Six Weeks, Four Days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
Helix likes to complain about how Project Sumter has procedures for everything. He once joked that he thought we had to file paperwork just to get a bathroom break while we were in the field. On the other hand, I think that just shows how much of Helix’s life has been eaten up by the Project. Apparently, his grandparents have been telling him stories about Project work since he was seven or eight and it progressed until working for Project Sumter was the only career path he could conceive of.
So what Helix doesn’t seem to realize is that all of life is full of procedures. The only difference is the paperwork is a lot less intense outside of our office.
“I should have asked earlier,” I murmured to Amplifier as we followed Sifu up the stairs. “Can you handle green tea? He’s going to serve it to us and it’s rude to turn it down.”
She gave me a quick grin. “Handle it? I was practically raised swimming in the stuff.”
“All the caffeine would go a long way to explaining your personality,” Harriet said from a few steps behind us. She didn’t seem to be having trouble with the stairs but she did sound a little winded. With a conscious effort I made myself stop monitoring my boss’s physical condition. She was getting up there, sure, but she was still cleared for field work and I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by second guessing her. That kind of distraction could be dangerous in field work.
While my sifu doesn’t have talent in the same way that Amp and I do, he does live a life that’s not that different from ours. Teaching wushu and dealing with talents are some things he does, but it’s not what he does for a living.
Sifu also owns a small store in Chinatown, one of those tourist trap kinds of places that sells a bunch of authenticly made in China bric-a-brac, but that’s not what he really does either. It’s run by a selection of people from his family, mostly nieces and nephews, and his oldest daughter. No, Giancarlo He is an acupuncturist, which means he gets paid to stick needles into people to help relieve their aches and pains. There are a surprising number of people who think this is a good idea and some of them have a surprising amount of disposable income, so he does fairly well for himself.
The top floor of the building where the store is located also serves as his home and office. It’s cramped, but I’ve never one heard him talk about moving out. We turned left at the top of the stairs and Sifu let us into the small treatment room. It consisted of an polished walnut desk with an equally classy chair, a long wooden table with a stack of cushions on one side and a two other chairs. A cabinet in one corner held all the acupuncture stuff and on top of it sat a tea pot and four cups. Sifu busied himself with the teapot immediately, I took a seat on the edge of the table and the ladies took the two treatment chairs.
“Why do you call him Little Mountain?”
Sifu chuckled at Amp’s question. “Because he is as stubborn and unmovable as a lump of rock.” He quickly placed three cups of tea on the table for us and kept one for himself, settling into his office chair with a sigh and keeping an eye on her the whole time. “You do not look like someone that Little Mountain has brought to me to learn wushu.”
Before answering Amp paused to take a sip of her tea. “This is good,” she murmured, setting her cup back down and leaning back in her chair with a look I was beginning to realize was anticipation. She actually enjoyed chatting up all the weird people she was meeting, which was a good thing for her chances of working in the field. “I’m not here to learn wushu. In fact, Agent Massif said he really shouldn’t be teaching me. Apparently you wouldn’t like it.”
Sifu turned to look at me and took a sip of his tea. I did the same through sheer habit, you’re supposed to follow your sifu’s lead on everything when you’re a student and I’d never forgotten it. Of course, I don’t like green tea, so I found myself grimacing at the taste as I set the cup aside. “It’s not traditional to choose your own first student,” I said. “But mostly it’s because you’d start developing a bunch of habits that won’t necessarily mesh well with the training Project Sumter has waiting for you down the line.”
“Unfortunately, to them you will be an agent and not a person,” Sifu said. “Your training will be tailored to their needs, not yours.”
“Or you could say that we’re focusing on giving you skills that you can use to serve the public, rather than skills for self defense and personal improvement,” Harriet said, taking a tranquil sip from her own teacup. That kind of verbal sparring, like the tea or Sifu’s perpetually dour attitude, were just part of the standard procedure for a visit. But they didn’t seem to be making the best impression on Amplifier, so I decided to break with protocol and try to get to the point.
“Sifu, we’re not here to talk about wushu or differences in training doctrine.” I took another gulp of tea in an effort to make up for breaking with pattern. It sounds weird, I know, but that’s the give and take on these visits. “We really just want to find out about a couple of people in the community.”
Sifu sighed and looked into his tea. Being a teacher of any kind comes with a lot of responsibility for someone in Chinese society. In the small, rural villages where his parents grew up a sifu would probably be a part of his student’s entire life, a sort of third parent. By that measure, I’d qualify as a really bad child, since I never call, write or see him in person unless it’s to ask a question. I know it’s a purely cultural thing and you can’t go around bending over backwards to accommodate all the different expectations you encounter in life. But Sifu’s still really good at making me feel guilty about it.
“What is it you want to know?”
“Two things.” I shifted my feet, partly to try and get more comfortable on the edge of the table, partly to try and shake off the nagging sensation of guilt. “First, do you know of any place where a person with unique talents could get his car worked on? Specialty modifications to cut down the chance a fusebox is going to blow out his radio, for example.”
Sifu leaned back in his chair, fingers absently tapping on the sides of his teacup. “There hasn’t been anyone like that local in three or four years. The last fellow was called Wally the Wrench, or somesuch. He actually lived in your part of town.” By which Sifu meant the Polish neighborhood. “He apparently got a job offer somewhere else, though, so now the closest person I know of who does that kind of work is across the state line, in Gary.”
Harriet made a note of that, then said, “Do you know of any others? It’s probably worth following up on them all.”
