Water Fall: Still Waters

The Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

“This is not an exclusive interview, you understand,” I said, settling into the chair across from Terrance Martin.

“Exclusive?” Martin laughed bitterly as he shook his head and plunked his phone down between us hard enough to make me wonder if he’d need a new one. Then he slid his own chair a bit close to the table and adjusted his bulk so it sat more comfortably. “I’ve never heard of anyone blackmailing a reporter into interviewing him. Why should any other part of the interview be normal?”

“An excellent attitude to take, Mr. Martin.” I took my hat off and set it on the table beside me in an effort to be polite, although the scarf that hid my face would have to stay. Beside me Heavy Water took a chair of his own. We’d both dressed down a bit for this meeting, he went with a simple hoodie and jeans, with the hood up and a turtleneck with the neck unrolled and pulled up to hide most of his face. In addition to my scarf, I was wearing a beige overcoat and knee high waterproof boots that would conceal everything I was wearing underneath.

“I don’t know who you people are, but you look ridiculous,” he added, sitting back in his chair and glancing around the echoing lobby of the Circle Centre. There weren’t a lot of people there, by shopping mall standards, but there were still enough to create a lot of background noise. “But not as ridiculous as meeting here. I’m going to have a hard time hearing you on the recording.”

“I’m sure this interview will be memorable enough that you won’t need to consult your notes too closely.” I smiled, even though he couldn’t see it. “We’re making history, after all.”

“I’m a sports writer,” he said skeptically. “The only history I write happens on the playing field.”

“I’m well aware of your specialty,” I said with a smile. “But we did choose you for a reason and, trust me, once word of other events comes out your editor will want a part of this.”

Martin gave Heavy a skeptical look. “This guy okay?”

If he’d been expecting some kind of ethnic sympathy from Heavy he was in for a disappointment. Any shared experiences they had as African Americans were more than overwritten by hidden talent, criminal background and blood relation to a serial killer. Heavy just grunted and said, “You’d be surprised. We have something to show you.”

With that much preamble and no more, Heavy picked up Martin’s cup of coffee, popped the lid off and reached in. A second later he quickly dumped a shiny, viscous blob of steaming coffee out on the table where it trembled a bit like the world’s most bitter tasting blob of jelly. Martin jerked back with a yelp, perhaps to avoid getting scalded, then leaned back in for a closer look.

Heavy let the coffee sit there for a moment then reached out and flicked the blob with a single finger, returning the liquid to normal viscosity. It burst almost like a bubble sending coffee rushing out in all directions and causing the reporter to jerk back again, cursing this time. I grabbed some napkins and casually dropped them on the brown mess on the table, then said, “Pretty little trick, don’t you think?”

The reporter glared at Heavy. “What did you do?”

“I altered the viscosity of your coffee until it was closer to glue than caffeine,” Heavy said with a shrug. “Then I put it back to normal. Splash.”

“You…” Martin’s face scrunched up, probably reviewing high school physics that he hadn’t had to use in decades. “How is that possible?”

“Modern science tells us what’s happening, but not the mechanism by which it is accomplished. Another example.” I held my hand out palm up over the table. With a flex of my fingers I sent electricity arcing through my fingers like it was a miniature Jacob’s Ladder. It was a modification, or actually the original incarnation of, my taser rig. It wasn’t really much more than a parlor trick but in this case that was exactly what I wanted. “What you are seeing is called an unusual talent.”

He switched his attention from the sparks crawling down my hand back to me. “Seriously?”

“That’s the official term.” I snapped the current off and closed my hand. “We chose to talk to you, in part, because you’re used to seeing people with exceptional abilities.”

“Whoa. Hold up.” Martin leaned back and put his hands between us like he was trying to push me away. “There’s a huge difference between being a good athlete and having…” He gestured at my hand. “Some kind of superpowers.”

“Not a superpower,” I said quickly. “An unusual talent. We can do one thing you can’t. We’re not comic book characters. We’re real people, just like you.”

Our interviewer gave us a skeptical look. “Who hide your faces and blackmail people like you’re cut-rate villains.”

“Look, we can go back and for over this all day our you can listen to his point,” Heavy said, leaning forward just enough to make it clear he wasn’t making a request. “This isn’t about us having a couple of sweet tricks up our sleeves, it’s about equality.”

“Really?” He still looked and sounded skeptical. “How so? Your friend looks pretty well off to me.”

“Money isn’t the central issue.” I drummed my fingers on the tabletop for a second. Heavy had jumped ahead in our script but, given the direction things had been going, that was actually a good choice. Best to stick with him and catch the rest later. “Have you ever heard of people like us before? I mean outside of Greek myth or movies something like that.”

“No…” Martin said slowly. “But there are good reasons for you people to stay hidden, right?”

“Such as?”

“Well, wouldn’t you be worried about getting outed?”

“Worried about what?” I asked, keeping my tone casual. “Persecution by others? Do you realize how difficult it is for us to stay hidden?”

The reporter’s brow furrowed. “I don’t follow.”

“Think about it.” I rested an elbow on the table, careful to avoid the mess Heavy had made, and leaned in, lowering my voice and prompting Martin to match my posture to hear better. “Life isn’t like fiction. We don’t magically develop our talents in adolescence. It’s much less like athletic ability and much more like perfect pitch in that respect. Ninety nine percent of the time there’s no way to keep family members or close friends from knowing. Then there’s the shrewd folks who notice their friends always have something weird happening around them. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the cops who have one to many strange things happen to them, the conspiracy theorists who are in the right place at the right time-”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Martin waved his had to cut me off. “Exactly how many people know about you talented folks?”

“The official government estimates, made during the 2000 Census, are that about 1 in 25 people are either talented themselves, or know someone who is. Don’t ask how they reached that conclusion, the math is kind of complicated.”

“Right. I don’t care anyways.” He shook his head. “What I want to know is, how do you guys even stay secret?”

“Ah. Well.” I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling. That wasn’t in the script, but it was a good question. “It’s actually a combination of two things. Most fiction would have you believe that people pass off anything they see and don’t understand as hallucinations or something similar, they simply won’t believe anything that doesn’t fit with their way of looking at the world.”

“I notice that you don’t seem worried about that,” Martin said.

