It all started innocently enough with a charity auction.
It ended this past Sunday when I was kidnapped by an evil pharmaceutical company, rescued by two women who then were poisoned by the pharmaceutical company’s CEO, and finally tagged along as the women were saved at the last minute with an experimental antidote.
But back to how this adventure all began . . .
To raise funds for Team Challenge (a fundraising program from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, or CCFA) back in May, I auctioned off a dinner date with myself. The result of that auction was that two women — Karen and Michelle — bid together in literally the final seconds to win the dinner date.1 I was so surprised by the double bid that I wanted to do something out-of-the-ordinary for dinner for Karen and Michelle.
That was when I decided to create “The Double Date” adventure/experience for them.
For several years, I’ve wanted to write and produce a variation on an Alternate Reality Game (ARG)2 that was focused on a very specific audience of just one or two people. Karen’s and Michelle’s auction bid offered just the excuse for me to create such a custom experience for them . . . and better yet, they would be unaware that they were the recipients of such an experience until they were already immersed in it.
Since Michelle lives in Denver, we all had agreed at the end of the charity auction to schedule our dinner date for Sunday, September 4 when Michelle would next be in Milwaukee. That left me a little over three months to plan and implement “The Double Date” experience. Since the auction had benefitted Crohn’s disease research, I decided to center “The Double Date” around a fictional Milwaukee pharmaceutical company that was developing an unorthodox cure for Crohn’s.
On July 27, Karen and Michelle received via snail mail the complementary halves of a printed QR code . . . and nothing more. To their credit, they almost immediately figured out that each of them had half and began emailing photos and scans of their respective parts to each other, leading to various cut-n-paste attempts. In less than a day, they had assembled a working version of the QR code and reached a web page that appeared to provide basic details for the September 4 dinner date: times, what to wear, etc.
In the weeks that followed, the two women continued to receive a series of other mysterious letters and packages: ID cards and a matched set of decoder rings from the NCIS Junior Agent Fan Club,3 mock Tiffany’s boxes and more. Then on August 19 while Karen was visiting Michelle in Denver, they received a jointly addressed card from Lazar Pharmaceuticals congratulating them on their participation in the Warrior Dash. The card directed them to the LazarPharma.com website where they began to read chunks of the backstory that would become relevant on September 4.
In the intervening weeks between August 19 and the beginning of September, Michelle and Karen learned from the Lazar website about recurring disappearances of individuals with Crohn’s disease who were participating in Lazar Pharamceuticals’ pilot studies. They also were introduced to the character of Kate Ross, the Chief Marketing Officer at Lazar, who (as they later discovered) would be initiating much of the action on September 4. Under the guise of “marketing magic numbers,” Kate began posting coded messages on the Lazar website, and Karen and Michelle were able to decode those messages using the decoder rings they had received in the mail. The messages hinted that something was wrong at Lazar and that Kate Ross was concerned that CEO George Lazar was conducting secret illegal (and potentially unethical) activities.
During the week prior to September 4, I began to make offhanded references (in text messages and online locations that Karen and Michelle were likely to see) to having been selected to participate in a pilot study at Lazar Pharmaceuticals. The implication (assuming Karen and Michelle made the connection) was that I might be in potential danger, given that other study participants had been disappearing.
The first major deviation from my story plan occurred on the evening of September 2 when Michelle arrived in Milwaukee. A messenger sent to the airport to deliver a personal note from Kate Ross to Michelle was unable to catch Michelle as she left the terminal. So a second messenger was dispatched the next morning to deliver an updated version of Kate’s note to the relative’s home where Michelle was staying. The note contained a key and set the tone for the remainder of the weekend:
Dear Ms. H______,
I am the former Chief Marketing Officer at Lazar Pharmaceuticals. (I was fired this past Wednesday after I discovered that Lazar Pharma – and founder George Lazar – are involved in illegal, highly unethical activities.)
I attempted to catch you last evening at the Milwaukee airport when you arrived, but unfortunately didn’t see you before you left the terminal. The reason I am contacting you is because I understand that you and Ms. Karen H______ are acquaintances of Kevin A. Barnes. (I discovered this through information that Lazar Pharma has been secretly collecting about Kevin.)
Two innocent people have already mysteriously disappeared, and I am very concerned that Kevin could be the next victim of whatever George Lazar and Lazar Pharma are up to. Finally, I’ve attached a duplicate of a key that I found in Lazar Pharmaceutical’s secret file on Kevin. I have no idea what this key is for, but believe it to be extremely important. Please carry this key with you at all times this weekend – it may turn out to be a matter of life and death!
Stay safe, and I’m asking you and Karen to please try to keep Kevin safe as well.
On the evening of September 4, just minutes prior to when I was supposed to pick up Karen and Michelle for dinner,4 they both received the same text message from an unfamiliar phone number:
Hi — This is Kate Ross (formerly of Lazar Pharma). Kevin has been delayed, but I've sent my chauffeur to pick both of you up and take you to Kevin. The car is waiting outside now.
When Karen and Michelle stepped outside, they discovered a waiting limo. Inside the limo were personal notes addressed to each of them, as well as a bottle of champagne. The notes continued the ominous communications from Kate Ross:
Dear Ms. H______,
Despite my best efforts, it appears that George Lazar kidnapped your friend Kevin earlier today. I believe that Kevin is now the third person that Lazar has kidnapped, and unfortunately the first two are already dead.
It is my belief (based on the mounting evidence I have seen in the last 24 hours) that Lazar is stealing the unique DNA from each person he has kidnapped, using a process that is extremely painful and ultimately fatal.
