Elise is on assignment. She needs background on the Senator's opponent. What she finds is a dark glimpse into the military and a connection to Andrew's organization.*
This chapter contains strong language, violence, Country French and more politics.
7. Rites Of Passage
George was ready to gloat. His neck was red under his skeptical smile and his collar was too tight. It looked like his head might pop. “It won’t do any good, I already called him.”
I finished buttoning my coat and didn’t look up until I was done. He stood too close, leaned on the edge of my cubicle and leaned over me. I could smell the cheap aftershave he used, and baby powder. I bet you did. I bet you called and asked like you were taking a survey. “It’s this crazy thing about paths. They like to have serious conversations in person.”
He made a face, lifting one eyebrow. When I said ‘they’ he heard ‘we’. He wasn’t as obvious about it as Mark, but he had his own ideas about my status. “I just think you’re wasting your time. We have to have something for the boss tomorrow,” he reminded me with a shrug. A shrug and a smirk that said he wouldn’t want to be the one at that meeting empty handed.
I picked up my bag and turned for the back door. “I’m sure one of us will have something by then.” And I’m guessing it won’t be you.
George moved so I could get past him and the smirk never left his face.
I ignored it and walked around the building to my car. I wasn’t that confident myself. The only reason I was trying this was because Harding lived locally. And because we really were running out of leads on Breaker. He clearly didn’t like paths but other than the glossed-over hazing incident there was nothing that popped.
I drove with the windows cracked and the radio off. I had to organize my thoughts. There were things that I wouldn’t be able to hide from Harding. He was going to know it was for the campaign, that I was trying to get my boss re-elected. George probably tap-danced around that one. There was no point in trying to hide it; that would only make me look untrustworthy. But I didn’t want it to be the first thing on my mind either. The protecting interests angle would have to come first. We were protecting the interests of the paths in our state by keeping Breaker out of office. Gates would do a better job for the community.
I found myself fixing my hair in the rearview mirror when I stopped on the curb in front of his house. I needed to make just the right impression but it was impossible to know what the right impression would be. He did agree to talk to you, so that’s something.
He was probably watching for my car. I didn’t let myself check my bag again for the micro recorder or my notebook. They were both there, I only wanted to check to stall and rethink and reanalyze my approach. I opened my door, got out of the car and walked straight up the shoveled driveway to the door.
The house was like something out of a craft fair painting of the country, white wood siding and red shutters framing every window. The door was red too and even though it was well into January there was a wreath of fresh smelling pine with little snowflakes on it set around the peephole. I was reaching for the doorbell when the door swung open.
Harding stood in the doorway like a refrigerator, tall and wide with his head just clearing the top. If his hair had been any longer than the short gray buzz he had, it would have brushed the doorframe.
Wow you’re tall. “Mr. Harding?” I extended my hand.
He nodded and touched my hand. “Miss Atwood,” he replied, watching me intently.
“May I come in?” I asked. I took a chance and added. If you changed your mind that’s ok, I can go.
He blinked and stepped away from the door. “But you aren’t a path,” he said, his tone curious as he shut the door behind us.
I shrugged. The hall was a strange continuity from the outside. Not the same style or period but the same forced feeling of the country. Country French in all the details, an antiqued wooden table in the entryway, matching distressed coat rack and a shoe rack with faded flowers painted on it. I’m the only five in three generations. “We can do this out loud if it makes you uncomfortable.”
He shook his head and I could see from the look on his face that he had thought something. His eyebrows went up in understanding. “I was just thinking, that’s interesting. I’ve never met a- well, someone non-telepathic from a path family.” He looked uncomfortable and completely out of place in the midst of all the dainty details and soft colors. His face and hands were brown and rough and the color extended along his temples where I could see the skin through his hair.
I don't have the sixth sense, you can call me a five. “I’m the 1 in 10,000 chance, they tell me.” I was glad I hadn’t made a mistake thinking at him.
