"Can you tell me something about what the kid was wearing? Give me a color. And a first name. Thanks."
The caller rattled off the requested information and Paul gently laid the phone back in it's cradle.
Sitting back in the ratty Barcalounger and closing his eyes, clearing his mind of all extemperaneous data. He was in the middle of a thick, luxurious black pool of nothingness and he was searching for an orange sweater.
The empath waited for a few minutes but nothing broke the surface of his vision. Sloane cleared with a quick shake of his head. Some days were like that. He would try again.
He stretched his arms far over his head and in a successive motion, reached down to rub the back of his index fingers across his weary eyelids. He opened them to gaze across his obsessively clean, postage stamp sized Clarendon apartment and out through the fifth floor window to the semi toxic Potomac River below.
Paul Sloane was officially listed as an E5 grade empath. There were positives and minuses in being a low level "feeler" as the powers that be, at the governmental department that didn't officially exist, termed the occupation that he and his fellow seers made their meager livings at.
Sloane had met one or two of the high grade empaths during his tenure and wouldn't have changed places with them for the world. Once he had shared an elevator with a beautiful girl with long auburn hair who averted her gaze as long as she could. They stopped on another floor and when the new occupant jostled between them, he managed to catch her eye.
The contents of their lives came spilling through the ether like a bedroom dresser that had been toppled in an earthquake. The pain of every one of their shared tragedies in life was transmitted to each other in a millisecond and left them both gasping for air. With a major effort, the redhead summoned up all her available strength and clutching her small purse to her chest, ran to her vehicle in the lower level D parking structure.
That was why the government took such pains to keep its telepathic arsenal away from each other. It took close to two months for him to get his mojo back after that one, her higher sensitivity blowing huge room sized holes in his fragile psyche.
Paul shoehorned his feet into his tennis shoes and decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood. He was a little hungry and would see if the Phò restaurant was open yet for lunch.
He jostled his way through a stream of joggers, panhandlers and young lovers and made his way to a quiet street which would take him to his culinary destination. It would probably take a few minutes longer but he would be shielded from all of the discordant mental traffic that could send an open receiver like him on such an emotional loop.
He found the tiny vietnamese restaurant open and sat in a way that was customary for him, at a small table for two with his back against the wall.
A pretty girl, long and lean and in her early thirties, nibbled at her lunch a few tables away. Paul looked at her longingly but shied away from making any personal introduction. He had tried to make a go with relationships but they never quite worked out. He made a few swipes at his too hot dumplings and thought about what his life had become.
It was so much easier before he had developed his "gift". While he could operate normally in the world of everyday chatter, sex had now become near impossible. With a mere passing touch of intimacy, he found that he would cascade into a freefall through the partner's future, spiraling all the way past the inevitable wrinkles and the aging process to her ultimate death.
He wondered about theology for a brief second. If the Vedic texts were accurate and there was indeed such a thing as reincarnation, why did he always feel their deaths and never their resultant rebirths?
It was a lonely life and Paul had a mere handful of close friends. A few people had a general idea of what he did for a living but he tried to steer clear of it in conversation. Too many people wanted hints on horses or stock tips. He tended to favor strong self absorbed women with a slight penchant for cruelty. Their lack of feeling and nuance let him shut off the sensitive antennae and burden that life had placed on his shoulders.
Paul walked a few blocks farther, to a small city park. He found a comfortable bench, under a large willow tree and decided to make contact again. Clearing his mind, he visited the black pool and searched for the missing child in the orange sweater. Veronica. This time the contact came almost instantly. Cleveland, yes, she was in Cleveland, he was sure of it. And she was in no danger, he felt strongly about that. She was with her cousin and she had run away because she hated her...
The empath jerked his head up simultaneously or perhaps a split second before the sedan hit the taxi's left bumper. The loud crash and resulting brouhaha between the two drivers had broken the contact he had made with the small child. He sighed and started walking back to his apartment so that he could file his report. He chided himself. He should never attempt to have a reading in a public place. Too many things could go wrong.
