“Let me see if I have this straight.” Kevin studied the grim faced old man who sat facing him. “You think that I have some inexplicable ability to – what, make funhouse mirrors using only the power of my mind?”
The other man laughed and tapped the picture he was holding. “You disappear entirely from the camera a few seconds after this. Also,” he shuffled through his pictures as he spoke, “you make a spotlight out of nothing here. From the lighting changes we can see in the surroundings after you and Grappler leave the camera’s view it looks like you can also create a powerful flash of light to blind people. My guess is that you can cause light to bend around you, either creating a small bubble of invisibility or functioning as a lens to focus intensity. The ‘funhouse mirror’ effect is just the set up. Am I right?”
“Mr. Kirishima, during the American Civil War Lincoln found Corporal Sumter, a man who could pick up cannons and fling them, and sent him against Shenandoah, a man who could take a cannonball to the chest and not be moved. Since then talented men and women have served in every conflict in American history, and in every imaginable capacity.” The old man folded up the pictures and tucked them away. “You’re employer heard a German U-boat that was hiding in an ocean current with it’s engines stopped and sunk it by humming under his breath. You are on camera using your ability and we have no reason to doubt what we saw. This is very much not a joke or a flight of fancy. The only question here is whether you have any interest in using your greatest talents or whether you’re content to continue being an aspiring film editor.”
“Film editing is using my talents.” He gestured to his eyes. “Even my unusual ones, although explaining all that would be kind of technical.”
“And possibly involve concepts we aren’t really equipped to understand?” Asked one of the twins, raising an eyebrow.
“Actually, yeah now that you mention it I’m not sure it would really make sense to you…” Kevin absently pushed his glasses up his nose as he thought about it. “Fine. Let’s say I can change the laws of optics.” Kevin kicked back in the sofa and spread his arms in a careless gesture. “So what? I doubt it’s the kind of thing you can duplicate, and not even the Secret Service is secret enough to make someone disappear without raising far more questions than you’re willing to deal with, so you’re probably not here to put me in some kind of secret breeding program.”
“No,” the twins said in a fairly disturbing unison. The one on the left, who seemed the more vocal of the two, added, “Talents enjoy all the human rights of any other person in the United States. The government shuts down those kinds of programs, it doesn’t run them.”
“Right,” Kevin said, not quite keeping a note of skepticism from creeping in. “So, what do you want from me?”
“It’s like this.” the old man got up and shuffled over to the apartment’s small kichen and started rummaging around, looking more like a wise old janitor than ever. “Under normal circumstances this is the part of our discussion where I’d tell you that Uncle Sam looks very poorly on private citizens attempting to serve as law enforcement. Even people like you, with your unique talents, lack the resources and manpower to keep the peace and build criminal cases that can be prosecuted in a court of law. All you can do is scare or beat people into submission. No matter how badly they can twist the laws of physics, vigilantes are a hindrance to a lawful society, not a help.”
Kevin mulled that over for a moment. “Yeah, I guess I can kind of see that. So what part of me is an unusual circumstance? You said you’re giving me a chance to participate, so I assume that means as a Secret Service agent?”
“Yes.” Janitor man leaned back in his chair. “Normally, there would be a lot of paperwork and review involved in sorting out your employment. In fact, invthe past talented individuals were not hired directly by the Secret Service, the management of talents in public service has been left entirely in the hands of an agency we call Project Sumter.”
“I take it that’s no longer the case.”
“No.” The old man steepled his fingers. “A few months ago a person of interest in one of the Project’s cases indicated his intention to cause significant changes in the nation’s policy toward talented individuals and, in the process, implied that with it would come large scale changes in our systems of government.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow. “In other words, you’re looking for a superpowered terrorist?”
“Yes and no. The Secret Service is technically supposed to leave the finding and prosecuting to other agencies. Whether we actually do that with Open Circuit or hunt for him ourselves is something to be decided by people with a higher paygrade than mine.” He found the cabinet that held the cups and pulled one out. “However the Service is interested in building a team of talented people who will be available at all times to respond to situations where Circuit, or anyone else like him who may pop up, might become an issue. We plan on operating on a much different paradigm than Project Sumter.”
Kevin leaned forward a bit so he could get a better idea of what was going on in his kitchen. “I’ve never heard of these guys so I guess that they’re not a widely known agency. I don’t suppose that’s the part you’re planning on changing?”
“No, we’re the secret service for a reason,” he answered, filling one of the glasses with water. “The differences are more in operation and treatment of talents. For instance, the career path for you at Project Sumter would be extremely limited. We hope to eventually have talented individuals at our highest levels.”
“How very open-minded of you,” Kevin murmured.
“Thank you,” the old man said, working his way back into the cramped room where Kevin sat, the water sloshing dangerously as he went. “In addition, we plan to actively locate and recruit talents. Project Sumter knows of approximately four hundred people with unusual abilities currently in the United States. That’s commonly believed to be about five to ten percent of the number of actual talents in the U.S., although there’s really no basis for that figure. It could be much higher or much lower.”
