In this week's Telepaths Carl gets out of the house to do a little surveillance work. But distance won't save him from trouble at home, and his anger will lead to trouble with Lee.*
*This chapter contains strong language, wild theories, pickles and well deserved violence.
25. A Course of Action
"What do you think he's doing?" Elise didn't look up from her glass as she tried to fish a cherry out with her straw. How did this get under the ice?
"Who, Steadman?" I lifted the bun from my burger and took off the pickles. When I don't say anything they leave them off, when I ask for no pickles I get pickles.
"It might have something to do with your charming personality," Maggie said as she sculpted her potatoes into a mound with a large depression in the center. I'd seen her do it much faster with her right hand. "Anyway, I thought we knew what Andrew was doing." Carl stop twitching and eat, you can have another smoke before we leave.
Elise got the cherry out and motioned to the waitress for another drink. "We know he's picking people up. What about after that?" How did we find the one place on this highway that has real cherry coke?
"Pure luck." I smeared ketchup on the bun and put it back on top of the cheese. I cut the burger in half and tried not to think about having a cigarette. We had to have some after our flight got cancelled. We didn't get any with the rental car.
Maggie spooned her corn into the depression in her mashed potatoes, mouth turned in a frown of concentration. "He's working for the government, what do you think, Carl? What do they want them alive for?" Driving a Dodge for three hours didn't kill you, she added with a smirk.
I took a bite of my burger and shrugged. I just question them. I have no idea what they'd want with a bunch of unregistereds. "The burger isn't bad. Did you stop playing with your food long enough to taste any of it?"
Ignoring me, Maggie folded the mashed potatoes over the corn and cut her meat loaf. "It could be something easy, like they're being arrested for thought felonies." Leave my food alone, I'm not the one who took twenty minutes to order.
"Could be. If they're being taken somewhere and detained with no outside contact it would be a major rights violation. They disappear. The community isn't going to like that, even if they are criminals," I agreed and dipped an onion ring in a pale orange sauce. It stopped snowing. We'll be able to see the road now.
"I don't think so. The way the Senator's been talking about it this is going to blow the lid off the election. Breaker won't be able to run for the home owner's association, let alone the Senate. There'll be enough people, even paths, who think it's ok to do anything to criminals," Elise said with a thoughtful frown. I could drive the next stretch, I don't mind the snow.
"Who knows? Maybe they're brainwashing them as sleeper agents," I told them in a conspiratorial whisper. Steadman didn't have anything about it in his head?
We both looked at Maggie who put a forkful of potatoes and corn with a tiny square of meatloaf on top in her mouth. She shook her head and held up a finger. You make it sound like I had the run of the place. I got in for a few seconds. She rolled her eyes at me and swallowed. "No idea. He thinks what he's doing is right, but who knows what he thinks right is? He could be taking them to Area 51 to breed with aliens for all we know."
"Breed with aliens?" Elise stared at her. Where did that come from?
Yeah, Maggie, where'd that come from?
She rolled her eyes again. "He thinks he's punishing them. Can you think of something worse than being on the receiving end of all those anal probes?"
Elise laughed, I howled. Even Maggie couldn't keep a straight face as she watched me almost fall out of the booth laughing. "You're a sick woman." I wiped my eyes with a napkin. Of course the way Robin tells it you weren't too adverse to-
She kicked me under the table. Don't be an ass. "I think whatever he's doing; we can say it's bad. Bad enough that I'll be happy to get him off the street."
"Maybe they'll send him to Area 51," Elise suggested, shaking with silent laughter. Or maybe he takes them to some lab where they slap wings on them and make bat people.
I shook my head. Alien sodomy wins, I declared through a mouthful of food. "How many brothers do you have anyway? I know where Maggie gets this stuff but you seem so normal."
They both went so tense so fast I blinked in surprise.
"Three," Elise said in a clipped tone. Her fork had been halfway to her mouth and she lowered it back to the plate. They were all at dinner Sunday, she thought with so much anger that I sat back in my seat.
Maggie put down her fork and sighed. "I thought it went pretty well. Lee gutted one brother and the rest of them only said I was crazy after I left." It was better than my grandparents did last Christmas.
"I can't believe my Mother said that," Elise said, angry and ashamed. Dad was echoed when I was ten and she never told him he belonged in the Slope.
You think she's related to my mother-in-law? I asked, not sure what else to say. I wouldn't have mentioned her family if I had known it was such a hornets' nest. I had thought they were tense about the cancelled flight and the lecture Gates had given them about following my directions because they couldn't be trusted not to get shot at.
