September 3rd, 1964
Gemma was still sobbing into her pillow when breakfast was served. The nurse slipped in, set the tray on the dresser since the tea table was tipped on its side in front of the observation window, and slipped back out without a word. Gemma guessed she must be trained not to interact with the test subjects when they were especially emotional. Reading Harry Haworth’s patient notes last night, Gemma concluded that if she were a nurse here, she certainly wouldn’t want to get within arm’s reach of him on one of his curiously regular bad days. She sniffled and rolled back out of bed.
Now that the Coconut had settled into a purple tinged sinus headache and she’d collected herself, Gemma was apprehensive of what would happen next. And hungry, actually. She hadn’t eaten last night and she’d worked up an appetite throwing her furniture around. More than anything, though, she was embarrassed.
It was a rookie mistake. Not even twenty-four hours into this subterfuge and she’d already blown her cover.
The heels of her shoes were crammed full of Blackberry capsules; it was a contraband trick Mrs. Oliphant had taught her. Gemma had planned to fake taking whatever experimental Joy pills they gave her, spit them out, and stay on her Blackberry to keep a clear head instead. She hadn’t counted on being gassed.
Gemma inspected the breakfast she had been given. How to proceed from here would be easier to see on a full stomach and eating might help with her headache. She was surprised to find that Verloc’s test subjects ate quite well. There were a couple slices of warm toast, a choice of blue currant jam or honey to spread on them, a few strips of chewy cured meat of indeterminate species (not that Gemma was picky anymore) cut to resemble bacon, an apple, a can of grapefruit juice, a cup of hot toasted chicory with three sugar cubes and a small spoon on the side and, most astonishingly, milk in a small creamer.
The milk was baffling. Where on earth did Verloc get milk from? No one could get milk for over a decade now. Gemma had only a vague recollection of what it tasted it like, from before her mother had to slaughter their cow for food. She dipped her finger in the creamer and touched it to the tip of her tongue.
It was thinner than she thought milk ought to be, more watery. The taste was akin to nibbling on her pencil eraser when trying to think through her phrasing. Tinned milk. All the same, tinned milk was hard to come by too, and yet Verloc had it for his test subjects’ chicory? What was that about?
Gemma set the mystery of the milk aside and turned around to put her tea table back in its rightful spot. She pulled it up from its side and set it back on its feet, then dragged it to its place next to her chair. Collecting the breakfast tray, she settled into the chair and thought through her situation as she spread jam on one of the pieces of toast.
When Sally Boyle had prescribed her Blackberry, she insisted that it should not be mixed with other drugs. It interacted in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Mixing it with Coconut was, true to Sally’s word, a wild ride. At first, it was as though everything Gemma knew about the state of Wellington Wells wanted to be said all at once. Then the Coconut kicked in and all of the various signs of decay and ruin she’d seen coalesced into one singular goal: report. In the moment, she didn’t care that she was undercover, that giving herself away would blow the investigation, that she wouldn’t learn anything further. Under the conflicting influence of Blackberry and Coconut, the only thing that mattered was getting back out and telling the people what she knew.
But maybe this wasn’t a lost cause yet, Gemma thought as she bit into the apple. Perhaps she could play it off as her having been delusional? That being an investigative reporter was just a fantasy she sometimes called on in her otherwise safe life as a party planner? The cover story was forming and now, properly fed, Gemma thought she might be able to pull her undercover mission out from its nosedive.
Gemma poured a little of the milk into her chicory, dropped two of the sugar cubes in, and stirred. Once the color had evened out to a warm beige, she tried the chicory out. The milk was not a good addition to the drink – it tasted like she’d soaked a piece of chalk in it – but it did soothe some of the discomfort in her throat from the Coconut.
“Miss Olsen!” Verloc greeted her with entirely too much cheer as he swept into Gemma’s cell about an hour after her breakfast tray had been collected. “How are you feeling today?” The door shut behind him with a thud that made Gemma wince. Her headache had not subsided and the brightness from every angle of the room did nothing to help. She lie on her bed with her right arm draped over her eyes to block out the light.
“I have a bit of a headache so if you could tone it down, that would be lovely,” Gemma said. She hadn’t expected Verloc to check up on his test subjects in person. It seemed like something best left to Dr. Hughes and his staff. Faced with his actual presence, Gemma made the effort to meet him toe to toe. She pushed herself up, swung her feet over the side of the bed, and sat up straight to put on her act and course-correct her cover story. “Coconut has a bit of a kick to it, doesn’t it?” she said.
