Water Fall: Hot Air

Six Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

I set my keys down on the end table in the hallway and went into the living room, taking a seat in the chair. Darryl shifted a bit on the sofa so we were looking more or less across at one another. Or at least, we could look right at each other if we wanted to, we avoided it at first. I cracked my knuckles, working the joints long past the point where there was any tension left in them, and finally found the courage to ask, “What brings you to my place tonight, Darryl?”

If my showing no surprise at finding him was bothering Darryl, he didn’t show it. Didn’t show much of anything, really, just carefully set his cane on the floor and leaned it against the sofa. Darryl is in charge of the regional Analysis office, and the job was high stress before he lost his wife. After all, it involves managing nearly sixty people with genius level intelligence and an unusually good ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated facts. They’re smart, they know it and yet sometimes their connections to reality are tenuous at best.

The last time I’d seen him before Mona died, he’d taken to using the cane and his hair and beard were starting to go gray around the edges. He was getting close to fifty, which wasn’t all that old, but if he always looked a little older than he was I chalked that up to the car accident he was in a few years ago and the stress of his job. Now the only color in his hair was gray and it seemed to be loosing the battle against the white rushing in; even sitting I could tell he was developing a stoop.

But the physical changes weren’t what bothered me most. He clearly had no idea what he should say. This is the man who started planning his wife’s birthday party three months in advance, had a gift sign-up sheet and made sure the new lamp and sofa she was getting were color coordinated. Darryl lives to plan things out in advance. But he’d shown up to talk to me with nothing in mind. He was falling apart before my eyes and I hated to see it.

“I’m sorry I didn’t stay longer at the funeral,” I blurted out, trying desperately to fill the silence. “I just spent a lot of time with people who rubbed me the wrong way and after the-”

“It’s all right,” Darryl said, finding his voice at last. “I really wasn’t that excited about talking to most of them, either.”

And that was pretty much all there was to say about that. “How are you do-”

“That’s a stupid question, and you know it.” He had me there. Obviously he wasn’t doing very well, and we were both smart enough to know it. I just couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Helix, I’m not here for platitudes.”

“No?” I had a feeling I knew what he was there for but I didn’t want to ask.

“No.” Darryl pulled his gaze away from his cane so he could look me in the eyes. It was like staring into a blast furnace. Trust me, I’ve done it. “I need you to do me a favor.”

That was what I’d been afraid of. “Darryl…”

“Let me do something, Helix.” There was a weird tone to his voice. It was like conviction, except darker. The only time I’d heard anything remotely like it; it had been coming from Circuit. “Let me help catch him. Let me back in the field!”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” I saw the indignation building up in his eyes and realized that had been a poor choice of words. I hurried to try and smooth things over. “Look at yourself, Darryl, you’re just not physically fit for that kind of work any more.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Darryl snapped, thumping his cane on the floor. “We’re short on field analysts and most of them are too mentally unstable to cut it out there. Voorman’s willing to give me a chance if we can get the Senate Committee to make an exception and let me into this investigation.”

“Well I’m not!” I slammed a hand down on the armrest of the chair and swore. “You’re in no condition to go out into the field. It doesn’t matter if you’re physically or mentally unable to keep up, you’re a liability either way!”

“Helix, there’s no one in the Project who’s been an analyst for Circuit’s cases longer than I have!”

I sighed. “That’s got nothing to do with it, Darryl. In the field-”

“I need to do something.”Darryl got up with a sudden jerk and I followed as he teetered unsteadily, as if he didn’t know what to do now that he was upright. He got his cane on the floor before I had to catch him, but it was a near thing. “You can’t sideline me on this. It was my wife-”

“Do not use Mona as an excuse,” I snapped. “You just want to get even. We’ve both been in this business long enough to know how that works out.”

For just a second I thought I was about to get hit with Darryl’s cane, and I might even have deserved it, but he managed to stop the motion before it was more than a spasm of his arm. “I am not trying to excuse anything,” he said in a dangerous tone, voice little more than a whisper. “I am going to find that man. And I am going to bring him to justice.”