Maggie gave me a tight smile. "That's not nice. Your mother-in-law has no good reason to think you're a demented freak who shouldn't have stolen her daughter. Elise's Mom has concrete proof." If Mrs. Beast knew more about you she might be justified. I'm sure you keep the backseat story to yourself.
"Let's talk about someone else's insane family, ok?" Elise said as she pushed the whole incident behind her block. I got flash of what had happened, an older woman with Elise's coloring saying, 'your friend's not stable.'
I cleared my throat. "I could tell you about my brother who was a stripper in college. Then you'd see a picture of him and it would ruin our working relationship." Or the time my Dad got in a fistfight with a donkey because it threw my cousin off when we were riding up the Grand Canyon.
"You're brother's a stripper?" she asked, game to change the subject. We had one cousin in jail and another one that's the town bicycle. I think Grandma would explode if one of us was a stripper.
Maggie looked relieved and then sly. "I can vouch for it. I got dragged to that damn strip club sophomore year. It was called 'The Cave' and all he was wearing was a cowboy hat." He's lucky we didn't have cameras; he'd never live it down.
"You seem to remember that very clearly," Elise said, her eyebrows raised.
Why do I say these things? Maggie groaned mentally. "You'd remember too if you had organic chemistry and zoology with him the same semester."
Our folks never found out, thank god. They were proud he was 'working' his way through school, I interjected, doing my best to save Maggie. "I bet it damn near burned your retinas out. I know mine are recovering from the idea."
Elise's attention turned to me, her face drawn in confusion. "Burned out because it was your brother? He must have been ok to pay for school." Did you all go to school together?
"Fine body, face like ground chuck. Sorry, Carl," Maggie added, not sorry at all. You're lucky you never had to see it.
Like you don't have any relatives from the shallow end of the gene pool? What about that cousin with the webbed toes? I shot back. "John and Maggie were on the med track. I went straight into the academy."
Elise was interested now, her frown smoothed out and she leaned forward. "Did you meet through your brother?" I thought you went to school together.
"Channel school. Carl, his wife Lynn and I were all in the same year, same homeroom," Maggie said and sipped her tea. "Those are some stories that could ruin a professional relationship." Right Carl?
I could feel my neck turn red. "Pay no attention to her. I was the one always getting her out of trouble. Which she forgot all about when she went back to California for med school and never called." If you hadn't moved in with Robin during your internship we would still be wondering where you were.
"I think I'm going to have to hear some of these stories," Elise said with a smile. Who's Robin?
"My ex. Someone he remembers nothing colorful about. Right, Carl?" Maggie smiled at me and showed too many teeth. Did I mention what I'll let Lee do to you if you decide to share?
"Robin and Lynn taught at the same channel school, that's how we all met up again." See, nothing colorful.
Maggie kicked me under the table again. "How about we get the check and then you can stand outside and smoke?" Find a better way to distract yourself in the car.
I stood up. "You know, I think I'll go warm up the car. I'll see you outside." I winked at Elise on my way out, putting my coat on and dodging a group of teenagers in matching sweatshirts. It was cold in front of the building but it wasn't windy anymore and I knew Maggie and Elise would have my head if I sat in the car to smoke. The other option was to loiter on the sidewalk. You haven't done that since high school. I shook my head and felt too much relief when I pulled out the battered pack of cigarettes.
My phone buzzed and then rang in my pocket. Only one number had that ring. I told her not to call unless- Surprise was followed by fear. I stuffed the pack back into one pocket and fumbled for the phone with the other. "Lynn, are you ok?" I turned away from the windows that faced the lot look and walked to the edge of the sidewalk. My chest felt tight.
The line was staticky but I could hear with my finger pressed into my free ear. "I'm fine. We're fine." I started to breathe again when she sighed. "I wanted to make sure you got in ok."
I rubbed my chest; my heart was beating too hard. "Our second flight got cancelled, so we're driving. Are you sure you're ok? You don't have your appointment with Dr. Greves until tomorrow, right?" If her mother makes her go into premature labor I'm going to kill her.
She hesitated. "No, it's not until tomorrow. We're fine. I wanted to talk to you," she said in that low tone she used for asking favors.
I leaned against one of the poles that held up the awning above the door and didn't shout like I wanted to. I wasn't sure if I was angrier that she'd scared me or that this was the reason. "You wanted to talk?" I didn't have to say anything else, she knew what I meant. This is a fucking switch; you haven't wanted to talk to me in over a week.
"I missed you. Mom started cleaning the house about five minutes after you left and if I see one more bowl of soup I'm going to lose it." Her laugh was forced.
I rubbed my face with my hand. "You miss me? This was your idea. You said, go, get out of the house for a while, we need some time." You want a 'break' and now you're going to bitch about it? About your god damned saint of a Mother who could come up on no notice to take care of you?
