Wednesday (Day 0)
It all began with a casual remark on a Wednesday evening.
Then again, wars had been started for less.
"Come on, Doc," Michael Wiseman complained, poking warily at his dinner as if half expecting it to get up and attack him. "You don't even eat this stuff on a daily basis."
"I am not currently inhabiting a body that is worth three billion dollars," Dr. Theodore Morris reminded him blandly.
Michael stuffed a forkful of food into his mouth, and immediately reached for the glass of water to wash it down. "Ugh. You could at least show some sympathy. Maybe add some spice to cover up the taste. I know there's gotta be some spices out there that meet your dietary standards."
"Oh, just take it like a man."
"Easy for you to say."
"Eating healthy is not easy, but it's not that much of an ordeal." Theo turned back to his reports, deciding that the matter was closed.
Or not. "Excuse me, Mr. Wiseman?"
"I bet that you couldn't go a week on this diet. You spend a couple of days with nothing but this stuff to live off and I guarantee you'll be heading straight for the nearest hot dog stand." Michael hesitated, smiling dreamily at the thought. "Wow, what I wouldn't give for a hot dog right now."
Theo ignored the last comment. "Is that a challenge?"
Michael thought about it for a second. "Yeah. Yeah, it is. You stick to this diet for a week, and then try and tell me I'm blowing this out of proportion."
"Your diet is specifically designed to accommodate your unique system," Theo pointed out.
"You're not feeding me stuff fit for normal human consumption? Not a big surprise, Doc."
"Okay. Five days."
"Four. Starting tomorrow."
"Tomorrow morning to five o'clock on Sunday."
"What, you got something going on?"
"A family dinner." Theo frowned. "And I am not about to explain to my Grandma Pearl why I'm refusing her cooking."
Michael sat back in his chair, staring at him. "You're serious? You're really going to take me up on this?"
Theo glanced over at Special Agent #1. The bald agent was waiting by the pool, listening to their conversation with interest. "You getting all this?" Startled, the agent nodded, and Theo turned back to Michael. "But with some conditions."
"You get through the next four days with no complaints, then I'll stop complaining."
"I doubt that."
"Hey, I'll put in the effort." Michael stopped, thinking. "So what do I get if I win?"
"I'll look into making your diet a bit more palatable." Theo gave up on the report and closed the folder, reaching for his briefcase. "Within reason."
"I could do with the occasional trip to McDonald's."
"Don't push your luck. And finish your dinner." As Michael reluctantly complied, Morris put the report and his other papers away. "I'll see you tomorrow morning."
"For breakfast, right?" Michael prompted.
"Good night, Mr. Wiseman," Theo replied, picking up his briefcase and following Special Agent #1 out.
"You didn't have to agree to that, you know," the bald agent said as he punched in the access code to open the front door of the apartment.
"Maybe not," Theo said as he stepped out onto the street where the limo was waiting. "If nothing else, it'll be an interesting experiment."
Thursday (Day 1)
After an unpleasant night's sleep, it took a great deal of will and determination to crawl out of bed at four forty-five in the morning. That, and caffeine. Theo was plugging in the coffee pot when his brain turned on and reminded him of the events of the previous night.
He hesitated for a moment, still holding the carafe. It wasn't as if there was anyone to see him, was there? He wasn't under surveillance, unlike Michael.
But he did have his pride. And a bet was a bet.
Sighing, Theo put the empty carafe back, unplugged the coffee pot, and stumbled back into his room to shower and dress. At least he didn't have to drive himself to work.
He was in slightly better spirits when the limo pulled up to the townhouse an hour later, although not as chipper as he would have liked to be. Still, he trotted up to Michael Wiseman's room at 6 a.m. exactly, took a deep breath as the curtains slid open - and stopped.
His audience was already in the shower.
Theo was immediately suspicious. "Mr. Wiseman?"
The shower shut off, and Michael stuck his head out the door. "What, I'm in trouble for getting up early now?"
"No, but since when did you get up early?"
"Crashed early last night and woke up on my own. You mind?"
Theo sighed, still feeling somewhat weary. It would figure that the first morning of this wager would kick off after a poor night's sleep. Michael's unusual alertness was not helping his mood one bit, either. "I'll meet you downstairs for breakfast."
He soon realized that Michael had not been kidding; the oatmeal was bland, and the natural energy drink actually made him miss coffee. Theo ate in silence, not giving Michael any sign of his distaste. He doubted the other man would sympathize with caffeine deprivation - in fact, Michael would use the opportunity to annoy him even more.
