Friday, January 24, 2014

Crème Brûlée by O D Hegre

O D Hegre's character visits his uncle Bob, whose Alzheimer's has been cured by a revolutionary new neurotechnology, and bumps into a dangerous woman he once arrested.

You've seen 'um. Those faces you just know you'll never forget - especially on women. Yeah, especially on a woman sporting those beautiful blue eyes like Grace Kelly or Cameron Diaz with that aquiline nose. I think that's what they call it - long and slender and hooked at the end like some Maria Theresa or somebody. Yeah that was a face I would never forget; I don't care how old she got.

Of course, I'm no Helen of Troy myself. Old Blue-Eyes would probably remember me as well... the cop with a face that could sink a thousand ships.

I was on the L.A. police force for thirty-five years. Grew up in New Jersey, near Montclair - yeah, that's right, The Sopranos. But when I was ten my Dad died and my mother had no choice; she took me and my brother and moved out to California to live with her sister's family. Dad thought life insurance was for patsies. He was like me - big and strong... figured he'd live forever. I ain't stupid like that. I was a cop for Christ's sake. I worked the beat for years in Compton and Skid Row till I made detective. Even then, every day could be your last. No. My boys weren't going to grow up like I did.

I'm retired now. Got a decent pension. Wife passed a few years ago but the kids still come around when they can. Both of them are electricians like my old man. I made sure they each got life insurance. Amps is amps... volts is volts. Just ask my old man.

Anywho, I'm in this retirement facility today visiting my uncle, Bob. Old Bob is eighty-six. He was in the trades, like Pop, but managed to not kill himself so he could live long enough to get that Alzheimer's. Up until a few years ago he was fruity as a nut cake - didn't know me or any of his kids. Just sat in a chair all day, crapping his pants.

Boy how things changed. Bob got one of those implants made by the ZENDEX Corporation. Now he dresses himself every morning, brushes his teeth, wipes his own butt and remembers everybody... well sort of. With the programming on the implant chip, old Uncle Bob thinks he's Robert Patterson, a retired contractor from San Joaquin - which ain't too far from the truth. The software lets him brag about his son, Brett, a successful attorney back in Minneapolis and his daughter, Lisa, an orthodontist over in Laguna Hills. Old Bob goes on and on everyday about how he was responsible for the whole expansion of central California back in the 60s. There is a bit of truth to all this. The engineers, if you request it, will try to program the chip to fit, as best they can, the past life history of the patient. Actually Bob did build quite a few homes but they were in upstate New York and he does have - did have - a couple kids. The guys at ZENDEX jiggered that a bit, as well. His boy, Albert, OD'd last year on a speedball (like Belushi) and his daughter was in the medical field but now - a retired respiratory therapist.

But enough about Bob. It's Blue-Eyes that really has me going this morning. I saw her in the rec room earlier. I know it's her. Like I said, I was a cop and good at faces. The hair is silver and the face a little pasty but those eyes and that beak? They're all Lucinda Stone. No doubt about it.

Twenty-eight years ago, I was working homicide in LA. Our team had just solved a serial killings case that had been going on for about three years. Docs were dropping like flies, maybe one every three months or so. Turned out it was a faculty member at UC Irvine. Professor Lucinda Stone held a grudge and to tell you the truth, I could see her beef. An obstetrician messed up the delivery of her third child - the poor kid, he'll be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life, just bobbing his head around. A pediatrician inoculated her oldest daughter with the wrong vaccine - she died of acute meningitis two weeks late. And the middle child? Well the anesthesiologist mixed up the gas lines during an appendectomy. The kid is alive but can only count to three. Yah. No doubt. Old Blue-Eyes had a beef with the medical profession.

Lucinda was in her late thirties back then. I testified at the trial since I was the one that nabbed her. I Mirandized her but she waived her rights - couldn't wait to tell me all about it. She was particularly proud of how long she kept us on the ropes. She was a neuroscientist - you know one of those geeks who tries to unravel the mysteries of the brain, as she put it. Anyway, the Prof had this neurotoxin she used in her research. She got herself a job at one of the exclusive restaurants in downtown LA - an uppity place where lots of classy folks go - like doctors. A little in their crème brûlée and... Very toxic and hard to trace. Aconitine - derived from some exotic plant in the Himalayas. There wasn't a tear in those blue eyes when she spilled the beans to me and not when she sat in the witness chair, either. The confession was admissible but the jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. It was probably a good call - maybe the Alzheimer's was already on its way. Anyway she ended up in the mental facility at Patton State. Never thought she'd get out of there alive but... here she is and not looking too bad for her age.

