Absence: Part 2

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Ten minutes later, we’re settling in with coffees at By the Beans, my coffee shop of choice.  It’s a bit of a drive from Brian’s apartment, but it’s the one I’m most used to, and I could use the calm of a familiar setting right now.

Regina’s twitchy enough already that I’m not sure that caffeine is a good idea.  On the other hand, she seems more inclined to just tear a sugar packet into small pieces than to drink her coffee, so it might not be an issue.

The doc, meanwhile, is the picture of calm.  She stirs her drink as if nothing is wrong, then puts it on the table to cool.

“So,” she says to me expectantly, “if Dupont was a dead end, where do you go from here?”

I shrug helplessly.  “I don’t know.  I need to talk it out.  What do we know?”

“That Brian’s missing,” Regina says morosely.

I bite back a sharp answer and say instead, “Finding Ichabot will get him back.  How do we do that?  Doc, is there any more information attached to his registration for the symposium?”

Simmons shakes her head.  “Unfortunately not.  Just his name and credit card, which is a company card for Rossum Medical Supply.  And you’ve already checked that out.”

I nod.  “Yeah, but there might be more to do there.  Acharya’s probably not his real name, right?  The guy at the store didn’t know who owned the place, but there might be some records we can look up that’ll give us a name, maybe even a home address.”

A thought strikes me.  “When I called Tanger pretending to be the doctor, he answered the phone with ‘Amici.’  I didn’t really think much of it at the time; I figured he was doing a continental affectation, calling Ichabot his friend.  But looking back on it, that’s not really in character for him.  I think Ichabot told him his name was Amici.  He wasn’t giving a greeting to the doctor.  He was just saying his name.”

“So what?” says Regina.

“Well, so ‘amici’ means ‘friend,’ right?  And ‘acharya’ means ‘teacher.’  And his company name, Rossum, that’s a reference too.  So we’ve got a pattern.  He likes to show off his smarts, pick names that are subtly ironic.  It’s not necessarily going to help us find him, but if we find some place that’s run by an, I don’t know, Dr. Amazing, it’ll help confirm that it’s him.

“Dr. Amazing?” says Doc Simmons, raising an eyebrow.

“Look, I don’t know.  It was the first a-word that came to mind.  Point is, we’ve got a hook in him.”

“It’s something, I suppose,” agrees the doc.

“How does this help?” asks Regina angrily.  “How does this get us one step closer to finding this guy?”

“It is a step!  It’s just not the first step.  It’s like the second-to-last step,” I protest.

“So how do we get to the first step?”  The sugar packet has been converted to a tiny pyramid of paper shreds, and Regina has moved on to twisting the coffee stirrer into a ring around her index finger.

“Um.  Divide and conquer, I guess?”

“Divide WHAT?” she demands.

“Okay, well, what have we got?  ‘I’m too smart for you to get this reference’ names.  Rossum’s company records.  And — Dupont, maybe?  Maybe he’s ready to talk.”

Regina and the doc both look unimpressed.  “Fairly thin, Dan,” says Simmons.

“Yeah, but it’s what we’ve got.  Unless you can think of something else?”  I pause, and after a short silence, continue.  “Okay, so.  Regina, if you want to get in touch with Peterson?  I can give you his number.  You can tell him that Brian’s been taken, he’ll understand that it’s important and bypass whatever waiting periods they normally have for reporting adults as missing persons.”  I’m not totally sure that he will do that, but I figure it’s what Regina needs to hear.

“When you’re talking to him, ask him about the company records?  I figure the police probably have access to that sort of stuff.  And if not, they’re still set up in City Hall itself, so definitely someone there has what we need.

“Doc, can you have a look around for other reference-names at the hospital?  Or of other doctors in the area?”

Simmons snorts.  “Sure, I’ll just look in my doctor database.  I’ll filter it by fakes.”

“Doc, come on.  Just whatever you can do, okay?”

“You’re not giving me much to go on, but all right.  I’ll do what I can.”

“And I’ll go see if Dupont wants to talk yet.”

The doc shakes her head again.  “That may have sounded menacing in your mind, Dan, but out loud it mainly sounds like a bad idea.  Don’t do anything that’s going to get the police called.”

“What?  I’m not –” Words like dumb, stupid and impulsive flit through my mind, and crash against the doc’s skeptically raised eyebrow.  I finish lamely, “– going to.”

“Good,” she says, taking a drink of her coffee.

Regina fidgets and looks at each of us in turn.  “So can we get going?”

“All right by me,” I say, pushing back from the table.  “Let’s get to it.”

A dog barks sharply inside the house when I ring the doorbell, accompanied by the sound of paws skittering on hardwood.  I lean against the porch support beam, trying to look nonchalant.