“Yes, Dr. Hughes told me about your reaction to it. He described it as particularly spirited, but that wasn’t completely unexpected. We’ve never had a patient who developed intolerance on Blackberry before and it doesn’t interact well with other drugs, as I’m sure you know.”
Gemma stared. Then she cleared her raspy throat and said, “What?”
“Blackberry, Miss Olsen,” Verloc said. His face stayed cheerfully impassive, but his eyes narrowed the slightest bit, and just that small tell made the whole picture of him take on a sinister cast. “Dr. Hughes smelled the safrole on you when you came in.” Just as quickly, the look of suspicion fell away. “The intake form you filled out said you had been taking Strawberry, but I suppose it’s our fault for not listing Blackberry as an option. Haworth Labs doesn’t manufacture that flavor so we didn’t think it necessary. I hope you see now why it’s important to be completely accurate and truthful with us.” Gemma didn’t like the way the words “and truthful” seemed to be shoehorned in that statement.
“I should say so, haha!” Gemma answered, rallying enough to afford Verloc a smile. “It must’ve just slipped my mind that I had changed flavors. I used to take Strawberry.”
“Fair enough. These things happen. Although…” Verloc trailed, “I am interested to know what an event planner needs Blackberry for. And how you managed to get it.”
“Oh, well, you know, there’s so many little details to keep straight if we want all our festivals and parades to go off without a hitch!” Gemma explained. “It must seem quite frivolous to you in comparison – you’re doing such important work here – but it’s crucial to all my events go perfectly in order to keep civic morale high.” Gemma grinned wide, faking pride in work she didn’t do. “I was only just managing on Strawberry, constantly forgetting appointments. My supervisor at the Bureau thought Blackberry would help.”
Verloc gave her a cold sneer.
“Do you honestly think I don’t know who you are?”
“Do you really?” Gemma said, faking pleased surprise. She hid her distress at this turn of conversation under a wide smile and pressed on. It never paid to give in at the first sign of trouble. “I organized the Annual Scientific Exposition last year, but I didn’t think you would remember me.”
“Drop the act, Miss Olsen,” Verloc said. “You’re not an event planner. You’re a reporter.”
Okay, that was pretty damning, but Gemma had one last trick up her sleeve.
She put on a look of awkwardness and said, “Look, I know what I said this morning, but I obviously wasn’t myself! I… well, this is sort of embarrassing, but sometimes I like to fantasize about being a reporter. It sounds like an exciting life, don’t you think?”
“You tell me. You won Reporter of the Year this year.”
No one outside the newspaper office would know that anymore. It was announced in the paper, but people forgot anything they’d read in the previous issue by the time the new one came out.
Verloc took Sunshine though. He didn’t forget.
It wasn’t that Gemma forgot that detail about him, but that she hadn’t thought he’d be involved in this directly. The letter from him about this program on her investigation board was a form letter without even a signature on it. It suggested an impersonal touch, a missive he authorized an subordinate to send on his behalf. That she’d been conducted into the program by Dr. Hughes only confirmed that idea to her yesterday. She’d never expected to come face to face with Verloc himself or for him to know who she was.
The jig, however, was undeniably up.
“Fine. You caught me. I’m a reporter,” Gemma admitted. “How ever did you figure it out?”
“You didn’t even bother to use an assumed name,” Verloc said. He looked almost insulted she hadn’t given him the consideration.
“I don’t usually need to. Most people don’t remember who I am,” Gemma said. She smirked. “It’s not every story that I’m up against someone on Sunshine.”
Verloc pursed his lips and balled his fists defensively. “How did you know that?”
“I didn’t for sure,” Gemma said, smug. “Until just now. But I have several sources who say you invented it, so it stood to reason. Why don’t you need to forget like everyone else, Dr. Verloc?”
“I hardly need to explain myself to the likes of you.”
“So no legitimate reason then?”
“What legitimate reason do you have to be on Blackberry, Miss Olsen?” Verloc asked, turning her question back on her. “It’s meant to be restricted to important city personnel and I doubt the press makes the cut.” Verloc glanced away, an idea visibly occurring to him then. “There’s only one place in Wellington Wells where you can get Blackberry. If Sally is supplying someone like you, then her client list would be very interesting to a number of parties, wouldn’t it? She might be supplying other… subversives.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Gemma said since it sounded like he wanted to press her for information on Sally. Despite Sally’s having separated herself from Haworth Labs, Gemma’s impression of her was that she was still very much of the establishment. Mrs. Oliphant had been careful to propose prescribing Gemma Blackberry to Sally as a public service and therefore above question. “And I’m not a subversive either. Unless reporting the truth is subversive now.”