He smiled and it made him seem smaller, less intimidating. “We could sit in the living room if you want. Can I get you anything to drink? I have juice and soda, I could put some coffee on.” He held his hand out for my briefcase so I could take my coat off.
I handed it to him and slipped out of the coat. It was so warm inside I had already started to sweat. “Coffee if you’re having some.” I put my shoes on the rack and followed him down the hall in my socks. Oh.
The living room was such a stark contrast to the rest of the house that I couldn’t mask my surprise.
Harding turned to look at me, thankfully smiling. He set my briefcase down, next to the larger sofa, and gestured to the room at large. “The rest my wife did, but the living room is mine. No doilies or wagon wheel tables in with the high def.” He glanced at the second doorway that led further into the house his smile sheepish. It made me wonder if they’d fought about the decorating.
I like the leather. “I don’t think there’s Country French that can compete with that monster,” I agreed, looking at the TV. It had to be 60 inches in the middle of dark wood and warm leather sofas.
His eyes lit up and he put a hand on one corner of it. “1080p, this one will stand up to the next few rounds of HD upgrades and then some.” He looked at the TV and then back at me and sighed. He rubbed the back of his neck with the same hand. “But you aren’t here to talk about that.”
I shrugged and tried to look reassuring. It’s an amazing system. My brother Derek would give his right arm for one like this. “No, I’m not, I wish I was. This must be great for movies.”
He waved away the compliment with one large hand, his face serious. His eyes went around the room and I wondered what he was deciding. He gave me a rueful look. “Sorry, why don’t you sit down, I’ll go get that coffee.”
I sat down and watched him leave the room. I worried he might change his mind between the living room and the kitchen, but he had never agreed to tell me anything specific. He’s making the coffee; it means he’s going to talk about something, I told myself. I felt sucked into the soft leather sofa and I had to sit on the edge to still feel professional. I crossed my legs at the ankles and took a good look around. There were some prints on the walls, mountain scenes, canyons in bright sunset colors. The dark frames matched the entertainments unit the TV was in and it was all set off by the blue leather sofas. No family pictures though, no pictures of people at all. But what had I been expecting, a flag outside and pictures from his unit on the walls? That was my grandfather’s house not Harding’s.
I sat back slightly and wondered how the room had avoided even the lacy window treatments. I could see trees and part of the red fence around the yard through the thick wooden blinds.
“He even picked out the carpet color.”
I looked up to see Harding in the doorway with a tray, distressed wood that probably had flowers on it somewhere, and a woman who looked tiny standing next to him. Her features were small and sharp and the fluffy white cardigan with the lace edges she wore made me sure that this was the woman responsible for the rest of the house.
I stood up as they entered the room and glanced at Harding.
He nodded and set the tray down. It did have flowers on it, yellow ones. So did the tea service. “Miss Atwood, this is my wife, Claire.”
I offered my hand. “Elise, please.” I didn’t realize you’d be joining us.
She unfolded her arms and took my hand in a brief grip, frowning. Her thin black eyebrows were pulled so close together that they looked like one hard line above her blue eyes. “This was all Robert’s idea.” She sat on the loveseat next to him and left me on the larger sofa alone.
He shifted and poured the coffee. She sat up straighter and crossed her arms again. I wondered what he’d told her.
“What idea is that?” I asked when neither of them spoke. Are those oatmeal cookies?
Harding nodded. “Made them this morning.” He pushed the plate toward me with the tips of his fingers.
“You may have made a friend for life.” I put one of the cookies on a small china plate.
“Robert wants me to show you what happened,” Claire snapped, making us both jump.
He put a hand on his wife’s knee but she stared hard at me.
“But you’re not sure.” Ask me, whatever it is you’re wondering. I want everyone to be comfortable. I wasn’t even sure I had convinced Harding until she spoke, but I could see that I wasn’t going to get anywhere unless I convinced her too.
She patted Harding’s hand on her knee but her expression didn’t change. Her mouth formed such a tight thin line I wondered if she would say anything else. “This isn’t anything that will hold up in court. You can’t use it on the news, Robert will deny it up and down if you try,” she said, her shoulders stiff against the back of the sofa.
