Our exit strategy from Project Sumter boiled down to stealing the last working car in the motor pool and driving out the main door. With the rest of the vehicles sabotaged by Heavy on the way in, it was extremely unlikely that anyone would be able to follow us and our own skills ensured we were not seen leaving. Even so, we didn’t get out that far ahead of the lockdown. As Heavy drove down the street away from the building I could see shutters beginning to drop over the windows. It was impressive how such a little thing could transform an innocuous office building into an imposing edifice. I made a mental note of the effect, for future reference.
Since it only makes sense for supervillains to behave as if all government vehicles come with a GPS tracker as a matter of course, we didn’t stay in the sedan for long. Even if the Project couldn’t follow us themselves, now that they were aware of the break in it was only a matter of time before they asked the local police to find the car for them. In fact, the only reason we used one of their vehicles at all is because we didn’t want our van to be caught by any of the building’s cameras. So we met Grappler a half a dozen blocks away and changed vehicles, only pausing long enough to transfer the boxes we’d taken from the Project and for me to fry the sedan with an EMP that drained the last of my vest’s battery reserves. Police departments are adding video cameras to more and more of their patrol cars, and it wouldn’t be odd for the federal government to follow suit. It’s best not to take chances when it comes to leaving evidence behind.
After that, there wasn’t much to do but settle in for the long ride back to headquarters and start patching ourselves up. “Ourselves” in this case basically being me, as I was the only one with more than a few light bruises.
Heavy Water insisted on strapping my right arm down, in spite of my own insistence that it hadn’t been that bad since he got it back in socket. Still, the argument that strapping it down was to ensure it wouldn’t get worse had weight, so I finally relented and let him tie me up, reasoning that I could always take the restraints off again if I needed too. Heavy also decided that my fingers were not broken, but splinted the smallest two anyway.
So, with my ability to work with my hands seventy percent neutralized, I had no choice but to settle into my chair, kick the boxes we’d stolen over to Heavy and say, “Do me a favor and have a look at that, will you?”
He just grunted and ignored the box, fishing through one of his bags of junk that were stored in the van on a semi permanent basis and coming up with one of those little prescription bottles full of pills. He dumped a couple out into his hand and held them out to me.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“This would be a painkiller,” Heavy said. “For the pain. Which, in spite of your being a smart guy, you’re ignoring.”
I swiveled my chair around to face the computer console and turned it on with a twitch of my talent. Ironically, while I’ve found that one can build simple programs and track computer activity fairly simply with my talent, the focus of modern software on a mouse or touchscreen driven interface actually makes routine tasks more difficult, since those are not easy to emulate. However sometimes it’s the only option I have. This was definitely one of those times. As I waited for the terminal to boot up I said, “I need a clear head right now, Heavy. It’s only a matter of time before the Enchanter makes his next move, and I want to be ready for him.”
Heavy sighed and dropped the pills into the pocket of my jacket, then put the bottle away and reluctantly picked up one of the boxes we’d retrieved from the evidence room. As he started to dig through it he said, “You’re sure in an awful hurry about this guy, boss.”
“Well of course,” Grappler said from the front seat. “Common sense says the Enchanter is the most dangerous person to us out there.”
“What?” I looked at the back of her seat. “Where did you get that idea?”
“Easy.” She threw me a quick, self satisfied glance in the rearview mirror. “The biggest, baddest bad guys always show up last, right? So that makes the Enchanter more dangerous than you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m far more terrifying than the Enchanter could ever hope to be.” I glanced back at my screen and smiled. “Case in point. We now have complete access to Project Sumter’s active investigation files. A near impossible task for others, accomplished in half an hour with my expert leadership.”
Heavy glanced over my shoulder and grunted. “Let’s hope that’s more useful than what we got from the evidence room.” He shook the box he was holding in his lap once. “This stuff is mostly melted crap that they found at the arson sites and took away with them so they wouldn’t have to explain it.” He hefted a piece of half melted concrete in one hand and admired it. “I didn’t even know you could burn this stuff.”
“Anything melts if you get it hot enough,” I said, skimming through the files we’d just stolen and looking for the Enchanter’s case. “Although I don’t think any burning was involved with that, it was probably somewhere near the Enchanter’s point of entrance when he burned his way into a building.”
“Either way,” Heavy said, dumping the debris back into the box. “It’s not that useful. Here’s hoping the stuff you got there is better.”
“Well, let’s have a look then, shall we?”
