“Your city?” Not for the first time Circuit managed to shock me with his audacity. “Does the city know that? I think they might have other ideas.”
Circuit laughed. “Cities have never had any real choice in who owns them, Helix. You know that. They are in the hands of those who can manipulate them properly, and in this day and age that’s me. Consider this a courtesy call.”
I looked down at the line of unconscious people at my feet, then back up at the camera. “What courtesy exactly am I supposed to be expecting? Because so far it’s not looking inviting.”
“Yes, I am glad you are the one who found them. It saves the trouble of having some hapless passerby try and run you down – or worse, having the police do it.” He steepled his fingers and cocked his hat slightly so I could make out a single eye gleaming at me from underneath the brim. “This is my notice to you that this city is now under my protection.”
“Your… protection?” I glanced at Teresa, hoping she had some better idea what was going on. She just gave me a blank looked, followed by a shrug that suggested that I was the expert on Circuit’s thought processes and I should figure it out for myself. So I said, “How does knocking out the city’s power grid count as protection, again? Or is this a kind of racketeering scheme? The city pays you or no power?”
“Nonsense. I’m talking about the kind of protection you can’t provide.” Circuit spun around to face the windows and gestured out the window at the city below him. “Do you really think anyone’s ever done an adequate job of protecting all that? The police? The FBI? You? Of course not.”
I did my best to keep a smile from my face. “And your knocking out half of the city’s power grid-”
“Three quarters,” he corrected.
“Three quarters,” I said, the humor of the situation quickly draining away. “Your robbing three quarters of the city of it’s power is protecting the people of the city how?”
“Robbing?” Circuit turned his chair just enough to glance back at me. His face wasn’t visible but his tone told me it was his turn to be amused. “No one is entitled to electricity. It’s a convenience only, and one I’m sure people will willingly give up for safety, just like they’ve put up with airport security and End User License Agreements. So long as their precious lives aren’t disrupted, what do they care if they really have freedom? I’m building a world of safety – the world they want. What does it matter if the lights come on when they flip a switch?”
“So who does make that decision? You?” I shook my head sadly. “You’re unbelievably smart, Circuit. I’ll give you that. But even with your talent for reading electric potentials there’s no way you can monitor an entire city’s worth of electricity use – and that’s before we even talk about trying to protect the city.” I put enough emphasis on the word protect to make it clear I thought he was doing the opposite.
“And yet right here in front of you is the evidence to the contrary. It’s just a small start, I’ll admit. But if you were to take the time to look around,” another gesture at the cityscape, ” I’m sure you’d find this little achievement repeated over and over again. All it takes is enough successes like this and soon, surprisingly soon, you’ve created a city where no one would dare step out of line.”
I snorted. “That’s reassuring. So what’s the courtesy call about, again?”
Circuit spun and leaned forward to loom over the camera. Although I got a clearer look at his face it still wasn’t enough to make out much of it. Enough to give me a strange feeling in my gut, though. I was having a lot of those lately. “The call is to warn you to leave well enough alone, Helix. This is now my city, under my protection. I won’t tolerate you or anyone else trying to do my job here, anymore than you tolerate vigilantes in your territory, interfering with your job. It’s time for you to step down and let a real expert do the job.”
“You realize that, even though you do have a lot of experience working with criminals, you still kind of count as one yourself?” I folded my arms and added as an afterthought, “Or a vigilante. Or both.”
“History will prove which of our opinions is right, I think.” Circuit leaned back in his chair and pointed a finger at me. “I’ve given you fair warning. Leave or face the consequences.”
He twitched his finger once, like he was pushing an invisible button, and the TV switched off. I glanced back at Teresa and we quickly stepped off to one side of the display window, huddling up with Gearshift, who was quickly tapping the screen of his smartphone.
“How much did you record?” I asked in a soft voice, sure that Circuit could still eavesdrop on us even if we couldn’t see him.
“I didn’t get the first ten seconds or so,” he said. “And I had a bad angle so I don’t know how much of the visuals are going to be of use. But we’ve got all the audio.”
I gave him a slap on the back. “Well done. Lets-”
The screen of his phone suddenly went dark. We all stared at it for a few seconds then Teresa dug her phone out of a pocket as I felt a headache coming on. A second later Teresa said, “I think we’ve been EMPed.”
Gearshift cursed viciously. From the look of the case and the cleanliness of the screen I was guessing it was a new phone. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Most insurance policies consider destruction by malicious terrorist adequate reason for replacement.”
“I guess.” He stared at it for a second then shook his head. “Fastest I’ve ever had one of these turn into a paperweight, though.”
“Hang on to it,” Teresa said, matching actions to words by putting her own back in her pocket. “There’s a chance Forensics can recover some of the data on it.”
