I let myself into my apartment and glanced around before turning back to grab my end of the couch. “For a secret government organization, you lot are really lousy at skulking. Maybe you should have your people work on that, Gramm.”
“Counting yourself in that are you, Helix?” Ed Gramm came over and held the door open as Jack and I finished getting the furniture into the big main room, then closed it as we parked the couch in a free corner.
“Hey, I’m just a mild mannered civilian, have been for hours.” I said, dusting my hands off and fishing out my wallet. “My name is Benjamin Dornier.”
“It’s more convincing if you don’t have to check your driver’s license to remember your name, buddy,” Jack said, wiping his face on his shirt as he headed towards the bathroom. “And I don’t care if there are other people here already; I’m borrowing your shower.”
“Probably best you don’t smell like old gym socks when we get started.” Ed tossed me a pale pink bow. I gave him a skeptical look and he pointed at the couch. “Put it on. I don’t think you’re planning on wrapping it but it ought to have something on it, shouldn’t it?”
I sighed and stuck the bow on the couch. “Why did I invite you to this anyway?”
“Because I was Mona’s first boss and she still likes me even though that weasel Voorman stole her for his department?”
“Yeah, that kind of talk really makes me feel better about you being here.” I headed towards the kitchen to check on things in there, but as I left I called over my shoulder, “Just remember who’s party this is and try to keep a lid on things, okay?”
Two hours later there was a knock at the door and I went to get it, switching the lights off as I went. Behind me, a dozen or so people scurried away to hiding places, muttering and snickering as they tried to squirrel themselves away in my admittedly tiny living room. I tried not to sigh. Skulking isn’t my specialty, but I like to see things done well, and this didn’t really qualify.
I opened the door to reveal Darryl and Mona Templeton, who I swept in with one hand while closing the door with the other. “Come on it,” I said. “This your first time in this place? I change apartments so regularly it’s hard to keep track of which ones you’ve seen.”
“I don’t think we’ve been here before,” Darryl said.
Mona patted him on the arm, which I recognized as a shushing gesture. “Helix, are you sure you’re up for company? You just got laid off today. We can come back some other time.”
“I’m fine, Mona,” I said, gently guiding them away from the door. “It’s just a temporary thing, and it’s not like this is the first time. Besides, you only have one birthday a year.”
Jack hit the lights and people came tumbling out of hiding calling, “Surprise!”
“And,” I added, “it would kind of ruin the party if you ducked out now.”
Mona shook her head. “A surprise party. How did you guys manage to plan a surprise party without me figuring that out?”
“Simple. Ed and I are just as smart as you, and we had Jack and Helix to help us make it happen.“ Darryl kissed his wife on the cheek and led her over to her new sofa.
From that point, things got to be something of a blur. I like to plan things but I don’t like crowds so much, so while putting together the party with Darryl had been fun, this part was less so. On top of that, most of the people there were current or former members of Ed’s analyst team, which Mona had belonged to before transferring to field work. I didn’t know them that well. Most of the people from my team had been kept at the office with Sanders. I was pretty sure Jack hadn’t been called in only because Sanders conveniently ‘forgot’ he was on vacation today.
Jack and I focused on keeping the drinks and food flowing, which didn’t really keep us that busy, and I generally tried my best to play a good host. At least we had managed to keep Mona from baking her own cake this year, which I considered to be a victory in and of itself. I was just about to go and get a new bottle of wine and perhaps propose a toast when I noticed the body heat of someone coming up the hallway.
Normally I wouldn’t have paid any attention to it, because it is, after all, an apartment building and people come and go all the time. But this person stopped outside my door and just waited there. No knock, no buzzer, no shouting over the noise of the party, which he could certainly hear, no phone call asking me to let him in. I frowned and caught Jack’s eye, nodded towards the door and slipped through the crowd in the living room to the door.
A glance through the peephole revealed that my mystery guest was Bob Sanders. I frowned. If he was coming to join the party after all he would have knocked. So he probably didn’t want anyone to know he was here. I quickly glanced around the living room.
Ed Gramm had his back to the door, talking to Mona. He’d behaved himself so far that night, not trying to talk Mona into rejoining his team or some such foolishness, but he probably wouldn’t miss a chance to call Sanders out on being away from the office, either. I flipped Jack a quick hand signal that meant I was going to scout ahead and then slipped into the hall.
Sanders was carrying a small bouquet of flowers, a bottle of wine and a card. In contrast to his cheerful looking packages, the man looked strained and tired. I raised an eyebrow. “Working up the nerve to come in?”
He snorted, as if that was a preposterous idea. Which, admittedly, it was. “Just wanted to avoid complications.”
“You’re not staying.” I wasn’t asking, that much was pretty obvious.
“I need to be back at the office in half an hour,” he said. “And besides, I’m not supposed to tell you what I’m about to tell you.”
“Ooh, this is one of those conversations.” I nodded. “And Mona’s party is a convenient excuse.”
Sanders sighed and motioned down the hall, where there was a small corner lounge. “Let’s get out of the hallway.”
I nodded and we walked down to the chairs there. Sanders stopped long enough to set down his gifts on the table and then joined me by the window. He sat in a chair, I leaned against the corner. We both pointed ourselves outwards, facing the two entrances, so we could watch for anyone approaching. As a result, we could only glance at each other out of the corner of the eye but at least no one could sneak up on us.
“I’m sorry about the party,” Sanders said. “I’ll apologize to Mona tomorrow.”
“Fair enough,” I said with a shrug. “We’ve all been where you are before. I’m just not following why you came after you said you couldn’t.”
