Morocco

“You see bodies that have been shot in the head every day?” Agent Sandusky asked.

Special Agent Double Helix grunted a negative, examining the man who had been left dead in the back alleys of Casablanca. There was a rather large, gruesome hole in his primary thinking organ but otherwise he didn’t look too out of place for a large Moroccan city – Westernized clothing over Mediterranean features that could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty. If not for the blood and the head wound no one would have looked at him twice.

“I ask because most people are at least a little put off by this kind of injury,” Sandusky said, his attention more on Helix than the body the two were standing by. “And I was under the impression that you people didn’t deal with crime much directly.”

“More than twenty percent of our case load is accidental deaths,” Helix replied,  carefully lifting the corpse enough to see if there was anything underneath it. “Poking at accident victims to determine if what happened to them was caused by an unusual ability or not and then covering it up if it was. I had this one guy who got himself crushed under a house when he tried to walk through the loadbearing section of a wall. That was gruesome. Why do your people think this particular murder has anything to do with Circuit?”

Sandusky finally knelt down by Circuit but his attention was still more on the other living man than the dead one. “Not much, really. We were kind of hoping you might be able to tie the two together for us.”

Helix grimaced but didn’t look up, instead beginning to rifle through the dead man’s pockets. “Agent Sandusky, I know there are a lot of stories about the CIA and the way they operate and I’m sure that 99% of them aren’t true. The same goes for us – for example, real supervillains don’t give their employees easily recognizable calling cards. I’m guessing you know this already, so you have to have some reason for dragging us out to stare at this particular corpse.”

“We got an anonymous tip saying that this one was probably related to our case.”

Now Helix did look up. “How many different cases does the CIA have open here?” A half second pause, then, “And do you even call them cases?”

“We generally call them ‘files’ and we have three open in Morocco right now, two that involve Casablanca.” Sandusky shrugged, his southern drawl becoming a little more pronounced with annoyance. “This got sent to me because our other case is a single person who’s under 24-hour surveillance. Also, this guy is a known arms dealer and we’re trying to crack an ironmonger’s ring that in Morocco somewhere.”

“Well, telling us to drop by and have a look at his handywork is consistent with Circuit’s style so I can’t fault you there. Just keep in mind that he has his own reasons for wanting us out here.”  Helix pulled out a wallet and a set of keys and a wallet from the man’s inner jacket pocket. “Can your boys can track down where this guy came from using this?”

“It might take a little while, but sure.” Sandusky took the offered items and stood back up, heading towards the mouth of the alley where additional CIA agents waited.

“Hey, Sandusky.” Once the other man looked back over his shoulder Helix asked, “What do we do with him?”

“Leave it to the locals.” Sandusky said, unconcerned. “They’ll round up the usual suspects.”

Helix nodded, left the body on the ground and followed.

——–

As it turned out the key unlocked the door to an apartment belonging to the dead man. Of course, even with the door unlocked the body in the hallway made getting it open difficult. And with Helix, Sandusky and the three other agents on Sandusky’s team all crammed into the hallway with the new corpse it was kind of crowded. They still managed to get the door shut again. No point alarming the neighbors, after all.

“Looks like a couple of pistol shots to the chest when he opened the door,” Sandusky said. With the body flat on it’s back and a pair of powder burns plain as day on his chest the comment was a lot like stating the obvious.

“Bad friends.” Helix shook his head and got to his feet. The apartment was a simple two room plus bath affair, with all three rooms opening up off of the short hallway where the body lay. It only took a quick inspection to determine which was the bathroom, which the bedroom and which served as everything else.

There was a spare metal desk with a fancy looking wooden chair in front of it in the bedroom and Helix was about to start ransacking the desk when Sandusky tapped him on the shoulder. “Not to keep harping on this but you do know this Circuit fellow a lot better than anyone else. Do either of these kills look like his kind of a job?”

“This kind of violence isn’t consistent with Circuit, period,” Helix answered. “I can count on my ten fingers the number of bullets we’ve seen him fire before. When he has he’s been a decent shot, but really it’s not how he’s solved problems in the past.”

“My boys think the one we found in the street was taken down by a rifle, not a pistol.”

“Not his style at all.” Helix frowned as he thought it over. “Look, everything we’ve seen in the past suggests that he favors stealth and well laid plans over flash or brawn. His ability to circumvent most conventional forms of electronic surveillance along with a surprisingly good knowledge of modern security measures kind of circumvents the need for most direct confrontations so we’ve never really gotten a good read on how he might go about killing someone off. If anything, I’d say the number of bodies we’ve encountered along the way is the biggest sign I’ve seen that we’re not dealing with Circuit.”

Sandusky made an unhappy sound in the back of his throat. “That’s something, I guess. Not useful, but something. Let me know if you find anything better in there.”

With that, Sandusky left him to search the desk and, with nothing better to do, Helix pulled open the drawers and got to work. Most of it was junk, the kind of random restaurant fliers and newspapers you might expect. One drawer was locked and Helix hollered for someone with lockpicks. Melting the latch was an option but not one he wanted to use if the desk’s former owner happened to have left a loaded handgun in there. To say nothing of some of the other things he’d found in desks over the years.

One of the other CIA people poked his head through the door with a cheery, “You yelled?”

“Got a lock I need picked.” He gestured at the drawer in question.

“Sure thing, Supes,” he said with a grin, moving towards the desk. The guy was a younger looking fellow, probably not too long out of whatever training school he’d come from, and he seemed to think working with a genuine superpowered person was cool. Helix was sure the feeling would fade with time. And probably not a whole lot of it at that.

Helix got up and moved out of his way, thinking he might search the bed, when Sandusky poked his head back in the room. “What’s up?”

“I just needed the locksmith,” Helix said in annoyance. “Not the whole team. At least not yet.”

“Well let us know if you find anything.”

Helix was looking over his shoulder to make a retort when he saw it. In fact, he’d probably seen it when he first came into the room and just dismissed it. There was a folding chair peeking out from behind the door.

“Wait.” Sandusky stopped, halfway turned around in the doorframe.

Helix swapped places with the other agent again but instead of opening the desk drawer he grabbed the wooden chair and tossed it on the bed so he could look at the bottom of the seat. There was an envelope taped there with “Double Helix” written on it in a neat hand. Helix sighed. “Okay, Agent Sandusky, I’m now pretty sure Circuit is behind this in some way, shape or form.”

Sandusky came back into the room and studied the chair for a minute. “Okay, I’ll bite. How did you know there was a note there?”

“Like I said, because Circuit is involved.” Helix waved his hand at the chair. “I make furniture as… a hobby, I guess?”

“Strange hobby.”

“And I sell it through a dealer who lists it on the Internet. Somehow Circuit found this out and bought a couple of sets of chairs. We find them in hideaways he’s set up all over the country.” Helix shrugged. “I think it’s some kind of mockery, although really I appreciate the extra cash. Just try not to think about where it comes from.”

“Wait, that’s one of your chairs?”

“No, the style’s all wrong and I doubt he’d pay to ship one to Africa just to poke fun at me. But it’s where I’d put my maker’s mark if I had built it so it’s where I’d check if I wanted to be sure it wasn’t one I’d made and forgotten about or something. So it’s a part of the chair I’d be sure to look at.” Helix reached out to take the envelope but Sandusky grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back.

“Hold on.” Sandusky nodded at the envelope. “If that’s been left there for us to find we should make sure there’s no nasty surprises in it.” He turned and looked back towards the main room of the apartment. “Ramone!”

Helix furrowed his brow in confusion. “What’s he going to do? Sniff it for bombs?”

“Don’t question Ramone!” Sandusky and the other agent said in unison.

“All right!” Helix leaned back against the desk and settled in to wait for Ramone to do whatever it was he did. “And I thought I was from the weird government office…”

 ——–

It took a lot more than a quick check by the bomb sniffing human to move on to the next step. The envelope proved to contain a satellite photo of a small house out a ways in the desert, along with a note that just listed latitude and longitude. But before they could move on to investigating that the rest of the apartment had to be turned over and put back and the crime scene called in to the local authorities. No new and exciting leads turned up so the next few hours were spent frantically trying to figure out who owned the building and what might be waiting for them there.

Turned out the building was owned by a known gun runner and that meant just about anything could be out there.

So they went in prepped for anything. Helix didn’t know what a bunch of CIA agents who were supposed to be operating under the radar were doing with the rough equivalent of a full set of SWAT gear in their basement but under the circumstances he wasn’t going to complain. Of course, they didn’t have a vest in his size. No one ever did and all his custom ordered ones were back in the states. So he wound up going on the raid without body armor.

Not that anyone wound up needing it.

The house was empty, save for the dead. Sandusky walked through the largest of its for rooms, staring at the carnage in unvarnished horror. “This is incredible.”

“That’s one word for it,” Helix said, moving over to the outside wall and examining the hand shaped burn mark near the power outlet there. “We passed a generator on the way in here, right? I’m betting it’s right on the other side of this wall. Circuit stood here and pulled current straight out of the generator and threw it at those two guys.”