"That doesn't mean I don't miss you." She sighed into the phone again. "The baby misses you; she's restless with Mom here."
If she meant to soften me up with the baby it wasn't working. If anything I was angrier. The hand that wasn't holding the phone was a tight fist and my nails dug into my palm. "What made you think she'd be any calmer with her there? Your Mother's about as calm as a train wreck." Are you having second thoughts now that someone's there who won't put up with all your shit?
She made an impatient sound with her tongue. "You don't even need an excuse to lay into Mom anymore do you?"
My face hurt from clenching my jaw. "You brought her up. Though it sounds like I should be thanking her, maybe now you'll appreciate having someone around who does everything you want." Great, dig the hole deeper, I chastised myself. I was mad but I knew better than to stir her up.
"Because you haven't been trying to escape since this started? Let's make it all about me-"
Not again. The old argument made me feel calmer. I didn't want to fight with her. My hands relaxed and I rubbed my stinging palm against my sweater. "Baby, I'm sorry," I said. "I was just surprised. You wanted me out of the house and then you call me six hours later. What am I supposed to do with that?"
"I don't know. I… I wanted to catch you before you couldn't take calls," she said, her voice catching.
"You got me," I said and cleared my throat. "Did she attack the closet or did she do the floors first?" I asked, happy that I'd been able to deflect her. If only it was this easy at home.
She sniffed. "Floors. Pulled up the runners and polished all of the floors with some kind of wood cleaner."
"And asked why we bothered to get a house with wood floors and then covered them all up?" I hope she doesn't get anywhere near my office.
Lynn laughed. "Exactly. It's like you were in the room."
"Well I did have some warning, she was thinking about the floors while she was shunting me out the door." I bet she started in on you the next second. "Do you want me to call you when I get in tonight? It'll be late-"
"Call me, I'll be up." She sounded pleased and I could picture her curled around the phone, bending toward her stomach and the baby.
"I will, I might even be home late tomorrow," I told her and leaned more of my weight against the pole. No matter what we were fighting about that tone always made me melt. I wonder if there's a good jewelry store near here. They might have charm bracelets.
"Ok. I'm going to let you get back to work."
"I'll talk to you tonight." If I can find a white gold one maybe Maggie can help me find a good charm for when the baby's born.
"I love you," she said in the same soft tone.
"Love you too. Both of you," I said and closed the phone. This is going to be a long weekend. I wanted to go home and get Lynn away from her mother and be with my girls. I wanted to believe it would be perfect if I could leave and surprise her in a few hours. I couldn't hold onto the fantasy.
My hands shook as I put the phone away and lit a cigarette. Finally. My heart was still beating too fast from anger or worry, it was hard to tell. It all felt the same. I turned and saw Elise and Maggie through the window. They stood close together at the counter, Elise paying, Maggie sticking a handful of mints in the pocket of her coat. I turned back to face the parking lot. Out past the lights the sky had cleared, black and crisp with few stars and a thin slice of moon. I thought about a blank sky, pure black, no stars, no moon. I lightened it with the deep blues and green tints of dusk. Remember that sunset in Tahoe? We watched it until- I shook my head. I didn't want to think about being with Lynn. Bright blue. That should be the color of the sky. Com trails. Double streaks of white over the sky, people going places in long clouds. And clouds, real ones, not high and thin but low and thick. Blotting out the sun and the com trails, growing darker and flashing high with lightning. Lynn standing in the garage watching the lightning while the rain came down sideways. "Fuck," I said under my breath.
"Fuck!" I said louder when something touched my arm.
"Just me," Maggie said, face tight with concern. Did something happen? Everything ok at home?
I raised my hand. You want to know?
She frowned at my tone and took my hand without hesitation.
I didn't do it because I wanted to tell her everything. I did it because she had been sitting in the diner flirting with Elise. Because she had someone fussing over her busted shoulder. Because I wanted someone to feel as shitty as I did. I even had a second of smug, dark pleasure when it hit her and she flinched.
She flinched but didn't pull away and it was all there. Me, Lynn, the separation, the pregnancy and the fighting. The constant, grating, ridiculous fighting. What it was like in the middle of it.
And then I was watching myself, strapped down, not to the dentist's chair. Taped to a table, metal cool under my back, watching the hands with the scalpel. They started low, raised high and plunged down. The handle of the scalpel almost disappeared, a quivering three inches of metal sticking out of my eye socket.
I dropped Maggie's hand.
It happened in a few seconds. Our hands were touching and then we were standing feet apart, breathing hard and staring at each other.
"Let's get in the car," Elise said. There were a few people inside watching us through the window. Then you can tell me what the hell that was about.
We followed her to the car.
