As the local king of disorganization, I learned pretty much everything you need to know about keeping Cheryl happy by not doing it. At this point, that should come as no surprise. But when I left Herrera’s office I had every intention of practicing what I preached. I spent the next hour and forty-five minutes writing up an after action report on the warehouse raid, and another forty knocking my notes on Amplifier’s debriefing into shape.
Thus armed with fresh computer print-outs, properly sorted, paper clipped and ready for filing, I made my way up to the top floor where the Records department perches over its nest of moldering files like some bizarre sort of carrion fowl.
The Records department is set up like this: You step out of the elevator into what’s probably the least welcoming reception area on earth, or at least the upper Midwest. There’re a door to the stairwell on the left and a desk built into the wall on your right an a whole lot of empty space. They don’t even have potted plants there. In the far wall there’s a secure door that leads into the department proper. Only people who are actually employed by Records can get in or out of that door.
Worse, because of the institutional paranoia that has grown up in the Project since our records were compromised a few years ago, if we want to do a search of files we haven’t contributed to, or files that are now closed, or pretty much anything that isn’t on our desk right that instant, we have to go through Records to do it. As a result, our Records people are the most over worked and underpaid Project employees. It’s not at all surprising that they’re also some of the grumpiest.
When I got there Cheryl was at the desk. No real surprise there, she’s almost always at the desk, on the front lines trying to hold the unwashed masses of clueless field agents and demanding supervisors at bay and let the Records people focus on the important work of trying to figure out bad handwriting and transcribe it into the Project databases.
Actually, we don’t turn in handwritten reports anymore, and haven’t in ages, but you wouldn’t guess that from talking to a Records worker.
As soon as Cheryl saw me coming out of the elevator, reports in hand and on time, a suspicious looked crossed her face. This is not the kind of punctuality I’m known for, and as a rule of thumb if someone’s making life easier for you it means they want a favor in return.
Cheryl probably learned that lesson early in life. She dresses real classy and has a great figure to boot, and when she first started working the Records desk you’d usually find a small crowd of people loitering around trying to make small talk with her whenever you filed a report. That was two years ago, and it’s mostly a thing of the past now. I was the only one there when I arrived.
“Agent Double Helix,” Cheryl said, crossing her arms and sitting back in her chair. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit? You don’t have anything due for another forty-eight hours, I wasn’t expecting to see you for another week.”
“You’re here pretty late, yourself, Cheryl,” I replied. “It’s after eight, I thought you’d be out of here hours ago.”
“Are you kidding?” She shook her head. “With a major raid today, in conjunction with local SWAT, accompanying evidence processing and two new Talent files to open, do you honestly think we have the time to take the evening off?”
I hefted the reports in one hand and set them on her desk. “Speaking of which. Write ups on the raid, after action report, paperwork for opening a file on talent #4322, notes on first debriefing of the same.”
Cheryl gave it a quick once over, then said, “What about #4323? You’re not about to let someone else open a file on a talent you found, are you? It’ll ruin your numbers.”
“Voorman beat me to it,” I said, offering a halfhearted shrug. I really didn’t feel like going over that a second time. “If there’s paperwork to be filed on Gearshift you’ll have to wring it out of him.”
With deft hands Cheryl racked the paperwork and added it to a small stack on her desk. She did it all without looking, instead evaluating me with a scornful glare. “All right, Helix, what is it you want?”
“Is this where I play coy?”
“Most people do,” she said dryly. “It doesn’t make them any more likely to get what they want and it’s not very original, either. Just insults my intelligence.”
I always got the feeling that Cheryl finds most kinds of banter insulting to her intelligence. On the bright side, that’s not problematic for me unless I’m trying to turn in paperwork with Sanders along. “I need access to an old file.”
Cheryl nodded and turned to her keyboard. Apparently this meant I’d passed muster. “What kind of file?”
“Operation East/West.” I leaned on the desk and did my best to look casual. “It’s appended to talent #4085, codewords Lethal Injection, Double Helix and Open Circuit.”
