Three Weeks, Five Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
“You ever done this before?”
Lincoln shook his head, somehow turning the gesture into a sweeping glance around the floor, the big, open section of the office where most of us grunts reside. “Fifth uncle does most of the work with you Project folks,” he said, doing his best to see as much of the office while keeping the conversation going and not letting me get too far ahead. By fifth uncle I knew he meant my sifu. Chinese families have this weird tendency to refer to relatives by number, even in English, something to do with correct forms of address. “I’ve never actually spoken to anyone from your organization besides you. And uncle doesn’t talk much about it. Assume total ignorance.”
“In that case there’s a lot of nondisclosure agreements and such that you’re going to need to sign.” I skirted along the outer edges of the floor, past the coffee station and towards the back hall that led to Records. “Fortunately, the people in charge of handling NDAs are also in charge of the files you’re going to need to look at, so we won’t need to run all over the building.”
“I have to admit,” Lincoln said, “this place wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I mean, you don’t even have a giant map of the country. Or a giant globe, or whatever.”
“We’re a regional office,” I said with a shrug. “Of course we have a giant U.S. map – we just put it away when we don’t need it.”
If I had a nickel for every time I heard that from someone new to the Project I’d have a decent start on a retirement fund. Once we got through the floor Records was only a short hallway away. We had to pass the office of the Records chief but that position was empty at the moment, something to do with seniority requirements. Sooner or later Cheryl O’Hara would be moving in, but it hadn’t happened yet. So Lincoln would get the riot act from Cheryl in the Records department proper. I let us through the door and glanced around.
Unlike in the old building, where the shift supervisors had occupied a sort of reception desk that let them keep an eye on everyone coming and going into the record stacks, here there was just a set of eight desks in front of the aisles of file cabinets that stored the bulk of the information that Records was in charge of. At any given time you could expect half a dozen people to be at those desks and just as many to be circulating through the files proper. Not all of those people were actual members of the Records department, case in point, when we got there I immediately heard Cheryl quietly arguing with someone I tentatively identified as the analyst I’d met from Helix’s team a few days ago.
Normally when Cheryl’s arguing with someone it’s best to just talk to another Records staffer and it looked like we had at least three others to choose from. Problem was, we needed a Records Chief or suitable proxy to sign off on Lincoln’s presence in the department. Now under normal circumstances the Analysis chief could serve as that proxy. But since Darryl Templeton quit and hadn’t been replaced either, Cheryl was the closest thing we had.
So I took a deep breath and braced myself. As an afterthought I warned Lincoln, “This could be a little rough.”
“You’ve never seen fourth aunt when she finds out she’s out of szechuan sauce.”
I tried not to laugh, not so much because it was funny but because I have an aunt who’s the same way, except with lutefisk. And she’s Polish, not Chinese.
“Hi Cheryl, hi Mossman.” I made a point of calling to them from a decent distance away, before I could even see them as more than dull gleams of motion as the gestured to one another, so they had enough time to compose themselves before we got to Cheryl’s desk. “I was hoping-”
“Is this important?” Cheryl cut me off. As the new holder of the “person who is tardiest with paperwork” award, ending Helix’s two year reign, I was not one of Cheryl’s favorite people. The fact that I have a legitimate, untreatable condition that makes paperwork nearly impossible for me to do quickly or neatly isn’t an excuse in her mind. “We’re in the middle of something here.”
“I can see that, and if I could get someone else’s help…” I shrugged. While some people might be worried about offending Cheryl by implying they’d rather not work with her, anyone who’d known her for any length of time accepted that Cheryl wasn’t bothered by things normal people would be bothered by. I turned the shrug into a hand wave in Lincoln’s direction. “This is Lincoln He, one of our contacts in the greater community. We’ve brought him in because one of the people he’s worked with in the past keeps turning up during this investigation. But-”
Lincoln had been peering over my shoulder the whole time I’d been talking. Apparently Cheryl’s brusque demeanor didn’t intimidate him much, and since I’d met some of his aunts and his mother in the past I can’t say I was surprised. In terms of brusqueness they were at least Cheryl’s equals. That didn’t explain why he suddenly leaned forward and reached for Cheryl’s computer monitor.
Now being in the Records department means being a part of Project Sumter, and you get a fair amount of training to go along with that. How to recognize some of the more common talents, legal ins and outs of classified information and some very basic hand to hand combat training. To go with all that, a focus on preserving the secrecy of the records they’re in charge of that borders on a psychological condition – you really shouldn’t touch their computers or files with out written permission in triplicate. When Cheryl grabbed for Lincoln’s hand she wasn’t just trying to bat it away or stop him from touching her computer, she was aiming to put him in a fairly painful wrist lock and pin his arm against her desk.