Maggie glanced at me and then away. I didn't know things were that bad. That was a real asshole thing to do though. "Do you mind if I take the back? I want to try and take a nap. I seem to have this sudden headache."
"Are you going to be able to lie down back there? You could put the passenger's seat back." Elise unlocked the doors and opened the back door for Maggie. Are you sure you're all right without the sling?
"We'll give her our coats for pillows. Or you can sit back there." I want to drive the rest of the way. I held my hand out for the keys.
Maggie gave her a nod and slid into the car. You'd better cool down before we get to the hotel.
Elise shut the door after her and frowned at me. "You're ok to drive?" You look like hell.
"I want something to concentrate on." Other than Lee cutting my eyes out. I looked around Elise, into the back seat where Maggie paused pulling off her coat to flip me off.
Elise dropped the keys into my palm. "Guess I'd want something else to think about too." Though I get the feeling you deserved it. She went around the car, slid out of her jacket and handed it into the back as soon as she got in. "You sure you'll be comfortable back there?" she asked Maggie as I started the engine.
"I'm fine," Maggie said and nudged the back of my seat with her knee. You owe a coat too. Let's have it before you get on the road.
Pushy damn woman, I grumbled and put the car in park. I worked out of my coat, hit my elbow hard on the window and cracked my head against the ceiling when I lifted up to pull out the part I was sitting on. "Here." I pushed it into the back seat and got my seatbelt on, irritated when Maggie snickered at me.
Elise didn't laugh. She buckled herself in and pulled out her blackberry. That's the seventh email he's sent today knowing we're on the road. Maybe he'll get nailed by a golf ball at the charity golf tournament and be too unconscious to email tonight.
She was annoyed with Gates. She hadn't said much about her meeting with him but when my request for a second on this surveillance op was declined I figured he'd given her the hard line about hiring any more staff. Or maybe she didn't think Maggie should have come even if she had promised to stay in the hotel while I got into the real work of trailing the target in the van. Not much you can do about it either way, I told myself. I was shaky, the afterimage of the scalpel handle quivering in my eye socket lapped over the guilt for dumping on Maggie and the simmering anger at Lynn. I kept my attention on the highway. There was enough traffic to demand focus. My fingers tapped on the steering wheel as I swung around a tractor trailer that was crawling along and shot out of the way when a red Tahoe came up hard behind us.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on or sit there and scowl all the way to Chicago?"
I glanced over at Elise. I should have felt her watching me before she got the words out.
Did it have something to do with that phone call you had? she asked when I didn't answer.
There was curiosity and some censure. She didn't approve of me taking it out on Maggie. I had a fight with the wife, I projected before I realized I was going to answer her. I waited a tense moment for Maggie's sarcastic rejoinder but there wasn't one. I felt out. She was asleep.
"It must have been some fight." Do you want one of these waters? There are a few left, she asked and bent in her seat to grab for one of the bottles of water that littered the floorboards.
"Yeah, thanks." I held out my hand for one of the bottles. She cracked the seal on the lid and passed it to me. I opened it the rest of the way with one hand. I'm not available for missions because Gates convinced me. She asked me to get out of the house.
"I told him you wouldn't leave because you were stir crazy," she replied with a strange spike of satisfaction.
"She didn't call to make up," I said, no room in my anger to worry about Gates. She knew I was on the road.
Elise's attention had snapped back to what I was saying. "What did she say?" she asked with apparent sympathy. There's ice in my water. She looked at the bottle after something cold hit her lip.
"It was snowing," I reminded her. "Lynn called to-" I paused and thought about it with a sinking feeling in my stomach. "She called to say she missed me." It sounded innocuous. I thought about her soft tone on the phone my face twisted back into a frown. After she forced me out of my own house because she couldn't stand having me around.
Elise frowned in surprise at my tone. "That would be confusing." Maybe she was trying to apologize?
"Maybe she was." I took a deep breath, my voice was too loud and I felt seconds away from projecting everything that had happened into her head so she'd get it. "You'd have to know Lynn to understand," I managed in an even tone.
"It's got to be hard, Carl. I-" Something caught her attention. How fast are you going? She shifted in her seat and tried to get a good look at the speedometer.
I glanced down at it and took my foot off the gas. "Ninety-five, shit."
Damn, almost a hundred, she thought at the same moment.
We glanced at each other. "I didn't know a Neon could break 70," Elise said, impressed.
I grinned back at her. "Me either, think we left any pieces behind?" I projected an image of the car flying down the road with metal pieces and panels trailing behind it like a cartoon.
She laughed and shrugged. "It's insured, right?"
"Yeah, we got-"
The cop was so close when he turned on his siren that we jumped.
"Fuck," we said in the same breath.