“Because it’s just not true. People want there to be fantastic abilities, that’s why there’s a million stories about people who have them – well, that and the fact we’re real and there’s at least a cultural memory of our existence.” I glanced down at the reporter and gave him the hardest look I could manage. It’s actually quite good even when you can only see half my face, I know because I practice with a mirror from time to time. “People keep the secret out of fear.”

“Fear of what?” Martin asked incredulously. “You have crazy superpowers, what’s there to be afraid of?”

“Don’t get it wrong,” Heavy said. “We can mess with a couple of laws of nature, sure, but that doesn’t mean we’re invincible. I’ve been laid up for months after getting shot. Maybe there’s one or two guys who can bounce bullets out there but, as far as I know, that’s all they can do. There’s plenty to be afraid of.”

I drummed my fingers to grab and keep Martin’s attention. “What you don’t seem to understand is, most of us don’t know just how common talented people are. So even if one of us should see some sign that another person might have a talent of their own we keep quiet. And if your son could juggle electricity and you met another man who you saw doing the same, would you approach him? What would you say when he asked you how you realized what he could do? What if he saw your son as some kind of rival?”

“I get the picture.” He gave us a meaningful look. “Not everyone with your talents is a nice person.”

“Funny, coming from you. But it’s much worse than that.” I leaned forward again and said in a softer tone, “The government doesn’t want people to know about us.  That’s the other thing that keeps us secret. We can’t use our talents for our own profit, in fact we’re not supposed to use them at all unless we’re employed by the government. We’re hounded when we do, and we can even go to jail. They’re careful to keep it all neat and kosher looking, but the real purpose is to make sure we never become known to the general public.”

Martin frowned. “I’m guessing they don’t want to cause a panic or riots or hate crimes or something like that?”

“That’s the idea,” Heavy said. “But tell me, has that ever worked? In this country or anywhere else?”

I picked up the line of thought smoothly, glad to be back to something resembling our script. “A fundamental part of our identity is being repressed right now. Significant contributions we could be making with our unique abilities are being prevented, or kept strictly in the hands of the government, supposedly for our own safety. But who does it really benefit? Project Sumter, the government’s organization for controlling talents, has the monopoly on talents who are well educated on what they can do and how they can do it safely. They use it to conduct surveillance and enforce laws in ways no one else can match.”

“One out of ten of known talents dies in accidents resulting because they don’t understand what they can do,” Heavy added. “By keeping that information to themselves The Man makes himself partly responsible for those deaths.”

Martin’s eyes widened slightly, then his skeptical expression was back in force. “Okay, that does sound bad. But any numbers you produce to support that are going to be a case of your word versus the government’s. And what do you think running a story in a newspaper is going to do about it? The Indianapolis Star isn’t even a big paper.”

“It wouldn’t be that big a help, if that’s all we did,” I said with a shrug. “You’ve seen the kind of long term differences movements that were all protest and no plan have made. Fortunately, we have something of a little more substance. We’ve already proclaimed our intention not to suffer second class citizenship in silence any longer. Now we’re beginning to act. What we need is to reach out to likeminded people, get in touch with them. A little activist journalism could go a long way in that regard.”

Marin nodded. “I could see that. Okay, what do you want to say to our readers about your intentions?”

“For now, just that we want equality, no different than anyone else in America. We’re willing to do what we need to in order to get it. You can call me Open Circuit, that was given to me by the government but it’s a name I’m not afraid to use as I stand up to them. I’m the nominal leader of our movement right now. There will be further demonstrations of what we can do with our unique talents and how we can use them to address our national problems in the coming weeks. In the mean time, we need other talents to come out of hiding and normal people to start demanding answers from the government.”

“What about this Project Sumter that you say manages your people?”

“Very hush hush,” I said, spreading my hands. “I don’t know all that much about it, other than that it is a government agency and it answers to a Senate committee chaired by Senator Brahms Dawson of Wisconsin.”

A grin broke out on Martin’s face. “Oh, really?”

“Someone to talk to when you start fact checking,” I said, letting a smile creep into my voice.

“That it is.” He reached out to pick up his phone then hesitated. “Anything else you’d like to add?”

“Not right now.” I raised an eyebrow. “Do you think your editor will want to run the story?”

“He might be persuaded,” Martin said, picking up his phone and tapping at the screen for a moment. He hesitated as he started to put it a way and gave me a nervous look. “Does it make a difference about that other thing?”

I placed a USB stick on the table between us. “This is the only existing copy of the security camera footage. It’s all yours. No repercussions even if your editor doesn’t run the story. But I don’t think that will be his decision.”

“You’re probably right,” Martin said, scooping up the stick and tucking it away. “If you want another interview just call me. I’m pretty sure we can work something out easier next time.”

“A pleasure,” I said. But Martin was already hurrying off, dialing frantically on his phone.

——–

“Was that really the only copy of the camera film?” Heavy asked, tossing his hoodie onto the bathroom sink and rolling down his shirt collar.

“It was,” I said, winding my scarf up carefully and setting it next to my coat and hat. In half an hour some enterprising soul would be pawning them or perhaps just adding them to their personal wardrobe. They no longer served any purpose for the two of us. “It was a hit and run, Heavy. Martin was well past the statute of limitations on those and, even if he wasn’t, it was a drug dealer he killed.”

“A sixteen year old drug dealer,” Heavy pointed out.

“Granted. But the chances of his being prosecuted would be small, particularly based on footage from a low quality, unmanned security camera on a warehouse that just happens to be owned by a wanted fugitive.” I unhooked the Jacob’s Ladder glove I was wearing and tucked it into the pocket of a light windbreaker I’d stuffed into the pocket of my long coat, then rolled down the sleeve of my shirt.

Heavy wasn’t planning on wearing a jacket. Between his beat-up turtleneck and my ratty flannel shirt and windbreaker we now looked like a couple of worn out blue collar workers getting off of third shift and heading home for the day. Except instead of looking tired, Heavy looked mad. “It’s not right. Kids like him get out there, slinging drugs on corners because they got nothing else.”

“I know it, Heavy.” I shrugged into the windbreaker and left the front open. “Society owed that boy something better and what it gave him was the front bumper of Terrance Martin’s car. And he didn’t even have the guts to stay there until someone could come and take the kid’s body away. Trust me, just because the world’s forgotten that kid doesn’t mean I have. We can’t afford to discredit him right now, but once Martin’s usefulness is over we’ll be in a position to do something about that.”

