One Thing Leads To Another
Alex makes a new friend at a conspiracy convention and sparks fly.
Keep an eye on the guy in the chair, you just might see him again. Soon. Enjoy!
The presenter pointed to several statistics on the overhead slide before turning back toward the audience. Ninety-eight pairs of eyes followed his pointer.
“As you can see in this illustration, the government has been reading all of our mail for over a hundred years. We’ve just made it easier for them in the digital age. Now they have computers to sort through all of our exchanges. Privacy has always been an illusion. They are just more blatant about it nowadays.
“That’s all I have. Any questions from the audience about the history of government surveillance?”
Alex considered the issues the presenter brought up. I agree with some of his points, but this guy is whackadoodle. Does he really think the US government used to steam open letters like someone’s nosy spinster aunt? The gossip from someplace like that would have been impossible to rein in. Let alone keep its existence a secret.
In the front row, a hand flew into the air.
“Yes, son? What’s your question?”
“Thank you, Dr. DuMas. I find it hard to believe that all around the country, massive facilities were dedicated to steaming open letters. Besides, who cares about my grandma and Aunt Betty exchanging recipes?” The audience laughed.
Looking affronted, DuMas replied, “You’re young. Everything is digital to you kids. But back in the day, state secrets were sent through the US mail. In order to know everything about everyone, they set up those centers to spy on us. We’ve never been safe from the government’s prying eyes.”
“But…,” the man who asked the question began.
The presenter barrelled over him before he could finish his protest.
Flapping his hands at the man, DuMas asked sarcastically, “Do you really think that they needed those huge sorting facilities just to process the mail? Now that everything gets sent via email, the government’s shutting them down. They’ve got computers to scan all your correspondence these days.”
He’s so full of shit! Alex railed to himself. More and more people are sending emails, yes, but that means fewer things are sent in the mail. Hell, the only snail mail I get anymore is a few bills and tons of junk mail. The post office would probably be out of business already if it wasn’t for junk mail!
By the smug look on the presenter’s face, the man clearly thought he’d won the argument.
“You know, maybe you’re right,” said the questioner in the front row. “Maybe it was all a façade. But as someone whose dad was a postmaster and spent hour after hour playing in one of those sorting facilities, I can tell you from firsthand experience, there wasn’t anything in them but letters. No hidden rooms, no secret operations, no room full of cackling women reading your smutty letters to your mistress.”
The man’s eyes bulged and he raised on hand to the chest of his expensive suit.
“I beg your pardon! How dare you say something like that to me. I am a respected doctor of psychology. I have recorded interviews of several patients who have confirmed what I presented here.”
“No, you don’t. According to the files on your laptop, you made up this story two years ago to divert attention away from the fact that you were having an affair with the wife of your hometown’s postmaster.” The man sounded to Alex like he was a microsecond from bursting into laughter. “You really should be careful when you join an unsecured network. You never know what files you are exposing to anyone with a little bit of curiosity.”
The presenter sputtered and his face became a dangerous shade of puce. Around him, Alex heard titters and a few outright guffaws.
The convention organizer, a small, weasely man with glasses, snatched the microphone away from the apoplectic presenter. “Thank you, everyone, that concludes our programming for the day. See you all back here tomorrow morning. The ‘Aliens Among Us’ panel starts at nine AM sharp. Don’t forget, there’s lots to do here on Granville Island. Plus Vancouver has even more attractions for the adventurous, just across the bridge. Good night.”
Around Alex, the noise level rose as people began packing up their belongings and leaving the room. I’ve got to meet the guy who managed to shut that blowhard down. Whoever he is, he’s my new hero!
Backpack slung over his shoulder, Alex bucked the tide exiting the room, heading for the cluster of people standing around the still-seated man. Guess I’m not the only one who wants to congratulate him on shutting down ‘Dr. Dumb-ass.’
The convention organizer tapped on the microphone, drawing everyone’s attention back to the stage. “I know everyone would like to continue discussing the topics we covered today, but the hotel needs everyone to clear the room. They have to reset this space for a wedding reception this evening.”
The crowd around the man finally began to thin, allowing Alex his first look at the object of his admiration.
Whoa. Hottie at twelve o’clock. He’s not only smart and funny, but sexy too. He looks so relaxed. He’s… The object of his quest backed away from the table and headed for the door. …in a wheelchair?
