“Look, when a cop is involved in a shooting they take away his badge and give him some time off. This is no different.”
I gave Senior Special Liaison Michael Voorman a hard look. “Don’t try and sell me that. If a bomb squad doesn’t disarm a bomb properly they aren’t pulled off duty for it.”
Voorman ran his hand over his the tattered wisps of graying black hair that dotted his head, shaking it sadly. “No, Helix, they’d probably be dead.”
“The problem was already there!” I protested, ignoring his point. “If I hadn’t done anything the arsonist would have still burned that apartment building down!”
“That’s not his pattern,” Voorman said calmly. “He typically only torches one apartment in a building himself then lets the fire spread as it will. The fire department has usually caught them before they can spread too much farther. You, on the other hand, wrestled him for his heat, or whatever it is you people do, and wound up causing stuff to spontaneously combust all over the building.”
I paced the length of the police van that was serving as the cleanup command center and glanced out the back door. Harsh artificial lighting spilled in through from outside. Night had fallen and I hadn’t even noticed. The top half of the apartment building was now a gutted wreck, with smoke damage blackening the top half of the building and leaving whole structure looking damp and disheveled.
I turned back to Voorman, who sat fidgeting by the van’s radio panel looking for all the world like he wanted to sit down at the computer there and file some paperwork rather than talk to me. That was typical of him. Voorman didn’t shy away from conflict, but he was notoriously uncomfortable around talents. I’d always thought that odd, since a Senior Special Liaison can manage anywhere from one to a dozen talented individuals and their teams.
“If I wasn’t called in to beat this guy at his own game,” I asked, “what exactly did Project Sumter assign me to this case for?”
Voorman looked up and pushed his glasses up his nose, blinking owlishly as if the question surprised him. “To be honest? I think the higher ups were expecting you to be some sort of damage control agent. Dampen out the fires by stealing so much heat from them the chemical reaction would no longer be self sustaining.”
I jammed my hands into my pockets and studied him. I’d only really talked to him a couple of times before, so reading what he was thinking was difficult, but I could tell he wasn’t intimidated by me. Lots of people are, I’ve learned to recognize the guarded stance and sideways looks, but Voorman had none of the usual signs. Funny, given how he was one of the few people I knew who was shorter than I was. Of course, that really shouldn’t be surprising given how many talents Senior Special Liaisons meet in their careers, but it was different, and it made figuring out where he was coming from harder. Since subtlety is not my strong suit, I decided to stick with the direct approach.
“I could do that,” I said. “But it’d be a waste of my time. Everyone knows that I’m the best heat sink in the Midwest, possibly in the whole nation. It’s the middle of August. There literally is no better time for people with my talent to be out taking names.” I rapped my knuckles on one of the computers for emphasis. “There’s at least half a dozen potentially dangerous talents at large in the Midwest Command District, so why did the Project send me out to hunt another heat sink if they didn’t want me doing everything I could to run him into the ground?”
Voorman shrugged and straightened the bottom of his rumpled, sweat stained suit jacket around his somewhat pudgy middle. “Honestly, I don’t know. It seemed like a waste of your particular abilities to me as well. It wasn’t explained to me when the assignment was handed down. I had assumed that since your… chief interest hadn’t been heard from in some time the higher ups wanted to hold you in reserve against future appearances. So they gave you a simple assignment they wouldn’t feel bad pulling you from at any time.”
I grunted. “That worked real well. Now I’m unavailable even if Circuit does show his face around here again.”
“I’m sure they’ll work something out if it comes to that,” Voorman assured me, giving me what he probably thought was a comforting pat on the back and ushering me towards the back of the van. I bristled a bit at his touch, as I’m not a touchy feely person, but he didn’t seem to notice. “They’ll probably even consider brining you back in. But in the mean time, I suggest that you relax for a bit. You haven’t really taken much time off in the last few years. Think of this as a vacation you’ve earned, rather than one that’s been forced on you.”
“Right,” I muttered under my breath as I stepped back into the smoky air outside. “A vacation.”
Being outside was a trade off. The air wasn’t nearly as still and close as it was in the van, but the pavement still angrily radiated all the heat it had picked up during the day. I grimaced and adjusted the light windbreaker I wore, which had large yellow letters on the back identifying me as a member of the FBI. If it hadn’t been for that, no one on the scene would have been wearing them.
Well, that and the hot ash that sometimes still drifted down from the gutted apartment building next door. No one wants burns all over their arms, so most of the people on site were wearing something with sleeves and sweating for it. Except for me.
See, heat sinks tend to unconsciously regulate the temperature around them to a reasonable 75 degrees Fahrenheit so we’re comfortable no matter what the surrounding temperature is. It’s useful when you’re trying to melt through bulletproof plexiglass but it looks awful strange when the temperature’s pushing one hundred and you’re the only one not sweating. So as I left the van I forced myself to let my personal bubble of comfort go and instantly felt awful. Odd as it may seem for someone with my talent, heat makes me cranky.
