Six Weeks, Six Days before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
Once you dragged him out of his body armor and slapped him in a refrigerated holding room, he didn’t look like much. His codename was The Enchanter and he was a serial arsonist, believed to be responsible for six different fires, plus one more attempted, and we had technically been chasing him when Mona Templeton had gotten killed by Open Circuit. For this reason alone I was not exactly thrilled to find myself dealing with him again.
Unlike the first time we’d done this kind of thing together, I’d worked out a system for this interrogation with my boss. Senior Special Agent Teresa Herrera was about as aggressive an interrogator as I’d ever met, provided she hadn’t taken a liking to her subject, and once we had a routine worked out things went beautifully. I mostly looked intimidating and reminded him that, since we were both heat sinks, there wasn’t much he could do with what little ambient heat was in the room before I’d shut him down. Every once in a while I pressed him extra hard when I thought he wasn’t being entirely honest. Teresa did most of the work requiring patience or credibility.
Of course since the room we were in was about forty degrees Fahrenheit, and she had to wear a heavy jacket and gloves since we were basically just sitting around in it four a few hours, she couldn’t use one of her greatest assets. It’s true that thinking she was just a decorative girl to distract hardened criminals would be a mistake, but since it’s not a bad one to foster in said criminals it’s nice to be able to do that with maximum force. But even if we had gotten The Enchanter to maximum distraction and pressed him with a dozen expert interrogators I don’t think we could have gotten much farther than we had.
He just didn’t seem to know very much.
“Okay, let’s start over again,” Teresa said, standing up from her chair and pacing to the door of the room and back again. Even dressed against the cold she had to be getting stiff and a little chilly. Unlike we heat sinks, she couldn’t force the temperature of the immediate surroundings to stay at a steady, comfortable temperature and, although I was doing what I could to keep things at an even seventy five degrees in a larger area than normal, I was loosing ground steadily. It was already down to something closer to fifty five and sliding fast.
“You decided to commit a string of arsons in order to stick it to us,” she said when she got back to the table. “We are- how did you put it?”
“A symptom of the way The Man seeks to oppress anyone who’s a threat to their system.” The first time The Enchanter had said it he’d practically sprayed spit all over the table. He’d dwindled through angry yelling, snarling and had finally arrived at weary resignation. This is just one of the reasons we rake people over the coals so often, it wears them down until they can’t even remember their prepared lies and the truth slips out by accident.
“So you set a series of fires using your talent in place of normal chemical accelerants.” Teresa placed one gloved finger on an open folder sitting on the table and carefully turned the page. She’d practiced the maneuver for ten minutes beforehand just so she could do it without fumbling. “You thought this would attract our attention.”
“It did, didn’t it?” He sat up a little. “Your spies must be busy, keeping tabs on all the police and fire departments like that.”
“Believe it or not, they cooperate with us voluntarily,” I said, letting a tinge of amusement into my tone. I always think it’s funny when people assume we’re all-knowing and I knew he’d assume I was just gloating. The Enchanter was many things, but he wasn’t very bright. “We are the good guys, after all.”
“You’re a bunch of oppressors, dead set on stopping progress!” A little of the old fire was coming back as he warmed to his subject. “Worse, you’re a turn coat! You’re one of us, man. They’re stomping us down because they can’t let the little man have any power. We got to do something, make a change!”
If he had enough energy to go on another rant he had enough energy to keep lying. I glanced at Teresa and she gave the barest nod, so I goaded him a little more. “So you decided to cause a couple of million dollars of property damage and the death of a firefighter-”
“That was an accident!” He slammed his hands on the table and jumped out of his chair, forcing me to stand up too, in case he was planning on starting something. “He didn’t die in the fire, he fell when he was poking around the building afterwards. It sucks, sure, but that was part of his job, and not my fault.”
I leaned across the table, keeping my voice level with effort, and said, “There wouldn’t have been a burnt out building to investigate if you hadn’t torched it in the first place. That’s involuntary manslaughter, except we charge people with that when doing something legal. You weren’t. So maybe you get criminally negligent manslaughter, instead.”
“Have a seat, gentlemen,” Teresa said. “There’s no need for posturing.”
“Posturing?” The Enchanter asked, incredulous. “I’m the one you’re trying to paint as a villain. Don’t you remember having me shot just before I was arrested?”
I laughed, startling him, and sat back in my chair, leaning back and studying him with interest. “Now that was a true villain at work. Open Circuit. What was your beef with him, exactly?”
“I dunno what you’re talking about.” The Enchanter folded his arms across his chest and slumped in his chair.
“Let’s put it another way.” Teresa leaned in a bit with a sympathetic expression, like she was used to my confusing suspects all the time. “How did you know that there was any Project Sumter out there in the first place?”
