Heat Wave: Simmer Until Done


“Stop blowing bubbles in your coffee, Helix.”

“It’s an aromatic beverage,” I mumbled. “If you can’t smell it half the fun is gone.”

“Coffee stirrers are not straws.” Amplifier leaned back against the wall of the van and sighed. “I’m not sure what I was expecting when you asked me out but it certainly wasn’t this.”

Bergstrum made a choking noise and quickly set down his own coffee. Jack gave me an amused nudge. “Asked out?”

“I asked her if she wanted to get out of the office tonight and see what we’d been up to.” I shrugged. “Any and all possible misconceptions arising from that are not my fault.”

“You’re a surprisingly devious person, Helix,” Herrera said as she flipped her cards over to show a hand with three tens and took the pot for the hand of poker they were playing, using a box as a table.

I frowned. “You’re obviously a card sharp, so I’d say it takes one to know one.”

“You’re just mad because you’ve been cleaned out already,” Kesselman muttered, anteing up for the next round.

You’re all holding up the game,” Bergstrum said, motioning impatiently for the cards to be dealt.

“And you’re all done seeing how long we can start sentences with the same word,” Jack added, shuffling the cards with his trademark methodical slowness.

“I kind of expected you to be a bit better at reading bluffs, Amp,” Kesselman said as he examined his cards. “Doesn’t super hearing help out any?”

“You’d be surprised the things it does and doesn’t help with.” Amplifier rocked forward again to toss in her ante and take her cards. “For starters, everyone sounds different when they lie, so if you don’t know someone fairly well it’s easy to miss their tells. I’m sure there’s some kind of common threads, but I haven’t needed to be a walking lie detector in the past so I really don’t have the experience to tell you what they are.”

Jack finished dealing the cards and asked, “Bets?”

I tuned the poker game out and went back to my reading, absently blowing bubbles in my coffee until Amplifier got annoyed enough to quietly kick me in the shins, an absent minded kind of point and counterpoint that would repeat itself several times in the next half hour. It would have been funny, except she was wearing the kind of heavy boots you could find at army surplus stores along with a jean skirt and yet another obscure band T-shirt. I wound up wishing I had put on full riot gear instead of just a vest for that day’s stakeout.

That, or just not suggested we invite Amplifier along as an observer.

While I was regretting having her along at the moment, it’s important that people thinking of joining the Project understand that very little of what we do is anything other than incredibly boring. The easiest way to do that is simply to sit them down in the middle of the most boring thing you can think of at let them feel what it’s like. Normally I’d have invited Amplifier along to a meeting with one of the Analysis department’s forensic accountants, but steakouts are in a special class all their own. Judging by her attitude at the moment she actually coping fairly well. She played poker, chatted and generally tried to keep people’s mind off the boredom without being overly distracting.

I was sorely tempted to give her some paperwork to see how she handled that, but she wasn’t cleared for anything I was going over at the moment. Still, all in all I was slowly warming up to the idea of recruiting Amplifier into the Project.

“What are you staring at?” Amplifier asked. I stifled the instinctive jerk, took a second to figure out that  I had been watching Amplifier intently for the last few seconds, or maybe minutes, and apparently it was starting to creep her out.

From the heat in my face I could tell I was blushing, but Jack saved me from answering. “You want to watch out, Amp. I know that look, it means he’s trying to figure out how he can put you to work. He always gets like that before he decides he’s going to rope someone into the Project. Ask Al Massif what it’s like to be sponsored by Helix – it’s different for everyone but it’s always trouble.”

I grunted and smoothed the papers I was reading out flat as a way to buy time.  “It’s not that big a deal.”

“If things are like this all the time a complicated job interview might be the most exciting part of the gig,” Amplifier said with a laugh.

“It could be worse. If you went with Agent Massif today, like Gearshift did, you’d have to spend all day in a van watching a school without the benefit of the human air conditioner over there.” Bergstrum nodded at me, in case there was doubt about who he was talking about.

“There are upsides,” Herrera said while dealing out a new hand. “For one thing, all talents get to visit Charleston, where the national Project headquarters is. You can even tour the historic Fort, if you want.”

“Really?” Amplifier pursed her lips. “Not that’s a real plus for me, although Charleston might be nice.” She glanced over at me. “What did you think of it?”

“I don’t go into the South,” I said. “The Shenandoahs don’t like me much.”

“How can an entire mountain range not like you?”

I ignored the question by looking back at my reading. I could hear Mona whispering in the back of my mind that, yes, telling he to mind her own business was rude, but I wasn’t really improving on that any by ignoring her. Which was true, but hey at least I was getting imaginary advice from someone other than Sanders now. My only other reaction to that thought was to grab one of the blueberry muffins Mona had sent along with us and start eating it.

There was an awkward pause then Jack said, “Play your cards, Amp. Trying to wrap your head around some things won’t do you any good now.”