“You’re gonna use him and loose him, huh?”

I sighed. “That’s the world we live in, Heavy.”

“At least you’re trying for the right thing.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and slumped his shoulders, starting to look more like the exhausted, overworked manual laborers we were supposed to be. “I guess you can’t let it get to you.”

“And yet it still does,” I muttered under my breath, heading towards the restroom door. “But one day we’ll change that. One day very soon…”

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Water Fall: Outpouring

Four Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation

Massif

Helix finally showed his face again about twenty minutes later, coming in at the head of a procession that included Agents Herrera and Mossburger, Cheryl O’Hara and, to my astonishment, Lincoln He. Helix ignored me, yelling, “Darryl! Voorman! We need to talk!”

Hush and HiRes peeled away and went over to join their boss in the following discussion. As they did Dominic gave a strangled yelp.

“What’s wrong?” I demanded, setting my feet a little more firmly on instinct.

“You can’t see that?” He demanded, then apparently realized how silly a question that was. “They disappeared!”

“That’s normal procedure,” Coldsnap said.

“One of HiRes’ handier tricks,” Frostburn added. “Thanks to Hush they can’t be overheard and HiRes makes sure they can’t be seen or have their lips read.”

I squinted in the general direction they’d gone a moment before. The amorphous blobs of movement that indicated people shifting on their feet or passing documents back and forth were still there, although I didn’t see anything solid looking at the center of the calm zones Helix and Hush created. Weird.

I decided to keep the fact that whatever HiRes was doing wasn’t entirely effective against my talent to myself. “I’m not sure that’s really necessary,” I told Frostburn, “considering Voorman basically told us what Helix was up to half an hour ago.”

“But procedure is procedure,” she answered. “Sometimes it’s an end unto itself.”

I knew all about that but before I could explain how little I thought of it Lincoln tapped me on the shoulder. “I found Hangman,” he said, handing me a very dated looking laptop. “But I don’t know how helpful to your investigation that’s going to be.”

“Sound ominous,” I said, taking the laptop and squinting at the screen. “What am I looking at?”

“A video file uploaded by Hangman a few hours ago.” Lincoln pointed at a line of pure gibberish at the bottom of the screen, half capital letters and half random symbols or punctuation. “It looks like he scheduled this to go live about half an hour after they hit Michigan Avenue.”

I glanced at him. “How do you know about that? It shouldn’t be in the press yet and you’ve been in the Records department for the last month.”

“Just a couple of days, really,” he said absently, poking the laptop’s touchpad. “And I know about Michigan Avenue and that that’s the correlation because your friend Helix mentioned it when Cheryl showed it to him.”

The screen refreshed and the video file started playing automatically. I could make out a man dressed in a fedora, scarf and suit on the screen. He was probably talking but the volume on the computer’s speaker was turned down so low I couldn’t make anything out. “There’s a lot of junk there about overthrowing the current system and creating a more equitable arrangement for everyone,” Lincoln said, still tinkering with the laptop’s controls, “but the really interesting part is this here, at the bottom. The guy talking here-”

“That’s Circuit,” I said, still trying to process what I was seeing. “Hangman’s working with Circuit. He’s not been captured or killed by him.”

“That’s the read Helix and his analyst got, too,” Lincoln said, using that even tone people like to use when they’re explaining to someone who’s particularly slow.

“But why?” I asked, a little confused. “Circuit is already an information warfare specialist.”

“Because he’s trying to broaden his reach,” Mossman said, looking over my other shoulder with Auburn in tow. “That video is basically a recruitment speech. But prospective recruits need a way to contact him, right? That’s what this is all about.” He pointed at the same lines of text Lincoln had earlier. “These lines of code alter slightly each time the page is refreshed, depending on how many page views the video has and the local time of the terminal that’s loading the video. There’s probably more but that’s all we’ve gotten so far. We’re hoping it’s a code that tells people how to contact him.”

“Has the added benefit of screening the intelligence of prospective applicants, too,” Lincoln added.

Auburn plucked absently at her lip for a moment, then refreshed the page again. “Page views with a specific ISP,” she said, pointing at a specific part of the code. “See?”

“I didn’t think of that,” Lincoln said. “How many routers in this building?”

I handed him the laptop. “I’m not sure, but I do know this is way over my head. You people work on this, I’m going to find Bob Sanders.”

Mossburger glanced up at me. “Why?”

“Because he’s got the best contacts with the FBI in this office, and it sounds like we’re going to need them in the near future. Let me know if you find out something concrete.”

——–

Helix

“And those are the Senator’s terms,” I said, finishing my pitch to Darryl.

He nodded. “I suppose that’s the best I could have hoped for, at least for now.” I saw a fraction of the stress that had turned my one-time friend into an old man before his time bleed away. “I appreciate this, Helix.” I glanced meaningfully to my right, where Teresa was doing her best to look inconspicuous. Darryl caught my drift immediately. “And thank you, Agent Herrera. I doubt Senator Dawson would have run late to a meeting if it was just Helix calling.”

“It pays to be connected, sometimes,” she said with the hint of a smile. “Although, really, I think the Secret Service could have arranged for some of his time easily enough.”

“And really, Darryl,” I said, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re a bodyguard now?”

“The exact function of our team is… fluid at the moment.” He laughed softly. “They’ve never tried to used talented individuals as part of their approach to what they do. The Secret Service covers a lot of bases and not all talents work well in all their capacities. Just finding and recruiting the right people has been a challenge. And we’re creating an operational doctrine from the ground up.”

“But still involved in finding criminals,” Teresa noted.

The brief flicker of humor vanished. “Only Circuit, and only because he claims he’s aiming to overthrow the country. Attacks on the person of the President, the Judiciary or the Mint could all accomplish those aims.”

“Even so, when it comes to unusual talents, oversight is Sumter’s job,” I said.

“Oversight indeed,” he replied grimly.

I winced. “You know how it is, Darryl. We’ll get him, and if you want a piece of that it has to be with us.”

Darryl nodded. “Honestly, I never wanted it any other way.”

“For now, work with Mossman and the other analysts,” Teresa said, nodding back to the small huddle that had formed around Lincoln He and his laptop. “Try and get some idea of where to look for Circuit next.”

