Conference Man

by Sean Higgins

Leonard Surprise spotted the hairy Stranger taking notes at the back of the Topeka Congress Hotel forum hall just as the Unsolved Mysteries logo popped up on the presentation screen. How appropriate.

Below the logo, in bold, memed-out letters:


From his spot behind the podium, Leonard looked up at the screen and read the words loud and deliberate and slow; a voice-over from a horror movie. It seemed Orwellian enough. The tech nerds and caffeinated start-up types packing the audience chuckled. 

"In this business, quantitative data is your best friend," he said to the Topeka audience. "Uncertainty, on the other hand, will gather up at your neck and choke you."

He adjusted the small microphone tucked onto his lapel and found the Stranger's face again among the sea of argyle and khaki. As their eyes met, the Stranger smiled, slowly chewing on a piece of gum. 

Leonard cleared his throat and turned back to the screen. The Stranger pulled an old flip-phone from his jeans and looked down at it. He slid a ragged backpack from under his chair, gathered up his notes and folders, and left the room.

After finishing his presentation, Leonard escaped the forum wing and found a spot at the long hotel bar, swirling Jameson and ice around a rocks glass with a long toothpick. Office workers ate hot wings and gossiped in a corner booth while college basketball highlights flashed on a television screen hung from the wall. Leonard pulled the bar menu from a plastic stand. 

The Stranger walked in from the lobby and sat on a stool further down the bar and placed his backpack on the floor in front of him. Matted hair and a smile. He fished a cocktail napkin from a condiment tray and spit his gum into it. 

Leonard downed the icy remains of his whiskey, dropped a couple of singles from his pocket onto the bar, and walked back to his room: better to be alone. The Stranger smiled and watched him leave.


Based in New York City with the Tucker-Freeman Research Group, Leonard traveled and told businesses how to run their IT departments and make more money. Hired on as an analyst assistant at 24 years old, he quickly became known for his wry research notes on Network Platforms and Business Process Management Systems. By the time he hit 32, he was already holding a monthly webinar series for C-levels from IBM and SAP. By 35, he had been promoted to Vice President and Senior Analyst.

Leonard had no idea who the Stranger was. Scruffy and incompatible with the neutered-hipster aesthetic common among the tech and startup types that populated his webinars and presentations, the Stranger looked to be about sixty and sported a magnificent gray beard. Frayed elastic suspenders as wide as guitar straps held up an ancient pair of blue jeans, and a Zen smile could be found almost perpetually on his face.

Leonard first spotted the Stranger a month before, at a business intelligence expo in Miami. Onstage, pacing through a keynote on bring-your-own-device trends, Leonard blinked at the sight of the Stranger, a hangdog old grizzly bear smiling from row two. Taken off-pace, Leonard stuttered when the next slide popped up.


On the Monday after the Topeka conference, back in New York, Leonard noticed the Stranger through his office window. He was sitting down and propped up against the trunk of a leafy shade tree at the closest edge of a nearby city park.

Leonard stood up and squinted. Yep: the Stranger. No doubt about it. His black socks were balled up on his lap, and his pale little toes dug into the grass. He hugged his backpack to his chest and looked like he might be asleep. Leonard gritted his teeth and snapped the window shade shut and marched down the hall for a meeting.

That night, he met his girlfriend, Danette, at Golfo di Taranto, a low-lit Italian seafood restaurant in Park Slope. At 26 years old, Danette had found early career success herself. Recently promoted from assistant copy editor to section manager at a glossy fashion magazine in Midtown, she met Leonard three years before as a summer intern at Tucker-Freeman. They lived separately but met often when he wasn't traveling.

"They say that vets with PTSD start having hallucinations after they get home," Danette said after they were seated. "Maybe this guy isn't a stalker. Maybe you're just projecting some sort of trauma. Maybe he's—"

"What traumatic event could I possibly be recovering from?" Leonard asked. "I'm surrounded by yes-men and worshipful clients. Where does trauma fit into this?" He picked through a bread basket on the table.

"You're snapping, Leo," Danette said.

Leonard gritted his teeth and flipped through the menu. His cheeks were flushed. "How do mussels sound?" 