As it turned out, there wasn’t much to be had from the electronic side of the night’s work either. The Project was kind of at a loss on the Enchanter front, or, as they called it, the Firestarter case. It was currently slated to be turned over to Senior Special Agent Harriet Verger and Special Agent Aluchinskii Massif, a team I wasn’t familiar with. Aside from establishing a pattern to the addresses of the buildings being targeted, and that almost entirely by accident as it was technically done by someone they interviewed, Agents Sanders and Helix hadn’t really learned anything I didn’t know already while they were working on the case, and Agents Verger and Massif hadn’t officially taken over yet, so the case was actually in a sort of administrative limbo at the moment.
Other than discovering that Aluchinskii Massif was the name of mountainous region in Siberia I didn’t learn anything new. Actually, I had to Google Aluchinskii Massif in order to find out what it was, so I essentially got nothing directly from the Project.
Suffice it to say that I was not a happy man once we got back to our little home away from home, parked the van and dragged ourselves into the small, out of the way, half buried concrete building that served as my current primary base of operations. Worse, once we were there I had to take off the wrapping Heavy had put on my arm and struggle out of my gear. My arm hadn’t been bothering me much up until then but moving it enough to get out of the vest was an interesting experience, to say the least.
Grappler tisked as she helped Heavy carefully extract me from my various piece of gear and said, “You’ve got to go with something easier to get in and out of if you plan to keep getting hurt like this.” She straightened for a moment to show off her sleek black pants, tank top and flowing, light brown knee length vest. Or perhaps there were other things she was hoping I’d pay attention to. And, with Grappler, one cannot rule out the possibility of a general desire for attention.
“Problem with that outfit is the accessories,” Heavy said, taking his belt, complete with holster and pistol, and draping it over one of her shoulders, then doing the same with my belt on the opposite shoulder. “See? It doesn’t look right.”
She gave a very put upon sigh and stalked off to the weapons locker. Heavy offered me a hand up and I accepted it, struggling to my feet and suddenly feeling very tired. “What time is it, Heavy? Do I even want to know?”
“You don’t, boss. If I told you it was late tonight, you’d want to work some more, since you never turn in before midnight. If I tell you it’s tomorrow, you’ll say you got too much to do to day, so you’d keep going then, too.” Heavy dropped his hands onto my shoulders and pushed me towards the short flight of stairs leading out of the garage and into the main part of the building. “You don’t want to know what time it is, you want to go to sleep. So take your pain pills and find somewhere to pass out.”
It was hard to argue with Heavy’s reasoning; he was entirely correct. So I trudged up the stairs and pushed through the door into the situation room, feeling more and more exhausted with every step.
The situation room is a fancy name for the big open room that lets me keep track of things. Even I can’t keep all the layers of my various plans, contingencies and back ups straight in my head, so I keep a real time representation of them going at my headquarters. Unlike what you typically see on TV or in movies, that doesn’t mean a large map sitting out where anyone can see it and try and figure out what I’m doing. Instead, schemes are broken down on a series of password protected, physically isolated computer terminals. Physically isolated means that they’re not connected to outside networks and have no standard input devices like keyboards or touchscreens, so pretty much the only people who can get anything out of them are fuseboxes, like myself, or people with ten pounds of specialized equipment and several hours of free time.
It’s a clumsy way of ensuring operational security, but it also keeps the details of my endeavors safe from enterprising people like Hangman, who are already too resourceful by half when it comes to finding information.
On top of that, there’s a half a dozen regular computer terminals and the usual spread of office equipment that you need to keep a large operation running, regardless of it’s purpose or legality. All that is arranged on a balcony that runs around the outside of a much larger room, overlooking the assembly and testing floor where my engineers like Davis work on building and safety checking various pieces of equipment before they’re moved to their final staging areas. Any time after midnight the place is almost deserted, so I wasn’t surprised to find the room pretty much empty when I arrived.
I was surprised to find Simeon Delacroix waiting for me on the balcony.
My office manager looked as calm and dignified as ever and, if his sleep had been interrupted, or he’d otherwise been inconvenienced by arranging to meet us in the dead of night, he showed no signs of it. His suit was cleanly pressed, his waistcoat and pocket watch were in place and he looked clean shaven, well groomed and alert. I felt a brief twinge of jealousy, since I was pretty sure I was none of those things, but I know that whatever it is that give Simeon his superhuman sense of timing and poise, it’s not something I’ll ever have the time to unravel and master. Not if I want to stay out of prison and on top of the talented underworld.
