Thunder Clap: Sifting the Ashes

Helix

“Okay, thanks.” I thumbed off the wifi phone my calls were being forwarded to and slammed it down on the table in irritation. With the exception of HiRes, a Secret Service agent who’d come in from Washington with Voorman and who jumped a little at the sudden noise, no one batted an eye.

Sanders, who had been tinkering with his tablet and updating the floor as he waited for my phone call to finish, looked up and asked, “Didn’t go well?”

“We found out why there was no answer at Keller’s house.” I paced back out onto the huge map that made up most of the floor of the room we were in. Once upon a time it had been the bullpen for field agents, now it was reserved for national emergencies. “The place has been broken into, signs of a struggle but no one home.”

“Mr. Keller and his whole family is missing?” Voorman asked.

“Thankfully, no. Roger Keller is divorced and his daughter lives with his ex.” I shrugged. “No one in the house but him. There’s a housekeeper but she doesn’t live there. The team that went to check the place talked to her. He was there just before 6 PM last night, so he must have been grabbed some time after that.”

Sanders looked slowly across the map of the country and shook his head. “This was really well coordinated. If it wasn’t such a nasty move I’d be impressed.”

Following Sanders’ line of thought wasn’t very difficult, it was laid out on the map at our feet and highlighted in red. We weren’t the only city without power. A total of five cities, one in each administrative branch of Project Sumter, had suffered a massive power outage at 10:22 PM the night before. Atlanta was dark in the South, Boston on the East Coast, Portland in the North West and San Francisco on the West Coast. With the exception of Frisco all of the cities effected tied back to Project history in some way, although Portland was the only other city with a regional office in it.

The always-perceptive Analysis department had pointed out that October 22nd was the date of our raid on Circuit’s bunker nearly two years before, making it likely  the time 10:22 was intentional. No-one had bothered to suggest otherwise.

Project Sumter was at Condition One but pretty much every local, state and national government agency that touched on national defense in some way was scrambling to respond as well. In some cases the response basically boiled down to getting all their ducks in a row while they waited for the other shoe to drop but even that was better than getting caught flat footed. The real hang-up was that, until Samson and I had gotten out of the blackout zone with news that Circuit, or someone who looked a lot like him, was styling himself newly crowned dictator of the city there was no indication that this particular disaster was in our sphere of influence.

Sure, Sanders had seen a major series of power outages and immediately jumped to the conclusion that Circuit was involved and Voorman had flown out in part because he’d wanted to know for sure one way or the other – and he was a Senator for Illinois so being on the scene rather than going to one of the other attack sites just made sense – but the vast weight of the Federal Government was still getting used to the idea of talented people existing. It wasn’t used to crediting national emergencies to them yet.

Okay, hopefully as a nation we never get used to crediting national disasters to any one person or group. But Circuit’s made that an empty hope for some of us as individuals.

And that was the meeting we’d just gone through in a nutshell. The news about the other cities that had been hit was a surprise but the steps being taken to mobilize the National Guard and field other resources was about what I’d expected. In turn, nothing I’d said had really surprised anyone who was familiar with Circuit’s history.

“Has anyone else claimed responsibility for this yet?” I asked, staring moodily at the five large red dots that indicated areas of operations around the five effected cities.

“Not that we know of,” Voorman answered. “Plenty of finger pointing but so far no one’s stood up and said they did it.”

“Actually,” Sanders waved a print out he’d been handed as the meeting wrapped up. “A video just went out to major video distribution sites on the internet shortly after you landed, Senator. We’ve got a group of talents claiming they’re looking to establish an independent nation and saying their responsible. Analysis is still looking into whether this video is real or was just made using some kind of special effects as a prank but it’s probably best to act as if it was real. I’m expecting calls to start coming in from Washington about it any minute now.”

“Any ties back into Circuit’s preexisting organization?” I asked.

Sanders glanced around, some of the other people who had been in the meeting were still around but not the two he was looking for. “You’d have to ask Mossburger or Cheryl’s assistant, wherever they got off to. Analysis and Records will have to sort that out, although I’ve no idea how long it would take to turn anything up.”

