Heat Wave: Flash Point


“Ortiz’ daughter was named Teresa?” I leaned back in surprise. “Okay, I wasn’t expecting that.”

“What were you expecting then?” Cheryl asked.  “You are the one who wanted to see the file.”

“One of the EMTs who came to the scene was named Herrera.” I tapped the appropriate part of the old draft I had found. Cheryl flipped through the stack of papers to the correct final report. “I talked to him way back when, but I was hoping there might be something more on him in the file. Like whether he had a daughter.”

“But you didn’t realize Ortiz had a daughter, or that her name was Teresa.” Mona didn’t make it a question. “I find it hard to believe both men had daughters named Teresa. But if Ortiz’s daughter is the Teresa here now, under the name Herrera, shouldn’t you recognize her? Eight years is a long time, but you make the case sound like such a big deal…”

“I never met any of the families of the victims.” For which I was privately grateful. “Let’s face it, the Project doesn’t have enough coverage to be an effective first responder and Lethal Injection was spread out across two fairly large states. Mostly, by the time we arrived at the scene the locals had usually taken charge of any family of the victim, and it’s not like we have the extra personnel to assign our own family liaisons with. In fact, we tried not to tell the family anything about our investigations.”

“Which is sad but understandable,” Cheryl said as she ran one finger down the page she was looking at. “Here we are. Javier Herrera, married, three children. Doesn’t look like we dug any deeper than that. We don’t usually look too hard at incidental persons on the scene, so that’s not surprising.” She flipped the papers closed. “Still, Mona’s right, it does seem like a stretch to call it a coincidence that a man with Agent Herrera’s last name was there the day Teresa Ortiz’s father died. Ms. Ortiz would be the right age to be Agent Herrera, too.”

“So, speculation?” I tapped my fingers absently on the tabletop. “Did Javier Herrera take in Teresa Ortiz after her father was murdered? That would explain why Teresa Herrera’s records were sealed.”

“It’s possible, but it would require unusually fast work on the part of the local authorities to get it done before she came of age,” Cheryl said, absently stacking the East/West into a neat pile again. “Unless Mr. Herrera had some kind of pull, which you wouldn’t expect of the typical EMT. If Agent Herrera is Teresa Ortiz, then the sealed records are a real plus for her.”

“How so?” Mona asked.

“In the last year two field agents have turned out to have connections to the past victims of talented criminals,” Cheryl said. “In both cases those agents were immediately taken off of field work due to concerns about their objectivity.”

“But they leave field agents with long working histories with talented criminals on the same case for years,” I muttered.

Mona spared me a sympathetic look. “New question. If Agent Herrera is Teresa Ortiz, why did Senator Dawson spend so much political capitol getting a handpicked agent into the Project when finding out such a simple thing could get her removed from her position?”

That was a great question, and it quickly became apparent that Mona didn’t have the answer. We stared at her for a moment and she blushed a bit. “Maybe there’s just something about her that puts her ahead of the pack?”

“There’s nothing in her HSA record that’s particularly stands out,” Cheryl said. “I mean, she was efficient and had a good record, but nothing that puts her in the top five percent, say.”

“I didn’t realize they ranked people like that,” Mona said.

“I think we’re using the Cheryl O’Hara Snap Judgement ranking system,” I said, reaching over to tug the East/West file away from Cheryl.

She put one hand on top of it to keep it in place. “You haven’t officially signed that out yet. Maybe Herrera came up with a novel approach to catching Circuit?”

“I’ll sign it out as a resource on Open Circuit later, his phone call certainly makes it relevant,” I said. Cheryl’s hand didn’t move so I relented and pulled back. “And Herrera did have the location of Circuit’s warehouse, but I’m not sure that would explain why the Senator pushed so hard to get her into the Project. It was a minor tip, and very recent. This kind of thing has to have been in the works much longer than that tip was around.”

“Maybe the Senator had a new idea to catch Circuit, and he needed someone to help him try it out?” Mona rested her chin in her hand and stared absently at the far wall, sure sign that the wheels were starting to turn at high speed. “But that wouldn’t explain why he’d choose Teresa as his catspaw.”

“No, I think Cheryl was on to something,” I said, slowly cracking my knuckles as I thought about it.

“I was?” Cheryl straightened a bit. “About what? Herrera not being a stand out?”

“Not exactly.” I drummed my fingers again as the idea coalesced. “It’s just that when I first met Agent Herrera she was with Senator Dawson and I wasn’t quite sure how he could stand being around her. She strikes me as a natural born people person, with tons of charisma and presence and she’s better looking to boot. Why would he let himself be overshadowed that way?”

“You’re not really helping us explain why the Senator would want Herrera in the Project,” Mona pointed out.

“That’s just it, what if he didn’t want her in, but she did. What if she was the one looking for any available route into Project Sumter and decided Senator Dawson was the path of least resistance.” I leaned forward and tapped Cheryl’s file. “She’s got a powerful motivation, at the least.”

