The alley outside of Firehouse 10 was still full of puddles from the fire hoses. You would think, with a firehouse being occupied by some of the best people in the county for fighting fires, that the building might have gotten through the blaze mostly unharmed. And under normal circumstances you might be right.
The half-melted, charred wreck of a fire engine that I could see inside the firehouse’s garage gave a hint at why that might not be the case this time around. A firefighter is frequently only as good as his equipment, and fire isn’t something people are well equipped to fight with his bare hands.
Still, the firehouse was a big place, with enough room in the garage for eight engines, and it looked like only one was a total loss. Two more were parked out front, surrounded by firefighters carefully checking and packing away their gear. I managed to gather that much just walking past the front of the building on my way to the alley where Agent Verger said Al Massif was at the moment. I left Jack and Herrera, who was still dressed as a thrift store shopper and probably not being taken as seriously as she’d like, with the arson investigators while Kesselman and Bergstrum were on the prowl for signs of Circuit. And they say I have no situational awareness.
It was an average place, as far as alleys go, about wide enough for one and a half people and full of the kind of junk you’d expect: cardboard boxes, plastic bags full of things best left to the imagination, potted plants desperately clinging to life and the rusting bottoms of old fire escapes just overhead. Leftover heat from the fire pressed down on the alley and walking into it was a lot like walking downhill, except the ground was level. Which probably doesn’t make as much sense as it might if you felt the world around you like I do.
Once upon a time there had been a chain-link fence across the mouth of the alley, but now it was bunched in a twisted mess on one side of the alley. I probably would have just melted the padlock off of the gate and left the rest of the fence intact, but it looked like the Firestarter, or the Enchanter or whatever you wanted to call him, was growing more destructive over time. Typical arsonist behavior, no matter how you’re starting your fires.
I found Massif crouched on his haunches, running his hand lightly along the edges of a two foot hole in the concrete wall. A plastic trashcan sat against the wall a few feet away. If the trail it had left in the muck on the ground was any indication, it had started out right in front of where Al was crouched suggesting the Firestarter might have used it for cover while melting his way through the firehouse walls. As a courtesy, I pulled up against the heat in the area, sending much of it sliding out into the street, then held it steady somewhere around the eighty degree mark. Not only would that make things a little cooler, it would make it easier for Massif to make sense of what was going on.
Massif is a vector shift, and that means seeing the world in a much different way than your average joe. Of course, that’s true of pretty much all talents, from Amplifier’s super hearing to my ability to “feel” heat in unusual ways, most talents see or hear or feel the world in ways much different than normal. Trying to describe it to a normal person, or even to another talent who’s gifts lie in a different direction, is really an exercise in futility.
But I did know that people like Agent Massif and his ilk don’t just see an object, they see how it’s moving. And air is moving all the time, in no small part due to heat, so for a vector shift day to day living is an adventure in sensory overload, kind of like walking around drunk all the time. Massif once mentioned that I was a lot more stable looking than most people because I regulate the temperature of the air around me and the farther I expand that influence the easier it is for him to see what’s going on. As self-centered as it sounds, I’m not sure how he gets by when I’m not around, which is most of the time. I do know Agent Verger has to drive him around because he’s not safe behind the wheel.
Needless to say, Massif noticed the change in the air around him immediately and jumped to his feet, looking around with a grim expression. Since he was at the site of an arson started by a guy with my talent, that was an understandable reaction. His expression cleared as soon as he saw me, though, and he lumbered over and wrapped me in an bear hug that set my ribs creaking.
“Helix! Glad you’re here.”
I’m not a very touchy-feely person but I still resisted the urge to pry myself out of the hug. Al may be disgustingly tall and good looking to boot, but for whatever reason he decided he was my friend even though I’m the one who figured out he was talented and roped him into this job. Any person who puts up with you for more than two or three years and can still smile every time he sees you is a rare thing, and they’re worth a little work to keep happy.
So I pounded Massif on the back once or twice, enough to satisfy whatever standards of male affection he subscribed to, and did my best to hold my breath until he let go.
Once I was out I said, “Looks like you’re in a real mess this time around, Massif.”
“It’s not my kind of thing, that’s for sure.” He waved his hand at the firehouse. “This is the work of a real nutcase. It looks like he went straight through the wall and hit the firetruck just inside – cooked it up until the gas tank blew.”
