Heat Wave: System Check

Circuit

Here’s how to ruin a school system: Start by insisting that you want higher standards, and that to do this you want the best teachers possible. Then, hand over the task of finding and training good teachers to a panel of experts, let them organize and create a group of teachers devoted to increasing influence of teachers in the educational process. Allow them to extort money from all of the teachers in the system, which they can then turn around and “invest” into the political system, preferably in support of you, so you can help them “improve” the schools. Then, place more money and privileges in the hands of your cronies.

Allow this feedback loop to repeat until you enjoy total dominance of the political situation. Like all cogs in a machine, the schools that serve as your foundation of power will eventually wear down to nothing, the teachers will be instruments focused on ensuring your continued dominance and their continued easy life, and anyone who cares enough about the schools as schools to attempt reform will be jeered and persecuted until they quit assuming they are not outright fired.

The end result of this process is P.H.S. 44. It was originally an elementary school but was remodeled about twenty years ago and now serves as a high school. The facilities are old, the staff live in the suburbs with no idea what their students face day to day and no one really thinks much about the students who attend it. Certainly not their parents, either busy working two jobs apiece to make ends meet or looking to live off the dole for as long as possible. Assuming they aren’t stoned all the time.

Yet, grim a place as it is, the school is still the only shelter most of those kids have against an equally unfortunate neighborhood. Gangs, drugs and violent crime may seem like mundane problems to someone who can force electricity to do his bidding, but the fact is mundane problems can kill you just as well as exotic ones. And they’re more likely to do it, since there are more of them.

So, in short, if the Enchanter wanted to create a generation of instant orphans he couldn’t do much worse than burning their high school to the ground. They might even praise him for it.

But if the Enchanter could exploit the slipshod nature of the inner city schools to his own ends, so could I. In my case, starting with two magic words.

“No charge?” The secretary, or receptionist, or whatever politically correct thing he was, looked up from the papers I’d handed him.

“That’s right. It’s a factory recall for light sockets.” I tapped the small picture of the part in question, up in the top right hand corner of the page he was holding. “A bad batch of wiring makes them prone to sparking and starting fires. We’re going around and checking all the local schools to see if anything needs replaced.”

The secretary didn’t look like a very bright individual but he apparently paid enough attention to what was going on around him to figure out when things broke with routine because he gave me a hard look and said, “You’re not with the usual contractor, are you?”

“Hoffman Electronics was hired as a subcontractor on this job. If you want to know more than that, you’d have to talk to my boss yourself. Or your usual contractor  whichever you prefer. All I know is there are a lot of schools to cover, so if we weren’t here it’d be much less likely to the job’s finished before classes start next week.”

“Wouldn’t that be just perfect,” the man muttered, suggesting he found it the opposite. “Well, whatever. Are you going to need access to the whole building?”

I pretended to shuffle through my papers for a minute, making it look like I wasn’t sure. “Well, it looks like I’ll only need to check the larger rooms like the gymnasium and the cafeteria. Luckily the building got passed over in the last wave of remodeling, otherwise I’d probably have to check every light in all the hallways. Oh, and I’ll have to go on the roof, unless you can tell me the make of the light fixtures you have up there.”

He grimaced. “I didn’t even know we had lights on our roof.”

“It’s a safety requirement, I believe.” I flipped the papers flat onto my clipboard and smiled slightly. “Are there some keys I could borrow?”

The secretary apparently took my tone to be condescending because he looked a bit offended. “We only got one set, and they’re out already. But…”

He got up and walked around his desk and past me to lean out the door. “Hey, Izzy!”

There was a moment’s wait and I used the opportunity to work my way to one side, so I could see around my belligerent companion and down the hallway. Much to my surprise a young Hispanic woman stepped out of one of the classrooms down the hall from the offices we were in and waved. “Still here, Barry. What’s up?”

Barry waved her down the hall. Her shoulders slumped in resignation and she made the trudge over to us with the kind of resigned shuffle you only see in teens who have agreed to do something they’d really rather not, which was my first clue that I’d overestimated her age. The simple tank top, battered, undecorated jeans and grubby bandanna over her hair were more what you’d expect from a middle aged cleaning lady but her posture, attitude and wary-in-the-face-of-authority expression were pure teenager.

She was solidly built, perhaps a little squat, probably an athlete of some sort but with the kind of prominent cheekbones and fine features that her peers would kill for. The look Barry gave her as she walked over was somewhere between an impending sexual harassment lawsuit and a prelude to statutory charges, depending on how old Izzy actually was. Her reluctance to step over to the office was suddenly much clearer.

Many people in entrenched institutions can come to feel that they are entitled, not just to their position in that institution, but to the people they are in charge of. This can frequently lead to their overstepping themselves in very nasty ways. People will protest that this kind of thing is rare, but that’s small comfort to those who are taken advantage of.

I shoved those thoughts, and one or two bad memories that went along with them, to one side. The problem with personal experience is that you, personally, are a very small sample size. Many, if not the majority, of the things you’ll experience in your life are abnormal and thus a bad measuring stick for judging new things. I knew that Barry was more than likely a normal man in a normal job who had never developed the self-control necessary not to leer at any attractive woman he saw.

I also knew that the surveillance systems I was about to install around the school didn’t have to be removed immediately.

