Heat Wave: Raking the Coals

Helix

Once we got back to the office there were a million things to do before I went in and talked to Biker Girl and her friends. For one thing, I had to go over to Records and see what they had found out about them. I was sure we’d gotten their legal names by that point, but beyond that making these inquiries takes time, even if you’re connected to the FBI. Especially then. So there wasn’t much to work with there.

Then I had to run over to Analysis and see if they’d attached a code word to Biker Girl’s file yet. As it turned out they had. Talent File #4322 was officially named Amplifier. Charlie, Talent File #4323, was now Gearshift. Fitting but vague. Classic Sumter. There were no indications that Skinny had admitted to talent of any kind, nor had he exhibited any signs of one. That didn’t mean much, but it also meant he didn’t have a Talent File, he’d probably wind up as a person of interest. Talents have to be debriefed by other talents and their supervising agents, persons of interest are usually handled by others. That meant Skinny wasn’t my problem.

I labeled the files Records had given me and went back up the stairs to my desk. Nearby the tac team was working on after action reports. There was no sign of Herrera.

“Where’s Herrera?” I asked Bergstrum as I sat down.

He shrugged. “Haven’t seen her since we checked in our gear. Probably checking on where the kids we picked up are being held.”

“Should have just gone up and asked Cheryl.” I tapped my folder. “They got it in here already.”

Bergstrum shook his head and laughed. “I’ve never seen anyone ride people as hard for their paperwork as she does. Life could get problematic once she’s Records chief.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said, and looked down at my desk. As I’ve said, it’s typically a disaster area, but today that was more useful than problematic. We don’t like a Member of the Public to think we’re understaffed, hampered by red tape or otherwise lacking in the omniscience department, and as such I wasn’t prepared to go in to talk with our freshly minted talents bearing files on them that only had three to five sheets of paper a piece.

So I raided my desk for padding.

There were a half a dozen office memos on fascinating subjects like how to use the new paper shredder or photocopier, rather redundant as they effectively amount to the same thing if you ask me. I shoved them into Amplifier’s file and tossed a stack of pages from last year’s Project employee handbook that would need to go through the shredder or copier later, for disposal. I absently tossed this year’s handbook on top of the other three ring binders at the back of my desk and pulled out the bottom drawer.

There I found the mother load, a two inch stack of rough drafts for after action reports from a forgotten time. I shoved them into Gearshift’s file and compared my stacks. They were about the same size but one was full of typed pages and the other handwritten stuff. That didn’t look good, so I shuffled pages until things were equal.

I really wasn’t paying attention as I did it, so it’s really kind of a miracle that I spotted it. Still, there it was, as I was moving an old action report from Gearshift’s file to Amplifier’s. A familiar name that had no business being in a report I’d written eight years ago. And why did I still have hand written reports from my first case anyway?

The far door banged open and cut off that line of thought. Herrera stalked through on her way to her office. Her expression was impassive but this was the first time in the last three days I’d seen anything like that from her.

I made a mental note to look into the discrepancy in the old file later and shoved everything into the folders, yanked some sticky notes down from the nearest bulletin board and stuck them on pages at random, then closed them up and headed over to Herrera’s office. The door was open so I took that as an invitation to come in.

“Hey, Herrera,” I called. “We got talents down in the tank stewing. If we keep ’em too long they’re gonna have to answer some awkward questions once they’re out. We gotta move.”

She glanced over from the file she was flipping through. I could tell from the looks of it that it didn’t have anything to do with our strays. The label was green, meaning it came from Forensics, not Analysis. “Yeah, just a minute.”

While I hadn’t known her that long I could tell that something had ruffled her usual composure. It was tempting to just chalk it up to stress and lett it go, after all it had been a long day, but at the same time I was technically supposed to be keeping an eye on her. So I asked, “Something wrong?”

Herrera looked at me for a moment then closed the folder and said, “Helix, why do you call everyone by their last names? Jack, Lars and Paul all seem pretty informal, and that doesn’t seem to bother you. But except for Jack, I’ve never heard you call anyone by their first name.”

