20 Minutes After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
“Everybody pile in!” Heavy slung himself into the driver’s seat of the van with a manic glee that he only really demonstrated when he was getting away from a job that had gotten his blood moving.
I climbed into the back next to Hangman, who was already ensconced at one of the consoles and bringing her laptop out of sleep mode. “Satellite coverage is back, Circuit. They’ve been back for almost ten minutes, actually, but I figured that wouldn’t matter while we were on the subway.”
“Let’s hope you’re right.” Grappler gave Heavy a meaningful look and he sighed and moved over to the passenger seat. She slid into the driver’s seat and glanced back at us. “We’re leaving.”
“Wait.” I reached over Hangman’s shoulder and twitched the console itself to life, pulling up the traffic monitoring program. “Take route four.”
“Heavy traffic,” I corrected. “But not too heavy.”
Grappler sighed. “If you say so.”
There was no use going over the theory again. I’d told Grappler before that a route with more traffic would get less scrutiny and would let us go farther without detection so long as no one was actively tracking us. If we were the only full-sized white van on a road there was a chance someone might get suspicious. That might sound ludicrous to a normal person but I’ve seen the kinds of things Sumter analysts come up with – and the higher ups act on. Sometimes I wonder if they use a dartboard as part of their analysis procedures. Part of it might be familiarity with the target, I’m sure Helix’s team has a handbook on recognizing my operations at this point, but some of it has got to be simple brilliance. I don’t believe in luck.
As with all brilliance that doesn’t answer to me, I find it very annoying.
Even worse, in this case my caution was all for nothing. Taking a route with moderate traffic was only a valid tactic if we hadn’t been noticed and it turned out that we had.
They let us get out onto the highway before showing their hand. In Grappler’s defense, our being tracked was not the fault of poor driving or spotting on her part. I’m pretty sure the man who came after us had been maneuvering along the rooftops before dropping down a few stories to land on the barrier running alongside the overpass we’d taken. That’s right, he wasn’t tailing us in a vehicle. He was on foot.
The man was good, landing right beside us and balancing on top of the concrete barrier like it was as wide as a sidewalk and not just a few inches across. He was covering at least twenty feet a stride and ran with the easy, energy saving gait of a marathon runner. Hangman spotted him first and yelped, which attracted everyone else’s attention. I’d never been in a car chase where the one doing the chasing was on foot but there is a first time for everything.
Ever the practical one, Grappler asked, “Who is that?”
“Sumter agent, I would assume,” I said thoughtfully. “Don’t ask me how he found us.”
“He’s got style,” Heavy said, admiring the man’s dreadlocks with an appraising air.
The agent looked like an African-American man who had actually come from that continent himself, he was all wiry muscle with a hard, angular face and the remorseful expression of someone who had seen to much. The starched shirt, slacks and tie didn’t look quite right on him, like he wasn’t used to dressing that way, and I suspected he’d started the day with a jacket that he’d shed when things got serious. From the way he looked at us, he wasn’t any happier being there than I was to see him. I wondered for a moment if this was his first assignment.
“We gonna try and ditch him?” Grappler asked.
“I’m not sure I see how,” I said. “Unless you can think of a way to run him off the road when he’s on top of a traffic obstacle.”
Heavy looked back at me. “Hand me the serious firepower?”
“I thought you were hoping to recruit some Sumter agents as the core for your new law enforcement agencies,” Hangman said, looking at me. “That’ll be harder if you shoot them first.”
The agent outside suddenly made a leap across all four lanes of traffic to land on the barriers between our lanes and traffic going the other way. Several cars swerved, two hit each other, and traffic began to slow down. I muttered a curse. “They’re not trying to hide anymore. The rules have changed.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Grappler asked, incredulous.
“Of course.” I kicked the weapons locker open and passed an automatic shotgun up to Heavy. “But I didn’t think Sumter would realize what was going on so fast. Take him down. We have to survive this encounter before we can worry about anything else.”
“Right you are.” Heavy took the weapon and ran a quick check on it.
The agent outside had jumped the highway a couple more times and most of the cars around us were slowing to a stop. Some people were taking pictures or video with phones. We were driving alone now and stood out despite my best efforts. With that done dreadlocks hopped the center barrier to the others side. A moment later the whole thing jumped a few feet forward and then swung out across two of the lanes in front of us.
Grappler swerved, cursing, and took us towards the off ramp.
“No!” I yelled, realizing what was going on. “They’re herding us!”
“Then we’ll have to be herded,” Grappler growled, wrestling with the steering wheel in an effort to keep us from driving off the ramp. “I couldn’t get back into the outbound lanes without tipping this top-heavy piece of crap.”
As we spun down the ramp, brakes squealing and tires smoking, Heavy took the safety off his weapon, rolled down his window and leaned out, a manic grin on his face. “I got this, boss!”
He fired twice, although I couldn’t see how effective his shots were, and then leaned back in, a frown on his face. “I think I got him. But he’d slowed down a bunch already, maybe he’s just getting tired.”
“Probably something to do with how his talent works,” I said. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that might be. Hangman?”
“Never heard of anything like it,” she said. “Shouldn’t we be more worried about the other shoe dropping?”
Grappler brought us off the exit ramp at a speed not conductive to safety, ran a red light and threw us up onto a sidewalk to dodge slower moving traffic. I mentally crossed salvaging this vehicle off of the priority list as it was becoming less and less likely. Aloud I said, “Excellent point. Anyone have any guesses?”
“Put you window up, Heavy, it’s cold out there,” Grappler muttered, her eyes glued to the road.