Hang on. There's the Doc. Looks like lunch break. I've got to talk with the guy.

"Hey Doc! Hey Doc Nelson. Got a minute?"

"Hello Jim. Good to see you, my friend."

Nelson is tall and lanky and not much better looking than me. At least I comb my hair - what's left of it. This guy is a permanent 'bed head'.

"Keeping the city safe, Officer?"

The Doc punches my shoulder.

"Your uncle is doing just great isn't he? Another success for everybody involved."

"Yeah. It's really amazing. Hey - can I talk to you?"

"Sure. Join me for lunch. We'll eat in the staff room - special treatment, if you know what I mean."

The Doc gives me another little rap on the shoulder. "Okay... sure." Yeah - but it's still hospital food, I think.



We're walking and the Doc is talking. I've had a few discussions with this guy before. He really likes to control the conversation. Well, he did invent this whole revolutionary technology - at least he says so - so I guess a brainiac like that's got a right to spout off. I'll get my chance later so I settle in for another high tech lecture.

"Yes, your uncle is doing great. Too bad he is not aware of the part he is playing in this great revolution in neuroscience."

"Well I'm just glad he's aware of something, Doc." I'm smiling because it is true.

"You know how this technology works - right Jim? I've given you the pamphlet. You have read it - yes?"

I'm trying to nod my head in the affirmative but it's hard for me to lie. I got started on it and then all the gobblygook just got too much for me. Hey I'm a retired cop, not a scientist. I like to golf but I don't need to know how the golf ball is made. I just trust that someone did a good job. I trust Doc Nelson. You got to trust the brainiacs... right?

"Okay Jim. It's like this. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is where the intellect lies... where our personalities reside. Alzheimer's and some other neurodegenerative diseases progressively destroy the neural connections in that part of the brain and with that damage we lose who we are. Make sense?"

I nod my head. I guess I've gotten over that 'not lying' issue.

"Our implant has the capacity to replace the damage with a program that gives the individual back a limited capability to process new information but with a very well defined set of memories through which the patient can again build a personality and a life for him or herself."

"It's truly amazing," I say without having understood half of what the guy just said.



We're at the table now and the waiter has arrived with the Doc's meal. I had a late breakfast so I just ask for a Kaiser role and some coffee.

The Doc really starts chowin' away.

Maybe I can ask about old Blue-Eyes now... but no. Even with food in his mouth, he can't stop talking.

"The technological advances in nerve cell regeneration and neural net programming over the last decade have been simply amazing, as you said."

Did I say that? Wow. I'm a hell of a lot smarter than I ever thought.

"In this device, the patient's own brain tissue is induced to grow into the biochip, integrating synaptic connections with the micro circuitry."

Wait a minute. I think I did understand a part of that. "Do you mean to say that the guy's brain cells hook up with the chip directly?" Images of a miniaturized version of my father running around in my uncle's head twisting wire nuts here and there have me almost laughing.

"Yes. The technology grew out of the space program back at the turn of the century."

My roll arrives but I am more interested in the Doc's ramblings. "And you can control the connections - like my dad wiring up a house?"

Doc Nelson stopped eating for a moment. "No Jim. That's giving us way too much credit. In Alzheimer's, not all the brain tissue is damaged. So there are viable neurons still present... literally billions of them with which our device can interact. It's all a matter of chance where the connections are made but what is critical is the software loaded onto the chip. It doesn't matter what neurons connect there, just that a certain number do, enough to stimulate the entire remaining frontal cortex. The programming on the chip is then able to form an integrated set of memories giving the patient his or her new personality."

Doc starts eating again as I try to take in what he has just said. It doesn't matter what neurons connect with the device? If my kids wired a house that way all hell would break loose.

"Truth is Jim, we really don't know where memories are stored... likely all over the brain. The frontal cortex, where we implant the device, is the relay station where new input is integrated with old." The Doc swallows hard. "I'll be honest with you Jim. We really know very little about how the brain works. We have absolutely no idea about the mechanism of consciousness itself. Despite our success, we are still in the 'just poking around and seeing what happens' phase of all this." Doc raises his hand to attract the waiter's attention.

Poking around in people's brains - even if they are as old as dirt? Evidently Doc could see my concern.

"Don't be put off by our level of ignorance. I was just trying to be brutally honest. Around the world, we've done over three hundred thousand of these implants. The technology works. You know that for yourself."

I had to agree. "Yeah, I know. It's changed the entire industry of elder care in this country."

