Heat Wave: Feed the Flames


To most people it probably seems strange that I could be relieved of duty one day and, not twenty four hours later, walk back into the office to take on a new position. It’s not really a surprise if you think about it, though. There are over four hundred living talents on record in the continental U.S., yet the Project employs only eighty-eight of them.

With those eighty-eight talents the Project must keep a vigilant eye out for criminals who are aided by talent, try to find new talents as they crop up and warn them to try and keep a low profile, and remain ever vigilant against the possibility that foreign powers will use talents as spies, or worse, soldiers. As you can imagine, we’re pretty busy. Unless we’ve done something that seriously threatens the public interest, Project Sumter can’t afford to remove us from duty for more than a week or so and that’s more like a slap on the wrist than a real disciplinary measure.

Sure, coming back in less than a day was unusual, but these are strange times even without Senator Dawson in the picture.

When I walked into the office the next day I didn’t head up to the floor where Sanders and the rest of our team usually meets. For one thing, I wasn’t really a part of his team anymore, which was both freeing and uncomfortable. I’ve worked with Sanders since I started with the Project, and there’s a certain amount of familiarity to him no matter how much I think he’s a shallow jerk. Also, if the Senator was involved in getting someone appointed to the Project I had no doubt he’d be there to log some face time with the “regular Joes” who worked with us talents and we don’t receive VIPs upstairs.

But most importantly, the phone call I got told me to go to one of the ground floor visitor’s meeting room.

If I hadn’t been sure that Brahms Dawson would come to see his pasty off on her first day of work before I got to the office all doubts would have been removed as soon as I stepped in the door. The ground floor reception area was crawling with people who had the unmistakable look of private security agents. To the man on the street telling the difference between a private security firm and a member of the FBI might seem challenging. After all, we both wear dark colored suits to work every day, unless we’re undercover, right?

Here’s the secret: Private security can afford nicer suits than we can.

Unlike the reception areas on the other floors, our ground floor entrance sees the occasional guest from the general public, and as such has things like chairs, potted plants and receptionists who know how to smile in order to make people feel more at ease. It’s a nice contrast to, say, Records, where there’s no seating and Cheryl will scowl at you until get out of her foyer and get back to work.

The only concession to the secure nature of the building in the public entrance is Shelob’s desk, where our unusual building security chief can usually be found. Except that morning Shelob wasn’t there, replaced with one of the many security suits that mobbed the area. I had to go right past him to get to the conference room and I hadn’t even gotten to the desk when he spoke up.

“Sir, you can’t go back there,” the suit said. He got up from the computer terminal he’s been sitting at. From where I was standing I could see that, regardless of whether this guy had booted Shelob during the Senator’s visit, they’d seen fit to leave to leave her feeds from the outside security cameras untouched, so at least they had some good sense.

I held up my ID, which should have been enough to get me inside this or any other building connected to the FBI or Project Sumter. “I’m cleared for this area.”

“Yes, sir, I can see that,” the bodyguard said. “But right now the main conference room is being used by Senator Dawson and Mr. Voorman, and the Senator does not want to be disturbed.”

Now all the conference rooms in our building are pretty much the same size, and I was tempted to point out that only the enormous ego of a US Senator could instantly transform one into the “main” conference room, but in the end I figured I was best served by letting it be. If Dawson and Voorman were hashing something out it was probably best that I leave well enough alone. Voorman may not be my favorite person to work with, but he’s better at making sure the Project and its Talents are looked after than anyone I know.

I shrugged and said, “Okay, if that’s the way he wants it. Does he know you’re watching that?”

The man started slightly and turned back to his computer in surprise, one of his camera feeds had changed to a documentary on the life and habits of wild donkeys. I left the guard to work out how that might have happened and walked back into the foyer. The one person who didn’t look like he belonged to a high class rent-a-cop service appeared to be in his late fifties, was dressed in a long sleeved shirt in spite of the heat, and sat on one of the benches with a briefcase and a cane by his side.

I walked over and sat down next to him. “How are you, Broadband?”

