Heat Wave: Burnt Fingers

Helix

Bureaucracy at work: In order for Project Sumter to kick me out of the offices for the next week, I have to come into the office and sign paperwork.

Now if I was a cop, yeah, maybe they’d just take my gun and my badge and send me home for a little while, paperwork to be filed by others. The problem is, I have a talent that lets me melt through steel and concrete, and I can’t be sent to take some time off without the powers that be giving me a Very Clear Warning about behaving myself.

So after going home, stripping out of clothes reeking of smoke, hitting the shower and then getting an unrestful night’s sleep I got up the next morning and went right back to the local offices of Project Sumter. Sanders was in his office with the paperwork in hand and notary witnesses at his side and had me out again in under five minutes. But not before extracting a solemn promise from me that I would take it easy for a while.

Always a kidder, that one.

I asked him if he had plans that night but, unfortunately for him, Voorman had pulled the entire active team on the Firestarter case in for an all-nighter. It’s that kind of thing that makes people around here wonder if getting periodically relieved of duty isn’t part of some secret plan of mine to get out of work.

Technically speaking, once I was relieved of duty I was supposed to be restricted from accessing all files and offices to ensure I wasn’t trying to follow up any of the Project’s open cases on my own. Fortunately, I’m not terminally stupid or suicidal. Chasing talents is a team sport and trying it on your own is a one way ticket to a shallow grave. Anyone who’s worked here for more than a month knows better than to try it.

So Sanders didn’t have someone escort me out, nor did anyone really seem anxious to force me to leave once I had signed on the dotted line. Under normal circumstances I would have been itching to leave anyway, as my workshop was calling to me, but as I left Sanders’ office I passed Mona on her way in, so I took the opportunity to slip down the stairs to Analysis and ducked in.

To my surprise the first thing I saw as I wove through the ranks of empty desks was Pritchard Mosburger, with a man I didn’t recognize, being ushered into one of the conference rooms. Mona certainly hadn’t wasted any time getting him sworn in, but that wasn’t really surprising. There’s a lot of turnover in Analysis. It has something to do with shoving a couple dozen highly paranoid, barely stable geniuses into a small room and telling them to deal with each other while trying to track down people with the kind of talents that make you want to dig a hole to hide in and pull it in after.

Believe me, I know most of our getmen and, while someone who puts together conspiracy theories for fun might sound far out to your man on the street, I was pretty sure that Mosburger was actually on the saner side of our Analysis team. But he wasn’t the sanest. That particular honor belonged to the man who I’d come to see.

Darryl Templeton, Mona’s husband, was head of the Analysis department and quite possibly the sanest man I know. His office was on the far side of the common room and the door was conveniently standing open. I made my way towards it, keeping an eye out for roving getmen as I did so. It’s not that I dislike our analysts; it’s just that the female ones love to come and ask me questions about some of my coworkers. Questions I generally prefer to avoid.

A huge part of my career at the Project has been spent doing my best to not understand Bob Sanders. I really have no idea why he doesn’t seem to want to hang on to a girlfriend for more than a few weeks and I wouldn’t want to explain it to an upset woman if I did.

Fortunately the floor was pretty empty at the moment, I didn’t see anyone besides a couple of guys I vaguely recognized sorting through newspapers from the southern part of the state, so I made it to Darryl’s office without incident. Unfortunately, Darryl wasn’t at his desk when I glanced in. That’s not unusual, half of Darryl’s job involves making sure files get to people and Project Sumter has the most draconian network security policy I’ve ever heard of in a government institution. We don’t have one.

A network, that is.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We have computers and a local rig set up here in the office, but its physically separate from the outside and there’s no way to have any electronic device in the building without a cellular data plan contact the outside. Obviously, it’s against the rules to have such a cellular device in contact with the LAN. As a result, all files are sent from one office to another in hard copy. Somehow, this is supposed to make them safer.

This rather bizarre policy is the result of a couple of major hacking attacks three years ago that resulted in a lot of our research files getting stolen. There’s a lot of information on talents out there in the wild and the only reason we can think of that it hasn’t wound up in the hands of the media is that whoever stole it was a talented individual with a vested interest in keeping it secret. My money is on a talent we call Open Circuit, who’s made quite a name for himself in cyber warfare in the last decade or so, but he’s not the only one who could pull that kind of thing off.

The upshot of all that is a lot of highly classified files enter the building from other parts of the Project and only three people are actually cleared to receive them. One is Voorman, who never actually does it. One is the non-existent head of our Records department. Our last one quit months ago and was never replaced. That leaves Darryl, who, as head of Analysis, is pretty much authorized to collect and share anything with anyone in the office he thinks worthy.

