Here’s a fact of life: no one likes large social gatherings. Absolutely no one. I’m sure that there are people who think that they do, but they are wrong. What they like are the small social gatherings that they can have inside of the large ones, which is why you constantly have small knots of people forming, usually directly in the middle of the area where everyone else is trying to walk, for some reason. Large groups are full of people you don’t want to see, conversations you’re trying to avoid, and basically all of the parts of humanity that you try to avoid on a daily basis.
I mean the regular lousy parts, like feeling the breeze when someone coughs, or residual body heat on a seat when you sit down. Crowds are just sort of passively bad. There’s plenty of worse stuff about humanity which the nightly news is all too happy to tell you about, but you’re not generally going to see murder and mayhem on display in a crowd.
Not in a standard crowd, anyway. Then again, I am here looking for a mad scientist without a moral compass, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too sure of that.
Also, I have the top button of my shirt buttoned and I’m wearing a tie, which does not put me at my ease. The tie is an ongoing dangling threat to my health and safety, and the top button provides a constant light constriction to my neck, just in case I’m ever inclined to forget about the tie.
That said, the vague look of being ill-at-ease that this gives me makes me blend in with about sixty percent of the people milling about in the hospital lobby for this symposium right now, so it’s a pretty good disguise. The remaining forty percent are bright-eyed, focused and all seem to be trying to sell things to anyone who will make eye contact. I buy a cup of coffee to help me avoid shaking their hands, and if I catch one of them looking my way, I do my best to pretend to be attempting to read the scrawl that is presumably my name off of the coffee cup until they find another victim.
I have a list of the topics being presented today, but the concepts are so foreign to me that they might as well be in another language. I recognize a number of words, like “robotic,” “imaging” and “arterial,” but not the context they’re in. The word “surgery” shows up in many of the titles paired with things I don’t understand, like “keyhole.”
It’s okay, though. I have a plan, and it doesn’t require me to know what’s going on; I’m learning to play to my strengths. I know what Dr. A. looks like, and he’s very distinctive: it’s like someone saw the animated brooms from Fantasia and thought, “Not bad, but if I tied these together and put them in a suit, I bet I could make them walk around like a person.” He doesn’t have a broom for a face, obviously, but everything else from his toast-rack torso to his gangly arms and legs gives that impression.
This is how Brian and I came to give him the name “Ichabot,” after Ichabod Crane. I don’t know if I’m going to stick with that name, but I refuse to fight a supervillain named “Dr. Adams,” or whatever his last name turns out to be. “Dr. A.” is mysterious enough that I can work with it. “Dr. Adams” is a podiatrist name.
So the plan is this: loiter in the corner unobtrusively until I spot Ichabot moving through the crowd. If that doesn’t work, start sticking my head into various lectures to scan the rooms for him there; even sitting down, he’s head and shoulders taller than average, so he should stick out. Also, I’ve only ever seen him in one suit, so if that’s still his go-to, that’ll help in identifying him.
Once I’ve spotted him, I’ll simply get close enough to read his nametag, and then voila! Ichabot’s secret identity is revealed, and then we turn him over to the police. Or something like that, anyway. I don’t actually have any real proof of wrongdoing by him yet, so probably I should get that first. And as Officer Peterson has made clear many times in the past, he’d really prefer it if I managed to do that in a manner that’s at least passingly legal. So that part of the plan still needs some work.
All of this is predicated on the idea that Ichabot is coming to this medical symposium, though, and as the day wears on, that’s starting to seem less likely. My coffee has long since gone cold, and although I did manage to reheat it with my residual pyrokinesis, I got some weird looks when nearby people heard me whispering “Uuuuuuppp!” at my cup as I lifted my hand slowly into the air. I’m not generally overly concerned with what other people think of me, but since the point of today is to blend in, I’m trying to make a bit of an effort.
I haven’t caught sight of Ichabot at the sign-in, and my plan to peer in the back of lectures doesn’t pan out well. I’d been picturing these as taking place in big college-lecture-sized halls, but for the most part, the conference rooms in the hospital hold no more than thirty or forty people. That means that opening the door is noticeable and causes heads to swivel; not the subtle entrance I’d hoped for.
After I open one door that turns out to be located at the front of the room, directly next to where the speaker is presenting so that all eyes are immediately on me, I give up this portion of the plan as ill-conceived. I mumble my apologies and retreat to the cafeteria, figuring that most of the attendees will eventually filter through there for lunch.
I’m safely ensconced at a table by the back wall, debating whether I should go check out nearby restaurants or just admit to myself that Dr. A. isn’t going to show, when I suddenly see him. He ambles through the door and heads for the food line, and although from this distance I can see that he’s in the same worn black suit and he has a badge for the symposium, that’s all the details I can make out.
Abruptly, I realize the flaw in my “go read his badge” plan: just as I know what Dr. A. looks like, so too does he know what I look like. In fact, he’s been to my places of business on at least two occasions, so he knows at least something about me, too. Enough to realize that running into me here would be no casual coincidence, at the very least. Learning his name isn’t worth letting him know that I’m this close to him.
I text Brian:
can’t get close to him
he doesn’t know you. Come help
Ichabot has gotten a table by the time the response comes back, and I’m practically biting my nails at the thought that we might miss this opportunity.
come help WHERE, o abrupt one?
That is the sort of helpful information I should have provided, yes. I shake my head at myself as I reply, still keeping one eye on my quarry.
he hasn’t seen me. Don’t acknowledge me at all
There’s no response to these messages, so for the next few anxious minutes, I watch Ichabot progress all-too-rapidly through his lunch, methodically clearing his tray. He’s on to the dessert before I see Brian walking toward his table, a tray with food in his hand.
I can’t hear anything they’re saying over the hubbub of the cafeteria, but Brian takes a seat across from Ichabot and they exchange a few words. Brian starts to dig into his meal, and after a moment, Ichabot unfolds himself to leave. Brian looks up and offers his hand to shake, which Ichabot accepts, then picks up his tray and clears out.
Brian gives it a couple more minutes before standing up himself and bringing his tray over to where I’m sitting. He gives me a thumbs-up on the way over, and as he sits down, I demand, “You got it? You got his name?”
“Yeah, no problem. He wasn’t trying to hide it, you know? I said I’m Dr. King can I sit here, he said he was Dr. Acharya and sure, very nice to meet you, lunch lunch lunch, the end. You could’ve done it yourself if you’d brought one of the masks you were making last time.”
“Dude, where were you with that idea when I was signing up for this thing?”
“I figured you had a plan!”
“I did! I had a dumb plan. You should know this about me.”
Brian laughs and shakes his head. “Yeah, you’re right. This is on me.”
I notice after a moment that he’s eating left-handed. “Everything all right?” I ask, gesturing to his right hand.
“Oh yeah, totally. But — okay, stick with me on this one, ’cause it’s a pretty big reach. But I was thinking that, you know how you can have bomb-sniffing dogs that pick up residue of explosives? Since when you work with stuff, tiny particles tend to get everywhere? I don’t have the slightest idea how these nanos work, but on the off-chance that he’s got some kind of nano particles riding around, I figured I’d see if I could get some by contact and bring them back to Doc Simmons.”
“Man, that’s the kind of reach that an NBA player couldn’t make.”
“Oh yeah? So you know how the nanos work now, then?”
“I didn’t say I had a better idea! I’m just staking my ‘I told you so’ claim right here, so that when Doc Simmons makes fun of you, I get to chime in.”