Two Days After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
It’s not something I normally go on too much about, but my boss is incredibly hot. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I would normally mean it – she’s attractive, not a great deal warmer than the environment around her. She’s got classic high cheekbones, a deft hand with makeup and a figure that could launch the siege of a large building, if not a small city. I mention this because, when I got back to the office late the next morning, it was surrounded by reporters.
I don’t think I have to say that this isn’t business as normal.
Getting out of my car I could hear them all talking and shouting at someone. I glanced over at Jack, who was climbing out of his truck a dozen parking spots away, and tilted my head. We hadn’t coordinated our arrival but that was the only thing about our entering the building that went uncoordinated. With a series of quick hand signals, half out of the book and half from a long history of working together, and Jack set off to trail blaze while I hung back to support if anything went wrong. Jack always trail blazes in crowds, in part because he’s so much bigger and more intimidating but also because he has this odd idea that I’ll take the term trailblazing too literally for anyone’s good.
So as I trailed along about twenty feet behind Jack I got a great view of him coming around the side of the building towards the doors. The moment when he spotted the crowd was truly priceless. His expression went from suspicion, since anything out of the ordinary is suspicious, to surprise, when he realized we were surrounded by reporters, to profound embarrassment, since being noticed by the public is the opposite of what we are technically supposed to do.
Someone had posted a pair of armed guards outside, which explained why the reporters were outside, and keeping a good ten feet away from the doors instead of swarming over the reception area just inside. I thought I recognized one of them as the leader of Al Massif’s tactical team. Jack peered over the crowed, clearly weighing the odds of getting through the press of press cleanly, spotted the guards and decided to make a go of it.
Not that any of the reporters paid much attention to Jack. Teresa had arrived at some earlier time and they were all clustered around her since, as I’ve said already, she’s pretty much the most eye catching thing around. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that doesn’t make a difference in how the news gets told. I decided that, given the situation, sticking closely to the normal routine of following Jack and clearing out anyone who tailed him wasn’t going to be needed and I should probably back up Teresa instead.
One thing that you have to develop in this line of work is your ability to be rude. Dealing with members of the public is a lot easier when you can keep them at arm’s length and reporters won’t take you seriously unless you spend the first five minutes trying to brush them off. Teresa comes from a background in Homeland Security so I’m sure she’d had Basic Rudeness 101 but in the few months I’ve worked with her I’ve noticed she really doesn’t rely on it much. While this probably ingratiates her to the regular people we meet, and it’s probably something we were all going to use more in the future, at the moment courtesy was just getting her mobbed by reporters who didn’t know it was time to back off.
Among the few upsides of being unusually short is the ability to sneak up on people, especially when they’re focused on someone taller than you. I got a satisfying jump out of most of the reporters when I stepped into their midst, took Teresa by the elbow and said, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.” Rudeness is different from being unprofessional, after all. “Agent Herrera and I are needed inside.” I steered her towards the door and, since there is an element of fair trade in these kinds of things, kept talking as I walked. “We’re not currently cleared to say much, as I’m sure you’ve already learned. There will probably be a statement released by the Senate’s Oversight Committee on Talented Individuals within the next day or two. Contact the office of Senator Brahms Dawson, of Wisconsin, if you want more details.”
The best part about talking to reporters is they all shut up while you’re doing it, so my statement bought just enough silence to hear a repressed snort of laughter from Teresa when I set the press on Dawson’s office. It was definitely the kind of game two people could play and, as the talented field agent with seniority in the Midwest, I suspected that I’d be in for reciprocal treatment, but in the mean time I was enjoying the mental picture of Brahms Dawson being ambushed by reporters demanding a statement at every turn.
There were at least twenty or thirty reporters out front of the office that morning and, being fairly short and content free, what I had to say didn’t get us all the way in the doors. Teresa knew better than to contradict me in front of the public so she waited until the barrage of follow-up questions was cut off by the door sliding closed behind us before she asked, “Are you sure that was something you should be saying?”
“It was factual and nothing they wouldn’t know in another day or so. It also keeps them from paying too much attention to us so we might be able to move with a little more freedom, if they’re camped out front with satellite vans and cameras it’s just one more way for Circuit to try and spy on us.” Another thought occurred to me. “And in a way, it’s a good chance for the Senator.”
Teresa glanced down at me as she started up the stairs to the second floor. “In what way?”