Of course, he also has to sign for all outgoing files, so some days he can spend as much time in the mail room as he does in his office. That was a little disappointing, since I’d hoped to talk to him quickly and get out to my workshop with a minimum of time lost. Still, there was nothing to do but wait, so I settled into one the chairs in front of his desk, propped my feet up on its immaculate surface and tried to grab some shuteye.

Apparently I succeeded because I woke up when someone dropped a large stack of paperwork onto my stomach. I sat up with a grunt. “If you’re going to be hogging space at my desk you can at least earn your keep.” Darryl slid into his own chair and plopped an even larger stack of envelopes and a single cardboard box onto one corner of his desk. “Speaking of which, why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be suspended without pay, or something?”

“That’s exactly what I am,” I replied, taking the pile of paper and dropping it next to the box. “Which means I can’t look at any of that on pain of pain. Sorry.”

Darryl did his best to draw himself up to an imposing height and glare down at me. Since Darryl’s only five inches taller than me, just like all the other average American males, and kind of skinny to boot, it didn’t really work that well. I’m used to it. Still, I suddenly felt bad giving him a hard time.

When I joined the Project eight years ago Darryl had been my field analyst, the job his wife has now. He’d moved into the offices after a bad car wreck a few years after. That had aged him some, but these days it seemed like he had more gray hair in his beard every time we bumped into each other. Meeting his stare, I saw more wrinkles around his eyes than I ever remembered there being.

I held up my hands in front of my chest. “All right, I’ll be going. I just wanted to make sure you and Mona were still coming over tonight.”

Darryl’s expression softened somewhat. “Are you sure you’re up to it? You had a rough day yesterday.”

“Hey, Mona was out there too.” I waved him off. “If she feels like she can make it I’m good too.”

“Mona didn’t get relieved of duty today,” Darryl said earnestly.

“This is nothing new, Darryl. I swear they do it to me at least once a year. It’s like a habit or something. You know it; you sat through it once or twice.” I leaned over the desk and lowered my voice, to make sure he was listening. “I’m fine, and if you try and back out on me I’ll prove it by sneaking in here and melting your desk into a puddle.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Darryl’s mouth before he could suppress it. “Well, at least I know you’re feeling fine. I guess we’ll be there.”

“Glad we got that straightened out.” Darryl and I turned to find Jack leaning against the doorframe. He turned his attention from Darryl to me. “If Sanders finds out you’re still here he’ll have a cow.”

“Why’s that?” I asked. “He’s not a big stickler for the rules.”

“Because he’ll have to file an addendum to your suspension paperwork showing that you were somewhere you weren’t supposed to be when you weren’t supposed to be there.”

“That doesn’t even sound like it makes sense,” I said.

“It probably doesn’t,” Jack said with a shrug. “But it’s what he’d have to do. And you know how much Cheryl hates dealing with addendums.”

I brightened a bit. Watching Sanders go at it with the day shift manager from Records was always fun. “Maybe I should go down to the cafeteria and grab something to eat before we-”

“Come on, partner,” Jack said, grabbing me by one arm and hauling me out of the chair. “It’s time to go.”

“See you tonight, Darryl,” I said, and let myself be dragged out of his office.

“Don’t work too hard,” Darryl called as I left. It sounded like a good idea at the time.

An hour or so later Jack and I were in the bed of his truck, parked outside a U-Store It garage in the process of tying down a sofa. It was another hot afternoon and Jack had managed to keep a steady stream of grumbling about it going pretty much ever since he stepped out of the cab. Unfortunately, tying down a hardwood framed sofa in such a way that its finish doesn’t get scratched isn’t simple or fast, and I wasn’t about to let this beauty get ruined for a moment’s carelessness.

I was in the process of fitting the second to last set of bungee cables and rubber pads into place when we heard a series of muffled crashes and bangs from the garage a couple of units down the way. I popped up out of the truck’s bed like a groundhog looking for its shadow, hands braced on the side, and looked around. It was part classic rubbernecking instinct and part well honed desire to find trouble and sort it out, and it was the kind of urge that drove me to be a civil servant in the first place.

But I’ll admit that the real reason I hopped down from that truck and went to see what was going on was a feeling of general laziness. I’ve never been one of those people who deals well with having time on their hands. I like to be doing things and I like to be at the center of the action. Playing the moving man just didn’t quite cut it.

I heard Jack jump down from the truck behind me as I made my way over to the garage the noises came from. There was a large U-Haul parked out front, the kind of thing you might use to move a family of three from one side of the city to the other, but there was no sign of anyone in or around it, no one outside the garage at all.

I peered around the side of the truck and called, “Hey, is everything all right in there? We heard something falling.”