Soon enough, I hear footsteps and the door starts to open.  “Yes, can I –” begins Dupont, before he recognizes me.  He freezes in place.

“Hello, Jules,” I say, straightening up.  “Or do you prefer J.R.?  Hey, don’t shut that –”

My protest is cut off by Dupont slamming the door in my face.  I lean up against the door, cupping my hand to my mouth to shout.

“You know I can go right through this!  Save yourself a front door and talk to me.”

After a pause long enough that I’m about to psych myself up to erase the door, Dupont reopens it and stands cautiously in the doorway, glaring at me.  One hand is on the doorknob; the other is holding his dog’s collar, keeping it well away from me.

“What do you want?” he asks guardedly.

“I want to know who your boss at Rossum is,” I say.

“Fine.  It’s Dr. Amun.  Now will you go away?”

“As soon as you tell me how to find him, I absolutely will.”

“I don’t know,” Dupont says, and I sigh.  Using my index finger, I slowly draw a line down the doorpost of his house, leaving a furrow half an inch deep as I go.  Dust falls to the ground in a small shower.

“I don’t know!” insists Dupont, panic showing in his eyes.  “It’s his business, and he shows up when he wants.  He writes the checks, I do the general managing, Nathan runs the counter.  It’s just an investment thing for him, I think.”

“So if there’s a problem with the checks, how do you contact him?”  I drag my finger back upward, scoring a second gouge parallel to the first one.

“Cell phone!  I have a number for him.”  He rattles off a string of digits, and I hurriedly grab my phone.

“Slower.  Repeat that?” I say, entering the number as he gives it to me again.  I show him the screen.  “Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s it,” he says.  “That’s all I know about getting in touch with him.”

“I hope this number is right, Jules,” I say, putting my phone away.  “I’d hate to have to drive back out here.”

He glares daggers at me but says nothing as I turn and leave his porch.  I hear the door close quietly behind me and then lock, as if that would change anything.  As I drive away, I see Jules watching through the window and writing something down.  My license plate, probably.  I may not have been fully successful in not getting the police called.

But I have a number and Dr. A’s actual name!  And what’s he going to say to the police, anyway — that I threatened to disintegrate his door?  This was worth it.

I call the number, and a man answers.  “Yes, hello?”

“Dr. Amun, please?”

“Yes, speaking.  What can I do for you?”

My hands start to shake and my throat tightens.  “This — do you even know my name?”

“Not yet.  You haven’t given it to me,” he says pleasantly.

“I’m Dan Everton,” I grind out.

“Ah!  And you have my number.  Well done!  You are getting close,” he says.  He sounds amused, which is infuriating.

“I’m going to get closer.”

“Are you, now?”

“Yes.  You need to turn off the nanos.”

“No, I don’t think I do need to do that.”

“Do it!  Now!  It was bad enough when you were toying with my life, but my friend’s been kidnapped by my nemesis and he wants them turned off now!”

“Your nemesis?” he asks, sounding like he’s about to laugh.

“Yes, whoever else you gave powers to!  To make us fight like bugs in a jar.  I’ve been playing your stupid games for a year now, and it’s gone far enough.  Turn them off now!”

“Or what?” he asks jovially.

“Or I’ll disintegrate your world around you,” I hiss.  My phone slips in my grip, and in horror I realize that the case is being eaten away.  I drop it hastily, and it bounces off of the armrest and lands on the floor.

Using my forearms, I guide the car to the side of the road and park, taking deep, calming breaths.  I can hear Dr. Amun talking from the floor, but can’t make out any of the words.  After carefully poking my shirt to make sure the nanos aren’t still looking for things to eat, I reach down to the floor and press the “speaker” button.

“Are you still there, Dan?” asks Dr. Amun.

“I’m here,” I say.  “Just putting the phone on speaker.”

“Ah, sharing what I have to say?  I don’t mind.  All I was saying was that I’m not willing to end my experiment early.  I’m still learning too much from this.  But if you’re patient, this will all be over soon.

“As for your friend, he’s probably already dead.”

I shout wordlessly at the phone and stab at the off button with my elbow, hitting my head on the steering wheel as I lean down to do that.  Then I sit there in my car, shaking, my hands crawling with an oily sheen as the nanos seek out anything to vent their loathing on.

“Calm down, Dan.  You’ll get this guy,” I tell myself, but focusing on him does anything but help.  I close my eyes and think soothing thoughts for several minutes until I feel I can manage to get out of my car without disintegrating the door.  Once outside, I sit on the hood and breathe deeply in the chilly air.

I’m closer.  I’m close.  I’m going to get this guy.  And I’m going to do it in time to save Brian, no matter what he says.

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