So it’s no surprise that I snapped at the priest when he popped up out of nowhere and offered me a bottle of water. At least not to me.
He looked like a pleasant enough sort of guy. He was about six foot two, which made looking him in the eye difficult for me but didn’t really qualify as a strike against him, had pleasant Hispanic features and a well kept mustache and was carrying a cooler under one arm. I pegged him as a priest due to his sport jacket and tie, the kind of accessories only priests or government workers would sport in this weather. And if he had been a government worker he would have had some kind of ID at the ready, which he didn’t, so he had to be a priest.
That, along with the pocket Bible poking out of one jacket pocket and the cross pin on his tie made me pretty sure he was a priest. He met me halfway between the command van and the nearest ambulance, a friendly smile on his face as he offered me a bottle of water and started to say something. I beat him to the punch.
“This is a crime scene, mister,” I told him. “And the building over there might not be safe. If you’re not a part of a public safety service, you probably shouldn’t be here.”
“I know,” he said, neither his smile nor the water bottle in his hand wavering in the slightest. “That’s why I’m here. God is present in times of trouble as well as times of peace, and his people have a duty to show that by being there as well.”
That sounded innocent enough. It also sounded a little bit too good to be true.“You been handing out water to everyone on the scene?”
“It’s hot weather to work in,” he replied. “You all looked like you could use it. The fire captain and I have worked together before, so I thought I’d come down and see if our congregation could help out this time, too.”
That sounded easy enough to check out. “Thanks,” I said, taking the bottle slowly. It hadn’t been opened, which was a good sign. “What’s your name, Father?”
“I’m Pastor Manuel Rodriguez, from Diversy Street Evangelical Church a few blocks down that way,” he replied, nodding his head away to the west. “And I’m sorry to say that, while I’m flattered by your offer, I have three daughters to be father to, and no time to add a son as well.”
That managed to get a half hearted grin in spite of my bad mood. “Alright, Reverend then. You come all the way out here to hand out water bottles?”
“Actually, I was going to offer to put up people made homeless in fires.” He looked around at the parking lot we stood in. There were still dozens of people who had lived in the building milling around that didn’t look like they had anywhere else to go. “Members of the congregation have opened their homes in similar circumstances before. We’ve never handled anything this big before, but…”
That was unusual. In fact, I’d never heard of anything like it before. There certainly wasn’t a routine procedure for what to do if a priest showed up and offered to take homeless people of the government’s hands. I shrugged and said, “Well, if you’re going to be taking people off the scene you’ll need to let the FBI know where they’re going, in case we need to talk to them again.”
“Yes, Captain Goodrich mentioned that to me. In fact, that’s why I was headed this way in the first place, he said your command vehicle was over here.”
“This way.” I stepped aside and gestured back to the van I’d just left as if I was a doorman at one of those ritzy hotels.
He nodded and said, “Thanks.”
I watched him as he made his way in to talk to Voorman and shook my head. There are strange people the world over, and sometimes I think the sole purpose of my job is to let me meet them all.
But the strange pastor and his water bottles were now Voorman’s problem and I left them in his capable hands. On the far side of our appropriated parking lot I spotted Mona and Mosburger near one of the ambulances on the scene. The latter had a bandaged taped to the palm of his hand and was scratching nervously at it as I walked up.
“What did he say?” Mona asked.
“Something about passing out water bottles,” I said.
“What did Voorman say?” Mona asked, without missing a beat.
I spread my hands. “About what I expected. I’m on vacation until further notice.”
She sighed. “I guess that’s no surprise, given what happened. But I really wish they’d cut you some more slack. Other talents use force more frequently than you and don’t face nearly the repercussions.”
“It’s actually reasonable for the Committee to be worried about this,” I said with a shrug. “Property damage makes them look bad, even if their connection to it isn’t allowed into the press. I just wish they could get over the fact that this kind of thing is part of dealing with talents. It’s gonna happen whenever things hit the fan.”
“Excuse me,” Mosburger said, raising a hand tentatively, “but should I be hearing this?”
“Depends,” I said, shooting Mona a glance. “Has Agent Templeton asked you about your… uh, work, yet?”
“If you mean the newspaper clippings, then no, not yet,” he said, looking back down at his bandage.
I made a go-ahead gesture to Mona, since this was technically her department. She nodded thanks and said, “I couldn’t help but notice that you were interested in a number of recent bank robberies.”
Mosburger nodded, but didn’t say anything else. So Mona pressed on. “Why those particular bank robberies? They were scattered across the country and happened weeks or even months apart. No similar characteristics. In fact, no real characteristics at all.”
“Not entirely true,” Mosburger said, still not looking up. “They all featured different minor electronic glitches that probably caused the people involved to go unnoticed.”
