I was rebuilding an electromagnet from scratch when the phone call came.
I try not to mix phone calls and electrical work as a rule, but I had just switched to a new phone, and the only one who had the number so far was Hangman, and not because I’d given it to him but because he always seems to have my number. I frowned and set aside the magnet and moved to the other side of the workbench where I had left my jacket, fished my phone out and answered.
Now like I said before, usually, when Hangman calls, he, or she, sends me a fax as a signal, but today I got to speak the man himself. Or, at least, I got to talk to a computer generated, flat and expressionless voice. That kind of theater is a little overdramatic for my tastes, but I’ll admit that it serves to keep some of the mystery surrounding the Internet’s biggest information dealer intact.
I didn’t know that when I answered the phone, though, I was expecting the usual electronic mess. So I just pushed the call button and waited.
After a moment, I heard the voice drifting up from the speaker saying, “Pick up the phone, Circuit.”
I raised an eyebrow and put the phone on speaker and took it back to my work area. Since magnets can scramble electronics I put what I had been working on away and pulled out a set of microbatteries to keep my hands busy while I was talking. “This is unusual. To what do I owe the honor?”
“Just calling because I wanted to ensure my newest cash cow doesn’t get arrested before he really starts spending money.”
“Arrested? Me?” I finished working the batteries into a sequence and picked up the vest I planned to set them it. While it was designed as tactical load-bearing gear, it looked like part of a three piece suit. Appearance is as important as ideals, after all. “What makes you think I’ll be arrested in the near future? Or at all?”
“Call it a hunch,” Hangman replied.
“I take it that having this hunch explained to me will cost money,” I said, amused. Perhaps it’s a side effect of my talent, but working with electronics always puts me in good humor.
There was a long pause from the phone, and for a moment I thought I’d lost the signal. Then Hangman said, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you’re a cynic, given your line of work.”
“My dear man,” I said, taking a pair of needle nosed pliers in one hand and the vest in another, “cynicism is an entry requirement. Don’t confuse that with callousness or some other lack of feeling.”
“So you’re not worried about it? Then I can-”
“I am always concerned about the possibility of arrest,” I said, interrupting. While it might seem rude I was glad of the opportunity to do so, as I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any lag time between my interruption and when Hangman stopped speaking. I kept talking as I thought about that. “What I’ve learned to do is be philosophical about it. You’ll learn to do the same.”
“Is that a fact?”
Hangman didn’t dispute my status as the older, more experienced of us. Another little tidbit to file away. “So tell me, how much will an explanation of your little hunch cost me?”
“This time, perhaps more than you’re willing to pay.”
I stopped my hands’ continuous busywork at that, raising one eyebrow in curiosity even though Hangman couldn’t see it. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“It means I want you to do me a favor.”
There was another silence as I thought about that. Hangman seemed inclined to let me stew. Finally I said, “I won’t do you an unnamed favor. I’m a sensible man; I don’t deal in any of that unspecified debt hanging over your head stuff. If you don’t know what you want then just ask for money. It’s almost as good.”
“No,” Hangman said, and there was a stutter from the speaker that could have been a laugh before the computer mashed it into an emotionless noise. “I know exactly what I want. If we make this trade, I keep you out of jail and you tell me exactly what it is you’re trying to do.”
“What, you mean you don’t know already?” I said, letting surprise fill my voice.
“I specialize in acquiring facts, but I don’t always have the expertise to understand what they mean.” I heard a loud clicking noise over the phone that I couldn’t quite place. Apparently Hangman’s voice modification software hadn’t been programmed to filter out whatever it was.
Strangely enough, Hangman’s voice got louder as if he was trying to be heard over it. Was he near train tracks? Or was this deliberate disinformation to keep me guessing? It was hard to tell just how subtle he really was, particularly when he did things like bluntly asking what I was doing.