Sandusky lightly prodded one with the toe of his shoe, staring at the large round burn that went through the front of his shirt and part of his chest. “I’m amazed he got enough voltage to do that.”

“Electricity kills based on amperage, not voltage. And fuseboxes can boost both with their talent, within limits.” Helix followed a second burn mark, long and thin, along the wall to the third corpse. “Looks like this guy was leaning on the wall here and Circuit just upped the current enough to jump the wire and into him.”

“And the forth guy, over by the door?” Sandusky gestured back at the last man in the room, who had clearly been shot and not electrocuted. “He was shot from inside. Did Circuit have another man with him?”

“Possible, but my guess is Circuit did that himself, too. Arms dealers aren’t the trusting type, I’m not sure they’d have let Circuit into their building if he had anyone else with him. Circuit does have a few known associates but I think he just shot that guy while frying the others with the generator. You can have someone go check on it but he probably overheated it in the process. My guess is it’s junk.” Helix turned away from the bodies and started towards the house’s small kitchen. ” Which reminds me. I should probably demolish this building before we leave, the evidence of a fusebox at work is pretty clear and Project Sumter doesn’t like leaving that kind of thing laying around, even when we’re technically off our turf.”

“Suit yourself. You’ve got some autonomy on this run, just let us check the house over before you do… whatever it is you’re planning to do.”

“Sure. Do we know how many people were in this ring? Are they all accounted for yet?”

“Still two missing, but our electronic surveillance team reports that there’s now a price on their heads, as of five hours ago.” Sandusky shook his head and followed Helix. “Odds are they weren’t here when all this went down. Especially since I’d say these bodies are a little over a day old, based on the smell and beginnings of decay. Why put a bounty on them if you killed them eighteen hours ago?”

“So these are the last of them.”

“That we know of,” Sandusky added.

“Right.” Helix shook his head as he poked through the kitchen, which looked like any typical kitchen might. “I don’t get this, Sandusky. It looks almost like a purge, but I can’t figure out why Circuit would care. He’s never purged his organization back in the states, at least that we can tell.”

“Maybe the greater distance resulted in them getting more out of hand.” Sandusky leaned in the doorway to the kitchen. “Maybe they spread into arms dealing from some other line of business?”

“No, he’s dealt in guns and drugs back home. He only robs banks or other large financial institutions but he’s got no problem dealing general violence or escape.” Helix drummed his fingers on the countertop. “Our analysts say he likes crimes he can see as victimless. Banks are insured. Drug users can be said to opt into their habits and essentially destroy themselves. Guns bought illegally are almost always used to kill other criminals.”

“That’s not as true here,” Sandusky said. “There’s all kinds of civilians caught up in the tribal fighting in Africa. To say nothing of the terrorist groups.”

“Maybe that’s it,” Helix replied. giving up on finding anything meaningful in the kitchen. “He doesn’t seem like the type to care for terrorists. He’s the kind of crook that thrives on picking the fat from a well functioning society. If their activities destabilized his home he might stop them. Even violently.”

“Well, it’s an angle we could look at, anyway,” Sandusky said, heading back into the main room. “Although there’s so many ways that could go and so little in the way of aboveboard bookkeeping done here that we may never know for sure. With all this taken care of, to an extent, do you think Circuit is likely to stick around or-”

“Boss?” Ramone and one of the other agents stepped into the main room, a shovel dangling limply in Ramone’s hand. Both were unusually pale and grim looking. “We found something out back you might want to see.”

——–

Sandusky helped pull Helix back into the jeep and slam the door closed. The wind was starting to die down and the temperature in the desert had already returned to normal but there was still plenty of sand and air whipping by at ghastly speeds. The house was gone. In it’s place was a serene expanse of glass nearly two hundred feet from one side to the other. A tendril of glass stretched from the larger patch out towards the CIA’s vehicles, quickly petering out into small individual patches that shrunk down to a size eight shoe before disappearing entirely. Although Sandusky saw it as just as much evidence for superhumans at work as the house itself Helix assured him the glass would either break up in the wind or be buried by the sand within a couple of days. Still.

“Was that really necessary?” Sandusky asked as Helix beat loose sand out of his clothes and hair.

“It’s how I demolish things.”

“I see.” Sandusky glanced in the back seat, where even his previously-enthusiastic lock expert was leaning slightly away from Helix, making no effort to hide newfound nerves. “It’s a pretty tomb, anyway.”

“Prettier than some of them deserve.” Helix yanked his tie off and cleaned some more sand out from under his collar.  “How did that happen, Sandusky?”

“I don’t know! I’m not God, Helix, I can’t answer all your questions.” The CIA man shook his head. “Look, you think Circuit’s out of the country now, right?”

“He’s always had a hasty exit lined up in the past.”

“Then he’s not a part of our case anymore. You’ve cleaned up the evidence of your super secret talented people and the arms ring we were trying to shut down is now shut down.” Sandusky shrugged philosophically, gesturing back to the former house where six small stones sat in a neat line just beyond the glass. “That is not our problem.”

Helix snapped bolt upright in his seat. “Not our problem? Sandusky-”

“Stop,” Sandusky hissed, jabbing Helix in the chest. “You sit back and listen for a second. I get that you’re not a novice and you’ve got plenty of experience in your field. But your department has never been geopolitics. This doesn’t impact homeland security so it’s out of our purview.”

“What about the security of their homes?” Helix demanded.

“Again, not God.” Sandusky started the vehicle and yanked the gearshift into the drive position with more force than was strictly necessary. “Families starve or parents neglect all the time. That’s why there’s child soldiers and… places like this. I can’t stop it all and its not my job to do it. It’s not yours, either. I appreciate what you’ve done out here, but your share is done. There’s nothing more you can do about it.”

There was a long silence as they drove back to Casablanca, Helix staring out at the desert and brooding. Finally Sandusky sighed and said, “What’s bothering you?”

Helix finally turned away from the window and said, “He did something about it.”

“He also caused it in the first place. Cleaning up your own messes makes you normal, not a saint.” Sandusky shrugged. “Try and figure it out if you must but my advice is don’t let it drive you crazy. You yourself said he’s an opportunist feeding off the fat of society. What are the odds you’ll have to deal with Circuit playing the good guy again?”

Fiction Index

Memorial to a Saint

(Author’s Note: I had originally intended to take a week off after finishing Water Fall to get the summer schedule knocked into place, finalize some ideas and share with you my plans. Long story short, this was supposed to be a post announcing another series of short stories in-between Water Fall and Thunder Clap. Then I remembered that today is Memorial Day and decided it would be more fitting to have this post today, take next week as the week off and continue from there. So today, a Project Sumter short story. Next week, the summer schedule.) 

For the first month and a half the Charleston office of Project Sumter had been one of the busiest places in the city, possibly in the state. But after a solid eight weeks of dominating the news cycles the existence of what the public had quickly dubbed superheroes but the government insisted on calling talented individuals had started to feel more blasé and less exciting. First superhuman stories didn’t make it above the fold anymore. Then talented people got relegated to the second page.

Freelance journalists like Addison Michaels weren’t happy about that, but they were learning to accept the changing realities. If nothing else a journalist knew how to be flexible.

That didn’t mean she didn’t find herself trudging down the street from the bus stop, hoping that this time there might be a worthwhile story hanging around the reception area. Sure Lawrence the receptionist left a lot to be desired, with his constant lisp and poor grasp of manners, but he was a hold over from the days when discouraging the public was the way things were supposed to work, not a deviation from expectations. And while Lawrence could be rude he did know everything that was going on around the office – and thus, he had a good grasp on what was up with talents all across the country. If there was a story to be had, he’d know it.

At least, so her thoughts had run as she came around the corner and started towards the steps up to the office building where Sumter Headquarters was located.

Then she saw the car.

Well, not so much the car, that was a fairly nondescript black sedan, the kind of thing people had been associating with secret government work since long before people knew about Project Sumter. It was more who was getting out of it that mattered. He was, as she had heard so many people say in print, on the radio and on the morning news, shorter than you expected when you met him in person.

In fact Alan Dunn, or Special Agent Double Helix as many people still insisted on calling him, was barely tall enough to see over the roof of the car he stood beside. But that wasn’t what really mattered to Addison. What mattered was that, next to Special Agent Samson, he was probably the most famous talent in the country. That wasn’t saying much at the moment, but the news that he was in town had to be worth something to someone.

She hustled down the street to the curb as he swung the door shut calling, “Excuse me? Agent Dunn?”

For a split second Addison thought she saw Helix’ shoulder slump forward but, almost as soon as it registered he was turning, drawing himself up straight and smiling. If the smile looked forced and his posture was a little more wooden than you’d expect she tried to be understanding, not for the first time reminding herself that these people didn’t expect the press any more than a freelance journalist expected respect, especially from those with steady employment.

“Good morning,” Helix said, taking a few steps away from the curb to meet her. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”

“Hi, I’m Addison Michaels.” She held out her hand for a handshake. “I’m a freelance writer.”

After a split second’s hesitation he accepted the shake saying, “I guessed as much. I’m sorry, Miss Michaels, I’m not actually here in any kind of formal capacity so I don’t really have anything to say at the moment.”

