Seven Hours Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
I threw my go bag down on my desk and slumped into my chair. It felt like it had been well over a year since I’d visited my desk, although it was really more like two and a half weeks, but by some miracle it had been kept clear of paperwork. Of course, I had a small book’s worth of handwritten notes in my bag that would have to be typed up and turned into something Cheryl could file. I wasn’t really looking forward to that, since it all basically boiled down to, “We talked to a lot of people who say they haven’t seen Circuit ever, or, if they’ll admit to that, not in the last six months to a year.”
That was probably to be expected, Circuit had to have been planning his most recent job for some time and for something of this size it’s no surprise that he avoided using any contacts we already knew about. It’s entirely possible that he’d even set up an entire network just to carry out this one job. That would be the kind of ridiculous groundwork I’ve come to expect from him.
Jack deposited his bag on the ground next to his desk, which was right beside mine, and gave me a critical look. “You should go home and get some sleep, Helix. You look like you’ve been awake for the past month.”
“How do you know I haven’t?” I gave him a critical look. I had no doubt I looked pretty rough, I sure felt like I’d run the whole way from Evansville back to the regional office. But never let it be said that Agent Jack Howell let a little road trip get him down, he still looked like he always did: like he was too big to quite get his suit to sit right. Today that was enough to make him look fresher and more alert than anyone else on the team, even the normally unflappable Teresa.
And he wasn’t about to pass up the chance to rub it in. “Because, unlike some of us, you look like you’ve been sleeping on park benches, not beds.”
“Some of the places we’ve stayed, that might be what those beds started life as.” I rubbed my eyes blearily, seriously tempted to do as Jack suggested. After two weeks on the road, no one was feeling their best. But I’d seen Teresa headed off towards her office a moment ago and I was willing to bet she wasn’t planning to leave any time soon. Bergstrum and Kesselman were at their desks just behind us and Mossburger had headed back towards Records. Now was not the time to be lying down on the job.
I glanced at the time and shrugged. “It’s barely after noon. I can put in a few hours before knocking off.”
Jack started unpacking his bag and I did the same. In about ten minutes I had all the stuff that was supposed to go back in my desk put away and my notes in a pile on one corner of the desk. With a sigh I picked them up and started sorting them into chronological order…
Five Hours Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
Lincoln claimed he was getting closer to finding Hangman, who he insisted was not as inactive as people had originally thought. Apparently he’d spent the last two weeks dragging Records personnel off of whatever assignments they’d been given and running them through archives and computer code from all over the Internet to help him find traces of Hangman’s activity. It had become almost an obsession for him.
I knew this partly because, when I’d gotten back into town two days ago I’d checked in with sifu to see if Lincoln had found anything. Sifu told me the family practically hadn’t seen him since the week before. Now, outside of wushu training, I hadn’t really gotten to know Lincoln much and I couldn’t tell if that kind of behavior was typical. But sifu didn’t seem to find it that surprising so I didn’t worry myself. If there was anything worth reporting I figured I would hear about it.
The other way I knew it was because, as soon as she heard I was back, Cheryl asked me to drop by so she could complain.
“Look, Agent Massif, I know that he’s working on an assignment that’s important to the Project but he can’t keep diverting our resources like this.” She leaned back in her chair, drumming her fingers on the empty desk. We’d moved into the vacant Records supervisor’s office since Cheryl wanted privacy for this conversation. There was only the one chair in the room at the moment so I was standing. Looming over Cheryl like that should have given me the upper hand in the conversation but it really didn’t feel that way. “In fact, in the last two days I don’t think he’s called for a single file from the archives. Put him out on the floor or turn him over to Analysis but get him out of our hair.”
“No.” I folded my arms over my chest and did my best to give her a hard look without anything more than a vague idea of where her eyes were. “Lincoln’s probably familiar with a lot of the big picture, our structure and a general idea of what some talents do, he’s still not cleared for the specifics of our open cases. He doesn’t even know about Circuit, just that Hangman is a person of interest in an open case. There’s too much classified information he could overhear in Analysis or on the floor. You Records people don’t discuss what you file; you just keep it in order. I think it’s the best place to keep him and Harriet agrees with me.”