And if Lincoln hadn’t studied wushu since he was eight it might have worked. Cheryl was surprisingly fast for someone who had spent most of her time at the Project behind a desk but she wasn’t anywhere near on par with sifu. Lincoln caught the movement and spun his arm in a snaking motion that knocked her hands aside just enough to let him recover his arm without ever being in any danger.
Before things could get any worse I moved between the two of them and said, “Whoa! Let’s all take a breather. Agent O’Hara, unless there’s more to you than has ever been officially disclosed, Lincoln could knock you senseless left handed and standing on one foot. Lincoln, try it and I’ll have to lock you in a tiny little room in an undisclosed location and try to get information on Hangman from someone else.”
“He’s not getting cleared for anything if he keeps acting like that,” Cheryl snapped. “In fact, I think he’s going to go in that tiny little room right now.”
“Did he say Hangman?” Mossburger asked.
I planted my feet, a subconscious move bred from long training. There was no way I was getting pushed around. “That is a decision to be made by a field overseer.”
“Not when it happens in my Records office.” Cheryl was looking at Lincoln, not me, so I guessed she was glaring at him.
He was nodding at Mossburger. “When were those pictures posted?”
“Pictures?” I stared hard at Cheryl’s computer screen. Then sighed and squinted, a shortsighted man in a world of corrective lenses.
“The Watch found them a couple of hours ago,” Mossburger said, swiveling the computer monitor so I could see it. I noticed that Cheryl wasn’t trying to stop him, but since I was leaning closer to the screen and squinting hard there may have been some kind of byplay between her and Lincoln that I wasn’t catching. “They went up sometime last night. We’re not sure what they mean.”
“See this?” Lincoln flicked a finger at the bottom corner of one of the pictures, a banner that clung to the side of a building. I couldn’t tell how it was held in place. In the corner Lincoln had pointed out there was the watermark of a gallows, a mostly completed stick figure dangling from the noose. The only thing it was missing was the head. “That’s Hangman’s mark. He attaches it to any kind of general statement he makes to the community at large.”
“This isn’t the reposting of something that he’s done before?” I asked. I’m not a huge Internet buff but I knew that kind of thing could happen.
“No, these are things that just happened recently,” Cheryl said, the edge in her voice suggesting she still didn’t like this but was willing to play along for now. “The Watch has been trying to keep them quiet, but these images went up on a couple of major news networks before we could put the fix in. We’ve got no idea how many people have seen it. I hear Senator Dawson might be on his way to chew us out personally.”
“You?” Lincoln shook his head. “Why?”
“Look at these pictures.” Mossburger pointed to the one Lincoln had used as an example earlier. The banner in it depicted a man wrapped in a rope that looped around him, snake-like. One end of it ended in a grappling hook. Then he gestured to the other picture, which looked like a stone wall with 2H2O written across it in black paint. “Two known associates of a suspect in the cases we’re working are codenamed Grappler and Heavy Water.”
“Oh.” My turn to say it. “Well that explains the first one. But what’s up with the weird chemical formula?”
“2H means deuterium, hydrogen with an extra neutron mixed in,” Lincoln said. “Combine it with oxygen and you get water that’s a little heavier than normal.”
“So it’s called heavy water,” I said with a snort. “Always inventive, those scientists.”
“What’s the deal with this Hangman person?” Cheryl asked. “What does he have to do with Circuit?”
I glanced from the screen to her, then over my shoulder at Lincoln. “That’s what he’s here to help us figure out. So we’d better keep him out of the little rooms and get him cleared for access to this stuff ASAP, don’t you think?”
Cheryl heaved a sigh but didn’t contradict me.
Mossburger checked his watch and said, “Well, I’ll come back when I can, but I think I need to get downstairs and check in with Agent Herrera. She wanted our whole team there when we briefed the Senator.”
“To make sure nothing got overlooked?” Lincoln asked.
“To make sure they all share pain equally,” I said.
“Oh.” He shrugged. “Sounds fair.”
“Thank you, gentlemen. You’re real pals.” Mossburger shook his head and started towards the elevators, leaving us with a still-simmering Cheryl and a lot of records diving to do. All things considered, I think I would actually rather have gone to the briefing.
“So what brings you here?” I whispered to Amplifier, doing my best to ignore the increasingly bitter argument between Voorman and Senator Dawson.
“Scouting out the Senator.” It may have been my imagination but it sure didn’t look like she moved her lips to say it. I doubted anyone else in the room could hear her, which was just as well since, on top of Voorman, Verger and Teresa were in the room, along with that Movsesian kid we picked up at the same time as Amplifier, Mossburger and Jack Howell, my tactical team leader. I didn’t think anyone there would rat her out if she said something stupid, but it’s best that the opportunity never arises. “Harriet told me he’s the most important vote on the Oversight Committee and I should try and get an idea how to approach him.”
That explained the slacks and wine red blouse she was wearing, as opposed to her usual slacker-punk ensembles. I wondered, not for the first time, what kind of family background had produced her. She seemed just at ease in a stormy conference room as in a warehouse owned by a supervillian.