“No, that’s fine Agent Dunn – do you prefer Agent Dunn or Double Helix?”

“I haven’t answered to Alan Dunn for years, outside of tax purposes.” He offered an eloquent shrug. “Most people call me-”

“Helix! Is that girl a friend of yours?”

Sometime during their brief conversation a huge man with sparse white hair and a face like Ayers Rock had managed to slip in behind Helix and open the sedan’s back door. Now he was carefully helping a small woman in a flower print dress out of the back seat. Helix addressed his next words to her. “Grandma, this is Miss Addison Michaels. We’ve just met.”

“Oh. Have we?” Helix’ grandmother turned to stare at her with an eerily blank expression. A flicker of something passed behind her pale blue eyes and she turned to the white haired man and said in a poorly modulated whisper, “Introduce us, dear. We’ve just met this girl and she seems nice.”

It was a little like having her own grandmother visit her church before she passed away and Addison did her best to hide a wince of sympathy. For his part, the woman’s husband made no indication that he found anything wrong with what she said. He just nodded to his wife and said to Addison, “I’m Sergeant Wake. This is my wife, Clear Skies.”

A shiver passed up Addison’s back. Unless she had misunderstood something, Lawrence said these two were founding members of Project Sumter. “What brings you two to Charleston, if I may ask?”

“Charleston?” Clear Skies looked at Helix in horror. “Are we in Charleston, Helix? Daniel won’t like that.”

“Sunshine.”

Clear Skies looked up at her husband. “Don’t ‘sunshine’ me, you two have never gotten along and I know you promised him you’d avoid each other after the war.”

“Sunshine,” Wake said, his voice gentle as baby, his face showing all its years. “Daniel’s been dead for sixteen years. He had a bad heart, you know.”

“Oh.” Her face fell. “I’d forgotten.”

Suddenly Addison felt like an intruder. In many ways that was the job of the press, to intrude on behalf of the public, to keep those in the public eye honest. But these two had never been in the public eye and they’d stopped doing things worth public attention a long time ago. “You know,” she started to say, “maybe I should-”

“There weren’t imbedded reporters with our group, you know,” Wake said, straightening up again. “I never really missed them then, but these days. Well, there’s one story I always thought more people should hear.”

“Grandpa-”

“Don’t ‘grandpa’ me! It’s high time.”

Addison suppressed a smile, wondering if Wake even realized he’d mimicked his wife’s phraseology and town of voice exactly. “I’d love to hear your story, Sergeant Wake.”

Wake offered her his other arm and, after a moment’s hesitation she rested her hand in the crook of his elbow and they started towards the building at a pace clearly aimed at letting Clear Skies keep up with the rest of the group. Ever dozen steps or so, Wake would check on his wife out of the corner of his eye in a way that was really kind of cute. As they made their way leisurely towards the building Wake began.

———

Wake

I only knew him as Saint Elmo, he was this wiry little Italian guy with a mouth so foul you’d never believe the first part of his code name. Back then, Project Sumter was officially a part of the War Department and we were all in the war effort. And back then there was a real important word in front of Air Force – Army. They weren’t different services. So me and Elmo, we’d known each other since back in basic. But the eggheads up in Project High Command, which is what they called it back then, had Ideas about how they were gonna be using his talents. So after basic he shipped out to flight school and I went on to infantry training.

We found each other again in England. That’s a story all in itself. Point was, by the time we flew out over Europe in late September, 1944, we were old pals, me and Elmo. He was the mechanic on the plane that took me out on jumps. Then I’d catch a boat back and we’d do the whole thing again.

But this was something special. It was the last time I’d jump, although we didn’t know it at the time.

I can’t tell you about Operation Garden Grow, it’s still pretty scary stuff. I think about it, sometimes, but rarely on purpose. As I say, I can’t tell you what we were going to do or why high command thought Operation Market Garden would be a good time to do it. This story is about Elmo, so it’s more about getting there than what we did there. So it really starts when our modified B-24 was over the English Channel, me getting settled for another longish trip to Deutschland and trying to stay out of everyone’s way. Wasn’t that hard just yet, since most of the crew doesn’t do much until something unusual happens.

Now Elmo’s crew did these kinds of delivery runs all over, I wasn’t the only talented person running around doing stupid things behind enemy lines and there weren’t that many crews that could be spared to ferry them around. So he saw a lot more of the war than I did, all things considered, and he knew people who could find things, and on the cheap. So when Elmo sat down beside me and handed me a small box I knew it was going to be good.

I’m not real great at describing but she’s still wearing that ring, so you can see it if you want. Nice, ain’t it?

So I ask him, “How much?”

And he tells me, “For you, Sarge, at cost. Three hundred dollars.”

Now that wasn’t just cheap that was downright thievery. Three hundred dollars back then was a lot more than it is now but still. That ring was easily worth five hundred and I said so.

“I picked it up in Cairo from one of the British boys who came through Casablanca,” he says. Gives me the hand wave. “Everyone out there was selling jewelry to try and get out of town before the war. It’s still pretty cheap.”

So I said, “Okay.” And I promised to pay the man once I got back, so long as I did.

We shook on it and Elmo hands me the ring, says, “Now be there to pay up or I’ll make a liar out of you.”

And I give him a glare and say, “I ain’t never been a liar, Saint Elmo, and if you was a real saint you’d be able to see the honesty in my eyes.”

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” He tells me, and crosses himself all pious like. Sometimes I wish he’d said anything else. And that I’d done something other than laugh at him.

There we are, two guys not quite twenty five, maybe over water, maybe finally over land, flying away without a care in the world when the Messerschmitts show up. Suddenly things get crazy. Flying into combat in a bomber ain’t like the movies. You don’t zoom around much, there’s no rolling or flipping. Usually the flight commander just tells you there’s incoming and you strap down. Then you listen to the guns going off until somebody’s plane quits working and crashes or the other guys decide to go home. When you’re the bomber’s actual payload you don’t even get to see what’s going on.

I’ll spare you what it was like. I don’t know why you kids like the kinds of movies you watch, the kinds of books you read. The whole point of that war was so you wouldn’t have to live all that but you still try anyways. But enough soapboxing. This is about Elmo.

I’d never seen him do anything unusual on any of our flights before. There were guys who were supposed to be able to mess up German radar just by sitting there and frowning, I always figured Elmo was one of them. Useful trick to have up your sleeve but not so great when they already know where you are. Turns out Elmo did his job once we were found, something that hadn’t happened on my last three trips into Europe.

So I’m strapped in down in the hold, Elmo’s up in the middle, ready to deal with problems, the gun crews are pounding away. Maybe we get hit some, maybe we don’t I honestly don’t remember. Maybe that lasts five, ten minutes, maybe it’s an hour. Hard to say.

Finally the flight commander yells from up in the cockpit, “Saints and ministers of grace preserve us!”

That’s Shakespeare, by the way.

So a second after he yells that I see Elmo go rushing past with a weird looking box under one arm. I figure if Elmo’s doing it then it must be Project business so I unstrap and try to get up to him without getting shot or falling over. And I made it most of the way, too, Liberators aren’t that big after all. But as I got to the point where I’d first seen him I happened to look out the window and said a few things that’d shame my mother.

Then, since it’s the kind of thing pilots like to know, I yelled up to the flight commander, “The wing’s on fire!”

“Relax.” Captain Benet, who was my supervising officer, caught up to me and started dragging me back to my seat. “It’ll be fine. Haven’t you ever stopped to wonder what it is Elmo does on these flights?”

“Radar, right?” Because what else would he be doing, know what I mean?

But the captain just snorts and says, “Do you even know what Saint Elmo’s fire is?”

“A… camping thing?”

“It’s a weird thing static causes around planes in flight or the tops of old sailing ships. It looks like fire but it doesn’t burn” He shoved me toward my seat and, since I trusted the guy, I let myself be sat down. “Elmo’s got a gizmo that lets him make the stuff pretty much whenever he wants. I’m guessing they’ve got him making it now. Which means-”

The plane suddenly dove down and I was fumbling to get strapped back in.

“-we’re going to be playing the wounded bird any time now,” Captain finished.

The floor remained tilted at a really uncomfortable angle for a while. And I mean at least a weak, possibly longer. Then the bombardier stuck his head into the bay and said, “There’s one plane that won’t break off. I think the rest left to play with the bomber streams, but if this last guy rides us to the deck he’s gonna nail us when we try and pull up.”

“Can’t your gunners peel him off us?” Captain asks.

“They’re trying. But you may have to jump out early.”

“I can do that,” I say, “but Captain Benet’s gonna splatter something fierce if he bails at this height.”

“Thanks for your concern,” he says, real dry like. Then he thinks for a second. “Jump now.”

“What?” The bombardier and I ask together.

“Fighters can turn sharper than bombers, so they dive longer too, and pilots like to attack from above because it’s easier to hit from that angle. Jump now and hop back up to take out Fritz as his plane comes in for the kill. We’ll circle back and I’ll jump once we get some altitude back.”