“Oh no? Lying about having Joy intolerance to get into my labs seems pretty subversive to me.”
“You’d be the expert, wouldn’t you?” Gemma said. She quoted in a snotty tone, “‘Harry has gone a bit fuzzy in recent years. We all wish him well, wherever he’s gone to.’ You had him locked up down here the whole time while people were searching for him, and you acted like he’d just gone on a vacation.”
Verloc straightened up indignantly and his jaw clenched at the accusation. “He was missing and I was the only one looking for him. I asked for that article to help find him and your rotten rag of a newspaper would only print it if they could spin it so his disappearance wouldn’t worry people.”
Gemma scrutinized Verloc’s scowling face for signs of lies. His defense sounded preposterous and if it were true it asked so many more questions about Haworth’s disappearance from the public eye. However, Gemma couldn’t deny that spinning the worst positively was a requisite skill for “O” Courant reporters. If Verloc was telling the truth – a big assumption for a known liar, Gemma reminded herself before she gave him too much credit – then her guesswork as to how he came to take control of Haworth Labs might be incomplete. She dismissed it for now, figuring they’d have plenty of time to revisit the topic later.
“In any case, I suppose you can’t very well let me go,” Gemma said as if the thought was of no concern to her at all, “or I’d tell people you’ve been holding Dr. Haworth prisoner down here.”
“The people who need to know where he is do,” Verloc said, dismissing her threat. “But no, I wasn’t planning to kick you out. We are always short of test subjects and you did volunteer. Besides, you’ve presented me with a unique opportunity. We’ve never had someone who was taking Blackberry before. If I can synthesize a version of Coconut that people on Blackberry can easily migrate from, I’d take back the market share Sally stole and put a swift end to her little chemist shop.”
“Hmm,” Gemma said, noting Verloc’s bitterness when talking about Sally. It was public knowledge that they had been a couple and had broken up, but the cause of the breakup was not. Gemma now wondered if the source might not have been this market share that Sally’s Blackberry occupied. Gemma had assumed Sally set up her shop as a result of their breakup, but what if it was the other way around, that they broke up because she set herself up in competition? And if that was the case, maybe their relationship was always a ruse on Sally’s part to steal Verloc’s formulas. Gemma’s mind raced with the possibilities. The story could be quite juicy if true.
“What?” Verloc said, suspicious again.
“Nothing,” Gemma said in a way that belied it very much was something. She found Verloc’s look of uncertainty, his concern that he might have said something he shouldn’t have, satisfying.
“Yes, well,” Verloc said, giving up on guessing what she was thinking and turning to leave. “It’s always a delight to meet the press, but I’ve got other patients to check up on. I’ll be back tomorrow to see how your response to Coconut progresses.”
“No, wait,” Gemma said. “Before you go, I have to ask: why do you have tinned milk? It’s impossible to get and yet you have it for your lab rats’ breakfast?”
Verloc gave her a small, confused frown.
“It’s not hard to get if you know who to ask,” he said with a shrug. “And Dr. Haworth likes it in his tea.” With that, he left her cell.
Alone again, Gemma assessed her situation. All in all, she really wasn’t in too much worse a position than she would have been anyway. She was still trapped in here, but now she didn’t have to maintain a ruse about her occupation. That she was somewhat dangerous to Verloc’s interests meant that she didn’t know how long he would plan to keep her here, but she’d suspected that was true of anyone who volunteered for this study.
Gemma was, despite her now throbbing headache, excited about how this had gone. Much as her Blackberry use presented Verloc with opportunity, she too was now posed with an opportunity she hadn’t anticipated: daily access to Verloc himself. If she used her best interview tactics, she could pry more details out of him to fill in some of the gaps in her investigation boards. She hadn’t even been trying today and she’d already learned a few compelling new… well, she hesitated to call them facts, but possibilities? To say the least, Verloc’s relationships with both Sally and Haworth seemed to be much more interesting than they appeared at face value.
Gemma lay back down, shielded her eyes from the whiteness around her, and thought over how she planned to manipulate Verloc into letting more information slip tomorrow.