“At the moment, I’m working on creating a highly advanced microstorage device for-”
“Not what I’m asking, Circuit. You’ve been quietly moving around North America for the last ten years, building resources and making connections, but other than that you’ve not done anything of note. Sure, you’ve stolen enough money to keep afloat and build whatever it is you build, but you’re remarkably quiet for a person with talent operating outside of sanctioned channels. What is it you’re aiming for?”
“Who says I’m aiming for anything?” I said innocuously. “I’m just in it for the money.”
“Then you’d be competition for me, not a customer,” Hangman said. There was another of the odd, stuttering noises. “No, if money is what you wanted you’d be retired already. I want to know what you’re really after.”
“Why should I explain myself to you?” I said. “You’ve already mentioned I could be arrested. Avoiding that now is as easy as going to ground. I don’t need to hear the rest.”
“Not even if Double Helix is involved?”
I froze for just a moment. That shouldn’t have been enough to tell Hangman anything, but I heard the eerie sound of modified laughter again and Hangman said, “Does he bother you that much?”
“Not enough to make me want to explain myself to you.” I said sourly.
“Okay,” Hangman said, and I swear it managed to sound placating even after whatever computer mangling the sound went through. “I’ll add a little more carrot. We can meet in person and you can tell me all about your plans.”
Now that was valuable. So far as I knew, Hangman never met anyone in person. It would give us each something over the other, to keep the tables balanced. “That’s fair,” I said, curiosity about Hangman getting the better of common sense for just a moment. “But not now. The meeting comes in a month or so.”
“Assuming you’re not in jail?”
“Yes, assuming that,” I conceded. My hands had fallen idle and I set them back to work. “Now tell me about why I’m in such danger of being arrested.”
“Have you heard of Senator Brahms Dawson?”
“The name is familiar,” I said. “From Montana, isn’t he?”
“Wisconsin.” A brief pause that could have been anything from pulling a file to taking a drink. “Dawson and Special Liaison Michael Voorman have been quietly struggling over the direction of Project Sumter for the last six years.”
“I didn’t know they had a Senate committee,” I said. “I did know that Dawson is a big advocate for genetic research. I could see how that would make him unpopular with most of the talents in the Project.”
“He’s proposed a tracking system for known talents along with mandatory DNA analysis,” Hangman said.
“Which means most of Voorman’s talents probably side with him over the Senator,” I said. “What does this have to do with getting me arrested?”
“Double Helix is the embodiment of what the Senator wants from talents,” Hangman said.
“Right,” I said, accepting that I was just going to have to listen to Hangman’s whole explanation before we got to the relevant point. Hopefully no one was planning on arresting me right that second. “What is it about Helix that the Senator wants? He’s very good at what he does, but he’s never struck me as politically minded.”
“He’s not really. Mostly, I think the Senator is attracted to the hereditary nature of his involvement with the Project,” Hangman replied.
“Hereditary?” That was the first I’d heard of it.
“Do you know where the Project gets its name?”
I thought for a moment as I tried on the vest, making sure the fit was right and nothing was poking me. “I was under the impression it was named that because the first government sanctioned talent operated during the Civil War.”
“Correct,” Hangman said. The rest sounded suspiciously like a lecture long rehearsed. “The very first talent in Project records is known as Corporal Sumter.”
I frowned. The first three talents in Project records are somewhat infamous among talents outside the Project, mainly because it seems like none of us know what their talents were. There’s been rampant speculation, but I’d never even heard of someone knowing their codenames before. My estimation of Hangman’s talents went up another notch.
Not that he had stopped talking while I was busy being surprised. “The Corporal went up against a total of three different Confederate talents over the course of the War Between the States, most of them more than once.”
“Such as Sherman’s Bane and the Bushwhacker?” I asked, anxious to shorten this lecture somehow. I dislike long phone calls. While I don’t think Hangman would try and track me, he had to know I’d be leaving this location as soon as our conversation was done as a guard against arrest if nothing else. There’s always the possibility someone else is out there looking.
