I woke up in the back of an ambulance feeling like I’d just lost an epic, two hour Vale Tudo match with Bruce Lee. Or, at least, I was sore all over and I was pretty sure I’d been whacked by something the size of a freight liner. At the moment we weren’t moving and there wasn’t anyone in the back with me, so I obviously wasn’t in very bad shape. Sitting up was a chore but it didn’t really hurt as such. All I could feel a deeply seated ache in what felt like every joint of my body.
Once I was sitting up the next step was standing, which was more of the same except with the added fun of guessing whether my legs would hold up under my weight. They didn’t on the first two tries but the third time worked it’s usual magic and I managed to totter to the back of the ambulance and let myself down to the pavement.
The EMTs had parked about a block from the school, well beyond the point where the pavement had been ruined. There was a swarm of official looking vehicles scattered around, along with reporters, photographers, cameramen and members of the general public standing in an unruly fashion just beyond the police cordon. I couldn’t see anyone I recognized but I could hear Herrera’s voice around the front of the vehicle.
As I shuffled around the side of the vehicle I realized I wasn’t wearing shoes. That was a mixed bag. Shoes are generally uncomfortable cesspools of deadly fungus, but I was too tired to pick my feet all the way up off the ground and the asphalt was prickly. Herrera was talking to a man who looked like an EMT but as soon as she spotted me coming along the side of the vehicle she broke off and turned to face me.
“Where are my shoes?” I demanded before she could say anything.
“They got stuck in the pavement when you melted it back into tar.” Herrera turned and waved back down the road towards the school building, where the blacktop rippled like a pond in a light wind. “Looks like they ripped right off your feet. Mossman thinks that’s why you were grounded enough to get struck by lighting.”
“I’d bet you twenty bucks that’s got nothing to do with it,” I snapped. “Where’s the Enchanter?”
“In custody. Voorman showed up with a couple of cold spikes on loan from somewhere to keep him from causing trouble until a properly cooled and insulated holding facility could be made available.” She waved back in the general direction of the school building. “Most of the rest of our people are scouring the building. We’ve already found a lot of surveillance equipment that we didn’t place there.”
“I’ll bet.” I sucked in a deep breath and asked, “Where’s Mona?”
A flicker of grief passed over Herrera’s face. Barely noticeable on most people. For her, a dangerous crack in the walls of professional calm and control she projected. “She’s dead, Helix. They couldn’t revive her.”
I slammed my fist on the side of the ambulance once. Some part of that made my legs buckle and I wound up sitting on the ground, leaning against the side of the vehicle. The Herrera and the EMT clustered around, peering down with concern. “Sir, you’ve taken quite a beating tonight,” the EMT said. “You need to take it easy. We’d like to keep you overnight for observation.”
“We were just about to send you off when you woke up,” Herrera added.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I know the magic words.” They exchanged a mystified glance. “I refuse treatment.”
She made an exasperated noise and shook her head. “Helix, you can play a macho man if you want but as your supervisor I can take you off this case until you’re cleared by a doctor. If they want to keep you overnight, they’re going to do it one way or another.”
“Herrera, you don’t need me to tell you how big of a mess this is. Just look at the street down there,” I tilted my head back towards the school, “and you’ll know. An up and coming agent like you can’t afford to be taking half measures right now, you need every hand you can get on this.”
She broke eye contact for just a second, a quick flick of the eyes down and to the side, but it was enough to warn me. “Then maybe we’ll have to take it slow on this one, Helix. There’s enough gone wrong here today, I’m not going to have you running around a major incident scene with a burn mark the size of a dinner plate in the back of your jacket. It’s not just the doctor’s orders, it’ll draw too much attention.”
That wasn’t the response I’d been expecting. An ambitious young talent overseer doesn’t sideline their star player unless a case is really moving slow. Whether things are falling in place or degenerating into a mess, we’re kept in the game. Usually, it takes interference from above or life threatening injuries to keep us off a case we’ve been assigned. Teresa Herrera was the epitome of an ambitious young talent overseer, to the point where I was considering having her picture put into the Project handbook’s entry on the subject.
She was spooked. Scared, even, and probably coping with a lot grief on top of it. Mona hadn’t been on her team, she was still a part of Sanders’ team. But as dangerous as the job is, you never expect to loose someone. I didn’t know if Herrera was just shaken by a death on the job or if she was afraid of letting me hare off and get hurt, shorting her a team member and making her look bad. Most likely it was a combination of the two. But whatever it was, she was making the wrong call. I waved a hand up at the EMT. “You. We’re about to discuss some classified stuff. Come back in about fifteen minutes and we’ll let you know what you’re doing.”
The EMT snorted. “Look, I know you’re from Wizard Central and all, but you’re still mortal. Don’t get a big head, listen to your boss.”
