Thunder Clap: Hot Beats


This is how a typical disaster starts at the Project Sumter offices. First, I get back in town from another trip to DC. While checking my e-mail it becomes clear that it’s been a slow week and it might be a good time to try and catch up on some of that business that’s been on the back burner as I run around the Midwest region supervising stuff and consulting with the Senate Committee on new regulations for talented people in the workplace. So I decide I’m going to try and ask Teresa out. Again.

Cue disaster.

My pal Jack Howell, once my tactical team leader and good natured butt of a lot of rhyming jokes, leaned into my office doorway and rapped on the doorframe. “The Senior Talent in today?”

“I hate that title and can’t believe they made it official,” I said, reminding Jack that I would continue to ignore him until he called me something sensible.

“It could be worse,” Jack said, ignoring my hint. “You could be the Talent Agent. Or the Senior Talent Agent.”

I kept reading my e-mail. It’s amazing how much builds up in just three or four days.

Finally Jack sighed and said, “Sanders has something he wants you to handle, Helix.”

“Is it a good something or a bad something?” I asked, selecting a batch of files and hitting delete. “With Sanders I never know what to expect.”

“Amp’s band is doing one of those PR concerts again tonight, Sanders wants you to go and put a face on it.”

“Amp’s got a face already and most people think it’s better than mine.” Ever since we’d officially gone public a couple of years ago the Project had been scrambling to put what the relations experts called a “positive face” on us. Being a secretive government branch with minimal accountability to the public at large usually being considered a strike against you. Amplifier’s garage band, a group we had initially wanted her to pull out of, had proven really useful in that regard and she was starting to grow a really enthusiastic fanbase. I wasn’t really sure why they kept sending other agents to her events when there were already two talents in the group and everyone there was more interested in them than us. “Still, if that’s what he wants maybe Al Massif would-”

“He’s already going,” Jack said with a grin. “Taking Cheryl, from what I understand, but it sounds like that’s a lot closer to being a date than official business.”

I drummed my fingers on my desk for a moment, trying to think up a new dodge. To buy time I said, “Are those two officially dating now? Or is he still holding out for a yes from Amp?”

“I keep my mind off that kind of thing, Helix. Nothing good comes of meddling.” He waved a pair of tickets at me. “All I know is Sanders wants somebody with more than three years experience at that concert as the public face and that means you, Massif or Broadband. Further meaning either you have to talk a near-septuagenarian into going to a rock concert, make Massif change his plans or go yourself.”

I massaged my temples. “Jack, remind me again why I hated never being promoted beyond Special Agent?”

“You hated the low pay, lack of benefits and being ignored whenever you had a good idea.”

“What exactly have I got now that I didn’t then?”

“Good benefits.”

“Right.” I sat back in my chair and held out my hand for the tickets. “Does that make you my sidekick for the evening?”

“Not me, boss,” Jack said, holding his hands up in a ‘no way’ gesture. “I got plans with the better half. But you know…”

He trailed of and I waited for him to finish. Except he was clearly waiting for me to prompt him and enjoying every minute. So I did. “No, I don’t know. Enlighten me.”

“Well, I hear Herrera doesn’t have any plans for the evening.”

“Oh?” I stared at the tickets for a moment, then back and Jack. “Exactly ow many people were involved in this little conspiracy of yours, Agent Howell?”

Jack did his best innocent look, which is surprisingly good for someone who spends a lot of his time looking like a blonde grizzly bear. “Not sure what you mean, Helix. Concert’s in two hours so if you want a hot date rather than the alternative you better get moving!”

He ducked out the door and hurried away before I could say anything else. With little else to do I picked up my phone and started dialing.



One of the weirdest things about having most of your social circle be people you work with is, when someone who technically outranks you invites you to go somewhere, you’re never sure if it’s a suggestion or an order. While Teresa Herrera is more like the older sister I don’t have – by virtue of being the oldest – the fact that she’s worked with my father and might also kinda sorta be dating my boss makes the chain of command less than entirely clear.

