When Elliott entered the room he found a tableau that would have had any self-respecting social psychologist scribbling notes and giggling with glee over the paper they would be writing. The whole thing was contrived and transparent to an almost cartoonish degree.
The higher ups were already here but neither the Governor of Washington nor the Director of the Centers for Disease Control was conducting business of any kind. Unless their business involve drinking gin and tonics and watching episodes of South Park. Rob Carter of the CDC was wearing plaid shorts of blue and beige and a t-shirt that said, “Umbrella Corporation” across the front. Elliott didn’t know if the director was clueless or it was supposed to be funny, but he grinned because to him, it was either way. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in days but that was normal. His longish dark hair was messy in a way that somehow managed to look neither neglectful nor deliberate.
Del Smith of Washington State was wearing a pair of jeans with flared legs, a turquoise tank top and a light black cardigan. Her thick red hair was pulled back into a ponytail, her bangs framing her face. They both looked casual to a fault, like they were about to pose for an Old Navy catalog.
Carter sat behind the desk with his feet up on it, leaning back in his chair. Smith perched on the edge of the desk, facing the door. It was a posture clearly meant to present the two as a united front and had Elliott not borne witness to their contentious relationship the last few weeks he just might have bought it. But the subtleties were there.
Carter was so angry about something, he stared at Smith’s back hard enough to try and see it on the other side. If it wasn’t entirely belligerent it was certainly not friendly.
Smith, on the other hand, was so deliberately not looking at Carter that she might as well have been staring right back at him. Her legs were crossed and she was leaning away from him. Her left foot, clad in a non-threatening black flat, was twitching like the tail of an agitated cat. It might have been the first time Elliott had seen her in anything but heals, which he suspected highly were to give her equal or greater height with the director. She wasn’t short by any means but he topped her by a couple inches.
Both maintained ostentatiously open postures with arms uncrossed, but you could have shattered diamonds against the tensed muscles in Smith’s shoulders. Carter’s hands were spread to either side of the desk but his fingers clutched the edges like he was about to flip it.
Elliott almost paused in the doorway to ask if now was a good time, but he shook his head and simply entered. If they were trying to set him at ease, all they had done was make it clear he had nothing to be at ease about.
“Have a seat,” Del Smith said with a bright smile, which faded some when she realized that Elliott had already seated himself. “Er… have… another seat.”
Elliott blinked at her and she began worrying at her lower lip. It was a tell. Her face remained calm but she was nervous about something. There were a few awkward moments of silence, then Carter slapped his hand down on the table.
“Well, I’m done with that,” he announced.
Smith shot him a dark look and murmured, “Rob…”
“Nope, sorry, done with being all touchy feely,” he said.
“It’s not touchy feely, it’s good communication,” Del snapped.
Carter threw his hands in the air and made a disgusted noise. “Not anymore it’s not! Listen.” And here he turned his attention back to Elliott who was patiently waiting for someone to remember he was there. “I don’t have to tell you we’re facing a very, no, extremely delicate and dangerous situation Out There.”
People nowadays referred to everything outside of Washington State as “out there” and eventually it had morphed so completely that it was now “Out There,” capitalized. Proper noun. The whole of the United States was now Washington State and Out There.
Carter went on, “And we need all the help we can get, all the advantages we can pull out of the anus of this crap hole. One of those advantages….” And finally the steam train of his energy wound down. “One of those advantages is you and… this girl.”
Elliott froze. So that was it. They’d debriefed him, gleaned everything out of him they could when he arrived on base, but he could already see where this was going.