The last time I heard words like that from Regina, she was attempting to murder me in the shattered halls of a museum. Since she’s currently between me and the only exit from the tiny room we’re in, I think I can be forgiven for freezing up for a moment.
This time, though, Regina just shakes her head and says, “I can feel it trying to crawl back in. It’s different this time. I know it’s not true. You’re not like that. Not this stain, this blight.”
Regina sounds like she’s trying to convince herself, which is not entirely reassuring. I lead her out of the building and back toward the car, on the theory that maybe fresh air will help. It helps me, at least; the oppressive feeling of the building lifts somewhat once we’re outside, though it doesn’t fade entirely until we’re in the car and driving away.
After a few minutes of silence, Regina shakes her head again and takes a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh. “Wow, that was unpleasant.”
“Yeah, you’re telling me,” I say. I’m pretty sure I’ve got bruises on my bicep from where the security guard took hold of my arm. “What was going on in there?”
“Definitely something related to the nanos. Nothing else could create that feeling. I’d know it anywhere. Ugh, I feel greasy just remembering it.”
“Well, that’s sort of a good sign though, right? We went there to find out about the broomstick man, since we saw him with Mr. Tanger, and now we’ve found that the building is associated with the nanos. So we’re on the right track, maybe even more than we expected. He might have a base of operations in the building!”
Regina looks doubtful. “Maybe. Something doesn’t seem right about that, though.”
“Yeah, it’s not a perfect theory. I can’t see a successful businessman like Mr. Tanger handing over an office to someone who performs unethical human experimentation with dangerous technology as a hobby. Aside from being immoral, it doesn’t seem like a good risk.”
“He could have just rented him space, I suppose. Without knowing what he’s doing, I mean. It’s a big building. He can’t possibly know all of the tenants.”
“Sure, that makes sense! Ichabot is probably in one of the other offices, and using the proximity to get to Mr. Tanger! If he can –”
“Wait, Ichabot?” Regina interrupts.
“I can’t keep calling him ‘the broomstick man.’ It takes too long to say. And the first gangly, spindly guy I thought of was from Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane.” Regina is looking at me skeptically, but I press on. “But since he works with the nanomachines, ‘bod’ becomes ‘bot.’ Ichabot Crane. Ichabot Drone?”
“Okay, stop, stop!” laughs Regina. “This is getting worse as it goes.”
At home, I sous-chef while Regina makes dinner. I texted Brian earlier and invited him to a meeting of the minds, so he shows up while we’re in the kitchen.
“Whoa, hey, what is that?” he asks as Regina pulls a casserole dish out of the oven.
“Baked chicken breasts,” she says.
“No, the big hot square thing it was in. Is that an oven? I didn’t know Dan had any sort of food preparation devices in his house!”
I throw a dish towel at him. “Whatever. I cook breakfast all the time.”
“Dude, scrambling eggs is not cooking. It’s breaking something and then not cleaning it up, which is definitely more your skill set.”
“Hey, you don’t want to come over for pizza, I won’t invite you next time.”
“Whoa, be cool! I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Brian says, his hands up in mock surrender. “It’s just, like, I didn’t even know you owned salad tongs, you know?”
Honestly, this is also a surprise to me; I don’t know where Regina found them. But I’m not about to admit that right now.
Brian sees the plates on the table, and his eyebrows rise. Before he can say anything, I warn him, “Make one joke about how you didn’t know this table was for eating at, and I will uninvite you from this dinner.”
Brian grins. “Can I ask what the occasion is, at least?”
“I wanted to do something nice,” says Regina. “I just felt really gross after today, and this seemed like a good way to erase it.”
“Yeah? What’d you two find?”
“Dinner first, discussion of Ichabot second,” I say.
“Hey, is that broomstick guy? I like the name! Ooh, what about Ichabot Drone?” says Brian. I shoot Regina a triumphant look, and she rolls her eyes.
“You two are the absolute worst together. Sit down to eat, and you can congratulate each other on how hilarious you are after.”
“Mr. King,” I say, pulling out a chair for Brian and gesturing to the seat.
“Mr. Everton,” he responds, pulling out a chair on the other side for me.
Regina huffs, sits down in one of the remaining chairs and begins serving the food. “Any time you clowns want to join me, feel free.”
The dinner is excellent. Despite Brian’s mockery, I’m fully capable of cooking basic meals, but my idea of seasoning is to apply garlic and black pepper to disguise the burned bits. Regina, on the other hand, clearly understands things like proportions and cooking time much better than I do. Even the salad is better than I make, and that’s just cutting things up and putting them in a bowl.