“We’re behind again,” I muttered. “Something big is going down and we don’t have the pieces to figure out the big picture. We need to take a proactive move, break up his processes, and still be getting a better picture of what’s going on.”

“The National Guard is mobilizing,” Voorman said. “Elements of several units should be here by late morning. That might give us enough time and manpower to begin searching for and deactivating the EMP weapons that have been keeping people out of the city. We’re not sure if that will end the communications blackout or not.”

“It would help if we had a better idea where these things might be hidden.” Sanders ran a hand over his closely shaven scalp, droplets of perspiration in the cool air hinting at how stressed he was feeling though otherwise his relaxed attitude gave no hint that he might be nervous. “Not being able to get ahold of Keller was a bad break.”

“I’ll try and get a warrant to look at his company’s records put together and find a judge who will sign off on it. If we can get into the offices and pull the files early enough we might not even loose any time.” Something nagged at the back of my mind. “And Keller had an investment partner sometimes. Name was Cynic or something…”

“Cynic is something you are, Helix.” Voorman pointed out.

“Whatever. I’ll check the file, we may want to bring him in and see what he knows.” I pressed my palms into my eyes and yawned hard enough that my jaw cracked. “And then I’m going to grab a nap.”

“Are you going to want to go back into the city?” Sanders asked as I started towards my office. “I can arrange for a tactical team to go back in with you, if you want.”

I thought about it for a second. Deep down I knew I wanted to be out there, back in the field and hunting for Circuit. But my new job description needed to be filled and the only other person I could think of who I would trust with it was Massif, who was already out in the field. Swapping places with him now would just be counterproductive. “No. Not at the moment. But if you can get Cheryl and Teresa out of there and put a few more field agents and trained tactical people in the field it would be a good move. Field analysts, too. Movsessian is the only one out there right now.”

“Will do.”

I picked up my temporary phone off the side table and headed towards my office.

——–

The name was Sykes and he was actually at home when I called. I made arrangements to have him brought in to the Springfield office and then to interview him by video call. The warrant paperwork I turned over to the Administration office assistant and then I pulled out the collapsible cot I kept in my office and settled in for a couple of hours of sleep.

I got about forty minutes.

The frantic buzzing and beeping of my phone woke me suddenly and I banged my hand into the wall as I reached towards my dresser. Which reminded me that my dresser was in my apartment and I was in my office. Groggily I rolled over to my other side and dragged my hand across my desk, sending a bunch of paperwork, pencils and other junk falling to the ground along with the phone. I fished it off of the floor and answered it.

A few minutes later it got slammed down for the second time that day, and since we hadn’t even hit sunrise yet it probably wouldn’t be working by sunset. A string of profanity drifted up from the phone, protesting my nearly deafening the tactical team leader on the other end.

So I switched it off, pushed up off the cot and pocketed the phone, doing some swearing of my own. It only took me a few minutes to call Pritchard Mossburger, our head analyst, and ask for the files we’d built on Keller and Sykes during the Enchanter investigation then head out to find Jack and tell him to add Matthew Sykes to our list of people we needed to watch out for since he, too, had disappeared from his house in the time it took our pickup team to arrive. In all I was back in my office in about ten minutes. To my surprise, Mossburger was already there with files in hand.

For a moment I considered whether I could club him with one of the office chairs and get another hour or two’s worth of sleep before having to deal with this but gave up on the idea. A guy my size doesn’t have the leverage to swing one of those things fast enough to knock someone out.

Mossburger apparently took my silent staring as surprise rather than considering violence because he shrugged and said, “You mentioned the Waltham Towers connection during the meeting so I went ahead pulled Keller’s file. Sykes’ was right in there with it and I seemed to remember the two were connected so I pulled it at the same time.”

He handed me the two manila folders with a flourish. They weren’t particularly thick or impressive considering that they’d been a part of one of our most important ongoing investigations for nearly two years but, at the same time, the Keller Realty angle hadn’t been considered a high priority line of investigation at the time so it hadn’t gone that far. But in my groggy state getting anything out of them was out of the question. “Give me a summary?”

