*This chapter contains strong language, potato salad and an ultimatum.
29. Go Your Own Way
“The real question,” I began, taking a bite of potato salad, is do we just want Steadman? I swallowed and took a sip of beer. “Steadman we’ve got. I could hand Jerome what we had three weeks ago and he’d have run after him like his ass was on fire.”
Elise smiled but Maggie frowned and rolled her beer bottle between her hands. “What would it take to shut the whole thing down?” After all that work you want to settle?
“The Senator says we need something linking the money to Breaker,” Elise volunteered. Her anger with Gates flared in her mind every time he was mentioned.
Not even that much. Again, it’s a matter of what we’re worried about. Breaker or Craig’s facility, I told them through a mouthful of steak. I swallowed and gestured with my fork. “Let’s say we get Steadman, have Breaker tied to him with the money. In a public trial there’s no guarantee anyone will get enough out of them to bring down the whole thing. Can you imagine trying to find out what they’re doing with these ‘pick-ups’ of Steadman’s if he didn’t want to tell you?”
Maggie nodded in understanding. “You’ve got that right. It would take psychotropics to crack him. That will never happen in open trial.” I wouldn’t mind being there if they could.
“Are you saying we should leave Breaker out of it?” Elise asked. Her plate was untouched and her eyes were red around the edges. Gates might fire me but I’m not sure I care.
“What we need is Craig,” I said and ignored the comforting hand Maggie put on her shoulder. “If we can prove that he’s been authorizing Steadman then they’ll have carte blanche to dig into every corner of that building he’s got in the desert.” Then all we-
“You think they’re keeping people there?” Maggie asked with a deep frown. That would be insane.
I shrugged and dug out another forkful of potato salad. “Probably not, but there will be records. Every department has files and I’d bet you that’s where they are. That site receives too many supply shipments for a geological survey group.” Little bits of onion made the potato salad crunch between my teeth. If you’re up for getting fired I’d say Craig is our best shot.
Elise smiled and her eyes narrowed. “I think I’ve learned enough about spin to keep my job if I want it.” How can we get Craig? She asked and pushed a cube of potato around her plate, leaving a white trail of mayo through the steak juice.
“We need some kind of documentation, something that proves knowledge of Steadman’s missions, that Craig authorized him.”
“Paying him isn’t enough?” That should prove intent, Maggie offered.
I shook my head. “He could say Steadman was on his own. It’ll take tracing the account to whatever name Steadman’s using at the agency and then interaction he had with Craig, an email, a memo. It would all tie together.” I’m going to get some water. Do you two want anything?
“Water,” Maggie said without looking up from the roll she was smearing with butter. If you’re saying I have to slog through the rest of those employee records I’m going to mutiny.
Elise had gotten some food off the plate and looked at me with a mouthful of steak. More OJ would be great.
In the time it took me to pour the drinks and walk back into the dining room their chairs had moved closer together and their heads were almost touching.
“And Gates might be using you to get free work out of us. Either way you’re screwing his plan.” Do you care about getting Breaker?
It was cute how Maggie thought like Elise could read her.
“I’m tired of him using me period. Half the office thinks I’ll be fired any minute because of the whole path thing.” He plays it up whenever we have a meeting.
“So quit.” I put the juice down in front of her and a glass of water down by Maggie.
She rolled her eyes. “To do what? Work on another campaign?”
Maggie put her hand over Elise’s. “You won’t be the only one looking for a job.” I’m going to be back to dog walking if I don’t pick up another contract next month.
“Which is why you shouldn’t be doing this. Your contract’s over, you should be looking for something else.”
I sat down and drank most of my water. I wonder if Lynn needs more juice? I thought to myself.
“I think I can manage for a few months on the rates he was paying. It’s not like I pay rent.”
“Isn’t it great I have connections?” I said. They both turned to look at me. “Jerome’s already asked me if you’re going to take more contracts.” And Elise, there’s always the path liaison office, city or state, take your pick.
“In two more weeks I’ll talk to Jerome,” she said to Elise who nodded, happy to accept the compromise.
Two weeks, Elise agreed, then focused on me. “We need department communications from Craig and we need to nail Steadman’s alias.”
“Which means tagging all of Craig’s communications for significant dates,” I agreed.
“And slogging through the rest of the employee files, agents and researchers,” Maggie sighed. Why did I ever think government contracts were exciting?
I smiled and finished my steak. Quit whining. Profiling is a bunch of sitting around and reading too.
“If we do the search right we can narrow his correspondence down to something manageable. Carl and I can set that up while you keep at the employee files,” Elise suggested.