“Not much of a common thread,” Mona said casually. Then she leaned against the ambulance and said, “But you’ve already proven that you’re good at picking out common threads other people might not have noticed. So again, what was it? Why those robberies?”
He finally looked up at us and said, “This is gonna sound stupid.”
“So did the AM/PM thing, at first glance. You were right about that, so why not this time?”
He shook his head. “It’s for Trump Illuminati.”
There was a moment’s pause as Mona and I glanced at each other. I shook my head to say I’d never heard of it either. Finally, Mona looked back and asked, “It’s for what?”
“It’s an annual contest for conspiracy theory buffs,” Mosburger said. “The idea is to create the most far out conspiracy theory you can support using news items from the current year. You’re not allowed to go outside of a set 365-day period.”
“Wait, you mean all of that was a joke?” I really should have left the questioning to Mona, but I couldn’t help asking.
“Not a joke,” he replied quickly. “Or it was at first, but in trying to sound as convincing as possible, I think I might have accidentally convinced myself. Or something. I don’t know…” Mosburger leaned back against the door of the ambulance. “I was… well, not laid off, but I took an early retirement package this year.”
I looked him up and down and raised an eyebrow. Mona said what I was thinking. “Early retirement at your age?”
He laughed. “I may not look it, but I’ll be fifty in a year. I worked for Tri-State Power since I got my engineering degree.”
“So you know electronics.” Mona wasn’t asking.
“Electrical engineering with a specialization in control systems.” Shrugging, Mosburger uncapped his bottle of water, but didn’t drink. “I stick to my strengths, that’s why the bank robberies caught my eye. It seemed like it’d be easier for me to put together a good entry this year if I did that.”
As he took a swig of water Mona asked, “Is this the first time you’ve done this?”
“No,” he said, recapping the bottle. “It’ll be my eighth year this year. I made the top ten last year, but the judges decided my submission was ‘not persuasive enough’ to merit a prize.” He made air quotes for emphasis.
“So this year you were what?” Mona clapped her hands together, as if she was praying, then tapped her index fingers to her lips. I wondered why she was thinking so hard about this, but then, that’s why she’s the getman’s analyst and I’m not. “Looking for electrically related incidents and trying to tie them together?”
“Exactly,” Mosburger nodded. “I was looking for an angle on both the bank robberies and these fires. When I realized there was actually a pattern to the fires, even if they weren’t electrical fires, I kinda got more absorbed in that than anything else.”
“Hence the fire suppressants,” Mona said with a nod.
“Right again. Although…” Mosburger threw me a skittish look. “I kind of understand why you told me they wouldn’t really do me any good.”
“Oh?” I raised an eyebrow. “Why is that?”
He shrugged. “The windows blew out before we saw the fire.”
“What?” I could tell from Mona’s expression she followed that logic, but I didn’t.
“When a building burns the heat causes the glass in windows to expand rapidly and as a result they explode outwards.” Mossburger mimed a small explosion with one hand. “But the windows on the floor you were on exploded several minutes before we saw any sign of open flames. It sounded like there was a thunder clap, then they just exploded.”
“Maybe the arsonist set off some sort of incendiary?” Mona suggested.
“No.” Mosburger pointed at her radio. “I heard someone on that saying that he found a door melted shut. Meaning the arsonist had something capable of melting steel.”
“A wielding torch could do that,” I said.
“Maybe, and if the fuel tank exploded it could even cause the changes in air pressure that probably blew out the windows upstairs.” Mosburger stood up and paced away from the ambulance. “But I don’t think so.” He turned back around and leveled a look at me. “Because it was raining a few hours ago, even though the day was supposed to be sunny.”
“Go on,” Mona said, clearly enjoying herself now. Apparently she saw the logic where I didn’t.
“It got too cold, too fast,” he said, spinning around to face us. “I’d guess it was no more than sixty degrees outside by the time we got down that fire escape, thought it must have been ninety when we started. Where did all the heat go?”
Mosburger didn’t wait to be prompted this time, he jabbed a finger at me and said, “You sucked it into the building. You and the arsonist, that’s what you do, isn’t it? Then somebody screwed up and the air you’d superheated tried to be normal again, just like it does after it’s been superheated by a lightning bolt. The air pressure change blew the windows out and the temperature changes triggered the rain storm. That’s the only comprehensive explanation for what we saw today. You’ve got some kind of supernatural power, don’t you?”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it, really, I’ve never been called supernatural before and it seemed a little silly to me. Mosburger flinched slightly, which suggested that hadn’t really be the reaction he was expecting.
“Relax, Mr. Mosburger,” Mona said, shooting me a look that said I might want to calm down and stop scaring the civilians. I recognized it because I get it a lot. “You’re not in any trouble. And while you’re theory is pretty good, I’m afraid you won’t be able to share it with the Trump Illuminati folks. On the other hand, if you’re interested in it, there might be a job in it for you…”Previous Chapter Next Chapter Fiction Index