“So you think she’s here for revenge? A real life Batman, out to fight the talented criminals so they can’t cause other people grief?” Cheryl asked thoughtfully. “It’s possible.”

“But it doesn’t explain how anyone, no matter how motivated, could get Senator Dawson to spend a great deal of political capitol getting them admitted to Project Sumter when the Project is very likely to kick them out as soon as they stumble across the right file. Which we’ve just proved doesn’t take that long.” I opened my mouth to say something but Mona kept going. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the Senator must have thought there was something worthwhile he could get out of the arrangement.”

“I’ve never met Senator Dawson,” Cheryl said. “And I’m not really that familiar with the Senate Committee decisions, since Records only deals with field reports. What does he want to do that having a field agent in the Project could help him accomplish?”

“He could get information that usually isn’t forwarded to the Senate Committee,” I said. “Or keep abreast of developments in cases without being reliant on official Project sources.”

Cheryl’s face made it clear that, whatever she thought of that, it wasn’t very nice. “While I’ll admit that’s something, I’m not sure it’s worth all the effort it took to get Agent Herrera into the Project. Mona makes it sound like it took a lot of work.”

“It did,” Mona said. “I can’t say much beyond that, but it is something Senator Dawson has been working towards for some time. I’ll agree that whatever he might want Herrera in the Project for, it’s probably something more significant than just an inside source.”

Not something I really wanted to think about. The long and the short of it is, a lot of the safeguards that keep talented people like myself safe from persecution and exploitation rely on secrecy. That’s one of the major reasons why, nearly a century and a half after it’s creation, Project Sumter remains a top secret, undisclosed portion of the government. Secrecy is part of our lifeblood and to people like me, who have been raised with the reality of talent since our births, there’s few things more important. Not even our Senate Committee gets to know everything about us. If compromising Project secrecy was just a side benefit of getting Herrera into her current position, how bad was Dawson’s real scheme?

“Maybe we’re thinking of this the wrong way.” Cheryl leaned back in her chair and laced her fingers, tapping her chin with her thumbs. She didn’t have the same level of commitment to secrecy as I did but, as part of the Records department, it was still a major part of her job. While she hadn’t seemed excited about playing politics with the Senator’s hand picked oversight agent when I first asked for the East/West file, now she seemed a little more invested in the idea.

“The Senator’s biggest failed initiative was his proposal to require all talents to register in a database that would list their name, current location and talent.” She glanced at me. “I can mostly guess why you might not like that idea, Helix, but what are the official reasons it got shot down?”

“Budget,” Mona said immediately. “There just aren’t enough resources allocated to the Project to make such a thing feasible, even if it weren’t kept a secret. We barely have the resources to do normal law enforcement and locate and brief new talents that show up. Tracking all the known talents in the country would require us to tripple our staff, at the very least, and there just isn’t enough money for that, never mind enough trained people.”

“There’s also the privacy and other civil rights issues,” I added. “Many members of the Committee were concerned about what might happen to their careers if they were ever associated with a program to monitor people who weren’t guilty of anything more dangerous than being born with unusual potential. Our friends in the Justice department-” Mona suddenly bolted upright and darted out the door. “-had similar concerns.”

There was a brief moment where we just sat there, Cheryl looking stunned while I tried to think of other recent changes in procedure that might be credited to Senator Dawson. “There was a plan a while back to try and get more experienced legal advisors onto the staff, but that failed for reasons that don’t have anything to do with the Senator. In fact, I think that was actually a pretty popular idea with everyone but the lawyers.”

“Right,” Cheryl said, still looking at the conference room’s door. “More importantly, should I be worried about whatever Mona’s up to?”

“Oh, that?” I glanced back in the direction Mona had headed. “Happens all the time.”

“If you say so.” She blew out a breath. “Why didn’t the lawyers like the idea?”

“I think it didn’t pay enough.”

“Naturally.” There was another moment of silence while we contemplated Shakespeare’s famous suggestion to kill all the lawyers, but before I could suggest we look into that as a new policy initiative Mona swept back into the room carrying a small pamphlet that looked vaguely familiar.

“What’s that?” Cheryl asked.

By way of answer Mona spread the pamphlet out on the table. Among other things there was a prominent picture of Senator Dawson smiling at some sort of event and one of those tear-out donation cards. “Senator Dawson brought in a stack of these during his last re-election campaign. There were a bunch of them left in various places around the building, I don’t think anyone took one.”

“He’s from Wisconsin,” I said. “How many people here could even vote for him?”

“I’m not sure that matters to us right now,” Mona replied, skimming over the pamphlet. “I didn’t take one but I did read one, once. Here we are. ‘If elected, the Senator will push for funding to support research into all spheres of medical stem cell treatments, including existing embryonic stem cell lines, adult stem cells and hybridized stem cells.'”