“Well enough, Helix.” Broadband’s face twiched, followed by the sound of muted cursing from the man at the desk. “Just here to file some reports with Cheryl.”

“What’s the hold up?”

“The elevator is currently undergoing a security check that would be compromised by the presence of unauthorized personnel.” Broadband grimaced and rubbed one knee. “I guess I’m stuck here until they free it up.”

I grunted. “If the Senator’s still on the ground floor, what do they care about the elevator for?”

Another twitch of the muscles on Broadband’s face. “I don’t know, son. I don’t know.”

“Funny,” I said. “I met a man the other day who didn’t want to be my dad. Now you’re volunteering.”

Broadband laughed. “Takes all kinds, son. Let an old man talk, you might learn something. Why the other day, while I was in Cincinnati with the boys…”

He kept rambling and I let him. Harmless talk is one of the things that makes him so go at what he does, I’m told, and it never hurts to let people keep in practice. His face kept twitching, the senator’s guards kept cursing, and I just enjoyed the show.

After about ten minutes of that Voorman finally put in an appearance, walking out of the conference hallway while mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. He glanced around the room and spotted me then motioned me over. “They’re ready for you. I won’t ask you to be nice, but don’t deliberately try to piss off the Senator, please?”

I put my hand over my heart. “I promise not to tap the window, stick my fingers in the cage, feed it, or otherwise excite the politician.”

“That’s the idea,” Voorman said, giving me a light slap on the shoulder and headed towards the elevators without a backward glance. The suit started to get up to say something to Voorman but then I heard Broadband cough and the computer screen went crazy. I just shook my head and headed back to the conference room, if our counterintelligence specialist managed to slip Voorman past the security goons I was sure I’d get the play by play from Shelob later.

I had been expecting to be the first person on Herrera’s ops team to show up. After all, there hadn’t been anyone else out there with me, and getting places early is one of my specialties.

So I was surprised to find Pritchard Mosburger in the conference room when I got there. I looked around in surprise, wondering if perhaps I had the wrong room, then glanced back at him. “What are you doing here?”

“I was called here by Mr. Voorman,” Mosburger said. He hunched his shoulders defensively. “He said this would be a simple starting assignment. Apparently I’m up to field training already. It was a sudden thing, I’ve been here since six, filling out all the paperwork for HR. Then Mr. Voorman comes up and says am I ready for an assignment? So I said sure, and here I am.” Mosburger relaxed a little and offered a weak smile. “Two days on the job and I’m already a field analyst. Must be doing pretty good.”

“It depends on how you look at it,” I muttered, leaning on the back of one of the chairs. It seemed a safe guess now that Dawson and Voorman had been arguing about who our field analyst would be. Analysts fit for the field are almost as rare as talents, and in just as high demand. I was willing to bet the only other qualified person available was Mona Templeton. The senator knew her already; I was willing to bet he’d rather have a total rookie who didn’t like Voorman yet than an actual field ready agent who did.

“Where is the Senator?”

“Agents Mosburger and Herrera were waiting in the other conference room.” Senator Brahms Dawson walked in as he spoke, looking as immaculate as always. I took a minute to reckon it up. With his steel gray hair shellacked into a perfect side part that wouldn’t move in the wind, his tailored brown suit pressed to razor sharpness and his fit figure showing the signs of daily exercise, I estimated that, in order to get here early enough to argue about field analysts with Voorman he must have gotten up some time around three this morning. Momma taught me to be a stickler for punctuality, but even I don’t start getting ready that early.

“Taking a moment to make sure Agent Herrera didn’t want to back out?” I asked.

“Why not ask her yourself?” Senator Dawson favored me with a sardonic half smile as he stood by the chair at the head of the table. His question made me realize that he wasn’t alone. Tunnel vision is one of my biggest problems in tactical situations, and the Senator must qualify because I’m sure there’s no way I would have missed Agent Herrera otherwise.

