The removal of one person from my life brought about incredible change. Carl’s death was deemed accidental by the authorities. Those of us who investigated the scene found it was murder made to look like failing health. My focus now is getting back into the fold. Many moving parts depend upon mending my professional associations.
Tom drove me into the city from the house in Boston. Carl’s murder has our small community of operators on edge. Everyone is taking more deliberate precautions. Conversations with Tom are mentally exhausting and exactly what I needed before facing an invasive situation.
Downtown New York is busy, but the morning-rush mode has its own special panic. The fresh anxiety radiating off the bodies racing towards the invisible eight o’clock finish line was overpowering. Before exiting the quiet safety of the car, I snapped my handbag closed, took a long sip of my warm Irish coffee, and exhaled loudly.
“Remember you have to actually speak to people Cal. You’ll freak ’em out if you start pouring words in their heads.” Tom cautioned sternly, crumpling his eyebrows at me. “Try not to scare this head-shrinker away. It’s slim pickings out there for the rest of us,” he scolded. “Maybe you break her in slow.” Tom laughed as he surveyed the parking options.
“You’re retired. No one cares if you’re crazy,” I pouted while fixing my lipstick. “And it happened one lousy time. I’ll text when I’m done.” I promised with a smile.
Tom pulled a neatly folded note from his shirt pocket. “There’s a shop not far from here I want to visit, then I’ll come back and listen to the little people on the street think.” Tom always carries a list of things to occupy his time and make him feel as normal as possible.
“Whatever floats your boat old man. This shit-show shouldn’t take long,” I hoped aloud.
The mandatory appointment was something I’d put off for many reasons. My last quarterly psych eval was over six months old. My employer decided to hold my compensation hostage until I comply with all policies. As I’m still owed payment for my last two special projects the value of the ransom is growing.
The stress of the untenable situation was starting to weigh on me and hindering the investigation into Carl’s death. I decided to put an end to the problem by playing along.
The tall building, I was headed into was presented as the corporate headquarters of a data research firm, but the structure was used as a low-level black site for decades. This type of place is calm and quiet from the street but usually keeps some mildly evil people chained to the floor in the basement.
I nodded hello to a tall, impressive-looking doorman as I entered the controlled lobby of the building. A polished receptionist with neatly pinned black hair asked who I was there to see and directed me to the fifth-floor lobby with a melodic ring in her voice. The elevator was suggested by a hand gesture, but I choose to take the stairs instead.
Once I was out of eyesight, I grabbed my phone. “Tom, what’s the scoop on the doorman? He looks too big to be sitting behind a desk.”
“Shit Cal, I don’t know. I’m trying to maneuver this huge fricking car. Send some juice over him maybe I can tell from that.” I let a sliver of my energy rush back downstairs to the doorman before pulling it back to my body.
“Ah, someplace surrounded by sand. I think you used him as a battery pack,” Tom explained dryly. He seemed preoccupied with his lack of city driving skills.
“Makes sense. I feel a shoulder injury. He must be here on light duty or he diddled the wrong colonel’s wife.”
“Or a husband. Remember, we must be all-inclusive. Do I need to clear a spot in the trunk for him?” Tom asked with a serious tone.
“No,” I clarified. “Just a mild curiosity, not a target.”
“Good cause there’s a patio fire pit on sale at the store in front of me with my name on it.” Tom sounded excited about his new find.
“Wonderful news, we can burn things together tonight over some wine. I’m outside the office door now, wish me luck.”
“Be a good little minion, Tom out.” I could tell by his cheerful voice nobody screamed bad thoughts in his direction today.
Tom can hear people’s thoughts, it’s not a gift like some would claim. His extra ability is a curse. I pity him when he struggles, and he knows it. There is no way to hide what I think from Tom. I’ve stopped trying.
The fifth floor was clean, rented looking office spaces. Each putty-colored waiting room was filled with useless objects. Uniformly arranged furniture was placed sparingly in each sitting area devoid of any personality or depth. Blue and light gray with the occasional gold accent flowed as far as the eye could see.
I sat in the waiting area nearest my target office and noticed a tiny red-light flicker in the opposite corner of the room. Cameras were likely activated when I walked in the room and this camera alerted when I sat down. The sound of high heels walking on a hard floor and the jingle of a ring of keys banging against a lock came from behind the door in front of me.
“Hello, I’m doctor Lina West, sorry for the wait. I’ve misplaced my key card. I’m so glad you are here.”
“Calynn,” I shook the woman’s thin, caramel-colored hand and nodded politely. “You should report the missing key-card. They hang people for lesser offenses,” I explained dryly.
