Seven Weeks, One Day before the Michigan Avenue Proclomation
Normally I don’t leave funerals too mad to see straight. But burying Mona Templeton, my friend of four years and wife of a man who had been my friend for even longer, after she was killed in the line of duty a week before was not a normal experience. Sometimes life seems monotonous, but death – that’s different every time you see it. The fact that Mona was dead was bad enough, the fact that she had been killed by what is known, in official government circles, as a conspiring traitor but we field agents tend to call a megalomaniacal asshole just made it worse. On top of that, since Mona’s job was as a field analyst for a government agency that doesn’t technically exist, she couldn’t even be given public credit for all the great work she’d done. It’s not just a case of waiting until the files are declassified before the truth is told, the Federal Government’s official stance was that nothing we did would ever be made public. Being an unsung hero may sound romantic, but when one of your friends become one it looses some of that shine.
But the real kicker was the whole Senate Oversight Committee, that nonexistent government body overseeing our nonexistent government office, putting in an appearance. They stood around and looked stricken, shook hands with the family, mouthed platitudes, gave a dozen and one offhand lies to explain their presence. Then they came and shook hands with me. Told me they were sure this tragic situation would be handled soon. They had every confidence in my ability to see things through. As if they had any idea what the real situation was. As if I needed any encouragement to find Open Circuit, who had been slipping away from me for eight years, who had just killed my friend and fellow agent.
It’s not like I didn’t lay them out on the ground because I wasn’t angry. Or because I had a weird sort of mutual respect/dislike society going with their ringleader, Senator Brahms Dawson. Or even because, for all their inability to see the forest for their egos getting in the way, they were still United States Senators and technically due some sort of respect for that.
It was because Mona and Darryl Templeton, and their families, deserved better than that.
I took hold of that reason, simple but sturdy, and wedged it between myself and my temper and somehow made it through the memorial service. But as soon as it was done I stalked out of the funeral home and into the parking lot, where I found the first luxury car around and kicked it’s tires until my foot hurt. Then I sat down on the sidewalk and sulked. Throwing a tantrum wasn’t helping any, but my dad said it never did so maybe that shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“You’re lucky all the security guards are inside.”
The voice barged into my thoughts, prompting me to come back to reality. I looked up to find a tall, athletic African American man, my former boss Robert Sanders. We went way back, me and Sanders, and the memories were not exactly fond ones. “What do you want, Sanders?”
“To talk to you,” he said, taking a seat on the curb next to me. “Although I’m regretting it more every second.”
“So make us both happy and go away.”
“You know sidewalks outside funeral homes are built six inches higher than standard?” He fished around in one of his suit’s jacket pockets and pulled out a lighter and a package of cigarettes. “It makes it easier for men to come out and cry on them.”
I snorted. “Really?”
“I just made it up.” He tapped out a cigarette. “You listening now, or you want to go break your foot on another tire? I can wait.”
“Since when did you start smoking again? I thought you gave it up.”
“Since Mona died.” He flicked the lighter and a flame popped into existence.
Unreasonably annoyed by it, I reached out and stuck my finger into the flame, barely hot enough to register as a dip in the flat, low expanse of the surrounding temperature. Thanks to my native gift with heat, instead of getting a nasty burn I forced the temperature of the flame back down to a moderate seventyish degrees, extinguishing it. “Don’t use Mona’s death as an excuse for your bad behavior.”
Sanders shot me a look that was pure venom. I met him with my normal sour face. For a minute, to anyone passing by, we probably looked like we were about to start pounding each other. In fact, for a brief second I thought that’s what it was going to come to, and I was okay with that. At five foot three, one hundred and thirty pounds, I was easily loosing to Sanders in terms of reach, weight, muscle and to be honest, probably skill. However I could also bend a two inch thick bar of iron with my bare hands just by forcing it to melt, and he couldn’t. Being able to push the thermometer around has its perks.
But whether he just wanted to avoid third degree burns, he was still a little more into the spirit of the occasion than I was or he was just too tired for a scrap, after a minute or two of glaring Sanders threw his cigarette on the ground and tucked his lighter away. “You know, I said I wasn’t in the mood for this today.”
“I gave it up for Mona, you know.” I assumed he meant smoking, as the statement didn’t really apply to his mood.
“I didn’t.” I thought about that for a second. “Wait, wasn’t that two years ago? Or have you been on-again-off-again when I wasn’t looking?”
