Problem one: Project Sumter is not, in the strictest technical sense, a law enforcement agency. Nor is it a branch of the military or part of the American intelligence network. Although we loan our personnel to the organizations that handle those responsibilities, we ourselves don’t have any jurisdiction or special authority to engage in law enforcement, intelligence gathering or military operations unless we’re working in conjunction with some other branch of the government that does. In order to act on the evidence that Herrera and the HSA had provided, Project Sumter would first need the cooperation of the police and a warrant from a local judge.
Problem two: As a collection of super-specialized operatives that tend to come in and take over situations that fall under our purview, we’re not usually very popular with people like the FBI, the CIA, the Marines, local police, ect.
Now, in the past, I wouldn’t have had to worry about these things, since Sanders’ team was on indefinite loan to the FBI, so any case that fell under their purview was open to us by some sort of bureaucratic deal he’d worked out two years ago.
But I’d been transferred to Herrera’s team which was, for all practical intents and purposes, a different section of the Project that didn’t have that kind of convenient arrangement to fall back on. Once our briefing with the Senator and Agent Herrera was over we wound up spending the next thirty hours cutting our way through the mess of red tape necessary to get the locals to sign off on our proposed operation and a judge to issue a warrant.
Luckily for us, we had a US Senator in our team. It was one of the few times I’ve ever been glad to be associated with Brahms Dawson. On top of that, Kessleman had been a local cop before joining the Project and, once he and the rest of Jack’s tactical team straggled in later that afternoon, he was able to get in contact with some people he knew and smooth things a little more.
Still, most of us spent the night on cots tucked away in the back corners of unused offices or conference rooms, waiting for the word to go to come in. Actually, all of us did except the Senator, who really seemed like he wanted to stay. He only left because Herrera shooed him away to some event of his daughter’s. In spite of how busy we were I found a moment to wonder how an ambitious twit like Dawson ever found the time for kids.
Finally, sometime around dinner time that evening we got the green light. To my intense disappointment we wound up going in saddled with a SWAT team. While I’m sure the local SWAT guys are competent in their job I’d have sworn on a stack of Bibles that they didn’t have thirty seconds experience dealing with talent in general, and Open Circuit’s not a normal talent either. Plus, the SWAT team wouldn’t be available until the next day.
Herrera got the rest of us together just before six that evening and briefed us on the plan, which essentially boiled down to “hit him around ten AM tomorrow” and told us to go home and get some sleep. It was a good call, although I wasn’t sure how much sleep we’d be getting that night. What I found most impressive was that, even after a night in the office, she still managed to look collected and cool. I wondered how well that cool would hold up under fire.
Rather than spend a lot of time wondering about it I decided to do as I was told and get some sleep. I’d see how she did under stress tomorrow. There’d be a lot more information to go on after that.
I arrived back at the office the next morning and was greeted by the distinctive odor of chocolate chip cookies drifting out of the offices. That could only mean one thing: Mona had been baking last night. I followed the smell into Sanders’ office to find a double batch of cookies heaped in a large red tin. Mona and Sanders were there too.
I reached out to grab a cookie and Sanders smacked my hand away. “What are you doing?” He asked. “Those are for the people who will be doing actual work today.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, trying to slip around him and grab a cookie with little success. “We’ve got an operation in a couple hours, haven’t you heard?”
Sanders snorted and folded his arms over his chest, saying, “Yeah, I heard. You’re gonna pile in a van and wait six hours for the locals to show up and then find out they’re all on a domestic disturbance call on the other side of the city and can you guys wait until tomorrow? Sitting in a van all day isn’t work.”
“Very unsympathetic, coming from a guy I know has done the same thing six times before in his life,” I said, taking the moment when Sanders opened his mouth for the inevitable comeback to dart around the other side of him and make another grab for the cookies.
Mona pulled the tray just out of my reach and gave me an admonishing look. “Leave the cookies for people who will enjoy them, Helix.”
I stared at her. “What’s that supposed to mean, Mona? Everyone likes your baking.”
“I’ve noticed,” Mona said with a smile. “I wouldn’t keep feeding it to you guys if you hated it. But you hate chocolate.”
I stared open-mouthed for a minute. “I do?”
“You do, but you keep eating it and saying it’s delicious to make me feel better.” She gave me a light pat on one arm. “Best field analyst in the Midwest, remember?”
“I don’t know why anyone bothers trying to keep secrets around here,” I said, slumping slightly.
“Because you’re a sweetheart,” Mona said. She pulled a square tupperware container out of a bag on a nearby chair and held it out to me. “I baked you a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies instead. Take care today.”
“You’re the best, Mona,” I said as I snatched the cookies out of Mona’s hand and scuttled away.
Now only a fool eats when Jack Howell is giving a briefing, he’s the kind of man who demands absolute attention during briefings, and with good reason. Since Herrera was a newbie who wasn’t entirely up on the safety procedures that go hand in hand with being on the same team as a heat sink who expects to go active, Jack got to run our prerollout briefing. That included explaining how to properly strap on and check the complicated insulating body armor that, in theory, would keep people from getting roasted if I needed to light up Circuit’s warehouse for a late summer bonfire.
I’ll be the first to admit that all of that is important information, even the obligatory reminder to take care of your equipment because it is expensive. In fact being forced to sit through the whole lecture for the umpteenth time would have been worth it just to see Mosburger’s reaction when he learned one suit of the stuff cost nearly a hundred and fifty grand. Newbies get used to the Project’s expense budget eventually, but it does take time.