I ran a hand over my face, wondering when the day would be over. This could have gone a lot better if I wasn’t so tired from the last few days. Weeks. Years, really. “Go home, Darryl. I know that Frostburn and Coldspike came by with a new boss who was offering you a job. If their boss wants to get some fresh faced kids killed working with you, that’s his call. I’m not doing it. If you were half the man I thought you were, you wouldn’t want to do it either.”

 “Fine.” There was an ocean of meaning in that one word. I couldn’t meet his eyes so I stared away and into the kitchen. I heard his cane tapping on the floor, then the sound of the door closing behind him. I glanced at my watch and realized I’d managed to ruin a friendship in less than five minutes.

——–

After Darryl left I found I couldn’t sit still. I tried to cook up some salmon for dinner and wound up fumbling with the vacuum sealed packaging on it for five minutes until I accidentally melted it into a semi-toxic mess in a moment of frustration. After glaring at it for a second like the fish was somehow to blame I tossed the whole mess in the garbage and changed out of my suit and into a comfortable set of sweats, grabbed the key to my workshop off the key rack in the closet and headed downstairs intending to burn off as much frustration as I could with hammer and power tools.

Unfortunately a much more convenient target showed itself before I could get out of the building.

I took the stairs down to the lobby instead of riding the elevator. It was only four flights and driving mad is never a good idea so I figured the exercise could only help. Maybe if I’d taken the elevator I would have missed Teresa on her way up, and maybe that would have been for the better. As it was, I nearly ran her down as I stalked through the small ground floor lobby of my building.

Apparently my mood at the moment was close enough to normal that she didn’t immediately tumble to the fact something was up, because as I stalked past she cheerfully waved at me with the folder she was holding. “Helix! Good timing.”

Now it goes without saying that anyone who deals with criminals and information control on a regular basis develops a certain amount of professional paranoia as a matter of survival. And we at Project Sumter have more than most. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that I felt like I’d walked into a set up. It sure seemed like Teresa was confirming it when she said, “I brought the paperwork for the-”

And I couldn’t stand it anymore. At the word paperwork I grabbed the folder so fast I could still see the afterimage of me grabbing while I was throwing it into the trashcan by the elevator. Yes, it was incredibly therapeutic.

Judging by Teresa’s slack-jawed expression it was also not what she was expecting.

“What is this, Teresa?” There weren’t any other people in the lobby at that exact moment but longstanding force of habit kept me from raising my voice. I settled for crowding her a lot closer than I would usually get to someone who knows what I can do and using the harshest tone I could manage when talking in a whisper. “Darryl makes sense, and even Sanders, but what the hell are you doing sticking your nose in this?”

“What? Sanders wasn’t-”

I lashed out to the side, smashing my fist into the frame of the elevator door and sending a spike of pain lancing up my arm. “Don’t tell me he didn’t put you up to this. Who else-” A new, even worse idea occurred to me. “Is this some kind of stupid political play? Is Dawson trying to get Darryl fired or disgraced or something?”

“Is Brahms-” Teresa shook her head, confusion giving way to frustration. “Look, I don’t know what the deal is between you and Senator Dawson, but he’s not in the business of playing games with what he thinks is important. And that includes Project Sumter.”

“Then tell me what’s going on here!” I jabbed a finger at her accusingly. “What good can it possibly do to drag a grieving man out into the meat grinder? Circuit’s ruined hundreds of people’s lives in his crazy attempt to do whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. Darryl’s got enough to deal with trying to put himself back together he can’t possibly do any good coping with a megalomaniac on top of that.”

Suddenly the whole mess was more than I could take and I found myself walking away, back towards the stairs, without realizing I’d decided to storm out. You’re really not supposed to walk out on your supervisor like that but by the same token once you’re mad enough to actually do it the supervisor is supposed to let you go cool you head for a bit, kind of as a matter of courtesy. It’s an unwritten rule.

Teresa apparently never read the unwritten rulebook, because I’d barely gone five steps when I heard her heels clacking on the floor behind me.

