Four Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
“Mossburger!” I jumped up from my desk and hurried across the floor towards my analyst, who had just stepped in to the office and was headed towards the Records department. A handful of heads looked up from desks scattered around the room but for the most part this had gotten to be commonplace and I was ignored. Well, Mossburger looked like he wanted to bolt so it’s not like he was ignoring me but it’s not like we were attracting an audience either. “Where are those-”
Pritchard held up his hands to try and hold me off. That never works but he keeps trying. “Look, Helix, I know you’re still waiting on my analysis of the drug cartel-Morocco connection but until Forensics finishes cracking that shell company in Malta there’s not much we can do.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?” I threw my hands in the air. “This is supposed to be my case and I’ve been locked out of it just because my grandmother supposedly betrayed the Lost Cause! Every lead we’ve developed so far leads south of the Mason-Dixie line.”
“Of course they do, Helix,” Mossburger said with a sigh. “Circuit set it up that way on purpose, to try and keep you away from his organization, remember?”
I rubbed my hand over my face. “You know, some days I really hate that man. Tell me we have something. Anything.”
“Well…” His voice trailed off and he glanced down at the folders he was holding. “It’s not directly related.”
“What’s not directly related?”
Mossburger sighed and handed me one of the files, which was had the codename “Grappler” and a talent indexing number on it. We number talents as we find them, with the very first being my great-great-grandfather, Corporal Sumter. Codenames are an easy way to refer to them but not easy to keep track of in databases, particularly since they get reassigned on a semiregular basis – there are over four thousand talents on record after all, and many of them never do anything of note with their abilities. Code names, on the other hand, are a limited resource so there’s some recycling that goes on.
But Analysis does like to try and be poetic when handing them out, and Grappler didn’t sound like their style. From the indexing number it looked like Grappler was a recent find, too. I flipped the folder and glanced at it. “How does this tie back to the weapons dealers again? Another associate of theirs?”
“No. Remember last month, when Circuit broke into our old facility and installed a back door into our computer network?”
“Yeah.” I snorted. “That was a mess. Gutsy, unexpected and surprisingly effective. Typical work for him. Did we ever track down what all he did while he was in our systems?”
Mossburger waved the folder he was holding at the one I was looking at. “I think Forensics is still working on it, but they’re sure these two files were part of it. He created them and appended them to his file as known associates. Presumably that’s why there’s so little information on them.”
I studied the file with a great deal more interest and discovered that he was right. All of the biographical information was blank – not redacted, which was to be expected, but entirely blank. If the Records department had returned an entirely blank file to Analysis after the discovery of a new talent I think Cheryl would have personally hunted down whoever was responsible and locked them into the vault for the rest of their life. Other than noting that Grappler was a wall walker, a person who could tweak friction in bizarre ways, and that he or she was a known associate of Circuit, there was nothing in the file.
I closed it and handed it back to Mossburger. “And the other one?”
“For a talent called Heavy Water, a water worker. Analysis thinks he’s the one that came with Circuit the night of the raid. Massif was sure there was a water worker with them, and how many can there be in one group, right?” He took the file and shrugged. “We’re not sure why Circuit wanted them entered into our files under those names but I thought it might be worthwhile to check into old cases involving Circuit and see if I could find evidence of their involvement we might have missed because we were so focused on looking for the work of a fuse box.”
“Right.” I cracked my knuckles. “Well, that’s something, I guess. Did you want a hand?”
“Actually, there was-”
“Helix!” Jack was waving to me from his desk. “Someone calling for you or the boss. You gonna take it or you want I should track down Teresa?”
I sighed. “Nevermind, Mossburger. Let me know if you can turn anything up, though.” He nodded, looking a little relieved, and I headed back towards my desk. “I’ll take it, Jack. Who am I talking to? State police? FBI? Senator’s aide?”
“I don’t think he’s any of the above,” Jack said, handing me his phone rather than bothering to transfer the call to mine. “He said his name was Sykes.”
“Glad to see you again.” Matthew Sykes greeted us from his wheelchair as the secretary ushered us in to the conference room. “I apologize for the poor accommodations, I’m afraid our office here isn’t very large.”
It’s true that it wasn’t a very spacious room, around fifteen feet square, and there weren’t any personal touches to it. But it had a table and chairs, and as far as I’ve always been concerned that’s all you need. It’s not like anyone would want to spend much time in one. I took a seat in one of the two chairs closest to the door and Teresa took the other, putting us directly across from our host. “If you think this is a poor accommodation, Mr. Sykes, you’ve never been to a meeting in a government office.”
He chuckled a little even though my joke was pretty flat. “I have to admit, Mr. Sykes,” I continued, “I’m not quite sure why you’re here. I don’t suppose you’ve spent the last two weeks here in town?”
“No, not at all,” he said, drumming his fingers lightly on the table top. “I’ve been back to Springfield and out at a few other places where we’re – but that’s not important. No, I’m afraid I’ve come back here specifically to speak with you.”