Life had started out pretty normally. An average student, he did most of the regular things kids do. Webelos, boy scouts, camp, fishing for rockfish with his father in the Chesapeake Bay. Before the hypoxia and algae had decimated the fishery. It was seventeen when things started happening that exposed his "differences".
The anomalies started out with a series of nightmares that would portend mysterious events occuring to his family and friends. When the dreams started actualizing and coming true in real life, Paul confided in his family.
They sent him to a clinical psychologist who in turn sent him to a small university in upstate New York for testing and evaluation. He wasn't quite sure but supposed that this was the time that his talents came to the attention of the federal government. Who would have guessed that there were whole departments of the governmental machine dedicated to people like him?
The psychologists at the school made him take an oath of secrecy and fealty to the United States of America and taught him how to channel his prescience in a more consistent way through visualization and mind control. They would test him with interminable sets of flash cards with objects and colors printed on their faces.
While his test results were much higher than the national mean and average, what the experts didn't understand is that the gift was at its strongest when it came freely of its own accord. To try to force it would invariably lead to mixed results.
Life went along pretty normally for a few months after his stint at the college. Then one day Paul had a vision of his father getting caught in a nasty squall on his skipjack, their small fishing boat. He immediately blacked out and upon recovering consciousness, discovered that the visions were unfortunately borne out in reality.
After his father's funeral he thought that he had experienced a mini nervous breakdown, as if he blamed himself and his telepathic powers for his father's unfortunate demise. He started boozing it up at that point, and found that alcohol had a decidedly negative effect on his mental ability. It had its purposes, it certainly felt good to turn off the constant signal now and again but he suffered debilitating migraines and hangovers that caused him to ultimately swear the stuff off.
Word of his strange gifts filtered down to other levels of society as well. A two bit bookmaker in New Haven, Paulie "Fat Fingers" Castiglione took a sudden interest in him. If he could just provide his associates with a few tips to adjust the spread or probable outcome of a ballgame or two, Mr. Castiglione and his benefactors would be most appreciative.
Things went along swimmingly at first, Paul nailing 17 straight games right on the money in the NCAA college basketball tournament. More and more money was getting played on every tout, raising the suspicions of the organized crime task force and even the great Roxbury himself and then the whole train came off the tracks when Siena took down Kansas.
Paul had Kansas in a blowout and learned a valuable lesson. If you tried to harness the power for personal gain, somewhere along the line, it would blow up and you would get spanked. Guy could even lose his head.
The mobsters were besides themselves, first at the losses on the Siena game and then when Paul mentioned that after much thought on the matter, he would unfortunately not be able to work with them in the future. It took one very discrete and forceful phone call from an unnamed branch of the federal government for them to agree to never contact Paul Sloane again.
It was around that time that they made their initial sales pitch and soliloquy, hypothetically speaking, would he agree to aid the federal government with his unique talents in exchange for a lifetime job with decent pay and few benefits? But with the understanding that the job that must exist in total secrecy and anonymity.
Sloane hemmed and hawed and asked for a little time before he accepted the government offer. But he knew instantly that he would take it, what other options did he have? The government did their own vetting, calling up all of his known associates and neighbors and making sure that he had no obvious subversive tendencies. They did a rapidsearch™ on his browsing history to make sure that he had no inclinations towards homosexuality or pedophilia. Assured that he was not a troublemaker, an employment and confidentiality agreement was drawn up and signed by both parties.
They moved him to Arlington County, not far from his mother, and created a cover story for him so that he would not have to divulge the details of his work to anyone. He visited the main office no more than two or three times, a faceless, humorless edifice with a grim doorman and a notable lack of windows and natural sunlight. The reality was that the place gave him the creeps and he received permission to work from home. He had a special phone to the office and was firmly instructed that it was only to be used to call said office.
For the first few years, truth be told, work was fairly boring and uneventful. He was asked to scan pictures of foreign dignitaries and ambassadors to see if he could pick up any signs of pyschic abnormalities or unusual behaviors. He unmasked a spy in the Bulgarian diplomatic corps after only a few weeks on the job, an act that was responsible for a nice note of commendation in his file and a promise of a fat christmas bonus that year.
