Heat Wave: Tempering


Amplifier chewed on her bottom lip, thinking. After a moment she got up out of her chair and paced away, taking a long pull on her bottle of water. Herrera shot me a concerned look, probably wondering why I’d laid it on so thick. Or maybe wondering how much of what I’d said was true. I had no doubt that she’d gotten a similar speech from someone when she signed up, and at least she had spent some time in the HSA, but the fact is, until you’ve actually been in the Project for a year or so you have no idea what the job is really like. But maybe that’s true of every job.

Herrera looked like she was on the verge of saying something but Amplifier beat her to the punch. “Which are you, Helix?” She ran her fingers casually along top of a small chest of drawers that was waiting for it’s second coat of varnish. “My grandma used to say that a person who tries to tell it like it is says more about themself than the way things are. Want to hear what I hear?”

“Sure, why not?” I folded my arms over my chest. “What’s your great insight into my inner workings?”

“One,” she held up a finger to signal the number, then leveled it so it pointed at me. “You love your job, or you wouldn’t put up with all the draw backs that come with it. You could have gone back to carpentry years ago, if that’s what you wanted.”

Amplifier strolled back over to where we were sitting and leaned her arms on the back of her chair. “Two, you’re a sweetheart trying to pretend you’re cynical and you’re bad at it. No one buys the shtick where you try and scare people off by pretending you’ve ruined yourself anymore, it’s overdone. I get that it’s a hard job, but people never got anywhere by running away from challenges. Besides, one of my best friends is a certified genius, and you know it or your people wouldn’t have tried to recruit him already. I think, between the two of us, we can come up with some ways to deal with the worst parts of the job.”

I raised my eyebrows a bit and said, “Anything else you managed to glean from all that?”

“Yeah.” She rested her chin on top of her arms and said, “You really think doing this job for as long as you have has ruined you somehow. Well, I’ve got a newsflash for you, I’m pretty sure every job you can possibly have does that. I worked in a fast food place for two years and it ruined my faith in humanity. I’ve been in a band for three years and it’s ruined my faith in art. I’m not sure you’re a worse person just because you job has ruined your faith in yourself or your talent. There’s plenty of people high on themselves already, anything that keeps you off of that has got to be a plus, right?”

“There’s a delicate balance somewhere in there, Amplifier, and I’m not sure you’re hitting it.”

She laughed and swung herself around the chair and back into the seat. “Well, not everything has to go one way. You mentioned going into research a minute ago. What’s that about?”

“Well there are a few people, most of them with letters after their name but no talents in the Sumter sense, although there are exceptions, who do research on exactly what talents do and how they might be related. For example,” I held up my water bottle and sloshed it back and forth. “What I did to cool this water down from room temperature to cold and refreshing is technically known as ‘cold spiking’ and it was once considered a separate talent from mine. About three decades ago some eggheads on the West Coast got a heat sink and cold spiker together and they managed to duplicate each other’s abilities on a small scale. Now they’re considered the same talent, but they work different sets of muscles, so to speak, so most people figure out how to do one early on and have a hard time working up to the same level of proficiency with the other. Most of that kind of info funnels back to the Project and helps the analysts and field agents out. In your case, there’s even more experiments being run, and if you just wanted to help out from time to time, I’m sure no one would say no…”

Herrera and I spent the next hour and a half explaining the many different possible things a person could do while working directly for the Project and as contractor. In the end Amplifier left not because we were done covering all the possibilities but because she had to get to class. I walked her to the door and was surprised to see that she hadn’t come on a motorcycle, or even a slovenly old junker but rather a sleek new hybrid station wagon. It didn’t do much for her image as a member of a garage band although it was probably pretty useful for hauling all their equipment around.

I shook my head and glanced around the parking lot. It was still early in the day so the only other car, besides mine, was the kind of rust bucket I would have expected from my other guest. I glanced at Herrera. “You two drive over separately?”

“What makes you think I didn’t just ride the subway?” Herrera asked with a raised eyebrow.

“People in our line of work don’t usually enter an enclosed space with a bunch of strangers unless it’s part of our job.” Since Herrera hadn’t made any move to leave I stepped back into the workshop and closed the door behind me. “Was there something else, besides the spontaneous recruiting talk?”

“As a matter of fact, there was.” Herrera strolled over to the chest of drawers Amplifier had been examining earlier and looked it over, as if she could figure out what Amplifier had been thinking while looking at it. “But before we talk about that, what was with that recruitment speech? Not the most encouraging thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Can I be honest?”

“I can’t imagine lying would help.” She shot me an evaluating look, softened with the ghost of a smile. “And I’ve gotten the impression you’re pretty bad at it.”

“You see right through me.” I scooped up the tabletop I’d been working on the night before and moved it to the side of the room, taking the moment to gather my thoughts. Once I had it leaned against the wall I did the same with myself and said, “It’s like this. I’ve had a few different oversight people in my time, but I’ve been with Bob Sanders the longest. We worked out a system for pretty much everything we could expect to do as talent and oversight, and we played to our strengths. For the most part, that means I was the bad cop. Now I gather that you may not like the idea, but the fact is it worked and it worked because we each knew what we were doing. I’m not Sanders’ biggest fan, but he knew what he was doing and he made sure the rest of us were on the same page.”

I held up two fingers. “Twice now you’ve taken us straight into important discussions with a valuable but potentially dangerous individual with little to no warning or time to plan our strategy and which way the conversation is to go. That was sloppy.” I jerked my thumb at my chest. “The first time was my fault. I’m the more experienced agent, I should have said something before we went in to talk to Amplifier yesterday. I definitely should have said something afterwards, and in fact I meant to bring it up tomorrow, because I didn’t think it would be relevant until then. It shouldn’t have been. But in the four days you’ve been my boss you’ve piled in a month’s worth of work.”