“Voorman needed an excuse to for one of us to talk to you. Tonight.” Sanders shrugged. “No one but you and Darryl actually knew I said I wouldn’t come, so he figured he’d send me with his gift.” Sanders motioned to the bottle of wine.
I nodded. “Makes sense. He and Gramm can’t stand each other, so they wouldn’t be at the same party. Sending a runner is Voorman’s style.”
“Right. So here I am, officially to give Mona her birthday present, unofficially to tell you to answer your phone tomorrow morning.” Sanders smirked slightly.
“I always answer my phone, even when it’s two thirty in the morning,” I said in confusion. “It’s part of the job. Why would I not answer my phone tomorrow morning?”
“Oh, you’d answer the phone but you wouldn’t answer it the right way,” Sanders said, his smirk growing. “You see, tomorrow you’re going to be asked if you’ll come into the office for reassignment.”
“Sanders, I just got officially relieved of duty…” I paused to check my watch. “Six and a half hours ago. The Project doesn’t just pull someone off duty so they can call them back less than twenty four hours later.”
He stopped smiling. “They do when he’s one of only eighty eight talents in the whole country certified for law enforcement work.”
“Right.” I grunted in disgust. “Like they haven’t already thought about that.”
“This is what I mean when I say you wouldn’t answer right,” Sanders said morosely. “Knowing you, you’d just tell them to take a flying leap and hang up.”
“Oh, I could be more inventive than that.”
“And I wouldn’t blame you,” Sanders said, abandoning his watch on the hallway to level a stern look at me. I humored him and met it. “But there’s more to my job than just keeping you happy.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Is that actually a criteria of doing your job?”
“More than you know.”
I shook my head with mock seriousness. “Well, Sanders, I’ve gotta tell you, you’re doing lousy.”
He ignored my jibe. “The Project is taking on someone from HSA for overseer training.” I nodded. While I work for the FBI most of the time, I’ve also worked with the TSA and the CIA. Project Sumter as a whole is available to all the many abbreviations of the federal government but we don’t actually belong to any of them.
Instead, our team leaders are drawn from the ranks of various agencies, receive basic training and work a year or two in the Project then return to wherever they came from, so when we’re called in there will be someone who knows the score to work with us. I wasn’t surprised to hear that we had someone from the HSA coming in to be a team lead. It’s a good career move for them, and it keeps the Project well supplied with fresh blood from which we draw a much smaller core of experienced, full time oversight agents.
But what Sanders said next did get me to sit up and pay attention. “Special Agent Herrera is being sponsored by Senator Brahms Dawson.”
“Oh.” I stared off down my hallway, not really watching it anymore. That had a lot of implications. “So he’s a friend of our favorite secret Senate committee leader, is he?”
“She is,” Sanders said, both confirming and correcting at once. “She’s from Utah, so she’s not from Dawson’s state but they seem to have known each other for a while. He’s had a hand in her education and helped her join the HSA and he’s been going to great lengths to make sure she gets a chance to work with us. If we can’t get a team assembled soon she could be pulled by the HSA for other duties.”
“And whoever is up next may not be quite so friendly with the Senator,” I said, nodding in understanding.
“Oh, it’s better than that,” Sanders said with a grin. “The next person in line for a team leadership position, in line for a permanent oversight position in fact, just turned thirty six today.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Mona’s bucking for her own team?”
“Has been for quite a while.” Sanders laced his fingers behind his head, leaning back in his chair. “In fact, keeping her out of an oversight position has been Senator Dawson’s pet hobby for the past five months. Voorman got her the job by agreeing to let Herrera go first.”
“On a temporary basis, of course.”
“So,” I said slowly, feeling my eyes narrow. “Why does the Senator want this woman in the Project so badly he’d be willing to hand his nemesis such a big concession?”
“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “We really don’t know much about Herrera other than that she’s 25, female and Hispanic.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Nothing at all? Aren’t we on permanent liaison with the FBI?”
“Herrera’s juvenile records were sealed when she turned eighteen,” Sanders said. He spread his hands. “The FBI is wary of pushing too hard to get them, particularly when it’s people from the Circus who are asking for them.”
Whenever Sanders calls the Project by the FBI’s pet name it means that he’s already thrown all of his considerable talents of persuasion into getting what he wants from them and still come up blank. His favorite way of showing frustration is making others look unreasonable.
Still, this time I felt like siding with the FBI. Sometimes records are sealed with good reason. “What do we know about her after she turned eighteen?”
“Just that she got into UC Berkley where she majored in social work.”
“And managed to attract the attention of a certain Senator from Wisconsin?” I asked.
“Essentially,” Sanders said. “She attended a rally or something there; we’re kind of fuzzy on the details. But she’s known the Senator for the last six years and it looks like he’s been grooming her for this job.”
“So what kind of viper is he looking to slip into our midst?” I mused. And maybe I was jumping to conclusions about Agent Herrera, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep and my opinion of the Senator was pretty low. Nothing personal, but he had once suggested registering and tracking all known talents in the States and that’s something we’re all a little touchy about.
“We don’t know,” Sanders said. “But Voorman is desperate to find out and contain the damage. That’s why, when the Project calls you and tells you they’ve changed their mind and want to put you back on duty, you’re going to say yes.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose for a moment, fighting a headache that had been growing back there all evening. “So I can either forgo a well earned vacation to babysit a rookie field overseer, or let Brahms Dawson finally get whatever hold over talents he’s been looking for since he joined the Senate Oversight Committee twelve years ago. Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s about what it amounts to.”
I spend a moment saying goodbye to the idea of a blissful week in my workshop, then looked up at Sanders and said, “All right. I’ll be there.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter Fiction Index