There ain’t anyone who sees the really stupid stuff coming. Particularly when it involves people jumping five or six stories straight up and tearing apart a fighter plane with their hands, though that’s not actually how it happened. The thing I remember the most is bailing out of a plane going well over a hundred miles an hour and pushing out, against the ground, as hard as I could as I came down. I hit hard and jumped a couple of times, like my dad and granddad taught me. Flailing around on the way down I caught a small tree, about as big around as my leg, with an arm and knocked it over, which gave me an idea. Rather than go up after the ME myself I sent the tree up instead.

Getting the leverage for that kind of throw is tricky – I had to wrap an arm around an even bigger tree in order to brace myself and get the thing started on it’s way, then I spun it around a bit to gain momentum. By the time I had that done I was sure that I’d lost my chance to hit the plane but all told it only took a few seconds.

I don’t think I need to tell you that flinging trees at incoming fighters is not something they cover in basic. Or even advanced training. I was pretty much on my own. So I gauged the angle as best I could and let the tree fly as the ME-109 got close.

Of course, I missed.

But the funny thing about a tree flying over your head at forty miles an hour is people tend to duck. It’s pure reflex. So when my tree sailed over his canopy I guess I can’t really blame him for swerving to avoid it. Unfortunately that messed up his attempt to pull out of his dive and he lost control, smashing into the ground seconds later. I winced and took a moment to shake myself out, then found a tree that looked like it could hold me and climbed it.

It took a few seconds for our flight crew to come back around and drop off Captain Benet. I knew when they did because for a few seconds the wings lit up with streamers of fire for just a second and I could see his chute backlit by them as he came down. That was the last I ever saw of Saint Elmo and his crew. I never paid him the three hundred dollars I owed him, because I made it back and he didn’t. Always felt like that made me a liar. And I never even knew his name. I came here today to fix that.

——–

Addison and Helix stopped by the door as Wake and Clear Skies headed out into the small courtyard at the center of the Sumter office complex. Maybe twenty gravestones dotted the grass. There was another pair of men there, one aged enough to need a walker, the other somewhere between Helix and his grandfather. As Helix’ grandparents made their way across the cemetery it quickly became clear they were headed towards the same grave the other two were standing at. In fact, the older of the two men there waved the younger away.

“Who is that?” Addison asked.

“Chief Stillwater,” Helix said, leaning against the side of the building as he watched. “Elmo flew grandpa in. Stillwater hauled him out. Grandma made sure the weather was good for the trip. It was a self contained team.”

“Until they lost Saint Elmo.”

“That was part of it.” But Helix didn’t elaborate on what else might have changed.

Rather than possibly alienate her subject Addison decided to accept a change in subject. “What did Wake mean when he said he came here today to fix something?”

“This is kind of like our Arlington Cemetery here,” Helix said, gesturing around at the gravestones. “Most of the talents killed in World War Two are buried here, those we could find remains of. But even here, their lives aren’t – weren’t – remembered with real names. Not until last month, when mandatory codenames were officially abolished.”

“So they can finally find out who he was. But… don’t take this the wrong way, but does that make a difference?”

Helix gave her a sideways look. “I heard a lot of grandpa’s stories when I was younger. He thought I needed to know what I was signing up for if I joined Project Sumter, so he didn’t spare me much and he didn’t worry about whether I had clearance to know what he told me. But he never told me that story.”

She nodded. “I’m honored.”

“No.” He scowled. “Well, yes. You were. But you were also practice. If I know my grandpa, and I do, he’s not going to stop with just a name. Elmo had family. Possibly kids, definitely younger brothers and sisters. He’ll find them, if he can. And then he’ll tell the story again. He’ll tell it to any of them that will listen, until he’s gone and it stops being his story and it becomes their story.”

“Not quite.” Addison leaned back against the wall next to Helix and watched the three old soldiers standing quietly by the grave, and said, “It’s history.”

A hint of a smile passed unnoticed and Helix said, “I suppose it is, at that.”

Fiction Index

Trial By Winter

When the pipes in the house froze they started to get really nervous. The snowstorm in the New Mexico had surprised them a little, more because it rattled the thin walls of the house like a ghost rattled chains than anything. The sense of high flying altitude had been unsettling too, but after a while they got used to it. But when they got thirsty and realized they couldn’t get any water out of the pipes, that’s when they started to get really nervous.

They had just made their third complete round of all the faucets in the house and come back to the kitchen sink to try and think up something to unfreeze it when they noticed someone was coming.

It wasn’t like they heard footsteps or anything. But there, on the edges of their minds, like a small weight, something pushed down on the edge of the cold. It was getting warmer in a small area. That usually happened when people wandered into an area they had frozen, usually attracted by the snow. But if they weren’t prepared for the cold, and in New Mexico who would be, they tended to leave pretty quickly. But this warm spot was making it’s way in to the house and towards the door.

The two girls exchanged a glance. “Do you think Frau Nagel is back?”

Her sister shook her head. “She can’t move the cold. She wouldn’t come here alone.”

“When she finds out that we made cold without her permission she’ll be mad enough it won’t matter,” the first girl said.

They shared a knowing nod and started to move towards the laundry room at the back of the house. They hadn’t gone far when the door to the house rattled. The girls stopped and exchanged another glance. Both Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt had keys, had the only keys to the house. Anyone who didn’t have a key wasn’t supposed to come in.

Reluctantly, the sisters stepped back to the kitchen counter and set their water glasses there. They were still thirsty, how could they not be after so long in the cold? But robbers breaking into the house couldn’t be tolerated. Herr Schmidt had been quite clear on that. It was one of the few things he and Frau Nagel agreed on.

The girls had gone half way to the door when the sound of the lock clicking brought them up short. They didn’t have time for anything else before the door swung open. It wasn’t Frau Nagel, which made things a little easier.

Things like lock picks were beyond the two of them, so they simply assumed that the two men at the door had gotten a key from somewhere – most likely, Frau Nagel, as she had gone out to “look in on someone” before the cold. One of them was fairly short, only a few inches taller than they were. He was saying, “How often do you have to do that, anyway?”

The taller man tucked something into his jacket pocket and then shrugged. “Often enough that it’s better not to talk about it.”

Once again the sisters exchanged a dubious glance. If these were the people Frau Nagel had gone to look in on they were certainly a strange pair. The taller man was plain, except for his goatee. The shorter man had light brown hair and blue eyes, except for his height he looked every bit the good German, so that was something at least. But they were both speaking English. With a silent nod, one of the sisters stepped forward.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “May I ask why you are here?”

The shorter man jerked, as if surprised. On closer inspection, the girl decided he couldn’t be that much older than they were. He didn’t have lines on his face like Frau Nagel or Herr Schmidt did and, of course, he was not that tall. Surely he must be young then.

The plain man murmured, “Field work means being on your toes, Double Helix.” Then he knelt on one knee and rested his hands on the other and gave the two sisters an evaluating stare. “Now what do we have here?”

“Has Frau Nagel sent you for the eugenics test?” The same girl asked.

“Eugenics?” An eyebrow went up on that plain face. “I’m not sure. I’ve never met Frau Nagel, is she around here?”

“Oh.” The other sister shrank back behind the one who had been talking up until then. “Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt are very insistent that we not talk to strangers.”

The shorter man rested his hands on his hips and nodded. “That’s really good advice, ladies.” The girls blushed slightly at being called ladies. “I don’t suppose Herr Schmidt is here either?”

There was a short pause for a whispered conference between them, then the girls nodded solemnly. The older sister swallowed once and said, “He’s in the back room. Do you want me to take you to him?”

“That’s all right, honey,” the plain man said. “Why don’t you just ask him to come out here? We can wait.”

“I will take you to him,” the older sister said firmly. Then she wavered a bit. “Unless one of you would rather remain here?”

The plain man stroked his goatee once and looked at her thoughtfully. He seemed to be wondering why she was suggesting that rather than seriously considering staying behind. “No,” he said finally. “I’m afraid that without my friend close by it would be a chilly here for me.”

“You can push the cold?” The younger sister asked. Both girls gave the shorter man an expectant look.

“Well…” The young man wavered for a second, and it was time for the two men to exchange a glance. But his older companion just gave a quick shrug, leaving him to figure out an answer on his own. The girls leaned forward a bit, eager to hear the answer. “I guess it’s something similar. Close enough that it doesn’t make much difference, probably.”

“Did Frau Nagel really not send you?” The older sister asked.

“Never met her,” he said. “I’d like to, though.”

It was a hint and the girls knew it. The sighed and started towards the back of the house. The younger hesitated as they reached the kitchen, and her sister stopped and gave her a gentle nudge towards a chair, saying, “Wait here.”

“We’re not getting you into trouble, are we?” The young man absently cracked his knuckles as they walked, although it seemed more like a nervous habit than anticipation.

“We are already in trouble,” she answered.

“Well, maybe when we talk to Herr Schmidt…” His voice trailed off when the girl opened the door.

Herr Schmidt stood there, his skin a pale blue, two fingers snapped of the brittle end of his hand. The girl looked back at the two men and said, “We are not supposed to move the cold unless someone is here to supervise us. My sister is worried that Herr Schmidt won’t recover. We’re keeping him cold until Frau Nagel can tell us what to do.”