If there’s one downside of being a short guy – okay, one downside of being a short guy that’s particularly important in times like these – it’s that you can’t do a good job of glowering at anyone who’s taller than you. You also can’t really loom over them or do a good job of growling out threats. So when you’re mad and you need to prove it to someone exploding is pretty much the only option you have.

I skidded to a stop and whirled around, shouting, “The answer is no! I don’t care who asks, or why! I’m not going to sign off on Darryl going out in the field again. He’s a wreck and he’s going to get himself killed. Don’t ask me to give the okay on burying him next to his wife! It’s not worth it-”

“Helix, shut up,” Teresa said, grabbing my arms by the elbows as I flailed them aimlessly in the air. “You’re sinking.”

More than the fact that she managed to grab me by my elbows, which can’t have been an easy shot, or what she was saying what really got my attention was her tone of voice. She wasn’t yelling, wasn’t hissing under her breath, wasn’t even using a lecturing tone like I might get in a dressing down from Voorman or Sanders. It was an even, pleasant, almost banal kind of a voice, like you might use when discussing the weather. Or highly classified government secrets while in a very public place. It was out of place enough to get my attention.

And as soon as she had it I realized she was right. The air around my hands was shimmering like a blacktop driveway on a hot day in July. I’d subconsciously formed a small heat sink, not even hot enough to boil water but still enough that someone might notice if I leaned on a wall and made the paint bubble or something. It was also why she’d grabbed me at my elbows, rather than my wrists. I exhaled slowly and did my best to loosen up. The heat around me relaxed and trickled back to its normal placement.

“Helix,” Teresa said, speaking quietly and making sure she had my attention before she went on. “I’m not here to talk to you about Darryl. I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about there, although I can guess.”

“You’re not.” I stared at her for a moment, trying to get a read on her expression and finding I was way too wound up to pull it off. “Why are you here, then?”

She let go of my arms and took a step back, straightening her suit out with quick, practiced gestures that disguised the way she quickly glanced around to make sure we were still alone. Once she was sure we were she said, “Three days ago a military convoy in Nebraska was robbed by a flying man.”

“That’s not possible,” I said, then immediately wanted to kick myself. Most people would say that about heat sinks like me.

“That’s what the Inland West office said, too. But in the process of interviewing the guards it turns out he could also make lightning arc from light fixtures into people.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s a bit different, but still sounds familiar, am I right?”

It was a bit different from what I’d experienced on Diversy Street a few weeks ago, at least in scale, but she was right. It did sound a lot like Circuit. “When are we going out to look?”

“Hold up.” She put a hand on my shoulder and lowered her voice. “Are you sure you’re ready for this? We can send someone else if we really have to. It’s basically just a postmortem at this point, Circuit’s long gone.”

I nodded slowly. “I’m good, Teresa.”

“Helix.” Her eyes flicked away for a moment and she took a deep breath. “Look, I know a few things about survivor’s guilt. You know about my dad. And he…”

He was her only family, before he ran into a serial killer. I’d always assumed her job was part of a search for closure. Now I wondered if it was something more. “Yeah, I know. This isn’t the first time I’ve lost a fellow agent, Teresa. I was closer to Mona than most. But I’ve dealt with this before.”

She slid her hands down until she was holding mine, a surprisingly trusting gesture given what had just happened, then looked back up at me and I saw a glimpse of raw pain in her eyes. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I wasn’t sure which of us she was talking to. For a second we stood there, looking like we were sharing some sort of intimate moment, feeling like a mess. Then I realized something. “Teresa, did I just throw the file on that hijacking into the trash?”

“What? Oh, yeah, you did.”

I stepped away and quickly fished it out after hitting the elevator call button. For some reason I felt too drained to go back up to my apartment by stair. “Okay, let me grab my go bag and I’ll be right back down with you.”

“Helix. You’re sure you’re fine?”

The question was asked with all her usual polite calm. So I nodded and said, “Sure.”

After all, if she could lie about her feelings, so could I.

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