You have to be kidding- “Sure,” Maggie said, her protest dying when Elise smiled.
You’ve got it bad, I told Maggie privately.
She glanced at me, shrugged and let go of Elise’s hand. Sometimes. “I guess this means we’re starting now."
My phone rang and made me jump. My shoulders tensed before I’d even opened it. “Are you done with your plate? There’s more iced tea if you want it,” I said in a brisk tone, sounding callous even to myself. I looked away from Maggie.
“Carl, it’s time. Get the car,” Lynn panted into the phone.
Time? What time? “Oh, shit. It’s time. I’ll get the car.” I jumped to my feet, stuffed the phone in one pocket and fished my keys out of the other one. For a second all I could do was stare at Maggie and Elise. “I have to get the car.”
Maggie plucked the keys out of my hand. “You and Elise get Lynn. I’ll bring the car around.” You’ll run it into a damn tree.
We’re on it. Elise took my arm. “She’s down here, right?”
I nodded and was in motion again, leading Elise down the hall. “If you grab the overnight bag I’ll help her to the car.”
Lynn was already sitting on the edge of the bed. “Grab a towel so I don’t get anything on the car seat,” she said as soon as she saw me. Her eyes narrowed when Elise followed behind. She shook off the hand I put on her arm and heaved herself onto her feet. Let’s go.
I followed right behind her. “Bag’s next to the door. Towels in the bathroom,” I told Elise. I stopped when Lynn stopped and braced a hand against the wall. It took a second for the contraction to hit me. My eyes narrowed as it felt like someone had taken a vice to everything in my abdomen. Is this the first one?
How would I know it was time if it was? She straightened up before I could take her arm and continued down the hall. “I have to call mom.” Her voice was high and it was hard to tell if it was from pain or fear.
Elise dashed past us to open the front door.
“Let’s get you in the car and I’ll call Dr. Greves and then your folks, ok?” I patted my pocket and realized my housekeys were in the car with Maggie. I have to get the spare keys, I’ll be right back.
My heart was hammering in my chest as I ran into the kitchen, fumbled with the drawer, found the keys in the back under a roll of tape and ran back. Lynn was in the car, Elise shutting her door. Maggie was behind the car and held the trunk open.
As I closed the door Elise tossed the bag in the trunk. Maggie closed it with a slam and they passed each other, their hands touching before Elise slid into the driver’s seat and Maggie into the front passenger’s seat.
I guess Maggie's not driving. I checked the lock on the door and bolted to the car, sliding in next to Lynn.
“Right off of Henderson near Birch,” Lynn told Elise who started the car rolling as soon as I shut my door. Did you call mom yet?
I pulled my phone out and scrolled through my address book with a thumb that felt too big and clumsy. I got to Dr. Greves's number and dialed. "Doctor first," I said listening to it ring. It was a Wednesday and only five o'clock. I hoped I wouldn’t have to go through the answering service.
Lynn reached out to tap Maggie's shoulder and drew her hand back. Maggie, can I borrow your phone?
“Of course,” she said and dug through her purse. She held a small phone above Lynn’s hand and dropped it onto her palm. There's no way I want to feel what you’re going through right now, she joked weakly.
Me either, Lynn agreed. “Thanks.” Mom had better be home.
“Dr. Greves's office.”
I felt a car full of worry, Lynn’s, Maggie’s, Elise’s, and my own stuck in my throat. My voice came out a squeak. I coughed and tried again. “This is Carl Childers. My wife is in labor.”
The secretary's cheery voice didn’t sound right when she tried to be serious. “The doctor is at the hospital. I’ll let her know you’re coming.”
Some of Lynn’s worry had shifted into anger and I felt that leaching into me. I couldn’t blame her since she was on the phone with her mother, but I felt even more on edge. “Great. We’re maybe fifteen minutes away. Should we take her straight to the fourth floor?”
“Take her to the ER, Mr. Childers. Dr. Greves will meet you there,” she corrected me brightly.
“Oh, ok, right. We’ll do that, thanks.” I snapped the phone shut and pushed it into my pocket. “Straight to the ER, Elise,” I said over her shoulder.
“Got it.” Is that the same entrance?
“It’s around,” I paused, caught in another contraction, seeing Maggie’s head and shoulders dip as she felt it too. “It’s around the block on Birch,” I managed once it had passed.
“Mom was shopping, she’s in Winter Park.” She said she’ll be ten minutes tops, Lynn told me with a wave of relief.
I took her hand and squeezed it. “Good. She might beat us there,” I said, doing my best not to be petty. If Lynn needed her mom I was all for it. She pulled her hand from mine. Her fingers were pale where she settled them on her protruding stomach.
