*This chapter contains strong language, politics and nuts.
4. The Broken Path
“I want someone to explain it to me. I want someone to tell me how, after only twenty-four hours, a high school dropout is out five points ahead of us in the polls?”
Senator Gates didn’t have to raise his voice. All he had to do was stare at us with those tired eyes, his sleeves rolled up and his mouth serious.
There wasn’t a single person in the room who could look right at him.
“It’s the first statewide poll, it doesn’t mean anything.” Except Shaun. Shaun could say anything, no matter how tired and serious the old man looked. He was the only one who’d sit at the other end of the big conference table, always in full view of the Senator’s angry glare.
Gates rubbed his face with one hand and sat back in his chair. “So it’s the first poll. I want to know how you’re going to fix it for the next one.”
That was for all of us. There was a general murmur and shuffling of papers. I could see Mark sneaking a look at me across the table. His round face was always anxious but now his eyebrows were up. His look said what we were all thinking. What did Gates want from us? Magic?
“Well? We were supposed to be looking into all of the candidates. What do you have on him?” The Senator always said we and us, like it wasn’t only him running for office, it was all of us. It was pretty ham-handed psychology, but it usually worked.
“Um, well he’s openly pro-life.” Gates directed his glare at George who shrank in his chair. “And he wants to raise taxes,” he added like he couldn’t stop himself.
You always have to say something even if you have nothing, don’t you George? I thought with a silent sigh.
Gates actually took his glasses off to rub his face this time. Like he’d been working all night instead of playing in the midnight celebrity golf tournament and hamming it up for the press. “How about something I would actually touch with a ten foot pole, or something we don’t already have on our platform.”
“What about the education angle? I mean, he got his master’s online.” Mark tried next. I could have told him that was wasn’t what the old man wanted. Gates knew that bringing up the working class, self-educated angle was only going to make him look pampered and out of touch with the public because he was a Yale man who had one of the school’s libraries named after his grandfather.
Shaun took this one, his owlish eyebrows going up and making his receding hairline look even sharper. “That’ll just open him up to play the working man crap, son. What about the military angle? This isn’t a great time to be a military man,” he offered, gesturing toward Gates, spreading his fat fingers wide.
Gates shook his head, looking stern. “Dad was a West Point instructor and I’m supposed to say I think the army has it all wrong?”
He’s already got a plan. I knew it from the impatient but expectant look on the Senator's face. This was just the buildup so we’d be sure we came up with the idea ourselves. So whatever his plan was he could make us feel involved, responsible. These were the meetings where I wished we were all telepathic for just five minutes. We could all come in knowing what was on the old man’s mind and getting it the hell over with. It would have been a lot easier than all this stupid guessing.
“There’s that conviction for auto theft when he was a minor,” Mark offered, looking down at his notes, “but that would probably just add to the whole pulling himself up by his, uh, boot straps, thing,” he ended lamely when he felt Gates staring at him. Shaun added his glare and Mark went red around the collar.
Shaun gave Mark a condescending little nod. “What it would look like is shit slinging. What’s the man for, what’s he against?” he added to the table at large.
The old man’s face softened slightly. It wasn’t quite a smile, but he approved of where Shaun was going. Not even Shaun seemed to notice though, he was busy glaring and everyone else was scrambling for something to say, not wanting to be the next one shot down but knowing better than to say nothing. Better Gates notice you being stupid than notice you not trying at all.
“Well? Where is he on education? Urban outreach? Is he a cat person or a dog person?” Shaun boomed when we were all still quiet.
He has no idea what Gates is after.
“The tax hike isn’t going to make him popular with the urban section, but he’s already said that money will go to schools. They’ll lap that up when we can’t promise to lower taxes,” George said, sounding a little firmer this time. He always did better on the second try. He even managed to meet Shaun’s eyes.
Shaun shrugged, rolling his big shoulders. I could imagine his huge stomach rolling up and down too, like a wave under the table. “We’ll keep it away from taxes. We still don’t know what he’s going to try and promise with the school reform. More counselors, more teachers, more metal detectors? There still might be a way to turn that on him.” Which meant that he could get most of the minority vote if he played the schools thing right.
The smile was hovering around Gates’ mouth. Shaun was close but not quite where he wanted us yet.
There was something else. What else could he have in mind? I flipped through my notes. Mark had been in charge of tallying Miles Breaker’s campaign stances, his likes, dislikes, his kids, everything. Before Breaker was director of the Geological Survey Department he’d been pretty fair-handed as an FBI agent and had an outstanding military record. Except that one incident. It was a note of a note, in his records, hazing another recruit during jump school.
“Are we boring you, Atwood?” Shaun barked.