“You’re cleared for all of those,” Cheryl muttered, reading the information she’d pulled up on her screen. “But file #4085 has been closed and sealed. Lethal Injection is marked as dead. Is this relevant to an ongoing case?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “It’s got to do with something I’m looking into for Sanders.”
Cheryl frowned. “He doesn’t even have any cases assigned to him at the moment. You boys aren’t up to some kind of mischief are you?”
“We’re a clandestine government organization, Cheryl. Everything we do counts as mischief by definition. It’s for a worthy cause, though, and we’ve unofficially been formally asked to look into the matter by people high up.”
“Like who? Is this something the Senator put you onto during his visit a few days back?”
There’s a lot of politics in any job, but especially in one where you’re actually working for politicians. In my case, I don’t like it but I deal. It’s not what I’m here for but I don’t believe in letting it get in the way of what I am here for. But some people don’t like politics in any shape or form. With a job and attitude that focused on getting the facts in order, it’s no surprise Cheryl was one of them. Still, I’m sometimes surprised at how much she manages to miss sometimes.
“No, he didn’t.” In this case, I decided flat denial would work best. In fact, I like to go with flat denial whenever I can get away with it.
Unfortunately, Cheryl wasn’t willing to let me remain mysterious. “Well, what do you want it for, then? I can’t just sign out a closed file on a deceased talent on Sanders’ say so, even if both of you were involved in it.”
“It’s kind of-”
The rest of my explanation, which I’m sure would have been stunningly persuasive once I figured out what I was going to say, got lost in the sound of the stair door being shoved open. I turned to see Kesselman, looking more than a little out of breath. He spotted me as son as he came to a stop. “Phone call for you downstairs, big guy.”
Feeling like I must have missed something, I pointed at myself and raised my eyebrows.
“Yeah, you. Downstairs in the analyst offices.” He paused to gasp for breath.
“Well, why didn’t they just take a message?”
“It’s from someone who says he’s Open Circuit.” Kesselman motioned down the stairs. “Says he’s on a secure line, doesn’t want to transfer. He’ll hang up if you’re not there in two minutes, Herrera says hustle.”
When the boss says hustle, you hustle first and question later. As I sprang for the stairs I looked over my shoulder and said, “I need that file, Cheryl.”
Then I proceeded to go down four flights of stairs in under twenty-five seconds, which I don’t recommend for anyone who’s not a Hollywood stuntman, and burst onto the Analysis floor trying to run and keep weight off the ankle I’d just sprained at the same time. Darryl waved to catch my attention, he was standing by a desk with Herrera and Sanders.
Sanders was on the phone and as soon as he saw me come out onto the floor he said, “He’s here now,” and held the phone out for me as I ran over to take it.
The last thirty seconds had left me out of breath and in pain so I just grabbed the phone out of his hand and covered the mouthpiece as I took a second to steady myself. All three of the other people stared at me with naked impatience, which didn’t make gathering my wits any easier.
So I disregarded several Project rules of conduct, not to mention everything my momma ever taught me, and slapped the phone to my ear then said, “What the hell do you want?”
“Quite well, thank you.” A moment of silence answered my non sequitur. I shrugged and wound up fiddling with my hands free headset for a moment until I had it properly settled again. There are good reasons for the things, I’m sure, but I’ve never found one that would sit on my head for any length of time unless duct tape was involved. For obvious reasons, I dislike that approach.
Helix still wasn’t saying anything after I got the headset settled again, so I decided I’d just have to keep going. “You know, in all the time we’ve known each other this is the first time we’ve actually spoken beyond the stereotypical police drama stuff. Being cordial would cost you nothing. And it would keep me on the line longer for your phone tracker to do its thing.”
“Sorry, Circuit, but cordial is not my thing.” I knew enough about Helix to know he wasn’t a big man, but he had a surprisingly pleasant baritone voice in spite of his stature. It sounded a bit raspy, though.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did I catch you away from your desk? You sound more than a little winded.”
