Seated in a booth opposite a lovely red headed woman, his back to the wall and a club sandwich staring him in the face, Don Hockney had the uncomfortable feeling he was being scrutinized from across the room.
With undeniable certainty, Hockney knew he was under the steady, fixed gaze of someone other than the woman with him at the table. He had no idea how he knew, but with the passing minutes between ordering his meal and its arrival, he had become aware of the intense interest someone was paying him. What had he done to attract this much attention, he wondered.
The hubbub of the bustling lunch time crowd jamming the restaurant rose a notch and promised to drown out all conversation, yet he made the attempt. “Ever have the feeling you’re being watched?” he asked and took a bite of his lunch.
Hockney marveled at how the unconscious mind works. He could not determine precisely what had given away his observer. Perhaps he had caught covert glances out of the corner of his eye one too many times and they finally registered, surfacing as a prickling along his neck, a tension that could no longer be ignored, converting themselves into the conviction that he was the focus of extreme attention.
Then again, he thought as he swallowed and licked his lips, he could be quite wrong. It may just be his imagination, and no one was really focusing attention on his noontime behavior. He took another bite.
“No. Not really. I’m not particularly paranoid,” the redheaded woman said. When her companion expanded his question no further, she added, “I cannot believe the deadline is so soon,” continuing the conversation which had brought them together over lunch in the first place. “Did they move it up or something when I wasn’t looking?” The question was rhetorical; he let it lie unanswered.
Stella daintily twirled a mouthful of pasta — spoon in one hand, fork in the other — as she prepared it for manageable consumption. She was too engrossed in the task to notice anything as subtle as a stranger’s stare, so Hockney contemplated ways he might catch the viewer off guard. At the same time he tried to maintain a semblance of listening and paying attention to her. He surreptitiously patted his shirt pocket and could hear her better.
She swept on: “I’m telling you, Davis needs to have his critical path re-drawn, you ask me. We still have a dozen field surveys to collect, not to mention the stress tests that are in the oven, before we can write this up. What do you think, Don?”
Chewing prevented him from answering cogently. He mumbled a reply, nodded his head vigorously, as if he concurred. She failed to notice he actually said nothing. One edge of the triple-decked section of sandwich festooned with a red toothpick was on the verge of entering his mouth when he turned abruptly in his seat.
There! He was certain he saw a man, a tall fellow seated at the end of the counter wearing a yellow tie, quickly avert his eyes.
“You nervous or something?” Stella asked after he adjusted himself toward her again. It was an easy-going question only a long time friend would ask.
His smile was placatory as he removed the toothpick and consumed the rest of the portion without any of it falling onto his plate. He remained certain he was under surveillance.
“Love this fettuccine,” she said and returned his smile with equal innocence.
The noise surrounding them rose to an even higher din as newcomers took seats emptied by patrons who pushed their way toward the cash register. Nonchalantly, almost absent minded, Hockney made another movement with his right hand that looked as if he were tapping his chest. The room immediately quieted by half, but apparently Stella did not notice. She did, however, observe his gesture.
“You are such a nerd,” she said with a little laugh as she worked at cleaning the remaining cream sauce from her plate with a piece of sourdough bread. He took no offense since the comment was true. The plastic pen holder in his shirt pocket was his badge of honor.
The meal was over in another five minutes. Hockney paid with the company credit card, looked up as he signed his name, searched faces for any hooded expressions which might betray someone’s interest in him. The tall man he picked out before was gone. A woman had taken the vacant seat and Hockney convinced himself he was, indeed, just being paranoid.
Hockney and Stella returned to the industrial building that housed their laboratory. During the course of his walk back to work, Hockney’s thoughts returned to the experiment at hand and he completely forgot his suspicions over lunch.
* * *
Handel’s “Water Music” is almost perfect music to work by, Hockney thought as he picked up a chart on his desk. Lunch had been over for hours. He had changed into his lab coat and discarded his shoes in favor of the protective rubber galoshes that always reminded him of the rain boots he wore as a child.
Hockney particularly liked Handel’s lively French horn section which, by design, cascaded over the listener, propelling rather than impeding one’s thoughts. The background music filled the room and came from a classical radio station of Hockney’s choosing.
Stella wore her hair tied back while at work. She stood beside Hockney in her own lab coat and peered over his shoulder. She was not quite as tall as his shirt collar. They were two hours into overtime and she felt as if she had worked straight through since morning.
Hoping he would get the hint, she held her wrist out, glanced at him, then back to the watch. He did not notice. She tried once more to suggest the time by holding her watch out for fully fifteen seconds. It was time to go. Home.