He did similar tasks for various branches of the intelligence services, NIA, DIA, HSA, DARPA, CIA, the FBI and some agencies too secret to even have an acronym. Sometimes he would sit behind a one way glass window in a nondescript gray building and vet the psychic dispositions of applicants and suspected double agents. At other times he might be given an article of clothing or possession of the suspect to get his take on their "vibrations." They must have valued his work since they continued to employ him throughout the rough economic times.
Bundling his jacket, the empath made his way back to his apartment building and decided to take the stairs up the five floors, starting to jump two at a time for a couple of floors before his cardiac health and better judgement forced him to slow down.
Out of breath, he turned his key in the door and scanned the apartment. Everything was exactly how he had left it. He noticed a blinking light on the shop phone. He would have to call in for his messages.
But first a little music. Sloane had a fondness for old vinyl. His trusty well tempered turntable had ably served him for decades and he dreaded the approaching day when they would stop making stylus's. Digital, pu-h-h-h, the audacity of these heathens to think that all of the organic magic and beauty of sound could be captured by a bunch of disparate ones and zeros.
He selected his favorite record by Kurt Weill, the Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Opus 12 and placed it on the player. Leaning back in his trusted chair, his body instantly relaxed as he listened to the sonorous beauty of the music and he fell into a deep satori like calm. All of the aggravations of the day, all of the collateral absorptions he had received dissipated in the sound like leaves in a gentle wind.
The phone rang and catapulted the feeler out of his temporary musical bliss. As he walked over to the kitchen counter to grab the instrument, he brushed past the morning paper and gave a quick glance at the headline. Move to canonize Michael Jackson met with resistance at the Vatican. My god, the Post had been going down hill for years but this is ridiculous, he thought to himself.
Below the squacky story about the prince of pop was something about the Vice President meeting a delegation from Benin to talk about improving trade relations between the two countries. Odd? Although the picture of the veep looked normal, he felt a distinct coldness when he ran his hand over the photo. H-m-m-m? Catching the phone on the eighth ring, Sloane assembled his most professional voice and grabbed the old school retro handset.
"E5 Sloane - how may I help you today?"
"Certainly, I will be up in an hour. I never checked my messages. No, I can stay as long as you wish. Goodbye."
He was being summoned to the big house. That was unusual. "Wonder what the bastards have in store for me today?", he asked himself as he grabbed a clip on tie out of the top drawer and posed in the mirror for a second to insure the probity of his appearance.
He decided to take a cab to headquarters, he didn't own a car and the long walk would probably leave him too tired for the day's assignment. There were so many factors in play at being a mentalist and if he could control as many external variables as possible, he found that he greatly improved his chances at performing optimally.
Paul averted his eyes from the continually smiling ethiopian cabbie for as long as possible. He was not in the mood for banter. He had been in the job for going on nine years and he was a professional. He had it up to here with the amateurs, the ouiji boards, the crystal gazers, the tarot gypsys, the nutty heiress from Israel who claimed to foretell the future.
Frauds and charlatans. He hadn't asked for his gift but it was his lot in life and he would use it in service of his country. Sloane was not really a political sort, he really didn't care who was in power - was it the liberal conservatives or the christian democrats this week ? - he could barely remember.
He had the same vague patriotic notions as any other red blooded male in his late twenties who had been through the Trade Center thing and the attempted coup. Besides, the job sort of molded your views after so many years of fighting the unseen enemy, the world naturally came in distinct tones of black and white after spending so much time in the bowels of the government security machine.
Paying the fare with a generous tip, he ducked into the lobby of the building. It could have almost been a bank building except for the special vestibule he had to pass through where he was being x-rayed, fingerprinted and retinal scanned and put through a host of other arcane security precautions.
He emptied his pocket for the yawning elderly guard and placed his belt and his key ring in the cracked plastic basket. He wondered if he should tell the guard about the prostate problems that he saw would soon start acting up again and thought better of it. Stay out of other people's business. He had long since given up any childish notion of saving the world.
He was shown to a nondescript room with a sign at the door with a picture of lips being shooshed with classified marked below in large block type. A large brown laminate table that was peeling up at the corners was in the center or the room. Three individuals sat on chairs on the other side of the table. One of them was his handler and he didn't feel like he had ever met the other two.