There was a murmur of voices on the other end of the line. “What do you want, Circuit? I don’t honestly believe that talking to you for an extra thirty seconds is going to let us get any closer to tracing your location and I do think hanging up on you before you make your point is going to make you annoyed enough to do something stupid.”
I blinked. As a matter of professional survival I have a healthy respect for Helix’s capabilities. He’s a skilled man, with training from the largest talent watching agency in the nation and a wealth of practical experience. But I hadn’t expected him to be so blunt. “Very well. Did you find what I left for you?”
“The chair? Yeah, it was right where you left it. Wanna tell me what that’s all about?”
“The chair? I sit on it, of course.” I snorted and settled myself into my seat in an attempt to get comfortable, probably just a case of my subconscious acting up. The van I was sitting in was custom built, but not for comfort. “I wasn’t asking about the chair, Helix. Have you read the letter yet? If not, I can always call you later.”
“The letter?” Another murmured aside. “You mean the one from the Enchanter guy? Yeah, we found it, but I don’t have it here. You want me to run at get it from the forensics guys? Though I’m not sure they have it off the truck yet.”
As Helix was talking Heavy Water opened the side door of the van and slipped in, handing me a set of folded blueprints that had come to me through certain channels and that I would be needing in the near future. “Not necessary. Just tell me, what did you think?”
Helix made a funny little exasperated noise and said, “I think you’ve either got some really weird idea of a pen pal or you’ve finally decided to take up the profession of crossword puzzle setter. I have no idea what that was, Circuit. Now why don’t you answer me something.”
“Of course, Helix. We’ve worked together long enough for you to ask me one or two questions on this auspicious day. But before you fire away, I need to make a quick adjustment. You know, one of those things that keeps you frustrated and me from incarceration.”
The van wasn’t laid out in the normal fashion, with two benches in the back capables of holding a total of five people. Instead, the back was entirely open, leaving more space for whatever I might need to pile there, and there were two chairs facing computer consoles across from the sliding door, one of which I was sitting at. I put the blueprints down on my console and said, “This may be a little loud.” There was a sudden burst of static as I tweak electric potentials in various parts of the computer, feeding it various commands. A lot of the noise was purely cosmetic, something built into the repeater built into the van, but as I’ve said before, appearances are important. And, to be fair, I was actually doing something I didn’t want Helix thinking too much about. “There we are. Finished.”
I was answered by the sound of muffled cursing on the other end of the line. It took a second for Helix to wind down, then he said, “What are you doing, playing with Faraday cages?”
“That’s surprisingly astute of you, Helix,” I said. “I had no idea that you knew so much about electronics.”
“Don’t give me that. You handed my team the solution to our first major case, gift wrapped, and then you scoffed at the pardon that came with and proceeded to spend the next eight years wreaking havoc. You really think I don’t read those technical journals you leave sitting around? We’re not stupid, you know. Anything you’re interested in, I am too.”
“Which only serves to reinforce my high opinion of you.” As I spoke I pulled up a simple GPS tracking program, the kind of thing that will find anything, anywhere in the world, and tell you it’s exact latitude, longitude and height above ground, and set it to work. “I want to try it again.”
“You want to leave me more trade magazines?”
I laughed. “No, not what I was referring to.”
I had intended to say more but a sudden rustle of sound on the other end interrupted. “Well would that tell me how you make a cellphone trace say you’re on the island of Malta? Because I, for one, would like to know how that’s done.”
“Generally, one books a flight to Malta and then places a call from his cellphone.” Heavy was already unfolding the blueprints and consulting them before the computer finnished it’s queries. “But let me restate that what I want is not to give you a new set if ideas to develop countermeasures for. Rather, I want you to consider letting me help with a little problem of yours.”
There was a split second of silence, then, “I’m not sure I follow.”
“It’s like this, Helix,” I said, looking over the places Heavy had marked out as potential entrance zones. I pointed to one and nodded. “You have a problem. You call him Firestarter. He’s both talented and destructive. Perhaps worst of all, he uses his talent to help his baser urges find expression. He’s not just a danger to the general public, he makes it difficult for the Project to maintain that lovely fiction that the world is a sane, predictable place without sudden surges and shifts in the evolutionary status quo.”
