Seven Weeks, One Day before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
Picture this tableau. There is a man, well dressed and handsome, standing in the center of a group of people in the middle of a vicious argument.
To his left, Heavy Water tries to restrain an African American woman almost as tall as he is with one hand while still keeping a hold on the large box slung under his arm with the other. He is having little success in keeping the woman from pushing past him, more in keeping ahold of the container. For her part, Grappler is more interested in yelling at the younger woman, who is safely seated on the other side of the table the rest are standing around, than messing with Heavy. Elizabeth Dawson, daughter of a U.S. Senator but better known to us as a hacker who goes by Hangman, leans back in her chair and fiddles with a tablet.
Who is this man, and how does he come to be so calm when in the presence of these very dangerous, experienced criminals?
His name is Simeon Delacroix, and on those increasingly rare occasions where I stray into my public identity he is my office manager. When I function as a criminal mastermind he serves much the same purpose but without a title, as “office manager” does not inspire quite the same degree of respect from the hard types he sometimes deals with. In addition to doing all the things a normal office manager is expected to accomplish, Simeon is also expected to keep all of my employees from engaging in criminal acts against each other.
At this particular moment, Simeon is wishing he was on vacation. His job is full time and very demanding. His pay, while generous, is not exceptional and the other benefits are impressive but rarely used. For example, he has not had a true day off outside a few holidays for three years. Perhaps he is resenting the employer that puts such incredible demands on his time. Perhaps he is merely daydreaming about taking an attractive lady strolling along the beach.
Well, to tell the truth I’m not sure if he was thinking about a vacation or not. I do know that when I walked into the middle of the scene, still rubbing the remnants of my disguise makeup off my face, he was paying almost no attention to the argument going on. Of course, since I could hear Heavy and Grappler shouting before I even got in the room, it was no surprise. In fact, those two argue all the time, so Simeon and I have gotten used to tuning it out. I had just given Hangman credit for enough sense not to join in herself. But apparently she had.
“-has no right to tell me how to run a job,” Grappler was saying.
“Easy,” Heavy said, trying to get her to sit down. He threw Simeon a pleading glance, but he was busy with the book he had in his hands. Then Heavy caught sight of me and said, “Hey, boss.”
I knew a cue when I heard it, even if I had absolutely no idea what was going on. “We don’t look as ready for immediate action as I usually like to see things when I plan for immediate action.” I placed a hand on Grappler’s shoulder and she backed off a bit, then I glanced over at Hangman, then finally at my office manager, who’s failure to diffuse the situation was truly mystifying. Simeon usually breaks out in hives whenever anyone’s speaking in a voice louder than a whisper, I make light of his distraction now but at the time I was seriously worried because he didn’t pick up on Heavy’s cue, or mine, and picking up on cues is part of his job. “Mr. Delacroix?”
“I’m sorry?” He flipped the book closed and looked up. “I didn’t hear you come in, sir.”
“I noticed.” I waved my hand around at the table. “It doesn’t look like we’re doing much here.”
“Well, sir, that’s something of a point of contention at the moment.” He hefted the book he was holding. “Ms. Dawson has provided me with a very unusual document. After consulting it I decided it would be best if we waited to show it to you before we went our various ways.”
“Really.” I took the book from Simeon, then glanced over at Hangman. I wasn’t sure what I found more amusing, the obvious relief Simeon showed at finally finding someone who was as comfortable being referred to by her real name as by an assumed working name or that Hangman had zeroed in on him as the weak point of the group on their first meeting. Or that she had apparently thought this far in advance and had something prepared with which to prove herself to the rest of the group, which was what I assumed was going on.
I looked down at the book, which was a largish ledger like you might still find for keeping accounts in some office supply stores, and flipped it open. As I did, Hangman said, “You’ll find the part starting on page sixty three particularly interesting.”
