He laughed. “Sure, man, whatever you want. Look, I’m…” he chose his words carefully, “I’m concerned that she’s being over-stretched.”
Tadashi stared, mouth downturned, unimpressed.
“How about we just put on a show and get out of town, ok?”
Tadashi carefully placed his fork in the centre of his fruit plate. “I am here to work with the great Malcolm Van Peterson for one reason, to usher in the age of enlightenment. He is on the verge of a new dawn, a new world. Does this not excite you, Michael?”
“It’s Mike. Mike is fine.”
“We owe this achievement to the world, do we not? Provando e riprovando. Are you not a proud member of the Accademia del Cimento?”
“Yes, yes, all that, but seriously, look at the girl? She’s lost it, man. She hasn’t properly come back since New York. She’s taken way too much.”
Tadashi began to divide the individual pieces of fruit into separate colours; red melon, blue berry and green kiwi. “New York,” he said, “was the greatest regression experiment ever documented. It was a defining moment for spiritual science. Professor Van Peterson’s work was truly recognised on the international stage.”
“We crossed a line,” said Mike, sternly.
“I’ve studied the tapes. You did nothing wrong.”
“It’s not about what happened on stage. It’s what happened after that I’m worried about.”
Tadashi raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t know how to describe it. Lori was, well, for want of a more scientific phrase, she was fucking possessed.”
Tadashi shook his head, disapprovingly. “It was simply the darkness coming into the light.”
“Something spoke through her, and it spoke directly to us.”
“And what do you think that thing was, Michael?”
“Look, I’m as broadminded as they come. I don’t get easily fazed, but what I saw that night, what happened to her after the regression was something that I’ve never seen before. I was monitoring the results. Her heart rate was normal. There was no evidence of heightened serotonin or adrenaline. Whatever Malcolm did resulted in a full-on schizophrenic episode. She suffered a complete psychotropic breakdown. She said that she was a god.”
Tadashi didn’t blink. “And this surprises you?”
“Look, I understand the point of regression therapy but why would she say a thing like that?”
“Because, Michael, maybe for that brief moment − she was?”
Mike reset the conversation by raising his hand to order another margarita. “Want one? Fresh limes?”
“Aw, come on. They’re good.”
Tadashi shook his head.
“Why are you here, Michael Jones?” asked the assistant, with a hint of condescension.
“It’s Mike Vegas now. Dr Vegas to you.” The tequila was beginning to kick in.
“How did you come to join the Academy?” His tone was dominant. Tadashi was vying for authority.
“I answered an advert. Simple as that.”
“And what is your purpose?”
“My job is to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Which is why I’m talking to you.”
“Your job, your responsibility,” he paused to exhale, commanding Mike’s full attention, “is to assist Professor Van Peterson in his search for enlightenment.”
The margarita arrived.
Mike threw a twenty on the waiter’s tray and thanked him.
Were his credentials being questioned, or did Tadashi always behave this way, he wondered?
The advert had been suitably incongruous; a renowned spiritual scientist was seeking professional medical assistance for the presentation of a live stage show. It was a legal requirement. He saw the opportunity for easy money, and one where he wouldn’t be forced to mix in the same academic and medical circles that he was used to. There would be no accidental bumping into old colleagues.
That was all he wanted.
He’d struck it lucky and found somewhere under the radar where he could make a simple living and forget about the dark cloud hanging over his professional reputation.
On first impression he had concluded that Malcolm Van Peterson was a showman, an old Wild West alchemist pitching miracle cures and ointments. A little bit of showbiz couldn’t hurt, he thought. The first few months were even enjoyable.
Then, Van Peterson’s daughter, Sarah Clarkson, joined the team; recent divorcee, hot-headed young blonde with a power suit to match, and life got a hell of a lot more interesting.
They went on tour for a summer and their affair began right from the start.
They slept their way through the Deep South and up to the ill-fated New York City.
The tour was then designed to take in the West Coast, including a residency in Las Vegas, but when Tadashi appeared the atmosphere turned from showmanship to some kind of religious propaganda.
They had been working together barely a few days but the young Japanese assistant was really beginning to cramp his style.
Mike had drunk half of his margarita before either of them spoke again. He decided not to take the bait.
“I’ll help the old man search for whatever it is he wants to search for. Just so long as no one has a cardiac arrest in the process,” declared Mike. “That is my one and only responsibility.”
Tadashi let out an audible grumble, clearly annoyed at Mike’s lack of passion for the cause. “Do you not understand what we are trying to achieve?”
He was a couple of drinks down and decided not to let himself be intimidated. “Half a million dollars?” he asked.
Tadashi sniffed, offended. “No, Michael,” he corrected. “The Accademia del Cimento have studied the avoidance of speculation since sixteen fifty-seven. We are approaching a new dawn. It is with this spirit of learning that we find ourselves here today, ushering in the age of enlightenment. Provando e riprovando.”
“You already said that,” Mike interrupted, trying to undermine him.
“Do you know what it means?”
He slurped down his margarita. “I have a feeling that you’re about to tell me.” Mike smiled.
“Experiment and confirm. That is our mantra.”
“If at first you don’t succeed,” nodded Mike.
“Try and try again, yes,” agreed Tadashi, excitedly. “This is a re-evaluation of the properties that define humanity, a re-definition of our very existence. The Academy is the new authority, on the verge of a revolution of science, and it is of monumental importance.”
“Don’t big yourself up now. That kind of talk is how wars start.”
“No, Michael! It is not how wars start.”
“I wasn’t being literal. Calm the fuck down.” He adjusted his dark sunglasses.
“You will listen to me. I am explaining to you the importance of our mission.”
“Ok. Ok. I get it. It’s important. Now relax. There are paying customers watching.” Mike raised his glass to a couple of tourists.
“You are about to witness a new dawn, a new age of awareness, and this is the aim and purpose of the Academy.” Tadashi spoke with a raised voice. “The Academy will untangle the random. The Academy will try and try again. We will experiment and we will confirm, with unity and collaboration, until we chart the map between this world and the next.”
“The map of what?” spluttered Mike through his drink. “I thought you were talking bullshit before, but now you’re setting a new record.”
Tadashi was visibly annoyed, squirming uncomfortably on his chair. “I am not talking bullshit.”
“Jesus, you take everything so literally. Chill the fuck out, man.”
“We are defining an existence beyond this mortal realm. Man has landed on the moon, but our experiments will take man to the next dimension, into the next life.”
“Are you sure you haven’t been drinking?” interrupted Mike.
Tadashi stood up, kicking over his chair. “You are an ignorant man, Michael. You have been judged. I have nothing more to say to you.”
He walked out of the breakfast room.
Mike scratched his head, shocked by the tide of arrogance that he’d just witnessed. “You have been judged,” he mimicked in a childish voice.
He caught the bartender’s eye and signalled for another margarita.