Actually, I hoped she would never get caught up in any of my private little feuds, but since the reports we’d gotten suggested that Circuit had accessed her file as part of his general ransacking of our network perhaps it was already too late for that. In fact, what I was reading was a summary of the files Circuit had accessed via his backdoor in the few days it had been in place. Considering he was limited to a 3G cellular connection to send instructions and get data out, it was impressive how much he’d managed to do in such a short time.

A lot of it was straightforward stuff dealing with the Enchanter’s case, and I noticed Analysis had officially renamed the Firestarter to help make things less confusing, it looked like Circuit had grabbed all of our reports dating back to the point we were first sure we were dealing with a heat sink arsonist and not just an average nutcase. But on top of that he had poked around some in Massif’s record for the same time period and dug out as much as he could on my activities in the period between our brush in Morocco and the present.

He’d also done a few surprising things. He’d left hints as to where he expected the Enchanter to show up again by running a couple of data sifting jobs on our computers instead of his own, and as a result we knew that ol’ High School 44, where we were staked out, served every address the Enchanter had attacked. Mossburger had already concluded that a school was the next likely target, but it was nice to have the legwork determining which school taken care of for us.

Just to make sure all our bases were covered, while I watched this location with another team, Massif took his own team and another group to a nearby middle school and kept an eye on that. The first arson site wasn’t in that school zone, so it was considered a less likely target, but it never hurts to be thorough. Of course, with four talents, their oversight agents and their tactical teams all committed here in the city we were stretched a little thin, and it was a good thing there wasn’t another potential site to cover. Assuming we were right about the Enchanter’s next crime.

On top of poking his fingers into our open investigations there were apparently plenty of other little signs of Circuit’s break-in running around. There’d been a file full of messages addressed directly to me, each with a timestamp in the title, and instructions to read the one closest to the time his transmitter had been discovered. They ranged from congratulations on finding the device so fast to admonitions to work a little harder.

I’d wound up somewhere in the middle and gotten the message, “As expected. But good enough isn’t good enough for me, Helix. Try for above average next time.”

The techs were still finding traces of unauthorized access in the system, apparently Circuit had been busy with a bunch of other, less blatant activities as well as his obvious ones, mostly poking around in sensitive files relating to cataloging and researching talents. That information was still coming in and every so often the printer that was part of the van’s monitoring set-up would spit out a new printout and the techie currently manning the station would hand it to me. I’d gotten the privilege of looking it all over by virtue of being the most senior agent present, since Mona and Sanders were in the other van, watching the other side of the school.

I’d just been handed yet another set of papers when our techie sat bolt upright. “Someone’s approaching the building.”

Despite the fact that I was closest to the monitors and he was all the way on the other side of the poker game, and he only had the width of a full sized van to fit his considerable bulk through, Jack still managed to get past me and loom over the tech’s shoulder before I could get there. The man can move, and I’m not entirely ready to say it’s not some kind of talent unique to him.

“What are we looking at?” Jack asked, leaning down and crowding the tech through sheer bulk. “That guy, with the packages?”

“That’s the one.”

I edged around Jack for a better view. “Why is it, whenever we see that guy he’s carrying something?” He asked.

“Is that Rodriguez?” I shook my head in amazement. “What is he even doing here?”

“Michael told me that his church meets here,” Herrera said, crowding in behind us. “Classes start next week. Maybe he’s bringing something for the teachers?”

“People still do that?” Amplifier asked from somewhere in the back of the van.

“Apparently,” I muttered, feeling Jack’s question slowly turn over in the back of my mind. Always carrying something indeed. And there was the full U-Haul truck. And furniture at Mossburger’s that came from Rodriguez’ church. Very interesting. But the church pastor would have to wait, he wasn’t why I was here.

I scooted back and sat in my spot on the floor and tried to focus on something else. The latest pile of paperwork I’d been handed turned out not to be related to Circuit after all. It was from the Watch, the department who monitors the media and other sources for talents. The cover sheet said, “Notice: Legal Activity Involving Family of Project Personnel.”

There is some evidence that talents run in families, yours truly being a prime example, so the Watch runs searches that check names in news stories and police reports against databases of Project personnel. That way, we’d know if we needed to step if a talent’s cousin or younger sibling suddenly developed a talent under less than ideal conditions. Ideal conditions being under no stress and preferably away from people who didn’t already know about the existence of talented people, so that pretty much never happens.

After a few minutes reading I realized that this wasn’t a case of some talent’s kid brother getting in trouble with newly awakened abilities. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I realized it was probably going to be several times worse. Elizabeth Dawson’s mother had just reported her missing.

“Sanders’ observation team reports there’s someone approaching the building on their side.”

I groaned, folded up the paper and shoved it in my pocket, wondering if things could get any worse.

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