“You think I’m moving too fast?” She didn’t sound offended or curious, just a little sad. Not what I had been expecting.

“To use a handy analogy, if you don’t know what kind of wood you’re working with,” I rapped my knuckles against the tabletop, “you won’t know what the right tools for the job are. Or, measure once, cut twice. Or even-”

“All right,” she said, her faint smile coming back. “I get the idea. Two, megalomaniacal ass? Voorman wasn’t very happy with your cursing at a person of interest over the phone yesterday-”

“We monitor all phone calls as a quality assurance measure.”

Her smile twitched but didn’t grow, and she loose her train of thought either. “-and I’m not sure he’ll be any happier after hearing about that.”

“It can hardly be unprofessional to mention a term used on the Federal NBH Employment Termination form.”

Herrera’s expression wavered just a bit, the kind of look people get when they think you’re joking… but they’re not quite sure. “You’re kidding.”

“Look it up. It’s under section four, mental instabilities.” I stood up and started collecting the empty water bottles. “So. Something else besides the recruiting talk?”

Her fingers drifted down the left side if the chest of drawers. “How long have you been selling furniture?”

“I started selling independently instead of through a dealer about a year and a half before my pieces started showing up in Circuit’s instillations. That is what you’re wondering about, isn’t it?”

She turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “Actually, I was wondering how I missed the fact that your maker’s mark is half a strand of DNA when I saw it in Circuit’s warehouse.”

“Most people think it’s a spiral staircase.” I shrugged. “After all, as Amplifier said, carpentry isn’t very agentish. DNA isn’t very carpenterish, for that matter. I’m not sure how Circuit figured out I was making the stuff, but I’m guessing it had more to do with his hacking skills than the maker’s mark.”

“Has anyone ever followed that up?”

I spread my hands. “How are we supposed to do that? Put a tracer in each piece I sell? Even if we could afford the time and resources to do that and track them all, how are we supposed to tell which pieces Circuit’s bought? And what do we tell the judge when we ask for a warrant?”

“Point taken.” Herrera turned from the chest and folded her arms across her chest. “The Project headquarters was broken into last night.”

I paused, an empty water bottle halfway into the empty paint bucket I kept for recyclables. “What?”

“Someone got into the building, ruined a security camera, broke into the evidence room, tased three agents including Al Massif and stole all the evidence relating to the Firestarter case.” She picked up a messenger bag she had brought with her and fished out a sheet of printer paper. “There’s a video of the pair of them, from the security system of a restaurant down the street, but otherwise no indication of who it might be. Here’s a still frame.”

I snatched the sheet out of her hand and stared at it. It was just a blurry image of two men in street clothes jaywalking. The camera that took the video must have been forty feet away, making it pretty much useless for purposes of identifying who they might be. I looked back at Herrera. “That doesn’t tell us much, but I’m guessing we’re assuming this was Circuit and one of his people?”

“Not officially, but the evidence all points that way. He just expressed an interest in the Firestarter case a few hours before the break-in, and he strikes me as the type to be ready to take what he wants if no one will give it to him nicely.”

“You’re a good judge of character,” I said, trying not to grit my teeth. I try not to take my job personally, but some things really grate on you. “What’s our next move?”

“We move.” Herrera rubbed her arm absently like she felt a draft. “The location of headquarters has been compromised so the whole office is being packed up and moved to the auxiliary location.”

Which had been our primary location until three years ago. It was a decent facility, but farther out than our current location and missing some of the nicer bells and whistles, like a lead lined holding cell, that incorporated the state of the art in talent countermeasures. “Wonderful. I suppose we’ll have to wait a few days until we get settled before we get back to the case.”

“Excuse me?” She glanced over her shoulder as if checking to see if there was anyone else in the room. “Are you still talking to the woman who did a month’s worth of work in four days?” She looked back at me and smiled. “I’ve talked Mossman into putting us up this afternoon. We’re meeting at his place at three this- Helix!”

I jumped a bit then realized she was staring at my hand, which was still holding the sheet of paper she’d given me. Except it was now on fire. “Sorry! Sorry.” I quickly balled the sheet of paper up in my hands and began gently pressing the heat out of it. “That happens sometimes. Just FYI, you probably shouldn’t hand me anything flammable then tell me bad news.”

“Right.” Herrera watched wide eyed as I tossed what was left of the paper in the trash and dusted the ash off my hands. Then she slowly shook her head and said, “I guess hearing about it and seeing it in action are two different things after all.”

“I guess they are.”

“So. Mossburger’s place, three o’clock. You mind showing up on your day off?” She started rummaging through her messenger bag again.

“Normally, yes, but for Circuit I’ll make an exception.”

“Good. Now, you remember how I said I thought I had an idea about the Enchanter when we visited Circuit’s place yesterday?”

“Sure.” I nodded. “You said you needed to look into it.”

“Well, I did. It’s especially relevant after hearing that Circuit thinks the Enchanter and the Firestarter are the same person. I think I know what the source of the name is, and hopefully that will give us some insight into the Firestarter and, by extension, Circuit.” She pulled a pair of thin, well worn books out of her bag and started to hand them to me. Then she paused and gave me a skeptical look. “Are you safe with flammable objects yet?”

I put my hand over my heart. “I promise that they will not catch on fire.”

Apparently satisfied, she gave me the books and a moment to look them over. One was green, the other purple. They had charming watercolors on the front of fraying, well handled dust covers. One had a long rip along the back that had been taped together. They looked more appropriate to a library’s story circle than a criminal investigation. I looked back up at Herrera with a skeptical expression. “Children’s stories?”

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