“Then I hope that the trip will prove worth your time,” Teresa said, leaning forward in polite interest. “But I’m afraid I’m just as confused about the nature of your call.”
“Yes, well…” Sykes studied his hands for a minute. That slow, sleepy attitude that had stood out to me when we first me was still there, but where before it had seemed like general good humor now it felt different. More like being watched by a sleepy cat that wasn’t sure if you were a problem yet. “You know, one of the ways we businessmen survive is by talking to each other. Even when it isn’t strictly proper for us to do so.”
I nodded. “What you’re trying to say is that Roger Keller told you why we were visiting him the day we met.”
“And with good reason,” he was quick to add. “You see, I’m an investor in several of the properties you were asking him about. He thought I should know, in case there was anything I thought I should bring to your attention.”
“And it took you two weeks to think of something?” I folded my arms over my chest and leaned back in my chair. “That’s quite a delayed reaction, Mr. Sykes.”
“Only because there wasn’t anything I could think of until the news broke yesterday.” He reached into the inside pocket on his jacket and pulled out a rumpled envelope. “Do you remember those serial arsons that took place a month or so back?”
Teresa and I exchanged a glance. That could only mean the Enchanter case, but I could tell by her expression that she didn’t have any more idea how Sykes had connected our inquiries into Circuit’s real estate to then Enchanter than I did. It had been highly classified stuff – still was, as far as I knew. “We were briefly involved in that case, as a matter of fact,” Teresa said noncommittally. “Why do you ask?”
He slid the envelope across the table and sat back in his wheelchair. “I’m not sure if you would have heard, then, but at least a few places hit received a letter before the arsonist struck.”
With a sneaking suspicion of what I would find, I picked up the envelope and looked inside. Sure enough, there was a typed letter inside that said, “There is no king in America. Death to pretenders.” It was signed by the Enchanter.
I handed the letter to Teresa and asked, “When did you get this?”
“I’m not entirely sure. My secretary is actually the one who handled the letter initially, believe it or not we get all kinds of cryptic or outright threatening letters. It comes with being a successful business.” Sykes shrugged carelessly, he seemed a lot less tense now that he’d handed the letter over and we weren’t yelling at him. He looked less like a watchful cat and more like a man who found life amusing at best and boring most of the time. But as he explained he did seem to grow a little more animated. And why not? Everyone enjoys talking about themselves a bit.
“We keep a file where a lot of the minor stuff goes, while the dangerous stuff like death threats we turn in to the police. That,” he waved at the letter, “went into the file. If you leave me an e-mail address or similar way to contact you I can see that the details get to you.”
“And this was sent to one of the properties you and Mr. Keller are investing in?” Teresa asked, slipping the letter back into its envelope and setting it on the table.
“That’s right. And I’ve contacted Roger about it as well. He’s checking to see if they received anything similar.” Sykes rubbed a hand over his face, for just a moment looking less like a sleepy philosopher and more like a tired, middle-aged man. “He didn’t say why you were looking into the properties, but from the sounds of it the arsons weren’t the reason. I suppose this wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped.”
“No-” I started, but Teresa touched me on the arm.
“I’m sorry,” she said, getting to her feet. “Could I consult with my colleague outside for just a moment?”
Sykes laughed, his expression closer to what I assumed was normal for him. “Sure. Take your time.”
The hallway outside was fairly quiet, the only noise was the bustle of the telecom company’s phone operators a good twenty feet away. Once the door was closed behind us I asked, “What is it? The Enchanter is under wraps now, I tend to think Sykes is right – there isn’t much here that’s useful to us.”
“Except the Enchanter got a lot his information from someone who worked with the underground talent community,” Teresa said, ticking points on her fingers. “That person went by the name Hangman and only worked over the Internet. At some point, Hangman warned the Enchanter that Circuit was on to him and probably going to take steps to stop his arson spree. Later, Massif’s investigation into Hangman dead-ended when it turned out no one had heard from him in a month or two.”
“You think the Enchanter isn’t the only one who got on Circuit’s bad side?”
She nodded. “It’s certainly possible. If nothing else, it might justify putting more resources into finding this Hangman person.”
“True.” I shrugged. “But one letter to one of the owners of a piece of property Circuit might have been interested in isn’t much of a connection.”
“Fair enough.” With that, Teresa stepped back into the conference room and picked up the envelope with the letter in it. “We appreciate your telling us about this, Mr. Sykes. It may lead to a new development in the case. We’ll be sure to contact Mr. Keller and ask him if he or any of his clients might have received similar letters. I trust we can take this with us?”
“Of course.” Sykes grinned again, looking pleased like a child that had just won a footrace. “I’ll be sure to let Roger know. I’m sure he’ll lend a hand – we’re always glad to help out. It’s almost a requirement for people like us, but I’m sure you’d understand that, Agent Herrera.”
I glanced at my watch. It was nearly midnight. “I’ve only been awake fifteen hours, Hangman. It doesn’t start being a long day until we roll over thirty. I appreciate your concern but there’s far too much to do today to be wait until tomorrow.”