Of course, papa seemed to think it was a good idea and he’s the expert on that part of the business, so Jane and I agreed to go along.

Another weird part of my social circle is the superpowers. My papa is half strongman, half preacher, so it’s no wonder Project Sumter called him Samson back in the day when real names were something that happened to other people. My friend Jane is some kind of ex-supervillain, or as dad would insist we call her, a reformed talent. Personally, I think she’s just filled out a little bit since dad took her on as part of Project Sumter’s new parole system last year. She may be a year older than me but she sure doesn’t have sense, if you know what I mean.

Case in point. Ever since papa introduced them, Jane and Amp have been best buddies. Sure, Amplifier has a cool job and a nice apartment but she’s always seemed kind of aimless to me. Still, that’s probably part of the appeal, Jane doesn’t like people getting too close and Amp’s certainly not the clingy type. So what I’m trying to say is, Jane’s a good person for hanging out with but I’m not sure I would’ve relied on her in a pinch.

Amplifier and Jane Hammer are a funny picture and I’m surprised the tabloids haven’t spent more time chasing them when they go out to parties. One’s tall, lanky and thin, the other is short, blonde and cute. They make quite the pair. That night they agreed to meet up early at the concert venue and spent half their time back stage tormenting the roadies and the other half checking on the equipment. I don’t know anything about sound stuff so I couldn’t tell which was which but I’m pretty sure they only had the speakers rearranged because they like watching the guys on the stage crew move them around. Like the name implies Amplifier has the ability to boost sound and make herself heard under just about any kind of circumstances and part of her gimmick is that she sings without a mic. As far as I know she didn’t usually take an interest in the stage setup. And Jane was definitely flirting with one of the crew in-between whispering with Amp.

For my part, I was hanging out with papa by the stage door. “I’m still not clear on how this all is good publicity for Project Sumter.”

“Basically, we show we’re here and doing things the community likes.” Papa shrugged. “I know it doesn’t sound exciting but it’s the foundation of any outreach.”

“I guess. Why did you want to be here?”

He gave me a knowing smile. “Because I knew Jane would want to go and it was better to invite myself along than leave you to running around on your own. Did you not want to come?”

It was my turn to shrug. “Amp’s brand of music isn’t my thing. Jane was going and I thought maybe I’d tag along – just didn’t think it was your reason, too.”

“Don’t all kids your age listen to punk?”

I laughed. “Sure, because you have to on the bus at the very least. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. I mean sure, it’s got a beat but you can’t really dance to it.

“That’s basically my problem with it, too.”

I jumped and spun around. “Sifu! Hi.”

This brings the weirdness of my life full circle. My hand to hand combat instructor – and how many college freshman can say they have one of those – had just popped up beside me. Built like GI Joe, born in the Polish part of town, trained in Chinese martial arts since the age of six and semi indestructible, Aluchinskii Massif is quite possibly the quintessential American superhero. On top of all that he’s polite, considerate, thoughtful and tonight he was accompanied by a busty redhead. Most of my time around him has involved getting swept off my feet in a very literal sense.

He is apologetic about it, though.

“Hello, Isabella,” he said with a smile. Then he nodded to papa and said, “Samson.”

And there’s the problem in a nutshell. To me, Al Massif may be very nearly perfect but to him, I’m just part of the job. If papa’s ever noticed that byplay he’s never said anything; then again he’s not dense either. But just like he usually did he held out his hand for a quick shake and said, “Hello, Massif. You look well. What brings you out here tonight?”

“To be honest, I’m really not sure.” He glanced at the woman with him. “Cheryl and Jack have some kind of bet going with Sanders and I’m apparently helping them win it.”

“Technically Jack made the bet,” Cheryl said. “I’m just conspiring with him.”

“That’s a lot of work for a bet,” papa said, waggling his eyebrows. “What are the stakes?”

“He didn’t say what they were, actually.” Cheryl shrugged. “Or what they were betting about. I’m not sure I want to know what those two are up to, to be honest.”

