Author’s Note: Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s been pointed out to me that last week’s post was a duplicate of my last post before Christmas break. I’m not sure how that happened, but it’s not what should have been put up last week. Rather than repost I’ve just edited last week’s post with the correct chapter. You may want to read it before reading this. I apologize for the mistake. Now on with this week’s chapter!
Three Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
Hangman shrugged and shook her head. “There’s nothing for sure here, you understand. Not everything the Project does has to come through the Senator’s office.” She waved at a collection of e-mails and drafts of memos she’d pulled up. “But from the looks of things nothing’s happened.”
I drummed my fingers absently on the back of her chair until she gently put her hand over them to make me stop. “Replacing a regional director-”
“The technical term is Senior Special Liaison.”
“-or whatever they call them has to be something that requires the Senate Committee’s approval.” I snorted. “And I’ve seen Mr. Wells in action before. There must be half a dozen times he could have made a major bust if he’d just asked Helix what he should expect. He’s not going to give up his grudge just because the greater good is at stake. They’re not going for the bait.” I took her hand and raised her out of the chair.
“Well, it was worth a shot,” she said, smoothing down the front of her skirt. “And regardless of whether Helix is down south or at the regional office he’s not going to be in position to respond to our next move.”
“Yes. Our next move.” At some point they’d stopped being my moves. Not for the first time in the last few days I thought back to my conversation with Simeon. Time to take some distance again. “How is the shooting practice coming along?”
She tucked her hands behind her back and did her best to look innocent. “Heavy says I’m qualified to teach a course on handling and maintaining sidearms and I should be competent with submachine guns by the time we leave for Indiana.”
“Really?” I stared at her blankly. “I know that he’s a good teacher but not even I passed muster that fast.”
“You didn’t grow up in Wisconsin as the daughter of an important politician, Circuit.” She shrugged. “I’ve had self defense training since I was ten and, when I turned eighteen, I went through a basic shooting course, too. My father thought it would be good for my self-confidence, even if I never had to use any of it.”
“Only the part about being aware of your surroundings.” She gave me a knowing smile. “Of course, I’ve always been good at that. As for the gun training, I never bothered to get a license in Wisconsin because I was going to school in California and who knew where after I graduated.”
“Sensible.” I led her out of the server room and into the antechamber outside my office. “Of course, I don’t suppose self defense training includes any lessons on stealth or insertion techniques?”
She shook her head. “Being highly visible is a part of self defense. Assuming, of course, you’re a law abiding citizen.”
“It’s amazing how many different aspects of life take that for granted.” We were back on the landing outside my office now, the locks clicking closed as I pulled the door closed. “How is the Sorting Algorithm of Evil coming?”
“Currently we can run comprehensive background checks on anyone from the lower 48 states and Alaska. Gaining access to Hawaii’s databases comes next, followed by the larger Canadian provinces.” She held up a hand to forestall questions as she thumbed her phone and consulted something there. “We also have access to some other, less official sources of information integrated already – all the contacts you’ve built in the south, north Africa and Europe, plus a few from Hangman’s heyday. I’m working on gaining access to some classified government stuff and maybe a few unsavory sources that won’t know they’re working for us.”
Once she gave me an expectant look I went ahead with my question. “What if we get people from Mexico?”
“Normal citizens with have to clear customs and get this far north, which means we have some time before they get to us and need vetting. If they don’t come through legal channels or they’re not normal citizens then we already have the contacts to vet them via your southern crime rings.” She pocketed her phone and gave me another knowing look. “Or whatever it is you call them.”
“Extralegal resources.” I considered what she’d told me. “Check with Heavy or Grappler about scheduling some basic breaking and entering training. We may need you ready to pick some locks or otherwise help with petty larceny in the near future, provided you intend to continue working in the field.”
She laughed. “Don’t get me wrong, Circuit. Doing data analysis here for you is way more interesting than any college course I ever took, but I wouldn’t miss being in the front seat of history for anything.”
She swept off across the walkway and down the stairs to the ground floor where she would no doubt begin bugging Heavy until he stopped whatever he was doing and showed her some of his very, very wide arsenal of criminal techniques. I felt bad about sending Hangman after him but I thought it best to keep some space between us for a while. It was a delicate time for – well, everything, really.
There was plenty to do for my part, too. New maglev relays to check out, the EMP countermeasures to install and a personal visit to the Chainfall site to schedule. Our last major job before beginning Operation Chainfall was in two days and there were a million details. But before I could loose myself in them first I had to do something I hated. Manage my people.
There was an odd patch of shadow at the top of the wall. I turned to it but purposefully didn’t look up. “You can come down now, Grappler.”