“I didn’t know you cared enough to pay attention, Helix.”
“I don’t.” We were dancing around some issue that Sanders obviously wanted to avoid but I didn’t know enough to guess at what that was, so I played along.
“It was actually almost three and a half years ago.” He fidgeted for a minute. “She said I couldn’t stick with anything and I wanted to prove her wrong.”
“So you quit smoking for three and a half years.” I stared at him for a minute. I knew Sanders had been interested in Mona back when she joined the Project. There wasn’t anything unusual about that, Sanders was interested in just about any woman that joined the Project. But Mona already knew Darryl at the time and most of us considered their marriage just a matter of time. Until that moment I’d never suspected Sanders had been any different. “That’s a little bit extreme, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. I guess.” He forced a weak smile. “But that all’s probably pretty boring to you, isn’t it?”
And now he was concerned about me. I wasn’t sure how many more shocks my system could take, especially since I was pretty worn out as it was. So I got to my feet and motioned for him to do the same. “Come on Sanders, you need to get the heart moving. There’s obviously not enough blood going to the brain right now.”
“Funny.” He slowly climbed to his feet anyway.
“Like you’ve been doing any better.”
“My jokes are usually good. Yours never are.” He was still subdued but some of the usual animation was coming back into his features. “Helix, I need you to back us up on something.”
“Alright.” Sanders wasn’t my boss anymore, but he’s entitled to a certain amount of solidarity just because, like me, he’s been doing this job practically forever. Still, there are certain questions to be asked. “Who’s us?”
“Darryl and I. We need you to help us convince the Senate Committee to-”
“Hold up.” I cut him off with a raised hand. “We are talking about the Committee headed up by Senator Dawson? The man who hates me? Who’s handpicked protégé joined Project Sumter and got me as a watchdog to make sure she wasn’t causing mischief? That Committee?”
“That’s the one,” Sanders said with a grim nod of the head.
I laughed in disbelieve. “Sanders, where in all that did you hear anything that makes you think those people are going to let me convince them of anything?”
“Because you’re the talent with the highest case closure rate and most talents discovered in the Midwest. If we go by talents found, you’re highest in the nation, at least on active duty. Darryl’s head of the Midwest Analysis department. I have the most seniority among field team oversight agents.” I snorted but Sanders pressed on before I could say anything more. “At least as soon as the paperwork goes through and I am officially oversight for Gearshift, that new guy you found a couple of weeks ago. The Committee isn’t a monolithic group, Helix, there’s only one other senator firmly on Dawson’s side. One usually sides with Voorman and two waver back and fourth. Getting Teresa into the Project used up a lot of Dawson’s political capitol, if we push now he’ll have a hard time standing up to three very senior agents if we present a united front.”
That actually sounded legit. Sanders is better at political manipulations than I am, in fact he’s been the point political agent for Michael Voorman, our Senior Special Liaison, since he made Senior Special Agent, so I was willing to take his assessment on faith. Not that I was about to admit that. So I adopted a skeptical tone and said, “Right. What exactly are we convincing them to do?”
“Let Darryl join one of our field teams and participate in the hunt for Open Circuit.”
A note for those thinking of joining Project Sumter or any other secretive branch of the Federal Government’s alphabet soup: No matter how preposterous the things that come up in the course of doing you job, you should not scream when discussing them. Especially in broad daylight while you are standing in a public place.
I grabbed hold of myself and lowered my voice back to a low murmur. “That’s a horrible idea, Sanders! Why would we do that? Why would they let us?”
“Because we’re going to-”
“No, we’re not,” I snapped, grabbing him by the front of his jacket and pulling him down to something a little more like eye level. “Listen, Sanders, they make those rules for a reason. Usually, good reasons, and the rule that an emotionally compromised investigator gets pulled off a case is one of the good ones. Darryl’s wife has been killed. If that’s not emotionally compromised, I don’t know what is.”
Sanders retaliated by grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking, which left me a little woozy since he still definitely had all the reach and mass over me. “I know all that. But don’t you think he deserves a chance to see this to the end?”