He was belligerent but he also left like I asked, so I wasn’t going to complain. The job does that to some people and they’re entitled. I gave Herrera a meaningful look and patted the ground next to me. “Have a seat. No sense looming up there, those interrogation techniques they teach you in training aren’t quite as effective when the other guy knows what you’re up to. That goes double if he’s used to everyone looming over him all the time regardless.”
She sighed and smoothed down the front of her pants before taking a seat on the ground, legs crossed Indian style. “Okay, I’ll bite. What exactly is so important that you can’t spare twenty-four hours for observation in a decent hospital?”
“Answer mine and I’ll answer yours. Why the sudden loss of enthusiasm? If I could pick ten people,” I held up my fingers and gave them a quick wiggle to make sure she was with me, “I’ve worked with over the years who I would expect to act cautiously under these circumstances you wouldn’t even make the short list.”
“Yeah. I guess I kind of give that impression, don’t I.” She absently tried to smooth away some of the wrinkles her bulletproof vest had left in her shirt. “Do you know why I wanted to join Project Sumter?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Truth, justice and the American way?”
“Ha. Not quite.” She brought her legs together, pulled them up and laced her hands over her knees. “Just truth, really. For a long time…” She trailed off and just stared at her hands for a moment. “My father was murdered and I was never told why. Not until I met the Dawsons and Brahms looked into a few things.”
“And found out your father was one of Lethal Injection’s victims.”
She jerked her head up and met my eyes. “You knew?”
In that moment I could see a scared young girl who had had her life ripped out from under her and still wasn’t quite sure what she was going to do with it nearly a decade after the fact. I silently cursed Michael Voorman, Robert Sanders, Senator Brahms Dawson and every single other politically minded leech I knew. They’d gotten me mixed up in their manipulative way of thinking when I should have stuck with my specialty. I could tell from minute one that Herrera had ghosts, and if I’d thought about it then it would be obvious that they were they key to her involvement with the Project, not some crazy scheme of the Senator’s.
Not that there wasn’t a scheme, but all signs pointed away from Herrera being involved. We should have had this conversation a week ago, and under better circumstances. I tried to give a reassuring smile, although I’m sure it fell flat, and said, “We have some of the best files in the world. And I was on that case, just like the rest of the Project from back then.”
“Right.” She looked back at her hands, drawing back into the shell of calm all those emotions hid behind. “We knew it would come out sooner or later. But Brahms thought I could establish enough of a track record to let me stay even if my background would normally be considered enough of a bias against talents to keep me out of field work.”
“Hence the aggressive pursuit of a high profile criminal talent for your first case.”
“Huh.” I drummed my fingers against my leg. “But the Senator must have already known that the Lethal Injection case was closed. He probably even knew the outcome. Why the need to join the Project yourself?”
She shrugged. “For a long time I had no idea what really happened. And somehow that made it worse. I didn’t even hear that there was a suspect, much less that they’d caught him.”
“He actually died resisting arrest,” I put in quietly.
“I know, he ran across a busy street and was hit by a truck.” That wasn’t exactly what happened but I let it pass. “But for the longest time I didn’t know. And it hurt. I didn’t complain, I was ridiculously lucky in all the ways people helped me get my life together after that and it didn’t seem right. But I didn’t know.”
“Until the Senator told you.”
“It was freeing. You have no idea what it was like to finally know.” A small, rueful smile worked its way across her lips. “I wanted to join the Project because I thought people deserved to have that. That if I was a part of the organization that had left me in the dark all those years I could make sure it didn’t happen on my watch.”
I frowned and clenched up my stomach. I don’t like saying these things, but sometimes they need to be said. “Do you think Darryl Templeton doesn’t deserve the truth?”
The tinge of sadness came back into her voice. “He already knows all about talents. He has the connections to keep on top of the case as it develops. What more truth is there to tell?”
“Just this: When a man does an evil thing, he will be punished. Seeing justice prevail is more than our job. It’s truth, too.”
For a moment she was shocked out of her funk and managed to laugh weakly. “Helix, things aren’t that simple.”
I smiled back. “Sometimes they are.”
I’d totally misjudged her simple motives just because I expected things to be more complex. But too often the simple solution is undervalued. I should have known better. Simplicity is my specialty. “So. Why don’t I want to spend a night in the hospital for observation? For starters, the smell alone will make me more sick than I am now. Also, there are other factor. Are we at Condition One?”
“Not at the moment, no.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Agent Sanders was pushing for Voorman to declare it, conditional to approval by the Committee, but Brahms- Senator Dawson- didn’t like that idea. He’s on his way back to Washington now, probably doing everything he can to herd the full Senate Committee together in time to vote on the issue by the end of the day.”
I glanced at my watch and found that the screen was dead. Since I had just been struck by lightning, maybe that wasn’t surprising. “What day is it?”