So I just gave him the evil eye and said, “You’re up late, Mr. Delacroix. To what do I owe the honor?”
“Correspondence, sir,” Simeon said, producing a pair of letters with a flourish. His voice was studious and neutral, designed to inspire trust and confidence, with any regional accent having been rigorously removed long before I met him. Even so, there was a trace of concern in it as he looked me over and took in the various medical accessories Heavy had added to my usual dress. He pulled a pen knife out of his vest pocket and quickly slit the envelopes open for me. “You wished to be notified if any word came from the Enchanter while you were out, either to you or to the police.”
I straightened just a bit, suddenly more alert and glad I hadn’t taken those painkillers yet. “He’s sent something out, then?”
“A letter to the post office box you keep in the city, sir,” Simeon said, extracting a sheet of paper from one envelope and handing it to me.
I took it in my one useful hand and glanced it over. All it said was, “There is no king, not by hatchet or taxi. Death to pretenders.” Like the other note, it was signed Enchanter.
“How incredibly cryptic. And useless.” I folded the note up and shoved it into a pocket. “What else?”
“A photocopy of a letter sent to the police, same as the last one they received, obtained by your connections in the department and forwarded through the usual means.” Simeon handed me the second letter, which was identical to the first.
“Again, he sends the same letter to multiple groups,” I said, absently fingering the letter as I tried to figure out what it meant. “Why those groups and no one else? And what, if anything, are they supposed to mean to us?”
“I’m sure that interpreting them is half the challenge intended, sir,” Simeon said, folding his hands behind his back. “Are either of you hungry? The kitchen staff prepared some light refreshment, I believe, before they left for the day.”
“Now you’re talking, Simeon,” Heavy said. “It’s that kind of thinking we keep you around for.” Heavy gave Simeon a slap on the shoulder and grinned. “You coming, boss?”
“No, I think I’ll take your advice and just turn in for the night.” I rubbed the back of my neck with my free hand. “Although as stiff as I’m feeling right now, I’m not sure I’ll ever actually get to sleep.”
“It passes, boss. See you in the morning.” Heavy trotted off towards the kitchen and I turned to head the other way, towards my office and the small cot I kept there for the times I slept over.
Simeon cleared his throat once and I stopped. “Was there something else?”
“Yes, sir. You received a phone call earlier this evening from a…” He hesitated midsentence. There aren’t many things Simeon hesitates to say. But one thing he hates is the way most of us talents go by code names while we’re working. He understands the importance of protecting our identities, but he always calls me “sir” when we’re in a situation where he can’t use my real name. If I had been contacted by someone using a codename he would usually just call them a gentleman or a lady. Unless he didn’t know their gender, which probably meant…
“Hangman? Did Hangman call?”
Simeon shifted his shoulders slightly, obviously relieved that I’d figured it out on my own. “Yes, that was the name they left, sir.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Interesting. Did he say why he called?”
“Just that he had something that might interest you.”
“I see.” I mulled that over, then said, “When was this?”
“About half an hour before you returned,” Simeon said. He produced a slip of paper with a phone number on it and handed it to me. “This was the number given, should you with to return the call. But sir, I thought you should know that this didn’t come up through channels. We were contacted here, not at one of the satellite locations in the city or further south.”
“Hangman shouldn’t know this location’s number.”
“And yet,” Simeon said, folding his hands behind his back, “it would seem he does.”
Too resourceful by half. And yet, that was what made him so useful. “All right, Simeon. Thank you.”
“Not at all, sir. Just doing my duty. Will you be needing me again, tonight?”
“I’m not sure.” I looked down at the number on the paper I was holding. “I suppose I should talk to him tonight.”
“That might not be best sir,” Simeon said, looking meaningfully at the improvised sling on my right arm. “There’s no telling what that man wants from you. It might be best to see what it is when you’re in top shape.”
“Maybe.” I started towards my office again. “But you don’t make deals with the devil because you’re in a position of strength. Besides,” I turned back long enough to give him a grin. “He’s a good player but he’s new to the game. If I don’t give the kids a handicap then it wouldn’t be any fun.”
Simeon smiled slightly. “Very good, sir.”
As I walked into my office I contemplated the number Simeon had given me. The whole day had been spent trying to get something that would help me track down the Enchanter. Helix hadn’t been any help, and neither had raiding Sumter’s local office. But they say the third time is the charm. I picked up the phone in my office and dialed. The line picked up on the second ring.