“Think about it,” I said, gesturing back at the press that crowded around outside. “They’re going to be all over this story. In fact, they already are. When they hear about the kind of information manipulation we’ve actively engaged in over the past fifty years they’ll skip straight past asking questions and go straight to demanding blood. The one shot the Committee has at saving their skins is if they can say their piece before anyone else.”
“Haven’t seen today’s paper yet, have you?” She asked, pulling a pile of newssheet out from under one arm.
Since it was the kind of question you can answer by doing something I decided not to say anything and just take the copy of the Tribune she was offering. The front page was dedicated to the attack on Michigan Avenue. In addition to a factual account of what went on and a man on the street interview with store managers and owners talking about what the economic impact of the attack might be there was a short article below the fold. Written by the paper’s sports writer, it claimed to be an interview with the man who masterminded the attack. I only had to read a few paragraphs to decide that it wasn’t someone trying to grab credit. Only Circuit could sound so self-satisfied, even in print.
I handed the newspaper back to Teresa. “Okay, so he’s a step ahead of us there, too. At least it’s just the local paper.”
“You talking about Circuit’s latest publicity stunt?” Cheryl was coming down the hall from the other direction, a stack of printer paper in one hand. “Because it’s not just the Tribune.”
I groaned. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Nope.” She waved the papers she was holding back and forth. “There’s three different articles that we know of so far. These are printouts from the Indianapolis Star and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. All your getmen are cleared to see them, along with oversight agents and anyone else you think needs to look them over.”
I gave her a blank stare.
“Right.” She sighed. “I guess information security isn’t such a big deal this time, is it?”
Teresa gently took the printouts from her. “The game’s changed, Cheryl. We’re all still working out the rules.”
“Yeah, well…” She threw her hands up. “In the mean time, I have to make sure we write down everything that happens on the way. So try and snag this guy before the paperwork backlog gets too severe, okay?”
“Will do,” I said over my shoulder, pushing through the door and onto the floor.
Our offices have never been the bustling, frantic command center you tend to see shown on TV. For one thing, we’ve never had the budget for that kind of staff. For another, we’re always short on field agents so they tend to wind up out in the field, instead of in the office most of the time. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it does mean that the floor is usually a lot of empty desks with one or two people filling out paperwork scattered about. Today there were no desks because the floor map was in use, but practically every available place to stand that didn’t put you on top of some part of the continental U.S. was occupied by qualified field agents.
“Busy day,” Teresa observed.
“Kind of surprising,” I said, trying to find Jack without resorting to standing on tiptoes. “The last time we went to Condition One we got out new assignments in the field.”
“Michael sent out notice that everyone should report here last night, while we were in the field.” I glanced up. Agent Samson, the only other guy in the room even close to Jack’s size, had somehow managed to sneak up on me in the crowd. He glanced at the printouts Teresa was holding and raised an eyebrow. “Good news, I hope?”
“We could use some, but this isn’t it,” I said, plucking the printouts from Teresa’s hand and passing them up to Samson. “What do you make of that?”
He made a rumbling noise in the back of his throat as he skimmed the printouts for a second, then sighed. “I saw the article in the Tribune this morning. I’m surprised he managed to reach this far in one day, but otherwise there’s nothing that surprising here.”
“What surprises me is that you’re here.” I folded my arms and gave him an appraising look. “Shouldn’t you still be on the disappearance of Dawson’s daughter?”
“We’re at Condition One,” Samson pointed out. “Why wouldn’t I be working this case?”
“Because you’re not a certified field agent anymore?” I suggested. ”You’re not up on current procedure, you don’t have a tactical support team and, since we’re going to need Voorman here to handle PR as much as possible he’s not going to be able to be in the field with you full time anymore, so you don’t really have oversight, either.”
“Bob Sanders has been studying up on what I can do,” Samson said, matching my posture if not quite the level of hostility. “He actually served as oversight for me during the Michigan Avenue cleanup. Taxmen have traditionally moved without conventional tactical support, which I’m sure you know, and a lot of existing procedure is now a moot point. Helix, I’ve gotten the impression you don’t care much for me since you realized I was a talent. Part of it is probably because I didn’t slap Circuit down when I had a chance.”
I glanced down and away. “I don’t blame you for Mona’s death any more than I blame anyone who was there that night except Circuit. But you’ve been gone for over ten years just so you could preach in a run down school building. We could have used your help.”