“So, have you thought of any names?” Maggie asked. We both stared at her and even Elise turned her head. Maggie shrugged. “Focusing on how much it hurts isn’t going to help.”
“Elizabeth Jane, Lillian Madison, and Amelia Louise,” Lynn said. We’re going to wait the full ten days before we pick one, she added with a frown at me.
“Are you sure you don’t want to slip a Margaret in there?” Maggie asked, ignoring Lynn's harsh tone. It’s a popular name now.
I laughed because I felt I should. I didn’t realize it until my attention was on Maggie that the tension and worry coming off of her had more to do with blocking than babies. She was desperately shoving most of what she was thinking behind the leafy tangle of her block so Lee couldn’t pop out and play. “I don’t know if could handle two Maggie’s,” I said without thinking.
She flinched and Lynn sailed in, rescuing me like she had so many times before. “You should hear what he wanted to name a boy. It was either Logan, Bruce, or Carl Jr.”
Maggie laughed in the same forced way I had. You would.
“What’s wrong with Bruce?” Elise drummed her fingers against the steering wheel as she waited for the light to change. Almost there.
“I’m not having a son named after Batman’s secret identity, one of the X-men, or a hamburger chain,” Lynn answered, more annoyed than amused over the old argument.
“Can I help that there’s a burger chain called Carl’s Jr.?” I asked. It’s not even on this coast. No one would know.
The car stopped with a lurch. “We’re here,” Elise announced.
I threw open my door and rushed around the side of the car. Lynn was already halfway out. “Can someone get the suitcase?” I asked, taking Lynn’s arm. Almost there baby.
She leaned into me and let me lead her through the waiting room. Dr. Greves was standing at the front desk and I had never been so relieved to see someone, even if she was talking to my mother-in-law. Dr. Greves! I thought, projecting in my worry.
Her head snapped up and she turned, both hands on the handles of a gray wheelchair. She met us halfway to the desk. “Lynn. I’ve got your ride. Let’s get you upstairs.” She looked at me, “Do you know how far apart the contractions are?
I blinked at her. I was supposed to be counting?
“About ten minutes,” Maggie told her when I didn’t answer. Nice to see you again Mrs. Singh. She nodded to my mother-in-law, shifting the overnight bag on her shoulder.
“Yeah, ten,” I agreed, taking the handles of the wheelchair once Dr. Greves moved aside. I pushed it after the doctor, Mrs. Beast, and Maggie who were leading the way to the elevator.
Today’s the day, I told Lynn and tried not to be overwhelmed.
Don’t pass out, she shot back, bending in another contraction as the elevator door closed. Everyone but the doctor bent too, following Lynn’s example and trying to breathe through it.
Guess that answers that question. They must all be paths, Dr. Greves thought, watching us with a detached curiosity as she took Lynn’s pulse again. “Looking good. We’re going to get you in a room and on a fetal monitor.”
I had been on ops where things happened slower. It seemed like seconds passed between the car and the room we were shunted into. Mrs. Singh and I helped Lynn onto the bed and a nurse appeared, putting the leads to the fetal monitor against her stomach like we had had to do the first week at home. The machine made a steady series of rapid beeps.
“Looks good. Let’s get you in a gown and we can check you out.” I’ve got the OR ready so we should be able to go in a few minutes.
Before I had moved forward to help a nurse was in front of me with a clipboard. “We need to get your insurance information and a signature on the consent form,” she said and pushed the paperwork into my hands.
Lynn was blocked from view by Maggie, the doctor, and Mrs. Singh. “We’re going to need to look at any bleeding and then we’ll be ready to go,” Dr. Greves said.
I forced myself to look at the forms. Insurance? Right the card. I dug my insurance card out of my wallet. As many times as I’d used it this year I didn’t remember the numbers. I found a chair near the door and sat with the clipboard and my wallet perched on my knee. I jotted down our social security numbers, our registration numbers, work addresses, phone numbers, blood types and soda preferences.
“The bleeding?” Lynn was prompting the nurse.
“Spotting and the baby’s heart rate is good,” the nurse replied.
I signed the consent forms for the c-section in a fast scrawl, wanting to be next to the bed. I flipped through the rest and initialed and signed a few more times without taking anything in. When I stood up Dr. Greves was back with a gurney and another nurse. The first nurse came over and plucked the clipboard out of my hand. She took my arm to make sure she had my attention. “Ok, Mr. Childers. If you come with me I’ll get you a gown for the OR.”