I jumped in my seat, almost spilling my coffee. Son of a bitch. Shaun was giving me his full doom glare, his beady little eyes almost completely covered by his eyebrows. “What about the path vote?” I asked, holding his eyes for just a second before I looked up the table at Gates. His eyebrows were up and he was sitting further back in his chair. I had said the right thing but he wasn’t going to confirm it yet. I had to spell it out, make it look like my idea. This is what the token path gets. Being used like this didn’t used to faze me, but I was on my second campaign with the Senator and not all of his tricks had kept their charm. “There’s that mention of hazing when he was at jump school. That telepath that wouldn’t press charges? Well he also said something in that interview last month about cutting funding to the Park Slope Complex.”
“Is it enough?” Shaun said, still irritated with me, even if he could see the potential.
It’s what he wants. I shrugged, not wanting to look too sure of myself until Gates chimed in. I tapped my papers with my pen, looking down slightly so Shaun didn’t feel too challenged. “New York has the biggest path population in the country and most of them vote. Give them a reason to think Breaker doesn’t want them to have all their Registration Rights and that’s, what, fifteen percent of the vote in our pocket?” More like twenty, but Gates knew that when he thought of this.
“Telepaths want money for schools too,” Shaun interjected, uncomfortable when he didn’t have the floor. He liked to carry a meeting whenever he could. He liked to be indispensable. It was as if he didn’t realize how integral he was to all of the old man’s games. Without Shaun to shout and scare us, Gates would have to be the bad guy all the time. And that didn’t work with the solid, trustworthy grandfather image.
“They want money for channel schools. It’s a safe bet to say that’s not where Breaker sees the education money going,” Gates finally interjected, taking a sip of his coffee. He got what he wanted. And he didn’t have to say telepath once.
Shaun cleared his throat, instantly back on course. “That means we need to look into this more carefully. Anything to do with this guy and a telepath, it doesn’t matter if it happened in the third grade, you’re on it and you have it by this time Thursday.”
George was flipping through the notes trying to find the references I mentioned and Shaun looked self important. Mark gave me a covert thumbs up.
“Ok, let’s get on this folks. Mark, stick around for a second, I want to make a few changes on the speech for the fundraiser tonight,” Gates said, effectively dismissing us.
Everyone stood up, gathering their papers, Shaun moving off to Gates’ end of the table, George ducking out fast, wanting to make up for his failed comments by being the first one to start on the new project.
“How do you do that?” Mark asked quietly.
I looked up at him; he had that half wary half bashful look he got sometimes. The kind where it was hard to tell if he was just nervous or if he was hitting on me. Do I actually have to drag you aside and say I'm not interested? “Do what?” I asked in the same low tone, coming around the table to get to the door.
He gestured for me to stand next to him. His voice was so low I had to tilt my head toward him. “The old man, how do you always know what he wants to hear?”
That was nervous Mark. Every once in a while he would convince himself that I was really telepathic, I just kept it to myself. As though Gates would ever let an unregistered path work for him. Like he would even let a path work here? “I’ve known him since I was a kid, Mark. That’s all,” I assured him, patting his shoulder and making for the door. Some people were so damned paranoid. I’d had to take a second TAT exam just to prove my five status and get this job.
“Good idea Elise. I thought you might be asleep down there this morning,” the Senator said as I approached the door.
“It was all in the report,” I said, careful about being praised with Shaun sitting right there. He could make my week hell if he thought Gates was favoring me. It was like having a jealous younger brother.
Gates clapped me on the shoulder. One of those boys club gestures that felt dirty when he did it. His hand was hot and I felt like there was a damp patch on my sweater. “But you saw it. You think like your old man.” He paused to let the compliment sink in.
I thought like a path but I was less of a liability to have around. I had to work to smile. I bet you never pulled this flattering BS on him.
“Is your brother still working for the RRB?” he asked suddenly.
It wasn’t a secret he worked for the Registration Regulation Board, but I felt strangely cornered. “Yeah, he’s still down there. Do you want me to pass something along?”
The Senator blinked and his eyes narrowed so briefly I barely caught the reaction. “Just tell him I said hello.”
“Sure, I’m meeting him for lunch. I’ll let him know.” He wants some kind of favor. I'd have to warn Derek that Gates wanted something. He seemed to think the whole family owed him because he used to work with Dad.
He nodded, sure he had cleared up any suspicion. “You do that. Tell him he needs to take me up on golf one of these weekends,” he said, turning to Mark who had been hovering slightly behind me.
I got out of the conference room fast. I still had to draft a letter to the Ladies Auxiliary Group the senator addressed last night before I could get away for lunch.
It wasn't a difficult letter, just the standard thank you’s and some well placed compliments. I emailed it to Gates for approval, sat back in my chair and picked up the phone.
It rang twice. “Derek Atwood.” He sounded harassed. That usually meant we weren’t meeting up.
