“Just don’t shoot me in the head,” I told the agent.
She pulled her gun away from my forehead, about an inch away. The right side of her mouth was smirking beyond the gun’s thick black handle.
I’d been a parapsychologist researcher at the Institute of Noetic Sciences for ten years. It’s an exciting place that was co-founded by the late astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, and now puts out some of the world’s best peer-reviewed “paranormal” science, over a thousand papers and counting. “Paranormal” will become normal, it’s only a matter of time.
My niche is the prospective study of near-death experiences. When someone is dying of natural causes and wants to become part of scientific history, we bring a level of objectivity that only prospective studies can capture. The weirder your findings, the more you need to document them. We’ve reported some incredibly strange things.
I looked into the cylinder of darkness that extended up the gun barrel and realized for the first time that I’m not afraid of death the way I was ten years ago. By now I’d seen enough to know that this life isn’t the end of consciousness.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to die and have to stop my research, or worse yet, die knowing that Brodsky would take over my work. The little troll is about as objective and rational as a two-year-old.
Despite having him breathing down my neck, I’ve been making observations that even the cult of reductive physicalists will be forced to accept someday. In light of my work and a hand full of others at the Institute, science will soon have to do a 180 and put intelligent consciousness back where it belongs, at the center of nature, not in the peripheral, illusory realm of an epiphenomenon.
I had another reason, though, for not wanting this agent to shoot me in the head. I wasn’t sure, but there seemed to be a chance that if my central nervous system was splattered across the mirrors behind me, I might miss out on my own near-death experience. My research subjects always tell me that their NDE was the most euphoric, meaningful and transformative event of their lives. I wanted to taste that richness myself, even if I didn’t live to document it for science.
“I’ve never heard that one before,” the agent said. “Think about it, though. Being shot in the head is probably the least painful way to go. Through the frontal lobes and down through the brainstem?” She angled her pistol to indicate the trajectory of her first bullet.
“Pain doesn’t concern me,” I said, realizing my words were a lie only after I’d said them.
“You’re a masochist?”
“I suppose so. That’s a good explanation.” I looked down.
She put the gun back to my forehead. “You’ve got me curious.”
When parents attach curiosity to dead cats in an effort to protect their wandering toddlers, it’s for good reason. Curiosity is the Super Glue of the mind. I now knew that this agent wouldn’t shoot me until I’d explained myself, so I asked if I could sit on the floor, and without waiting for consent, I took the liberty of squatting and then sitting on the cold, immaculate tile floor in front of her. Although she’d confronted me alone in a men’s bathroom, this particular one sparkled and had a floor that looked cleaner than the dinner plates downstairs in the establishment’s five-star restaurant.
I pulled my fake cigarette out of a coat pocket, put it in my lips and drew in a mouthful of staleness, inhaled and blew a nearly invisible puff of water vapor out the side of my mouth, politely away from her. I’ve never smoked real cigarettes, but this electronic device is often invaluable during interviews with NDE subjects. It seems to relax the atmosphere in the lab, showing the nervous hanger-on that I’m not judgmental or particularly binary. Whatever the mechanism, I’ve learned that if you want an NDE subject to give you the full details of a near-death experience without the editing and polish that we tend to see on the internet, you need to let these people see you for who and what you are, weaknesses and strengths alike. And you can’t just tell them or assure them that you’re OK, you need to show them that the person listening to them considers their concerns of sanity to be utterly irrelevant.
In the tradition of Scheherazade and the thousand tales that kept her alive, I decided to forgo the buildup I had planned, and instead opened with Mr. Santiago’s records.
“A couple of months ago, Jesus Santiago, a 72-year-old Hispanic male, came to me with less than three months to live. It was stage IV lung cancer, small cell, the worst. He’d lost his right lung. The hilar and mediastinal nodes were positive, bilateral adrenal mets, and we’d found a small brain metastasis in his cerebellum on our control MRI. Chemo hadn’t touched his disease, so he looked like a skeleton sitting there talking in drooping skin.”
The agent gave me a disgusted look.
“All the greats who walk into my lab are like him. Just wanting to contribute something to science before they pass on.”
“So you sucked him in with a newspaper ad?”
“It was a Facebook ad, actually. They’re remarkably selective, despite this recent privacy thing.”
She sat down on the floor across from me, her head framed in one the Beverly Wilshire’s lavish urinals, and her gun arm dangling across her right knee with the pistol pointing casually at my testes.
Have you ever closed your eyes and had someone dangle a heavy knife over the bridge of your nose? You can literally feel it. This was much worse than that, but the same sort of thing.
She thrust her chin out, which meant, keep talking.
“We put Mr. Santiago in as much gentle cryo as he could tolerate and started draining his blood into a sterile plastic receptacle. You wouldn’t believe how stingy the Red Cross is with those things. I had to petition the manufacturer… But anyway, that’s essentially how we induce a near-death experience… through neuronal hypoxia, or perhaps it’s a shift from glucose to ketone bodies, we can’t rule that out yet.”
She pursed her lips in a deliberately bored expression.
“It usually works the first time,” I went on. “Every detail of the procedure is timed and controlled to make things reproducible in any lab around the world, should another researcher ever develop giant gonads like the ones you’re targeting with your pistol there. I don’t suppose you could point that thing at my chest?”
She sat like a marble statue with black lipstick.