“I’m familiar with the Firestarter case,” Helix replied. “I was even on it for a little while.”
“Not at all surprising,” I said. “What’s more so is that you’re not on it now.”
“These things happen. I fail to see how the problems Firestarter is causing us can be any of your business. What’s one miscreant’s arsons to another’s armed robberies, money laundering, extortion, conspiracy, kidnapping and interstate flight?”
“You forgot several varieties of grand theft,” I said. “And surely, with all the crimes the federal government wants me for, the interstate flight warrants can hardly be germane anymore.”
“Of course. How could I forget?” Helix sighed. “I honestly don’t see where you’re going with this, Circuit. Do you think we don’t have the resources to chase both you and Firestarter at the same time? I know you have an incredible information network at your disposal, and if you have a tip on Firestarter that you’d like to share, we’re always willing to act on those. But what’s your angle?”
“You don’t see the difference between me and Firestarter?” I asked, affecting a wounded tone. “Honestly, Helix, I’ve always hoped you gave more credit than that.”
“More credit than what?”
Heavy Water is touchy about his plans, so I didn’t write a big fat X on which room our objective was in, just tapped the correct part of the prints twice, then did the same for places I thought we might want to avoid due to electronic surveillance. “More credit than you give a two-bit miscreant like him.”
“Oh, I don’t know. He’s managed to perpetrate a number of arsons without getting caught, and unlike you he’s managed to leave a subtle pattern to annoy us with. You have no pattern at all, and perpetrate crimes strictly for your own gratification.” Helix’s tone was slightly condescending, as if he was unsure I was keeping up.
“Not strictly for my own gratification. And leaving patterns is the work of an amateur, I am a true professional. But most importantly, Firestarter is an example of society’s problems, I represent the solution. Did you read the Enchanter’s note?”
“Yes,” Helix said, dragging out the word in a way that made it clear he was still trying to follow the sudden subject change.
“Did you happen to look at the envelope it came in?”
“No, I didn’t. Should I have?”
“It’s return address was 1457 Ferntress Avenue, the home of Paul Moreau, the Firestarter’s first victim.” I gave that just a moment to sink in. “Sources tell me police Precinct 27 received an identical note returned addressed to the home of Peter Morrison. I wouldn’t be surprised if notes were credited to Amelia Morgan and Pritchard Mosburger as well.”
“You think this Enchanter and Firestarter are the same person.” Helix wasn’t asking a question. “And you plan to help us catch him for reasons of your own.”
“There is that incredibly sharp insight I have come expect.” I leaned back in my seat and laced my fingers behind my head. “We underground talents have our own ways of passing news around, you know. This is not the first I’ve heard of the Enchanter. He’s actually managed to make a name for himself in the last year or so, and not in the quiet, unobtrusive sort of way many of us get our start. No, he is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a real firebrand.”
Helix groaned. “You should get something added to your rap sheet just for that.”
“Do you know why he sent me that letter?”
“Because he can’t stand your puns?”
“That might have been a part of his motivation, but I doubt that was all of it.” Heavy handed me the blueprints, this time with a route from entrance to objective marked on them, and I sat back up and began to study them again. “He’s an anarchist, Helix. Everything there is to love about a structured, organized society, he hates. But in particular, he hates the idea that there’s someone out there who will come down on him like a load of bricks if he ever tries to use his talent for anything beyond boiling water.”
“So you’re saying he doesn’t like the Project much more than he likes you.”
“I imagine he wouldn’t, if he knew it existed,” I said, setting the plans aside for the moment. We were getting to the good part and, without any visual cues to clue me into Helix’s state of mind, I was going to need all my attention on the conversation for the moment. “But so far as the Enchanter is concerned, the person waiting to jump on him is me. I started stymieing his attempts to take his anarchist’s manifestos into public venues two months before his first arson. So in a sense, as far as he’s concerned I am Project Sumter.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter Fiction Index