“Tell me you didn’t forget about lunch,” I said, rolling my neck. I don’t want to eat lunch in here today. Eating in the break room made you look unproductive and eating at my desk meant I’d spend the time catching up on my email, or looking over the latest polls.
He sighed into the phone. “No, I didn’t forget. It’s been a mess over here. Can you give me another fifteen minutes?”
I found myself smiling in relief. “That’s fine. You still want to go to Chop’t? Or do you want to eat complete crap?”
“Hmm. No, I better stick to the diet if I want Claire to talk to me tonight,” he said fondly. I could tell he was smiling, Derek needed a diet like he needed another leg but he was trying to support his wife.
“Right, salad with a bucket of dressing and a diet coke should do it,” I teased, at least sloppy ranch dressing wasn’t as bad as a Big Mac, fries and the diet coke. “Do you want to give me a call when you’re heading out?”
“You think that Dani will bitch if Ian brings Teresa?”
It took me a second to decipher that. I tapped the side of my head with the receiver in half hearted frustration. Even on the phone Derek had a hard time remembering what he was thinking at me and what he was saying. “Try one conversation at a time. Where is Ian bringing her?”
“Eh, I’ll ask you at lunch. Just head down. I’ll sneak in line with you,” he said absently.
“Ok, see you there.” I hung up and killed another ten minutes checking my email. When I couldn’t stand the sight of my computer anymore I picked up my bag and ducked around the back end of our little maze of cubicles to dodge Shaun’s desk, and Gates's hawk-eyed secretary Rose.
I went around Mark’s desk just in time to see him staring, mouth slightly open, at the new receptionist who was bent over the photocopier putting paper in the feed. I shook my head. He was so paranoid that some path was going to read him, and it didn’t take telepathy to tell what he was thinking most of the time.
“Why do you always eat at your desk?” I asked, leaning casually against the edge of his cubicle.
He jumped in his seat and spun around to look at me. His neck was red, he didn’t seem sure if I had caught him looking or not. “Busy, you know how it is. The boss makes a lot of speeches.”
And you? You’re not supposed to have any time to yourself? “It’s good to get out and stretch your legs.” I leaned in and lowered my voice slightly. “And, if you head out the back door you can skip the guilt from Shaun and Rose.”
Mark was looking down at his hands, he didn’t notice Paige approaching his desk with her sheaf of fresh copies held loosely at her side.
Come on. “I was just telling Mark he should get out at lunch. We’re still trying the new Thai place tomorrow, aren't we?” I asked, drawing her in. Just ask him, I urged like she could hear me.
She looked at me and then down at Mark who looked back bashfully. “You should come with us Mark. If, you know, you like Thai food.”
I knew it, I thought, watching the exchange with satisfaction. Deep down, or not so deep, every path is a matchmaker. Even a defective one like me.
It took Mark a minute to build up the nerve, but eventually he spoke. “Yeah, I like Thai food.”
I kept my grin to myself and moved away from the cubicle wall. “I need to run and catch Derek,” I said with a little wave.
They both looked around at me but then they looked back at each other. “Who’s Derek?” I heard Paige ask as I stepped through the door.
Well, that should keep them talking for a few more minutes, I thought smugly as I went down the stairs.
Down on the street level it was cold. Not snowing, but cold enough that I walked fast down the street, dodging around people to get to the restaurant two minutes faster. Three older women were taking up the entire width of the sidewalk, walking slow, talking to each other, completely oblivious to foot traffic.
My hands were freezing. Move it like you actually plan on getting somewhere, I thought clearly, tempting fate. One of these days I was going to do it to an actual path and get my ass kicked.
You leave those poor ladies alone. They can’t help being ancient.
I felt the projected thought a second before Derek’s arm settled around my shoulders. I put my arm briefly around his waist to return the hug. Yeah, well, I’m cold. “I didn’t think you’d be down for another ten minutes.”
“Got done faster than I thought.” Too bad they don’t have any warm salads. Maybe they still have those panini things. His vision of melted cheese and warm bread was tempting.
Stop that. I have to eat at least one healthy meal today. “If I’m not careful I’m going to have to roll to my next job,” I said, steering us firmly toward Chop’t.
Derek let me push him and we got out of the wind. Is the boss on the warpath or something? “You think that Waldorf salad is any good?”
“Maybe. It's got walnuts though, you don’t like those.” Just the usual. He asked about you though. I think he’s going to call in a favor, I warned, scanning the menu on the wall above us as the line moved.
Derek shrugged. I think I like walnuts. Maybe they’ll put cashews in instead. “Any idea what he wants?” he asked, with no sign of annoyance.
I got called to place my order. No idea. I’ll tell you about our meeting though. “I’ll grab a seat if I’m done first,” I said, moving up along the counter to order.
You never get done first, he teased across the row. A few people turned their heads, not knowing where to look. That was the problem with distance projecting. Other people in the crossfire ended up catching parts of the conversation whether they knew it or not.
