The biggest problem with trying to keep up surveillance on a building also being watched by a group of people who would dearly like to throw you in jail is that you must observe without being observed. That sounds simple in principle. With the right gear, which I certainly had access to, you can watch a building in close-to-real-time from the other side of the continent. So it was a simple matter to position my own surveillance team a few blocks further away from P.H.S. 44 than the Project’s teams and make sure they stayed out of the way during shift change.
The problem was, I also wanted to be in a position to respond to any signs of the Enchanter’s appearing on the scene. If I stayed with my surveillance team then by the time I could react to any situation developing the Project would already all over the scene and I’d have to somehow get through the inevitable cordon Project Sumter’s agents would have put in place.
The Project is inept and wasteful in a surprising number of ways, but there’s one thing you can say for them: They know how to keep the public out of situations under their purview. It’s pure survival for secret government agencies.
There were any number of ways I could have dealt with a running the Project’s secrecy gauntlet, ranging from the direct frontal assault to a couple of promising but still highly experimental forms of transportation. In particular, Davis has ideas for a creative maglev harness that I think has a lot of potential. But, since you don’t survive eight years in the dangerous business of dangerous villain armed with exceptional abilities without some small dose of self preservation, I’d finally settled on a more practical and elegant solution that was all the better for being unexpected.
I hid inside the building. Thus I ensured I was the first on the scene and avoided being cordoned out in one fell swoop.
Now it was more complicated and difficult than I make it sound, and it was also very uncomfortable and tedious. There was a lot of careful electronic manipulation and old-fashioned skullduggery involved. It was a great exercise in the kind of stealth and intrusion skills that I don’t use as often as I should, what with my having Heavy Water around to rely on. And, of course, it all went beautifully and I was never noticed in spite of all that was being done to ready the school for classes the next week. I could say more about it but I’d rather not bore anyone.
Suffice it to say that my injured hand and shoulder got both rest and exercise, enough to feel reasonably healed and useful by the end of my stay, and I got to know the school building very, very well. The building got a few new little additions that made my life easier as well. Things weren’t the best they could be, but only because hygiene can’t always be a top priority in my line of work. One of the things most people don’t think about when considering a career in supervillainy.
Actually, the worst part was the boredom. During the day I mostly confined myself to the basement of the building, a labyrinth of storage rooms, furnace equipment and half-forgotten junk. I passed some time working by mobile device, but there limits to what I could do down there. I managed to catch a little sleep, but maintenance workers were in the area enough that it wasn’t very restful. At nights I prowled the school building and prepared for the Enchanter’s arrival. Heavy and Grappler took turns phoning in status updates.
By Thursday I was getting restless. I was still sure that I was in the only logical location for the Enchanter’s next arson, but I was beginning to worry about moving things from Location Ten to the Chainfall site. Davis was a great engineer but only an average project manager, and for the duration of the Enchanter’s mischief Simeon was in town and thus away from the site. Regardless of who got the Enchanter, I suspected that my activities for the last few weeks were moving me up Sumter’s priority list, and that meant Chainfall, my next move in the ten year plan to deal with them, had to be ready before they figured out what I was up to. And I had scheduled my face to face meeting with Hangman for late the following week. It would be nice to finish with the Enchanter before then.
The handful of specialized subsystems I’d brought with me when I snuck into the school the second time were all in place by that point. And I know what you’re thinking, why not just install the surveillance package with everything else? The short answer is, because my surveillance systems went into the public areas of the building and for the most part, the rest did not. It was better to have a cover in place beforehand than try to improvise something if I was discovered sneaking around in tactical gear in the middle of the night. Even with everything in place, preparation always pays, so that evening I went out to check on things. After all, there was always a chance that something had been discovered or just moved out of place during the day’s activity.
First I called all three elevators in the building down to the basement. I was fortunate that the building had been renovated after accessibility regulations made elevators mandatory in multistory government buildings. Not because I needed them but because they were access points. I’d spliced into the power supply cables in each elevator so that I could draw power for my equipment directly from the building, instead of draining the far more limited supply in my vest and newly finished battery belt. When combined with a clunky but serviceable pair of electromagnetic boots it also became possible for me to climb up or down the elevator shaft, offering a way to move between floors that most people wouldn’t immediately notice and wasn’t covered by any of the observation equipment that came with the building or that Project Sumter had installed.
