Water Fall: Loose Wires

Five Weeks, Three Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

I climbed out of the back of the van, wiping my hands on a rag. Davis was a couple of steps behind me. “The tweaks to the maglev relays are good, but if we add in your new toy it’s going to necessitate rewiring the whole vehicle. Again.” He tossed his own rag back into the van without bothering to look where it landed. “I’m not saying that it’s a bad move, but it might be easier if we just pulled out the computer and communication gear from them. That would solve most of the load issues.”

“That’s fine.” I tucked my own rag into the back pocket of my coveralls. “I’m not entirely sure we’re going to be able to keep these vans after the operation. It’s best we leave as little nonessential equipment on them as possible.”

“And it helps us with another problem.” Wallace, my mechanic, was still poking around in the back of the vehicle. “I’m not sure that thing you want us to install would fit with everything else you want to bring along. If we take all the IT stuff out that should help with the crowding some. Even so, it’s going to be a tight squeeze. Are you sure we need it?”

“It’s an EMP-countermeasure, Wally,” Davis said in exasperation. “If they want to keep using any of the electronic gear after clearing the perimeter they’re going to need it.”

“And after all the trouble I went to get it, I’d hate to leave it behind,” I added. “How soon can we start duplicating it?”

“The lab has a preliminary knock off ready for testing,” Davis said. “If you want we can-”

“Excuse me, sir.” Simeon carefully picked his way through the garage. “Do you have a moment?”

I sighed. There was always something and we were getting ready for out biggest job yet, but the constant interruptions were beginning to wear on my patience. “Yes, Simeon. What is it?”

“New development on the news, sir. I thought you’d want to know.” He offered me a tablet. “I don’t know to what extent it will affect your current plans, but fore the long term it may be relevant.”

Wallace took Davis by the arm and gently pulled him away saying, “We’ll get started pulling all that computer gear out of the vans.”

“The auxiliary vans, Wallace,” I said absently. “Not the good vans. We’ve lost one of those already, we’re going to need all the mileage we can get out of the others.”

“You got it, boss.”

I acknowledged Wallace with a grunt, most of my attention on the tablet Simeon had just handed me. It was cued up to a news clip. The reporter was interviewing a familiar face.

Pastor Manuel Rodriguez looked a lot different from when I’d first met him. Then, he’d been dressed more like a janitor than a man of the cloth, his short sleeves revealing tattoos that would have been at home in any ghetto or barrio in the city. But for this interview he was wearing a conservative suit and tie that wouldn’t have been out of place on an office worker or a Sumter agent.

Neither appearance hinted at what truly made him dangerous: The way he sided with the establishment and backed it with inexplicable physical strength. I had personally witnessed him throwing a desk that must have weighed at least a hundred pounds two city blocks. He’d then ripped the back door off of one of my armored vans one handed.

Actually, in terms of total destructive potential nothing he’s done holds a candle to someone like Helix, who can melt concrete if he wants to, but he’s also inhumanly fast and, unlike Helix, who’s powers take some time to get going and are kind of unwieldy, Rodriguez is contained and fast. On top of that, I have no idea how his talent works. I was not happy to see him on the news and I was even less happy once he started talking to the reporter.

“I’ve spent the last twenty years working with the misguided youth of the city,” he said. “When I was young I made my share of bad decisions. Whether it’s dealing drugs, getting into fights or running away from home, many young people act out simply because they’ve never seen a better example. As a pastor, it’s my job to present the example of Jesus Christ as that better alternative. But when-”

“If you just wanted me to know about Rodriguez, I kind of guessed he would wind up in this sooner or later,” I said to Simeon. “If someone with his background and talents wasn’t involved with Project Sumter somehow I’d have been very surprised.”

“That’s not it, sir,” Simeon said, directing my attention back to the video feet. “Look, it’s coming up now.”

The reporter had asked the pastor something during that brief exchange. Now the video showed a series of pictures as Rodriguez’s voice answered. The first half dozen or so were of Hangman – or rather, Elizabeth Dawson – over the last year or so of her college career. “The Senator spent quite a bit of time here in town last month and it’s not unreasonable to assume his daughter might have come down here to visit him as a surprise.”

Anyone who thought that obviously didn’t know them very well, but then it did sound well enough to the general public. “Over the years I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the community,” Rodriguez continued. “And when kids drop off the radar for whatever reason and worry their families there are people I talk to. I’ve found that people are more willing to speak to a leader in the church than the police. In this case, they were also willing look through pictures.”

I sucked in a breath as the pictures changed from Hangman as a graduate in cap and gown to pictures of her in Millennium Park. She wasn’t actually the focus of them, it looked like she’d just wound up in the background of a picture or two, but it was definitely her. In the first she was seated by an artificial stream, kicking her feet in the water. “You can see Ms. Dawson here, in Millennium Park, the day her disappearance was reported, that’s a day and a half after she was last seen by anyone who knew her.”