“What’s a hybridized stem cell?” Cheryl and I asked as one.

“It’s a new approach to gene therapy crossed with adult stem cells,” Mona said. “With adult stem cells you grow new organs or some such based on the person’s own genetic code. But if the person you’re treating has some sort of congenital defect, you’re likely to wind up with the same problem all over again. You can’t grow a good heart off bad blueprints, for example. The theory behind hybridization is, you replace whatever the faulty genes are with functional genes from a healthy individual, then grow the new organ.”

“They can’t even get stem cells to grow organs yet, regardless of where they come from,” Cheryl said. “Why push such far flung research?”

“I don’t know.” Mona began folding up the pamphlet again. “But we don’t know much about talents and genetics yet, even after several decades of research. What if all it takes is a hybridized stem cell treatment to create new talents?”

My gut clenched at that idea. “You think the Senator was somehow working towards that?”

“It’s a possibility,” Mona said, putting the pamphlet aside. “But it’s based on a lot of fairly fragile evidences and suppositions. The Senator’s campaign goals. Teresa Ortiz as Agent Herrera. The Project’s current lack of significant data on existing talents, which the Senator has tried to remedy.”

That’s a getman’s life in a nutshell. Make fragile leaps of logic. Astound everyone when you’re right. I knew better than to write her conclusions off, and apparently Cheryl did too, but she also saw something I hadn’t thought of yet. “Why does putting Agent Herrera in the Project help Senator Dawson develop hybridized stem cells?”

“Easy,” Mona said. “We can’t maintain a database on all known talents, but criminal talents are different. They’re imprisoned and monitored just like any other criminal. And one of the things we do is take a DNA sample from each talented criminal we arrest.”

“And then, whenever there’s a crime involving a specific kind of talent you compare forensic evidence found at the scene against known criminal talents of the same type. I’ve seen some of those Forensics reports. Records, remember?” Cheryl pointed at herself in case we weren’t sure what she meant. “I’m not an expert on genetics, but I don’t see how those DNA records might help the Senator with his hybridized stem cell schemes, assuming he even has any. There’s only a few hundred criminal talents on record, and half of them probably don’t have DNA on record, since they’d have been active before the technology for it existed. That leaves maybe two or three examples of any given talent for study. Scientists need hundreds of examples to get an accurate picture of gene structures, don’t they?”

“A ambitious field agent with a chip on her shoulder would push aggressively to arrest more criminals,” Mona said, ticking the points on her fingers. “We’ve already seen that in Agent Herrera’s push to arrest Circuit. More criminal talent records results in a larger statistical sample. It also makes it easier and easier to make the case that a comprehensive talent database would save us effort in investigating and prosecuting talented crime.”

“That’s nonsense. There’s no evidence that Circuit was ever even contacted by-”

“Ladies!” I waved my hands for their attention. “I don’t think we’re going to get any farther on just speculation. It’s time to go out and look for some evidence.”

I started to get up from my chair but Mona waved me back down. “Hold on. Where are you going?”

“Um… to think about how to get some evidence?”

She shook her head sadly. “You know, Sanders may have been the one to recruit you into helping manage Herrera, but he’s not the only one Voorman has working on this.”

“I appreciate that, Mona,” I said. “But if anyone has the connections to run down what happened to Teresa Ortiz after her father died, it’s San-”

“Me,” Cheryl said. When we turned to give her that look surprised people always seem to give, she just shrugged. “If the Senator is trying to pull something weird with the Project records I don’t want to be involved in it. But,” she held up a finger to emphasize her point, “if there is no connection between the two Teresas then your whole line of reasoning goes from sketchy to worthless, and I’m out. You can get Sanders to run down the information you need in the future.”

I glanced at Mona, since I wasn’t part of the inner circle in this whole unofficial probe into Herrera’s past it would be better to let it be her call. She said, “That sounds fair. And with the Firestarter case still open and who knows what else likely to wind up on our plates in the near future, what with Circuit still at large and two new talents in town, who knows how much free time Sanders will have in the near future. If you want to tackle tracking down what happened to Teresa Ortiz I don’t see any reason to say no.”

“Okay, with that settled…” I pointed at Mona. “There is something you could look in to. You majored in Biology in college, right?”

“Yes…” She could clearly see where this was going.

“In your spare time, see if there’s anything to that wild stem cell idea. If someone’s looked into it and proved it can’t be done, then that’s probably not the Senator’s actual goal here. Otherwise, try and figure out what other things he might be doing to push that idea while Herrera’s doing her thing here.” I got to my feet and started towards the door, then paused and glanced back at the two of them. “And no one mention this to Sanders just yet. I’ll break it to him.”

Cheryl raised an eyebrow. “You?”

“Me.” I sighed. “East/West was a nasty case for everyone. But of all of us, here, it was probably worst for him. He should find out it’s coming back to haunt him from someone who was there.”

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