Before I had finished talking a man in a suit jacket backed out of the garage with a metal floor lamp in his hands. He was trying not to bang the light fixture on the top of the doorframe while still getting the bottom over the drift of boxes that blocked half the entrance. With his back mostly to us and his head pointed down, I didn’t recognize him until he spoke.

“I’m all right, though I’m not sure all these boxes are.” He said, his attention still fixed on the mess on the floor.

Now I’m not an expert with voices, in fact I’m as likely to forget one as remember it, but I’d only met the man yesterday and he’d struck me as a bit strange even then. I raised my eyebrows and said, “Reverend Rodriguez. I gotta say, you keep turning up in places I wouldn’t exactly expect to find a man of the cloth.”

Rodriguez set down the lamp as soon as it was clear of the garage door and turned around, looking just as surprised to see me as I was him. “Well, well, the FBI,” he said. “Twice in two days. Is this a coincidence, or is there some problem I need to know about?”

“No problems today, Rev,” Jack said, “we’re off duty.” He waved one hand to encompass the storage facility. “Looks like we just store our junk in the same place.”

I glanced into the U-Haul, which looked to be about half full of furniture and other household goods, then into the garage, which contained a lot more of the same, and said, “Wow. You do pretty good for a church man, Reverend.”

Rodriguez chuckled and said, “Not mine, actually. It’s the church’s, some of our members donate furniture as they buy or inherit or just find new things, and we keep it here against unexpected need in the community.”

I considered the floor lamp standing next to him and the boxes near his feet, one of which apparently held a toaster. “This is for the people who lost things in the fire.”

“Exactly. A few of the deacons put together a list of pressing needs and worked out what we could do to help.” He gestured to the U-Haul and shrugged. “It won’t heal the emotional hurt that comes from this kind of disaster, but it is a step in the right direction.”

Jack rubbed the back of his neck for a moment as he considered what we were looking at and then said, “You know, Reverend, a lot of those people probably had renter’s insurance to pay for things like this.”

“That can take weeks or months to come through, though,” the other man said, turning and hefting the lamp again and moving it into the truck. “And it brings all the comfort and reassurance of bureaucracy with it, which is to say none at all. Besides, God’s people are not called to let other people deal with it when we’re perfectly able to help on our own.”

I shrugged. “Nothing wrong with that, I guess. Where are your other people? We didn’t see anyone else here.”

“Just me right now, I’m afraid,” Rodriguez said. “Some of the deacons were planning to come once they got off work, but I didn’t see any reason to wait for them before starting.”

Jack snorted. “I can respect that, Reverend, but it looks like you’re fixing to hurt yourself. Do you need a hand?”

“Well, it couldn’t hurt…” Rodriguez looked the two of us over. In traditional fashion one of us, namely Jack, was big and burly and the other was small and scrawny. But if he had any concerns over my ability to pull my weight he kept them to himself. “But if you’re going to help you have to settle for calling me Pastor Rodriguez, or just Manuel, like my friends do. There’s only one man worthy of reverence and sadly, it’s not me.”

I exchanged a glance and a shrug with Jack. If the pastor wanted to be nitpicky about things like that, well, that was kind of his job, I guess. So we wound up spending the next two and a half hours helping Pastor Rodriguez fill his U-Haul with random household objects then restack everything that had been moved or knocked out of place in the process.

By the time we were done there were about half a dozen other folks there who were introduced to me as deacons from Rodriguez’s church. I shook hands with all of them, did my best to remember their names, and then went back with Jack to finish tying down the sofa. We piled into the truck’s cab in a much better mood than we had been before and made it back to my apartment without incident.

We hauled the couch up the back door and into the freight elevator, stopping to get the keys from the manager. As we waited for the doors to open and let us out onto my floor Jack took a moment to wipe the sweat off his face with the edge of his shirt. “It’s pure murder out there, Helix,” he said as he grabbed the edge of the couch again. “I think I’ll need to borrow your shower once we get this thing settled.”

“Fine by me,” I said, looking behind me as the door slid open then backing out into the hallway. “I’d prefer you not smelling like road kill anyway.”

It was about three hundred feet from the elevator to the entrance to my apartment, pretty much a straight shot down the hall. We’d gotten about halfway there when I slowed to a stop. The ability to sense heat isn’t something I have to concentrate to do; I just have a general sense of what’s around me at all times. And as a general rule of thumb, human beings are about twenty to thirty degrees warmer than the air in a climate controlled building, even one where the climate control is second rate, like my apartment complex. Four or five people standing around in an apartment stand out, especially if that apartment is supposed to be empty, like mine was.

“Problem?” Jack asked.

“I think you’ll have to skip your shower, Jack,” I said. “It looks like I’ve already got company.”

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