Heat Wave: Slow Boil

Helix

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they organize a place. For example, anyone who wandered into Pritchard Mossburger’s new apartment would instantly realize that he had an organized mind. His new furniture, although a mismatched collection of second hand stuff, was still arranged symmetrically in one corner of the room, with a sofa at the center and two chairs flanking it. A long, low table ran down the side wall. It all looked like it had been organized by a T-square. However, before one could start thinking that he was an OCD neat freak you’d notice the cork board in the corner, already collecting newspaper clippings and printed blog articles that both dispelled that illusion and warned you that he might be mentally unstable in an entirely different direction.

All of that wouldn’t mean quite as much to you as the two big guys sprawling on his sofa or the even bigger guy who dwarfed the beaten up recliner he sat in on the right. Even if you never made it past Jack, Bergstrum and Kesselman to Herrera sitting in the other chair or me standing in the middle of the room and staring at them, you’d realize that Mossburger wasn’t your typical conspiracy obsessed genius with schizophrenic tendencies. That’s just one of the reasons we love him.

“Hey, Helix, you with us?” Bergstrum asked, waving his hand lazily across my field of vision. “Meeting’s going to start soon.”

“I hear you,” I mumbled, still staring at the couch he was sharing with Kesselman.

“What he’s trying to say is sit down,” Jack said, leaning forward and scratching his knee absently. “You’re making us all tired just looking at you. If there’s something so special about that couch you should have taken a closer look at it when we were helping the preacher fellow load his truck.”

I snapped my fingers. “That’s where I’ve seen it before.” A moment’s pause as something registered in the back of my mind. “We didn’t load a sofa on Rodriguez’s truck. I would definitely remember moving two sofas in one day.”

“It was on there already, I saw it in the back.” Jack snorted. “You need to work on your-”

“Situational awareness,” I said in unison with him. “I know, I know. You keep telling me that. Along with Sanders, Mona and occasionally Al Massif, Broadband and a bunch of other people I’ve already forgotten.”

“Maybe you’d remember them better if you were paying attention?” Kesselman ignored my scowl and hopped up to poked his head into the apartment’s cramped kitchenette. “Hey, Mossman, you don’t have feed us a four course meal!”

“Good, because I couldn’t make you one.” Mosburger came in carrying a pot of coffee and a pitcher of ice water in one hand and a tray of mugs in the other. “But I thought something to drink would be a step in the right direction. There’s sodas in the fridge, too.”

He put the dishes on the table and left them there as he and Kesselman retrieved a couple of chairs out of the kitchen. I stared at the coffee pot and ice water for a minute, feeling my fingers twitching in annoyance, then gave in and picked up to the ice water and moved it to the other end of the table.

Herrera watched me do it, an amused look on her face. “Something wrong, Helix?”

“It’s distracting. You have no idea how distracting thermodynamics can be.”

Jack laughed. “You think that’s bad? Leave a chunk of dry ice out sometime and watch him squirm.”

I gave him my darkest scowl. “I thought you were one of the good guys.”

“Sure I am.” He laughed again. “It’s not like it’s your secret weakness or something. You never notice these things when you’re focused on something, they just bother you when you’ve got nothing else on your mind.”

Herrera clapped her hands together and said, “In that case we might as well get started so Helix has something to think about besides coffee pot feng shui.”

Mosburger and I took seats in the kitchen chairs, which also looked like well worn second-hand furniture from somewhere, and settled in. We started by retreading over what I’d heard that morning. A break-in at the Project, relocation, a possible lead on the Firestarter. I turned Herrera’s books back over to her at that point and said, “While I’ll admit that these look like they could be the source of the Firestarter’s name for himself, and we should probably talk to Analysis about relabeling him as the Enchanter just for simplicity’s sake, I’m not sure that this really helps us in our primary goal, finding Circuit and throwing him in jail.”

“Except,” Mosburger held up a pile of paper that he had been skimming through, “that Circuit implied in his phone call last night that he was interested in the Firestarter. Or the Enchanter, or whatever you want to call him. He mentions it at least twice in this transcript, and I haven’t even finished it yet.”

“What are the odds it’s just some sort of red herring?” Bergstrum asked. “Circuit does that kind of overcomplicated psychological thing from time to time. Are we sure he wasn’t just trying to distract us from something else he’s up to? Has anyone followed up the theft that put Gearshift and his buddies on him in the first place?”

“Apparently he stole a grad student’s senior thesis project,” Mosburger said. “I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, I haven’t gotten the report on how Clark Movsesian managed to track Circuit from Texas back to his warehouse in the city, but I am fairly certain that it’s not directly related to the Firestarter. There’s no practical use for a miniature hydroelectric turbine around here.”

Jack leaned back in his chair and scratched at his chin absently. “I followed up the phone trace Forensics was running while Helix was chatting with Circuit last night. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to help us any. It was either routed through a labyrinth that puts the Greeks to shame or somewhere along the line Circuit hacked things so he could make it look like the call was coming from wherever he wanted. Forensics says they traced it to the Island of Malta, San Antonio, LA and a couple of other places. It even showed as originating in the building at one point.”