“Oh, that all?” He waved it off. “Of course the man’s got some kind of invisible hand to keep us down, am I right? But after the first time I figured I’d better get some idea of how you worked. So I got in touch with some people.”
This time, Teresa threw me a look. While she’d mastered turning pages in gloves note taking was still my responsibility. We were being recorded, but Records is notoriously fickle about letting the recordings out into the wild once they’re in storage, so it’s best to take precautions. Information security is a much bigger deal for us than the average police station. So I made a couple of scribbles on my notepad.
“What people?” Teresa asked.
He laughed. “You think you’ve got a good handle on things don’t you? Well there’s lots of people out there who know about you and aren’t afraid to talk. They told me the important stuff. Who you guys are. Basics of not attracting too much attention when you don’t want it. The glass cannon rule. That’s one you broke.”
I grimaced. The glass cannon rule was a sort of rule of thumb most of us live by. It says that since all but a few talents were just as fragile as normal people we should refrain from using our powers to kill each other. Like most unwritten rules, participation is strictly voluntary, which is just one reason I don’t like it. Another was the stupid name, but that was thanks to the Analysis department, who get to name just about everything and has a mixed record at choosing good ones. Just look at me. But mostly, I feel living by it makes a lot of us more careless than we might otherwise be.
And technically Circuit hadn’t broken it, if you were wondering. Using a gun is fair, even if using talent is not.
“Which first time was that?” I glanced through my own files. “The arson back in late June?”
The Enchanter gave me an incredulous look. “What, you don’t remember?”
“Believe it or not, I have other things to do with my time-”
“A lot happens in our line of work,” Teresa said, cutting me off. “We might not have realized that a particular even was associated with you. That happens a lot, especially with talents that don’t have an open file yet.”
“Even the all-seeing eye has blind spots, huh?” He snorted.
“Oh, we could leave it out of your file if you prefer,” I said. “It’ll probably get assigned to one of the other heat sinks that have surfaced in the last month or two.”
“What?” The Enchanter sat up straighter. Ever since we learned he was sending notes before his arsons I’d pegged him as vain enough to want credit for what he did. It was nice to know I was right.
“Records likes that, you know,” Teresa added, seeing where I was going. “The small stuff can get credited to anyone, so long as it winds up somewhere eventually. It’s one of the prices we pay for a functioning bureaucracy.”
“It was a bank job,” The Enchanter said with pride. “It was supposed to be easy in, easy out. Because there’s no door on earth that can stop someone like us.”
He motioned first to me, then to himself. I just rolled my eyes and he took it as an invitation to continue. “Problem was, I never could get close. There was always someone there, you know, watching it. Hangman warned me it was being watched already, but it was crazy. You were there round the clock. Finally you call me and give me the riot act. Hangman tells me it was probably you guys. How did you get my number, anyway?”
“Classified,” I said, writing down the name he’d just mentioned. I wasn’t familiar with the name Hangman, so I’d have to ask an expert to see who it might be. We’d have to check the timing, but I was pretty sure there was a bank job that had Circuit’s fingerprints on it in that time frame somewhere. The man really does not like to share.
Teresa asked a few more questions before wrapping things up, but there wasn’t anything more of value to be had. We were heading back up to our desks when she asked, “How often do they know that much about the Project before we find them?”
“That much?” I thought about it. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who knew much about Project Sumter without ever meeting us before. But The Enchanter basically just knew we existed, had some basic rules and are willing to enforce them. I’d say about one out of three talents we find know that much.”
“Really?” Teresa frowned. “How does the word get out? I can’t imagine they just stop in a coffee shop and get the latest gossip.”
“Actually, that might not be that far off.” I held up my notes. “He mentioned someone called Hangman.”
“Never heard it before. But.” I held up a finger. “There are people out there who have seen things, and know enough to give new talents survival tips. Many of them don’t even have talents themselves, although like this Hangman they tend to work with codenames. They’re parents, siblings, spouses or really good friends with talents, or they’ve done a lot of research after witnessing something they shouldn’t.”
She looked a little alarmed at that. “How many people like that are there?”
“Well, we can’t require them to register or anything, so it’s really our best guess. But maybe as much as five percent of the population could fall into the category of aware, but untalented.” I shrugged. “They don’t go around talking when they shouldn’t, so we ignore them. It’s not like we could track them all even if we did have the authority to do something like that.”
“I suppose.” She absently fanned her jacket, sweating now that she was out of The Enchanter’s refrigerated cell. “How do we track down this…”
“We don’t. I’ve never really been good at maintaining contacts in the talent community outside of work.” That earned me a bemused smile. “But we do have someone on staff who’s got his finger on the pulse. I’ll kick it over to him, and we can focus on something else.”