“Seriously?” The young woman held the door open and leaned against it like a crutch. “think I left it in my other bag. I picked up a salad for dinner and the dressing spilled all over everything. Anyway, I’m rambling. Have a seat. I’m glad you confirmed your appointment, after canceling the last three I wasn’t sure we would ever meet.”
“My employment package is on hold until I comply with this last item. I guess you could say I’m unusually motivated.” I smiled at the young woman as all her private information was being hurled at me from our close interaction.
“No matter the reason. I’m glad you’re here. There is little data available from your previous therapist, it seems he didn’t take notes in your sessions or no one can locate them.” Lina’s passive question fell flat. Carl never needed notes he read your thoughts and feelings.
“Interesting,” I replied while draping my dark gray trench coat over the empty chair next to me.
“I think it’s safe for me to assume you don’t want to be here Misses...”
“Please no Misses anything, Calynn is just fine.” Becoming someone’s wife isn’t a difficult accomplishment in my experience.
“Alright, Calynn. All I received were several boxes of files with pages full of redacted black lines and a single summary sheet with the phrase, exhaustive parasitic energy manipulation. I admit I have no idea what that means.”
“Do you play the piano?”
“No, I never took lessons,” Lina answered poised and positive with her hands calmly folded on the desk between us.
“Do you play any instrument or excel at any one particular activity?”
“I was a cheerleader in college. I like to think I excelled. Oh, and I paint, but not exceptionally well. Why do you ask?”
“Explaining a new concept without context is a waste of time. Are you serious about this line of work?” I asked.
“Yes of course.” Lina sat back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest.
“No, you misunderstand,” I shook my head. “what I’m asking is are you sure you want to be in this line of work? Here, in this kind of place with these kinds of clients?” Lina’s face went blank with confusion.
“I gave it a lot of thought, working for the Government specifically. My father spent his entire adult life working for one branch of the military or another. He’s proud of his career.”
“Yes, I know your father. The picture on the desk with him and your mother is perhaps the only personal effect you’ve added to this entire room.” I pointed at the frame on the low cabinet behind her. “Do you think your father is a happy man?” I asked looking at the picture more closely.
“I don’t see how my observations about my father are relevant to...”
“Once I dip you in this cesspool of knowledge and all the things you don’t understand about me become clear. There is no way to wash it off.” I explained settling back into my chair. “At this point, you have a choice. You can pick up your over-sized bag, stuff your one picture frame back inside and walk out that door clean and unaware of a great many awful things.”
“What would my second choice be?” Lina responded as if we were playing a game and my questions were symptoms. A tinge of anger grew in my chest.
I took a cleansing breath exhaling all the pettiness and anger I could gather. “I can tell you a story. Better yet I can show you what I am, but I can’t un-show you.” Readjusting my best facsimile of a calm smile, I reminded myself how much back pay I was owed.
Lina leaned forward across her desk and stared at me as if proximity was the answer to all her questions. “I see a polished, professional woman. I see confidence and stress mixed with experience and exhaustion wrapped in a very stylish white suit meant to keep you arms-length from anyone who would approach you.”
“It’s oyster,” I corrected. “And it has Kevlar mesh panels. The pants are thin, so I need skin-colored underwear,” I pulled at the fabric of my shirt. “And a silk blouse to cover my body armor tank top. My belt includes three knives tucked into the snakeskin spine and the hollow heals of my shoes contain emergency cash and a fresh Sim card for my cell phone. But you know what? I will never need any of it,” I confessed.
“Then why spend the time to put all of that together?” Lina asked confused.
“It makes those who love me feel better. If I have a weakness that needs protecting, I seem more human. Believe me, I thought I was more than human on a few occasions but as it turns out I am just as powerless as everyone else.” Several situations where I failed to change an outcome popped into my mind. I quickly pushed them back into the dusty boxes they came from.
“So, these precautions are lies you tell to make other people more comfortable,” Lina clarified.
“The coffee in your mug is ice cold and the lenses in your glasses are clear. You don’t want a coffee house cup on your fake desk because it will make you look frivolous and you want to look smarter and older, so you wear those ugly glasses,” I scoffed. “Aren’t those lies meant to make people more comfortable?”
“Your enhanced ability is observation related?” Lina asked.
A genuine smile spread warm and fast across my face. “You shook my hand, a fatal mistake with people like me. I keep gloves with me, not too suspicious of a woman my age to hide her hands from the sun, but I wanted to touch you. It’s not merely an observation on my part. It’s intrusive and you had no choice in the matter.”
“I really don’t understand,” Lina responded.
“I can appreciate that.”