Bergstrum sat up a bit straighter. “Could he have called while he was already inside?”

“Service is spotty through most of the building,” I said. “Shelob keeps it that way to help enforce the no outside networks policy.”

Jack got up and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Here’s what I don’t understand. Why did Circuit offer to cooperate with us if he was just planning to steal our files on the case and run off with them?”

I turned in my chair so I straddled the back and held out a hand. Jack handed me the coffee and filled another. Herrera waved for a cup too, so he wound up pouring a third. After a fortifying draught of caffeine I said, “Circuit’s the classic chess master. It’s unlikely he’d just ask us for information without planning what to do if we didn’t hand over what he wanted the easy way. What I don’t understand is how he knew where to go in the first place. The office is a secret government installation. It’s not like we’re listed in the yellow pages.”

“I asked Voorman if there were any leads on that.” Herrera paused to sip from her coffee and grimace, I wasn’t sure whether that because she didn’t like the drink or what she was about to say. “Apparently he’s put Agent Sanders on that inquiry, but the exact details, leads, sources, that kind of thing are all hush-hush so far. Officially so as not to compromise the investigation.”

Unofficially so as not to make Voorman or anyone else look bad. “As much as I’d like to follow that up, it’s out of our hands,” she said aloud, handing the much battered and worn books I’d just returned to her on to Mosburger. “Pritchard, take these in to Analysis as soon as you get the chance, see if that gives you getmen any insight into what the Enchanter is going to do next. I talked briefly to Agent Verger this morning, she’s agreed to keep us appraised of the Enchanter investigation in case that turns up something that points us back to Circuit. The rest of us will look into the warehouse Circuit was using, see if we can back-track it to him.”

“Join Project Sumter, see the world’s paperwork,” Jack muttered.

Herrera gave him a sympathetic look and waved a stack of papers she was pulling out of her messenger bag. “I understand where you’re coming from. This is my little piece of paperwork heaven, forms and regulations from one of the countless Federal departments I’ve never heard of that I apparently need to familiarize myself with.”

Jack leaned over a bit so he could see what Herrera was holding, then raised his eyebrows and exchanged a glance with Bergstrum and Kesselman. Either Herrera missed it or wasn’t curious, because she set them aside and kept digging around in her bag until she produced a spiral bound notebook and said, “I have a few leads I want to try and run down today, and I want to hear any ideas from you as well. But,” she gave me a slight smile. “Not all of us were supposed to be in the office today, back when we all expected to have an office to be in. So if they’d rather call it a day…”

I got up out of my chair, saying, “I think that’s my cue to leave. Will our new offices be ready for us by tomorrow?”

“I think so,” Herrera said as Mosburger picked up the papers she had set aside and started flipping through them.

“Then I’ll see you there,” I said, and started towards the door.

“You know, I had to go through this stuff on my first day,” Mosburger said, tapping one finger against the papers. “They make all the analysts muck through it once. If you can’t figure out it’s a prank in less than four hours they figure you’re second rate.”

“What?”

“The Department of NBH isn’t a real place,” he said. “There’s a lot of strange Federal offices out there, I know I dealt with some in my last job, but I don’t honestly think one of them deals in newbie hazing. Whoever put you on this stuff was probably just pulling your leg.”

I quietly latched the door behind me and quickly made my way down the hall to the elevator. Maybe letting Herrera think there was a massive pile of paperwork she needed to read through hadn’t been the nicest thing to do, but honestly, the woman needed to take things a little easier than she had been or she’d burn herself out. And the NBH stuff was pretty funny. If you knew it was a joke.

Or so I told myself. I didn’t have to tell myself much else because, before I could even call for the elevator, my phone rang. Since I was supposed to be out of the office it wasn’t surprising for my phone to go off. But I’d just been in the same room as most of the people who would normally call me on my day off, and I didn’t think Herrera was the type to call just to chew me out for playing a harmless joke on her.

As it turned out, I was right. The number wasn’t familiar to me at first but after a second I realized it was Aluchinskii Massif’s. I unlocked the touch screen and answered, pressing the call button for the elevator with my free hand. The door slid open as I spoke to Massif. We were done before it could close again, but rather than get on I hurried back down the hall and rapped on Mosburger’s door.

After a moment Kesselman opened it. If he was surprised to see me he didn’t show it and let me shove past him and back into the room without resistance. “I just heard from Agent Massif. The Enchanter hit a fire station downtown today. He says if we want to check out the scene now is the time.”

Herrera’s expression morphed from irritated to businesslike in a split second. It was a nifty trick and I needed to learn it one of these days. “How long ago was that?” She asked.

“Two hours or so, from the sound of it.”

“Does it matter?” Jack asked.

“Actually, no, I guess not.” She quickly shoved her papers back into her messenger bag. “Let’s move, people.”

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