Still, it would take more than this to make him lose.
Friday (Day 2)
Michael stared forlornly at the hot dog stand as the emergency crews cleared out the last of the hostages from the building. Most of the hostages were safely across the street already, and those not being tended to or giving statements had descended upon the hot dog vendor. The Doc was busy talking to the FBI agents on the scene. Michael couldn't take advantage of that, however, not without any money. Besides, Special Agent #1 was watching him like a hawk. So he simply gazed longingly at the stand, trying not to drool, as the crowds milled around.
A tug on his sleeve startled him out of his thoughts. "Hey."
Michael blinked and turned to see a boy standing there, probably eleven or twelve, wearing a Yankees cap and holding a hot dog. It took him a second to recognize the kid who'd decided to play hero and jumped on top of one of the thugs who'd been serving as lookout - an incredibly stupid thing to do, but it had given Michael time to knock out the other two and slip inside. "Hey. What's up? You all right?"
"Eh, I'm okay," the kid said, as if he jumped terrorists every day. "Here, man, this is for you." He held out the hot dog.
Glancing over at the growing line, Michael hesitated. "You sure?"
"Yeah, I got one already."
The Doc was nowhere to be found. "Thanks, kid," Michael said, accepting the hot dog gratefully. The kid grinned and ducked back into the crowd. Smiling, Michael opened his mouth to take a bite...
With a groan, Michael passed the hot dog over to Theo. "All right, all right. But you can't eat it either."
Theo contemplated the hot dog for a second, but before he could respond, someone tapped on his shoulder. He turned to see Special Agent #1 standing there, holding his hand out expectantly.
Sighing, Theo stuffed the hot dog into his subordinate's waiting hand. Michael grinned.
"Get in the car," Theo snapped.
Still grinning, Michael turned and headed for the limo. Theo turned back to the bald agent, who looked at him innocently. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
Special Agent #1 simply took a big bite of the hot dog.
Saturday (Day 3)
"Hey, Doc? I think we're about to have a scene here by the buffet table."
The voice coming through his earpiece nearly made Theo jump. After three hours of a dull political reception, he was starting to think that the supposed threat on a scientist's life was simply a hoax. He glanced over to the buffet table, the one part of the ballroom he'd been studiously avoiding. "I don't see anything."
"Tall woman, short blonde hair, black dress. I've seen that look before. She's either going to jump that guy she's with or sock him, and I don't think he's about to get jumped."
"Is this personal experience talking?"
"Office Christmas parties, Doc. We're at the point that most people are drunk enough to be stupid, and she's been chugging champagne all night. And if I didn't know any better, I'd think the guy was trying to get her pissed off."
Theo finally spotted the couple that Michael was referring to: the blonde, who looked ready to spit nails, and a dark-haired young man with an arrogant smirk on his face. Too arrogant, too cocky, and he was almost enjoying his companion's fury. Either the man had no sense of self-preservation, or he was out to start a fight. "I'm inclined to agree with you."
"Considering he came in here with someone else, Doc, this might not get pretty."
"What? Who did he come in with?"
"Ehhh... short, black hair, blue dress. Over by the orchestra, looks like she's going somewhere."
She certainly seemed to have a destination in mind, moving towards the dance floor. "Damn. She's headed for Dr. Gordon."
"I'm on it, Doc." Michael had gotten Special Agent #1's attention and was edging towards the dance floor. The woman in blue didn't notice his approach. She was looking over at the buffet table, waiting for an opportunity to do more than simply move towards Dr. Gordon. Theo glanced back over at the unhappy couple. If he couldn't prevent a scene from occurring altogether, he could at least delay it long enough for his men to make their move. Senator Ryan had made it clear that they were there in order to trap the would-be assassin, not merely protect the doctor.
He moved towards the buffet table, trying not to get too distracted by his growling stomach as he waited for an opening. His opportunity came when the young man gestured with the hand holding the glass of champagne - and Theo bumped into him at that point, causing the contents to spill all over the young man's jacket. "Excuse me, I'm sorry," Theo said with as much sincerity as he could muster. "I didn't see you standing there."
It was the young man's turn to look annoyed, and the blonde started giggling. The man scowled and glanced over at the dance floor, then back at Theo. "You didn't see me?" he demanded loudly, switching tactics and causing a few heads to turn. "What, are you blind? Do you know how much this tux cost?"
"Alec, get over yourself," the blonde snapped.
"I'd be happy to pay for the damages," Theo said evenly, before "Alec" could rise to the bait. "I'm really very sorry about this."