Alex caught up to him in the hallway.
The man stopped and turned. His eyes traveled appraisingly up Alex’s body until Alex was staring into the most intense green eyes he’d ever seen.
Offering his hand, Alex said, “Hi, I’m Alex Wilson. I loved the way you took the wind out of that old blowhard in there. For a moment there, I thought you were going to get a standing ovation.”
Alex felt the sudden rush of warmth to his face. Shit. You dumbass. You just said ‘standing ovation’ to a guy in a wheelchair. How could you be so insensitive?
The man took Alex’s hand and shook it. “I’m Colton Maddox-Whitmore.” His eyes twinkled and his face split into a lopsided grin as he looked at Alex. “I bet that redness on your face is from mentioning standing to someone in a wheelchair, right?”
Alex returned the smile. “Uhhh…was it that obvious?”
“You think you’re the first person who’s said something to me and gotten embarrassed after the fact? I stopped counting when I was fifteen. The numbers got too big.”
As much as Alex had been intrigued by Colton before, now he was fully captured by the man’s wit and personality.
“I’d love to get your take on some of the other things that we heard today,” Alex said. “Would you like to talk over dinner?”
“Why,” Colton drawled, “that almost sounded like you were asking me on a date. If so, you need a better pick up line. Do I look that easy?”
Alex choked on his reply. “Ummm…”
Colton’s face went scarlet. “Dude, I was just teasing you. It’s okay.” He grabbed at the controls and began to turn his wheelchair back toward the exit to the hotel lobby.
After a stunned moment, Alex hurried after him. “No, you don’t look that easy. I mean, I think you’re attractive, but…”
“But the chair is a turn off. I understand.” Colton sped up, forcing Alex to quicken his pace to keep up.
“No, it’s nothing like that,” he protested. “I’m just not used to being hit on like that. You caught me by surprise, is all.” Alex was breathing hard from trotting alongside the speeding chair. “Look, could you just stop for a minute so we can talk?”
Colton came to an abrupt halt. Alex, unable to react as fast, overshot him. Trying to turn around and stop at the same time, Alex tripped and ended up sprawled across the floor, the contents of his backpack strewn about him like fallen leaves. From Colton’s direction he heard peals of laughter.
“Are you always this graceful?” Colton inquired.
“No,” Alex said through gritted teeth, “I usually end up with a bloody nose and rug burns.” He gathered up his belongings, stuffing them haphazardly into his backpack. Rising, he said, “Guess I got lucky this time.”
“Good. The sight of blood would have ruined my appetite. Do you still want to get dinner and talk?”
Taking a deep breath, Alex paused for a moment. I’m gonna get whiplash trying to keep up with this guy! Raising an eyebrow at Colton, he said, “It’s your fault I’m injured now, so you might need to give me a lift to the restaurant. Is there room on your lap for a passenger?”
* * *
Exhausted, Alex fell back on the bed. Raising his arms in surrender, he huffed out, “Okay, that’s it, I give up. I’m worn out. I need a break. A shower. Maybe some breakfast. Not necessarily in that order.”
Beside him on the bed, Colton gave Alex a pouty look. “C’mon, you can’t be tired already. We’ve only been back from dinner for…” He glanced at his watch. “What, five hours?”
“Yes, but we didn’t get back to your room until after they kicked us out of the restaurant at two. That means it’s seven AM, and I’m hungry again.” When Colton gave him a lecherous ‘Oh, yeah?’ look, Alex glared at him. “For food, you pervert!”
“Oh, well, okay. If you insist.” Colton reached for the phone. “What kind of breakfast do you want?”
“While the prospect of having breakfast in bed sounds tantalizing, if we’re going to make that nine AM panel, I need to go back to my room and get cleaned up. How about we meet for breakfast in half an hour?”
Colton blushed a deep red. “I can’t do that. I need help showering,” he choked out. “I have an arrangement with a local service. They won’t be here until eight to help me get ready.”
It took a lot for him to admit that to me, Alex thought.
Making an snap decision, he jumped out of bed, pulled on his jeans and threw his shirt over his head. Bolting toward the door, he called over his shoulder, “Be right back”
Within minutes, he was back, towing his suitcase.