“Um.” The other three turned to look at me.

Al shifted a hand behind his back, as if he was using it to push his already upright posture even straighter. Jane calls this “the sifu pose” and says he does it whenever he’s trying to decide whether to be professional or not. Like when he’s putting us through a drill and is doing his best not to bawl us out for bad form. Except this time he just asked, “Um what?”

The correct answer was that Jack and Sanders had a standing bet over whether Helix would ask Teresa out before the end of the year but, once again, this is not exactly the kind of thing you can just up and say about somebody who is kind-of sort-of your boss.

And if you’re wondering how I can be unclear who my boss is, exactly, then you’ve obviously never worked in a government office that’s undergone a recent structural overhaul. I think, technically, Helix is the supervisor for all fifty or so field trained talents in the Midwest and the other dozen that are going through training, myself included, and that’s enough for me to want to stay as far away from poking my nose in his personal life as possible. The man’s scary when he’s mad.

So I played Obvious Excuse Number One and said, “I think I’d better check on Jane before she gets herself kicked out for hassling the staff.”

“If you see Helix tell him I want a quick word with him sometime tonight,” papa said. “No hurry, though.”

“Right.” So the real reason he came with us was work, probably something related to the parolees he’s in charge of. Not surprising, that kind of job doesn’t exactly keep regular hours. I headed off to try and find Jane and hoped I hadn’t made myself look like too much of a dork.

Amp and Jane weren’t back stage anymore so I figured they’d probably headed around to the bar out on the floor. Jane’s two years older than me, Amp’s three, and both can drink legally, so I wasn’t really worried about that. Neither one tends to get drunk and being at the bar put distance between them and the stage crew, so that was a plus. I never actually got to the bar, though, because as I went out into the hall I caught sight of Teresa and Helix coming in the main entrance.

Since I didn’t want to forget to pass on papa’s message before I forgot I cut through the growing crowd and met the two of them about two thirds of the way.

Teresa looked glad to see me there and, after a brief scowl, so did Helix. I had a hunch I knew what that was about but again, not about to pry. Then Teresa pinned me down with questions about life – school, testing for my field qualifications, family, stuff like that – and before I knew it the show was starting.

A Broken Sword show isn’t a whole lot different than any other, so if you’ve been to see a band in your life you know what happened. There were warm up acts, words from management, breaks to hit the restrooms and the occasional grabby drunk that event security dealt with quickly and quietly. It’s hard to keep track of everyone in crowds like that and I found and lost track of my papa, Jane, Teresa and Helix and Al and Cheryl a couple of times each. And that was all before Amp and crew took the stage.

The thing about Broken Sword, what I think is why Sumter likes to use them to generate good press, is that they’ve been together since before talents came out and they’ve functioned as a group the whole time. On top of Amp one of the guitarists, codename Gearshift, is a talent and has worked with the Project on and off. There’s apparently some kind of special certifications he needs to finish with before he can get full field licensing – something to do with his talent and architecture – and he’s taking his time getting through college while he works on them. Beyond those two out of the five being talents, Clark Movsessian on the drums moonlights as an analyst for the Project.

All in all, it’s a great PR to show that we’ve had groups working together both in and out of the field to make art, or at least something like it, and protecting the citizenry from evil. Or something. At least I’m sure it’s a nice contrast to the way most people usually see shadowy government organizations and helps play down the fact that, until two years ago, what half the band did was not only unheralded but was actually illegal to talk about.

So Amp was doing her Hello Midwest bit, introducing the band and doing trick with the crowd noise like making it swell to stadium levels or pushing it down to whispers, stuff that’s pretty cool to experience and, I’m told, very hard to actually do. Whether or not that’s true, the audience usually loves it and tonight was no exception. Amp was leading into the band’s first song of the night when the lights and most of the sound suddenly died and the hall disappeared in total darkness. I didn’t know it but it was the start of a very, very long day.

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