“Quiet please,” I said, cutting off Grappler before she could get a full head of steam. Hangman had repeatedly exceeded my expectations before demanding, quite forcefully, to join our ranks. This is not the usual method for joining my inner circle. I was particularly interested in what it was she would bring to the table, and at the same time a little wary of someone who was shaping up to be a bit of a loose cannon. At the same time, Grappler is a very good burglar, a reasonable accountant and very decorative, but she’s not a great judge of character. For example, she married a serial killer. I was not interested in hearing whatever problem she had with Hangman, it would probably just give me a headache and I wanted my full attention to be on sorting out how best to incorporate Hangman into my inner circle without compromising the very tight schedule I was running.
The entries were dated, and it only took a page or two for me to recognize the pattern to the dates. This was a record of all my major crimes for the past six years, nearly three quarters of my career. I looked up long enough to give Hangman a skeptical look. “You can’t have been following me this long. You were what, sixteen when this starts?”
“Seventeen,” she corrected me. “And about a third of what’s in there was reconstructed after the fact.”
“I see.” Looking over a complete history of my activities was not exactly a pleasant endeavor. I’ve had my share of miserable failures, and like so many people do I made the bulk of them at the beginning of my career. To make matters worse, most of the entries were followed by a brief analysis of what went wrong with the operation in question. I also felt I had been incredibly petty in my early days. A large part of that had been deliberate. I knew I would need operating capitol and I preferred to keep legal my activities totally separate from my illegal ones, so funding one lifestyle with the other was out.
In short, I had needed cash and with Heavy’s connections finding simple, profitable employment for my talent had been easy. But it had also been beneath me and seeing it written out in ink didn’t make me feel any better about it.
That only lasted about a year, and thankfully, while Hangman was an expert hacker and information gatherer she was not omniscient and her information from that far back was spotty. By page sixty three I had moved out of establishing basic infrastructure and into the important crimes. It was my second major move against the U.S. Government, my first made with the current long term plan in mind, and it also marked a turning point in my relationship with Project Sumter and their foremost agent.
The plan had been simplicity itself: Try to steal an Apache helicopter using a very elaborate hacking program and remote control device that only functioned because of the way my innate ability to manipulate electrical circuits interacted with magnetism while, at the same time, Heavy, Grappler and a handful of others stole a set of improved armor plating intended to upgrade Army vehicles in Iraq. The helicopter theft would provide a distraction more than significant enough for Heavy’s team to break in and escape and, in the event that I could actually get away with the vehicle, the Apache would make a nice addition to my motor pool. Perhaps as an interesting paperweight.
In practice, helicopters are difficult to fly, a fact I proved by nearly smashing my stolen Apache four times in the space of three minutes, difficult to maintain and not particularly subtle. It’s not as if you can repaint an attack helicopter as a delivery vehicle, after all. But given the base we were stealing from and the level of competence the Air Force in the region could be expected to show, I honestly didn’t expect the chopper to stay in the air more than ten minutes. I overestimated by about seven, but I also hadn’t been counting on Special Agent Double Helix being able to create an updraft so powerful it could toss a helicopter like a stray leaf. I hadn’t even known heat sinks existed at the time. But Hangman had managed to gather all these details together and reached a surprising conclusion.
“You think we could have kept the helicopter intact.”
I didn’t say it as a question and Hangman knew better than to take it as one. “You failed to utilize your greatest strengths in that job. And that’s not the clever distraction or the ability to manipulate electrical circuits with your talent. It’s your skill in information warfare. Why did that base even have working radar when your job went down? You were aware of the existence of Project Sumter by that point. Why didn’t you tap the Army’s communications and watch for their arrival?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps because keeping the helicopter was not a priority of mine?”
“Fair enough.” She leaned forward and gave me an amused smirk. “But that’s been a consistent failing in your operations ever since. For some reason you seem to want to establish your criminal self and your hacker self as separate. That’s a weakness, Circuit, and I don’t know why you have it but you need to deal with it. But as bad as that is, it pales in comparison to your phobia of Helix.”