“So, it dawned on me that the easiest solution would be for you to call and cancel your service. Since we both need to clean up, we can do it together. That way, if we happen to get any dirtier, we can clean up as we go.”
Colton’s mouth gaped for a moment, then shut with a snap. Looking straight at Alex, he shook his head and said, “No, I can’t ask you to do that.”
“Good,” Alex said with a grin, “because you didn’t ask. I told you that’s what’s going to happen.”
* * *
They passed the day together like longtime friends, typing notes on the panels and making fun of some of the wildly outrageous panelists during the breaks.
“So what did you think of that last panel?” Alex asked Colton.
“Evil aliens are secretly running big business and our governments?” Colton asked. “I don’t know, that seems a little far fetched.
“Have you read the news lately? I mean, that could almost be a headline.”
Colton smiled. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“You have to admit it would explain a lot of things.” Alex laughed. “But no, I don’t believe aliens are running around wearing skin suits just so they can screw up the government. Though I’ll admit it did work on Doctor Who.”
“Yeah, I loved those episodes.” Colton looked Alex up and down. “Fancy you being into Doctor Who.”
Alex shrugged. “Who isn’t? Some of the best conspiracy theories come out of that show.”
“Hah! I’ve often wondered if the writers are conspiracy theorists themselves or if they have one on retainer,” Colton said. “I’d sure like the extra income, if they’re shopping around.”
Alex nodded. “I could use the extra income too. What’s the next panel?”
Colton glanced at the program schedule on his phone. “It’s the last panel of the convention. ‘Hollywood Hijinks: To the Moon and Back,’ by Professor Julius Warburton.”
Alex groaned. “Oh no, not him. Do we have to sit here and listen to him talk about how the moon landing was faked? People like him give serious conspiracy theorists like us a bad name.”
“Wait. You think man has actually gone to the moon?” Colton asked in dismay. “I don’t think I can talk to you anymore. Everyone knows that NASA faked the landing on a soundstage in Hollywood.”
Alex shot Colton a horrified look. “What?” Then he saw the smile creeping across the man’s face. “You think you’re so funny. For a minute there, I honestly thought you believed that.”
Colton giggled, losing what little composure he still had. “Seriously though, I was hoping you’d say that. Let’s get out of here before this guy makes me throw something at him.”
Picking up their belongings, they fled the room. In the hallway, Alex poked Colton in the shoulder.
“That wasn’t nice. I may have to get revenge on you for that little prank.”
“Do your worst,” Colton said, arching an eyebrow at Alex. “It’s not like I can run away.”
“Your legs may not work, but your tongue is certainly fully functional,” Alex said, waggling his thick, black eyebrows.
“Oooh! That’s the kind of revenge I enjoy.”
“Down, boy. Dinner first. We need food if we’re going to have the energy to repeat last night.”
* * *
“Forrrrrrrrre-k!” Colton exclaimed as his fork flew through the air, taking part of his cheesecake with it.
Alex looked up in surprise. “What?”
Colton didn’t answer for a moment. With a tight smile, he said, “Damn. My swing is off, but at least I got some good distance on that one.”
As Alex watched, the man closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and held it. After a few moments, he exhaled with a sigh, his shoulders relaxing and his face going blank. It’s like he’s a balloon and someone just let all the air out, Alex thought.
Colton opened his eyes just as the waiter came running up. To Alex, he said brightly, “All better now.”
“Are you okay? Do you need assistance?” The waiter began dabbing the spilled cheesecake off Colton with a napkin.
“I’m fine,” Colton said, waving the waiter away. “Sorry about the outburst. Could I trouble you for a new fork though?”
Pulling back, the waiter said, “Certainly, sir. Be right back.”
When the waiter was out of hearing range, Colton spit out, “I hate it when people treat me like that. If anyone else had dropped their fork, the waiter would’ve just brought them a new one. But because I’m in this chair, people think they need to talk to me like I’m a child. My legs may not work, but my brain is just fine.”
“What happened, anyway?” Alex asked. “You were fine one minute, then you yelled and threw your fork.”
“It’s part of my condition. Sometimes I get these really intense muscle spasms. Thankfully, I’ve learned to use self-hypnosis to get past the worst of them.”
Surprised, Alex asked, “Self-hypnosis can help with that?”