I took a careful sip of my coffee. It was too strong but it was good to have something to do with my hands. Then we won’t try. I’ve just been asked to gather information on Mr. Breaker. “There’s still nothing that says you have to tell me,” I said to Harding.
“Call me Rob.” He took a deep breath. “What’re you going to do with this if I do tell you?”
“I’m getting a feel for him. Senator Gates thinks we can find clear instances of at least bias against telepaths-“
“Ha.” His wife let out a short bark of laughter. “I don’t think you’re going to have to dig hard. A man like that doesn’t knock the hell out of someone just once, he does it all his life.” Her free hand picked at the lace edge of her cardigan and her cheeks were pink.
Rob shifted his hand to hold his wife’s, her little fingers disappearing in his careful grip. “And once you’re sure he doesn’t like paths?” he said after a short pause.
I shrugged, knowing we’d come to the election eventually. “We use it to win. There are a lot of telepaths in New York, a lot of voting telepaths.” I think Gates is going to do a lot better for them than a guy like Breaker who’s already talking about cutting channel school funding.
Claire opened her mouth and then looked at Rob and shook her head. I broke off a piece of my cookie and ate it while they decided. I wonder if George is having any luck. Wouldn’t that be a great way to start the weekend? Spending Friday listening to him gloat. One of the prints on the wall was of Mt St Helen’s. It showed the huge crater in black and white with two tiny figures near the bottom of the frame. I wondered if they were anyone Harding knew.
He cleared his throat and I looked away from the picture. They both watched me, Rob smiled thinly, Claire looked sterner than ever. “I’m going to tell you, but I-“
“He wants to know if we can have some sort of agreement that you won’t try and take this to the press,” Claire finished briskly. She watched me with hard eyes, she expected me to disappoint him.
I nodded, this had all been too easy so far, I wasn’t surprised that they’d stalled me. Refusing would alienate the wife further and then I wouldn’t have anything. “I can have something drawn up. It’ll take until tomorrow at least, to have it notarized.” Will you be available tomorrow? Or early next week?
Rob looked at his wife, eyebrows raised. She rolled her eyes and shrugged.
“I’ll take your word for now. You can have the contract sent out tomorrow.” He took a sip of his coffee. His hand shook.
His wife stayed where she was, her hand still over his on her knee and I wondered if she was going to stay for moral support. “I’d like to take a few notes.” I have a recorder too if that’s ok.
Harding blinked at me and then shook his head. “No, no, Claire’s going to project for you.” He paused and looked at his wife and then back at me. “Unless you want me to talk it out, it won’t be as accurate,” he said with a shrug, eyes uncomfortable.
My eyebrows went up. “No, that would be great. I, well I had no idea you could project.” That would help. I watched Claire. This was a strange twist to things; I’d never met a projector who was so closed off. I pulled out my notebook and a pen and left the recorder.
I would never project without permission, she told me, as though it was a matter of manners. “Have you felt memory projection before?” she asked in the same tone.
I felt like I was being tested. “Two of my brothers project.” I’m ready whenever you are, I shot back more sharply than I should have. I forced myself to relax.
Her eyes narrowed, but then she smiled. It wasn’t a nice expression. Her yellowed teeth looked sharp. “I’ll pass along what Robert gives me.”
Harding looked between us and rubbed his face with his free hand. “Elise, what do you know about hazing?”
“Not much beyond what you see in the news. My brothers were in fraternities, so I know something about that.” Somehow I doubt this is the same.
He shook his head. “No, not quite the same. Same principle, I guess. It’s a test. A way to prove yourself as the new guy. To prove your loyalty. When I went into jump school instead of a path Special Forces unit, I had a lot of proving to do.” He took another gulp of coffee and emptied the mug. Claire moved to refill it and he shook his head. “It wouldn’t have been a problem. I was supposed to run a gauntlet-”
A what? I asked, not able to keep myself from interrupting.