“He’s in the way,” Cheryl said, sitting up and dropping her voice. “We don’t discuss active cases as much as you field agents or Analysis do but we still have to watch our step when he’s around.”
“Look, I know you’re busy but my team has been busy suppressing rumors related to the Emancipation Proclamation theft for the last four days, and before that we were all over the state of Indiana trying to find traces of Circuit.” I spread my hands helplessly. “We just don’t have the people to keep an eye on him right now and he’s part of an active investigation. If it’s becoming a problem, take it up with Voorman or apply for field work and take over that angle of the investigation yourself.”
I turned and headed towards the door because I really felt I didn’t have time to argue any more. Helix was supposed to be getting back sometime that afternoon and I wanted to see if he had anything new we could follow up on. Lying to the media and the victims of crime is a part of our job but it’s never sat well with me. My priest tells me I’m forgiven when I go to confession but it doesn’t do much for the guilt. And I have to wonder what the lies do to the people we tell them to. At the very least, in the case of Agent Herrera, I heard they created long term issues. As I reached for the doorknob I found myself almost envying Cheryl her dilemma-free Records work.
Then she said, “I transferred here in the oversight program, you know. Made it halfway through the training course before I got sidelined. Some sort of autoimmune problem led to a dethatched retina. There was a surgery and a long recovery time.” I heard the chair she sat in push back from the desk, caught a glimpse of movement as she stood and approached me, resolving into a solid shape as she got closer. What I could make out of her face suggested she was mad. Really mad. “I’m legally blind without corrective eyewear, get something like 20/80 vision with it. And I have permanent gaps in my vision. It’s enough to keep me out of the field. But don’t ever think I’m just here to babysit your files and extraneous personnel. I could do deskwork for any hidebound bureaucracy on the planet, I stay here because I know how important Project Sumter is. Let me do my job and I’ll let you do yours.”
The bitterness in her tone was strong enough I caught myself cringing, just a bit, and straightened back up. “I’ll talk to Lincoln.”
“Good.” Cheryl pushed past me and out of the office, leaving me feeling a little disoriented and very ashamed.
One Hour, Fifteen Minutes Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
I tugged the scarf around my neck, accepted my long jacket from Simeon and slung it over one arm. The small garage on the city outskirts we were staging from wasn’t particularly cold, compared to outside, and I was already feeling a bit warm. The heavy pillar containing the Emancipation Proclamation had just been loaded onto the main van and strapped down. I touched my fingers onto the electrical contacts in the palms of my hands and ran a quick final check on the wiring in my gear. It wasn’t too late to cancel if things weren’t just right but it turned out I didn’t need to worry. Everything checked out.
Time to call it. “Heavy?”
“Everything looks good, boss,” he said, poking his head out of the back of the van and patting the Proclamation affectionately. “You want to make ’em let your people go? I think maybe they’ll hear you with this.”
She took off her signature long vest, folded it and handed it to Simeon, who slung it under one arm without comment. Then she slung her SMG and said, “I’m ready, so is crowd control.”
I nodded at her weapon. “Make sure the CC teams know we’re not actually planning to hurt anyone unless we absolutely have to.”
“Hurting regular people means they’re less likely to help us later.” She shrugged. “I get it. But you know how it is.”
Another nod, because I did know, and it was back to addressing the room at large. “Wallace?”
A van’s hood closed with a bang and Wallace leaned on top of it, wiping greasy hands. “Everything’s hooked up and running to Davis’ specs. I dunno if it’s gonna work as advertised but that’s not my department.”
“No it’s not. You and Simeon beat feet to Chainfall and see if there’s anything you can do there. Hangman?”
“No one’s ever done anything exactly like this before,” she said, tapping the bulkier than normal laptop she had an equally oversized shoulder bag. “But I should be able to kill satalite coverage of the city for fifteen minutes. We’ve got no more than that.”