“Gladly.” Darryl started over towards the small group, cane tapping along the floor.

Voorman, who had been uncharacteristically quiet and still for the duration of the conversation, gave us a weak smile and said, “Not bad work, you two. You just got back in town today, am I right?”

I glanced at my watch. “Technically speaking, yesterday. But yes, that’s right.”

“In that case, go to home, both of you. Get some rest, I’ll be in touch with you, Agent Herrera, and let you know what the schedule is. I think there’s going to wind up being briefings every four hours, but a lot will depend on what the head office decides. Not your problem right now. I’ll be in touch.” He turned and wandered back out onto the floor, studying the updated status reports along the southeast coast.

Teresa watched him for a moment, then said, “Go on home. I’ll call you and let you know what the plan is as soon as I hear it.”

I glanced at Voorman, who was talking to Lincoln and hadn’t heard, then back again only to find Teresa had already left. I figured she wasn’t planning on heading home soon so I decided to follow her and, sure enough, she headed to her office and picked up a stack of reports. I leaned against the door frame and asked, “Are you okay?”

She glanced up, looking a little surprised to see me. “I’m sorry?”

“Look, I know the Senator has been a big help to you over the years, and you know there’s no love lost between the two of us. So,” I held up a hand. “Don’t take this the wrong way. But if I’d been through what you have, and I heard him say what he just said, I’d be upset.”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business, Helix,” she said, slowly setting the report aside.

“Teresa, when you know a Senator you don’t get much privacy.” I took one of the empty chairs in front of her desk, turned it around and straddled it. “Look, this isn’t a great time for this conversation, but I don’t think there’s ever going to be one and we need your A game here. The Senator just said there’s no free rides just because someone’s grieving and you can’t tell me your father’s death didn’t have anything to do with your decision to go into law enforcement, or to join Project Sumter.”

She glanced down and away. “Of course they did.”

“Of course.” It was an answer that said absolutely nothing that I didn’t already know. Looks like I’d have to push a little harder. “You said you know a lot about survivor’s guilt.”

“So?” A defiant expression this time, looking me right in the eye.

Step lightly, Double Helix, I thought. Now is not the time to make her mad. “So, I’m self-aware enough to understand where my guilt comes from. People like Darryl and I, it’s our job to find and stop people like Circuit. We shouldn’t have lost Mona at that school on Diversy, there’s probably a dozen things we could have done to prevent it.” I took a deep breath, reminding myself to stay on task. “Yes, I feel guilty about it. But what do you have to feel guilty about?”

Teresa’s eyes narrowed. “Helix, when was the last time you legitimately felt like you were in danger?”

“When Grandpa Wake got so made he accidentally ripped a tire off the tractor with his bare hands,” I answered promptly, smiling slightly at the memory. “I was twelve and had just gone joyriding…” I let the thought trail off. Teresa was looking at me with that blank, I-don’t-get-it kind of expression people get when I talk about my mom’s parents.

“Okay,” she said slowly. “Let me ask a different question. Was there ever a time when you didn’t feel like your talent was enough to keep you safe?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Once, when I got stranded in a freak snowstorm in Montana. There wasn’t enough ambient heat in the atmosphere to use in a meaningful way.”

Teresa nodded and leaned back in her chair. “I remember reading about that. You were still new at the time, yes?”

“Yeah. I didn’t have a solid migration schedule set up for the winter, since I couldn’t go to the Southern region and the West Coast already had two active heat sinks at the time.” I matched her relaxed posture and asked, “Is that important?”

“How did it make you feel?”

I hadn’t expected this to be my therapy session, but I figured it would be worthwhile to play along. “It wasn’t the greatest feeling, that’s for sure. But nothing happened in the end. I was really just there to interview a newly discovered talent, there wasn’t anything sinister about it.”

“But for a little while you had an idea of what the life of a normal woman is like.” She gripped the arms of her chair tightly, her gaze somewhere far away. “Empowering women is a major concern for so many people today because we’re typically physically less capable than men. Worse, we’re often singled out as the targets of people like Lethal Injection.”

There was a whole world of preconceptions there but I had a feeling they didn’t have anything to do with what Teresa was really trying to say. “Except Lethal Injection didn’t kill you, he killed your father.”

“The police say he got there just after I left for school and it might have been a kidnapping attempt gone wrong.” She shuddered slightly. “His other two cases looked much the same, from what I’ve read.”

“You think your father died instead of you.” That sure explained a lot. Teresa had never struck me as the vengeful type. Of course, Darryl never had either, but even he was showing some signs of hopefully regaining perspective with time. It had been years since Teresa’s father died and she knew that his killer was dead. Batman style revenge-on-all-criminals makes for a decent comic but there are few people in real life who have the kind of emotional stamina to carry a grudge that long, the Man From Gettysburg being a notable example.

And he was probably mentally disturbed beforehand.

But guilt? That was something that never really went away. I reached across the desk and gently took Teresa by the hands, pulled her forward so her forearms were resting on the desk and put my hands over hers. By doing so I engaged multiple senses at once, ensuring that her entire attention was on me, a technique for better engaging emotionally distraught people that we learn early in our field training. I sternly told myself that better communication was the only reason I was doing it.

“Teresa, I don’t think I’ve ever met a father worth his salt who would have been upset to die in place of his children. But that’s not what happened.” Teresa hesitated as I added the last bit and I took it as an opportunity to push on. “Lethal Injection killed more than just the three people who made the news. We think he was responsible for seven or eight murders. All middle aged men, two of them who didn’t have any daughters at all.”

Her brow furrowed slightly. “Then why… Serial killers always have a specific kind of victim they target. Why middle aged men?”

I could think of several possible answers to that, all sarcastic and probably not that useful under the circumstances. “They were all single fathers, Teresa. Most of them lost their wives or partners to an accident or some kind of illness, although I think in one case she just walked out. But they all decided to keep their kids and raise them themselves, rather than turning them over to relatives. That was the only similarity we found among them. Ethnicity, place of origin, economic background, education, there were no commonalities in those factors. You loved your dad, I take it?”

 “Yes.” Immediate and firm. “He wasn’t always as… involved as mom was before the accident, but he was always there. Even when he was still hurting from her death he took time for me.”