The older man swallowed hard. “Uh. I don’t think that’s going to help any.”

“Agent Templeton,” the younger man said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Can I talk to you for a second? Outside?”

——–

“Double Helix, you’re in over your head.” Darryl Templeton folded his arms and gave the kid a hard look over. “Maybe you should head back to the van.”

“Aren’t you the one who just told those girls you’d freeze without me around?” The kid planted his hands on his hips, a posture he used whenever he was feeling stubborn. Darryl had only known Double Helix a few days, but he’d spent a lot of that time being stubborn. “I’m not going to wander off and let you freeze. And I’m worried about those girls.”

Darryl sighed. “And it’s not a bad thing that you are. But do you even have any idea what’s going on here?”

“My best guess is they’re related to Jack Frost.” Helix glanced over his shoulder, back at the house, where the two blonde girls were waiting, huddled in the doorway. “The names of their guardians and their German accents, along with their talking about eugenics, all make them-“

“Wait.” Darryl held up a hand. “You’ve lost me. Who’s Jack Frost? Outside of fairy tales, I mean.”

Helix looked back, seeming a bit surprised. “You’ve never heard of him? Do you know anything about Sergeant Wake or Operation Underworld?”

“I’d never heard of Sergeant Wake until I read about him in your file. I suppose this has something to do with the founding of Project Sumter during the Second World War?”

“Yeah.” Helix grew more animated. “He was assigned to-“

“Hold up.” He wasn’t glad to cut the kid off, it was the most positive expression he’d seen out of Helix since they met. The kid seemed to brood a lot, although that might not be surprising given all the scrutiny he was under at the moment. But rules were rules. “You probably shouldn’t tell me anything more about the Sergeant or his activities. I’m not cleared to know it and you’re not even a part of the Project, so you might get in trouble for even thinking about it.”

“Whatever.” Helix snorted and chewed his lip for a second. “This is bad stuff, Agent Templeton. These girls are so brainwashed and out of it they think keeping Schmidtsicles in the back room is a good idea. The kids need help-“

“Kids!” Darryl laughed. “They’re maybe twelve. That’s what, five years younger than you?”

“Not the point.” Helix fumed for a minute. “Look, they’re identical twins with talent and-“

“They both do?” Darryl’s jaw sagged a bit. “That’s… the file only has one codeword…”

“You’re worried about your paperwork at a time like this?”

“No, it’s just…” Templeton hesitated. “Identical twins, with the same talent? The eggheads will have a holdiay with this.”

“That’s part of what I’m worried about.” Helix folded his arms. “These girls have been a commodity all their lives. If my grandfather was right, the remains of the Nazi talent management program have been trying to get talents to pass from parent to child for nearly a hundred years. These kids are brainwashed and they plan to use them like they just won the National Dog Show. Breeding, or something. What they need is to learn to use their abilities from someone with a conscience.”

“Did you have someone in mind?”
“Clear Skies taught me the ropes.” Helix spread his hands. “I figure she’ll do for these two, as well. Cold spikers and heat sinkers are close enough in nature that at least she won’t get herself the liquid nitrogen treatment.” He gave a quick glance at the dusting of snow around them. “And Project Sumter won’t have to try and explain why winter has shown up in the middle of the desert.”

Templeton thought about that. Clear Skies may have been able to handle a young and rambunctious Double Helix, but she’d been younger then. He’d never met Helix’s grandmother, but he was willing to bet she wasn’t as spry as she used to be. And there was the whole disturbing question of what had happened to Herr Schmidt in the first place. At least there, the girl’s conditioning was likely to play in their favor.

Darryl walked back to the door of the house and motioned for the girls to come out and join them. After a moment’s hesitation, they did. He dropped into a crouch to get a little closer to their eye level, hoping to engender a little trust, and said, “Okay. My name is Darryl Templeton, and my friend here is Double Helix.”

The girls nodded solemnly but didn’t say anything, so he pressed on. “We’re going to take care of Herr Schmidt.” True, although ‘taking care’ would probably involve a plain coffin and quiet burial. “Then I’m going to go and try and find Frau Nagel. Double Helix is going to go with you somewhere, but where depends on your giving me a truthful answer to one question.”

“Of course. Anna and-“

“No names,” Helix said quickly. “Agent Templeton is going to give you new names, and we need you to use those as much as possible.”

“Oh.” The girls nodded sagely. “Yes, we always get new names when we move.”

That made Darryl feel a little queasy, but he did his best to ignore it. He pointed to the girl on the left and said, “From now on you’ll be Frostburn.” He turned to her sister and wavered. There had only been one new code name for a talent opened. “You can be…”

“Coldsnap,” Helix suggested.

“Coldsnap,” Darryl repeated. “Okay?”

“Those are funny names,” Coldsnap said, wrinkling her nose.

“You could be stuck with Double Helix,” Darryl pointed out. Helix grumbled something but Darryl ignored it. “Now, I need you two to tell me what happened to Herr Schmidt.”

There was a moment of embarrassed silence from the girls, then Coldsnap said, “It’s because of the eugenics.”

“Huh?” Helix’s question wasn’t the most intelligent, but it did kind of summarize Darryl’s reaction as well.

“You see, Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt say we are some of the best Germans there are,” Frostburn said, sounding a little proud of the fact. “So we must be very careful not to look at men who aren’t also of good Aryan blood.”

“That was why, last year Frau Nagel told us very strictly not to go into a room with Herr Schmidt if she was not there,” Coldsnap added, sounding a bit apologetic. Darryl realized she was probably referring to the fact that, from what he’d seen, Herr Schmidt had dark, curly hair that didn’t really mesh with the Aryan ideal.

“So when Herr Schmidt came into her room,” Frostburn nudged her sister, “we were surprised. And…”

“It was an accident,” Coldsnap hastened to add. “We were surprised, and rushed out and he grabbed at me and…”

The girls trailed into silence and Darryl sighed. The worst part was, he couldn’t tell if this was just some kind of simple misunderstanding or if the man had actually been some kind of pervert or if it had been some kind of combination of the two. Probably the latter, with the idealized position the girls held in Schmidt’s twisted ideology not helping matters at all. “All right. If the two of you will turn down your cold and let the desert go back to normal, Double Helix will take the two of you to meet his grandmother.”

“Really?” Coldsnap seemed surprised. “Will that be all right?”

“Relax,” Helix said. “If there’s one thing Clear Skies has always wanted and never gotten, it’s more grandchildren. She’s only got me, and I think she always wanted a granddaughter or two.”

Darryl took his arm and led Helix off a few paces, then lowered his voice. “Look, kid, I know this is a big deal for you, but seriously, in my book you’re already qualified for field work. If you want to work for the Project I think it’s just a matter of finishing the paperwork. You’ve made it past the Senate Committee and kept a level head in the field. The deal isn’t going to fall apart if this doesn’t work out, so don’t put too much pressure on your grandma, okay?”

Helix just gave a wicked smile. “Agent Templeton, all I can say is you’ve never met Clear Skies.”

The girls flanked Helix as he led them back towards the waiting vans, which had to park half a block away to stay outside the worst of the girl’s unnatural cold. Of course, with the girl’s cold spikes gone, the temperature was rapidly climbing back up to desert norms. Frostburn was saying, “Your Grandmother must have very good German blood as well, if you could make it through the cold. It’s too bad Frau Nagel couldn’t give you the eugenics test. I think you’d have good, German children.”

Helix gave a nervous chuckle. “Listen girls, let’s not mention eugenics tests or children around Clear Skies, okay?”

“Why not?” Coldsnap asked.

“Because if there’s one thing Clear Skies wants and hopes to have in the near future, it’s great-grandkids.”

Darryl just shook his head and started back into the house. There was still a lot of clean-up to do, and the mysterious Frau Nagel to look for. One thing he was certain of, if Double Helix did come to work for Project Sumter, whoever his supervisor wound up being would have a lot more paperwork than normal to deal with. Not an appealing prospect, that. Not appealing at all.

Fiction Index

#63 (Part Two)

“Let me see if I have this straight.” Kevin studied the grim faced old man who sat facing him. “You think that I have some inexplicable ability to – what, make funhouse mirrors using only the power of my mind?”

The other man laughed and tapped the picture he was holding. “You disappear entirely from the camera a few seconds after this. Also,” he shuffled through his pictures as he spoke, “you make a spotlight out of nothing here. From the lighting changes we can see in the surroundings after you and Grappler leave the camera’s view it looks like you can also create a powerful flash of light to blind people. My guess is that you can cause light to bend around you, either creating a small bubble of invisibility or functioning as a lens to focus intensity. The ‘funhouse mirror’ effect is just the set up. Am I right?”

“You’re crazy.”

“Mr. Kirishima, during the American Civil War Lincoln found Corporal Sumter, a man who could pick up cannons and fling them, and sent him against Shenandoah, a man who could take a cannonball to the chest and not be moved. Since then talented men and women have served in every conflict in American history, and in every imaginable capacity.” The old man folded up the pictures and tucked them away. “You’re employer heard a German U-boat that was hiding in an ocean current with it’s engines stopped and sunk it by humming under his breath. You are on camera using your ability and we have no reason to doubt what we saw. This is very much not a joke or a flight of fancy. The only question here is whether you have any interest in using your greatest talents or whether you’re content to continue being an aspiring film editor.”