“Anyway, Mr. Santiago slipped into the twilight zone while we recorded his flattening brainwaves and watched images of blood flow vanish from his brain via real-time fMRI. Bless the geeks who invented that machine, it’s a miracle of technology, really.”
There was a thump on the bathroom door. I looked over hoping no one would walk in and rescue me before I was done with the story.
The agent didn’t so much as glance at the door.
“Make it fast,” she said. “Looks like we’re passionate lovers this time. I’ll do the talking.”
I abbreviated things a bit, but pointed out that when Mr. Santiago’s EEG went flat, his heart had stopped and there was no discernible evidence of blood flow or glucose uptake in his brain, we cooled him further and set the timer to let us know when to bring him back. Four minutes is my routine to avoid permanent brain damage.
A half-hour later, Jesus was fully with us again, eyes wide, telling us of his dead relatives, the brightness of the scenery, the loving euphoria he’d felt in that realm, and an odd message he’d been sent back to this life to tell me.
The agent rolled her eyes.
I put on my game face and said that Mr. Santiago had gone on about how the work I was doing could transform the world if it ever penetrated the minds of the religious zealots in charge of science. He said that universal and personal consciousness need to be brought into the fold of real things worth studying. In this way, and in no other, he said, would humanity someday learn to overcome fear, aggression, and hatred, eventually to replace these destructive things with normal compassion, affection, and some degree of genuine love. He looked iffy on the love projection.
“How sweet,” the agent said, her eyes still stone.
Then I told her that the NDE client had warned me that there would be three attempts on my life by the CIA. He was apologetic as he described all three in detail and told me that the third one would come from a woman who went by the name, Angie.
“I assume that’s you?” I asked.
She didn’t respond.
“He told me to tell you that a being whom he referred to as God said that everyone who’s ever lived must experience life in a brain like yours, a brain without the capacity for empathy. He said to tell you that you won’t be trapped in this condition forever, so don’t lose hope.”
“You have inside connections,” the agent said. “It’s funny that the CIA would want to kill you.”
“I have no connections. Mr. Santiago told me to let you know that your mother is sorry for burning your fingers… when she caught you with matches? You were five, staying overnight in the Stardust Motel. He said you’d pretend not to remember. Is that what you’re doing?”
The agent drew in a breath and held it.
“Your mother was like you,” I told her, “stuck in a brain with little capacity for empathy or compassion.”
“I’ve never told anyone about the matches,” the agent said with a fresh hint of perplexity in her flawless young face.
“He also said you have a small mass the size of a garden pea in your left breast. Your nodes are still negative so you’ll need to have it removed as soon as possible. It’s malignant, high-grade with a high mitotic rate. My advice would be to have it removed at a large center where the surgeons and pathologists know how to handle margins properly. Many places don’t.”
She transferred the gun to her left hand, put her gun hand up her blouse and examined her right breast.
“I don’t feel anything,” she said.
“It’s on the left,” I reminded her.
Her hand moved to the other breast and in less than a second her eyes became fearful.
“It’s still pretty small,” I said. “Completely resectable for a cure, I was told.”
Tears suddenly fell from the outer corners of her eyes. She put her gun away, reached over and loosened my necktie, untucked my shirt and kissed my lips, deliberately smearing some of her black lipstick on my chin with her fingers after the kiss.
The bathroom door clicked open a moment later, and a red-haired man with keys on a ring and a Hotel logo on his lapel stepped in and looked at us with humble surprise.
The agent looked up at him and must have changed her ruse to take advantage of her tears. “We just found out that our little boy has a brain tumor. He’s only five years old!” She burst into heaving sobs, only to regain composure in a moment and say to the man, “I’m sorry. This was the only place I could find to break the news to my husband in private.” She leaned forward, put her arms around me and buried her face against me. Her crying sounded genuine.
I closed my eyes and kept my mouth shut the way she’d told me.
The man fumbled with his keys, apologized for the intrusion and said he’d leave the out-of-order sign up for as long as we needed it. He said he totally understood and would pray for our son. Then he closed the door and locked it.
“Thank you, sir,” the agent sputtered to the locked door.
I kept my eyes shut as we held each other for what seemed several minutes. Then she stopped crying and looked at me again, staring into my eyes at close range. I wasn’t sure if she might kiss me again or pull her gun out and shoot me.
“I don’t know how any of this is possible,” she said. “I’m trained and talented at spotting lies. You’re telling the truth if I’m any judge at all.” She sat up and put her right hand over her left breast on the outside of her blouse this time. “And here’s the physical evidence.”
Her face looked pale now.
“On the practical side,” I said, trying to sound cheerful, “you’ll always know exactly where to find me if you need to shoot me.” I intended to chuckle but couldn’t. “But please,” and this part I said soberly, “whatever you do, don’t shoot me in the head.” I looked around at the urinals, over at a triad of privately enclosed stalls with marble walls to the ceiling, and managed a chuckle.
“Shoot you?” she said. “God, no. I’m going to protect you, Doctor Salinger. For the rest of your life and probably mine.”
That makes three agents protecting me now. Two men and one unusually attractive woman. Physically attractive, at least. Perhaps my research would survive the CIA’s strange opposition to it.
We helped each other up off the floor and hugged, this time without her tears. When I broke the hug, she asked, “Did Mr. Santiago’s God mean that my brain could change in this lifetime?”
I looked at the floor.
“Or do I have to wait for the next?”
Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD