*This chapter contains strong language, imaginary blood and politics.
I didn’t mind sitting in the dark. Especially not in a quiet hotel room when most of the guests were far from their rooms and other than the dull hum from the thousands of people downstairs, my thoughts were all I could hear. I didn’t mind sitting there in the dark with only the lights off the strip giving things in the room any shape.
It had been four hours though. And the chair wasn’t as comfortable as it looked when I picked it. And my leg was falling asleep. I shifted and tapped my foot against the floor so that it tingled painfully. I wasn’t going to get very far if my leg was asleep when Frank got back.
I twisted my foot in slow circles and looked away from the door, out the window. I could see the bright beam of light coming off the top of the Luxor. I had positioned my chair near the door so I would be behind Frank when he came in. Being able to see the view had been a nice bonus. Still, four hours. I glanced at my watch. Well, three hours and fifty six minutes. How can a man gamble that long? Even with the sick little thrill he got from cheating the house, didn’t he have to change his clothes or come back up for one of his lucky lighters?
I smirked to myself. A cheater like Frank believing in luck was crazy. But I’d seen it myself, it was why I’d waited so long to slip into his room, sometimes he would rush back after only half an hour to switch the lighter he kept in his pocket convinced his luck was wrong. It had been in his file but until I saw it myself I hadn’t really believed a path who wasn’t already in a mental ward could be so neurotic.
There was no telling with the unregistered ones. That’s what I had learned on this assignment. They might be like a normal person on the outside, or they could be as conspicuous as Frank. In their minds, that’s where the real difference was. If they didn’t want to register and accept the rules of telepathy, then there sure as hell was something outside the rules that they wanted to do. Not all of it as relatively harmless as a gambling felony.
I heard muffled footsteps and my hand tightened around the gun in my lap, still feeling clumsy with the silencer. I focused and opened myself up to the mind in the hall.
Man this shift is never going to be over. This is what I hate about Vegas, there’s no lull. These tourists will eat any damn thing any time of day. Like there aren’t enough buffets for them? What a bunch of…
I sighed and pulled back. Just the room service guy.
I stretched my legs out in front of me and wished I hadn’t left my book in the glove compartment. I had started reading the Master and Commander series after I saw the movie and I had just stopped at this really interesting part where the doctor was in France as a spy. I’d been trying to think of how the book would end but I was never very good at that. I checked my watch again. I wonder if I can still get home tonight? If he comes back before midnight, maybe.
I was ready to slip out, eat something and come back while he was asleep. The disorientation factor made it an appealing idea. People were easier to move when they were confused.
I hadn’t eaten in six hours. I was really in the mood for fajitas.
I was so focused on food I didn’t sense anything until there was the rattle of a key card in the door and it was opening, letting light in from the hall.
Frank Dawson, with a twenty thousand dollar voucher practically burning in his pocket, didn’t notice me as he turned on the lights and shut the door behind him.
He went straight to the table near the window, far from the door and emptied his pockets. His head was full of chatter. Can’t believe Stokes never caught on. Three games in and he only won one hand? I’m going to clean up at the game tomorrow. That whale from Boston is sitting in, he’s not going to know what hit him. The gloating was mixed in with images of cards and chips and the cocktail waitress that had been bringing his drinks.
I aimed carefully at his shoulder. I would shoot him if I had to. “Turn around, Frank.” Right now.
He spun around, scattering his lighters on the floor. His eyes flicked between the silencer on the gun and my face. His face was rougher up close, red in the creases, contrasting with his almost white hair. Not a cop. Mob? Marvin? Can’t be Marv he knows better. “You gonna shoot me, man?” he said with remarkable calm, not trying to read me, not reaching out because it would make it easier for me to get into his thoughts. He was already sure that’s what I would do.
You tell me, Frank. “You’re telepath, read me, see if I’ll do it.” I was taunting him. It would be easier for both of us if he tried to read me.
His eyes widened slightly. The spike of nervousness was hidden fast. “I don’t know what you’re talking about man, but I’m going to tell you once, I’m the Gaming Commissioner’s nephew. I’ve got the Gaming Commission and the state government on my side, so why don’t you blow out of here while you have the ch-chance?” he said, gesturing with his hands to distract me and show he wasn’t afraid. All the while spinning himself out, trying to read me without being obvious about it. But the only thing on the surface was my opinion of his bluster. He had to go deeper than that.
Right down to my block.
It took a second after he stopped talking. He even faltered a bit on the last word because he knew something wasn’t right. Then I got the satisfaction of seeing his red face go completely white as he fell into the chair at the table. His spine bent and his shoulders curled in so he could grip his head between his hands, his fingers pulling at his thin hair.
I smiled to myself, but felt slightly uncomfortable anyway. It was the surface of his thoughts bouncing back at me. Giving me a taste of what he saw when he tried to read me and met my block.
The most soul-crushing, guilty, nauseous embarrassment he’d probably ever feel in his life.
The best mental blocks make a digging path feel uncomfortable. Mine made him feel, if only for a minute or two, like he could never do anything right again. There weren’t many paths out there that would try to read me a second time and that was how I liked it.
When Frank looked up at me his eyes were wet and he wiped them with the back of his hand. How in the hell?
I shrugged like it was nothing. It’s just a block Frank. You know about blocks. Now get your jacket, we’re leaving. I still had the gun trained on his shoulder and let him see where I would shoot him, the syringe I’d use to knock him out and the cameras I’d disabled so I could carry him down to the car if I had to.
He stood up shakily, only turning far enough to grab the jacket, not far enough to show me his back and feel completely out of control. His shoulder twitched where he thought he could feel me staring. Who is this guy with? Can’t be a cop, not small time either, he’s too sure, he thought more to himself than me.
“Don’t put the jacket on, bring it over here,” I said, standing. My foot had stopped tingling but my knees were stiff. Don’t you think there are lists of unregistered paths breaking the law? What you’re into now is a little bigger than the Nevada Gaming Commission.
He flinched and brought the jacket to me. He put his hands out for me to cuff without being asked. I closed the cuffs over his wrists one-handed and then hung the jacket over them. I put my gun into the pocket of my coat, aiming it at his back. I could feel the question he was desperately trying not to form. I’m not going to kill you unless you make me, I told him, marching us out the door, catching his fleeting urge to go back and get the lucky lighters.
He went down the hall, walking too fast out of nerves. “It’s not a race,” I told him quietly as we moved toward the stairwell that led down to the parking garage. He went slower down the stairs and we didn’t meet another person from the door to the van.
Maybe you’re lucky after all, I thought sardonically. He didn’t hear me, he was hiding behind his own block, singing Hotel California in his head so he wouldn’t try and read me again. Or maybe so I wouldn’t read him. It was hard to tell.
At the back door of the van he stopped. He saw the bare interior, with no seats and a thick mesh between my seat and his and couldn’t lift his foot onto the bumper. His song drained away and I saw flashes of what had to be horror movies, blood covered people huddled in the backs of different vans.
After fourteen pick-ups I knew what to tell him. You’re going to be questioned, registered and rehabilitated. I pictured our official interrogation room and one of the cells. I buried any thoughts of the labs.
I gave him a minute to gather himself but he still wasn’t moving. I wasn’t even sure he heard me over the ridiculous horror scenes. I shook his shoulder roughly and he looked at me. The only way you’re going to get hurt is if I have to shoot you to get you in the van. I don’t think you’ll bleed out before we get to the base, but I’m not a doctor. One of them had refused and I’d been forced to shoot him. I opened my mind enough to let Frank see how the guy had looked laid out in the back of the van in a pool of his own blood. The way the blood had gone into the grooves on the van floor and had run out on the ground when we got to the base and opened the doors. Much more realistic than that horror movie crap. Especially the smell.
I knew I'd made a mistake before his mouth fell open. He backed sharply away from the rear of the van, actually moving closer to me in his panic. In his mind he’d already traded the dead body for his and he could see the blood wet on the shoulder of his shirt where I’d promised to shoot him earlier. He could even smell it.
I closed the door firmly, blocking his view of the van floor. There was no use being mad at him. It was my fault, I was tired and hungry and I lost my temper. I didn’t want to shoot him. He was no use to the project dead.
I had a full tank of gas and it was only eighty-seven miles to the base. No toll roads and if I took the highway there were only a handful of traffic lights.
I took his upper arm in my hand and led him firmly around the van. You can ride in the front if you behave yourself. I felt foolish talking that way to a grown man but he got in the passenger seat docilely.
He was rallying faster in his mind and I had to take a chance walking around the van to the driver’s side while he gauged his odds of a good scream bringing a valet or an attendant.
I’d shoot you before you could open your mouth. I’m a federal agent, Frank, it won’t even be illegal. I kept thinking at him until I had my door open. I got in and did the child safety locks before he had reached for the door.
If you’re really government why didn’t you bust me for real? What’s with all this cloak and dagger crap? he asked, getting a measure of his smooth arrogance back as I leaned out of the car to swipe my parking card with one hand, the other one pointing the gun in my lap toward him.
He waited for me to answer with building irritation.
I let him stew until we got onto the highway. Where do you think we rehabilitate paths? It sure as hell isn’t at Southern Nevada Correctional Center. You think we do it with the press over our shoulders? Besides, I added, sensing his objections and cutting them off, you forfeited your right due process with your sixth thought felony.
He opened his mouth and closed it again. He knew it was true, and no uncle unless it was the president himself, could keep him out of custody. “What kind of rehabilitation?” he asked loudly, his mind tight around the question.
The kind where they teach you not to cheat and steal, I told him sharply. “Who trained you, Frank, how did you get by not going to a path school like everyone else?” I asked, wanting to distract him from questions about the facility. If I wasn’t careful I’d think something about the labs and he’d claw his way out the passenger door, gun or no gun.
He was too nervous to see what I was doing. “You don’t need some freak school to teach you how to use your brain. My granddad taught me how to work it. He voted against registration. Said there was no reason to make it easy for the government to single you out. Why should we have to run around telling every employer about it? Colleges, insurance companies, why do they need to know about it?” He was gaining force and confidence with the sound of his own voice repeating his grandfather’s lectures almost perfectly.
Because they need to be warned about you. You can’t just crawl in someone’s head without their permission, I replied too harshly. “And they teach things like ethics. I think you might have gotten something out of that class.”
I loosened my hand where it was white knuckled against the steering wheel. I'd had a moment of grim satisfaction seeing him on the potential pick-up list. He wasn’t someone who deserved telepathy. Be sure to tell Agent Brandt how you feel when he comes to question you, I told him much more calmly.
He was confused and didn’t like the way I pictured Brandt, a tac who could slip into your brain like a snake, touch you once and see everything you’d ever thought.
I couldn't blame him. Brandt and I had never shaken hands and we never would.
I’m never getting out of that place am I? Frank thought with another upswing in panic.
This was the good news and the bad. “They’ll probably release you in less than a year,” I told him with completely open confidence in my statement. And it was true. He’d be released, rehabilitated and harmless. If he survived the treatments.
It wasn’t as reassuring as I intended.
“What?” A year? What the hell? Do I get to tell my folks where I am? What’s going to happen to my apartment? My stuff? What in the hell do they do that takes a year?
I glanced at him; even in the dim light from the console I could see he was still pale. I was beginning to wish I had tranquilized him. At least if you’d gone to a channel school you would have better control. What are you going to do? Panic for another half an hour until we get there?
For the first time that night I judged the situation perfectly.
He rocked back in his seat giving me a look and a feeling that has equal parts self-righteous and pitying. “I would’ve thought it’d be harder to brainwash a path man. They got you good. They got you working for them, rounding up your own people.”
“You never set foot in a channel school. What the hell do you know about it?” I shot back, drawing him out.
“I don’t’ have to go to one to know it’s a recruiting ground for the government,” he said, disdainfully.
Nice and self-righteous. “So what? You think there’s something wrong with free specialized education, with free mental healthcare? You think it was better before registration when everyone was hiding like you? You think it was better when paths were segregated?”
“Right, that’s your brilliant excuse for handing the government the name of every gullible path in the world. Better now doesn’t mean it’s right, it doesn’t mean this is as good as it could be. I mean the way the government looks at paths now they might as well just plant a chip or something to track us as soon as we register on the TATs.”
He said it like the Telepathic Aptitude Tests was a disease. “Normal people don’t have the right to defend themselves and their businesses? Is that what you think?” But I forgot, I’m asking someone whose been committing thought felonies for half his life. You cheat people out of money every day.
“Normal people? What the hell, we’re all normal people and I’m not about to let the government or some self-hating telepaths limit me. I’m not going to register so I can be banned from banking and team sports and can’t even set foot in a casino. Even the jobs we’re allowed to have, we have to disclose our status to the boss, so we can get turned down because some prick isn’t comfortable around paths. So we can get turned down for everything except a shrink or a cop.”
I smiled, he was distracting himself and we only had ten more miles to go. “What’s the Telepath Anti-Discrimination Act for? It’s illegal to refuse a sanctioned position to a qualified telepath. You’re argument’s about ten years old.” For a politically-minded path he was really behind the times.
He made an impatient sound. “Yeah right. You have any idea how hard it is to prove that kind of discrimination? Over half of those cases get dismissed.”
He was seething and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to argue with him much longer. I couldn’t help one last dig. “But you’ve never had to worry about any of that, have you Frank? How do you know what it’s like to live like a real path?” He could try channel school, trapped with hundreds of other paths all day every day, no way to have a thought of your own. He could try real work too, using telepathy for something other than getting laid and cheating the house.
“A registration card doesn’t make you a real path,” he said more quietly, his mind serious.
“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed. There were plenty of registered ones preying on regular people too. I slowed the van down, crawling through what looked like an unmanned guard booth, slow enough that the scanners would recognize me on the first try. The gates swung open and we entered the base.
I drove around the squat administration building and pulled into the loading bay. The guards started pouring out of the doors, surrounding the van as I rolled to a stop.
“Don’t give them any trouble and you’ll do fine, Frank,” I told him, disengaging the locks and turning off the engine.
I slipped out of the van before the guards opened his door.
I turned to see one of Craig's assistants waving to me from the bay doors. He was standing as far as possible from the guards escorting Frank, holding his clipboard in front of his chest like a shield.
I was keen to get away from Frank, but I didn’t want to see Craig. I wanted to go home and sleep. I’d been on duty for a week already because there hadn’t been any preliminary surveillance available on Frank. I held up a hand and turned around to grab my things from the van. If he wants a full report tonight I just have to tell him it’s not happening. I have until tomorrow for that.
I unscrewed the silencer from my gun and put it in its case in my duffel bag. The gun went back in the holster under my arm. I hefted the bag over my shoulder and flexed my left hand, cramped after holding the gun so long. The assistant was watching me with a mix of frustration and wariness. He was afraid of telepaths and he showed it by being officious and arrogant.
“You were supposed to be back hours ago. Mr. Craig stayed late to make sure he saw you when you got in,” he said sharply. Probably missed the first pick-up or stopped for a drink. He made no effort to hide what he was thinking and I made no effort to respond. Some people got like that when they had to work with paths.
We walked over to the admin wing. He walked so fast it was almost a jog and I walked normally so he had to slow down and wait for me twice, clutching at his clipboard and tapping his foot.
The little waiting room was less industrial than the rest of the complex. It had nice scuffed leather chairs, thick burgundy carpet and a large claw foot desk near the window. The assistant went around the desk and tapped the intercom button. “Mr. Craig, Agent Piken is here.”
There was a click, the assistant was watching me with a malicious smile, his ear tilted toward the speaker. “Send him in,” Craig said, sounding as calm as his assistant was irritated.
I rolled my eyes at the show and went to the inner office door opening it firmly and stepping in.
“Have a seat Andy, I want to go over a few things with you,” Craig said in a neutral tone that gave no hint of whether I was about to be praised or blasted.
I didn’t comment on the name. He called me Andy because I’d asked him not to. At least he had in the beginning, now it was just unbreakable habit. I was Andy in his head; I had to be Andy when he spoke.
“I can give you the brief on the Dawson case now, I’ll need until tomorrow for the full report,” I said firmly.