I pulled a hand across my face, trying to wipe away all the exhaustion I was suddenly feeling. When I could see again my eye fell on the unconscious people at the base of the window. “Okay, let’s head back to the venue. We need to let everyone else know the score and figure out what we’re doing next. And find someone to grab these poor saps off the street before Circuit remembers to come back and grab them.”
The three of us set off across the city at a fast pace, doing our best to remain alert. I’ll confess to being more than a little distracted, though, with my brain spending a lot more time trying to work out Circuit’s angle this time around than paying attention to what was going on around me. Teresa slowed down a step or two for some reason, I have to confess I’m not sure why, and I nearly ran into her. She glanced back at me and frowned. “You’re making your ‘Circuit is bugging me again’ face, Helix.”
“I don’t have a ‘Circuit is bugging me again’ face. That would be a stupid face to have.” I looked at Gearshift. “I don’t have make that kind of face, do I?”
He held up his hands. “Don’t look at me. This is our first time working together, am I right?”
That was enough for me. “See? The man says I don’t have that kind of face. He would have noticed it by now.”
“He is noticing it, right now,” Teresa said with a laugh. “He’s just scared to admit it.”
“Scared? Of what?”
She shook her head. “Forget it, you’re just trying to change the subject now. Seriously, Helix. What’s wrong? Aside from the obvious.”
I cracked my knuckles absently, trying to figure out what to say next since she’d cut off the easy comeback. “It just doesn’t sit right.”
“What doesn’t?” Gearshift asked.
“Him calling me out.”
“But he did that during the Enchanter business back when I first joined,” Teresa pointed out. “That was another case of him trying to do our job to make a point.”
That was exactly what was bothering me. He had called us out before taking a direct hand in the Enchanter case. “Maybe. But last time the point of contacting us was to give us the chance to work together. Why call us now? He can’t possibly expect us to back off.”
“He does have a weird idea of fair play,” she answered. “Maybe he just feels he has to, in order for things to be done right.”
“Could be. But I’d have expected him to do it before hand, to make his eventual move that much more impressive when it looked like we were powerless to stop it.” I hesitated, a new thought occurring to me. “That’s what’s wrong.”
Teresa and Gearshift both gave me quizzical looks. “What?”
“Wheels within wheels.” I could tell they didn’t get it but instead of explaining I picked up my pace. “Come on. We need to get those looters picked up and back to the venue. I need to talk to an analyst…”
“Why does she have a tire iron?” Helix stormed through the backstage area, voice booming much louder than you’d expect for such a small guy. He was talking about Jane, who for some reason still had the tire iron she’d picked up at the shopping plaza in one hand.
“We had a little trouble, Helix,” Al said, getting up from the small cluster of people sitting by the back wall of the venue. “There-”
“No tire irons,” Helix said. “Loose it somewhere.”
Jane and I exchanged a bewildered look but while we were at it Amp gently slipped the tire iron from Jane’s hand and passed it to Clark Movsessian, her drummer, and Clark made it disappear almost like it was magic. Al watched the whole thing impassively and, once the show was over, said, “Done. Want to share what the big issue is?”
“Where are Cheryl and Samson?” Helix asked instead.
“Cheryl was missing when we got back,” Amp answered. “Samson went to try and find her. I heard them talking with the manager a few minutes ago. I think it has something to do with the generator not being enough to keep the full air conditioning system going – you of all people must have noticed how hot it’s getting out there. People in the crowd are going to start passing out soon.”
“Great. Just what I need today.” Helix slumped down onto one of the boxes we’d been using as seats and leaned his head against the wall. “Terrorists are taking over the city while we’re waving tire irons around and letting people pass out.”
Al sat down on the floor next to Helix and said, “So you’ve confirmed the outage was caused maliciously.”
Helix nodded. “I just talked to someone claiming to be Open Circuit, and in complete control of the city. He’s got a nice little view to go with it. He not only spotted us moving around but managed to EMP bomb us and he’s taking out looters and leaving them on doorsteps like he thinks he’s a stork or something.”
“Circuit’s back and he’s worried about a tire iron?” Jane whispered to me.
“Little things. He needs to have the little things because sometimes that’s all he can get,” I whispered back, echoing something my mother had said to me many times.
“Why do you say ‘claiming to be’?” Gearshift asked. “I didn’t see anything to make me think it’s not him.”
Clark shook his head. “If Circuit’s existence was still classified it I’d say that’s enough to assume it’s him. But there were copycats for months after we cracked his last operation. There’s a chance whoever you saw is another one, although if his is he’s doing a lot better job of it than anyone else who tried. Circuit plays big and wiping out the city’s power grid is the closest anyone’s ever come to his level of ambition.”
“Not wiped out – taken over,” Helix clarified. He went over the whole conversation his group had just had with Circuit for us. “And there’s another thing you haven’t considered, Movsessian,” he said when he was done.
“What’s that?” Clark was a field analyst and considering things was his job. He looked a little miffed at the idea that he wasn’t doing it.