Sifu set aside his tea and fished around in his desk until he found an old-fashioned Rolodex and started flipping through it. “I know of at least eight, from Texas to the East Coast. Do you want them all?”
“That many?” Amplifier asked in surprise.
Sifu gave her a quick smile. “I know a few people here and there.”
“Well, that’s just it,” she said. “Why are there even that many people in that line of work?”
“They probably don’t do work for talents that often,” I said with a shrug. “But once you do it, even if it’s just once or twice, your name gets passed around. Some of these people have probably gone years between jobs for talented people.”
Sifu grunted, copying the information from his Rolodex onto a sheet of paper. “Just as you say. There are probably a hundred people in the country who meet the criteria you asked about. Eight is not that large a number. It is strange that the only one here would get a job elsewhere. I never though of mechanics as the type to move around a lot.”
“Yeah, that is-” I stopped as a thought hit me. I knew it showed because Harriet and Amp both turned to look at me, but I didn’t want to mention too much about the case in front of Sifu – one of the reasons I keep my distance from him is that he’s really not supposed to know a lot about what I do and I’m not certain I could keep myself from asking him for advice constantly if I did hang around him a lot. But I’d just remembered what Samson said about Circuit possibly having a whole set of replacement parts for his armored van and couldn’t help wondering why he wouldn’t get a personal mechanic, too. It fit with the kind of thoroughness that we, or at least Helix, had insisted was a basic part of his personality at yesterday’s meeting. “Sifu, do you know if Wally left any kind of contact information behind when he moved out?”
He glanced up from his Rolodex. “Of course. I made it a point to ask, since keeping track of those things is what I do.”
“Where did he say he was going?”
“Overseas.” Sifu shrugged. “As I said, very strange. Perhaps he got a government contract?”
“Maybe.” I glanced at Harriet, who waved her hand slightly to show she was following my line of thought. Helix had been tapped by the CIA for some kind of job in Africa two years ago. Rumor was Circuit had been involved. “Give us Wally’s last known contact info too, please. It might be worth following up.”
I finished my tea and made another face. The others could get away with just drinking a little, as a former student I knew I had to drink it all. “Anyway, you ready for the second thing I wanted to ask about?”
“The day I cannot write and answer your simple questions is the day they pour my ashes into an urn, Little Mountain.” Sifu waved a hand for me to continue.
“Right. Do you know anything about a contact like you who goes by Hangman?”
“Hangman?” Sifu laughed. “Of course I do. I’m surprised you even have to ask about him. You people should know about Hangman already. He is quite famous in our circles.”
“You’ve met?” Harriet asked.
“No, we haven’t. I don’t think anyone has met Hangman, he’s quite the recluse. He knows a lot and I don’t think he came by the information in a legitimate way. In fact, I’ve heard some things I’ve never heard about gifted people before in the last year or so, and if you trace the rumors back far enough they always seem to come from Hangman.” He handed me the sheet of paper he’d written the contact information for Wally and the other mechanics on. “Mind you, that doesn’t mean Hangman’s information is correct. I haven’t passed any of it on myself.”
“We appreciate that,” I said, tucking away the paper. “How do we go about meeting this Hangman if we were interested in talking to him?”
Sifu shrugged. “As far as I know, you don’t. He’s an information broker, and people who deal in secrets have a tendency to die with them, eventually. Hangman has tried to prevent an untimely death by conducting all his deals over the Internet. I’ve never heard of anyone who’s met him in person.”
“Have you ever dealt with him directly?” Amplifier asked. “Even knowing how to find him over the Net could be useful.”
“I haven’t, but my nephew Lincoln has.”
That made sense. Lincoln He was the family network administrator, he spent a lot of his time making sure the technology that ran the family businesses was functional, but he’d also started studying wushu with me when I was twelve. In another ten years, if I was still around, I would probably be dealing with him instead of Sifu. “I’ll get in touch with Lincoln, see if he can tell us anything more.”
“That won’t get you far, Little Mountain,” Sifu said, a note of regret in his voice. “Hangman wasn’t unwise in taking all the precautions he did, but they don’t seem to have helped as much as he hoped. From the sound of things, no one has heard from him in-” Sifu paused to glance at something on his desk, “-almost a month. Lincoln mentioned it to me the last time he was through to check on the computer wiring.”
Presumably Sifu was referring to the network routers or something. Since it didn’t really matter I ignored it. “We’ll get in touch anyway, in case Analysis can do something with what he knows.”
“If they do, let him know,” Sifu said. “He’s been quite worried, and I don’t think he’s the only one. While Hangman never said much about how he knew what he knew, he was very fair in making sure people heard it and he’d gotten to be quite popular.”
“We’ll let you know if we find out anything,” Harriet assured him. “But honestly, finding the van armored like an APC that disappeared week and a half ago is probably a higher priority than finding an information broker who disappeared a month ago.”
Sifu perked up a bit. “What’s that? You’re looking for a full sized van fitted with military grade armor?”
“That’s right,” I said slowly. “What about it?”
“I was contacted a week ago by someone trying to find a buyer for such a vehicle.” Sifu pulled out a drawer of his desk and picked through it. “I told them I was in the business of passing on wisdom, not taking commissions. But he did leave me a contact method. Would you be interested?”
I snatched the offered piece of paper out of his hand and laughed. “Sifu, you’re priceless.”
“Why didn’t you mention that before?” Amplifier asked.
Sifu chuckled. “Young lady, mark this well and it will only be a matter of time before you surpass Little Mountain, at least as a detective. He never mastered the lesson, it seems.”