He waved me off. “The brief can wait. I’m sure I’ll get the details from the report and it’s obvious you got him. Good job, by the way. He was a slippery one,” he said. I was being set up for something big. In the two years I’d worked with him he’d never complimented me.
He waited for acknowledgment so I shrugged and said what I was supposed to say. “It wasn’t too hard.” Just get to it already.
For a normal guy, Craig had an uncanny ability to get people where he wanted them. “Well then, I’ve got a real challenge for you this time. For this the full resources of the department are yours, whatever you think you need to get this one out.”
While he was talking it was harder to read what he was getting at, but the moment he paused I saw the building in his mind, the reconnaissance photos he’d been looking over. It was a huge grey brick structure; it loomed over the landscape with a thick stone wall around it. The whole thing felt gray and dead and horrible. The nightmare future of every telepath in the country.
I looked away from his face and wiped my mouth with my hand like I could wipe the name out of my mouth before I said it. “Park Slope Asylum.”
Craig rustled with the file he had in front of him, reading from it. That’s the one. “The oldest and largest telepath asylum in the country, as I’m sure you know. The one Dr. White wants is in there,” he said casually, as though he was sending me out for a gallon of milk.
There was no use arguing with him, I could feel he had decided and was enjoying my surprise, but I couldn’t help myself. I made myself look at him. “If they’re in Park Slope they’re registered. One of the guidelines is that we only use unregistered telepaths.”
Reminding Craig of the project guidelines he’d helped write wasn't wise, it made his eyes narrow to slits. “Actually, you’ll find that anyone with six thought felonies on their record is fair game for the project, Andy. This woman has twelve, so she qualifies.”
“She’s not a projector is she? I’m not going to be a lot of use around here if she makes me crazy,” I said quickly. Projectors were the worst kind of job. Most of the mind felonies that projecting paths committed involved echoing, projecting part of themselves down into the victim's brain where it might never go away. The thought of someone else's personality taking over sent a shiver down my spine. The projector ward had twenty feet of super-cooled steel surrounding it in all directions to keep the thoughts in, just like we had for the labs, but that was no protection if I had to go inside.
The fear must have shown in my face. Craig held up his hands, realizing he’d pushed enough. “She’s not a projector; Carol Matthews-“
“The Cradle Killer? What does White want with her?” A nurse who'd poisoned twelve children before she was caught. She said she could hear the kids all the time at the hospital, in pain, begging for death. She got a life term in Park Slope once the path shrinks declared her insane.
“He’s interested in seeing if he can reverse her mental problems by removing her telepathy. He seems to think it could be the ticket to seeing why some of our other efforts aren’t working out.” It’s a problem. Craig admitted.
I blinked at him. “And rehabilitation?” You can’t mean we’re releasing her after.
He shrugged casually. Anything’s possible. “I think that depends on a lot of things. Right now we’re more interested in improving our success rate.”
If it works we have to keep her an indefinite amount of time to find out why and if it doesn’t we have to hold her anyway. I could work with that. I wanted a success rate better than forty-three percent as badly as Craig and White did. These people didn’t deserve to be telepathic but most of them didn’t deserve to come out of treatment insane either. “You know that it’s going to take a miracle to get her out of there. All of the regular staff is telepathic, only the projector ward has normal guards and orderlies.” The idea of going anywhere near that building made me shaky. “And what about the other patients? Three hundred paths in one building? At least one of them is going come up with a decent description of who took her,” I said, barely realizing that I'd stopped trying to talk him out of it. I was already thinking of ways to work it. Maybe while most of them are asleep. “We’d have a better chance at night but I’m sure not all the crazies are going to be sleeping.”
Craig was relieved to see I was thinking about it. That was all he wanted. Doing fine. “I need your extraction plan by this time next week,” he said, pushing the file over to me and leaning back in his chair.
I took it gingerly and stood up without looking at it. “I’ll look it over tomorrow.”
“Good. I’m sure you’ll come up with something. Talk to Kepler, and some of the people from his extraction team if you get stumped. They’re very good at close quarters,” he said with that derisive turn of mind that made it a challenge and a dismissal.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said more calmly than I felt. I walked back to my car wondering how Craig could play me so well.