I knelt down and peered through the wall. Sure enough, the blackened chassis of the firetruck that I’d seen before was just a dozen feet or so beyond. I craned my neck way back to look at Al. “You know, I’m not an expert on the subject since I’m usually discouraged from cranking up the temperature around anything that runs on petroleum, but I wouldn’t think one truck’s gas tank could set fire to this building.” I stood and took a step back and looked down the wall which, sure enough, still looked to be solid concrete. “Sure, one or two trucks might catch, but why start the fire here?”
“They think the Firestarter used some kind of accelerant this time around,” Massif said. “Looks like he had some more gas cans with him, stacked them by the wall so they’d catch and spread the fire once things got going. The change in MO had them questioning whether it was really our guy this time around.”
I glanced down at the hole in the wall. “I trust that there’s no question about that now?”
“Oh yeah, but we were sure from the get go. Checked the weather people’s radar recordings before we even headed out. They show the usual temperature drop and weird weather you get from an active heat sink. Sudden clouds forming, random, highly localized rain. That kind of thing.” He gestured back towards the mouth of the alley. “Half the firehouse was out on another call when the fire started, right now we’re trying to determine if that was a deliberate distraction or the Firestarter was just waiting for an opportune moment. Thoughts?”
“He probably just waited. Every other fire he’s set so far falls into some sort of pattern, I doubt he’d clutter it up now.” I shoved my hands in my pockets and sighed. “Honestly, the whole chasing the Firestarter and catching him thing is not our gig anymore. We’re more here to keep an eye on the crime scene and try and grab Circuit if he or any of his people show up.” Not an easy job, what with no good way to close off at least one end of the alley and plenty of access from above, but then easy is not what we sign up for. “I should probably get Bergstrum over here and see about setting up some surveillance.”
Massif nodded, although he didn’t look very happy about it. “Seems like a waste of time. If Circuit hasn’t already come and gone he probably won’t show up for a few days more. If he comes at all.”
“My thoughts exactly. But in this job, the one day you don’t cover all the bases is the one you wish you had.”
“Sad but true.” Massif glanced at the entrance to the alley and dropped his voice. “There’s one other thing you should know about. Just in case it makes a difference somewhere down the line…”
Sometimes it seems to me that Project Sumter is keeping its eyes on the wrong people. Sure, I have more practical uses in urban warfare than a than in law enforcement, but even if I did go rogue I’m not exactly subtle or hard to find, and much more fragile than most people would expect. On the other hand, tell me to somehow get a command vehicle and spare personnel to run it out of our office while it was in the process of relocating and I’d have said you were out of luck. Herrera had managed to get the vehicle and volunteers to staff it who were standing by for her call. Not natural.
Still, if there’s anyone with no right to complain about not natural it’s yours truly. What’s more, my parents were not the type to look a gift horse in the mouth and I took after them.
We set up some basic surveillance around the firehouse and came to an agreement with the police and arson squad about how it would be handled over the next few days. Actually, Verger and Herrera did that, I rounded up some of the extra bodies Herrera had swindled into coming out and did the best I could to work out some sort of plan for keeping an eye on the building.
About seven in the evening Jack took over and told me to knock off. He’d finish our shift and then Massif’s people would take over. Since I was still running short on sleep I was only too happy to do just that. But before heading home I thought I should check in with Herrera and see if she wanted me to do anything else on my day off.
Our command van was located about a block and a half away, well outside of the clean-up zone. When we’d arrived that had been as close as we could get but the streets were mostly clear of the response vehicles and news vans that had cluttered them at first. Only Firehouse 10’s firetrucks were still out on the street, since they weren’t entirely sure the garage they normally parked in was still stable.
That didn’t mean the streets were clear, the general public had come and filled them back in with their cars and SUVs almost as soon as the emergency workers had left but there were far fewer people milling around on the sidewalks now, so I spotted the man leaning on the van and smoking a cigarette long before I got there.
I actually considered turning around, heading for my car and calling Herrera before I drove off but that idea was squashed almost as soon as I thought of it. I promised myself long ago that I’d never show my back to Brahms Dawson and I wasn’t about to start just because I was a little tired.
Of course having clear sight lines goes both ways, and the Senator saw me coming just as clearly as I could see him standing there. As I hesitated in the street for just a moment he pushed away from the van and came to meet me while I was still a few car lengths away, which really settled the matter.