“Good.” She took her jacket and gloves off and tossed them into the chair by her desk. “In that case, let me get the real estate records for those buildings we’re investigating. We need to get them broken into chunks before assignments at the meeting tomorrow.”
“Oh goody,” I said, doing my best to ensure my lack of enthusiasm was obvious. “While you’re doing that, I guess I’d better leave him a note.”
“Who is in charge of keeping an eye on the talent community, anyway?”
It was my turn to smile. “Funny you should put it that way…”
The evidence room is usually one of the neatest rooms in the office but since we’d just moved into this building a couple of weeks ago things hadn’t been sorted out all the way yet. And there had been a major incident not that long ago, so between getting the old stuff filed away and the new stuff logged in and cataloged, the boys down there had been pretty overworked.
Still, with all the random boxes on the floor and the desks, plus the bulky gizmos Circuit had left behind at various places in the last couple weeks and the large pieces of heat warped debris that had been pulled out of the area around the school where he’d gone toe to toe with Helix, it felt a bit like picking our way through a war zone. I passed a chunk of asphalt the size of a small table leaning against the wall. Running my fingers absently along it I could feel the ragged edge left behind by the power saw they’d used to cut it out of the road, but the road’s surface was smooth and rippled like glass. Near the center I felt fabric, stopped and leaned in for a closer look. “Is this somebody’s shoe?”
“Helix’s, yes. Hello Harriet, Agent Massif.” The voice sounded like Michael Voorman, our Senior Special Liaison. I looked about until I caught sight of a short, round fuzzy blur that could only be the man himself. No one else in the Project fidgets as much. He shuffles his feet around so much sometimes it looks almost like he’s dancing. Not that I payed that much attention to it at that moment, because he was standing next to-
“Hello Michael, how have you-”
“Senspec,” I said, sliding quickly forward, no longer caring what kind of crap was on the floor so long as none of it wound up under my feet. “Who is that?”
Voorman glanced over his shoulder, up at the strange vortex of movement that had been squashed into human form. I really can’t describe what he looked like, except to say that he seemed to pulse with pent up energy. It washed out most of his features, all I could really tell was that he was big, maybe even taller than I was, and built even wider. Something about it set my teeth on edge and nothing would have made me happier than tossing him into the special lead-lined cell where we kept the really weird stuff.
Unfortunately, Voorman burst that bubble right away. “This is Agent Samson. I’m sorry, I forgot. The Shenandoah papers suggest your two talents really don’t work well together.”
I came to a stop about four or five steps away, watching the anomaly called Samson warily. Shenandoah was the first vector shift on record, a West Point grad who fought in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and after the war spent a fair part of his remaining years studying his own talent. His journals were the foundation for most of what we know about my talent. I’d never heard anything about people like this, though. “This is Agent Samson.”
Voorman didn’t seem to notice my repeating it. “He’s been assigned to the Dawson disappearance. But before that, we need to hand this over to someone. Harriet, I’d like you and Agent Massif to take point on it. It’s suited to your team more than anyone else we have available right now.”
“What is it?” Harriet asked, walking over and gingerly taking a seat on a big box. She was getting too old for field work, in fact she was less than six months from mandatory retirement from the field, and it was starting to show in more and more ways. Almost without thinking I slipped between her and Samson.
He knelt down by something on the ground covered by a tarp and, with a twitch of the wrist, yanked the cover away to reveal a sheet of metal that had been bent and twisted like a soda can. “I pulled this off the back of a van belonging to Open Circuit.” Samson picked it up with one hand and turned it so one edge faced towards me. “What do you make of this?”
I glanced at Harriet, who motioned me down. On closer inspection I could tell that I was looking at the rear door of a van, so Samson hadn’t been kidding about where he’d gotten it. The hand he was holding the door with glowed an unsettling white, a steady vector supporting the door’s weight in some way that didn’t really make sense. The frame of the door had split open from the force that had ripped it off the back of the vehicle and there was something inside the paneling that didn’t look right.
I ran a few fingers along the edge of it, feeling the cool, hard surface. “What is this?” I murmured. “Iron plating?”
“Basically,” Samson said. His voice was deep and surprisingly resonate, like a teacher or a politician. He set the door down and pried the crack in the frame a little wider, pointing at something inside. “See that in there?”
“Agent Massif’s talent causes a very serious case of nearsightedness,” Harriet said, leaning on my shoulder to get a look as well. “For that matter, my eyes aren’t what they were either. What is it?”
“It’s a serial number,” Voorman said. “It matches a set of armor plates stolen from the Army several years ago.”