“Film editing is using my talents.” He gestured to his eyes. “Even my unusual ones, although explaining all that would be kind of technical.”

“And possibly involve concepts we aren’t really equipped to understand?” Asked one of the twins, raising an eyebrow.

“Actually, yeah now that you mention it I’m not sure it would really make sense to you…” Kevin absently pushed his glasses up his nose as he thought about it. “Fine. Let’s say I can change the laws of optics.” Kevin kicked back in the sofa and spread his arms in a careless gesture. “So what? I doubt it’s the kind of thing you can duplicate, and not even the Secret Service is secret enough to make someone disappear without raising far more questions than you’re willing to deal with, so you’re probably not here to put me in some kind of secret breeding program.”

“No,” the twins said in a fairly disturbing unison. The one on the left, who seemed the more vocal of the two, added, “Talents enjoy all the human rights of any other person in the United States. The government shuts down those kinds of programs, it doesn’t run them.”

“Right,” Kevin said, not quite keeping a note of skepticism from creeping in. “So, what do you want from me?”

“It’s like this.” the old man got up and shuffled over to the apartment’s small kichen and started rummaging around, looking more like a wise old janitor than ever. “Under normal circumstances this is the part of our discussion where I’d tell you that Uncle Sam looks very poorly on private citizens attempting to serve as law enforcement. Even people like you, with your unique talents, lack the resources and manpower to keep the peace and build criminal cases that can be prosecuted in a court of law. All you can do is scare or beat people into submission. No matter how badly they can twist the laws of physics, vigilantes are a hindrance to a lawful society, not a help.”

Kevin mulled that over for a moment. “Yeah, I guess I can kind of see that. So what part of me is an unusual circumstance? You said you’re giving me a chance to participate, so I assume that means as a Secret Service agent?”

“Yes.” Janitor man leaned back in his chair. “Normally, there would be a lot of paperwork and review involved in sorting out your employment. In fact, invthe past talented individuals were not hired directly by the Secret Service, the management of talents in public service has been left entirely in the hands of an agency we call Project Sumter.”

“I take it that’s no longer the case.”

“No.” The old man steepled his fingers. “A few months ago a person of interest in one of the Project’s cases indicated his intention to cause significant changes in the nation’s policy toward talented individuals and, in the process, implied that with it would come large scale changes in our systems of government.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow. “In other words, you’re looking for a superpowered terrorist?”

“Yes and no. The Secret Service is technically supposed to leave the finding and prosecuting to other agencies. Whether we actually do that with Open Circuit or hunt for him ourselves is something to be decided by people with a higher paygrade than mine.” He found the cabinet that held the cups and pulled one out. “However the Service is interested in building a team of talented people who will be available at all times to respond to situations where Circuit, or anyone else like him who may pop up, might become an issue. We plan on operating on a much different paradigm than Project Sumter.”

Kevin leaned forward a bit so he could get a better idea of what was going on in his kitchen. “I’ve never heard of these guys so I guess that they’re not a widely known agency. I don’t suppose that’s the part you’re planning on changing?”

“No, we’re the secret service for a reason,” he answered, filling one of the glasses with water. “The differences are more in operation and treatment of talents. For instance, the career path for you at Project Sumter would be extremely limited. We hope to eventually have talented individuals at our highest levels.”

“How very open-minded of you,” Kevin murmured.

“Thank you,” the old man said, working his way back into the cramped room where Kevin sat, the water sloshing dangerously as he went. “In addition, we plan to actively locate and recruit talents. Project Sumter knows of approximately four hundred people with unusual abilities currently in the United States. That’s commonly believed to be about five to ten percent of the number of actual talents in the U.S., although there’s really no basis for that figure. It could be much higher or much lower.”

He handed the glass of water to the twin on the left and lowered himself back into the chair with a grunt. “The Project is generally reactive. When some talent does something that draws attention, they swoop in, explain the facts of life, asks them politely to avoid spandex costumes and public displays of their abilities and tells them they can have a job if they really want it. They’re constantly understaffed and overworked and, while that’s made each and every one of their teams very efficient, they simply do not have the budget or manpower to actively seek out talents and recruit them or take steps to prevent large groups of people, talented or otherwise, from forming around troublesome people like Circuit. In the past, that was fine. Now it’s not.”

Actually, to Kevin it just sounded like the burden of police work. “This may sound somewhat naïve, but isn’t reacting to trouble the way law enforcement is supposed to work? You make it sound almost like the Secret Service is about to launch a pogrom or something.”

The old man smiled and said, “Frostburn?”

In response, the blonde with the glass of water gave a practiced flick of the wrist, sending the water leaping up into the air over the old man’s head. Her sister reached out with a snatching motion and there was a soft cracking noise. A second later she held a frozen stream of water in one hand. There was a moment of quiet, broken only by loose bits of ice clattering to the floor, as Kevin stared openmouthed. She tossed the chunk of ice to Kevin, who fumbled it but managed not to drop it. It was clearly a chunk of ice, already melting in the warmth of his hands.

“This is Agent Frostburn,” the old man said, gesturing to the twin still holding the glass. She stepped forward and held it out to Kevin, who absently set the chunk of ice back in the glass. She frowned at it for a second and then it slowly melted back to into a liquid. “Her sister here is Agent Coldsnap.”

He gestured to the tall, wiry man who still stood in one corner of the room. “Finally, we have Agent Hush.”

“Fitting name,” Kevin muttered. “Does he talk at all?”

“Yes, of course,” Hush said, startling Kevin into staring for a moment.

When it was clear Hush had nothing else to add, the old man continued. “You’re free to ask them anything you want about the way the Secret Service has treated them and what they think of our policies and direction and they’ll do their best to assure you that it’s not some kind of witch hunt. And if you don’t want to join, that’s fine. In fact, if you want, we’ll even withhold the evidence of your involvement with last night’s events from Project Sumter so that you can stay off the grid completely. After all, we want your help, not to arrest you.”

Kevin tapped his thumbs together as he thought it over. On the one hand, the Secret Service didn’t seem to have whole lot to gain from staging a ruse like this just to get him to come along without protest. They probably could have just gassed him with something and dragged him off if they were really determined to dissect him, or whatever secret government bioresearch programs did these days. On the other hand, he’d never really expected to do anything with his ability beyond learn all the tricks to it from his dad and possibly teach them to his children if that ever came up. The family secret had been first and foremost just that: a secret. Using it with or for anyone else seemed almost blasphemous.

“To be honest, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help you,” Kevin admitted. “I don’t really have a whole lot of tricks up my sleeve, other than bending light so I won’t reflect it, and even that’s only so useful.”

“Well, normally that’s where I’d say that there are scientists and more experienced talents who have put a lot of work into understanding your talent and will help you use it more effectively. But,” the old man offered a hapless shrug. “In your case, there aren’t.”

Kevin raised his eyebrows. “Not a talent you thought worth investigating?”

“Not exactly. There are 62 different kinds of known talents in the Project Sumter records, and time and money has been spent researching all of them. The problem is, your talent is new.” He gave that a moment to sink in, then said, “You may not think it’s much, but with a little time and creativity, I’m sure we can work out plenty of ways for you to earn your keep. But more than that, having a totally new kind of talent at our disposal? One no one has seen before, capabilities totally unknown? That in and of itself is an advantage you don’t find every day. Circuit’s greatest gift is preparation. He’s always a step ahead of us – but he can’t be a step ahead of you, because he doesn’t know anything about you.”

“Huh.” So if he joined this almighty janitor and his cronies he’d have to be the trump card. Kevin wasn’t sure he liked the kind of pressure that brought with it, so he hurriedly changed the subject. “So the first order of business is what? Grab this Circuit person at his next robbery?”

“If only it were so simple. The Stillwater Sound robbery, for example. The woman you saw is known as Grappler. She’s strongly believed to be an associate of Open Circuit, you so-called superpowered terrorist.” He pulled a sheet of paper out of his folder and glanced over it. “Do you know what she stole from the Stillwater building?”

Kevin shook his head. “Last I heard, we hadn’t even been let back in to inventory things. It’s my day off, so I figured I’d get the blow by blow tomorrow.”

“Four different kinds of wireless microphones, three large speaker set-ups intended for car stereos, a master soundboard for an auditorium and enough wiring to tie Gulliver to the Empire State Building.”

Kevin snorted. “I assume you mean King Kong, since Gulliver would only be as big as you or me and we’d hardly need to tie him to a skyscraper. All that together would barely cost five grand, ten if it was the really good stuff. Why steal it? If he’s this crazy scary terrorist he has to have the funding to just buy it.”

“Good question,” the Coldsnap said, absently folding her arms over her stomach. “We believe Circuit does have a huge warchest at his disposal. We know he’s committed a number of major robberies over the course of his career.”

“Most likely he just doesn’t want to pay for anything he doesn’t have to,” her sister added.