“A bunch of guys stand in two rows so there’s a space down the center and the new guy has to run through it, they all get to try and hit him on the way through,” he explained. “It would have been ok, but Craig was there, and Breaker.”
“They made trouble?” I guessed when he didn’t continue.
They were going to try and kill him. Give him a minute to remember, Claire told me with a hard bite to her thoughts. I wasn’t sure if it was for me or Breaker and this guy Craig.
I opened my notebook and wrote, Craig?
“This is going to be a little broken up. It was a long time ago,” Rob said with a frown.
“Whatever you remember.” I’m not in any hurry, I assured him.
His wife gave me another dark look.
This was his first week after boot, Claire began abruptly, startling me. I saw that Harding had closed his eyes and his mouth was set in a thin line.
There was no warning. The memory just pushed into my brain. I was naked and cold, it was biting cold, the kind of cold that made my skin feel pinched. Cold and I was half bent, or Harding was half bent, trying to protect his crotch because he couldn’t cover it with his hands. The rope around them, tying them behind us was smooth and cold and tight. Don was next to us, teeth chattering loud enough to hear. God I hope they get this over with fast. He was hoping, bent at the waist and bobbing on his feet like it would help keep the cold from chewing into him.
“All right ladies. It’s time to run, Hawthorne, you’re first.” Daniels’ voice boomed out over the empty training field. Shit it’s cold, let’s get this over with. He planted his boot in Don’s ass to start him running.
I watched angrily, or with resignation, it was hard to pull Harding’s memory away from Claire’s perception of the whole thing.
Don ran, tilted forward to keep his balance, white ass trying to zigzag between the guys who hit him with their fists and boots and even a couple of bats. It was a short run, only twenty guys, all of them excited and loud, but not too loud. They wanted to do it right but didn’t want to get nailed for doing it.
Damn, I think I have a rock in my boot. Too fucking cold to take it off. I’ll get it when we get back. Daniels was thinking under his shouting, ignoring me as Don made his run.
Craig watched me though. He was on the front end of the gauntlet and he’d already got his hits in. Now he was watching. You’re next, he thought clearly, twisting his bat in his hands. He nudged the guy next to him with his elbow.
Breaker looked over, twenty years younger with a full head of hair and a thin face. He nodded. Brought this just for you. The senatorial candidate from New York waved the tire iron at me so it picked up the faint light from the barracks.
I stared back at them and it was there like they were shouting over everyone else. Almost like one brain they pictured me running and then the spot on the back of my head where they’d aim. And then where I’d fall and not move anymore.
“Go Harding, go!” Daniels’ kicked me and I jumped forward but only a couple of steps.
“Go,” he hissed and kicked again, right in the back of the thigh so it felt like it was on fire. He shoved my shoulders too.
Craig and Breaker watched with their matching plans and vicious looks. I twisted off to the side. “No man. I’m not doing it.”
You what? “Get your ass down that line, private,” he whispered in my ear, between disbelief and anger.
I shrugged him off and turned to face him. “I’m not going down there so those guys can fuck up a-”
“You’re going to do every damn thing I tell you because that’s how we do things here. Now get your ass down that line.” Daniels shook he was so mad, his face looked white in what light there was. This is how it’s done. You think you know better than me? Is that it?
They aren’t the only ones who could fuck me up, I backed away from him.
“What the hell’s the hold up?” Guys pushed past me or shoved me aside to get to Daniels.
He stared hard at me, his hands fisted at his sides, itching to hit me. Itching to hit the smug look he imagined on my face. “He’s not running.”
“What do you mean, he’s not running?” Breaker checked me hard with his shoulder as he passed.
“He’s not, right Harding?” Daniels said harshly, daring me to say it again.
Craig stood next to me now and slapped the bat against the palm of one hand over and over. Come one you little pussy, run. I want a crack at that big head of yours. Paths are supposed to have big brains right? I want to see one.