“Armor plates?” I looked over at Voorman. “This van was armored like a tank?”
Samson shrugged, setting off a gut-wrenching shift in vectors in the process. The man was a walking mass of momentum just waiting to go somewhere, and it made me nervous. “More like a Humvee, I think. But either way, it’s like no other van on earth.”
“So what does that have to do with us?” I asked. “It’s true that I’m about as sturdy as a tank, too, but I don’t see how that helps.”
“Here’s the thing: The van itself never turned up. That means Circuit still has it, and will probably be trying to fix it.” He rotated the door ninety degrees and pointed to the edge again. “But he’ll have to find someone who understands damage like that.”
I ran my fingers along the side of the door once more. The edge had a hand print in it. Or more accurately, half a hand print. The other half was probably in the door frame of the van in question. “In other words, he doesn’t just need an auto shop. He needs a talented auto shop.”
“Or at least an auto shop that has dealt with a lot of talents in the past.” Harriet stood up with a grunt. “Fuseboxes could have a lot of problems with cars, I imagine. I’m sure oracles and visionaries could have problems, too. There might even be a specialty market for modifications that make it easier for talents to use cars.”
“I could see that.” Harriet and I chuckled, although the silence from Voorman and Samson suggested they didn’t get it. The way movement affects my vision makes it impossible for me to drive, so my boss gets to chauffeur me pretty much everywhere. It would take more than just custom glasses, or a windshield even, to fix my problems. But it was an interesting thought. I looked over at Voorman. “I suppose you’re saying you want us to check in with my contacts in the community at large, see if we can turn up a place that might do this kind of work?”
“Exactly.” Samson stood up and smoothed the front of his pants. “That should put you a step closer to figuring out where Circuit went after he fled Diversy Street.”
“Why would he keep the van?” I wondered, running my fingers along the surface of the armor plate absently. “Even if he gets it fixed he can’t have a bunch of doors like this just sitting around.”
“If the rest of the van is armored like this it would still be a really nice thing to have around,” Harriet pointed out.
“And he could have a bunch of doors like this just sitting around,” Samson said. “The stockpile that was stolen was enough to fully armor a dozen vehicles of that size, give or take.”
“I see. In that case he might have a mechanic already lined up where he keeps the parts. We’ll want to get our hands on those, too.” I got up and gave him a hard look. “So what’s the catch?”
Samson pulled back a bit. “I beg your pardon?”
“He’s saying, what do you want from us?” Harriet said. “You could have just filed a memo if you wanted to bring this to our attention. The only reason to show it to us yourselves is to ask us for something in return. Presumably off the record.”
“Guilty,” Voorman said with a shrug. He slid around the side of the door and came over to her. “While Elizabeth Dawson’s disappearance is creating headlines right now, and that’s good from the angle of a standard missing persons case, it does make our lives somewhat more difficult. We can’t meddle with this investigation in the same way we do with others. It simply isn’t going to fly. There’s too much scrutiny on the case.”
“No surprise there,” I said. “Pretty young daughter of a powerful man goes missing? It’s sure to be a media circus.”
“We need you to be looking for a connection between Circuit and the Dawson disappearance at the same time you’re running down everything else.” Samson dug into a pocket and pulled out a pair of business cards, handing one to me and one to Harriet. I squinted at mine, more than a little weirded out. Handing out something that had your real name on it, not a codename, just wasn’t done. Samson was a strange agent in more ways than one.
“Anything you find out, pass back to us,” he said, apparently not noticing my discomfort. Or unable to tell it from all the other discomfort he was causing.
“Especially if you can locate the van,” Voorman added. “We want to look for any signs that it was used to abduct Miss Dawson, in addition to being used in the Diversy Street escape.”
“Why aren’t there more agents working this, Michael?” Harriet asked. “It’s been years since you’ve been in the field. Even if you and Sam worked together before, it doesn’t seem like a good bet to leave it to just the two of you.”
“With the level of attention on the case, we don’t want more,” Samson said. “And I’ve been retired for years, giving the Project an added layer of protection of some reporter does start prying into me. We already have a cover story worked out.”
I tucked his business card into my pocket. “Does it have anything to do with your being a priest?”
“Pastor,” he said, the correction sounding like it came from rote practice. “And yes, it does.”
“Okay, Sam,” Harriet said. “I guess you got yourselves a couple more eyes.”
“I’ll try to get a meeting with the people I know in the community,” I said. “But I can’t guarantee I’ll find anything before the meeting tomorrow.”
“If it makes things work out faster, you have permission to skip it,” Voorman said.
I chuckled. “If I pull a stunt like that Helix will be ticked.”