Kevin blinked and shook his head. “I wish you two wouldn’t do that.”

“What?” They asked simultaneously.

“Finish each other’s thoughts. Speak in unison. Be in the same room at the same time.” They laughed but Kevin wasn’t really interested in them for the moment. He took his glasses off and tucked them into his shirt pocket. “So what’s all that for? Is he going to stage the next Woodstock or something?”

The old man shrugged. “We don’t know. That’s just it, Circuit’s clearly doing a lot of illegal things, but with no clearly discernable pattern so far. He’s too meticulous and rational to be flailing about at random but we don’t know what his endgame is and we don’t have the manpower to investigate all the leads. That’s why we need people like you.”

“Okay, old man, let’s put it all on the table.” Kevin leveled a finger at him. “You have a terrorist to find. The Secret Service specializes in protecting U.S. officials, visiting dignitaries and the U.S. Mint, so I’m guessing the fellow you’re after is a material threat to one or all of those. I have a unique ability that you want on your side. Not to sound crass, but what’s in it for me?”

“For starters you get to actually use your talent for something more constructive than staring at a woman’s chest,” Coldsnap said.

Kevin sighed. “You know, since Frostburn was the person who called me out on it and she hasn’t said anything about it since I would really think you should let it drop.”

“You can tell the difference?” The old man looked over his shoulder at the twins, who were also sharing a startled glance, then back at Kevin. “It took me three weeks to figure it out.”

“Why is that so surprising? You told me the Chief is used to test the accuracy of sonar. You say you realize my gift is optics. So why wouldn’t I have great vision to go along with the other abilities, just like the Chief has great hearing?” Kevin tapped the glasses in his pocket. “You never thought that I might not need these?”

“The possibility did occur,” the old man replied. “But I’m still not sure what gave them away.”

“Lots of things. Even twins have unique fingerprints, pore patterns and whatnot. But the biggest thing?” Kevin patted his shirt. “In a cheap suit the weave of the fabric is rarely matched up in any rational way, the cloth is just kind of laid out at random, meaning if you can pick out pattern of the threads in the fabric telling one suit from another is easy.”

“And you can see all that?” The old man asked.

“Afraid so.” Kevin shrugged and gave the twins a grin. “You might be surprised what you look like when all your blemishes are under a constant close-up. Part of the appeal of working with film is that the camera lens filters most of that out for me.”

The old man leaned forward, his expression shifting from the friendly janitor that he’d been all night to something much more serious. In a instant he had turned into someone grim and a little disturbing, like a weathered hermit that had crawled out of his hole and decided he did not like what he found. “Mr. Kirishima. We know, better than most people, exactly how ugly the world can be, and believe me it goes a lot deeper than a little make-up and some stage lights can fix. You have an ability that gives you a unique take on how to improve things. The Secret Service will give you a better chance to use those abilities in a good way than anyone else in the nation. Better than Project Sumter. Certainly better than Open Circuit.”

As quickly as it came the burst of emotion went and there was nothing but a janitor in a badly fitting suit again. He leaned back into the chair, looking suddenly tired. “I’m not saying that wanting to work in Hollywood is a bad thing. There are a handful of people who have gone there and used it as a platform to advocate for a lot of good things, or made money that was used well. But what are the odds that you will be one of those people? Because if you join the Secret Service I guarantee you’ll be on the front lines within a month. The chance to make a difference, and the opportunity to start doing it soon, is about the only thing we can offer you. The question is, do you want it or not?”

“I don’t get to know any more than that before I have to take the plunge, do I?” Kevin asked ruefully.

“Just that we’re the good guys,” the old man said. “If you didn’t want to be one, why go so far just to stop a minor break-in?”

To his surprise, Kevin realized the man had a point. It also gave him one last thing to find out. “Why are you doing this then?”

The grim expression was back in an instant. “To catch a murderer.”

There were a lot of things Kevin wasn’t sure of, but one thing he knew for certain was that this old man was telling the truth. He held out his hand to the janitor and said, “All right, old man. I’m in.”

“Welcome to Templeton’s Avengers, son,” he answered, shaking Kevin’s hand. “You can call me Darryl.” He shoved himself up and out of his chair and pulled Kevin up along with him. “Now, time’s awasting. Let’s get cracking, shall we?”

Fiction Index

#63 (Part One)

The last thing that Kevin Kirishima expected to find when he answered his door the day after the Stillwater Sound robbery was a set of leggy blonde twins. Certainly not blondes in featureless black suits flashing IDs that said they were a part of the Secret Service.

Sure, when your place of work has been robbed you expect to be interviewed by the police a couple of times, more if you were the inside man, but one doesn’t really expect the Secret Service to show up when a small technology company in the Midwest gets robbed. To say that Kevin hadn’t been expecting the visit would have been an exercise in understatement.

The blonde on the left cleared her throat. “Mr. Kirishima?”

So apparently this wasn’t a case of showing up at the wrong door. “That’s me.”

“Eyes up here, please,” said her twin.

Kevin did as asked, not that he had been looking at anything inappropriate. “There’s no name on your ID,” he said to her before taking a quick glance at her sister’s. “Either of yours, actually. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me who I’m talking to?”

“Not just yet.” That came from a man standing behind them. Where the twins were blonde and blue-eyed enough they could have stared in Alfred Hitchcock films, he looked more like he should be the wise old janitor in a workplace drama. His hair was still fairly thick, but it was pure white. Lines of gray ran through a beard that looked like a goatee might if you suddenly stopped shaving and let it grow wild for a month or two. He leaned heavily on a metal cane and all in all looked decidedly unlike a Secret Service agent. “Mr. Kirishima, we need to come in and ask you a few questions.”

Kevin removed his glasses and polished them thoughtfully. “Maybe I don’t feel like letting people who won’t tell me their names into my apartment. And if I’ve got my U.S. Constitution worked out right, you can’t force your way in without a warrant.”

The janitor reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper, which he handed to Kevin wordlessly. It was a warrant, of course. What else would it be? Kevin adjusted his glasses once to hide his annoyance and handed the paper back. “Fine. Looks legit. Might as well come in.”

Without waiting for further invitation the twins barged through the door and into the apartment, crossing over each other’s paths as they did so. They took such care to do it while he was watching that it was an obvious ploy to confuse him about who was who. Kevin glared at their backs for just a moment before starting to close the door behind their older companion. He didn’t even get it halfway shut before stopping short.

There was a fourth member of their little group, a tall, thin man with a mournful expression, who looked like he was either Polynesian or perhaps Native American. He gave no indication that he realized he’d almost had the door slammed in his face, made no acknowledgement of Kevin at all, just squeezed his narrow frame through the door and started a long, slow circuit around the apartment, not seeming to pay any attention to what he saw. Kevin snorted and closed the door after making sure there weren’t any other weirdos waiting in the wings. Then he followed his visitors into the apartment’s living room.

Since he wasn’t in any mood to be hospitable there was no point in apologizing for the mess. Besides, on a normal day he was quite proud of his living room. It hadn’t been easy to find and collect all that video recording gear, and some of the older stuff was quite valuable. But with six different video cameras, three TVs, a wall of playback equipment and a nest of wires to connect it all, there wasn’t as much room for living as most people might expect to find in a “living” room.

But Kevin wasn’t most people and he had a feeling his guests weren’t either. The janitor had settled into the only chair, which just left the sofa. The twins had taken up flanking positions behind their boss, the old man, who was clearly in charge, and the quiet man was still blankly staring at the junk in the room, so Kevin took the seat on the sofa where he’d been sitting before company arrived, grabbed the remote and switched off the TVs.

“I’m sorry if we interrupted you,” the old man said in a pleasant tone. “But you understand we wanted to talk to you right away.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Kevin replied. “If I knew what you wanted to talk to me about.”

“A breaking and entering at the place you work,” one of the twins said. “Stillwater Sound.”

“Really.” He leaned back and settled into the sofa. For once he wished the battered furniture gave a little more support. Normally it was comfortable but now he was sinking so far he felt small. With an irate grunt he shoved himself forward to the edge of the couch and said, “I thought the police had that pretty well in hand last night. Why the sudden interest from the Secret Service?”

“We’ll get to that, depending on how things go,” the old man said. “How long have you worked for Stillwater Sound?”

“About three years,” Kevin said. “I started as an intern after college and I’ve been there part time ever since. I just made full time last summer.”

“What brought you to a sound studio?” That one of the twins. She casually waved her hand at his collection of video equipment. “This doesn’t look like recording gear.”

“It’s not. I studied communications but my real interest was production for TV and film. I did an internship with one of the local TV stations. When I graduated,” Kevin waved a hand in the general direction of his diploma, which sat on a shelf beside an old Super 8 video camera, “I went to a job fair where I met the Chief – that’s Mr. Griswald, the owner of Stillwater Sound.”

“And he hired you?” She asked. “Why does a sound studio need a TV technician?”