“We got similar statements from just about everyone child we talked to during the course of the investigation,” I said, grimacing at the memory. Even years afterwards I still felt a twinge of anger at a man who would single out a child’s last living parent and kill them. “They all had kids. They were all trying to do their best by them. We never got Lethal Injection for questioning, since he died resisting arrest, but we’re pretty sure that’s why he targeted them. There weren’t any other similarities.”

Teresa stared at me, her expression a mix of wonder and disgust. “That’s horrible.”

“More importantly.” I looked her directly in the eye for a moment and spoke each word slowly. “It means your father died because he chose to do the right thing. It wasn’t your fault. The only one to blame is a madman, and he’s dead.” I let go of her hands and leaned back, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “I don’t know what Circuit wants to do, I don’t think he chose to kill Mona, it probably wasn’t intentional at all. But she was trying to do the right thing and now she’s dead. Darryl deserves the right to look Circuit in the eye and demand justice as much as you and all the other children of Lethal Injection’s victims.”

Teresa nodded. “And to do that we all need to pull our weight.”

“That’s right.” I gave a rueful smile. “Can you guess what step one of that is?”

“Getting some rest,” she said, matching my smile and raising a tired laugh. “I can take a hint, Helix.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said, dragging myself up off of my chair. “But I’m not hinting, I’m dragging. Come on.”

I took her by the arm and hauled her out of her chair. She went along with a groan but let me push her out of the office and into the hallway. She made it out of the building under her own power, smiling and occasionally shaking her head and chuckling under her breath. Outside the sky was dark, the streets were bathed in shadows from the street lamps and Circuit cast his own shadow over the future. But I could tell that, for Teresa Herrera, the darkness that had driven her to Project Sumter was finally starting to break.

It was a start. But the real work was yet to come.

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Water Fall: Waters Rising

Three Hours After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

I don’t know where Helix managed to find our old Analysis chief, or why he agreed to bring Templeton back to the office, or what he hoped to achieve by dropping Templeton and his five man team of unfamiliar talents into Voorman’s lap. I’m not even sure when he disappeared during the resulting argument or where he went. All I really know is that I would have liked to go with him.

With all our desks moved to the side of the room to uncover the map there wasn’t a whole lot I could do at the moment, other than join Auburn and Dominic over northern Florida and try to stay out of the way. In theory, all field agents were supposed to be out in the field while we were at Condition One but, with few leads on where Circuit had gone to ground and a brewing PR nightmare as news sources started to realize that something fundamental had changed in the world around them, that was less of a practical option than normal. A lot of things that used to be secrets were coming to light and it was going to be a media circus as people tried to figure out what all that meant. We field agents, who had so far mostly been trained in the opposite of public relations, were keeping a low profile until a solid party line could be worked out. So I watched developments come in from the other offices and get marked on the map and I kept an eye on Templeton’s team.

They were a pretty strange group, all things considered. Based on what I could gather, the five of them were all talented, there was nothing in the way of tactical support or analysis, although Templeton was well qualified to do the latter. From my own experiences with other talents I had a pretty good idea what most of them could do. For starters there were the blonde sisters that had stopped by to talk to Helix about the time Agent Templeton resigned. Coldsnap and Frostburn were identical twins that shared the cold spike talent, able to force heat to leave an area just like Helix was able to force it to gather in one place. The man in dreadlocks who’d been taken to the infirmary on arrival to have some stray buckshot looked at was clearly a vector trap, with that same kind of pent up, flickering potential as Jane Hammer. The grim, quiet man who went with him read a lot like a wave maker. Not only did the air around him move with the strange calm pulsing I saw around Amplifier, ever since he got back from taking his partner to the infirmary and gone to stand by his boss and Voorman we’d stopped hearing what they were saying, even though they were clearly yelling at times.

You don’t even need an introductory fieldwork course to figure that kind of thing out.

The only mystery was the third man in the group, who was on the shortish side and didn’t seem to fit well with the rest of them. He was pacing across the floor like you might expect an analyst to do while studying it, except he wasn’t actually looking at anything there. I also wasn’t seeing any telltales of talents at work, although that doesn’t really mean anything two thirds of the time. I’d heard him called HiRes and that sounded like a codename, not a real name. Maybe he was just the new guy on the team.

My attention was dragged back to more immediate matters when Auburn stepped in front of me, shuffling papers and occasionally dropping them on the floor as she went. “…moving across the Georgia border and into South Carolina. Contained.” She crumpled up another sheet of paper and tossed it down in the general area she was talking about and took another couple of steps north. “Possible movement of arms and ammunition from Virginia into Ohio. Closing in.” That paper went to the bottom of the stack and she paused to chew on her thumb nail. “Holes.”

That kind of nonsense is pretty much par for the course with her but sometimes you can get useful information with prompting so I asked, “What kind of holes?”

“Places he’s not moving things,” she answered. “Northern Indiana and southern Michigan.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t have anything to move in those areas?” Dominic said.

“That doesn’t add up,” a new voice said. I glanced over at HiRes, who was waving his hand around at parts of the map that were too far away for me to see at all. “It’s fair to assume we’re finding less than ten percent of all of the stuff Circuit’s moving, and he’s been moving small cells of material and personnel for the last two days all across the country. But your getman’s right, there’s no sign of materiel moving through the Michiana area. With the volume of stuff he’s moving we should find something moving in that area.”

I didn’t know this guy from Adam but Auburn was nodding vigorously. “It stops moving there.”

“How do we know that Circuit just isn’t moving anything through that area?” I asked. “It’s pretty close to our offices here. Maybe he’s just routing around us. You,” I nodded to HiRes, “might not know this but Circuit has this thing about avoiding Helix unless he’s uber prepared for it.”

“I’ve heard from the Chief,” he said, presumably referring to Templeton. “But between our resources and Project Sumter they’ve intercepted at least eight shipments or groups of people in the Midwest that we can tie back to the drugs and arms networks you found Circuit working with last month. Two of them were en route to Peoria, another was headed towards Indianapolis. That’s not exactly going around this place. There ought to be something in the Michiana region. Unless, of course, they’re going to ground there, suggesting that’s the staging area for Circuit’s next operation.”

Dominic raised a hand like he was in school. “Question. How are you familiar with what we have and have not intercepted?”

