Heat Wave: Liquid Fire


“Circuit?” Nothing but silence met me on the line, and I slammed the handset into it’s cradle. “I’m so glad I could waste ten minutes of my life on that.”

At the next desk over, Sanders hung up another phone, shaking his head in disbelief. “He’s been on the books nine years and we never had a hint he was so… crazy.”

“He’s good, that’s for sure.” I leaned back in my chair and ran my fingers through my hair, trying to gather my thoughts. Just listening to Circuit rave seemed to have driven them all out of my head. “Never shown his hand if he could help it. What scares me is that he apparently found people who agree with him. There ought to be some rule limiting how many cranks of a given type there can be.”

“You can’t legislated what people think, Helix,” Herrera said.

I swiveled in my chair so I could see the desk behind me, where she was sitting. “I’m talking about laws of nature and probability here. I mean really, did you hear that guy? And there are people who are willing to help him out?”

“Doesn’t mean they like the ideology.” Herrera pushed her chair out from the desk and stretched back, then stood up. I blinked and told myself to focus. I took small comfort from seeing several other men in the room do the same thing out of the corner of my eye. “They may think there’s something in it for them, or maybe they’re just natural followers, and an authoritarian personality can naturally dominate them. That is basically what Circuit said he plans to do with the whole nation, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know if I like to give credibility to anything Circuit says, but you may have a point.” I rubbed my eyes and stifled a yawn, then shoved myself up out of my chair. “Someone should find our analyst and have him look over Circuit’s activities since he became a known element, look at them from the perspective of an organized anti-government idealist rather than a simple miscreant.”

“In the mean time,” Sanders said with a smile, “it sounds like your team is going to need to get better acquainted with the Firestarter situation. That’s still my case, at least until Agents Verger and Massif can get back from their last assignment. Agent Herrera, would you like me to give you a quick briefing on where that case stands?”

I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “I was on the Firestarter case not four days ago. I haven’t heard about any big breaks in it, so I think I can get our team up to date.”

“Maybe,” Herrera said. “But I’d like you to focus on trying to figure out what Circuit is likely to do next, assuming he actually does plan to try and stop the Enchanter on his own. I’ll get Pritchard and Agent Sanders can bring us up to date.”

Sanders’ expression slipped just a tad, but he quickly recovered and said, “That sounds like a good idea. Meet me in my office in ten minutes?”

“If I can find my analyst that quickly.” Herrera turned and glanced around the room, which currently included the three of us, half a dozen analysts and one or two people who I’d guess were from Forensics or Records. “Has anyone seen Agent Mosburger recently?”

“The new guy?” One of the analysts asked. “I think I saw him headed towards Darryl’s office half an hour ago.”

Herrera headed off that way while Sanders headed to the elevator, presumably to get back to his office, leaving me at loose ends. It was tempting to go home and get some sleep, leaving the problem of trying to anticipate Circuit for later. But I had plans for the next morning, which was my day off, and I didn’t want to leave too many loose ends lying around the office, so I thought it would be a good idea to go and see if we had ever actually gotten anything on the phone trace we were running on Circuit’s call.

That kind of work is handled by a special part of the forensics team, so I headed towards the elevator. I was waiting for it to arrive when Mona caught up to me.

“Come on,” she said. “You need to see something.”

If it was Sanders or Herrera, or even Jack, I might have questioned that, but Mona was my field analyst for two and a half years and in all that time, when she’s said I should see something, it always proved to be something I needed to see. I didn’t think that had changed in the few days since I’d been reassigned, so I followed her back up the hallway to a small briefing room in the corner of the building. To my surprise Cheryl was already there, seated at the table with a stack of paper, clipped and stapled into about a dozen separate chunks, in front of her.

Mona closed the door behind us as I sat down at the table. “I take it this is about the East/West file?”

“You got me curious so I pulled it up, but I’m not really sure what you wanted it for,” Cheryl said, thumbing the corner of the stack of papers. “I gave it a quick glance over before I signed for it and came down here, but I didn’t see anything that seemed to have bearing on active cases. Unless the fact that it involved Open Circuit is enough to make it relevant.”

“Actually,” I said, “since he just mentioned it to me a few minutes ago, it might.”

“Wait.” Mona held up a hand as she sat down, looking almost as if she was waiting to be called on in class. “Before we go any farther, does anyone want to tell me about the East/West file? Is it an operation file, a research file, a file on a specific talent…?”

“An operation file,” I said. “Operation East/West refers to the manhunt for a talent known as Lethal Injection.”

“And how does Open Circuit come into that?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Darryl never mentioned this case to you at all?”

“Why would Darryl mention a case she’s not cleared for to her?” Cheryl asked, clearly a little scandalized at the idea that someone would break with procedure like that.

I tried not to look impatient. “It was a significant case in recent history, as well as the first case I worked on. It’s when I met Darryl and Sanders, in fact. And as so many people have pointed out recently, I’ve spent a large portion of my time with Project Sumter working on one thing or another that has Circuit as it’s root cause. That might have made East/West relevant to my analysts at some point, don’t you think?”

“If it did, no one ever mentioned it to me around the office,” Mona answered. “And we don’t bring work home. Darryl’s too much of a perfectionist to ever be able to put it down if he did, and you know I’d just feel insecure about whatever calls I’d made on a case during the day and spend all my time on the phone changing my mind. It’s much simpler to just police each other and never let work in the door.”

