Thunder Clap: Rude Awakening

Matthew Sykes snapped awake, aware of three things almost at once. His wife was not in bed with him. But then, she was at one of those charity networking things, out of town for the weekend. He’d gone himself in the past but this year he just hadn’t had the energy the trip. Rather than back out his wife had offered to go in his place. Sykes found he missed her being there even though she’d only been gone a day.

The sky was still dark out, which surprised him. It was mid summer and the sun rose early. He was not the type to sleep restlessly so waking up before the dawn was not a usual part of his life. Then again, there was that vaguely musical jackhammer sound that might be what had woken him. A moment’s groggy though placed the noise.

His phone was ringing.

Not the public line, which didn’t even have a receiver in the bedroom and mostly went straight to voicemail, so his secretary could screen the messages, nor the direct line to the office of Sykes Telecommunications, the tristate company he remained sole owner and operator of. It was his private line, the one only a small handful of people knew the number for. To make sure it stayed that way he changed the number every six months, something he’d done only three weeks ago. Anyone calling that line was important enough to warrant a little lost sleep.

Sykes sat up in bed and fumbled for his glasses and phone. Once he was fully equipped he checked the number on the screen. It wasn’t familiar but it was in state. That could just mean someone was calling him from an unfamiliar location. Or it could be his number had wound up with someone he’d rather it didn’t. No way to find out but answer it, so he slid his finger across the touchscreen and said, “Matthew Sykes. What can I do for you?”

“Good morning, Mr. Sykes. I’m sorry to-”

“No amount of apologizing is going to make me less tired but it might bore me into drifting off again,” Sykes said, using the grousing to buy time to try and place the voice. It sounded familiar he wasn’t having any luck putting it to a name or face. “Just tell me who you are and what this is about and I’ll decide if I’m letting it go then.”

“Very generous of you,” the voice said dryly. “My name is Alan Dunn, although you might be more familiar with the code name Double Helix, which the media still likes to use.”

“Yes! I’ve seen you in the papers.” Sykes struggled around until he was sitting up in bed. “Is this about the Enchanter business? I heard he was trying to have his sentence overturned again and my office was contacted by the Project about the threat we received from him a few years ago.”

“Actually, no. I think if the Enchanter case was a problem we would have waited until office hours to try and contact you.” Helix sounded apologetic and more than a little tired himself. “You may not remember this but we actually met in person shortly after the Enchanter’s arson spree. I was operating under a pseudonym at the time, so that’s probably a part of it. We were following up some properties that you and Mr. Roger Keller had been investing in.”

“Oh yes!” Sykes scratched absently at the stubble on his chin as he thought. “Hoffman, wasn’t it?”

“That’s the one. Mr. Sykes, are you at home right now?”

“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”

There was a muffled sound on the other end of the line, like someone was talking with one hand over the receiver, then Helix was back. “We’re sending someone over to pick you up. I’d like you to come in to our regional office… or at least somewhere close by. We’re still working on that part.”

“I’d be happy to, Agent Dunn, but I can drive myself, condition not withstanding.” Sykes slapped one of his useless legs and said, “There’ve been cripples longer than there’ve been cars, you know.”

“Yes, I didn’t mean to imply anything about your ability to get around. Mr. Sykes, I suspect you just woke up and haven’t watched the news yet so I’ll give you a condensed version. The Waltham Towers, one of  the buildings you and Mr. Keller collaborated on, has been taken over by insurgents. We believe they somehow influenced the remodeling of the structure and have been planning this move for years, if not longer. We’re hoping you can give us some insight into what was done during the time the property was in the possession of Keller Development and Restoration.”

“Well we did redo the LAN and some of the infotech in most of the remodeling jobs we’ve done but…” Sykes shrugged, although Helix couldn’t see it. “Really, Roger could tell you more about the details. I’m not even sure I remember which building Waltham Towers was.”

“We’ve tried to contact Mr. Keller but haven’t been able to. And his house has been broken into.” There was something that sounded a lot like someone on the other end of the line being slapped for having a big mouth. Then, “That’s why we’re sending a team to pick you up. They have this number and will call you when they arrive. Do not answer your door until they do. If someone tries to gain entrance to your house before our agents arrive contact me immediately at this number.”

“That… sounds like good advice, Agent Dunn. Thank you for notifying me.”

“Stay safe, Mr. Sykes. I hope to see you when you get here.”

Sumter’s agent hung up without waiting for a goodbye but Sykes supposed he was busy enough that the rudeness could be forgiven. The businessman stared at his phone for a moment, putting together a new morning to-do list. First things first. He called the office and left a message letting them know he wouldn’t be in. Then he made a few other phone calls to make sure things would run smoothly. Then he levered himself out of bed and into his wheelchair.

Before his parents had died TV had been a kind of family vice. They would all gather around and watch it while eating dinner, laughing at whatever silliness was on that night and generally enjoying not having to work at getting along for an hour or so. But after prescription drugs wore out one parent and depression another, and he wound up in the group home, fighting over the TV had turned into a game only the older, meaner kids could win. Then the Sykes had taken him back out of there, and they didn’t believe in TV. In time, Matthew had become a convert in most respects.

Of course, anyone who didn’t share his upbringing might have more broadminded views. Like his wife. In the time they’d been together Sykes hadn’t quite managed to wean her of the habit just yet and so the only TV in the house was in her office, and that was where Sykes headed. Of course, as the owner of a multistate telecommunications company he was aware that there was news available on the Internet. But in odd ways he was a traditionalist and the one exception to his no TV policy was the news. Usually he watched it over lunch on the office lounge TV, mostly because he liked the local broadcast anchors. But at 4:30 in the morning, cable news would have to do.

“…insurgent organization has not identified itself,” the cable anchor was saying as the TV switched on. “But the spokesman who has been seen in the videos being posted has identified himself as Open Circuit. Project Sumter, the Federal Government’s agency dealing with unusually talented individuals, has confirmed that this is the same identity used by the man who first revealed the existence of the Project and unusual talents nearly two years ago. They have not said whether they believe this to be the same man or not. So far, neither Open Circuit or other members of his organization have made demands…”

Sykes muted the TV and fumbled for his phone, then made a few more phone calls, including one to a private security firm and another to his wife, telling her that the bodyguards were on their way. With that taken care of he copied down the URL for the videos the anchor had mentioned and started watching them. He’d only gotten through two and just started a third, mostly boring declarations of dominance and moral superiority and the like, when the doorbell rang. Sykes quickly rolled himself out of his office and to the front door, which he yanked open. “It took you long enough.”

The huge African American man on the other side of the door just smiled. It wasn’t a very comforting expression.

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