Frostburn and Coldsnap had drawn closer and quietly inserted themselves into the loose group that had formed over the Midwest section of the floor. “He’s probably been reading reports as they come in and are handed off to the people keeping the floor updated.”

I blinked and gave the twin – I wasn’t sure which one it was – a look. The floor wasn’t anything fancy, just a large map that was a good thirtyish feet one way by fortysome the other, but we had overhead projectors that displayed the status of the five regional and most of the important branch offices on the relevant sections of the floor, along with the case file numbers to pull for more detailed information. But those projectors were controlled from a computer that was located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. “How is he reading them from here?”

“It’s what he does,” one of the twins said.

Her sister added, “That, and he has ninja skills.”

“Darryl says he could even just take a desk job and do analysis-”

“-but that’d be boring and we need HiRes in the field-”

“-and he doesn’t mind so here we are.”

Dominic was stared at the sisters as their sentence bounced back and forth. I couldn’t see the expression on his face clearly but if it wasn’t total confusion then I’d convert to Protestantism. HiRes just sighed, apparently more used to this kind of thing already, and said, “I had a little intelligence and espionage training before I joined up and-”

“You’re a ninja?” Dominic asked incredulously. “I thought you were Korean.”

“I’m half-Japanese,” HiRes said, snapping in irritation. “And yes, back in the days of Sengoku some of my ancestors used their talents to make a living as onmitsu, which is the proper term.”

For some reason, at that moment, HiRes sounded just like sifu explaining the difference between wushu and gugn fu – or Shaolin – for the thousandth time. I decided to go for a subject change. “Alright, so we got guns and criminals with guns moving into the Midwest. Is there anything specific we can act on using just that information?”

“Uh…” HiRes paused for a moment.

“No,” Auburn said, to the point as usual. “Making his own stuff. Just general supplies.”

“Meaning?” The twins asked in unison.

“Circuit makes all his mission critical equipment himself or using very trusted associates he has a long-standing relationship with,” I said, able to translate less because I was fluent in Auburn and had more because of an ever-growing understanding of Circuit’s style thanks to a few months on this case plus a long association with Helix. “So it sounds like all we really know is Circuit is staging a small army of crooks in the area.”

“We could learn more if we cooperated with local law enforcement and did a general dragnet through gangs and other known criminal elements in the region,” HiRes said, pacing in a wide circle that probably represented the borders of the activity free zone he’d mentioned earlier. “But that’s going to require permission to work openly and in the public eye.”

“And we’re going to do just that,” Templeton said, prompting Frostburn and Coldsnap to jump.

“Don’t do that, Hush,” one of the twins said, turning to look at the wave maker who’d come over with his boss. The two men, along with Voorman, had come up behind the twins without making any noise – presumably thanks to the guy with the most apt codename I’ve ever heard.

“You should have felt our body heat even if you couldn’t hear us,” Hush said. “You need to pay more attention.”

“More importantly, Templeton,” I said, folding my arms over my chest, “you can’t operate openly. The Senatorial Oversight Committee on Talented Individuals doesn’t just have jurisdiction over Project Sumter. All federal agencies are governed by the Talented Incident Response Procedures. TIRP dictates we maintain secrecy and until we can get that changed you’d do best to stick to it. Especially if you plan on working with Project Sumter and not independently.”

“We’re going to try to contact the Committee secretary to call a meeting on that subject,” Voorman said. I was kind of surprised to hear that from him since I’d always thought he was a staunch supporter of those rules.

And I could think of one other person who might not like the idea much. He was practically synonymous with the Sumter orthodoxy. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to sell Helix on that.” I rubbed my chin as a new thought occurred. “And without a senior talent on your side I’m sure you’re not getting the Committee to back the idea.”

“The Secret Service doesn’t answer to the Committee,” Templeton said immediately.

Voorman gave him a sideways look, then said, “Whether that remains true or not, there’s a good chance the Committee will approve the idea by tomorrow morning. Helix is already working on it.”

——–

Helix

“I’ll agree to this one condition, Helix.” I couldn’t see Senator Dawson’s face but the voice that came from the speakerphone sounded incredibly tired. It was almost midnight already and he was about to walk into an emergency meeting of the Oversight Committee. I wasn’t sure if the whole Committee would be present, given the circumstances, but there certainly wasn’t any way they could start before their chairman arrived so I knew that he would be willing to wait as long as necessary for me to agree to his terms.

I glanced at Teresa, who just shrugged to indicate she had no more idea what kind of conditions might be attached to the Senator’s agreement than I did. “Go ahead, Senator.”

“You’re not to let Templeton’s team operate alone.” A pause for emphasis. “Under no circumstances, Helix.”

“This is Project Sumter’s turf, Senator,” I said. “Why should I-”

“Helix I’ve spent my whole life ensure that the system is fair.” Dawson’s voice rose slightly, growing heated and a little bitter. “No one should get unfair advantages. You should have to earn your status. You can’t get it because your parents bought your way around the system, you can’t get it because you have a knack that smoothed the way for you. And you shouldn’t get a pass just because your life has had little tragedy in it.”

“Brahms!” Teresa jerked back like Circuit had just tased her. The shock was probably just as bad.

I put a hand on her arm. “I hear you, Senator. I even get that that seems fair to you.”

“Good.” A deep breath, then he went on in a more businesslike tone. “I’ve read about the Man from Gettysburg, Helix. I know what can happen when a man goes out for personal vengeance.”

“And you know that story’s more than just history for me, Senator. My family lived it.” I glared at the phone wondering why hearing the exact same things I’d thought over and over from Dawson was irritating me so much. If it weren’t for the fact that he was dealing with his own tragedies I probably would have yelled at him too. “I resisted pressure to let Darryl – Mr. Templeton – work on this case for just those reasons. But I don’t think we can afford to ignore the Secret Service’s offer at this point.”

“You’re right. There’s no way to keep this out of the news. There’s already rumors about this circulating through the Hill. I got a call from our counterparts in Ottawa just half an hour ago, wanting to know what’s going on. They’re in touch with London already and we’ll probably be hearing from them within the hour. I’m going to propose to the Committee your office be allowed to make contact with the public on these issues and be given broad leeway to work with conventional law enforcement. That should cover collaborating with the Secret Service as well as most others.” His voice hardened again. “But make sure Templeton understands that being in the public eye works both ways. If he oversteps he will be called on to explain himself to this Committee, if not the Senate at large.”