He exchanged a grunt of introductions that passed without any real care or meaning. He was simply a tool to these types. He had seen their like before. His presence in the meeting was necessary but still unseemly to these hardened veterans of the cold war.
"Sloane, this is Hardy and that's Beringer. We want to show you a few pictures and see if you can get a feel on any of these people. Take your time and do whatever it is that you do," he said, in a somewhat patronizing and disparaging tone.
The empath pulled the photos towards him slowly with the three middle fingers of each hand. There must be an internal circuit that connects these fingers with the telepathic function of the human brain. He would have to research it someday. His eyes fluttered as he passed over the five or six photographs. A cavalcade of mental images entered his brain when he considered the stack and he opened his eyes and started to appraise them individually in order to distill his aggregate reactions.
Sloane instantly recognized two of the subjects. One was a senator and one a congressman in a neighboring district. This would make it more difficult. He preferred to work with a blank canvas, where he had no prior knowledge of the people he was feeling. This kept the conscious mind out of the equation. He had the realization that both of these men were Christian Democrats, the party that was out of the loop this go 'round.
"What exactly - am I looking for," he asked his portly handler. The man shifted uncomfortably in his too small swivel chair and after exchanging a quick look with his two associates, turned to the empath.
"Check them for the usual, infidelity, substance abuse, anarchism, atheism, perversion, harboring sinister thoughts about the state, you know the drill." Sloane took a breath. He wasn't exactly a Rhodes Scholar but he did remember reading about Watergate and it couldn't escape his notice that he was possibly being used for some blatantly political and highly questionable purposes. Oh well. He was a worker bee after all, and he wasn't about to rock the boat. Not at his pay grade.
Paul methodically considered the sheaf of photos one by one. His fingers felt a warm tingle when he passed over the second image of the congressman and he stopped and opened his eyes widely. He raised his fingers to his brow, and then closed his eyes, transporting himself almost instantly back to the lugubrious black pond.
The agents looked at him and then back at each other after a minute of watching the telepath engage in his internal expedition.
" I see him crying, he's driving...it's a hit and run. The girl is trapped, the car's on fire. And there's a pint of vodka under the seat. NEV1674. It's fading. I've - I've lost it..."
The porcine lead agent leaned in close to Sloane. "Is there any way of telling when this incident occurred? If, that is, it did occur," he added, with a slight hint of cynicism.
Paul said, "I can tell you it did happen, with a high degree of certainty - I can't unfortunately tell you when, the vision was murky, but I would say probably in the last five or six years."
Turning to his accomplices, the agent said, "I want you to run the plate number and check for unsolved vehicular homicides in a 120 mile radius from the congressman's home. For the last 10 years," he muttered, with a sheepish look at the empath.
"That will be all Sloane, good work," the ex military officer with the greying high and tight haircut said dismissively.
Sloane allowed himself a smile, after the rare pat on the back from his superior. Rustling up his courage, he offered up a rare question for his handler.
"Sir, is the Vice President feeling all right?"
Agent Pennington swiveled in his steps and his voice dropped down an octave. He visibly blanched as he squared his broad shoulders to mask the feeler from the view of his associates, Hardy and Beringer.
"What do you mean, is the Vice President, alright?" he mockingly replied in a nervousness that was hard to disguise.
"Well, I was looking at his picture and his vibration was, I don't know, sort of cold and synthetic. Just wondered if he was feeling okay."
Pennington's sausage like fingers dug into the smaller man's trapezius muscles. "You are treading on very thin ice, Sloane, you're not, repeat, not, to make any more of your wild enquiries inquiries in this regard, do you understand me?" the superior barked at the witless telepath and he felt his fetid breath on his face.
Sloane nodded, in breathless assent. Finally, the larger man relaxed the vise like grip on his shouders. Asshole, the feeler thought to himself, I'm not going to warn him about that tumor I saw in his left lung. The agent left him with one final dark look of opprobrium and Paul sloughed down the stairs and somehow navigated the series of corridors that led to the street below. He had hit a nerve somehow, and he had a very scary feeling that it might cost him his life.
(to be continued)