“Curse of rank, ma’am,” I said with a shrug. “There’s a natural tendency to assume that a better behaved person is a safer person. The more dangerous a talent is, the more people want to know they’re well behaved.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she said with a snort. “Formality doesn’t equal safety.”

“No ma’am. But you might be surprised how much of a difference it makes in perceptions.” I smiled slightly. “It can make you seem safe, or at least too stodgy and unimaginative to be a danger. On the other hand, it can encourage the idea that, and I quote, ‘Individuals of talent come from longstanding families who’s conservative ideas often cast them as the new American aristocracy. To allow these people to establish family dynasties that continually influence the course of national policy sets dangerous precedents that could have a long-lasting impact on the course of our society.'”

Herrera raised an eyebrow. “Who said that?”

“Senator Brahms Dawson, when I originally applied to join the Project.” I shrugged. “He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, my point is, while all talents have a lot to juggle, some of us juggle more than others. The last thing I need is some kind of bureaucratic reprimand because somebody thinks I wasn’t respectful enough. Or worse, was sexually harassing someone by being too familiar.”

“What about Jack?” She asked.

I shrugged. “I’ve known Jack since I started here, and I didn’t start the whole formality bit ’til I turned twenty and actually grew a brain. Old habits die hard. Same thing goes for the Templetons, really. Now, that was a nice dodge, but why don’t you tell me what it is about that,” I waved at the folder, “that’s got you so upset. Is it something I need to know about before we go and talk to Biker Girl and Charlie?”

With a sigh she handed me the folder. “It’s not really important. Just notice from Forensics that they’re not going to have time to look at most of what we’ve found for another two days.”

I glanced through the file, which looked like a lot of the kind of delay oriented bureaucrobabble desk jockies use to avoid doing real work. Still, I’ve been here enough to know when they’re really asking for time and when they’re just seeing how much they can get away with. “It looks pretty legit to me. There’s ‘only’ thirty talents that use our forensics office on a regular basis, but that’s enough to make a real backlog.” I closed the folder and handed it back to her. “In fact, the forensics people almost always have the biggest backlog of any department.”

“I know.” She tossed the file down in frustration. “I had just hoped…”

“What?” I asked, when it was clear she wasn’t going to finish the thought. “That somehow Project Sumter was different? We’re not really superheroes, Herrera. Day to day problems don’t magically smooth themselves out of our way so we can get to cracking skulls faster, no matter how much I might wish it were the case.”

“Right.” She picked up the files on our new friends and hefted them in one hand. I noted approvingly that she had packed them to the regulation three quarter inch thickness. “Well, while we wait for the gears of justice to grind onward, let’s go talk to Amplifier, shall we?”

“There’s an idea I can get behind. Put on your scary face, Herrera, we’re gonna nip it in the bud.” I did my best Barney Fife imitation. “When we’re done with those kids they’re not gonna be able to think about vigilante justice without shuddering.”

Herrera laughed and gently turned me around and pointed me out of the office. “Then get going, we’re burning daylight.”

We walked into the holding room where Biker Girl, now Amplifier, was waiting for us before discussing exactly what out tactics would be. As it turned out, that was a major error.

I opened with a classic interrogation gambit, namely slapping down great big honking files and looking at my interrogatee meaningfully. People usually find this a little intimidating and Amplifier looked to be no exception.

In fact, once you stripped her out of the body armor and biker gear what you got was a rather fragile looking girl in a sweat stained red shirt who looked like she’d walked into a classroom on the first day of school and been asked to hand in a report no one told her she had to write. It’s a common reaction most talents have when they find out about us, because conspiracies keeping the nature of the world secret are something that happen to other people, right? I’d like to say you figure out a good way to deal with people feeling like that, but I never have.

Now, normally, Sanders and I have a simple system where in I collect all the biographical data “for the record” and he does all the hard questioning. This tends to net more results than the alternative. Which is anything else. Believe me, we’ve had a lot of time to try other systems.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know Herrera well enough to signal that she needed to do most of the talking, nor did I know how the HSA handles interrogations well enough to seamlessly work my way into her routine. So naturally, I decided to bull ahead and hope that Teresa would realize she needed to take over at some point.

It’s this kind of shrewd conversational decision making that gets me into trouble in the first place.