“I’m guessing screaming like the fat man isn’t the best approach to take.”
At ease, but not necessarily able to survive. “Just keep in mind he’ll be your boss if you make the cut.”
I smirked. “Both.”
“Do you have something you’d like to add to the discussion?” Brahms Dawson slammed his hands on the table in front of me. “Or do you find this funny?” He’d apparently never figured out that neither his loft position as Senator or any of his physical bluster could intimidate me. My grandfather once flipped a Panzer Mark IV onto it’s back and I lived around him for half my childhood.
On the other hand, his daughter had been missing for close to a month now. He probably deserved some credit for being as restrained as he was. “Senator, with all due respect, all the leads we have right now can only be followed up by going to the Carolinas, Virginia or Georgia. I would love to be able to contribute by working those angles – but for that to happen you’ll have to strike some kind of a deal with Senior Special Liaison Wells, or take him out of the picture. I’d also like to point out that, under normal circumstances, I’d be migrating out west in about two weeks. It’s hardly a time for me to be leading the charge on an investigation.”
Dawson opened his mouth to say something but Voorman jumped in first. “Helix, this wouldn’t be the first time you’ve stayed north during the winter to help track Circuit. And you know changing the leadership of a region will not help the situation any.”
I snapped my fingers. “Exactly, Voorman.”
“Exactly what?” Dawson demanded. “There has to be something you can do. What about that real estate angle you were supposed to be following up on?”
“So far it hasn’t turned anything up, Brahms,” Teresa said, clearly doing her best not to stand up and try calming the man. The Senator was a friend and had gotten her a job with the Project; but Teresa believed in professionalism too much to try a personal approach here. Using his first name was clearly as familiar as she was willing to get while on the job. “We’ve done what we can to smooth the way for Analysis but…”
Jack cleared his throat, shifting his bulk slightly in the chair so he looked a little less like a side of beef waiting to punch something and more like a side of beef discussing strategy. “But with all due respect, Senator, we need to be here, waiting. Not running down leads.”
“What?” Dawson spun to glare at Jack, who was on the opposite side of the big U table. “That makes no sense.”
“It does if you remember that there’s more to this than just a crime spree.” Jack waved his hand in my direction. “This is personal. Circuit doesn’t just want Project Sumter to notice these crimes, he wants Helix to be involved.”
Jack was setting me up and I ran with the cue. “Why else hit the places he did? A banner held to the walls of Fort Sumter by nothing but altered laws of friction? Superviscus ink globbed all over the walls of Peachtree Station in Atlanta? Those aren’t just major Civil War sites, they’re part of my family history.”
“And the talents used to vandalize them are ones he’s deliberately drawn to our attention,” Mossburger pointed out. “He’s been building to this for a while, I think.”
“No thinking needed,” Jack said with a laugh. “I know. Circuit wants Helix running all over the place, trying to work out these petty vandalisms while he gets ready for something serious. If he gets us to change the management structure of a regional office or two, that’s just bonus confusion.”
Dawson narrowed his eyes and drew himself up to his full height. He wasn’t as imposing as my grandfather, or even Jack, but he did radiate a strange kind of menace all the same. Even distracted with worry for his daughter, even angry and, from the bags under his eyes, more than a little tired, he still had impressive charisma. “Those so-called petty vandalisms are on the verge of exposing everything we’ve worked to keep secret.”
“Then tell Wells to put an extra team or two on keeping a lid on it.” I sat forward in my chair, inverting Jack’s earlier move in order to get Dawson’s attention back on me. “That’s his job, and he doesn’t want my help doing it. That’s fine. Because right now my job is to prioritize finding Circuit over everything else, and running down south won’t help with that one bit.”
“They don’t have the experience-”
“So swear in Amplifier here.” I jerked my thumb in her direction and she jerked fully upright in surprise. “She just passed her field stress test with flying colors and she’s already come across Circuit’s operation more than most of Wells’ people. You can send her, if it will make you feel better.”
Verger straightened up, too. “Hold on. She doesn’t have a team ready to move with her. Unless Wells is going to set her up with one.”
“Then she’d wind up in the Southern office’s jurisdiction,” Voorman grumbled. “We’re shorter on agents.”
“Not my point!” I said in exasperation. “I am staying here. I am waiting for Circuit. And the moment he sticks his head out of whatever hole he’s dug for himself, I am going to chop it off. That will be the end of all this fooling about.”
Brahms stared at me for a moment and I crossed my arms, waiting to hear what his new complaint would be. To my surprise, all he said was, “Fine, then. But the next time he shows up in the Midwest I want you there with hell’s bells on, and I want you to sit on him until I get there and can drag some answers out of him.”
I raised my eyebrows at that. “Senator, if that’s what you want I think you’ll have to get in line.”