I glanced at Teresa again, mouthing, “Can he do that?”

She spread her hands then tapped her watch. She didn’t know if he could now, but he probably could soon.

Aloud I said, “I’ll pass the message on.”

“Thank you. And Helix…” There was a long pause.

I rubbed my forehead and sighed, to exhausted to tackle another emotional minefield. Teresa recognized that and picked up the ball. “We haven’t heard anything about Elizabeth. I’m sorry, Brahms.”

The silence on his end of the line stretched a little longer, then Dawson said, “I’ll send word as soon as the Committee reaches a decision.”

The line went dead and I sat back in my chair, feeling drained. I had expected him to be more upset but, in its own way, his hanging up on us was almost as bad. “Can it get any worse?”

“Stop asking for trouble,” Teresa said, switching off the speakerphone. “We have enough on our plate already.”

As if on cue, Cheryl poked her head into the office. “Have you two seen Massif? That Lincoln guy he’s saddled me with found something and won’t shut up about it.”

I dropped my head on the desk, groaning in exasperation. Teresa laughed and pulled me to my feet. “Too late, I guess. Come on, Cheryl. We’ll take a look at it and see if it’s important.”

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Water Fall: Sprouting Leaks

20 Minutes After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

“Everybody pile in!” Heavy slung himself into the driver’s seat of the van with a manic glee that he only really demonstrated when he was getting away from a job that had gotten his blood moving.

I climbed into the back next to Hangman, who was already ensconced at one of the consoles and bringing her laptop out of sleep mode. “Satellite coverage is back, Circuit. They’ve been back for almost ten minutes, actually, but I figured that wouldn’t matter while we were on the subway.”

“Let’s hope you’re right.” Grappler gave Heavy a meaningful look and he sighed and moved over to the passenger seat. She slid into the driver’s seat and glanced back at us. “We’re leaving.”

“Wait.” I reached over Hangman’s shoulder and twitched the console itself to life, pulling up the traffic monitoring program. “Take route four.”

“Clear traffic?”

“Heavy traffic,” I corrected. “But not too heavy.”

Grappler sighed. “If you say so.”

There was no use going over the theory again. I’d told Grappler before that a route with more traffic would get less scrutiny and would let us go farther without detection so long as no one was actively tracking us. If we were the only full-sized white van on a road there was a chance someone might get suspicious. That might sound ludicrous to a normal person but I’ve seen the kinds of things Sumter analysts come up with – and the higher ups act on. Sometimes I wonder if they use a dartboard as part of their analysis procedures. Part of it might be familiarity with the target, I’m sure Helix’s team has a handbook on recognizing my operations at this point, but some of it has got to be simple brilliance. I don’t believe in luck.

As with all brilliance that doesn’t answer to me, I find it very annoying.

Even worse, in this case my caution was all for nothing. Taking a route with moderate traffic was only a valid tactic if we hadn’t been noticed and it turned out that we had.

They let us get out onto the highway before showing their hand. In Grappler’s defense, our being tracked was not the fault of poor driving or spotting on her part. I’m pretty sure the man who came after us had been maneuvering along the rooftops before dropping down a few stories to land on the barrier running alongside the overpass we’d taken. That’s right, he wasn’t tailing us in a vehicle. He was on foot.

The man was good, landing right beside us and balancing on top of the concrete barrier like it was as wide as a sidewalk and not just a few inches across. He was covering at least twenty feet a stride and ran with the easy, energy saving gait of a marathon runner. Hangman spotted him first and yelped, which attracted everyone else’s attention. I’d never been in a car chase where the one doing the chasing was on foot but there is a first time for everything.

Ever the practical one, Grappler asked, “Who is that?”

“Sumter agent, I would assume,” I said thoughtfully. “Don’t ask me how he found us.”

“He’s got style,” Heavy said, admiring the man’s dreadlocks with an appraising air.

The agent looked like an African-American man who had actually come from that continent himself, he was all wiry muscle with a hard, angular face and the remorseful expression of someone who had seen to much. The starched shirt, slacks and tie didn’t look quite right on him, like he wasn’t used to dressing that way, and I suspected he’d started the day with a jacket that he’d shed when things got serious. From the way he looked at us, he wasn’t any happier being there than I was to see him. I wondered for a moment if this was his first assignment.

“We gonna try and ditch him?” Grappler asked.

“I’m not sure I see how,” I said. “Unless you can think of a way to run him off the road when he’s on top of a traffic obstacle.”

Heavy looked back at me. “Hand me the serious firepower?”

“I thought you were hoping to recruit some Sumter agents as the core for your new law enforcement agencies,” Hangman said, looking at me. “That’ll be harder if you shoot them first.”

The agent outside suddenly made a leap across all four lanes of traffic to land on the barriers between our lanes and traffic going the other way. Several cars swerved, two hit each other, and traffic began to slow down. I muttered a curse. “They’re not trying to hide anymore. The rules have changed.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Grappler asked, incredulous.

“Of course.” I kicked the weapons locker open and passed an automatic shotgun up to Heavy. “But I didn’t think Sumter would realize what was going on so fast. Take him down. We have to survive this encounter before we can worry about anything else.”

“Right you are.” Heavy took the weapon and ran a quick check on it.

The agent outside had jumped the highway a couple more times and most of the cars around us were slowing to a stop. Some people were taking pictures or video with phones. We were driving alone now and stood out despite my best efforts. With that done dreadlocks hopped the center barrier to the others side. A moment later the whole thing jumped a few feet forward and then swung out across two of the lanes in front of us.

Grappler swerved, cursing, and took us towards the off ramp.

“No!” I yelled, realizing what was going on. “They’re herding us!”

“Then we’ll have to be herded,” Grappler growled, wrestling with the steering wheel in an effort to keep us from driving off the ramp. “I couldn’t get back into the outbound lanes without tipping this top-heavy piece of crap.”

As we spun down the ramp, brakes squealing and tires smoking, Heavy took the safety off his weapon, rolled down his window and leaned out, a manic grin on his face. “I got this, boss!”

He fired twice, although I couldn’t see how effective his shots were, and then leaned back in, a frown on his face. “I think I got him. But he’d slowed down a bunch already, maybe he’s just getting tired.”