There was a soft whisper of fabric and then she dropped to the ground from about shoulder height, landing with a barely audible thud, the beads in her dreadlocks rattling softly as they swished through the air. She was wearing her typical non-burglary clothes, a variation on pants, blouse and a knee length vest ensemble. This vest was a pale blue, with silvery plant life embroidered in it and she was wearing a matching bracelet.
Her grim expression was a stark contrast.
“That girl’s toying with you, Circuit,” she said with a huff. “You should just tell her to be on her way. Or better yet…” Grappler slid closer and laid an arm on my shoulder, leaning until she was almost brushing against my chest. “Show her you’re already taken.”
Simeon had mentioned that someone suggested the possibility Hangman was sweet on me to him, now I knew who to thank for that. I gently, but deliberately, took her arm and moved it off my shoulder, forcing her to straighten up to maintain her balance. “Grappler, I’m not in the habit of lying to people. When we transform from smalltime crime to serious business we’re going to need her information gathering skills more than ever, she can’t be nearly as effective as she is at that if she’s ‘on her way.’ And I’m not taken.”
Grappler tilted her head to one side and gave me a dazzling smile, the kind she used when she got caught casing a job and needed to talk her way out from security or suspicious property owners. “Not even a little bit taken?”
“If I wasn’t the time you showed up while I was in the bath I’m certainly not going to change my mind just because you flash a smile at me.” I shook my head. “Grappler, I don’t know what your problem with Hangman is.” I was guessing it was jealousy but I didn’t know that for sure. “But you’re not going to change my mind. She stays. She keeps doing what she has been. And that is all she’ll be doing.”
Grappler took a step back and gave me a critical look, as if trying to decide if I was the real Open Circuit. “Please don’t tell me you trust her.”
“Grappler…” I heaved a sigh and glanced around once, just to make sure we were still alone on the walkway. When I was sure we were I went on. “Just because you and your late husband lied to each other for four years doesn’t mean everyone is automatically untrustworthy.”
“I know that, you idiot.” To my surprise she wasn’t angry, but almost laughing. “I trust you, don’t I? And Heavy. Maybe even Simeon, when I understand what he’s saying. Your problem is, you trust too much.”
“Me?” I did a mental inventory of all the paranoid security measures I’d taken in the last twenty-four hours. It was a lengthy list. “Sorry, I’m not sure I follow that one.”
“Well, let’s see. You got four people you really count on right now.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One is a guy who thinks he’s a butler out of an Agatha Christie movie.”
“Simeon prefers the term ‘office manager.'”
Finger numbers two and three. “Two of us were professional thieves who also managed to somehow miss the serial killer right under our noses.” Finger four. “And one is the daughter of a U.S. Senator who probably learned to lie before she learned what the truth was.”
“Davis will be disappointed to hear he wasn’t on that list.”
“Except you’re not going to tell him, because not even you’re dumb enough to trust that guy.” Grappler planted her hands on her hips. “Sometimes I’m amazed one of us hasn’t just clubbed you with a candlestick and had done with it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why would Simeon do that?”
“He’s a butler.”
“Office manager; and that’s an unfair stereotype.”
She gave me a frank look, her dark eyes boring into mine. “You want to go big time, you need to trust less, Circuit. Everybody’s going to be after you when these gigs are done. I don’t care about your crusade, but at least you pay the bills. So do me a favor and be a little more careful, okay?”
“I never thought I’d hear that advice from you.” I smiled and put one hand over my heart. “But I swear I will take no more risks than are absolutely necessary. Does that satisfy?”
“You swear with your right hand over your heart, Circuit.”
I glanced at my hands in mock surprise. “Is that a fact?”
Grappler watched me in poorly concealed amazement. “There’s something wrong with you lately. You were never like this before. Maybe it’s too late for you already.” She sighed and turned towards the stairs. “Just keep your head, okay, Circuit? All I’m asking.”
“I’ll try.” I watched her until her head disappeared down the stairs, then added, too softly for her to have heard, “But you’re right. It’s already too late for that. Far, far too late.”
“Please tell me you have something in here.” I poke cautiously at the enormous pile of paper on Teresa’s desk, not entirely sure there wasn’t something alive in there. It certainly seemed to have a mind of it’s own, with files and stacks of paper occasionally rustling or sliding around without apparent cause.
She waved a hand vaguely at the assorted mystery papers on her desk. “I have a lot of somethings. Pretty much anything you could want. Care to be more specific?”
“Something on Circuit would be ideal…” The labels on the folders mostly faced one way and I browsed over them, just for kicks. Most of them covered parts of the case I was already familiar with, a few of them were flagged from the Southern office and it was probably best for my sanity to ignore them, since Wells wouldn’t me do anything about them anyway. One near the bottom caught my eye and I started carefully fishing it out.