She was standing a half step behind the Senator and let me just say, as an expert on the subject, that she was smoking hot. She had high cheekboness and a strong, sharp nose and she was tall. I’d guess she was about five-foot ten, although an inch or two of that might have been heels, I didn’t want to bend over and check, but more than her height or looks she had the kind of presence that attracted attention, part practiced poise, part natural charisma. I recognized that kind of thing from Sanders and, for that matter, the Senator.

In another ten years I suspected Dawson might not want to be in the same room with her. He’d be overshadowed, and that’s the kind of thing politicians can’t stand. “Special Agent Herrera.” I stepped away from the chair and held out my hand. “Special Agent Double Helix. No offense. This is a strange job and not everyone wants to be here.”

She favored me with what looked like a genuine smile and gave my hand a firm, friendly shake. No trembling, no jerking the hand back as soon as I let go. Surprisingly normal. “No offense taken, Double Helix. And please, call me Teresa. I knew what I was getting into when I volunteered for this position; I hope you’ll find I’m ready for it.”

I glanced at the two inch folder she was holding under her other arm. It looked a lot like she’s already had a chance to do a little reading on me, so maybe she did have some idea what she was in for. “Let’s hope you’re up for the challenge, then. And if we’re being informal, you can call me Helix like everyone else. Less of a mouthful.” I looked around at the room, then back at Senator Dawson. “All we’re missing is the tactical team. Who do we have? More handpicked rookies?”

“Actually,” Herrera said, “I’ve asked that your previous tactical support team be transferred over with you. I’d hate to have you be the only experienced agent on the team, and I’m told your talent can be difficult to work with.”

“‘Doesn’t play well with others’ often appeared on my report cards,” I said dryly. However, I was also relieved. It had taken Jack and the others a while to get used to some of the difficulties heat sinking can pose, I hadn’t really been looking forward to the idea of breaking in a new team. “Are they coming?”

“Agent Sanders apparently told them they could come in a bit late today” Dawson said, a hint of disappointment tingeing the statement, as if he’d been looking forward to seeing a bunch of guys who’s major hobby was adjusting gunsights. “Apparently most of them were here late last night, in some sort of strategy meeting.”

I shrugged. “Then I assume this is all of us?”

“Correct, Helix,” Herrera said, stepping away from the table and closing the door to the meeting room. To my surprise, Senator Dawson slipped into a chair as Herrera moved to the head of the table. I had assumed that the Senator would take the lead in this meeting.

Agent Herrera handed me a normal looking manila folder marked with Open Circuit’s talent ID number. I glanced up at her as she handed a thicker folder, probably a copy of Circuit’s file on top of whatever I got, to Mosburger and cleared my throat. Herrera looked back at me and said, “Yes?”

“We’re going after Open Circuit?”

She gave me a surprised look, perhaps because I’d recognized the ID number without having to look it up, but gamely said, “That’s right.”

“Huh.” I glanced down at the folder again and felt a powerful urge to incinerate it. Unfortunately, I had a feeling that might be misunderstood in the present company. I folded my arms firmly across my chest in an attempt to suppress that urge, the leaned back in my chair to give Herrera a second, closer examination.

She was still well put together, no getting around that. But now that I was paying more attention, I realized that she also looked fairly young, maybe even a few years younger than me. I put her somewhere around twenty five, tops. Young, and possibly naive. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but as a rule of thumb Project Sumter does not encourage its talents to develop any kind of antagonistic relationship with persons of interest.”

Mosburger paused his perusal of the folder to stare at me. “What’s that?”

“I believe Helix is trying to say that he doesn’t have an archrival, no matter how much it seems like it,” the Senator said with a wry smile. “But he has the most experience working against Open Circuit, which is one of the reasons he’s on this team.”

I wasn’t sure if he was saying it was one of the reasons Voorman had pushed for me to be on this team, or if he’d decided my presence was an acceptable risk to whatever Herrera’s goals were because of it. I just shrugged. “I want to make sure we’re not struggling under the unfortunate stereotypes perpetuated by comic books and movies. Project Sumter does not like emotions interfering with its operations.”