"I could have some wine," she said.

"Look, I'm sorry. It could be jet lag."

Danette set the menu down in front of her and folded her hands. "Please talk to someone about this. When are you leaving again?"

"Saturday morning." Leonard said. "I'm on the West Coast for a week and in the Midwest for a week. I'll set something up when I get back."

"Good." Danette picked up the menu again and opened it. "Mussels do sound great."

Leonard forced a smile and looked out to the street, watching for the Stranger. 


In an Anchorage hotel, Leonard spotted him — swaddled into an outlandishly oversized Army parka — as he muscled a rolling luggage bag up the stairs past the lobby.

In line at a coffee shop in Portland, Leonard caught a glimpse of him sitting at an outdoor table with a book of crosswords and a bowl of chowder.

In Mountain View, he showed up at an open bar after an executive boot camp. Leonard watched as he ducked behind the LED-lit DJ booth into the men's bathroom. 

The more that Leonard saw the Stranger, the less he wanted to confront him and find out who he was.

He didn't want to know.

On a plane to Ohio, Leonard leaned over in his seat, angling for a peek into the mass of fleshy, bored faces in business class and coach. Sleeping tourists and besuited businessmen. Hoodied college students scratching at their iPhones and a Hasidic man flipping through the in-flight magazine. No matted grey hair. No eerie smiles. No Stranger.


"You see that guy toward the front?" Leonard asked the sound technician standing next to him. They were backstage at a conference hall in Cleveland, minutes before Leonard was due to speak on emerging touchpoints across digital platforms. "The man with the big beard?" They stood in front of a small window that overlooked the audience. 

The sound tech, a chubby Asian man in his twenties, tapped his finger on the glass. "You mean that guy in row two — looks like Rick Rubin?" he asked. "Right at the edge?"


"What about him?"

"I think he might be homeless," Leonard said. "Maybe you could radio security to come in and check for his ticket?" Leonard motioned to the walkie-talkie hanging from the tech's belt.


Leonard watched as a polo-shirted security guard loped down the center aisle and tapped the Stranger's shoulder. The two spoke briefly and the Stranger stood up and began following the guard toward the exit. 

As he trailed behind the guard, his head swiveled around, taking in every corner of the forum hall. Leonard knew that the Stranger must have been looking for him. Who else?


After Cleveland, Leonard was scheduled for an event outside of Chicago, and he took a red eye flight into O'Hare. He arrived at his one-bedroom suite in Schaumburg in the morning, set his bags on the bed, and walked over to the Quick Pick liquor store in a strip mall across the street from the executive housing complex. The liquor store clerk gave a quick smile when Leonard slid a giant carton of Cabernet boxed wine onto the counter.

"Having a party?" the clerk asked after Leonard handed him a twenty-dollar bill.

"You bet." Leonard said. "Huge party."

Leonard got back to his suite and changed into running shorts and a t-shirt. He dropped the boxed wine on the bathroom sink, pushed open the perforated cardboard slot with his thumb, and poured wine into a Dixie cup meant for mouthwash.

A soft tap on the door startled him, and he downed the wine and padded out to the little entrance room in the front of the suite.

The door, solid and metal with a brass loop-hook safety lock, did not have a peephole. Leonard leaned in, listening for movement. Three more soft taps came from the other side.

"Who's there?" Leonard asked the door.

"Mr. Surprise? I'm from the front desk."

With the hook still in the loop lock, Leonard cracked open the door. A younger man with a vest and name tag waved at him, a package the size of a shoe-box tucked under his arm.

"UPS just came -- we got a package for you." he said. "I saw you come in before and thought I'd drop it off."

Leonard unhinged the lock and the attendant handed him the box, tightly wrapped in plain brown grocery paper and light as an empty cereal box.

"Have a nice stay, Mr. Surprise."

Leonard thanked the attendant, relocked the door and walked back to the bathroom. He filled the Dixie cup and studied the thick, neat Sharpie writing on the top face of the package:

   Mr. Leonard Surprise

   C/O The Crest Executive Suites

   Schaumburg, Illinois, 60169

No return address. A white, barcoded shipping sticker indicated that it had been sent out from a Chicago post office. It was local.