"True and what I haven't told you yet but what I think you have seen in your uncle is that in a portion of the patients, some aspects of their old personality seemed to return, integrated for the most part with the new personality. We do have the ability to do some specificity programming... individualization of memories to do a best fit based on information provided by the patient's relatives. So when we get a good - a really good sense of the old personality and program that in, it is more likely that some of 'old gramma' will return."

Yeah, I'm thinking. It did seem to work for old Uncle Bob. "But that could be a little dangerous, eh Doc? Letting a grandson tell you what he remembers about old granny; like how much she really loved him... above all the others, and how she always intended for him to have the cabin up at the lake or... well, you can see where I'm going, yes?"

I take a bite of the roll... stale; hospital food is hospital food.

"Yes Jim. And you can be assured that we never program those kinds of things into old gramma. Any specific aspects of the old personality that we do accept - like your uncle's contractor background - have to be verified by at least three relatives and whatever information we can glean from public and private records. Usually, the relatives aren't so interested in getting old grams back as they are getting old gramma off their backs, if you know what I mean."

The Doc was right on the mark. "I do indeed know what you mean, sir. All of us together - the members of Uncle Bob's extended family, me included - were dropping over a hundred and fifty big ones each year to care for what amounted to a head of cauliflower. Now after the implant he is living a life again - still institutionalized of course, but at about one fourth the cost - and apparently happy, self sufficient and quite willing to tell us stories about how he saved the economy of California."

"Yes indeed. I remember the decision you folks made. Give him one of our standard personalities - the Happy Hero - a bit modified to fit his career in construction."

Yeah, I think. We sure did modify his new life. None of the alcoholism and abusive behavior. Maybe his wife would actually like him, this time around... if she had lived long enough. "Well Doc we decided, with the opportunity, to kind of give him a second chance." As if he deserved it, I think.

"Yes. It all depends. Sometimes the new is best... sometimes the old. Take Ms. Stone over there." The Doc was pointing to the open kitchen serving area.

I look over and there she is, Lucinda Stone. "Well yeah Doc that's actually what I wanted to talk to you about." Christ, he'd kept yapping so long that I'd forgotten about old Blue-Eyes.

The Doc's dessert had arrived. The waiter looks over at me and I wave him off. Smiling, he refills my cup with hot coffee.

"Are you aware of her background, Doc?" I ask.

"To some extent." The Doc digs into his dessert. "She was transferred here about two months ago with full-blown Alzheimer's - worse off than your uncle when he arrived. The paperwork wasn't all that clear. She'd been moved a couple of times since her original incarceration and there'd been a fire."

"Let me fill you in Doc. Back in 1981, Lucinda Stone was tried for the murder of twelve physicians. The court found her not guilty by reason of insanity. My guess is that she has been institutionalized ever since."

The Doc swallows the last of his dessert and puts down his spoon. "Well she's seventy-two years old now and quite harmless. She got her implant just last week. The best records we had came from her niece who said that before Lucinda was put away, she was an academician with a hobby as a pastry chef. Like your uncle, we did a standard protocol for Ms. Stone: the 'Gastronomical Grandma', with a few modifications."

I can't believe what I am hearing. "You said sometimes - if you matched the new with the old - some of the earlier memories and personality return... like with my uncle."

"Yes?"

The waiter arrives asking the Doc if he wants a second dessert.

I can't help myself; I interrupt. "But in her previous life she poisoned a dozen people... physicians... in her revenge for their missteps."

The Doc is smiling at me. "Be assured Jim, if I had known what you have just told me I never would have consented to her niece's requests."

I watch as the Doc licks his spoon and then turns to the waiter. "Thank you, Ralph. I need to watch my weight. One will be quite enough." Then he looks back at me.

"There will always be errors in judgment when we are pushing science at this rate. But the chances of something going terribly wrong are slim. So slim that, for the benefit that this technology brings to the world, I think I can live with that."

I watch the waiter clear the spent dessert from the table. I don't ever eat in those fancy restaurants, you know, but I am a fan of the Food Channel. I recognize the ramekin and what little remains of Doc's crème brûlée. My heart is in my throat.

Something catches my eye and I look up. Lucinda Stone is waving at me. Evidently I'm not the only one with a good memory for faces. Then I look over at the Doc. His eyes are bulging from his face, his hands at his throat.

I look back at old Blue-Eyes and realize: she isn't waving hello... she's waving goodbye.

4 comments:

  1. thoroughly enjoyed this, writing style and the 'I didn´t see it coming' ending

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. Nicely done, great twist at the end, and, as with Michael, really enjoyed the writing style!

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  3. No foreshadowing and a swift ending--good writing. And pass me a ZENDEX.

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  4. Thanks for the kind words, folks.

    Orie

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