I’d never seen him out of what I think of as full regalia – suit, tie, perfectly styled hair, prepared speech. Today he was in jeans and a short sleeved polo shirt. It still probably cost more than I made in a month, but it was the first time he’d ever seemed to be anything other than another suit in the office, if an important- or self-important- one. Which reminded me to glance around for his security people. To my surprise, I could only make one, watching quietly from across the street. I had a feeling this wasn’t one of his normal business visits to the People On The Front Lines.
The Senator stopped to tap the ashes off of his cigarette before looking me in the eye. I don’t think he’d ever done that with me before, and I was surprised to see that he looked tired and more than a little distracted. I suppose he’s got as much reason for that as anyone, maybe more, but that didn’t earn him any sympathy from me. Still, I heard the voice of Bob Sanders whispering that there wasn’t any need to pick a fight with him if he wasn’t offering one.
I wasn’t sure when Sanders had stopped being a voice that annoyed me in real life and became a voice that annoyed me in the back of my head, but I wasn’t sure I liked it. Worse, I was pretty sure he was right. So I just plastered a neutral expression on my face and nodded in greeting. “Evening, Senator.”
“Double Helix,” he said, taking a last drag on his smoke.
“Those things will kill you, you know,” I said. The obvious being the only thing I could think of to say.
Senator Dawson just shrugged. “I’m afraid I started as a young man, and kept them as my only vice. The public doesn’t like a leader without some humanizing quality. The only other option was to take up drinking, which my wife wouldn’t have cared for. So I’ve stuck with it.”
For some reason I found that funny and wound up laughing in his face before I could stop myself. “You risk lung cancer to score political points?”
“No stranger than you risk ulcers or getting shot to do your job,” he said, tossing the cigarette butt on the ground and grinding it out under one shoe. “Everyone takes risks doing their job, whether they realize it or not. The important part is to pay attention to the ones you’re taking, and be ready to live with your decisions.”
“You’re being surprisingly straightforward today, Senator,” I said, trying to read what might be going on behind his tired expression. To someone passing on the street we might have looked just like two guys swapping our thoughts on the Bears this season but I felt more like I was about to walk into a gunfight with nothing but a Swiss Army knife. My first instinct was a tactical retreat. “While I’d love to hear what’s brought out this incredible streak of honesty, I’m actually here to talk to my boss. So if you’ll excuse me…”
“She’s in the van.” The Senator jerked his head slightly back towards the vehicle he’d just been leaning against. “Asleep. For the first time in the last forty-eight hours, I believe.”
I raised my eyebrows. “That’s it? I was under the impression she only dozed a couple of hours a week, and wasn’t planning on a nap ’til this Sunday.”
He chuckled. “She does give that impression, doesn’t she?” The humor drained away as quickly as it had come. “I hear there was a fatality today.”
“Yeah. Massif says one of the firefighters had part of the floor give under him while they were clearing the second floor.” Absently, I rubbed at the back of my neck. “Just bad luck.”
“This Firestarter guy has killed now,” Dawson said. He wave off the beginning of my objection. “An accident, sure, but you and I both know that in the long run that’s not going to matter as much as the fact that someone died because of his crime. You people are going to be twice as focused on catching him, and he’s most likely going to have fewer qualms about endangering people with his next fire. So far, he’s been careful to light them at times when fewer people were likely to get hurt. Now he’s going to escalate.”
“If you ask me, he’s already escalating.” But the Senator was right. Even today, the Firestarter hadn’t touched off the blaze until part of Firehouse 10 was out responding to another fire. He was being cautious, but that might not last. “Still, I don’t see how it’s your job to warn me about the risks of doing mine.”
“It’s not.” He glanced back at the van. “But I’m worried about Teresa. She’s wanted to be a cop all her life, and damn the consequences.”
Unable to resist the urge, I said, “What an unprofessional thing to say.”
Senator Dawson stopped short. “What?”
“Nothing.” I tried to squash the smirk but it slipped out anyway.
“Fine. But you’re right, Teresa isn’t exactly professional about this. Sometimes it seems like she lacks perspective.” He absently fumbled around in his pocket and extracted a pack of cigarettes. “Even Elizabeth was worried that she’d be biting off more than she could chew, and she doesn’t even know what all a job with the Project brings with it.”
“Elizabeth.” I frowned, trying to remember if I’d ever heard the name before. “Your wife?”
“My daughter.” Dawson rubbed his forehead with his free hand like a man with a headache just waiting to make itself heard. “They went to school together, not sure how they became friends but Elizabeth was determined to make her one of the family. I went along with it at first because I hoped Teresa would be a good influence on her.”