“Now hold on!” I had expected an interruption soon, if for no other reason than Grappler’s having a hard time holding her peace for very long, but I hadn’t expected one from Heavy. He’s usually pretty quiet at strategy meetings. For once he looked downright angry instead. “You’re obviously pretty smart, since you got the boss listening to you, and he has been for a while. But you’ve never seen what it’s like to have that guy in your face. He turns up everywhere!”
“That’s not his doing,” Hangman said, waving the objection off. “Project Sumter has a whole department devoted to analyzing your activities and sending the right man to thwart them. I suspect they keep sending Double Helix because his ability to sense and manipulate heat gives him an extra way to locate the strange electronics you keep cooking up and get rid of them.”
“The man can burn paper just by standing nearby when he’s pissed,” Heavy said, thumping his box on the table for emphasis. “I mean, did you even get near Diversy Street after the punch-up there? You could smell the asphalt melting for miles! I don’t think he’d even die if you lit him up with a flamethrower.”
“He does need to breath,” I put in. “I’m sure the smoke would get to him eventually.”
“Look, I know that Helix is like a boogieman for you guys. I’ve seen a lot of the stats, even if I’ve never personally been there to see him ruin something. But I don’t suppose any of you could tell me the background and qualifications of the three man support team that’s been with him for the last five and a half years? Or what any of the other Midwest Sumter talents are capable of? Did you even know the name of the woman you killed last week before you went to her funeral?” Hangman shook her head. “Thanks to that, you need to know all that and more.
“Before, there was one Project agent and his team looking for you between other major cases. One team, and you thought it was bad enough that you built dedicated countermeasures for him into practically every plan you’ve cooked up in the last six years. There are fourteen operational teams assigned to the Project’s Midwest district. Do you even know the codenames for the talents in them? And there are seventy-nine talents employed by the Project nationwide.”
“We’ve had our hands full with one,” Grappler snarled. “Why would we want to pick a fight with all the rest?”
“Like it or not, you’ve got one,” Hangman snapped back. “They’ll throw everything they can at you, for no other reason than you killed one of their own. If you aren’t ready to play with the big leagues then it’s time for us to dig a hole, crawl in and pull it in after.”
I could tell that this conversation was going to be a lengthy one, and since Hangman was still seated I decided to join her and took one of the empty chairs. Setting the book to one side, I laced my fingers together and said, “There’s a lot to what you’re saying. Let’s concede that not everything I’ve done has gone as well as I’ve hoped. What does? But you don’t sound like you want to pack up and go home – in fact, as I understand it you no longer have one to go back to.”
Hangman laughed bitterly at that, which I thought more than a little sad. Why a politician wouldn’t encourage talents like those Senator Dawson’s daughter obviously had was beyond me, but his loss was my gain. Since she didn’t seem about to add anything else, I went on. “You obviously think there’s something you can add to the equation overcome most of these problems. Care to share it?”
The look on her face suggested she’d like nothing better. She reached out and thumped one hand on the book. “This is basically it. But I’ll summarize, because these are busy times, and it’s a long book.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t look as bad as some of Davis’ engineering reports,” I said lightly.
“There’s one major difference between you and Project Sumter. Know what it is?”
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “I would think ideology.”
“Personnel management,” she corrected. “Although ideology is a big factor in that.”
“Project Sumter talents don’t work alone. They work in groups, with highly trained support personnel to assist them in using their talent to it’s maximum. They have analysts who are on the scene with them, sorting out clues and picking up on things they might be missing. And they have oversight agents, to keep them from making rash decisions and keep them on task. You have… well, you. You think that should be enough, because you want to prove talents don’t need normal people looking over their shoulder half the time. Problem is, you can’t beat a well coordinated group working alone.”
Hangman shrugged helplessly. “About half the problems you face in the field could be overcome if you just had people to help you with the higher thought functions, rather than relying on the abilities of these two,” she waved at Heavy and Grappler, “to think on their feet. They’re not bad at it, but with you taking point in the field most of the time and no one to coordinate between you and them things spiral out of your ability to control more often than not.”