Herrera leaned forward slightly, looking a touch worried. “And yours could?”

“There was an operation a while back.” I felt my face twisting into an uncomfortable grimace and tried to squash it. “It was for the CIA, so I can’t talk about it unless you’re cleared for that.” Herrera shook her head. “But it’s definitely compromised my emotional distance. I’d prefer not to run the risk of another face to face encounter.”

“What kind of risk?” Mosburger asked. “I heard a little bit more about your talent yesterday, and this guy,” he waved at Circuit’s file, “doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as you.”

“I’m not worried about him hurting me,” I said. I shoved my way up out of the chair and stood. “But last time I came pretty close to roasting him. I’d rather not have a repeat performance.”

“But you have no problem destroying property at random,” Dawson said dryly.

“Hey, that helicopter had it coming,” I said, trying to lighten things up.

“That helicopter was government property,” the Senator replied.

“Which had its control systems overridden by Circuit, making it a material threat to the surrounding area.” I shrugged. “Sure, melting it cost money but not as much as letting a fully equipped Apache off the reservation would.”

“Helix does have a history of collateral damage,” Herrera said, holding out his hands to calm us down. “But he’s almost caught Circuit twice, and his talents do offer him certain strategic advantages against Circuit’s. Hopefully that will offset the risks involved in his working on this case. Particularly because this time we’re fairly certain that we already know where to find Circuit.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Do we, now?”

“We’re going to be acting on some information the HSA acquired recently.” Herrera opened her own folder and set it on the table in front of her. “You’ll see that we’ve traced several strange transactions through a series of shell companies to this location in the city.”

Mosburger was looking at his own folder again. “Concrete and steel, nothing special there. Lightning rods and outboard motors. That is strange. Wireless routers and fishing tackle?” He glanced up. “What kind of places sells both those things?”

“It was an Amazon.com order that we intercepted through other means,” Herrera said, handing out a photograph of an inconspicuous looking warehouse. “All these materials, and a few other things, have wound up here in the last two weeks. We’re fairly certain, based on the kinds of materials purchased, the location and the kind of financial shell games used to get them there, that this is Circuit’s work.”

An inconspicuous warehouse on the east side of the city is harder to find than many people think. Which is to say, they’re rare, which actually makes them stand out more. I wasn’t actually sure why Circuit would have chosen such a place for storage, and thinking about it too much sounded like one of those “but if he knows we know then…” headaches waiting to happen. So instead I said, “He won’t be there.”

Herrera’s confident smile slipped just a bit. I expected to see resentment or maybe outright anger at being contradicted behind it. She struck me as an ambitious career woman, maybe someone planning to piggyback on the Senator’s political standing. I figured raining on her parade might crack her pleasant exterior and show what was within, and I was right.

I just hadn’t been expecting to see uncertainty under all that poise. I knew that look. It reminded me of someone who had to do a presentation in Public Speaking 101 and got asked the one question they didn’t have an answer for. It was one of the reasons my highest educational letters are GED.

“It’s not a bad idea, I just don’t want you to get your hopes up,” I said quickly. “Circuit’s downright uncanny at dodging things. There are plenty of signs that he leads a large organization, but we’ve never caught any of them in a raid. In fact, I think we’ve only caught two of them in all, and that was by accident. Putting all this together is impressive, don’t get me wrong, but it could just be something meant to distract us. That kind of wheels in wheels is his thing.”

Herrera nodded, her moment of uncertainty gone. “You’re right. But our records show that his latest shipment of goods hasn’t actually arrived yet. He clearly thought this location was secure as recently as a week ago. Even if he has heard about this already hopefully he won’t have had time to get away clean. And if it’s just a decoy, at least we’ll know that he’s getting desperate. I can’t think of any other reason for such an elaborate ruse. But I do appreciate your input, as the Senator said, it’s one of the reasons I asked for you on this team.”

She had asked for me. Yet another strange thing to add to the growing list of oddities in Agent Herrera’s stay here at the Project. “Well,” I said, “I guess I should also mention that he’s very fond of booby traps…”

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