“And you wind up sticking her in with all of the freaks.” I smiled grimly. “Seems kind of contradictory, if you ask me.”
That got me a grimace and I suspected the Senator’s headache was starting to really kick up its heels. “You just don’t get it, do you, Helix? Yes, I know that you have no control over being born with your unique abilities. I don’t hold it against you personally, but on a instinctual level that intimidates me, just like it will anyone else. Why else keep you talented people a secret? We can’t have a smoothly running society with that kind of power imbalance inherent in it. Someone has to act as a balance between you and everyone else.”
I snorted. “Don’t act as if its anything other than an ego trip, Senator. There was another guy who recently suggested he needed to be in charge in order to keep society from falling apart and to be perfectly honest, I’d more inclined to trust him with the job than you. But if it comes to that I’d really rather give the job to Robert Sanders than see either of you in charge. Why can’t people like you just leave the rest of us to work things out on our own?”
“Because most of you don’t work at it. I should know, my-” He stopped himself and rubbed a hand over his mouth, looked down at the pavement and gathered his thoughts. Finally he shoved the neglected pack of cigarettes back into his pocket and sighed. “I’m sorry, Helix. I’m tired, and I’m talking around the point. You’re not a fan of that, as I recall.”
“That’s a fair assessment,” I said, folding my arms across my chest. “You wanted to talk to me about something. If it’s not a balanced society or your family, what is it?”
“Teresa. She’s a sweet girl, as much a part of my family as she ever was with either of her other two, and what she has accomplished is amazing considering all the handicaps she’s had, but to get where she is now she’s had to overwork herself, almost like it was a religion.” For the second time in his life, Brahms Dawson looked me in the eye. “Since you joined the Project eight years ago no one has worked to prove themselves like you have. But you’ve always managed to find a balance. While there have been plenty of reports suggesting you’re short sighted and reckless, no one’s ever accused you of overworking of overstressing. I want you to keep an eye on Teresa for me, try and help her do the same.”
“You know it’s funny, you keep repeating thing’s I’ve just heard. You’re not the first person to ask me to keep an eye on Agent Herrera, either.”
The ghost of a smile quirked the edges of the Senator’s mouth. “Oh, that doesn’t surprise me. In fact, there’s a lot of reasons for you to want to do what I’m asking you, things like making sure your oversight agent is clear headed when you need her to be, and since you’re already keeping an eye on her how much of an added burden can it be, really?”
I studied him hard, but I still couldn’t see any sign of motives other than concern. I wasn’t getting the whole story, but my gut said what I’d heard was true. “Not to sound crass, but how does that help me do my job? Besides the obvious, of course.”
Dawson’s smile vanished and his expression became completely sincere. Not the polished, smooth sincerity of a person who had practiced these lines a dozen times in front of the mirror before convincing hundreds or even thousands of suckers with them. No, it was the fragile, brittle sincerity of a man who wasn’t sure he’d ever be believed, but was going with the truth for once anyway. “This may sound surprising to you, Helix, but I’ve developed a real respect for you over the years. I don’t like you, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to. But with the right education, with the right mentors, with the right system, we can eliminate the differences that cause that and make a better world. Teresa wants to be a part of that. I want to think that in time you’ll want to be a part of that, too. Wouldn’t that help you do your job?”
For the second time that night I found myself laughing. “What’s really scary is I think you believe that, Senator. Unfortunately, my job doesn’t deal much with maybe-somedays. Now, as you already pointed out I’m an expert in balancing my work with the rest of my life. Today was my day off, my boss is asleep on the job and I’m ready to go home, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
His face fell. “Helix-”
“Tomorrow is theoretically Agent Herrera’s day off. Unfortunately I’ll be in the office, and once she gets there it’ll be impossible to throw her back out again, so you’ll just have to invent some excuse to keep her from getting there if you want her to relax some this week.” I ran my fingers through my hair and could almost feel it pulling out between my fingers, leaving me a little closer to my father’s hairline. “I’ll talk with the tac team boys, maybe Mona, see if we can work something out for after that.”
A bright smile bloomed on Senator Dawson’s face, of the satisfied, friendly, political variety. “Thanks, Helix. It-”
“I’m not doing this for you, Senator,” I said, feeling more irritated now than I had through the rest of the conversation. “I’m doing it because like you said, it’ll make my job easier. And she deserves the chance to do this job right.”
He nodded, the moment of political handling already past. “I know, Helix. But trust me, you won’t regret it.”
I certainly hoped so.