"What, am I supposed to walk around like this all night?" the young man demanded, still insistent on starting a fight. His gaze flicked to the dance floor anxiously.
Theo suppressed a smirk, keeping his tone calm and even. "If you like, you can borrow my suit jacket."
Desperation kicked in, and "Alec" grabbed Theo by the lapels. "You don't get it, do you?" he shouted, and shoved Theo. Hard.
Right into the buffet table.
Theo was not entirely sure what happened next, but it involved a great deal of noise and people shouting. He went down with the buffet table, and was immediately blinded by the contents of the nearest serving tray. It took him several seconds to wipe away the faceful of potatoes and another minute to find his glasses in the midst of a pile of steamed broccoli.
"You all right, Doc?"
Nodding, Theo took the proferred hand, wincing as Michael helped him stand. "Fine," he lied, trying to ignore the amount of bruises he was going to have. "Is Dr. Gordon secure?"
Michael hesitated. "Uh, he's fine. We got to the girl before she got to him."
"What about her accomplice?" Theo wiped his glasses. At least they weren't broken.
"Got him. Well, okay, the blonde got him," Michael amended as Special Agent #1 joined them. "Think she broke his nose."
Putting his glasses back on, Theo finally noticed the uncomfortable looks on the two men's faces. "Is there something wrong?"
"You could say that, sir," the bald agent replied.
Theo glared at them. "What. Is. The. Problem?"
Michael coughed. "Shekindawasn'ttryingtokillhim."
"Then what exactly was she doing?"
"Trying to steal the keys and the disk in his suit jacket," Special Agent #1 answered bitterly. "Seems that Mr. Weissman disrupted this whole operation to catch a dangerous pickpocket."
"Shut up, Q-Ball."
"Don't call me that."
"You freaked out too."
"Because YOU pegged her as an assassin, Mr. Weissman."
"For the last time, it's WISE-man. Not WEISS-man. WISE-man. Can't you pronounce it right?"
"That's enough!" Theo snapped, and the two men froze. Several heads turned to stare at them. "Where is Dr. Gordon right now?"
"Upstairs conference room. So is Senator Ryan."
"Good. I'm going to go attempt to smooth things over. In the meantime, I want you two to go find out just what those two were really up to. I want to know why I was shoved into a damned buffet table for a thief."
"Well, if not for the false alarm-" Special Agent #1 began.
"That was NOT a false alarm. They would not have gone to such lengths to cause a diversion if they weren't up to something. Find out what. Now."
Sighing, Theo turned and stalked off towards the stairs, trying to ignore the stares of the bystanders and the fact that he was dripping sauce all over the polished floors. As he passed by one of the waiters, he snagged a glass of champagne. If he ever needed a drink, now was the time.
Michael was looking at him expectantly - or, rather, looking at the champagne glass in his hand. Theo glared at him, glared at the offending glass, and all but slammed it down on a nearby table.
This was just not his night.
Sunday (Day 4)
"Doc, I said I was sorry," Michael said for the third time as the two men entered the greasy-spoon diner.
Theo eased himself into the booth carefully, wincing from the bruises he'd received from the buffet table and the hard ballroom floor. "It wasn't your fault."
"Yeah, well, I never thought I'd say this, but Q-Ball was right." Michael sat down across from him. "I really screwed up last night."
Something occurred to Theo. "Of course. He probably didn't tell you."
"Tell me what?"
"It seems that Dr. Gordon's attacker's intentions were not what the Pentagon thought," Theo answered. "She meant to ruin him, not kill him. And the files she could have accessed with that disk and those keys would have been enough."
"So... who was out to kill him?"
The waitress' arrival forestalled any reply Theo could make. "Hi, what can I get you today?"
"Just water for now," Theo said before Michael could get any ideas. "We're waiting for someone."
"Two waters? Okay, I'll be right back." She smiled and turned away.
Theo waited until she was out of earshot before speaking. "No one. Whoever tipped the Pentagon off about the potential threat got their wires crossed."
"So we're off the hook, then?"
"More or less." Theo sat up as the waitress brought their waters and left the menus at the table.
Michael snatched up a menu, and Theo sipped his drink, not even looking at the menu beside him. "So, what's good here?"
"I wouldn't know, and neither of us are about to find out." Theo glanced at his watch. "It's eleven-thirty. My contact should be here in fifteen minutes. Don't get any ideas."
"Well, Doc, you bring me to a place like this and tell me not to order anything?" Michael sniffed the air. "Mmm, french fries. Doesn't that smell good?"