Mossburger grabbed a large cup of coffee off of my desk and swallowed some of it before answering. “Roger Keller is a bit of an enigma. Adopted at the age of eleven, brought up to run his adopted parents real estate and development firm. Went to Stanford, took over the business, did okay with it. Married when he was twenty six, divorced eight years later. No obvious connections to crime, ties to local politics and the governor mainly through campaign contributions. Keller Realty is a large firm in local realty but other than the Waltham Towers deal there hasn’t been anything high profile. That list of properties we found during the Enchanter case is really the only thing that makes them of any interest at all.”

“That sounds exactly like what we knew when we formed the task force to find Circuit after he disappeared.” I kneaded my knuckles into my eyes, feeling exhaustion that wasn’t entirely due to lack of sleep. “We haven’t gotten anything new since then?”

“We’ve been keeping an eye on the properties they’ve handled since then but there’s not patterns we can use to connect them with the ones on Circuit’s lists.”

“Right. I need some coffee. Tell me about Matthew Sykes on the way.” I got up from my desk and headed towards the kitchenette, Mossburger trailing along behind.

“Sykes is actually more interesting than Keller. He was also adopted, in fact he and Keller seem to have lived in the same group home for a while which is how they know each other.” Mossburger was lagging a few steps behind since he had brought the file with him and was looking through it as a reference. “Sykes Telecom was originally a local phone company that dabbled in a lot of other communications possibilities but really hit it’s stride in the ’90s when they became an ISP. The Sykes the elder started the transformation from phone line internet delivery to fiber optics shortly before he died, something Matthew continued with.”

I thought back to my meeting with Sykes a couple of years ago. He hadn’t seemed that old. “When did Sykes’ father die?”

“About ten years ago. That’s the really interesting thing.” Mossburger handed me a photo of a small airplane, one wing broken and the fuselage a bit crumpled up, sitting in the middle of a field. I handed it back and quirked my eyebrows to ask what it meant. “Matthew Sykes wanted to learn to fly and his adoptive parents indulged him. After he got his license he took his parents on a celebratory flight and something went wrong with the plane. The crash killed both parents and left Sykes a cripple.”

I stopped in the middle of pouring my coffee. “Any signs of foul play?”

“None that they could find. Sykes blamed an instrument outage followed by the engine cutting out and the black box backed him up on that. The telemetry just goes weird about a minute before the crash although the intact stuff worked again when they tested it afterwards.” Mossburger shrugged and closed the folder back up. “Ever since he’s become an almost total recluse, doesn’t really go anywhere but to his office, his house and his charities. And he never flies anymore. He was actually scheduled to be in Dallas this week for a charity drive but his wife went instead for some reason.”

Something about that sounded off but I wasn’t sure what so I asked, “Did she fly?”

“Yes. She doesn’t seem to share her husband’s dislike for it.”

Finally my brain reminded me of the fact I was looking for. “Wait. Sykes was married?”

“Not at the time of our preliminary investigation. The wedding was last June. We don’t know anything about the wife and she came into the picture late so we assumed she wasn’t a factor.”

“No, I guess by the time she entered the picture things would have been in motion for years.” I sipped my coffee for a moment and then sighed. “None of that really sounds that useful. I don’t understand why Circuit would want to abduct them…”

Mossburger held up a finger for me to wait, then dug through Sykes’ file again, finally pulling out a sheet of paper. “This is our best bet. It’s a list of places that were completely rewired with a fiber optic local network as part of their renovation by Keller Realty. Sykes Telecom did the work on each and every one of these places. Waltham Towers is on the list and we’re operating under the assumption that Circuit was trying to find places where his network of gadgets would run with optimal efficiency. Possibly there’s some kind of back door in their work that Circuit is taking advantage of and he doesn’t want them telling us about it. It’s not much to go on but it’s something.”

“I guess.” I sighed again, then a third time because the situation seemed to warrant it. For some reason this prompted Mossburger to smile. The law of conservation of a good mood required that I scowl to keep the total amusement in the room equal. “What?”