“Those are two of them,” Hangman admitted. “Sherman’s Bane is particularly relevant to this discussion.”
“Because he’s the first heat sink in Project records?” I asked. This line of thought was starting to make sense.
“Not only that,” Hangman assured me. “I understand that, if you go six or seven generations back, he’s also in Helix’s family tree.”
I whistled. “Hereditary talent and a Senator with an interest in genetic research.”
It’s not unheard of for talents to run in families, but by the same token it’s not a given, either. While no one’s ever isolated a gene for any talent that I’ve heard of, the accepted wisdom is that they’re recessive, meaning they show up only when both parents have the trait somewhere in the family history, and even then only rarely. I could see how a politician with a passion for genetics could see finding proof for that theory as a worthy goal.
“Senator Dawson is also an aggressive humanist,” Hangman continued. “He doesn’t like the idea of a select breed of specially talented people rising up into a new oligarchy.”
“Meaning what?” I asked.
“Meaning he’s used his position on Project Sumter’s oversight committee to try a number of things,” Hangman answered. “He’s tried to shut it down, to force it to register all talented individuals-”
“That doesn’t mesh well with the Project’s insistence on keeping talents a secret,” I said.
“He’s against that too. His latest idea is to basically boils down to locating talents and then trying to switch of the genes that give them their abilities so future generations will be stock humans.”
“Which is fascinating, I’m sure,” I said, running my hands down the front of my vest and searching it for anything out of place and pleased not to find it. “How does this result in my impending imprisonment?”
“Dawson needs to gain standing with the Project,” Hangman replied. Once again I found myself projecting smug satisfaction into his expressionless voice and forced myself to stop, so I could evaluate his next statements without prejudice. “To do that he’s been grooming an oversight agent who will be starting with the Project tomorrow, and whose sole duty will be to find and arrest you.”
“Thus proving that this agent, most likely with some help of the Senator’s, is able to do something Project Sumter hasn’t been able to accomplish for nearly ten years,” I said, nodding as I saw the logic.
“I have solid information that suggests the Senator is aware of several of your safe houses, and will be moving against them in the next week.”
“And what makes you think I can’t deal with this on my own?”
“Oh, I know you could,” Hangman said. Now I knew he was being smug. He never wastes time on empty phrases like that unless he’s gloating. I know, I’ve lost to him in Scrabble many times before. “What might put you off your game is learning that the agent’s name is Teresa Herrera.”
I froze. It was just for a moment, but that name took me back eight years, to the heady days when I was just a rookie talent, an unknown with no file at all in Project Sumter’s archives. “Herrera? You’re sure about that?”
“Yes. She’ll be oversight for Double Helix until she learns the ropes.” There was another pause, then a distorted noise that could have once been a sigh. “You have history with both of them. You can’t beat him, you can’t get away from her. I thought you’d like to know. So you could take measures.”
Slowly I dragged myself back to the present, found myself nodding to a hard used workbench with a disposable phone sitting on it. A useless gesture to an empty room. I frowned, for once feeling like I should just take a week off and sleep for a while. But the life I’ve chosen doesn’t allow for that kind of thing.
“Thank you, Hangman,” I said, wondering how long I’d been silent. “That is very useful to me. I think I need to make a slight change in direction for the next week or two.”
“You wanted to know what this was all about, right?” I shrugged. “Consider this a down payment: For what I’m planning to work, I’ll need the men and women of Project Sumter on my side.”
“Well, most of them don’t like Senator Dawson much,” Hangman said. “But I don’t know how you’ll be able to use that to overcome the twenty or thirty felony counts in your file.”
“Easy,” I said, peeling off my vest and rolling up my sleeves in preparation for some serious work. “I can’t have people burning my city down any more than they can.”
I turned away from the bench and moved down the wall to a large map of the city. I pull the letter that was pinned next to it down and looked it over once. “What can you tell me about the Firestarter case, Hangman?”