I rolled my eyes and tried to look stern. He knew he wasn’t supposed to do that in public.
He grinned and turned to order.
Either because he really did ‘suggest’ the salad guy should work faster or just from luck, he was already sitting when I was getting my receipt. I squeezed between the other tables and sat across from him.
His cheeks were puffed out with salad. So what’s the problem with Gates today? he asked, raising his eyebrows.
I shrugged and shook my head, poking around my salad for a piece of hardboiled egg. I just don’t like how he maneuvers people. It’s ridiculous and they don’t even see he’s doing it.
He swallowed hard and shrugged back. “He’s a politician, isn’t it his job to maneuver people?” You have to cut him some slack, they’re all like that.
My mouth was full so I shook my head. It’s getting old. Like today. He didn’t want to say something so he pushed us all around until I said it for him.
“Still under the heading of professional maneuvering,” he said offhandedly. Try not to let it get to you.
“Derek you know there are only two reasons Gates has me on his staff,” I said, gesturing with my fork.
Nice ass and a cute face? he asked, still trying to defuse my bad mood and stuffing such a huge forkful of salad into his mouth he had to use his fingers to push it all the way in.
You’re a dick. “Because he worked with dad.” And because with me he can look like he supports paths without having to have a real one on his staff, I corrected, taking a small bite but still getting dressing across my cheek.
Klutz. “I’m sure that’s not true. I mean you’ve been working for him for what? Five years? If he didn’t want you around he’d have fired you by now,” he observed before shoveling in another huge bite.
“Is Claire not feeding you at home or do you think someone's going to take it away from you?” You weren’t there this morning. You should have heard him telling me I thought just like dad. I let the clear memory of Gates clapping me on the shoulder and his condescending tone hit the surface where Derek could see it.
I’m hungry. There were no bagels at the meeting this morning. “I’m sure he meant well. He thought it was a compliment,” he hedged, not quite looking at me.
He meant I’m the token path. That’s what he meant and you know it. “You should have seen his face light up when I suggested getting the path community on his side for the election.”
Derek shrugged and drank his coke so fast he choked a little. “So? Is it a bad idea to have him do something for the community?” He asked, digging through his salad for the rest of the cashews. What did you think you were going to get working for some politician? Honesty? Higher purpose? They’re just out-
“To stay in office. Thanks Dad, I remember.” Derek’s forehead contracted briefly, thinking of Dad. I hurried on. I thought maybe he’d really do something decent, you know? Dad liked him and he could read him.
He shook his head. “Nah, Dad said Gates was a hard read. Guy had some training of his own. Best block he ever felt on a five.”
I found myself looking around to see if anyone else was listening. Derek worked with all paths and he went home to all paths and he had no gauge of how strange our disjointed conversations could sound to a bunch of fives. And then he’d take it that extra step and just talk about telepathy like no one could possibly hear him. “I don’t know. I expected something else.”
Derek rolled his eyes. You’re too paranoid about it, sis. I don’t care if the whole restaurant knows I’m a path. What difference would it make? “They all think they can spot one anyway. Like we wear signs.” He drained the last of his soda and burped under his breath. “Don’t worry about Gates. If he really wants the path vote, help him get it. Make him do something that actually helps someone.” Channel him, it’s what he likes to do, right? He started pulling his coat on.
“Where are you going?” I managed around a mouthful of salad. I thought you had an hour?
He shook his head. “Gotta get over to the bakery and pick up the cheesecake for tomorrow.” You’re still coming, right? Claire’s making lasagna, which Mom has promised not to pick on for once. Ian bet me that Mom will last half an hour. I give her forty minutes.
From the door to the dinner table? Put me down for twenty minutes. “Of course I’m coming. Am I bringing anything?” I asked, turning my cheek so he could kiss it as he stood up.
“Just your always charming self. And maybe that sangria you made last time.” He kissed my cheek and touched my shoulder, standing up and straightening the strap of his bag over his shoulder.
I shot him a look. “You want sangria with the lasagna?” I thought we agreed that Dani got totally tanked on that stuff last time.
He grinned. “Yeah, it’ll be great. Dani’s a funny drunk.” You just watch how much rum you’re putting in it if you’re planning on having any.
I spilled one dish of salsa, I reminded him, narrowing my eyes. “How much should I bring?”
Like I can’t tell when you’re drunk? “As much as you can fit in that toy car of yours,” he said, giving my shoulder a squeeze and heading for the door.
I picked at the rest of my salad and wished I’d brought something to read. The crowded restaurant felt emptier without Derek. Everyone was talking but there were no sly thoughts, no pictures spinning around, everything was trapped neatly in their heads. Sometimes lunch with Derek felt like the only real conversation I had all day.previous