Colton took the new fork from the waiter without so much as a nod.
“Yup. I use it to help me with a lot of my…issues.”
“I wonder if something like that could help with my insomnia?” Alex said, making a sour face.
“Oh, sure. The guy who taught me uses it for that. It’s easy to learn. You just need to find someone to teach you.”
Alex nodded. “I’ll research that when we get back up to your room.”
Colton shook his head. “Do it when you get home. You fly out in a couple hours, and I have much better ideas of what you can do until then.”
Alex smirked and raised his hand.
* * *
“Hi. You must be Alex.” The bearded man in the doorway smiled at him.
“Dr. MacPherson?” Wow, his picture does not do him justice. He looks much better with a beard.
The doctor waved Alex into his small office, offering him a seat on the couch, then taking the therapist’s chair across from it.
“You said you had a problem with the course that you wanted to talk over in person.” The bearish man leaned back, crossing one leg over the other. “What’s up?”
Alex fidgeted nervously on the sofa. “I’m really getting a lot out of your online hypnotherapy class, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to drop out.”
The man blinked and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I’m sorry to hear that. Is there something wrong with the class? This is the first time I’ve taught it so I’m still ironing out the bugs.”
Alex waved his hands between them. “No, no. It has nothing to do with the you or the class. It’s really helped with my insomnia.” He looked down, his shoulders slumping. “I just wanted to find out if it would be possible to pick up where I left off the next time you offer it. I don’t think I could afford to pay for it again.”
“Hold on. The course is already paid for, so why can’t you finish it? Maybe we can find a way to work around whatever the problem is.”
Embarrassed, Alex tried to hide his face in his hands. “My roommate moved out without any notice and now I’m going to have to get a another job just to pay the rent. I already work two jobs. Adding a third means I’m not going to have any free time.” He raised his head, looking everywhere but at the man across from him. “I wouldn’t be able to keep up on the assignments. I mean, your class has helped me so much already. I don’t want to botch this because I can’t give it the time and attention it deserves. That’s why I wanted to check if I could pick it up later.” Alex sagged, exhausted from admitting his financial dilemma to this stranger.
“Hmmm.” Dr. MacPherson stroked his beard for a moment before continuing. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Alex?”
Alex looked up from staring at his shoes. “Sure, I guess. What do you want to know?”
“You’re working two jobs already, right?” Alex nodded and he continued. “It just so happens that my fiance, Tessa, has been complaining that I spend too much time at the office. She demanded that I hire someone to help me. I wrote up an ad for an assistant a couple of days ago but haven’t gotten around to posting it yet. How do you feel about running errands, transcribing my sessions, filing, that kind of thing?”
Eyes widening, Alex asked, “Are you offering me a job? Seriously? I’d love that, but…I still wouldn’t have time for your class with my other jobs.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” the doctor said, looking down at the floor, “how much do you make from your other jobs?”
Alex confessed his meager income.
Dr. MacPherson’s eyes lit up and he smiled. “Really? That’s about half what I’d planned to pay my hypothetical assistant.”
Alex sat stunned for a heartbeat. “Half? With that kind of money I could quit my lousy barista job and still end up with more income.”
“Why not quit both jobs? Then you’d have plenty of free time to work on the course.”
Alex shook his head. “I don’t want to quit my bike messenger job. I get to spend all day outside in the sunshine riding around Oakland and Berkeley. I love it.”
“Well, that puts a different spin on things. So you’re really only looking for something part time then, right?”
Crap! Alex thought in a panic. I’ve blown it! I can’t believe I just lost the best gig I’ve ever been offered.
“Phew, good!” the other man said, shaking his head. “I didn’t think I had enough to keep someone busy full time, but Tessa insisted that I wouldn’t find anyone worthwhile unless it was a full time job. Having someone who only needs to work part time is perfect.”
Alex felt like doing a happy dance. “So, part time, like evenings and weekends? That’s okay with you, Dr. MacPherson?”
“You bet! But if you’re going to be working for me, you should probably call me Riley. You could help me with the online class, too. You’d be my intern.”
“Intern, huh?” Alex grinned from ear to ear. “Thanks, Dr. Mac…uh, Riley!”
Smiling back at him, Riley said, “I think this is could be the start of a be-you-tiful friendship.”