“He could be a decoy Circuit set up to distract us. Circuit never directly does whatever it is he wants to do, he’s always juggling multiple things at once – this could just be another gambit to distract us while he does something else. Whatever that is.” Helix pushed away from the wall and pressed his palms into his eye sockets for a moment, then shook his head. “No point tying ourselves into knots over it, though. Amp, I want to talk to the manager. Can you ask him to come over here with Cheryl and Samson?”
She nodded and backed a step or two away from the group, lips moving but not making any sound we could hear. Helix slapped his hands to his knees and gripped them like he was looking for something stable to hang on to. “We’ve got work to do, ladies and gentlemen. For starters, Circuit has a headquarters in the city. Someplace high up, with a view of the lakefront and no similarly high buildings between it and the lake. Teresa, Gearshift, did either of you-”
“Waltham Towers.” Clark said it with such certainty that Helix stopped midrant for a full two seconds.
“I agree,” Lincoln said, piping up from his spot by the wall. “Waltham Towers is the skyscraper closest to the lake. I’ve been in most of the big ones one time or another and you can see the Towers from all of them, most of them have at least one other big building visible from them.”
Helix scratched his head. “Well that’s kind of useful, except we can’t be sure the image we saw was taken from the public observation area of the building, or that it didn’t come from one of the big buildings that didn’t have an observation deck or some such.”
“No. It’s definitely Waltham Towers.” Clark smiled. “You know how the property changed hands about four years ago because the last owners were in trouble financially?”
“How about I take your word for it and you get to the point?” Helix suggested.
“Three guesses who was middleman and did the accompanying remodeling.”
Helix’s eyes narrowed. “Keller Real Estate and Development.” It wasn’t a question. “That must have been a big deal for them.”
“The biggest they ever closed,” Clark confirmed. “It’s not one of the properties we had a special interest in from earlier investigations but when Circuit disappeared we pulled a complete list of everything Keller Realty has worked on and that was at the top of the list.”
“Okay, that is a pretty strong case for that being the center of operations. And if it’s true, it’s another reason to suspect Circuit and not someone else.” Helix looked at Amplifier. “Are they coming?”
“They’ll be here in a minute.”
“Good. That leaves three little things to take care of. Or one big thing, depending on how you look at it.” Helix pulled himself to his feet and dusted his hands off. “Gearshift. Jane. Isabella. You three aren’t cleared for field work yet but we need people on the ground right now and you’re close enough that I’m willing to give you a pass. But I’m not forcing you – if you want to cut out now it won’t look bad on your record. So. Field promotion to active field agent or bow out and wait for another day?”
Jane answered immediately. “No time like the present. I’ve got a bone or two to pick with my ex-boss anyway.”
“I’ve cleared everything but my wall diving certificate anyway,” Gearshift said with a grin. “So long as I don’t try to run straight through a skyscraper we should be okay.”
“So long as you don’t get cocky,” Helix said with a smirk. Then he looked at me. “What about you, Izzy? You’re the youngest here and honestly, from a PR angle, I don’t like the idea of someone under twenty-one out on this.”
“To say nothing of what her father might say?” Papa asked, looming out of the backstage shadows to tower behind Helix.
Helix didn’t even glance back at him. “She’s an adult and I started field work when I was even younger. I’d be something of a hypocrite if I didn’t give her the chance – and that’s something you’re not very enthusiastic about, isn’t it?”
Papa just grunted and looked at me.
Which kind of put me on the spot. I knew my father didn’t want me running around with a supervillain on the loose. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be left out when Jane and Al were risking their necks. But more than anything I hated the thought that someone was willing to cause all this mayhem just to try and prove a point – if this was what it took the point wasn’t worth arguing.
“Don’t let anyone twist your arm into it,” Helix said, sensing my indecision. “If you don’t want to do it you’ll just be a liability.”
I took a deep breath and said, “What if I just want to knock Circuit into the next time zone?”
Helix smirked. “Then you’ll have to get in line. I filed my NBH-186 years ago, that means I get first dibs. Now all three of you need to raise your right hands.” He waited until we did. “You going to do all you can to drag Circuit in and throw him in jail?”
Gearshift said, “Yes.”
Jane and I exchanged an uncertain look and did the same.
“Great. By the powers vested in me, etcetera, etcetera, you’re field agents. Put your hands down, this isn’t an elementary school.”
“Huh.” Gearshift looked at Amp. “That felt kind of anticlimactic.”
“That was pretty ceremonial,” she said with a smirk. “When he made me an acting field agent, last time Circuit went wild, I only got one etcetera.”
“There was only one of you at the time.” Helix waved papa and Cheryl into the circle. “Now listen up, people. Circuit’s one step ahead of us – again. That’s fine. We always have been and we’ve gotten better at winning from there every single time. Here’s what we’re going to do this time.”