Four Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
Helix finally showed his face again about twenty minutes later, coming in at the head of a procession that included Agents Herrera and Mossburger, Cheryl O’Hara and, to my astonishment, Lincoln He. Helix ignored me, yelling, “Darryl! Voorman! We need to talk!”
Hush and HiRes peeled away and went over to join their boss in the following discussion. As they did Dominic gave a strangled yelp.
“What’s wrong?” I demanded, setting my feet a little more firmly on instinct.
“You can’t see that?” He demanded, then apparently realized how silly a question that was. “They disappeared!”
“That’s normal procedure,” Coldsnap said.
“One of HiRes’ handier tricks,” Frostburn added. “Thanks to Hush they can’t be overheard and HiRes makes sure they can’t be seen or have their lips read.”
I squinted in the general direction they’d gone a moment before. The amorphous blobs of movement that indicated people shifting on their feet or passing documents back and forth were still there, although I didn’t see anything solid looking at the center of the calm zones Helix and Hush created. Weird.
I decided to keep the fact that whatever HiRes was doing wasn’t entirely effective against my talent to myself. “I’m not sure that’s really necessary,” I told Frostburn, “considering Voorman basically told us what Helix was up to half an hour ago.”
“But procedure is procedure,” she answered. “Sometimes it’s an end unto itself.”
I knew all about that but before I could explain how little I thought of it Lincoln tapped me on the shoulder. “I found Hangman,” he said, handing me a very dated looking laptop. “But I don’t know how helpful to your investigation that’s going to be.”
“Sound ominous,” I said, taking the laptop and squinting at the screen. “What am I looking at?”
“A video file uploaded by Hangman a few hours ago.” Lincoln pointed at a line of pure gibberish at the bottom of the screen, half capital letters and half random symbols or punctuation. “It looks like he scheduled this to go live about half an hour after they hit Michigan Avenue.”
I glanced at him. “How do you know about that? It shouldn’t be in the press yet and you’ve been in the Records department for the last month.”
“Just a couple of days, really,” he said absently, poking the laptop’s touchpad. “And I know about Michigan Avenue and that that’s the correlation because your friend Helix mentioned it when Cheryl showed it to him.”
The screen refreshed and the video file started playing automatically. I could make out a man dressed in a fedora, scarf and suit on the screen. He was probably talking but the volume on the computer’s speaker was turned down so low I couldn’t make anything out. “There’s a lot of junk there about overthrowing the current system and creating a more equitable arrangement for everyone,” Lincoln said, still tinkering with the laptop’s controls, “but the really interesting part is this here, at the bottom. The guy talking here-”
“That’s Circuit,” I said, still trying to process what I was seeing. “Hangman’s working with Circuit. He’s not been captured or killed by him.”
“That’s the read Helix and his analyst got, too,” Lincoln said, using that even tone people like to use when they’re explaining to someone who’s particularly slow.
“But why?” I asked, a little confused. “Circuit is already an information warfare specialist.”
“Because he’s trying to broaden his reach,” Mossman said, looking over my other shoulder with Auburn in tow. “That video is basically a recruitment speech. But prospective recruits need a way to contact him, right? That’s what this is all about.” He pointed at the same lines of text Lincoln had earlier. “These lines of code alter slightly each time the page is refreshed, depending on how many page views the video has and the local time of the terminal that’s loading the video. There’s probably more but that’s all we’ve gotten so far. We’re hoping it’s a code that tells people how to contact him.”
“Has the added benefit of screening the intelligence of prospective applicants, too,” Lincoln added.
Auburn plucked absently at her lip for a moment, then refreshed the page again. “Page views with a specific ISP,” she said, pointing at a specific part of the code. “See?”
“I didn’t think of that,” Lincoln said. “How many routers in this building?”
I handed him the laptop. “I’m not sure, but I do know this is way over my head. You people work on this, I’m going to find Bob Sanders.”
Mossburger glanced up at me. “Why?”
“Because he’s got the best contacts with the FBI in this office, and it sounds like we’re going to need them in the near future. Let me know if you find out something concrete.”
“And those are the Senator’s terms,” I said, finishing my pitch to Darryl.
He nodded. “I suppose that’s the best I could have hoped for, at least for now.” I saw a fraction of the stress that had turned my one-time friend into an old man before his time bleed away. “I appreciate this, Helix.” I glanced meaningfully to my right, where Teresa was doing her best to look inconspicuous. Darryl caught my drift immediately. “And thank you, Agent Herrera. I doubt Senator Dawson would have run late to a meeting if it was just Helix calling.”