“Deserves? Don’t give me deserves, Sanders.” I shoved him back a step, or more likely I pushed and he took a step back to humor me. “Nothing in Project Sumter runs on what people deserve. Talents don’t deserve to hide their whole lives, they don’t deserve to have no future in the ranks than Special Agent just because Abraham Lincoln wanted to make a symbolic point a hundred and fifty years ago. Mona didn’t deserve to get killed in the line of duty. But we’re trying to do things right, and if Darryl goes back out into the field he’s going to miss things, make dumb decisions and possibly even get more people killed. That’s not right, and I’m not going to help you two make it happen.”
“And that’s the end of it?” Sanders shook his head. “Helix, he’s been on your side since the day you joined up.”
“I know. That’s why I’m on his now. Whether he realizes it or not.”
With a sigh, Sanders held up his hands. “I get you, Helix. Really, I wasn’t expecting much different. But I said I’d try.”
A group of four other people were coming out of funeral home, one split off and came our way, the other three went in the other direction. I nodded at them, smoothing my suit out as I did. “We should probably get back in there. People will wonder where we went.”
Sanders nodded, performed a similar check on his own suit and followed me back towards the entrance. As we passed him, the man coming our way reached up, as if to tip a hat he wasn’t wearing, and said in a gruff voice, “My condolences, Mr. Hoffman.”
I wavered a half step, giving the man a closer look. He didn’t seem immediately familiar – I’d remember if I ever met anyone with hair that red. Then he was past me, heading down the sidewalk. The rear door of the car at the end of the street popped open and let him in, then he disappeared from view when it slammed closed.
“Did he think you were someone else?” Sanders asked.
“Daniel Hoffman is the name on this year’s fake driver’s license,” I replied, still staring at the car as it drove off. “But I don’t know why he’d know it.”
“Maybe he knows the Templetons, and they mentioned it?”
“Maybe.” I shook my head and started back towards the funeral home. “Not important right now. Let it go.”
I climbed into the back seat of the car, resisting the urge to take my nonexistent hat off. I was heavily disguised with makeup and wig, and that’s pointless if you continue to dress like you always do, so I had given up my hat with reluctance.
“You look strange with red hair.”
I glanced at the young lady who had made the pronouncement. “I would look even more strange if we were pulled over and the police found me with black hair and red eyebrows.” Although I very nearly had to sit on my hands to keep from scratching at the makeup holding the false eyebrows and built-up bridge of my nose in place. Instead, I cleared my throat, trying to get a more normal tone of voice back after the gravelly accent I’d used the few times I’d spoken in the last two hours. “And I’m not sure you’ve really known me long enough to be a reliable judge of whether I look strange or not, Hangman.”
“I’ve been following you a lot longer than you think, Circuit. You look strange.” She absently flipped her hair over one shoulder and began working it into a braid. Even dressed in worn and frankly tacky clothing, the gloss in her brunette hair, manicure on her fingers and general air of good health stood out as hints to her upper middle class upbringing. She was just as out of place in the beat up old car as I was, which worried me as we couldn’t afford any kind of scrutiny from anyone at the moment. There was too much that was too close to completion to deal with complications at the moment.
I leaned forward in my seat to talk to the driver, Heavy Water, a massive African-American man who ran point on most of my field operations. “Heavy, is this car safe?”
“Bought with cash two weeks ago, six states away, boss,” he said without hesitation. “So far as I can tell the closest it’s ever gotten to breaking the law is going a few miles over the speed limit – and I’m not sure it can even do that anymore.”
“That’s fine then.” I sat back in the car seat. “I just wanted to be sure you didn’t use your own unique abilities to find us transportation. Not that I normally object, of course.”
“Sure thing, boss. I know how to lay low.”
Hangman fidgeted for a moment, then said, “So, were you seen?”
“Of course. I could hardly help that.” I gave her a reassuring smile. “But I wasn’t recognized, and I don’t think I will be again.”
“Oh. Good.” She glanced away, but I could see the curiosity eating away at her, so I was prepared for the next question when it came. “What were the loose ends you were taking care of?”
I was prepared for her to ask the question. That didn’t mean I wanted to answer it. For a moment I indulged in cowardice and just stared out the window at the city streets rolling by. Then, finally I said, “I went to pay my respects.”
“A woman who died recently.” The buildings outside were more rundown than when we had started out but as we went along they were slowly improving again. I took a deep breath, reminding myself it was foolish to believe in signs, especially when I only payed attention to those I liked. “She was killed in the line of duty. I didn’t know her personally, but she was a very admirable woman.”
“Oh.” She paused again and I laid my head back on the headrest and closed my eyes. “What killed her?”