“Granted.” I felt no shame in admitting to it, I had puzzled over the issue many times in the past with Simeon. “But, at least for the next month or two, Simeon needs to maintain my public face and there’s no one else I trust enough to do such a job. We don’t have the resources of Project Sumter, we can’t simply pour over the HR files from a dozen government agents and ask for the ones we want. Of course, I’m sure there’s more too it than that, but the basic principle remains. How would you propose to solve this little problem?”
“She wants to do it,” Grappler put in. “Apparently she thinks she’s qualified to tell everyone what’s best now that she’s in.”
Grappler hadn’t really approved of the idea of adding another person to the inner circle at all. I wasn’t about to try and explain my reasoning to her, of all people, so I’d just tabled the matter and went about my business. Sooner or later that was going to become an issue, but I didn’t have the time to deal with it right that minute. Which made things even worse, because Hangman’s idea had merit. I hadn’t reckoned on having her as a resource at my disposal when I formulated the current version of the Chainfall plan two years ago. I shot a glance at Simeon. “How soon do you have to be back in the city?”
“Three days,” he said, his thoughtful expression suggesting he was already tracking with my line of thought. “But I could stretch it to four, if we’re willing to take a hit to public sector earnings in the third quarter. I’ll have to miss a few meetings. And you need to be back within six, don’t forget that.”
“I remember.” I thought for a moment, drumming my fingers absently on top of the book. “Then let’s do this. Hangman will have a trial run as control agent-”
“What?” Grappler shouted.
“-for me,” I said, as if nothing had happened. “Simeon, you’ll go up north with Heavy and Grappler on their little run. Hangman and I will go west, and get ahold of our objective there. We’ll compare notes, see whether adding a control operative had any benefits at all and go from there.”
“You sure, boss?” Heavy gave our newest addition a skeptical look, then glanced back at me. “That’s an awful lot riding on one job.”
By which he meant I was the only one who knew what all the puzzle pieces in the grand plan were. At least, that’s what he assumed. I was quickly coming to question such ideas now that Hangman was more than a shadowy presence on the far side of an Internet connection. What’s more, I was the only one who was really committed to the idea of picking a fight with the government, the only one who felt that it was time to end the hiding, the lying and the endless belittling of our talents. But a glance at Hangman reminded me that once again, that might not be entirely true. I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted in. And I was not at all opposed to giving her a shot. “I think we’ll be fine, Heavy. But your concern is appreciated.”
“If you say so.”
That was Heavy-speak for extreme skepticism. “If nothing else, there’s no way that Simeon could go out west with me and get back in time for his other obligations. Hangman has to come with me or the timing won’t work. And as has already been noted, I’m used to having many things in the air.” Heavy looked about as serious as he ever got, which is more serious than most people would give him credit for, but he nodded to show he understood. I could, and would, watch my own back. “Good. Now, get going. We’re running behind as it is. Hangman? Grab anything you can’t do without for the next week and meet me in the garage in ten minutes.”
Instead, she met me at the door, the shoulder bag she’d brought with her when we first met in person a few days ago slung over one shoulder. “Ready when you are, boss.”
I gave her a quick once over. After a brief stint as a wannabe streetwalker she was once again dressed like a pert and perky college student, Her straight brown hair pulled into a ponytail over one shoulder, her face, while attractive, now all over missing persons files going out nation wide. At least her ability to gather information and extrapolate on it still appeared to be working full force. “Then come along. And don’t call me boss, only Heavy does that and only because I can’t make him stop. Do you know what we’re doing next?”
Hangman shook her head. “All I’ve managed to gather is that you’re buying up real estate and 3D printing equipment. So far the connection between the two eludes me.”
“Ah.” I allowed myself a small smirk, it was nice to know I could keep a few secrets. “Well, in that case you’re in luck. This is actually an excellent test case, since in many ways it duplicates your own example a few minutes ago.”
Her face scrunched up in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”
“We’re going to rob from GI Joe, Hangman. The Army itself.”
“Of course.” Hangman laughed. “It’s just like you to get someone shot at by the end of their first week on the job.”