“Reasonable,” I said. “And East/West isn’t exactly the kind of thing that comes up in casual conversation. It’s the only case in my time with the Project where we actually went to Condition One.”

“I saw that,” Cheryl said, picking up the top stack of paper and flipping a few pages. “In fact, going to Condition One was one of the first actions taken on the case. But there’s no mention in here of what it means, and I didn’t have a time to look it up.”

“Condition One is when the Project goes to battle stations,” Mona explained. “It’s kind of like a state of emergency. I don’t think it’s been used all that often, though you’re in a better position to know that kind of thing than us. Basically, I think the Project only moves to Condition One when they know for a fact that a talent has used their abilities to kill someone.”

Cheryl bit her lip. “Yeah, I can see that being a cause for alarm for a bunch of reasons. It’s tough to keep quiet, it requires particular care in handling arrest and prosecution and then there’s the family of the victim to consider…”

“Victim?” I shook my head. “You misunderstand. Condition One can be called whenever a talent directly causes a fatality, whether they used their ability maliciously or in self defense, accidentally or intentionally. We don’t go to Condition One every time we find an incident like that, but we could.”

“Really?” Cheryl looked a bit surprised. “That seems like awfully vague. Not that vague is anything new for the Project. But, even assuming it’s intended for containment of fatal incidents where talents are involved, what does it actually mean?”

Mona shrugged. “That part is fairly straight forward, really. First off it involves taking all field agents off their current assignments and reassigning them to working on the fatal incident, usually as containment or to follow up leads that would normally be left to local law enforcement or associated federal agencies, to cut down on the bureaucracy involved.”

“I’m not entirely sure it helps there,” I said. “Since the Project is hardly the paragon of red tape cutting.”

“Secondly,” Mona ignored my interruption, “while we’re under condition one the rules about civilian talents staying out of Project business are lifted.”

Cheryl’s eyes widened. “You mean we don’t enforce the anti-vigilantism rules under Condition One?”

“It’s worse,” Mona replied. “Talents with criminal records can also contribute to solving the case, with the possibility of receiving a reduced sentence or even a pardon for previous actions.”

“That’s how Circuit’s name wound up in the East/West file,” I said. “He got wind of what was going down and spent some time looking for Lethal Injection himself. In fact, as he has so recently reminded me, he gave us the tip that actually led us to Injection.”

“I suppose he wasn’t interested in the pardon then?” Cheryl asked.

“No, he obviously wasn’t, although we did hold off on actively trying to chase him down until he did something illegal again.” I shook my head. “Circuit’s involvement with East/West wasn’t what I wanted to look into when I asked about the file, though it’s certainly become more important in the last hour or so.”

Cheryl restacked her papers and said, “Well, if it’s not about Circuit, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Condition One, what were you wanting to know?”

“Actually, it’s about one of Lethal Injection’s victims.” I fished out the handwritten piece of paper I had found while rummaging through my desk. “I don’t have the name, but I do have the date we were on the scene. 30 May.”

“Hm…” Cheryl flipped through the various piles of paper with a practiced eye. “First victim, Nolan Richards, found dead on the third of the month. Second victim, Hernando Ortiz, killed May 30th.” She pulled out the relevant bundle of reports and went through them, then stopped on one page and turned pale.

“Cheryl?” Mona leaned forward, concern evident on her face. “Are you alright?”

She turned the page with a shaking hand and said, “There were pictures, that’s all.”

Which I should have thought of. While there’s probably no such thing as a good first case for someone in law enforcement, Lethal Injection had proven to be a very, very bad one. “Sorry, should have warned you.”

“Warned her of what?”

“How bad it would be.” I rubbed my forehead. Even eight years later, thinking about that time was tough. “Lethal Injection was more than just some guy who caused a fatal accident with his talent, or a crook who let things get out of hand during a job. He was a honest to goodness, talent wielding serial killer.”

“No wonder Darryl never told me about him,” Mona said in a hushed tone. Serial killers are something no one in the Project likes to think about, for all the usual reasons plus the added difficulties of containing and managing the existence of the talents involved in that kind of a mess. “What was his talent?”

“Waterworks,” Cheryl answered. “Manipulation of the viscosity of liquids. Not exactly a dangerous talent.”

“Not on the face of it,” I said. “But when you find ways to get toxins and acids into highly concentrated liquids that you roll up into little beads? That’s what happened to Ortiz. Injection tossed little balls of sulfuric and hydrochloric acids on him until they either caused enough damage to kill him or the shock did him in.”

“Not to mention that blood is a liquid,” Mona added.

“He figured that out, too,” I said bitterly. “Eventually.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence after that. Then Cheryl started skimming the case file again. “Ortiz was a postal worker, doesn’t say what part of the postal service he worked in. Worked for the USPS ten years, nothing remarkable about his record. Thirty-nine years old at time of death. Not in financial trouble. Good looking man, when he was alive.”

I resisted the urge to point out that that wasn’t exactly an appropriate thing to say about a dead man. Cheryl turned over the page and continued reading. “He was a widower, doesn’t say how his wife died. They had one daughter, sixteen years old at the time, who found the body.” Mona made a little pained noise at that, but didn’t say anything. Cheryl paused for a moment, and at first I thought she was just waiting to see if Mona would say anything else. But then she looked up at me and said, “The daughter’s name was Teresa.”

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