“Because film is an audiovisual medium,” Kevin said. “Adding a soundtrack, voice-overs, remastering sound, removing background noise, all that stuff is a part of film and TV. And when you’re working with a small budget or amateur stuff video and sound work tends to get done with one piece of software, instead of doing video editing with one program and audio editing with another. The Chief thought it would be nice if we could get a piece of that pie and help out amateur movie makers at the same time, so about six years ago he started recruiting people that knew that end of the business.” He shrugged. “It’s not Hollywood, but it’s a place to start.”

“According to the police report, the break-in at Stillwater was just after seven at night.” The old man flipped open a folder he’d brought with him, turning pages until he found the one he wanted. “Are you usually in the buildings that late at night?”

“Only the last couple of days.” Kevin let himself relax fractionally. The questions so far seemed fairly mundane. The whole set up was really weird, what with the Secret Service agents and the badges with no names, but even if these were just really ambitious reporters he couldn’t see any harm in answering their questions. “If you work for Stillwater you get a major discount on using the studio. A friend, Susan, and her husband have a little New Ageish kind of a band. They do recordings, I help out.”

The janitor made a quick note. “Tell me what you saw when you came out of the studio.”

“You been out to the studio yet?” The old man shook his head. Kevin held his hands up, his palms at a right angle to one another. “It’s like this. The parking lot is a square and the old building is down here.” Kevin wiggled the fingers of one hand. “The new building is over here.” He sketched a large rectangle by the opposite corner of the parking lot. Then he indicated the edges of the lot between the two buildings. “All this is some sort of high tech graywater treatment ponds. Four or five of ’em, to be exact. It’s all very eco-friendly stuff, Federally subsidized, we have it to help pay for the new building. And the Chief’s son is a big believer.”

“Sounds smelly,” one of the twins said.

“There’s something to deal with that, too, so you don’t really notice it except on really warm days.” Kevin dismissed the issue with a wave of his hand. “Anyways, I definitely wasn’t smelling anything, just looking around, you know? And I see someone walking through them.”

The white haired man scribbled a note. “That’s not normal?”

“No, it’s not. The only people I’ve ever seen out there are the people who make sure the whole mess isn’t about to wash away or something. They come out about once every three months, poke around the banks for an hour or so and leave. They’re always in teams, and they never come at night.”

“So this person was alone?”

“Yeah.” Kevin tapped his fingers on his chin for a minute. “Nice looking lady. African-American, about five foot six, dressed in gray coveralls. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman in the group before now that I think about it. That’s kind of strange.”

“And you were sure she wasn’t an employee?”

“Stillwater’s big for a sound studio in Indiana, but it’s still a small company. I know everyone working there now and most of the time we hear about new hires before they do.” Kevin shook his head. “She had no business being there after dark and we both knew it. And when you’ve got a stranger with a backpack prowling around buildings with hundreds of thousands of dollars of sound equipment in them you get suspicious fast.”

“According to the preliminary police report you were the one who called security,” the blonde on the left said. “What prompted that if she was just standing around outside the building?”

“Maybe she caught you staring at her chest and started to get mad?” Her sister asked, with a quirk of the eyebrow and the hint of a smile.

Kevin wavered a minute. A hard look confirmed that the one who was asking wasn’t the same one who’d called him out at the door. It was another mind game, not legit banter. Absently he pushed his glasses up his nose and shrugged. “She was a bit far away for that. Anyway, I have the security station at the gatehouse on speed dial and I let them know.”

“How many employees have the Stillwater security stations on speed dial?” The old man asked.

“How many Secret Service agents have no name on their IDs?” Kevin countered, folding his arms across his chest. “Look, I’ve answered your questions with pretty much the same answers I gave the cops-”

“You called security at 7:43 PM,” the old man said, ignoring him. “The initial break-in was at 7:09 PM, and the suspect left the building at 7:35 PM. There’s an eight minute window there that’s unaccounted for.”

“-and I think that’s who you need to talk to.” Two could play the ignorance is bliss card. Kevin went to reach for his wallet and jumped when the thin man materialized beside the couch and grabbed his arm. Kevin jerked away instinctively, startled by his sudden appearance. He’d been so quiet Kevin had almost forgotten there was a fifth person in the room. Best to try and calm things down. “I’m just going to give your boss the name of the detective I talked too after the robbery. I think you’d best come back with them if you want any more questions answered. This whole thing smells fishy and I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t.”

The old man motioned for his gaunt friend to step back and he did. “Mr. Kirishima, do you know why the owner of Stillwater Sound is called Chief?”

“Well…” That was a matter of public record, so he didn’t see how answering could hurt. “He was in the Navy. Served in the Battle of the Atlantic and later Korea, I think.”

“That’s right. He was a Chief Sonarman when he retired.” The old man leaned back in his chair. “That doesn’t mean the Chief didn’t work for the U.S. Government anymore, though. There’s some jobs you don’t give up that easily. Chief Stillwater just changed job description. He doesn’t wear a uniform anymore and his assignments have more to do with research and development than intelligence gathering, but it’s important work and his talents make him a valuable asset. You might say he’s really made waves.”

Kevin frowned and absently started polishing his glasses again, giving the old man an appraising look. “Are you trying to tell me that Mr. Griswald is using Stillwater Sound as some kind of secret government testing site buried under one of the buildings?”

“Of course not,” the left twin said.

“It’s in the water pits,” her sister added. “He was a sonarman, not a nuclear physicist. He tests sonar equipment under something resembling real world conditions.”

“He what?” Kevin shook his head in bewilderment. “Why would anyone bother bringing sonar equipment this far inland when they could do those kinds of tests just as easily from a fishing trawler or something?” But even as he said it, his mind flashed back to the work crews he’d seen around the ponds every month. Not only were they all men as far as he could recall, but they came with buzz cuts and very good posture. Not typical for a company with a big focus on green technology.

“What’s more important,” the lead agent added, “is that, instead of just being a place to store wastewater, the ponds are actually a national security asset and are monitored as such. I want you to take a look at something.” He fished a set of papers out of one pocket and unfolded them. On the top was a grainy still taken from a security camera feed showing a woman approaching one of the wastewater ponds. From the angle Kevin decided it was probably mounted on one of the light poles in the parking lot. The quality wasn’t good and it had clearly been taken at night. Kevin felt his gut sink. “Is this the woman you saw last night?”

Kevin licked his lips and shrugged. “Hard to tell, as dark as it is.”

“Well, I suppose that’s entirely understandable. How about this one?” In the next photo the woman looked to be running towards the camera, the perspective suggesting it was mounted on the building. A bright beam of light illuminated her from the direction of the parking lot, which looked oddly dark.

Kevin grimaced. “Yeah, that’s her.”

“I see. And this one?” Now the woman scrambled frantically up the side of the new Stillwater building, somehow clinging to the rough concrete with her bare hands and feet.

“Now that looks a lot like someone’s idea of a bad joke.” Kevin shrugged. “I’m not an expert on Photoshop, but I’d guess it’s probably some kind of splice with a movie?”

The janitor raised an eyebrow. “You deny seeing anything like this last night?”

“Of course not. I like to shoot movies, not live in them.”

“I see. What about this?” The next picture wasn’t of a woman at all. It was Kevin, or rather Kevin as he might appear if he was looking at himself in a fun house mirror. His legs seemed to twist, his waist curved at an impossible angle and from the shoulders up he seemed to narrow until his head was half it’s normal size. It looked like he held some kind of portable floodlight in one hand, or at least a beam of light washed out most of the rest of the picture. Like the first, it was probably taken from a camera in the parking lot, although it was likely a different one.

Kevin tried to hide a wince, but the subtle change in expression on the faces of the agents facing him told him he hadn’t been successful. “I don’t suppose you’ll believe that’s another prank?”

“No, Mr. Kirishima, I’m afraid I won’t.” The old man shuffled away his photos and folded his hands in his lap. “Truth be told, I don’t blame you for hoping to convince me that you’ve been the victim of some sort of prank. But the photographic evidence,” he patted the folder, “along with the unusual way Stillwater Sound was robbed and the testimony and unique nature of your employer all point to one conclusion: That it is far more likely that your are an individual of unique talent. And if that is the case, then we have more to discuss than just your involvement in the robbery of a small recording studio and sound equipment dealer in the Midwest. But the fact is, there is more here than just a simple robbery. Even the Secret Service has it’s hands tied by competing jurisdictions, and there’s only so much we can do in this case. Aren’t you the least bit curious about why someone with the peculiar abilities like the Grappler would bother to rob Stillwater Sound?”

Kevin frowned. “Wait. It wasn’t for the sonar gear in the pond?”

“That may have just been a bonus.” The mighty janitor spread his hands. “Of course, a mere civilian couldn’t be briefed on any of the issues involved at all. But under the rules laid out by Project Sumter, people with talents like, say, Chief Stillwater, are entitled to know certain things before they plunge down the rabbit hole. Other agencies, like the Secret Service, aren’t allowed to go prowling around looking for new talents on their own, but oddly enough the Project’s rules don’t forbid us from briefing newly discovered talents we discover when the Project isn’t around. So you have a choice, Mr. Kirishima. Are you a person with unusual gifts, who’s interested in hearing what exactly happened last night, and why, or are you just a normal person who’s content to go back to work tomorrow and never know what happened? Which is it going to be?”

Fiction Index