Heavy started to oblige when Hangman said, “Oh dear.”
“What?” Heavy and I asked in unison.
She ignored us in favor of poking her laptop for a moment. “It’s getting colder outside, Circuit. And only a few blocks ahead of us.”
I felt a sinking feeling in my gut as I came to the same conclusion she’d no doubt reached – there was a heat sink up ahead. “Where’s the hot spot?”
She frowned for a moment as she studied the screen, then gave me a panicked look. “I don’t see one, Circuit. How’s that possible?”
It meant a cold spike, but I didn’t have time to explain how the two were actually opposite uses of the same ability. “It means we have a chance. I don’t think Helix could spike over such a large area.” I thumped the back of Grappler’s chair, causing her to serve us back into traffic. “Can we-”
“You trying to kill us?”
“No,” I said, scanning ahead to try and pick out the cold spike up ahead. “Can we get into one of the side streets in the next few blocks?”
A quick sweep of traffic and positioning. “No.”
“Can you drive us across icy pavement at this speed?”
“That all you need?” It was her turn to grin manically. “Child’s play.”
Somehow we’d managed to slow from highway speeds to a more sedate forty miles an hour without wrecking our vehicle or anyone else’s. Apparently working under the logic that they wouldn’t expect it Grappler decided that now was a good time to speed up again and floored the accelerator.
Then the voice of Morgan Freeman thundered over the street, screaming, “Break!” loud enough to break windows, shake buildings and, most importantly, shatter concrete that had been frozen far colder than could have ever happened in nature. Making us spin out on a frozen road had never been the idea, it had simply been to ready the pavement. Grappler swore like a sailor, throwing the van into a hard swerve, much harder than would have been possible if she hadn’t been tweaking the friction between tires and road to ensure that we didn’t spin out or roll, but even that wouldn’t be enough to keep us from hitting the rubble of the ruined sidewalk and probably going to an untimely end.
But when it comes to getaways, Grappler is the best and I never really should have doubted her skills. Wall walkers can alter friction on a surface in either direction and, as far as she was concerned, the van was a single surface. And Sumter’s agents had made a critical error – they’d only frozen and shattered the road, not the sidewalks.
Grappler hopped the van back up on the curb and expertly slid it along the side of the apartment building there, keeping friction along the van’s surface so low that there was little drag to speak of. We bounced along the sidewalk while loosing little in the way of momentum and avoiding the worst of the rubble.
She gave a surprised yelp when a pair of people seemed to appear out of nowhere and jump clear of the van as we rushed down the sidewalk then we were past the patch of shattered concrete and careening down the street and around a corner. I let go of the death grip I had on my seat and looked at Hangman’s computer. “New plan, which safe house is closest?”
“We could go up to Chinatown,” she said, smoothing her hair down absently, “But Logan’s Square has better traffic heading out of the city this time of day.”
“Chinatown’s got a clean car, though,” Heavy pointed out, locking the safety on his shotgun but not putting it away yet. “We’d have to keep the van or boost new wheels if we go to the Square.”
“Chinatown it is then.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let’s hope there’s no more surprises.”
I hung up my phone and glanced at Jack. “Samson says they’ve found another batch of clothing that looks like it probably came from some of the people on the Avenue tonight.”
“Where at?” He asked, giving a critical look at the mouth of the alley we were standing by.
“Subway bathroom trashcan.” I sighed. “They’re checking security cameras now but they’re so far behind the curve…”
“We’re probably not catching them tonight.” Jack shrugged. “At least we’ve got the Emancipation Proclamation back.”
“Yes.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “So nice of Circuit to leave it there for us. I’d thank him, except it’ll be a PR nightmare once the press gets hold of it. ‘Shadow agency unable to retrieve stolen historical artifact before thief decides to return it to them.'”
“I noticed that you pretty much made the decision to use talents in public on your own,” Jack said, giving me an unreadable look. “Voorman didn’t okay that.”
“Circuit already outed that for us,” I said irritably. “If we kept trying to deny the existence of talented individuals now we’d just wind up loosing credibility. What are they going to do, fire me and cut their chances of catching Circuit even more?”
Jack started down the alley in front of me, saying, “In that case we need to get some kind of break that will convince Voorman and the Committee we can actually catch him. Let’s hope that Auburn and Mossman were right and there is the logical place for Circuit to leave his escape vehicle.”
“Oh, they were right. Too bad you didn’t get here sooner.” A hunched figure detached itself from the alley wall and came towards us slowly, cane clacking on the pavement. Jack stiffened a bit then relaxed when he realized he knew the voice.
I fought the urge to put my face in my hands. Or yell. Or just turn and start walking until I found a sane part of the world to settle down in and forget all about Project Sumter, Open Circuit and dead friends. Instead I took a deep breath and said, “Hello, Darryl. What brings you here?”
“What do you think, Helix?” Darryl fixed me with a burning glare. “I’m doing the same thing you are – trying to catch Open Circuit. My team almost had him a little while ago, probably could have trapped him if we had a couple more talents and better cooperation with the locals. Care to take my help on your case now?”
“If I don’t will you go away?”
He snorted. “Just until we both get within grabbing distance of Circuit again.”
Now I did rub my hand over my face. Every bone in my body told me to tell him no. Or have him arrested. That was also really tempting. But odds were he was working for some governmental body that did have jurisdiction here. So I gave the only answer I could make that wouldn’t make things worse.
“Get your people together and come on back to the office. We’ll talk it over with Voorman.”
Darryl raised an eyebrow. “And?”