“It pays to be connected, sometimes,” she said with the hint of a smile. “Although, really, I think the Secret Service could have arranged for some of his time easily enough.”
“And really, Darryl,” I said, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re a bodyguard now?”
“The exact function of our team is… fluid at the moment.” He laughed softly. “They’ve never tried to used talented individuals as part of their approach to what they do. The Secret Service covers a lot of bases and not all talents work well in all their capacities. Just finding and recruiting the right people has been a challenge. And we’re creating an operational doctrine from the ground up.”
“But still involved in finding criminals,” Teresa noted.
The brief flicker of humor vanished. “Only Circuit, and only because he claims he’s aiming to overthrow the country. Attacks on the person of the President, the Judiciary or the Mint could all accomplish those aims.”
“Even so, when it comes to unusual talents, oversight is Sumter’s job,” I said.
“Oversight indeed,” he replied grimly.
I winced. “You know how it is, Darryl. We’ll get him, and if you want a piece of that it has to be with us.”
Darryl nodded. “Honestly, I never wanted it any other way.”
“For now, work with Mossman and the other analysts,” Teresa said, nodding back to the small huddle that had formed around Lincoln He and his laptop. “Try and get some idea of where to look for Circuit next.”
“Gladly.” Darryl started over towards the small group, cane tapping along the floor.
Voorman, who had been uncharacteristically quiet and still for the duration of the conversation, gave us a weak smile and said, “Not bad work, you two. You just got back in town today, am I right?”
I glanced at my watch. “Technically speaking, yesterday. But yes, that’s right.”
“In that case, go to home, both of you. Get some rest, I’ll be in touch with you, Agent Herrera, and let you know what the schedule is. I think there’s going to wind up being briefings every four hours, but a lot will depend on what the head office decides. Not your problem right now. I’ll be in touch.” He turned and wandered back out onto the floor, studying the updated status reports along the southeast coast.
Teresa watched him for a moment, then said, “Go on home. I’ll call you and let you know what the plan is as soon as I hear it.”
I glanced at Voorman, who was talking to Lincoln and hadn’t heard, then back again only to find Teresa had already left. I figured she wasn’t planning on heading home soon so I decided to follow her and, sure enough, she headed to her office and picked up a stack of reports. I leaned against the door frame and asked, “Are you okay?”
She glanced up, looking a little surprised to see me. “I’m sorry?”
“Look, I know the Senator has been a big help to you over the years, and you know there’s no love lost between the two of us. So,” I held up a hand. “Don’t take this the wrong way. But if I’d been through what you have, and I heard him say what he just said, I’d be upset.”
“I don’t think that’s any of your business, Helix,” she said, slowly setting the report aside.
“Teresa, when you know a Senator you don’t get much privacy.” I took one of the empty chairs in front of her desk, turned it around and straddled it. “Look, this isn’t a great time for this conversation, but I don’t think there’s ever going to be one and we need your A game here. The Senator just said there’s no free rides just because someone’s grieving and you can’t tell me your father’s death didn’t have anything to do with your decision to go into law enforcement, or to join Project Sumter.”
She glanced down and away. “Of course they did.”
“Of course.” It was an answer that said absolutely nothing that I didn’t already know. Looks like I’d have to push a little harder. “You said you know a lot about survivor’s guilt.”
“So?” A defiant expression this time, looking me right in the eye.
Step lightly, Double Helix, I thought. Now is not the time to make her mad. “So, I’m self-aware enough to understand where my guilt comes from. People like Darryl and I, it’s our job to find and stop people like Circuit. We shouldn’t have lost Mona at that school on Diversy, there’s probably a dozen things we could have done to prevent it.” I took a deep breath, reminding myself to stay on task. “Yes, I feel guilty about it. But what do you have to feel guilty about?”
Teresa’s eyes narrowed. “Helix, when was the last time you legitimately felt like you were in danger?”
“When Grandpa Wake got so made he accidentally ripped a tire off the tractor with his bare hands,” I answered promptly, smiling slightly at the memory. “I was twelve and had just gone joyriding…” I let the thought trail off. Teresa was looking at me with that blank, I-don’t-get-it kind of expression people get when I talk about my mom’s parents.
“Okay,” she said slowly. “Let me ask a different question. Was there ever a time when you didn’t feel like your talent was enough to keep you safe?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Once, when I got stranded in a freak snowstorm in Montana. There wasn’t enough ambient heat in the atmosphere to use in a meaningful way.”
Teresa nodded and leaned back in her chair. “I remember reading about that. You were still new at the time, yes?”
“Yeah. I didn’t have a solid migration schedule set up for the winter, since I couldn’t go to the Southern region and the West Coast already had two active heat sinks at the time.” I matched her relaxed posture and asked, “Is that important?”