“That’s still five more than we were expecting.” I rubbed my hands together and looked over the crowd of people we’d pulled together for this, the bang that signaled the opening of Operation Chainfall, the prelude to Thunderclap and the beginning of the end. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s showtime.”
I snapped awake and nearly slid out of my chair. Lying face down on your desk is not a comfortable way to sleep so I’d apparently decided to drift off leaning back in my chair instead. When Teresa woke me I’d slid so low I would have jerked myself straight onto the floor if I hadn’t grabbed onto the edge of my desk first. I took a moment to get myself in a better sitting position, ignoring Jack’s snickering and the papers I’d dropped on the floor, and said, “Something up?”
She smiled slightly and tossed another stack of papers onto my desk. “Latest write-ups on the efforts to keep the Proclamation theft quiet.”
“By which you mean the use of talents in that robbery quiet,” I said, picking up the stack and looking it over blearily. “The robbery itself was in the news for almost a week, I think they know about it in sub-Saharan Africa already.”
“Maybe.” She shrugged. “So far none of the major news agencies have mentioned women walking on walls or men jumping off balconies without getting hurt.”
“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ in there.”
Teresa smiled. “In this case the key word is ‘major’. Several local news sources have hinted at strange goings on, to say nothing about the tabloids.”
“Did we feed any of the tabloids the real story to help discredit it?”
“Better than that.” I glanced over the top of the papers in curiosity. “We broke the details up into two stories and sold them to different rags. Now if the real story comes out it will look like someone just took them and ran them together to try and make things more sensational.”
I tossed the report on my desk in disgust. “This is still threatening to get away from us. Sooner or later someone’s going to be able to put out real, solid proof and we’re going to wind up looking like fools. We’ll wish we’d thought about our own credibility then.”
She sighed, picked up the report and put it on top of my go bag. “For now, just make sure your familiar with the story so you can stick with it in the field.”
“I guess I’ll have to.” I picked up the papers again and opened my bag, looking for a free spot to put them.
I’d just decided I could squeeze them under the laundry and next to my shaving kit when I heard Voorman yelling. That’s about as common as snow in June around these parts. My head snapped up and I saw him come rushing into the room, Samson trailing behind him like a thundercloud, yelling, “Clear the floor. We are now at Condition One, clear the floor!”
Clear the floor is one of those phrases that has it’s own unique meaning in Project Sumter. In fact, we drill on clearing the floor once a month, at least when we’re actually in the office. I was turning my chair upside down and shoving it on top of my desk before Voorman was finished talking. Desks started sliding towards the edges of the room within fifteen seconds. Mine was near the center of the room and I never got a chance to move it myself, Voorman said something to Teresa, who had stopped on her way back to her office to see what was going on, and she came and pulled me aside.
The first thing I said was, “What happened?”
“I’m not sure but Voorman wants you on it.”
There’s a giant map of the US built into the floor of the room, which is why the euphamism for that palce is “the floor” and not something else, but there’s not enough room in most buildings for a map of that scale to be left clear all the time so it doubles as the field team’s staging room. Voorman was pacing along one wall, waiting for the carpet over the map to be rolled back, when we got through the chaos and over to where he was.
“Open Circuit just hit Michigan Avenue,” he said without preamble. “A couple of city blocks were knocked out by EMP, he gave a speech while flying-”
“Flying?!” Teresa and I demanded in unison.
“Flying! Don’t ask me how.” Voorman shook his head in exasperation. “We heard through the police switchboard once they got a clear picture of what happened.”
“When was this?” Teresa asked.
“Minutes ago, less than ten, I believe. They were very excited about it.” Voorman gave no sign of amusement at that colossal understatement. “There were hundreds of people there.”
I thought about what I’d just been reading. “How are we planning to keep this quiet?”
“I don’t think we can. The fallout from this could break the Project. Only chance we have of weathering this is to grab Circuit before he can make things worse.” Voorman gave me a surprisingly steady look for a man who was usually a big ball of nervous energy.. “I think we all know you’re the best person for that job. Find Massif, take Samson and get it done.”