“Regina, this is fantastic,” says Brian, and she smiles and tucks her hair behind her ear. I’m bad at subtext, but I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to recognize that particular motion. I’ve never been the third wheel at a dinner before! I feel like it’s a milestone of some sort.
We’re clearing the dishes after dinner when Brian says, “Okay, so: Ichabot.”
“Yeah! So check this out,” I say, and give him the quick rundown of the visit, starting with the cold shoulder on the phone and ending with the bum’s rush out. I show him my arm, which does in fact have bruises, and Regina fills him in on the similarity of feeling towards me, the nano-generated hatred.
“It pervades everything there,” I tell him, “like it’s in the framework of the building itself. We think maybe he’s got a lab in there.”
Regina nods, and Brian looks at both of us like we’re crazy. “What? Dude. It’s clearly Tanger.”
“No way!” Regina protests, and I add, “Mr. Tanger is a respected businessman! He wouldn’t be tied up in something like this.”
Brian starts ticking points off on his fingers. “One. Tanger’s secretary goes from normal to sub-zero the instant she hears your name. Two. Everyone in his waiting room hates you the instant they know who you are. Three. The people at your construction site — which Tanger just visited — are behaving the same way. This is all clearly Tanger. He’s spreading it somehow.”
“He’s a pillar of the community!” I say, and Regina nods vehemently.
Brian stares at us in frustration, and then his face displays slowly dawning realization. “Ah. Okay, so I have an idea. What did you know about Tanger yesterday?”
“He keeps me employed,” I say.
“He’s rebuilding the police station basically at cost,” says Regina.
“No value judgments, guys. Just what did you actually know about him?”
“I, ah — not much, I guess. He owns the company his dad started,” I say.
“Well — honestly, nothing. I mean, I’d seen the name Tanger Construction around the city, I guess, but I couldn’t’ve even told you that Mr. Tanger ran it. What does this have to do with anything, though?”
Brian sighs. “What, really? Okay, so you agree that somehow, people are getting ideas about Dan that are not correct, right? Like they’re just picking them up from somewhere, like they were left laying around?”
We both nod, and Brian continues, “So now you both went to Tanger’s office, a guy who you did not meet and know nothing about, and you’ve come back convinced that he is a top-notch dude, beyond reproach.”
“Well, yeah! He’s a…great…” I trail off as Brian’s point finally sinks in. I don’t know anything about this guy. All I know is that he hangs out with a guy who runs deadly experiments on strangers, which doesn’t really recommend him highly.
“Well, but wait,” I say. “Mr. Steele knows him. He’s worked with him for years, and he said that Mr. Tanger was great, a great man.”
“Would this be the Mr. Steele that was recently in close proximity to Tanger, showing him around the construction site where everyone now suddenly hates you?” Brian asks.
“Oh. Oh, man,” I say. It all makes sense. If Tanger has the ability to leave his ideas coating an area like a poison, and he was on site a couple of weekends ago, then that explains why everyone hated me for no reason when we came back to work on Monday. And it makes sense that guys like Christopher and Mr. Steele, who know me, were able to shake it off, since it didn’t fit with the existing facts they had. But all of the guys I hadn’t really interacted with didn’t have any reason to question this new idea, so they’ve all internalized it.
“So you’re saying that we think Mr. Tanger is great because he wants us to think that?” asks Regina.
“Yeah, exactly!” says Brian. “I bet you if I’d been there today, I’d agree with you, too.”
“Well, there’s an easy way to find out if you’re right. Let’s see what we can find out about him. It can’t be that hard to see what his company’s been up to, whether he’s a good guy in public or not, at least.”
“No research tonight,” says Regina. “I just got rid of the gross feeling of someone tampering with my mind, and I’m not up for finding out that they did it in more than one way yet. It’s not hurting anything if I keep thinking good thoughts about Mr. Tanger tonight. We can pop the bubble tomorrow.”
“Cool by me,” says Brian. “Movies?”
We all retire to the couch downstairs and settle into Netflix. We’ve finished one movie and are twenty minutes or so into the next one, a zom-rom-com, when I announce, “All right, I’ve gotta hit the hay. Up with the sun for work tomorrow, and all that.”
Brian starts to stand up from the couch. “Yeah, I should probably get going.”
I push him back down. “Don’t be ridiculous! You’re not working my hours. Anyway, you picked this movie. Stick around and watch it.”
“Subtle,” says Regina, but she’s smiling.
“Yeah, whatever. I’m off to bed! See you folks tomorrow for some exciting online research.”
I traipse upstairs and close myself in my room, then settle down to read. I think I played the role of third wheel with some definite aplomb. And while I may not have been subtle at the end there, I feel like there’s been enough subtlety and subterfuge in my life lately. It’s nice to be blatant once in a while.