“The day after you passed out,” she said, checking her smart phone for a moment. “It’s around two in the morning.”
“And still we manage to attract a crowd,” I muttered, giving the people clustered around the police cordon the hairy eyeball.
“Human nature.” She glanced down at her feet. “The Senator didn’t think that Agent Templeton’s death was the direct result of Open Circuit’s talent. He said he wasn’t going to vote for Condition One, and he didn’t think the Committee would vote that way either.”
I sighed and leaned my head back against the ambulance. Herrera had stopped speaking so casually about the rest of the team. Another casualty’s of the night’s chaos? “I guess that’s not surprising. If we went to Condition One Circuit would be our first and only priority. Senator Dawson has his reasons to ensure we have attention left over for other cases.”
“Oh?” She looked back up at me. “Like what?”
Herrera pursed her lips. “Obviously not.”
Wordlessly I fished the printout we’d gotten about Elizabeth Dawson’s missing person’s report from my pocket and handed it over to her. While she looked it over I said, “Honestly, I can’t blame him. If we were to focus our entire attention on the immediate search for Circuit we wouldn’t be able to look at this at all, and I have a hunch they’re connected somehow.”
“Based on what?” Herrera asked incredulously, looking at me over the top of the paper. “And why didn’t you mention this before?”
“We got it just before we left. And it’s not based on anything except long experience with the general perversity of Circuit’s planning.” I shrugged. “He’s always got at least two irons in the fire and maybe more. Every plan has both a good outcome and serves as a distraction for something else. I don’t know how, but the Enchanter was a problem in a long game that we barely know the rules of. The Senator’s daughter is another piece of the puzzle. If I follow Circuit and we put our best agent on her disappearance, we’re bound to meet in the middle.”
I slapped my hands onto the pavement and pushed myself back to my feet. To my amazement, my legs agreed to hold me up and I stayed upright. “So. Both you and Senator Dawson have a good reason not to pull me off this case, even for a few days of observation. Am I right?”
Herrera bounced up from the ground on the balls of her feet looking annoyed. I think it’s the first time I ever saw that expression on her face. “You’re playing this one awfully cold, Helix.”
“A good friend of mine just died tonight. I’m not cold, I’m numb. Shock, grief, rage, sympathy, all that comes later.” I folded my arms over my chest. “Tonight, I make sure we’re set to find Circuit and bury him in a hole so deep he’ll forget what sunlight looks like.”
“Right.” Herrera matched my pose and upped me a scowl. “And what if the Senator and I think our best agent to find Elizabeth is you, and not Al Massif?”
“You choose the right person for a job. You’re right that it’s not Massif. But it’s not me, either.” I turned and started picking a careful, prickly path across the paving, keeping my eyes out for the two people I knew had to be around somewhere. “Do you know what a taxman is, Herrera?
“Annoying people who reduce the amount of money you make?”
“Right idea.” I paused and rubbed the bottom of one foot on the opposite pant leg, wincing slightly. “But for Project Sumter it refers to the very first talent on record. The ability to take a small amount of the energy from every action that takes place nearby and store it for later use.”
Herrera goggled at me. “What?”
“Now Corporal Sumter, he was strong enough to lift a cannon- that’s what got him noticed in the first place. But he didn’t live in a world with electricity or gas powered motors or even the population density of today.” I gave Herrera a crooked grin. “Think about it. There are people in the world who get a little bit stronger every time you start your car. Or go for a jog. Or even when you take a phone call.”
“Aren’t we all?” I shrugged and started towards the school again. “I suppose taxmen do get tired sooner or later, if they burn too much of that reserve and there’s not enough going on around them to top off the tank. But that doesn’t happen very often.”
“So what?” Her tone was turning patient, like she was humoring me. Since she was walking around with a barefoot guy with a hole burnt in his jacket, maybe she was. “Even if it’s the most powerful talent on record-“
“I’m thinking that’s probably the lightning bolts.”
“-does it matter if we don’t know of any?”
I finally spotted what I was looking for. “But we do. Well, I know three, but you know one of them, too.”
“My grandfather is Sergeant Wake, one of the founding talents from the Second World War. My uncle got his talents from that side of the family.” I wove around a couple of Project vehicles and headed towards a smashed up metal desk that was sitting in the middle of the street for some reason. “You’d know that if you ever got to the addendum in my file.”
“We’ve been busy,” she pointed out. “And your file is huge.”
“Busy is my middle name. Anyways, taxman number three I only met a few days ago.” I came to a stop just behind Voorman, who was standing in a small group of people clustered around a twisted van door. “If you count Corporal Sumter as part of the Project, there were two taxmen I know of who have been on our rolls. The Corporal himself, obviously, and his grandson, the Sergeant – my uncle has health issues so he’s stayed out of this line of work. Both of them made a major impact on the way we deal with talents now, helped create rules for dealing with talents fairly and propelled a number of people who worked with them to later success. A person paired with a taxman could easily make regional management, for example.”