The next picture was timestamped a bit later in the day. I mentally cursed digital cameras and their wealth of useful information. There were some days it felt like technology companies were deliberately trying to make my job harder. “In one of the photos shared with us you can see Ms. Dawson speaking with an unidentified man in a suit. Investigators are beginning to-”

I paused the playback and looked up at Simeon. “How complete of a description do they have?”

“Not a very good one, sir,” Simeon hastened to assure me. “You were only photographed from the back and that’s not your natural hair, so all they really have is your build. But they know someone was with Ms. Dawson shortly before she disappeared.”

“Not that they didn’t suspect that already,” I muttered. “But now they can definitively prove it. Was there anything else of importance? Other than the fact that Rodriguez is involved with this somehow.”

“Somehow?” Simeon quirked his eyebrows. “You don’t think he’s directly connected with Project Sumter?”

“Oh, sure. He has to be.” I shrugged and handed the tablet back to Simeon. If there had been something else I knew he would have brought it up immediately instead of asking about Rodriguez. “But the fact that he can be about it so publicly is annoying and unexpected. As is the fact that he’d be working on Hangman’s case rather than mine.”

“To answer you directly,” Simeon said, tucking the tablet under his arm, “no, there’s nothing else of note in this news broadcast. But I thought you would like to know all the same.”

I rubbed my chin absently, trying to focus my thoughts. “We need to get the media’s focus on something else.”

“That would be convenient,” Simeon agreed. “I don’t suppose you have a way to do that on hand?”

“In fact, I have a few thoughts on how we might do just that. Let me try and decide how to best implement them.” I refocused on the present. “If that’s all, I should really-”

“With all due respect, sir, it’s not quite.” Simeon hesitated for a minute, which was surprising enough, then he took the tablet, turned it over in his hands and then firmly clamped them behind his back. “Sir, this may not be any of my business but have you spoken to Miss Dawson since you returned from your trip out west?”

After all the fidgeting I had expected something a little more significant than that. “Not since the after the fact analysis. I’ve been quite busy. My other persona had an appearance to make, the EMP-countermeasure needs-”

“Yes, sir, I’m aware of your schedule.” He didn’t outright say he had written it but it was implied in his tone. “But… Sir, do you remember what you said to me when you first hired me?”

“I was going to give you the biggest administrative challenge you’d ever faced?”

That got the ghost of a smile on Simeon’s typically serene face. “After that.”

I sighed. One of the reasons I rely on Simeon as much as I do is because I know he makes up for many of my weaknesses while also understanding me well enough to function as a proxy in most situations. Unfortunately he has this mysterious compulsion to try and fix my failings in his spare time. I’ve learned to suffer through it as part of the price of keeping his most excellent services.

And that means playing along with him when he wants me to. “You’re better at judging people than I am.”

“And as such, I am in charge of managing your staff.”

I glanced around the garage and sighed. “Perhaps we should move to my office for this conversation.”

“If you prefer,” Simeon said.

“I do.” The garage was on the ground level of the compound and my office was on the second floor so I headed towards the stairs on the far wall, Simeon walking beside me.

“Sir, I know it’s not your habit to overanalyze the history of your employees unless you think it has a direct bearing on your plans.”

He paused like he was expecting a response; but it was a very cryptic statement and I climbed half the flight of stairs before saying, “Okay, I don’t quite follow you. I know that, outside of Davis and maybe you, none of us are exactly ordinary. But what does that have to do with Hangman?”

Simeon nodded, like that was about the response he’d been expecting. “Sir, you are aware that her father’s stance on unusually gifted individuals is very… strict.”

“If you’re saying that her father is an idiot who believes natural talent, of any kind, is an offense of some kind then yes, I’m familiar with Senator Dawson’s stance.” I shrugged. “He takes the nature versus nurture conflict too seriously. If he really believes all we need to do to build the perfect society is crush human nature under a system of education that acknowledges no differences between people he’s crazy.”

“Maybe. But his insanity has had serious repercussions on his only child. After all, Miss Dawson demonstrated exceptional talent for mathematics and programing from a young age, an ability her father actively discouraged her from pursuing. Am I correct?”

I nodded, fishing around for the set of keys that would let me into the office and records part of the complex. With my abilities, electronic locks seem more like a liability that a properly built set of mechanical locks. “She had to teach herself, which only made her better at what she does, in my opinion.” I slipped the two keys into the door’s locks, one at waist height one at shoulder height, turned them and opened the door into the antechamber. “So on the whole, not a bad exchange.”

“Except she had to do it with no affirmation from her father. Children who have lacked a meaningful father figure in their lives have a tendency to seek a surrogate.”