“Technically speaking it’s tomorrow already,” Hangman pointed out, but not in an argumentative tone.
“You’ve been poking around in East Coast servers too much lately,” I said. “We’re on Central Time here.”
“Of course. It will be tomorrow soon.”
I smiled slightly to myself and said, “Go ahead and ping the servers. I want to get this set up as soon as possible.”
“If you say so.” From my place in the server room it was easy to get a feel for the constantly shifting electrical potential of my outpost. Hangman’s laptop may have been two rooms away in my office but, thanks to the top of the line network that ran through the building I was able to feel the constant, subtle shifts of her typing, the computer’s processors whirring away. As she set up her next hacking maneuver her voice was fed through the intercom, so we could follow what the other was doing. “I’m still not sure why you want to do it this way, instead of just turning the information over to third party reporters like we did with the letter from the Enchanter. It would be safer that way.”
“There’s more to this game than safety, Hangman. They need to know someone other than the usual suspects is behind this. It has to be distinct from the other news from the beginning.” I shifted the balance of my own talent to the handful of routers that actually led to the outside world. “Ping the server.”
“The query is away.”
In less time than it took her to say it a data packet pulsed out of our network, through a barely discernible path to a newscaster’s servers hundreds of miles away. Getting information from that distance was as much art as science, like a spider reading vibrations coming along it’s web. But most firewalls are not subtle things and the denial of access that blocked Hangman’s probe was easy to spot.
“Again,” I said, shifting potentials again to lock down the the code that would deny access. Ninety seconds later, Hangman had convinced the firewall that her presence in the system was legitimate and I no longer had to hold my foot in the door. It had happened three times as fast as using an automated program to accomplish the same work. There certainly were upsides to having someone like Hangman around to make my load lighter.
Since this was the last intrusion we had planned I disconnected from the servers, stripping off the Velcro wristbands that held the electrodes in place against my skin and closing up the specialized router I used for these intrusions. While I can do this kind of work just by touching a keyboard, Davis had put this system together to increase my sensitivity by a considerable amount and I’ll confess I’ve grown fond of it. For my first joint cyber-espionage endeavor with Hangman I thought it prudent to have every advantage and, although we hadn’t needed it, caution pays. Especially in my line of work.
I let myself out of the server room, locked it and joined Hangman in my office. “Progress?”
“All over but the waiting.” She didn’t look up from her computer screen as I glanced over her shoulder. It looked like the software that would let us manipulate the major news network’s content, at least for a short period of time, hadn’t encountered any hangups on instillation so far.
I nodded with satisfaction and dropped into the seat behind my desk, swiveling in it so I could look out into the undisturbed Wisconsin forest outside. “Soon enough we’ll be ready to move out of here. Chainfall’s coming up soon.”
“Are you going to miss it?” Hangman got up and moved around to the side of the desk, looking out into the dark with me. “For all your technological focus you’re surprisingly fond of places like this. The Chainfall site isn’t that different. You even told Grappler to be easy on the Stillwater facilities.”
“That company was owned by a former Project agent, you know.” I leaned back a little in my chair. “In the old days, Project Sumter did more harm than good. They just haven’t reevaluated themselves in the last fifty years. That’s their real failing. People like Chief Stillwater, he was in the Navy during the Second World War, they’ve earned a little respect. They were a force for good, in their time.”
Hangman’s hands slipped over the back of my chair and began massaging my shoulders lightly. “And now it’s your time, I suppose?”
Simeon’s warning came back to me then. The possibility that Hangman had come to me interested in more than a chance to show her skills. That she might have some sort of a romantic interest, childish or otherwise.
That one way or another, she’d have to face the reality of Thunderbird.
I got up from the chair, letting her hands fall away as I stood. “Now it’s time for sleep, I think.”
“Even after just fifteen hours awake?” She asked in a teasing tone.
I gave her an arch look over one shoulder. “An old man needs his rest.”
“Old?” She smiled. It wasn’t a smirk, like she so often used when joking with Simeon or Heavy, nor an attempt to ingratiate herself, like I had seen in pictures I turned up when trying to gather information on her, like she used when dealing with Davis or one of the other men in the installation that seemed to gather around her when she wasn’t locked away with her laptop running some kind of data analysis. There was something genuine there, not a front or a tool for dealing with people. I just wasn’t sure what it was. “The future shouldn’t be calling itself old, Circuit.”
“No?” I put a hand on her shoulder and gently maneuvered her towards the office door, being careful to stay behind her every step of the way. For some reason I was suddenly ashamed to look her in the face. “Well, a word of advice. We’ll all need all the rest we can get in the next few days. Big things are coming.”
Hangman laughed. “Whatever you say. Good night, Circuit.”
“Good night, Elizabeth.”
I don’t think I realized then I’d called her by name. Didn’t notice her staring after me with that strange smile as I walked away. All I really knew was that, for the first time since I’d become Open Circuit, I was on the run from something and I had no plan how to deal with it.Fiction Index Previous Chapter Next Chapter