He handed the glass of water to the twin on the left and lowered himself back into the chair with a grunt. “The Project is generally reactive. When some talent does something that draws attention, they swoop in, explain the facts of life, asks them politely to avoid spandex costumes and public displays of their abilities and tells them they can have a job if they really want it. They’re constantly understaffed and overworked and, while that’s made each and every one of their teams very efficient, they simply do not have the budget or manpower to actively seek out talents and recruit them or take steps to prevent large groups of people, talented or otherwise, from forming around troublesome people like Circuit. In the past, that was fine. Now it’s not.”
Actually, to Kevin it just sounded like the burden of police work. “This may sound somewhat naïve, but isn’t reacting to trouble the way law enforcement is supposed to work? You make it sound almost like the Secret Service is about to launch a pogrom or something.”
The old man smiled and said, “Frostburn?”
In response, the blonde with the glass of water gave a practiced flick of the wrist, sending the water leaping up into the air over the old man’s head. Her sister reached out with a snatching motion and there was a soft cracking noise. A second later she held a frozen stream of water in one hand. There was a moment of quiet, broken only by loose bits of ice clattering to the floor, as Kevin stared openmouthed. She tossed the chunk of ice to Kevin, who fumbled it but managed not to drop it. It was clearly a chunk of ice, already melting in the warmth of his hands.
“This is Agent Frostburn,” the old man said, gesturing to the twin still holding the glass. She stepped forward and held it out to Kevin, who absently set the chunk of ice back in the glass. She frowned at it for a second and then it slowly melted back to into a liquid. “Her sister here is Agent Coldsnap.”
He gestured to the tall, wiry man who still stood in one corner of the room. “Finally, we have Agent Hush.”
“Fitting name,” Kevin muttered. “Does he talk at all?”
“Yes, of course,” Hush said, startling Kevin into staring for a moment.
When it was clear Hush had nothing else to add, the old man continued. “You’re free to ask them anything you want about the way the Secret Service has treated them and what they think of our policies and direction and they’ll do their best to assure you that it’s not some kind of witch hunt. And if you don’t want to join, that’s fine. In fact, if you want, we’ll even withhold the evidence of your involvement with last night’s events from Project Sumter so that you can stay off the grid completely. After all, we want your help, not to arrest you.”
Kevin tapped his thumbs together as he thought it over. On the one hand, the Secret Service didn’t seem to have whole lot to gain from staging a ruse like this just to get him to come along without protest. They probably could have just gassed him with something and dragged him off if they were really determined to dissect him, or whatever secret government bioresearch programs did these days. On the other hand, he’d never really expected to do anything with his ability beyond learn all the tricks to it from his dad and possibly teach them to his children if that ever came up. The family secret had been first and foremost just that: a secret. Using it with or for anyone else seemed almost blasphemous.
“To be honest, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help you,” Kevin admitted. “I don’t really have a whole lot of tricks up my sleeve, other than bending light so I won’t reflect it, and even that’s only so useful.”
“Well, normally that’s where I’d say that there are scientists and more experienced talents who have put a lot of work into understanding your talent and will help you use it more effectively. But,” the old man offered a hapless shrug. “In your case, there aren’t.”
Kevin raised his eyebrows. “Not a talent you thought worth investigating?”
“Not exactly. There are 62 different kinds of known talents in the Project Sumter records, and time and money has been spent researching all of them. The problem is, your talent is new.” He gave that a moment to sink in, then said, “You may not think it’s much, but with a little time and creativity, I’m sure we can work out plenty of ways for you to earn your keep. But more than that, having a totally new kind of talent at our disposal? One no one has seen before, capabilities totally unknown? That in and of itself is an advantage you don’t find every day. Circuit’s greatest gift is preparation. He’s always a step ahead of us – but he can’t be a step ahead of you, because he doesn’t know anything about you.”
“Huh.” So if he joined this almighty janitor and his cronies he’d have to be the trump card. Kevin wasn’t sure he liked the kind of pressure that brought with it, so he hurriedly changed the subject. “So the first order of business is what? Grab this Circuit person at his next robbery?”
“If only it were so simple. The Stillwater Sound robbery, for example. The woman you saw is known as Grappler. She’s strongly believed to be an associate of Open Circuit, you so-called superpowered terrorist.” He pulled a sheet of paper out of his folder and glanced over it. “Do you know what she stole from the Stillwater building?”
Kevin shook his head. “Last I heard, we hadn’t even been let back in to inventory things. It’s my day off, so I figured I’d get the blow by blow tomorrow.”
“Four different kinds of wireless microphones, three large speaker set-ups intended for car stereos, a master soundboard for an auditorium and enough wiring to tie Gulliver to the Empire State Building.”