“I’m not,” I agreed. I didn’t trust myself to look at Craig again. The way he was tensed he was going to hit me with the damn bat if I ran or not.
“Fuck that, he doesn’t have to run to get hit,” someone said from behind me.
There were shouts and thoughts of agreement, Breaker was nodding and swinging the tire iron in short deadly arcs.
Daniels shook his head. “Get back to your bunks. He’s not doing it,” he said, daring someone else to challenge him.
Anyone that got a good look at his face just turned around and started walking back. Even Craig and Breaker. Daniels was last, anger still coming off him in bright waves. He turned to look at me. “You fucked up big time.”
That voice rang in my head while everything else got vague. The walk back was long and it was cold and I could feel Harding reach for what happened next, his wife’s anger clouding things again.
No one messed with me on the way back; they were still gone while I got myself loose of the ropes.
Then there was warmth and itching tiredness fell over everything. We were in the dark, in bed, feeling the springs through the mattress. There was the vague tickle of thoughts, chatter that was too loud. A sack came down over our head like a bucket of cold water. Complete darkness. We clawed at the rough fabric, grabbed at the arms that held it down, but not able to make them let go and then the shock of the first hit. Right in the chest.
There was a flash of how it would look later in the mirror, a big purple ring right under the collarbone and then it was just the sharp, then dull pain of one hit after another and the clamp of hands around my ankles when I tried to twist off the bed.
This is the hard way and this isn’t all either. We’re going to put you through the grinder. Daniels’ thoughts were hard and loud from where he was holding the sack over my head while I twisted and turned to get away from the next rock-hard blow knowing where it was going to hit a second before but unable to get away.
Craig’s thoughts were louder and harder than Daniels’. Clear and focused and almost ecstatic. Fucking path, you hear that you little shit? You should’ve let me get you with the bat. I twisted away from what was aimed at my gut, managed to get my legs free, and flipped completely on my stomach in time for it to tear through my ribs instead. It was like my whole ribcage had collapsed, crushed and I couldn’t breathe. There was more, the little rock blows but they didn’t matter.
You weren’t thinking of getting away from us? The second real hit, Breaker came for me with his dull anger and aimed at my leg. His thoughts were in the same forceful radio voice he used during debates. And then the impact, red behind my eyes were I was gasping, the crack of the bone like the pop of a green branch on a hot fire.
The whole thing lifted off of me at once and I was back on the Harding’s sofa with my palms pressed against my eyes and my breathing harsh in my ears.
I flinched back from the hand on my shoulder and it withdrew. I wiped my eyes with my fingers. Harding sat on the coffee table in front of me and held out a cup of coffee. I shook my head. Water and Tylenol if you’ve got it. She pushes hard.
He got up, set the coffee down and headed toward the kitchen. Once he moved I could see Claire watching me across the coffee table. Her eyes were wet and she nudged the box of tissues toward me with her fingertips like Harding had done with the cookies.
“Thanks.” I sounded hoarse and dabbed my eyes with one of the tissues.
Think that’s going to help you? she asked, arms crossed over her chest again.
I sat back and sniffed. My head felt hollow and I blinked against any more projection. “I hope so.” I forced myself to concentrate on the tray on the table. The tiny flowers, the cups, the texture of the cookies, anything. I only looked up again when Harding came back.
He held out a glass of water and dropped the pills into my outstretched hand. “You alright?”
Yeah, I’m fine. I took a sip of water and dropped the pills back so they wouldn’t hit my tongue. I swallowed and held the glass between both hands. “Why didn’t you press charges?”
Claire cleared her throat. When I looked up she was shaking her head.
He gave her a reassuring look. “I couldn’t prove who did the real damage. Unless I wanted to try and court martial the whole unit there was no way I could stay there.”
But Breaker and Craig-
Harding spread is large hands. “They had intent but I couldn’t see. There was no way to prove they had bricks when everyone else was beating me with soap.”
“Robert got a transfer to Special Forces and we moved on,” Claire said with sharp finality.