It did, unfortunately, but Theo wasn't about to admit it. "This was not my idea, and you know it. Why Brill wanted to meet here is beyond me."
"Who is this guy, anyway?"
"An old friend."
Michael's smirk faded. "Like Murphy?"
"No. He's trustworthy, although not all that trusting. Might be able to tell me what happened last night." Theo took another sip of his water. "That misunderstanding was too absurd to be true, so to speak."
Michael shrugged. "That's government work for you."
"I'm not so sure." Theo beckoned, and Michael grudgingly handed over the menu. "Now we'll just wait, have a few words with Brill, and leave."
"Fine." Michael slumped in his seat.
Fifteen minutes passed. Then twenty. Then thirty. Customers began to fill up the tables as the lunch hour peaked, and soon the smells of food intensified. Both men watched the trays of food pass by them hungrily. Greasy hamburgers and thick french fries, sandwiches laden with toppings, and pieces of pie and cake for desert. Just as he reminded himself of how much fat, cholesterol and chemicals each bit of food probably contained, Theo found himself thinking how good everything would taste.
Michael wasn't helping either. "Mmmm... buffalo wings..."
"No, Mr. Wiseman."
"Come on, Doc. Don't tell me you're not tempted by all this."
"All right, then, I won't." As the waitress wandered over to their booth again, Theo sighed. "More water. Sorry. I don't know where the third member of our party is."
She looked depressed, but went to refill their glasses without complaint. Theo made a mental note to leave her a good tip. "Considering the amount of chemicals some of these foods contain, I'm better off," he said once she was out of earshot.
"Right. And that wasn't drool I saw when you set eyes on that apple pie."
Theo almost reached for his chin, but caught himself and glared at Michael. "Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Fine, then. But when Brill decides to appear, I don't want to hear one word about this. Not one word."
Michael was grinning widely. "It's really getting to you, isn't it?"
"It is not-" As the waitress came back with their waters, Theo lowered his voice. "It is not getting to me. Now if you'll just-" He was cut off by a sudden loud rumbling as his stomach, not subject to its owner's denial, growled.
The waitress raised an eyebrow. "Sure you don't want to order?"
"I'm sure." Theo rubbed his temples. "Brill had better have a good excuse."
"All right, Mr. Wiseman, we can finish up early today," Theo said cheerfully.
Michael eyed him suspiciously as he finished the last repetition and let the weights fall back with a clank. "Why the hurry, Doc?"
"It's almost five o' clock. I need to get going soon to make it to my sister's on time."
"And you just can't wait to get out of here and have some real food."
"Actually, I'm in no great hurry. My cousin David is coming, and his wife will be joining us as well. Five minutes with that woman is enough to curb any man's appetite."
Michael rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Doc! The only reason you're looking so smug is because you can't wait to get some real food. Admit it."
"Mr. Wiseman, the bet is over. Did I cheat at all?"
"No, but you wanted to. That was the point."
Theo did not reply. "Your dinner is in the kitchen. Take this extra time to savor it."
Michael's reply was muffled by the towel, but Theo could have sworn it sounded like "heartless bastard."
"Good night, Mr. Wiseman," Theo said as he walked past the pool and down the stairs to the front door.
Grandma Pearl's cooking had never tasted so good.
Theo had to force himself to eat slowly and not inhale his dinner, knowing full well that he would get harassed by Evelyn endlessly for it. His sister had called him the "Bottomless Pit" when they were children, and he wasn't going to let her start up again. But holding back wasn't easy; the ham was cooked perfectly, the mashed potatoes were thick and buttery, the bread was warm and fresh, and everything tasted wonderful. He'd almost forgotten how good Grandma Pearl's cooking was. Theo was enjoying the food so much that he barely noticed when his cousin and his wife left early - not that he was complaining.
Even though Theo took his time eating, his appetite did not go unnoticed. "That's your third helping, Theo," Grandma Pearl said approvingly as he snagged another slice of ham and some mashed potatoes. "You been starving yourself all week?"
It took a lot of restraint and a mouthful of mashed potatoes to keep from laughing. "I just missed your honey ham, Grandma."
"The Bottomless Pit returns," Evelyn joked.
Theo pointed at his nephew, who was shoveling down his dinner and oblivious to the conversation. "I know. I'm sitting next to him."
Everyone laughed, and the subject of their conversation blinked, looking up. "What?"
That only prompted more laughter. "You even taste any of that, Pete?" Theo's niece asked her brother. "Sucking it down like a big old Hoover."
"Maxine," Evelyn warned her daughter.
"Hey," Pete interrupted, once his mouth was no longer full. "It's too good to eat slow."