I paused with the keys half out of the locks. “What, you mean me?”

“Well…” He shrugged, a distinctly uncharacteristic thing for him to do. “That’s the most immediate result of it, yes. But more than that, you told me she had ‘bought in’ to your ambitions.”

“In the long term, as she understands them, yes.” We were still in the open platform over the workshop and garage so I stepped into the antechamber and motioned Simeon in after me, then closed the door. Something made me keep my voice down despite the fact that we were alone in the small chamber, with the only exits being my office, the server room and back out into the main part of the complex. “I haven’t explained Operation Chainfall to her yet. Or the Thunderclap Gambit.”

“To say nothing of Thunderbird?”

“To say nothing of that.” I shrugged. “She is a very, very good analyst. She might have guessed at what Chainfall aims to do. Possibly even Thunderclap.”

SImeon nodded. “I guessed as much, so I can only assume you did as well, and find it to be acceptable. Are you going to tell her about Thunderbird?”

“Of course not. It’s not relevant.” I scowled. Hangman hadn’t been exactly thrilled when I’d held back information on our last jaunt but surely she understood I couldn’t tell her everything. I didn’t mind if she figured things out on her own, independently drawn conclusions aren’t nearly the liability my spelling things out could be. And I don’t like spreading deliberate disinformation among my own people, it cuts down on trust and makes running an efficient operation harder. “What does this have to do with Hangman?”

“You and Miss Dawson had significant disagreements about operational parameters after your first joint field effort, did you not?”

I rubbed my forehead for a minute, willing myself to be patient. For some reason I was getting fed up with Simeon’s roundabout approach. Normally he didn’t upset me at all. We had the best working dynamic of any two people in my organization. It could only be because I was getting so close to my endgame. “Okay. Yes, you’re right. She was impulsive, and it could have blown the whole operation if she got caught outside of the van. I don’t think she’s ready for field work yet, but that’s not her fault. She doesn’t have the experience Grappler and I have, or the upbringing Heavy did. We’ll just-”

“You’re missing the point, sir.” Simeon drummed his fingers absently on the side of the tablet he held. “You see, based on the… extreme measures Miss Dawson took to engineer a meeting with you, the way she’s behaved since you met, the time she’s spent in planning and analysis with you…”

I frowned. “You think she wasn’t sincere when she said she was joining for the cause?” Suddenly I stood straight as a new idea leapt into my mind fully formed. “Do you think she’s trying to get a picture of Thunderbird? Turn it over to her father and prove herself somehow?”

“No.” Simeon said it quickly and firmly. “No, I think she was entirely truthful about joining so that all people of talent could find the freedom to use their talents. From the time we’ve spent together it seems that’s all she’s ever wanted to do. You’ve given her that opportunity and you value her contributions. Not only that, you encourage them and try to help her be better at them.”

“So she’s loyal.”

“Loyal is not the word I would use, sir.”

I stared blankly at Simeon. He was waiting to be prompted again. “What word would you use, Mr. Delacroix?”

“I…” His mouth was open for a moment, then he closed it and cleared his throat before trying again. “Understand, I thought her behavior was odd at first. But I didn’t understand it until… Well, something was said to me that suggested it. Once I came to study the problem from that perspective it made more sense.”

What perspective, Simeon?”

“Love, sir.” He sighed. “I believe that, at the very least, Miss Dawson has a very strong crush on you. Maybe her feelings are more mature than that, but I can’t say for sure right now.”

“What…” My voice trailed off as my brain tried to assimilate that idea. “Simeon, I’m at least fifteen years older than she is.”

“Thirteen years, two months actually.” He shrugged again and the motion made me dizzy. Or maybe it was just my head spinning. “Sir, in my experience that doesn’t matter as much as you might think. Especially to the kind of young woman who gets caught up in a romantic cause like the crusade you’re on.”

“Simeon, I’m trying to conquer North America, not save the world. What kind of woman-” I caught myself. As Simeon had just pointed out, he’s better at reading these kinds of situations than I am. Best to assume he was at least partially correct. “Fine. But, Simeon…” I shook my head. “That just means Thunderbird is…”

“Yes, I know.” He sighed and put a hand on my shoulder. I stiffened. “Sir, forgive me but I’m about to be very blunt and very personal.”

I stared at him a moment, wondering if I should just electrocute him and make a run for it. I’ve made more impulsive decisions. But they were all a long time ago, when Thunderbird was still a vague idea in the back of my head, not an endgame that was only months away. “Go ahead, Simeon.”

He nodded and seemed to gather himself up for the final push. “Sir, I’m telling you this mostly because you need to start taking it into account. If I’m right then yes, Miss Dawson is going to hate the ideas underpinning Thunderbird. But more than that, she’s going to actively try to insert herself into your plans. To get your attention and win your favor, regardless of what she knows.”