“How did it make you feel?”
I hadn’t expected this to be my therapy session, but I figured it would be worthwhile to play along. “It wasn’t the greatest feeling, that’s for sure. But nothing happened in the end. I was really just there to interview a newly discovered talent, there wasn’t anything sinister about it.”
“But for a little while you had an idea of what the life of a normal woman is like.” She gripped the arms of her chair tightly, her gaze somewhere far away. “Empowering women is a major concern for so many people today because we’re typically physically less capable than men. Worse, we’re often singled out as the targets of people like Lethal Injection.”
There was a whole world of preconceptions there but I had a feeling they didn’t have anything to do with what Teresa was really trying to say. “Except Lethal Injection didn’t kill you, he killed your father.”
“The police say he got there just after I left for school and it might have been a kidnapping attempt gone wrong.” She shuddered slightly. “His other two cases looked much the same, from what I’ve read.”
“You think your father died instead of you.” That sure explained a lot. Teresa had never struck me as the vengeful type. Of course, Darryl never had either, but even he was showing some signs of hopefully regaining perspective with time. It had been years since Teresa’s father died and she knew that his killer was dead. Batman style revenge-on-all-criminals makes for a decent comic but there are few people in real life who have the kind of emotional stamina to carry a grudge that long, the Man From Gettysburg being a notable example.
And he was probably mentally disturbed beforehand.
But guilt? That was something that never really went away. I reached across the desk and gently took Teresa by the hands, pulled her forward so her forearms were resting on the desk and put my hands over hers. By doing so I engaged multiple senses at once, ensuring that her entire attention was on me, a technique for better engaging emotionally distraught people that we learn early in our field training. I sternly told myself that better communication was the only reason I was doing it.
“Teresa, I don’t think I’ve ever met a father worth his salt who would have been upset to die in place of his children. But that’s not what happened.” Teresa hesitated as I added the last bit and I took it as an opportunity to push on. “Lethal Injection killed more than just the three people who made the news. We think he was responsible for seven or eight murders. All middle aged men, two of them who didn’t have any daughters at all.”
Her brow furrowed slightly. “Then why… Serial killers always have a specific kind of victim they target. Why middle aged men?”
I could think of several possible answers to that, all sarcastic and probably not that useful under the circumstances. “They were all single fathers, Teresa. Most of them lost their wives or partners to an accident or some kind of illness, although I think in one case she just walked out. But they all decided to keep their kids and raise them themselves, rather than turning them over to relatives. That was the only similarity we found among them. Ethnicity, place of origin, economic background, education, there were no commonalities in those factors. You loved your dad, I take it?”
“Yes.” Immediate and firm. “He wasn’t always as… involved as mom was before the accident, but he was always there. Even when he was still hurting from her death he took time for me.”
“We got similar statements from just about everyone child we talked to during the course of the investigation,” I said, grimacing at the memory. Even years afterwards I still felt a twinge of anger at a man who would single out a child’s last living parent and kill them. “They all had kids. They were all trying to do their best by them. We never got Lethal Injection for questioning, since he died resisting arrest, but we’re pretty sure that’s why he targeted them. There weren’t any other similarities.”
Teresa stared at me, her expression a mix of wonder and disgust. “That’s horrible.”
“More importantly.” I looked her directly in the eye for a moment and spoke each word slowly. “It means your father died because he chose to do the right thing. It wasn’t your fault. The only one to blame is a madman, and he’s dead.” I let go of her hands and leaned back, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “I don’t know what Circuit wants to do, I don’t think he chose to kill Mona, it probably wasn’t intentional at all. But she was trying to do the right thing and now she’s dead. Darryl deserves the right to look Circuit in the eye and demand justice as much as you and all the other children of Lethal Injection’s victims.”
Teresa nodded. “And to do that we all need to pull our weight.”
“That’s right.” I gave a rueful smile. “Can you guess what step one of that is?”
“Getting some rest,” she said, matching my smile and raising a tired laugh. “I can take a hint, Helix.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said, dragging myself up off of my chair. “But I’m not hinting, I’m dragging. Come on.”
I took her by the arm and hauled her out of her chair. She went along with a groan but let me push her out of the office and into the hallway. She made it out of the building under her own power, smiling and occasionally shaking her head and chuckling under her breath. Outside the sky was dark, the streets were bathed in shadows from the street lamps and Circuit cast his own shadow over the future. But I could tell that, for Teresa Herrera, the darkness that had driven her to Project Sumter was finally starting to break.
It was a start. But the real work was yet to come.