“I don’t follow.” She said, peering over Voorman’s shoulder for a better look at the wreckage.
“Neither did I. That’s why we’re in field work, not Analysis. The getmen make these associations instantly, it’s part of why they’re so scary.”
Voorman turned to stare at us. “Is there a reason you’re discussing this, Helix? I don’t think Agent Herrera is cleared for anything from the taxmen file.”
“Not at the moment, no, but I’m sure that can be arranged. I assume we’ll be reactivating Mr. Rodriguez soon-”
“What?” Herrera demanded.
“-and it would be convenient if we could compare notes without having to try and keep each other in the dark about our capabilities. Especially since, after today, most of them are out in the open anyway.”
“I haven’t heard anything about pastor Rodriguez ever working for us, much less being reactivated,” Voorman said.
Herrera gave me a sharp poke in the side and whispered, “Professionalism,” in my ear.
“Not good enough, Voorman,” I said instead, watching as the man in question made his way through the group towards us. I had kind of expected Rodriguez to look a bit annoyed at being discussed the way we were but he just looked vaguely amused. “If you want us to believe that you should have warned him to keep a lower profile when we were around. No admitting to single-handedly filling a truck with furniture, for example. Certainly no dropping by headquarters to help you interview persons of interest.”
“To be fair,” Rodriguez said, “I do known Gearshift from my work with the city youth. I didn’t know about his talent, though.” Voorman started to say something but Rodriguez cut him off. “It’s alright, Michael. You did warn me Helix had a knack for finding out talents, keeping my secrets after that was my responsibility.” Rodriguez turned his attention to me and narrowed his eyes. For the first time I caught a glimpse of a hard man behind his normally placid exterior. “I have to confess, though, I’m not quite sure why you seem to think I would want to come back to Project Sumter. As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m retired at this point.”
I snorted. “Come on, Rodriguez. We both know it doesn’t work like that. Project work is a lot like a military commission. Even when you’re retired, you’er still technically held in reserve. Regardless, I think you’ll want to come back.”
“Helix, I joined the Project because I needed to do something meaningful with my life after I wasted a good chunk of it.” Rodriguez ran a hand over his hair, an action that looked like a nervous habit. “I left it because I realized that, while it’s a good thing, it isn’t always the best thing. I do more good on the streets, doing things God’s way, than I ever could in the Project.”
I reached over and plucked the paper from Herrera’s hand and held it up in two fingers. “I’m not an expert on God, pastor. But I know a couple of things. First, the Christ your religion takes its name from came to seek and save the lost. Second, he said to love your neighbor as yourself.” I pushed the paper towards him and said, “There’s a man who’s daughter is lost, Mr. Rodriguez. Now you yourself told me you were a father, you’ve been on the streets as a cop, a helping hand and from the sounds of it a troublemaker and you have the training and clearances to pursue this case legally.”
I glanced at the twisted car door sitting in the road. “And you can tear through sheet metal like it’s paper. Why would any god give someone all that and not expect them to help find this girl?”
Rodriguez slowly reached out and took the paper, unfolded it and looked it over. I didn’t wait for an answer because I didn’t need one. “I’ll see you in the office on Monday.” I turned to find Herrera, looking equal parts shocked and mildly disgusted. “Let’s go, I need to find some shoes and have a look at that building. I want to know how Circuit’s throwing thunderbolts around before he gets another chance to fry me.”
“Is there nothing sacred to you, Helix?” She asked, once we were a fair distance away.
“Same thing as for you, I suppose,” I said, pausing to look at the bottoms of my feet again. They were starting to look very tender, but nothing was bleeding. Definitely needed shoes.
“What? The truth?”
“Exactly.” I brushed the dirt off them again and said, “Most people spend all their lives looking for the truth. But when they find some, they just sit on it. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but if you don’t share truth it’s not really worth much.” I tipped my head in Rodriguez’ direction. “He knows that or he wouldn’t be a preacher. But sometimes you need someone to help you prioritize, or things can get out of whack. He’s seeing the full picture, now, he’ll be on message soon enough.”
She laugh softly. “You’re crazy, Helix. I don’t know whether it’s charming or terrifying.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Both, of course.”
“Of course.” A shake of the head. “So, what message is the preacher on board with?”
“I told you.” I spread my hands. “Evil deeds are punished. And while you’re at it, children shouldn’t be taken from their parents. And I need some shoes.”
She laughed again. “All right. Then let’s get you some shoes. Then all we’ll need is some truth and justice and we’ll be all set.”
“You know, Teresa, I had my doubts about you,” I said, starting back towards the ambulance. “But I think you’re going to work out just fine.”