Things started off well enough, Herrera gave her name to the microphone and I identified myself by codename. Then I said, “Subject is tentatively identified as a Wave Maker, a talent capable of adjusting the frequency and amplitude of most sound waves. Tends to manifest unusually good hearing and the ability to identify and exploit harmonics to destroy objects.”

Biker Girl sat up a bit straighter and said, “How did you know that?”

I glanced at her for a second, then said, “Our subject will now be briefed on the Project’s confidentiality protocols,” and switched off the tape recorder. “You and your friend were both wearing body armor when we met a few hours ago. Why was that?”

“Because we didn’t want to get shot?” She said, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world. Which really, it was, but you wouldn’t think it with the way some wannabes act.

“Good thinking,” I said. “But you weren’t wearing a helmet like Mr. Movsesian. It would muffle the sounds you hear and interfere with your ability to effectively use your talent. You also removed jewelry from all of your piercings, because hitting the wrong frequency can cause them to vibrate violently enough to hurt yourself, and you could tell the door in the bunker was free of coolant because you didn’t hear any being pumped through, pretty much the only way you could have determined that without learning the pump was missing, like Mosburger did.”

“Huh.” She sat back in her chair, a looking slightly impressed. “Not bad. You’re smarter than you look.”

“Thanks,” I said dryly. “It’s a requirement to be in this line of work. You want to work with talent, you better get used to thinking that way. You’re a known talent now, and that comes with baggage.”

“I beg you pardon?” Amplifier said.

“You’re now a part of the Project Sumter files,” I said, hefting the file in question for her to see. I opened to the first page, one of only five legitimate pages of data on her. “We’ve assigned you a codename, Amplifier. You’ve been assigned an Temporary Oversight Agent, namely Agent Herrera.”

The two women nodded in acknowledgement of one another while I pressed on. “At all times, when dealing with the Project, you’ll be identified by codename and should identify yourself by codename. Very few people will know your real identity, and it’s in your best interest to keep it that way.”

“Wait, you want me to call myself Amplifier the whole time?” She asked, a little incredulous.

I rubbed my eyes and, in a fit of generosity, said, “Would you like to ask Records if your codename can be changed?”

“It’s not that,” she said, “I just didn’t expect to… you know…”

“Concealing your identity is a fundamental safety measure,” I replied. “Believe me, I know it’s strange and unsettling,” which was true, I understood it but not like a normal person would, “but you need to start partitioning your thoughts now so you’ll make fewer mistakes in the long run. And if you choose to remain a part of civilian life then you probably won’t notice too much difficulty in keeping things distinct.”

“Remain civilian?” Amplifier’s face fell. “You mean I’m not going to join the Project?”

“We don’t force anyone to join,” Herrera said. “We open files on talents as a safety measure, like tracking a gun owner. Some of the abilities out there are very dangerous. There’s also enough people who know about them and would want to extort them for various purposes that we need to keep an eye on that possibility as well.”

“Extort them?” Amplifier looked legitimately alarmed for the first time since I’d met her. “You mean like a slaver ring, or something?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “That kind of thing has never been observed in the US before.”

“Which means you’ve seen someone somewhere else doing it, right?” Amplifier said. “I’ve heard enough doubletalk to know it when I hear it, Agent Double Helix.”

“You can just call me Helix.”

When it was clear that I wasn’t going to say anything beyond that, even if she glared at me, Amplifier asked about Gearshift, except she asked about him by name. Herrera told her his new codename and explained that we’d not spoken to him yet. I had been hoping that this signaled that she was ready to take over, but unfortunately with that said she seemed content to watch a master at work.

For the first time in recent memory I found myself wishing Sanders was here. Amplifier looked like she had something else to say, but I wasn’t about to loose control of the interrogation, they’d run me out of the FBI.

“The facts of the matter are pretty straight forward, Amplifier,” I said. “If you want a job the odds are pretty good that the Project could put you to work, provided you can qualify.”

“Qualify?” She seemed a bit mollified by that. “What do I have to do to qualify?”

