Heat Wave: Shooting Sparks


I returned to my base of operations with the three telltales of a successful bank robbery in tow. The first, of course, was a large amount of untraceable cash. The second, a completely intact business suit. The third, the irrepressible smirk of a man who has taken what is his and has no intention of apologizing for it. To say that I was incredibly satisfied with the day’s work would be understating the matter.

I’m not going to describe the bank robbery, those details are on a need to know basis, and no one who’s not me really needs to know, but it was truly the kind of work a man could take pride in. I had been looking forward to taking a day or two off at my headquarters, catching up on some coding that needed to be done before my next major move and getting some hard earned rest from the constant paranoia that must accompany a man of my profession who is temporarily cooperating with others. While I didn’t really expect things to go exactly according to plan, I wasn’t expecting them to stray too far, either.

I was not expecting my phone to ring.

A man in my position cannot be free with his personal information, so my giving out the number is a rare occurrence, having it ring, even more so. I pulled out the cheap, disposable, prepaid cell phone I was using at the moment and wondered if it was time to get another. It didn’t have any built in Big Brother tracking features, but it didn’t have Caller ID either so I couldn’t tell who was on the line. After a moment of thought, feeling a touch adventurous, I decided to answer. So I lifted it to my ear while punching the “call” button and said, “Hello?”

“Eiyeiyeiyeiwaaaaaaazogahzogahzogah,” said my phone.

“Augh!” I said. Someone was trying to send my phone a fax. No matter how many times I hear that sound I will never be able to bear it without cringing. I can code computers by touch but not by voice.

It’s unusual to be getting a fax in this day and age, but it wasn’t an accident. In fact, given how few people knew my phone number and how few fax machines still exist, the odds of my getting a fax accidentally are probably larger than the Cubs winning the World Series next year.

As a man of reason I found it more likely that this was not an accident and rather one of many prearranged signals from one of my more reliable contacts.

I hung up the phone and left my briefcase by the door and picked my way through the debris of a half a dozen tinkering projects that were scattered about my underground apartment. I paused long enough to take stock, making sure the computer system I actually wanted was unboxed and ready to run. I had moved in only four days ago, and my usual set-up wasn’t entirely unpacked.

However villainy, such as it is, runs on information, and in the information age that means a computer. The computer I use for contacting the network of informants, brokers and snitches that I maintain is physically isolated from all of my others, and it is always one of the last packed and first unpacked, because sometimes being out of touch can be fatal. So it was out and waiting for me on the desk in back of what was, theoretically, my living room.

Booting a state of the art computer and getting onto the Internet is the work of but a moment, and I confess that a person with my talent doesn’t even have to touch the keyboard in order to make it happen. But in this case, I did. I’m not normally terribly paranoid when dealing with my informants, because if they were really smart enough to get around my safeguards they’d be using their information themselves, not selling it to me.

But this one was a special case, and I wasn’t about to start taking chances with him now.

An unsecured Internet game room dedicated to wordplay may seem like a strange place to start a highly criminal transaction, but that was exactly where I was headed. Ever since I’d first heard of Hangman a year ago he’d made it a practice to meet up with clients on a small social networking game site in the room for the game from which he took his name. As a rare service to customers with extensive lines of credit, he sometimes contacts us when he has information he thinks we’d particularly want to know.

Hangman was already there when I logged in, but that was no surprise. He had prepared a simple puzzle, only six letters. I smiled and typed in the solution, “Sumter.”

There was a flicker and I wasn’t in an internet game room anymore. There were no graphics, just plain, uncolored text. A box presented itself, asking for my user name and password. By the Hangman’s decree, all his customers used the code names given to their files at federal agencies, unless they didn’t have one yet, in which case I assume he gave them one.

This meant I had to log in as “Open Circuit”, not a name I am fond of but, until I can convince Project Sumter to change my file, it’s what I’m stuck with. As soon as I was logged in Hangman typed, “Congratulations on your latest exploit, Circuit.”

“What exploit would that be?” I asked. Playing coy is part of how the game works.

“A little matter of a bank in Detroit suffering an unauthorized withdrawal.” There was no way for plain text to convey emotion effectively but Hangman never struck me as the type to be smug knowing something he shouldn’t. Rather, he struck me as the type to enjoy being in on the joke. “Not why I contacted you.”

“I imagine not. Perhaps it has more to do with your wanting to make back some of that credit you owe me?”

“Pursuit of knowledge is its own reward.” I wasn’t sure if that was meant to sound sanctimonious or sarcastic. Fortunately, Hangman followed it with, “The information you feed me from the Sumter data files is worth more than just money to me.”

I nodded to myself, a tell I wouldn’t have allowed in person. Hangman was a mystery, other than the fact that he sold information to anyone who was buying, I literally knew nothing about him. But I had theories, and it was always nice to have hints to support or disprove them with. This was another hint that Hangman was indeed one of those who just wanted to know. Figuring out whether it was his real personality showing or just part of a persona he adopted was half the fun.

“Unfortunately,” I typed, “I don’t have anything new from the Project archives to share right now.”

Normally I did have a set of dedicated on-site and off-site computers that worked on various hacking attacks on known elements of Project Sumter, the US Government’s talent management bureau. Even with the recent changes to their information security policies there was always something to glean about them, and I frequently sold what I found to Hangman. However, the computers set aside for that task were still packed.

“Not a problem. I actually have some information about Sumter that might interest you. It’s about your favorite FBI agent.”

“I don’t have one of those. They’re all equally bothersome to me.”

One thing that Project Sumter and I have in common is that we hate the stereotypical depictions of what most people would call superpowers. There’s a lot of reasons for that, and which one is yours usually varies depending on whether you’re the government or a self-employed talent. But in spite of that, no matter where I go or what I do in the Western Hemisphere, there’s one particular governmental talent that always seems to turn up.

Thus, while I wouldn’t consider Special Agent Double Helix my archrival, he is the single most aggravating thing I’ve ever experienced. Hangman has somehow figured this out and brings it up from time to time, usually to help in extracting money from me.

“How much?” I added.

From the length of time it took Hangman to reply it was clear he had been halfway to finishing a snide reply when I asked, forcing him to delete it and start over.

“500. It’ll hit the news soon enough, but I thought you’d want to know, since it’s Helix.”

If it was going to be in the news on its own it must have been a big deal. Still, it’s not like Project Sumter was going to be mentioned on the news, their involvement would be buried behind several layers of innuendo and subtext. I’d have had to do some digging to know for sure Helix was involved. And Hangman’s right. Whether by deliberate design on the part of Helix, the US Government or some higher power, whenever I try to do anything significant Helix shows up. He even followed me to Morocco once.

Best to know what he’s been doing. “A done deal, Hangman. Take the credit from my account.”

“Pleasure doing business with you.” There was a few minutes pause, probably Hangman digging up the records for tidbit of information I’d just bought and sending them. Patience is a virtue, even for villains, and I spent the time unpacking more boxes. A sound from my computer told me Hangman had sent another message.

“Special Agent Double Helix burnt down an apartment building this afternoon, and it was a pretty big one. He’s been removed from active duty pending review of what happened, which could very well take a full month. Initial confirmation in the documents I just sent you.”

I read the message in disbelief, then read it again. Here I am, hard at work, robbing banks and spending cash to keep the economy turning, and what is the FBI doing? Sending Helix to burn down buildings. And then getting him laid off. This was better than I could ever hope for.

“Hangman, I’m breaking out the credit cards,” I typed. “I need you to find me some things. A lot of things, actually. Stand by for the list.”

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