“Sure, right,” I said and nodded like my head was on a spring. Over her shoulder I saw them maneuver Lynn, scooting her across the bed onto the gurney.
“I want mom to go in with me,” Lynn said.
She didn’t blink when we all turned to her. She tilted her chin out, a stubborn expression that I recognized.
The nurse had her hand on my arm. I could feel her surprise, Maggie’s from the foot of the bed, even my mother-in-law's from where she stood next to her daughter, holding Lynn’s hand.
Mrs. Singh was the first one to get over her surprise. “I’m not going in. It’s your husband’s place.” The way she said husband told me that she was sure this was my fault.
“I want you to come, mom,” Lynn said and gripped her mother’s hand hard when the older woman tried to move back. Please.
The doctor radiated impatience but everyone ignored her.
Lynn's mother shook her head. No.
“Mom, come with me.” I need you in there. The determined face transformed into an innocent wheedling expression.
“We should get her to the OR. Sooner is better. If someone’s coming-” the doctor started to say.
“Her husband.” He’s the father, he will go, her mother stated, not quite able to get her hand out of her daughter's grip.
Lynn threw her mother’s hand away from her. No! He’s not my husband. We’re getting the divorce, she thought so loud that every path in the room flinched, even her mother. “You come or I’ll do this by myself.”
Lynn wouldn’t look at me. She glared at her mother. I couldn’t get the breath to say anything, my brain felt jammed.
My mother-in-law hesitated.
The nurse’s grip shifted on my arm. Do they think the baby will stay stable all night while they argue?
“Go,” I said, the only one that seemed to pick up on the nurse’s urgency. Tt was amazing I could do that when I couldn’t breathe. “I’ll be right out here.” My voice sounded hollow.
Mrs. Beast gave me a disgusted look but she nodded. “I’m going.”
The nurse made an audible sound of relief. “If you go to the waiting room you can see them bring the baby in. I’ll come and get you,” she said in an undertone before she became brisk again. “All right, ma’am we’re going to get you changed and then you’ll be able to join your daughter,” she explained as she dropped my arm and took Mrs. Singh's.
Lynn didn’t look at me or Maggie as the doctor and the second nurse wheeled her out. Her mother frowned at me over her shoulder. Already you’re bringing more bad luck, a baby born with no father.
The door shut behind them.
“Damn,” Maggie whispered.
“We should go to the waiting room,” I said in a calm, distant tone.
“Right, we should go,” she agreed and followed me out to the seats we had passed on the way in.
There was a huge window and through it a bright room with neat rows of carts, some of them with babies in them. I watched them to have something to focus on other than the way Maggie was trying not to stare at me.
Later, I couldn’t be sure how much later, Elise came in from parking the car. Maggie popped out of her seat and intercepted her.
I should have been grateful for that, but it was too much like background noise.
I watched nurses going back and forth between the babies. Most of them were quiet, with fleeting amorphous feelings of contentment or curiosity. One baby was red-faced, uncomfortable and mad and bawling with every breath. The tag on the end of his cart read, Kayson, Emmerson Neil. I watched him with a sort of grim fascination, wondering how long it would take for a nurse to get to him.
Eventually the wide blue back of a nurse blocked him from my view, interrupting my focus on the baby. For one long second my eyes shot all over the room for something else to concentrate on. Then the door on the far end of the room opened. My mother-in-law was rolling a cart in. The first thing I saw was jet black hair and then a tiny pink hand.
I looked over with a scowl, ready to tell whoever it was to fuck off. It was the nurse from earlier and she was standing in the doorway next to the window. “Come see your little girl.”
I followed her down a short hall where I had to put on a gown and covers over my shoes and then we were in the room with the babies. Mrs. Singh hovered and I did my best to ignore her, resting my hands on the edge of the cart. Dark blue eyes tracked the movement briefly from a tiny scrunched face.
“You can hold her,” the nurse said. They aren’t that fragile.
I reached out, the baby’s head and neck fit in one hand and she seemed to weigh nothing. Her eyes focused again, one hand grabbing for my thumb.
“Seven pounds, two ounces,” Lynn's mother said in a subdued tone. Eighteen inches.
I swallowed hard and kissed the baby’s forehead. My girl. I looked up to see my mother-in-law watching me. “How’s Lynn?”
She blinked and her eyes shifted to the baby. “She’s fine; they say they’ll release her tomorrow.” I think she has your eyes.
I nodded and looked down into my girl’s face. “Is she back in her room?” I should see if she wants anything from home.
Mrs. Singh cleared her throat. “She’s coming home with us, Carl.”
I stared at her. She had never called me by my first name before.