“For starters,” Herrera said, “you have to show an ability to pursue investigations and work well in a team setting, something you’ve already done.” I shot her a glare, not at all happy we kept going down this road when I was more interested in how three college aged kids found one of Circuit’s outposts in the first place. Which was, of course, what we should have been asking Amplifier about in the first place.

Herrera ignored my glare and the weight of purpose behind it, opting instead to finish explaining the Project’s hiring standards. “You also have to be able to work with oversight and complete basic field training similar to what the FBI or CIA go through.”

“They’re very big on undergraduate degrees, too.” Grumbling about it probably didn’t reflect well on myself or the Project but whenever the subject came up I couldn’t help but remember all the difficulty I had when I first tried to join the Project. Now Herrera was practically giving a recruiting pitch to Amplifier. It didn’t seem right, but then, talent alone is proof that the world isn’t fair.

I straightened, realizing that both women were looking at me questioningly. I straightened a bit and said, “Can we focus please? This is supposed be a…” I stumbled for a second, thinking that “interrogation” might not be a productive word to use. “A debriefing,” I finally said. “We’ve been sitting here for a good ten minutes without recording any actual testimony.”

“Right,” Herrera straightened up a bit, looking slightly chagrined. “Is there anything else you wanted to ask about the Project with direct bearing on this debriefing?”

“No,” Amplifier said uncertainly after a moment’s thought. “I don’t think so.”

There was a twinge of guilt from the part of me that usually spent its time wondering what life without knowledge of talents or the Project was like. I’d lived knowing about talents since I was four. I really had no idea what kind of adjustment this was for her. I tried to sound sympathetic as I said, “Just try to remember not to give your own name or those of any other talents you know.”

She exhaled slowly. “Right. Code names, protect identity, tell the truth.”

“That’s the idea,” I said, wondering that tell the truth had to be said explicitly.

Now I’d like to say that we wrapped up the debriefing in fairly short order after that, but it actually took us a good two hours. Most of it was fairly boring stuff, with Herrera and I trying to figure out exactly how a bunch of college students managed to run down a warehouse belonging to an international crime lord.

It turns out that you can get really far with just a girl able to make out conversations through two or three walls and a halfway decent analyst to back it all up. Circuit needs hands to help him move things around, just like anyone else, and he hasn’t managed to build robots to replace bodies with yet. His major mistake seems to have been robbing a man Gearshift knew a couple of days ago. While the crime took place in Texas, Clark Movsesian, who I still thought of as Skinny, was somehow able to track Circuit back to a warehouse in the city.

I made a note to recommend Movsesian to Darryl as a potential getman recruit.

Amplifier, Gearshift and Movsesian all belonged to a band, which was how they met each other. I gathered that Amplifier was the singer, Gearshift played guitar, which apparently had something to do with his codename. Movsesian was both the keyboardist and wrote the music. There was a lot of other trivia mixed in there, but the rest of it went in one ear and out the other.

Once the debriefing was done we sent her on her way with another warning to be careful and not talk about this to anyone. Herrera also gave Amplifier the contact information for a person in HR, in case she was still thinking of joining up. Finally we got her out of the tank and headed back into normal society.

I glanced at my watch and tried not to swear. It came out in a muffled grunt, prompting a puzzled look from Herrera.

“We need to go talk to Gearshift,” I said, by way of explanation. “Sanders has probably debriefed Movsesian already, but Gearshift’s been down in the tank for practically four hours already. Even if we get him out in two, it’s gonna look strange to anyone paying attention.”

“Right.” Herrera nodded and headed towards the elevator. “Remind me again why he’s down in the basement?”

“He looked to tanned. I didn’t want to contribute to his developing skin cancer so I had him put out of the sun.”

“How generous.” She hit the elevator call button and gave me a skeptical look.

“Sorry, ma’am,” I said, holding up my hands defensively. “This is one thing I really can’t explain right now.”

“Helix, I know there’s a difference in what you know and what you can tell me. You’ve been doing this longer than me, regardless of who’s in charge, so you’re bound to be cleared on more stuff than I am. But I hope that if there’s something I need to know, you’ll tell me.”

“Believe me, ma’am,” I said, “if there’s something you need to know, I’ll be the first to point it out.”

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