However the upshot of all that was that I wound up sitting around for almost three hours while Mona’s cookies got cold. I didn’t get a chance to crack them open until the eight of us were in our van and headed across town towards Circuit’s latest hideout.
I dug in as I watched Mosburger struggle awkwardly with his body armor. Kesselman was trying to help him get suited up but it looked more like modern art waiting to happen than someone getting ready for a potential combat situation. Everything about this mess, from Circuit’s involvement to the obvious greenness of my current team, was making me nervous.
Once we arrived on site Herrera got out of the front seat and moved into the back with the rest of us. “SWAT says they’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
As a matter of automatic courtesy I held the box out to offer Herrera a cookie. She peered in, saying, “Are these the chocolate chip cookies I was smelling earlier?”
“Oatmeal Raisin,” I said around a mouthful.
Herrera looked vaguely offended. “Did we not rate chocolate chips?”
“Helix doesn’t like chocolate,” Mosburger said without looking up from the boots he strapping on for the third time.
“Is there nothing sacred anymore?” I asked, spreading my hands to the van’s ceiling. “I prefer birthday pie to birthday cake too, is that such a crime?”
“Sorry,” he said, glancing up from his boots. “I heard Bob and Mona arguing about it this morning.”
“Sanders? What was his problem?”
“I’m not sure. Something about her assignment being therapy, not an excuse to baby all her co-workers.” He shrugged. “Not sure what that was supposed to mean.”
I grunted in disapproval. It meant that Darryl had talked Mona into transferring to field work as a way to distract her when she found out they couldn’t have kids. Yes, she probably babied her co-workers as a kind of substitution. Sanders should have known better to bring it up around other people, though. I gave Mosburger a stern look and said, “None of your business.”
Mona raised an eyebrow. “Your last field analyst was in therapy?”
“All getmen are in therapy,” Jack said as he checked through the contents of his utility belt. “It comes with the territory. If you aren’t yet, Mosburger, you’ll get your chance.”
“What’s a getman?” Herrera asked.
“Oh good,” Mosburger muttered. “I’m not the only who doesn’t know these things.”
“It’s what we call field analysts,” I said, ignoring Mosburger’s grumbling.
“Why?” Herrera took off her jacket and began shrugging into her own tactical gear. At least she seemed familiar with the basic mechanics, if not the particular challenges of our specialty equipment.
“Because they always get their man,” Jack said.
“Or because they get things first,” Kesselman added.
I dusted my hands off and closed the empty box of cookies. “Also, I think it has something to do with the fact that the first one was from Gettysburg.” I got up and moved to the seat Herrera had abandoned at the front of the van.
“Going somewhere?” Jack asked.
“Just getting a feel for the place,” I said.
We were just across the street from the warehouse. I can feel heat anywhere within about half a city block when I really focus on it. That wasn’t enough to let me get a sense of the whole warehouse, but I could tell one thing important right off the bat. “Hey, Mosburger, I think I figured out why Circuit wanted this place as a hangout.”
The Project’s newest getman got up and clomped forward to look over my shoulder. “What’s that?”
“It’s one of the only places in the city where he could create a vacuum walled chamber to work in.” I felt my way outward again, just to make sure. There was no getting around the dizzying sense of finding an area that had no heat in it, in fact had no medium to conduct heat.
“He’s used a set up like that before, hasn’t he?” Mosburger said, quickly answering his own question. “When he was operating out in eastern Arizona. I remember reading about it.”
“Why?” Herrera asked. “What does working in a vacuum accomplish?”
“Not in a vacuum,” I said, “in a room with walls that have a vacuum chamber in place of insulation.”
“Circuit appears to know a lot about electronics, and, given the nature of his talent, that’s not surprising.” Mosburger rested his hand on the headrest of my seat and began drumming his fingers absently. “My guess is it serves to make them less detectable to Helix as they’ll leak much less heat.”
“That’s more like waving a red flag to me,” I said. “There’s nothing as obvious as a vacuum, trust me on this. If he’s trying to keep that place a secret, it doesn’t add up.”
Mosburger thought for a moment, then nodded. “You’re right – unless it’s serving as a blind for whatever his real countermeasure is.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Herrera said. “It can’t be a perfect vacuum, can it? He has to get in and out somehow.”
“There’s probably a door pumped chock full of coolant somewhere in the set up,” I said. “That’s what the room in Arizona was like. It’s just not on the side facing us now.”
Herrera tapped Bergstrum on the shoulder. “Take us around the block once. Helix, see if you can pin down where that door is, find out anything else about this set up Circuit’s got running. Look for any major differences between now and the way things were in Arizona.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I said. Unfortunately, that wasn’t much. The warehouse wasn’t even in range part of the time. We’d gotten all the way around to the other side of the building when I slapped the back of Bergstrum’s chair. “Hold up. I got three people in there.”
“People?” Mosburger said. “What are people doing in there? Moving out some of Circuit’s stuff?”
“No, at this point he’s got everything he’s ever gonna want out of there already,” I said.
“So you don’t think they’re some of Circuit’s people?” Herrera asked.
“Honestly, no,” I said. Checking their locations again. All three were still plastered up against the edge of the vacuum insulated room. “I think they’re probably worse, in their own way.”
“What’s worse than Circuit in this situation?” Mosburger asked.