Once I was sure those were still in place and functional, the next step was to check that the splices I’d slipped into the Project’s surveillance equipment were still in place, so that I could replace live footage with canned recordings of empty hallways should the need arise. With that done I was left with the options of going down to the cafeteria and finding something to eat or braving the lingering heat on the rooftop long enough to check on the large electromagnets I’d left there, part of my countermeasure for prolematic heat sinks.
Since the route I’d taken around the school that evening left me near the offices I decided to cut through to the back access ladder and hit the roof first.
Offices might be a bit of a generous term for the schools administrative area. That part of the building was nestled into one corner of the top floor. The principle had his own office, since rank has its privileges, but most of the rest of the teachers just had cubicles along a narrow hallway, with Barry the secretary’s desk standing sentinel at one end and the other leading into a small back area with a kitchenette and a maintenance closet. Two hallways lead into the area and both opened into the small reception area where Barry normally lurks, so getting from the hall I was in to the hall I wanted should have been a simple matter of opening a door and turning a corner.
Instead, when I stepped into the office I found a man piling packages onto Barry’s desk. For a second we just stared at each other, two men with no business being in the building, each trying to figure out who the other was and what to do about it. I recovered first and snatched my pistol out of its holster, backpedaling a step just in case he decided to make an ill-advised grab for the weapon. In my line of work it’s widely understood that in close quarters guns belong to whoever wants them most, and while my instincts told me that pastor Rodriguez was retired from the street life that didn’t mean his instincts were entirely gone.
And hard as it was to believe, it was the pastor again. He had a huge sack with small boxes spilling out of it in one hand and a pile of greeting card envelopes sat on the desk near at hand. I wasn’t sure how he had made it past my surveillance and gotten into the building, but there he was and no point denying it. I had no idea what to do with him.
I was grateful that I had decided to go with a loose mask to cover the bottom half of my face, which, along with the fedora that was a standard part of my operating gear, removed just about any chance of being identified as the electrician from earlier in the week. That could have gotten awkward. “You know, if you’re the arsonist everyone’s been gossiping about recently I have to say you’ve come undersupplied,” Rodriguez said.
“Funny,” I said on reflex. “I was just thinking most arsonists don’t bring greeting cards for their victims to the scene of the crime. They don’t usually last long enough to be an efficient use of resources.”
“I don’t know about you but I came in through the front door,” Rodriguez said with a huff. “If you want to call the police and see which of us can give a better explanation for our being here that’s fine with me.”
That was a solid comeback but it only worked out if we were on even footing, and I suspected that the pastor was not the kind of man to carry a gun anymore. “A counter offer. How about you put that bag on the ground and have a seat behind that desk for the moment, and no one has to the ER tonight,” I said. With a sigh Rodriguez did as I asked. “Keep you hands on the desk, please.”
So far, my Hispanic friend had given no indication of recognizing me and was fairly compliant, both of which were good. I took a moment to check my phone and found that I had missed a call, probably blocked by the elevator shaft I was in a few minutes ago. I slipped the phone back into it’s belt pocket and used a twitch of talent to activate my Bluetooth headset and call Grappler back. She picked up almost immediately.
The first thing she said was, “You didn’t pick up.”
If it had been almost any other situation I would have been annoyed by the demanding tone in her voice, but on a job like this pretty much any deviation from the expected was an emergency. “I was in a part of the building with no signal,” I said, carefully choosing words that wouldn’t hint at exactly where I’d been in case Rodriguez hearing it made a difference. “I apologize.”
“There’s someone in the building with you,” Grappler said, wisely choosing to stick to business rather than lecturing me for not calling back sooner.
“I just found him.” Rodriguez raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. “He’s not our man. Stay on the lookout for new arrivals. I’ll be here, keeping an eye on our new friend, so you should be able to reach me without difficulty.”
“Fine. Be careful, Circuit. I never will understand why it’s always gotta be you doing these things, but keep in mind that as long as you’re sticking your neck out like that all our jobs are on the line.” The line went dead.