"No, no. You've got to savor it," Theo's brother-in-law pointed out. "Got to make something so good last as long as you can."
Theo raised his glass. "I'll drink to that."
"You boys can have all you want," Grandma Pearl told the two men. "Just don't choke on it," she added, looking at Pete pointedly.
"Human vacuum cleaner," Maxine muttered.
"Shut up, Max."
Dinner was cleared fairly quickly to make room for the final masterpiece: Grandma Pearl's homemade cherry pie, still warm from the oven. Theo all but drooled at the sight of it, and made a point to eat slowly, making the most out of every bite. Even so, his piece was gone all too soon.
Full and comfortable, Theo set his fork down, politely refusing the coffee Evelyn was passing out. Maxine and Pete had taken their bickering upstairs, presumably to settle things with a video game. The remaining adults were slowly migrating to the living room in hopes of catching the tail end of the Knicks game. Theo remained where he was, promising he'd join them in a minute or two. He studied the uneaten portion of pie thoughtfully, his own words coming back to haunt him.
"Your dinner is in the kitchen. Take this extra time to savor it."
But he knew firsthand there wasn't much to savor in Michael's meal. Not in comparison to this feast.
He had gone the entire duration of the bet without cheating, that was true. In the end, however, that hadn't been the point. To say that he had survived the past four days without temptation would be a blatant lie. And now, in the aftermath of this feast, the blandness of the diet he'd imposed upon Michael Wiseman was even more obvious.
Perhaps he could go on pretending, but he had more self-respect than that. And he had too much pride to simply go and apologize. A simple apology just wouldn't work for this.
If he was going to admit defeat, he would do so with style.
Special Agent #1 was surprised to hear a rap on the driver's side door of the surveillance van. "Dr. Morris? What are you doing here?"
"Forgot something. Do me a favor and shut off the surveillance cameras?"
The bald agent blinked. "What? Why?"
"Just do it. I'll be right back."
Dinner had been unsatisfying, to say the least.
Michael sighed as he shut off the water and grabbed a towel, grateful for the fact that there were no cameras in the bathroom. The Doc had that much decency, at least. But that was about it.
What had he been expecting? That Dr. Theodore Morris would see the error of his ways and take him out to McDonald's? Well, no. Had the Doc gone that far, Michael would have immediately started looking for evidence of Pod People. He knew the Doc too well to expect that sort of turnaround.
At least, he thought he knew the Doc. He thought the tall scientist, for all his growling and threats, would have some sympathy. He thought the Doc had some kind of decency.
Apparently, he was wrong.
He pulled on the clean shirt and boxers folded by the sink and padded out into the bedroom, still drying his hair with a towel. The towel blocked most of his view, but Michael still caught a glimpse of movement by the pool.
Michael pulled the towel away and looked around, surprised. There was no sign of anyone or anything new. But he was sure he'd seen someone. He tentatively came down the stairs, walking quietly past the pool. "Q-Ball? Doc?"
Silence was the only answer. Michael shook his head and turned to go, but stopped as his gaze fell on the small table outside the gym. The plastic container hadn't been there a few minutes ago. Curious, Michael gingerly reached over and pried up the lid. When he saw what was inside, his jaw nearly hit the floor.
Sitting in the container was a thick slice of cherry pie and a plastic fork. Michael stared at it for a moment, then glanced up at the ceiling, addressing the hidden cameras. "This is a trick, right?"
No answer. Michael turned back to the pie, and then suddenly noticed a small piece of paper sticking out from beneath the container. Curious, Michael lifted the container and unfolded the note that was hidden beneath it.
Mr. Wiseman -
Not one word of this to anyone. Or you will come to miss your morning swill.
We'll talk about this tomorrow.
- Dr. Morris
Michael stared at the note in disbelief, then stared at the pie. Was this for real?
His hesitation lasted about half a second before he grabbed the fork and took a bite.
Oh, it was definitely for real.
Theo closed the door of the townhouse behind him quietly, pausing outside the door for a moment. He wasn't entirely certain he'd done the right thing, but - a bet was a bet, and he had to live up to his end of it. Perhaps tomorrow morning, they could come up with some sort of compromise. Maybe. If Michael appreciated the gesture half as much as Theo appreciated Grandma Pearl's cooking, then it was worth it.
He was about to return to the van when an excited whoop came from the other side of the door, audible even through the thick steel plating. Theo chuckled in spite of himself.
Maybe he could give Michael a couple more minutes before the cameras went back on.
After all, one needed time to savor something that good.