There is a slim chance that Kevin may still be alive. Lazar maintains an “unofficial” lab on Milwaukee’s East Side. Given how closely law enforcement has been watching George Lazar recently, it’s likely Lazar is using that lab to extract all of Kevin’s DNA. I’ve instructed the limo driver to take you to that address in the hope that you can put an end to Lazar’s fiendish plan (and hopefully save your friend).
Until you arrive, there isn’t anything you can do, so you and Karen may as well enjoy the Anna De Codorniu you’ll find in the limo. Kevin originally had hoped to share that with you during your dinner date this evening – I’m sure he’d want you both to still enjoy it.
Godspeed and good luck!
Minutes after the limo picked them up, I saw Karen tweet:
We're on an elaborate date. Or is it a game?
The limo took Karen and Michelle to a rehabbed warehouse on Milwaukee’s East Side where they discovered signs for “Lazar Pharmaceuticals.” Once they went inside and began to explore, they found me chained to a chair in an unoccupied office area. I quickly warned them that George Lazar’s thugs would be back any minute and begged them to free me before “they get back to yank out my DNA.”
Michelle realized the key she had received in Kate’s original note was the key to the padlock holding me in chains.5 After releasing me from the chains, Karen and Michelle discovered another note from Kate Ross, revealing that the dangers of the evening had increased substantially:
Mss. H______ and H______,
I’m terribly sorry, but I have failed … and it may have cost both of you your lives.
After I deposited my previous letters to you in the limousine, one of George Lazar’s henchmen snuck in and poisoned the bottle of Anna De Codorniu champagne. I pray that for some reason you didn’t drink any, but if you did, you have only about 90 minutes left to live.
There may be one slim chance. One of Lazar Pharmaceutical’s former star research scientists — Bruce Sheridan — was working on developing an antidote to that particular poison. The last I had heard, Bruce had created (and hidden) several doses of the possible antidote. Because George Lazar’s henchmen may find this note before you do, however, I can’t directly tell you where the antidote is hidden. (If those henchmen found this note first, and I revealed the location of the antidote, they would track it down and destroy the only thing that can save you.) So …
9,17 / 22,17 / 13,7,24,11,16,’21 / 15,3,11,14,4,17,0 / 8,17,20 / 22,10,7 / 14,17,5,3,22,11,17,16 / 17,8 / 22,10,7 / 3,16,22,11,6,17,22,7 !
Good luck and I hope you both survive the evening!
Karen and Michelle got one of their decoder rings from the limo and quickly deciphered the location of the next clue (in a residential area on Milwaukee’s East Side). A quick dash in the limo led us to the next location where we discovered what appeared to be Kate Ross’ final note:
Karen, Michelle and Kevin,
Thank goodness you’ve solved my code, found this note and all of you are (hopefully) still alive!
Former Lazar research scientist Bruce Sheridan has hidden several doses of a possible antidote to the poison you ingested in the champagne. The antidote is located somewhere in his millionaire’s condo in Point On The River.
Bruce currently is attending a conference in Vienna, but I’ve called Point On The River and alerted them that you are on your way and will need immediate, unlimited access to his condo. Point On The River is located at ____ and Bruce’s condo is #____. I only hope you can get there and find the antidote in time (and that the antidote actually works).
This may be the last time you hear from me. May you escape the evil clutches of George Lazar and live to see tomorrow’s dawn!
And once again we were off in the limo, this time to one of Milwaukee’s coolest condo buildings. Karen and Michelle had (of course) drunk the champagne while riding in the limo and we talked touch-in-cheek about how long they had left to live.
Once we arrived at Point On The River, we made our way upstairs to Bruce Sheridan’s condo and discovered a full dinner waiting for us (courtesy of Chef Pam from Plum Delicious Dining).
While Chef Pam put the final touches on dinner, Karen, Michelle and I set out in search of the antidote. We located it in the refrigerator6 and all three of us took a generous swig. We declared ourselves “winners” of “The Double Date” and sat down to an amazing dinner.
The evening ended with Karen and Michelle wined and dined to their hearts’ content, and having memories of a charity auction prize they likely will never forget.
In closing, I would like to thank everyone who helped me create and deliver this unique experience to Karen and Michelle, the winning bidders in the Team Challenge charity auction: Mandel Group for use of the condo, Chef Pam for preparation of an amazing meal, Chaffee Limo for transportation services, and Ted, Ben, Nadia, Jenny and all the others who played key roles throughout. And of course thank you to Karen and Michelle, who are ongoing supporters of Team Challenge.
This article originally was published on KevinABarnes.com.
- Michelle H. and Karen H. submitted simultaneous bids in the last 15 seconds of the auction. Each of their individual bids was higher than the previous leading bid, so when taken together they more than doubled that previous high bid. The “Message” line in both Karen’s and Michelle’s bids indicated they were to be taken out together as a “Double Date.” [↩]
- An Alternate Reality Game (ARG) is an interactive narrative — or game — that takes place in the real world and often mixes real locations with fictional characters and events in order to tell a story that is driven by the players interactions. [↩]
- Karen is a major NCIS fangirl. [↩]
- We had previously agreed that I would pick them both up at Karen’s home. [↩]
- This is when I discovered the risks of playing such a game with two women possessing highly developed senses of humor. While I sat there chained to the chair, begging to be released before I was killed, Karen and Michelle discussed in mock seriousness with each other whether they should release me, or first race ahead to find subsequent clues and (hopefully) dinner. [↩]
- Of course it was in the refrigerator — where else would a research scientist store a perishable mixture? [↩]