Mossburger sat down on top of the kitchenette’s small table, ignoring the chairs available, and wound up just above my eye level. “Do you ever wish you could just sink a bunch of heat, turn into a walking funeral pyre and walk through problems? No matter how well prepared he is there’s no way Circuit could stop you if you did something like that. I’ve seen the stats on the kinds of updrafts and storm winds you create when you really get hot, it’s unlikely you could get shot with anything short of light artillery, it’s like you’re standing at the center of a small tornado. Sure, there’s the whole throwing lightning bolts thing Circuit can do but when we finally reproduced it in the labs our fuse boxes all needed a good idea of where their target was to hit it and if you made a big enough of a storm he’d never know for sure where you were in it.”

I hefted myself up and sat on the counter, putting us level, and stared at my coffee for a minute. He did have a point. Although people like Samson or my grandfather seemed incredibly powerful and unstoppable it was heat sinks like me or wave makers like Amp that Project Sumter really worried about going rogue. The potential for widespread mayhem in the short period of time before we could be stopped was really a lot higher for those of us that could effect large areas or over a distance than taxmen, who were at least limited to destroying things they could touch.

And then there were matter shifts like Gearshift, who could make things more or less dense just by pushing on them a little. They’re the kind of people we still haven’t told the public everything about. One matter shift with enough enriched uranium and a death wish could do what no terror organization has ever accomplished before.

“Let me ask you a question first, Pritchard.” I looked up from my coffee and gave him a hard stare. “When we first met you came up with conspiracy theories for fun. When was the last time you did that?”

He held my gaze for a second or two then looked down at the folder in his hands. After a moment he shrugged and said, “Not since I agreed to start working here, I guess. When Mona Templeton died… well, I didn’t know her all that well but…” He looked for the right words, couldn’t find them and so ended with another shrug.

I knew the feeling. “When I was a kid, yeah I wanted to go white hot, walk through everything that got in my way and bring justice to the world. It’s still really, really tempting. And I’m not gonna lie, I have tried it once or twice. But sooner or later you’ve got to face the consequences of your fantasies. They effect real people in real ways and not always for the better. If I didn’t let that fact change the way I acted I’d be exactly like Circuit. There’s a real chance large parts of the city wouldn’t even be there anymore.”

Mossburger didn’t look up but he did nod his understanding. I hopped off the counter and clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Mossman, we’ve got work to do. Why don’t you call up Jack and have him get someone on watching Sykes’ wife, if he doesn’t have someone doing it already. Tell him I want to talk to her as soon as she can get here. She flies here, not back to Springfield.”

“I can do that,” he said, standing up as well. “But what are you going to be doing?”

“You reminded me of someone I need to talk to.”

I left him with that useful bit of information and scoured the building until I found Voorman and Samson in Samson’s office. I wasn’t sure if they were discussing the case or just catching up and I didn’t really care because I really wanted to talk to Voorman’s bodyguard, HiRes, who was in the hallway outside. He gave me a brief nod in acknowledgement when I arrived.

“Call your boss,” I said.

He tilted his head to one side. “Any particular reason?”

“Because outside of possibly me Darryl is the biggest expert on Circuit in the nation. And he’s hands down the person who hates Circuit the most. Last time, after the Michigan Avenue Proclamation, Circuit got away from us when we might have caught him if we coordinated.”

HiRes glowered at me. “You were dead set against Director Templeton working on that case, Helix.”

I spread my hands. “That was my mistake. And it would be a shame to repeat it. Now are you going to call him at whatever place he’s at here in town or do I have to call Washington, plow through a forest of red tape to get in touch with him and possibly miss out on a chance to do things right?”

HiRes held his glower a few seconds longer as he thought it over, then nodded slowly. “I’ll talk to him about it.”

“Good.” I turned and headed back towards my own desk and the subpoena paperwork that would sooner or later be needing my signature. “I’ll be in my office so he can call me there if he’s interested. Just tell him to make up his mind fast.”

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