“Yes, I figured it might be something like that.” Samson fidgeted for a moment, the sighed. “Look, Helix, when I joined Project Sumter there weren’t nearly as many problems on the scale of Open Circuit or even the Breeders that you found Coldsnap and Frostburn with. Most of my work consisted of showing up when we interacted with foreign talents to make it clear we had muscle or convincing talented people to lie about what they were, or else. I worked with the Project for six years and only had one case even close to the scale of what you’ve dealt with in the past.”
“So work on the problems with the system!” I threw my hands in the air. “I didn’t like the lying any more than you did, but I’ve been working to change things, at least when I had the time.”
He nodded approvingly. “I know. Even when I wasn’t active, Voorman passed on the occasional word about the kinds of reforms you’ve been stumping for. I’m particularly glad you managed to convince Project Sumter to share proven self control methods with the parents of younger children with dangerous talents. But,” he said, holding up a finger, “that’s something only you could have done. Between your grandparents and all those tricky cases you handled, you had a level of credibility and influence a former gangbanger who was once accused of manslaughter could ever hope to have.”
Next to me, Teresa made a surprised sound. “A gang? You?”
“MS-13,” he confirmed with a nod. “God prepares each man for his work. My history with them, and my experience here at Project Sumter, made me well equipped to deal with teens struggling with gangs, drugs or unusual abilities, or all three at once. But I couldn’t really help them find peace here. Project Sumter prioritizes the public over the individual. And Heaven knows the public needs it. But individual people need something, too, and the people of God exist to bring it to them. For a long time serving as a pastor was the best way to use my all my talents and experiences to do that.”
Ever since I could remember I’d thought of Project Sumter as the best existing method for dealing with the problems talented people presented in a democratic society. Hearing Samson say there was a better way to deal with things didn’t make me feel any better about him but I could grudgingly admit I saw his point. I wasn’t going to just then without prompting, but I could have if I’d been pressed. But I was getting uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation and we were starting to get a lot of attention from the other agents in the crowed around us, so instead I pushed us back to the original topic. “So you’re not on the Daswson case anymore?”
“Has anyone ever really considered them different cases?” Teresa asked.
“Not anyone on my team,” Samson replied. “Movsesian is at least eighty percent sure that her disappearance is related to Circuit and the only other possibility he considers likely is that she’s hiding out over a disagreement with her family.”
“She’s never gotten on that well with her dad,” Teresa said, “but I don’t think she’d drop out of sight for more than a month just because they were arguing about something.”
“And no one in her family remembers anything that could have made her that upset.” The big man shrugged his shoulders eloquently. “We’re not left with many possibilities beyond Circuit’s involvement. It’s surprising that he hasn’t tried to use Elizabeth Dawson as leverage yet, but that day may be coming in the near future. I don’t agree with Senator Dawson any more than you do, Helix, but he doesn’t deserve to have his daughter held over his head like that. And helping families who have lost track of difficult or estranged children is one of the things I do best.”
“But Circuit is way beyond anything you’ve dealt with before,” Teresa said, a note of understanding entering into her voice. “So you’re continuing to work the case on the Project’s terms.”
“And who knows?” Samson said. “Perhaps I first came to the Project in preparation for such a time as this. I just wish we knew more about how Circuit abducted her and what her current situation might be. The girl disappeared so flawlessly he might as well have made an elephant disappear right before our eyes.”
I blinked once. “Misdirection.”
“I’m sorry?” Teresa gave me a blank look, which was echoed by Samson.
“Circuit loves misdirection. Every job he’s pulled, whatever we thought his objective was turned out to be misdirection to keep us away from what he really wanted.” I turned to stare out across the map of the country, my gaze drawn to the Midwest where almost constant status updates were being projected onto the floor.
Samson moved to follow my line of sight, as if that might give him a clue what I was talking about. “Are you saying he abducted a senator’s daughter to keep us distracted?”
“I’m saying…” I pulled my eyes away from the map and looked over at Teresa. “Why would he announce he’s planning to take over the country?”
“Well, he needed publicity to help him gather-” Teresa broke off and stared at me blankly for a moment. “Are you saying taking over the country is a smoke screen for something else?”
“What could he possibly want?” Samson asked, incredulous. “World domination? Please don’t tell me people actually think that way.”
“No.” I looked back out at the map, Samson’s words of a moment ago ringing in my mind. For such a time as this. Because in the age of electronic security, the Internet and cell phones, was there ever a better time for a man with the ability to sense and alter electricity to make his mark? “He doesn’t want to rule the world. He wants to save it.”Fiction Index Previous Chapter Next Chapter