Secure in the knowledge that I could Big Brother the school’s secretary and, if need be, ruin his life so completely his grandchildren would feel it, I dismissed the matter from my mind. Arriving at that decision took no longer than it did for Izzy to walk the length of the hall and give Barry one of those pointed looks girls of her age are so very good at. Barry just jerked a thumb at me, his expression back to bored and apathetic. “This guy’s here to work on the lights. You and your dad will have to share the keys with him.”

With that helpful introduction out of the way, he turned around and went back to his desk. The girl rolled her eyes behind his back and waved for me to follow her out of the offices. In the back of my mind I wondered if there really was only one set of keys or if this was some sort of bizarre revenge for interrupting Barry’s work day. But there was nothing I could do about it either way so I obligingly trailed along a few paces behind, trying to get a feel for the building with my eyes while feeling out the girl with a few questions. “So, do you work here?”

She laughed and shook her head. “I could, couldn’t I? But not me, the system doesn’t really like hiring people who are under the age of eighteen.” Well, there was one question answered. “My papa is pastor of Diversy Street Evangelical, we rent the auditorium on Sunday to hold services. We volunteer to help clean the building, especially during the summers.”

I raised my eyebrows. “So this is your summer vacation?”

“No, that was last month. This is just filling time until classes start.” She shrugged. “There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.”

“True enough.” It did raise another interesting question, though. If there was a large group of these people here it could create difficulties. I was wearing a disguise, courtesy of the many talents of Simeon Delacroix, that involved a slight change to the shape of my nose, general darkening of my skin tone and wig of coarse black hair that made me look very different. But if I was seen by enough people it could still be a problem. “So how does this cleaning thing work? Do a bunch of you just swarm over the building on Saturdays?”

“During the school year, that’s what we usually do. But during the summer we’re a bit more relaxed. Like today, it’s just me, the middle sister,” she paused just long enough to wave to a similar looking girl around the age of twelve pushing a mop along a classroom further down the hall from where she started out, “and my papa. We’re mostly mopping the classroom floors.”

She led me into a classroom at the far end of the hall where a large man was unstacking desks and arranging them in rows. The faint smell of floor cleaner filled the air. “Hey papa, this guy needs to borrow the keys!”

The man placed a desk at the end of a remarkably neat row and straightened up. A good look was all I needed to be sure of one thing- the girl was in no danger from the school secretary. Barry would have to be an idiot to attract to attract this man’s wrath, and while Barry struck me as lazy he didn’t seem stupid.

The father was a huge man, not quite as tall as Heavy but just as, well, heavy. He was wearing a simple, sweat stained, red short sleeved shirt that let me see tattoos winding up his arms, the kind of markings that put one in mind of street gangs, and he had the weary look of a man who had been there and seen that. The hard look he gave me as he walked over warned me that, pastor or no, he hadn’t lost his street smarts. Or maybe that was just because I was standing near his daughter. I resisted the urge to inch away from her, it probably wouldn’t have helped matters.

The man held out his hand and I shook it, hoping I’d come back with all fingers. To my surprise, while he had a firm grip is wasn’t the kind of knuckle mashing vise you might expect from a man his size. “I’m pastor Manuel Rodriguez, I see you’ve met my daughter Isabel. You’re here to work on the building?”

“Not just yet,” I said. “I’m actually here to do an assessment, see how much needs to be done, the real work will probably be handled tomorrow or the day after.” I went on to give the whole song and dance about faulty lights and fire hazards again.

By the time I was done, Rodriguez was nodding thoughtfully. After another moment’s contemplation he said, “Well, I think we’ve got all the rooms we’ll need access to today unlocked already.” He fished a set of keys out of his pocket and handed them to me. “Take them for now, we’ll come find you when it’s time for us to lock up.”

I took the keys with a grateful smile, although I wasn’t really happy with the idea of someone walking in on me in the middle of my work, a little apprehension to keep you on your toes is never a bad thing. I’d just have to deal with it. “Sounds like a fair deal. Thanks, Mr. Rodriguez.”

The pastor smiled, and this time it reached his eyes. Maybe he wouldn’t be a problem after all.

——–

Of course, what I really wanted was to establish surveillance on the school building, and with the help of a very small earpiece and Grappler, back in the van, I was able to set up a couple of dozen tiny cameras throughout the building, inside and out. It took most of the day, but I got finished about an hour after Rodriguez and his daughters locked up their rooms and left. If the school secretary ever thought it strange that no one followed up the work order I was supposedly carrying out, it didn’t come up in the time we watched the school.

The day after I finished setting up my surveillance and settled in to watch, Project Sumter arrived and set up. I had expected them, although the device I had planted in their network to leech off their files had been found and deactivated the day before, while I was out playing electrician, so I had no notice they were coming. Still, it wasn’t surprising. I have only a partial understanding of how they work, but what I’ve seen tells me that, at the very least their superior manpower makes cracking cases as easy for them as it is for me.

Also, I had deliberately left some electronic footprints to point them here, and to a few other possible target schools nearby. I didn’t have the resources to cover everything, and it’s always nice to have a backup plan. Heavy and Grappler both pointed out to me that a backup plan that want’s to take the lot of us and throw us in jail is not exactly an optimal choice, but then, that’s life, isn’t it?

By the end of the day on Tuesday everyone but the Enchanter was gathered around the school. There was nothing left but the waiting.

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