“Your friend has been keeping a low profile for the past week. Aside from the vandalism in Charleston and Atlanta the only peep from him has been that stunt in Phoenix.” Teresa shrugged and closed down whatever she had been doing on her computer so as to give me her full attention. “Of course, Analysis isn’t sure that was Circuit but…”
“But it’s another case of a weird symbol turning up in a place connected with me in a high profile manner. This time as a hacking attack, in the same place Circuit made his first big cyber attack. And Hangman, or someone like him, helped break the story. That can’t all be coincidence” I started browsing through the file, which was a summary of the various leads Pastor Rodriguez – excuse me, Agent Samson – had been following up while trying to locate Senator Dawson’s daughter. There were a lot of false leads and he’d found couple of women with similar appearances, but no sign of Elizabeth Dawson herself. “Are you still working this case?”
“Just keeping tabs on it.” Teresa sighed and leaned back in her chair, staring into the corner of the cramped office. She hadn’t had enough time, either here or in the old building, to accumulate the mountains of assorted crap that supervisors always seem to wind up with. But in it’s own way that just made the office seem more bleak. “After the talk you and Jack had with the Senator it’s pretty clear there’s not much more we can do, for the moment.”
I closed the file and tossed it down. “Sorry about that. We probably should have discussed that ahead of time.”
She waved me off. “There wasn’t time, and you’re points were valid. It would have been different if we knew Brahms was coming ahead of time.”
“If it’s not too much to ask, how do you know the Senator and his family?” I closed the file, since there didn’t seem to be anything important there that I didn’t already know. “Seems a bit odd for a girl from the West Coast to know the family of a Senator from Wisconsin.”
“I met Elizabeth when we were in school. She was on the school paper and interviewed me as part of a series on adopted kids at Berkley.” Teresa smiled and her stare went off into the past. “After that she didn’t leave me alone. I think she knew a little bit about what her dad’s role on our Oversight Committee was about, and realized I’d brushed up against something similar. We talked about it a lot. She brought her dad to meet me when he made a campus visit, and the rest is history.”
“So you’re here to catch the bad guys thanks to a chance meeting in college?”
“Except I can’t quite seem to get the catching bad guys part right.” Teresa picked up the folder and glared at it, like she could somehow make it show her where her friend was through sheer willpower.
I sat down across from her and gently took the folder out of her hands. “Welcome to the real Sumter experience, Teresa. We’re not supermen. We’re just people with weird abilities.” I set the file aside again and said, “Let it bother you. You wouldn’t be human, otherwise. But remember that it’s not your fault. Ultimately, the problem here isn’t that you can’t fix this – it’s that Circuit broke things in the first place.”
Teresa laughed and it was surprisingly giggly. I wondered if she was more tired than she looked. “You make a good point.” Her smile faded almost as quickly as it came. “How did you meet the Templetons?”
“Darryl was my field stress test oversight agent. We worked off and on over the next two years when I was out west; then he agreed to go migratory when I needed a new oversight agent. That’s when he met Mona, she was in the Analysis office here.” I sat down in one of the chairs by the desk and leaned back. “They were a weird couple but it worked out.”
She leaned back in her chair, giving me an evaluating look. “And now they’re both gone. Are you going to be okay?”
“Maybe one day. You can never tell for sure.” I sighed and picked up a huge stack of fliers and promotions for historical sites and events around the nation, leafing through them for a distraction. Everyone had gotten them when Circuit’s pals had hit the historic Fort Sumter in their vandalism campaign. With the Phoenix airport on the hit list, too, historic sites seemed a lot less relevant all of a sudden. “I guess I just wish Darryl hadn’t left on some sort of a vendetta. I would get leaving because the job reminds him of Mona. But he just wanted to hunt Circuit. It’s like something out of a bad movie…”
I trailed off as came to a brochure from the Lincoln Financial Foundation, a finance group that had named itself after the president and started collecting related memorabilia. Since it seemed like I was done Teresa said, “You know, you could take a little of your own advice. Darryl is his own person, and while he’s not in the best place right now he is qualified to make his own-”
“I don’t believe it.” I shoved the rest of the pamphlets and junk onto the desk, jumping out of my chair with the Lincoln Financial brochure clutched in one hand.
Teresa got to her feet a little more slowly, a confused look on her face. “What’s wrong?”
“We need to go,” I said, holding up the colorful, glossy piece of paper for her inspection. “I know where Circuit’s going to be.”
“What?” She snatched the flier out of my hands and glanced it over. “Indianapolis?”