Carefully unwrapping the package, Leonard found a black Payless shoebox within three layers of paper. He swallowed some more wine and lifted the lid from the box. Inside, more brown grocery paper, crumpled up and ripped into shreds. Leonard dumped the shredded paper onto the sink top and rifled through it: nothing but paper. The package had nothing but paper in it.


It didn't take long for the Stranger to find the lecture hall where Leonard was speaking. Leonard watched him creep in through a back door and rustle into a seat in the back of the room. He watched as he set out a mishmash layer of notebooks and crumpled papers and highlighters on the fold-down desk in front of him. 

The hundred or so attendees jotted down notes and nodded along as Leonard sped through a cluster of cursory slides meant to display his insight into the industry: Numbers, Data, Trends. Strategies to Drive Cloud Adoption.

He couldn't keep it up. The Stranger's presence grew in Leonard's mind, gobbling up the rote clichés on Consumer Awareness and Commerce Suites.

His throat caught in the middle of an aside on Work-Anywhere business practices.

"I'm sorry everyone," he said. "I can't keep--" He snatched a warm bottle of water from underneath the podium and took in a gulp. The quiet conventioneers, thrown off from the break in the presentation, shifted in their seats and pretended to review their notes.

"It's just--" Leonard said, looking up directly at the Stranger. "It's just that I don't know what you want with me."

The Stranger did not move in his seat. 

"Do you even understand me?" Leonard said, his voice rising. The attendees moved their heads around in confusion and looked at each other, at a loss. "I don't know who you think you are, but you're done." Leonard said, slapping his hands on the podium. "This is over."

He abandoned the podium and hurried through the rows of seats toward the Stranger, pointing his finger: "Leave! Just go!"

The Stranger smiled.

Leonard leapt over an empty row of seats and piled onto him, grabbing for his neck. A group of attendees sitting nearby jumped up and rushed behind Leonard, pinning his arms behind him. The Stranger, for the first time that Leonard had ever seen, seemed fazed. His face was beaming red and his beard, usually well-groomed, fluffed out in wild angles. Without collecting his backpack or notes, the Stranger squeezed through a wall of onlookers and slipped from the room.

Leonard shook his way free of the men that were holding him back. Most attendees were standing up at this point. Many were holding up their phones, recording everything. A woman sobbed. An older businessman in a suit whispered into his cell phone, asking for security.

Leonard walked over to the backpack that the Stranger had left below his seat, pushed the scattered notebooks and papers inside, and walked out the door. Quickly finding the front entrance, he stepped outside and sat on a curb facing the vast blacktop parking lot. He wondered how long it would take security to find him. 

He pulled a thick notebook from the Stranger's backpack and began flipping through it. Bullet points from his presentations and guest blog posts and webinars were copied down in sloppy handwriting. His own bland proclamations seemed foreign and uncanny in this format:

"SaaS-based CRMs are emerging as a strategic business capability."

"Leverage Up. Diagnose Down."

"Digital Transformation Requires Disruptive Thinking."


Leonard pushed the notebook back into the backpack. For as angry as he had been, he felt strange and light and even happy. It was as if he were on a different planet. As if he was on the verge of something new and extraordinary and bright.

He shuffled to stand as a small green Honda with Illinois plates pulled to a stop on the blacktop in front of him. He leaned over and squinted through the passenger side window. The Stranger was behind the wheel. Still beaming red, he stared at Leonard as the electric window rolled down.

"I think you have something of mine," the Stranger said, gesturing towards the backpack hanging from Leonard's hand.

Leonard turned and looked at the convention hall behind him. It would be a minute or so before security found him. 

Popping open the car door, Leonard sat down in the passenger seat with the backpack in his lap. The little green Honda pulled away with both men quiet and looking straight ahead. As they drew away from the convention hall and onto the highway, Leonard tried to tally all the Unknown Data in his mind. All of the Evil Uncertainties. He didn't know where to begin. 

BIO: Sean Higgins works for an East Coast research firm in an editing capacity, but is happy to live in a 19th-century brick farmhouse in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He writes fiction and creative nonfiction, and dabbles with music. He has a lovely wife and three insane cats.