Kevin snorted. “I assume you mean King Kong, since Gulliver would only be as big as you or me and we’d hardly need to tie him to a skyscraper. All that together would barely cost five grand, ten if it was the really good stuff. Why steal it? If he’s this crazy scary terrorist he has to have the funding to just buy it.”
“Good question,” the Coldsnap said, absently folding her arms over her stomach. “We believe Circuit does have a huge warchest at his disposal. We know he’s committed a number of major robberies over the course of his career.”
“Most likely he just doesn’t want to pay for anything he doesn’t have to,” her sister added.
Kevin blinked and shook his head. “I wish you two wouldn’t do that.”
“What?” They asked simultaneously.
“Finish each other’s thoughts. Speak in unison. Be in the same room at the same time.” They laughed but Kevin wasn’t really interested in them for the moment. He took his glasses off and tucked them into his shirt pocket. “So what’s all that for? Is he going to stage the next Woodstock or something?”
The old man shrugged. “We don’t know. That’s just it, Circuit’s clearly doing a lot of illegal things, but with no clearly discernable pattern so far. He’s too meticulous and rational to be flailing about at random but we don’t know what his endgame is and we don’t have the manpower to investigate all the leads. That’s why we need people like you.”
“Okay, old man, let’s put it all on the table.” Kevin leveled a finger at him. “You have a terrorist to find. The Secret Service specializes in protecting U.S. officials, visiting dignitaries and the U.S. Mint, so I’m guessing the fellow you’re after is a material threat to one or all of those. I have a unique ability that you want on your side. Not to sound crass, but what’s in it for me?”
“For starters you get to actually use your talent for something more constructive than staring at a woman’s chest,” Coldsnap said.
Kevin sighed. “You know, since Frostburn was the person who called me out on it and she hasn’t said anything about it since I would really think you should let it drop.”
“You can tell the difference?” The old man looked over his shoulder at the twins, who were also sharing a startled glance, then back at Kevin. “It took me three weeks to figure it out.”
“Why is that so surprising? You told me the Chief is used to test the accuracy of sonar. You say you realize my gift is optics. So why wouldn’t I have great vision to go along with the other abilities, just like the Chief has great hearing?” Kevin tapped the glasses in his pocket. “You never thought that I might not need these?”
“The possibility did occur,” the old man replied. “But I’m still not sure what gave them away.”
“Lots of things. Even twins have unique fingerprints, pore patterns and whatnot. But the biggest thing?” Kevin patted his shirt. “In a cheap suit the weave of the fabric is rarely matched up in any rational way, the cloth is just kind of laid out at random, meaning if you can pick out pattern of the threads in the fabric telling one suit from another is easy.”
“And you can see all that?” The old man asked.
“Afraid so.” Kevin shrugged and gave the twins a grin. “You might be surprised what you look like when all your blemishes are under a constant close-up. Part of the appeal of working with film is that the camera lens filters most of that out for me.”
The old man leaned forward, his expression shifting from the friendly janitor that he’d been all night to something much more serious. In a instant he had turned into someone grim and a little disturbing, like a weathered hermit that had crawled out of his hole and decided he did not like what he found. “Mr. Kirishima. We know, better than most people, exactly how ugly the world can be, and believe me it goes a lot deeper than a little make-up and some stage lights can fix. You have an ability that gives you a unique take on how to improve things. The Secret Service will give you a better chance to use those abilities in a good way than anyone else in the nation. Better than Project Sumter. Certainly better than Open Circuit.”
As quickly as it came the burst of emotion went and there was nothing but a janitor in a badly fitting suit again. He leaned back into the chair, looking suddenly tired. “I’m not saying that wanting to work in Hollywood is a bad thing. There are a handful of people who have gone there and used it as a platform to advocate for a lot of good things, or made money that was used well. But what are the odds that you will be one of those people? Because if you join the Secret Service I guarantee you’ll be on the front lines within a month. The chance to make a difference, and the opportunity to start doing it soon, is about the only thing we can offer you. The question is, do you want it or not?”
“I don’t get to know any more than that before I have to take the plunge, do I?” Kevin asked ruefully.
“Just that we’re the good guys,” the old man said. “If you didn’t want to be one, why go so far just to stop a minor break-in?”
To his surprise, Kevin realized the man had a point. It also gave him one last thing to find out. “Why are you doing this then?”
The grim expression was back in an instant. “To catch a murderer.”
There were a lot of things Kevin wasn’t sure of, but one thing he knew for certain was that this old man was telling the truth. He held out his hand to the janitor and said, “All right, old man. I’m in.”
“Welcome to Templeton’s Avengers, son,” he answered, shaking Kevin’s hand. “You can call me Darryl.” He shoved himself up and out of his chair and pulled Kevin up along with him. “Now, time’s awasting. Let’s get cracking, shall we?”