I nodded. “Yes, I can see that. And not speaking to her for several days after our last argument just because I have been busy is not going to be acceptable to her.”

“Agreed. But I’m sure you can find a way to deal with any fallout from that quickly enough. Assuming Miss Dawson hasn’t taken the initiative on that as well.” Simeon leaned a little closer and dropped his voice down to a murmur. “What I wanted to say is… I think you might need her.”

“Of course,” I said, baffled. “I’ve been relying on her data-”

“No, sir,” Simeon said, cutting me off. “As you’ve just said, your goal is to conquer a continent. Your reasons for doing it aren’t even all that selfish. But they’re still not something many are going to understand. One of the few who will has come and found you, and might even be interested in more than just helping out.”

He took his hand off my shoulder and stepped back, resuming a more normal tone. “I’ve seen you take on challenges and stress that would break a dozen lesser men, but even you must have some limits. And not even I really understand your motivations. If you want to see this through, a companion who does ‘get it’ is something you’re going to need. If you’ll excuse me for saying so, you should think about it.”

Having said his piece Simeon gave me a slight nod of the head and let himself back out. I didn’t really acknowledge him leaving, in fact I didn’t surface from my thoughts until a few minutes later. The whole idea just seemed so preposterous. I didn’t have time to think about romance, much less a romance as preposterous as wooing a woman a decade my junior.

In fact, without Simeon’s calm presence there to reinforce the idea it was starting to look truly absurd. But he might be right about the father figure idea. I did need to go and talk to Hangman, let her know I still valued her abilities in spite of her impulsive decisions in the field. I nodded to myself. I would do it right after checking a few things in my office.

So I unlocked my office door and let myself in to find Hangman sitting behind my desk, her feet up on the writing surface, fiddling with her laptop. 

“Hi, Circuit,” she said, putting her feet down as soon as she saw me come through the door. Then she fished her earbuds out and I mentally breathed a sigh of relief. At least she probably hadn’t overheard the conversation out in the antechamber. “I wanted to talk to you.”

I felt a moment of sudden awkwardness, Simeon’s words still fresh in my mind. So instead of demanding to know how she had gotten into a locked office to which she didn’t have a key, or why she thought I would have time for her with all the other things on my plate or any of a dozen other potentially relevant questions, all I managed was, “Oh?”

She looked back down at her laptop. “I’ve been sorting back through all the jobs you, Grappler and Heavy have done in the last year.”

“Yes?” Another part of the far-flung Chainfall plan which she hadn’t been told about. Apparently she was still trying to run down the various elements of that on her own. “What about them?”

“Three bank jobs by you, focusing on electronic sabotage, five heists by Grappler where authorities are still trying to figure out how a catburgler could have climbed in and out without leaving traces – which she doesn’t leave, of course – and one massive water system shutdown by Heavy Water.” She glanced up from her laptop. “At least, I’m assuming that taking place at the same time as the warehouse raid where you picked up those superconductors in Memphis wasn’t a coincidence. The cause of the water company’s difficulties was never officially found.”

“Because turning normal water, even sewage water, to gelatin without the addition of any chemicals isn’t the kind of thing Project Sumter likes getting around.”

She set her laptop to one side of the desk so she could lean on it and give me a mischievous look. “And then there was the Stillwater job just a few days ago, where Grappler actually went in to steal equipment and didn’t bother shutting down any of the cameras in the security system. Sure, it was a smalltime company with small time security, but still. Circuit, why does it look like you’re deliberately doing jobs in ways only people with your unique talents could do?”

“Because I have talented staff?”

“But you never did that in the past. Just in the last year or so.”

I crossed to the desk and rested my hands on it’s top, scowling down at her. “Hangman, why are you here?”

She ignored my attempt at intimidation. “Circuit, you’re trying to end the Masquerade. Trying to tell the world talents exist. And you’re doing it wrong.”

The scowl grew deeper. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, no one’s going to care about robbing banks or warehouses unless they own them. If you want the public to know you exist then you’re not stealing the right stuff. You need to get creative. Send a message. Trust me, I might have hated studying journalism but one thing I’ll always remember is the importance of having a point to a story and getting it across by any means necessary. You want to deal with Project Sumter, built on Lincoln’s Law and dedicated to keeping talents a secret? You don’t steal money, superconductors or sound equipment.” She turned her laptop so I could see the screen. “You steal this.”

As I read the information on the screen I didn’t follow what she was saying. At least, not at first. But then the pieces began to fall into place and I felt a manic grin sneaking it’s way across my face. By the time I was done I could see what she wanted me to do, so I looked her in the eye and said the first three words that came to mind.

“That is brilliant.”

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