“Probably something to do with how his talent works,” I said. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that might be. Hangman?”

“Never heard of anything like it,” she said. “Shouldn’t we be more worried about the other shoe dropping?”

Grappler brought us off the exit ramp at a speed not conductive to safety, ran a red light and threw us up onto a sidewalk to dodge slower moving traffic. I mentally crossed salvaging this vehicle off of the priority list as it was becoming less and less likely. Aloud I said, “Excellent point. Anyone have any guesses?”

“Put you window up, Heavy, it’s cold out there,” Grappler muttered, her eyes glued to the road.

Heavy started to oblige when Hangman said, “Oh dear.”

“What?” Heavy and I asked in unison.

She ignored us in favor of poking her laptop for a moment. “It’s getting colder outside, Circuit. And only a few blocks ahead of us.”

I felt a sinking feeling in my gut as I came to the same conclusion she’d no doubt reached – there was a heat sink up ahead. “Where’s the hot spot?”

She frowned for a moment as she studied the screen, then gave me a panicked look. “I don’t see one, Circuit. How’s that possible?”

It meant a cold spike, but I didn’t have time to explain how the two were actually opposite uses of the same ability. “It means we have a chance. I don’t think Helix could spike over such a large area.” I thumped the back of Grappler’s chair, causing her to serve us back into traffic. “Can we-”

“You trying to kill us?”

“No,” I said, scanning ahead to try and pick out the cold spike up ahead. “Can we get into one of the side streets in the next few blocks?”

A quick sweep of traffic and positioning. “No.”

“Can you drive us across icy pavement at this speed?”

“That all you need?” It was her turn to grin manically. “Child’s play.”

Somehow we’d managed to slow from highway speeds to a more sedate forty miles an hour without wrecking our vehicle or anyone else’s. Apparently working under the logic that they wouldn’t expect it Grappler decided that now was a good time to speed up again and floored the accelerator.

Then the voice of Morgan Freeman thundered over the street, screaming, “Break!” loud enough to break windows, shake buildings and, most importantly, shatter concrete that had been frozen far colder than could have ever happened in nature. Making us spin out on a frozen road had never been the idea, it had simply been to ready the pavement. Grappler swore like a sailor, throwing the van into a hard swerve, much harder than would have been possible if she hadn’t been tweaking the friction between tires and road to ensure that we didn’t spin out or roll, but even that wouldn’t be enough to keep us from hitting the rubble of the ruined sidewalk and probably going to an untimely end.

But when it comes to getaways, Grappler is the best and I never really should have doubted her skills. Wall walkers can alter friction on a surface in either direction and, as far as she was concerned, the van was a single surface. And Sumter’s agents had made a critical error – they’d only frozen and shattered the road, not the sidewalks.

Grappler hopped the van back up on the curb and expertly slid it along the side of the apartment building there, keeping friction along the van’s surface so low that there was little drag to speak of. We bounced along the sidewalk while loosing little in the way of momentum and avoiding the worst of the rubble.

She gave a surprised yelp when a pair of people seemed to appear out of nowhere and jump clear of the van as we rushed down the sidewalk then we were past the patch of shattered concrete and careening down the street and around a corner. I let go of the death grip I had on my seat and looked at Hangman’s computer. “New plan, which safe house is closest?”

“We could go up to Chinatown,” she said, smoothing her hair down absently, “But Logan’s Square has better traffic heading out of the city this time of day.”

“Chinatown’s got a clean car, though,” Heavy pointed out, locking the safety on his shotgun but not putting it away yet. “We’d have to keep the van or boost new wheels if we go to the Square.”

“Chinatown it is then.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let’s hope there’s no more surprises.”

——–

Helix

I hung up my phone and glanced at Jack. “Samson says they’ve found another batch of clothing that looks like it probably came from some of the people on the Avenue tonight.”

“Where at?” He asked, giving a critical look at the mouth of the alley we were standing by.

“Subway bathroom trashcan.” I sighed. “They’re checking security cameras now but they’re so far behind the curve…”

“We’re probably not catching them tonight.” Jack shrugged. “At least we’ve got the Emancipation Proclamation back.”

“Yes.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “So nice of Circuit to leave it there for us. I’d thank him, except it’ll be a PR nightmare once the press gets hold of it. ‘Shadow agency unable to retrieve stolen historical artifact before thief decides to return it to them.'”

“I noticed that you pretty much made the decision to use talents in public on your own,” Jack said, giving me an unreadable look. “Voorman didn’t okay that.”

“Circuit already outed that for us,” I said irritably. “If we kept trying to deny the existence of talented individuals now we’d just wind up loosing credibility. What are they going to do, fire me and cut their chances of catching Circuit even more?”

Jack started down the alley in front of me, saying, “In that case we need to get some kind of break that will convince Voorman and the Committee we can actually catch him. Let’s hope that Auburn and Mossman were right and there is the logical place for Circuit to leave his escape vehicle.”

“Oh, they were right. Too bad you didn’t get here sooner.” A hunched figure detached itself from the alley wall and came towards us slowly, cane clacking on the pavement. Jack stiffened a bit then relaxed when he realized he knew the voice.

I fought the urge to put my face in my hands. Or yell. Or just turn and start walking until I found a sane part of the world to settle down in and forget all about Project Sumter, Open Circuit and dead friends. Instead I took a deep breath and said, “Hello, Darryl. What brings you here?”

“What do you think, Helix?” Darryl fixed me with a burning glare. “I’m doing the same thing you are – trying to catch Open Circuit. My team almost had him a little while ago, probably could have trapped him if we had a couple more talents and better cooperation with the locals. Care to take my help on your case now?”

“If I don’t will you go away?”

He snorted. “Just until we both get within grabbing distance of Circuit again.”

Now I did rub my hand over my face. Every bone in my body told me to tell him no. Or have him arrested. That was also really tempting. But odds were he was working for some governmental body that did have jurisdiction here. So I gave the only answer I could make that wouldn’t make things worse.

“Get your people together and come on back to the office. We’ll talk it over with Voorman.”

Darryl raised an eyebrow. “And?”

I shook my head but forced myself to say it. “And this time I’ll be in your corner.”

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Water Fall: Cracks in the Dam

Seven Hours Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

I threw my go bag down on my desk and slumped into my chair. It felt like it had been well over a year since I’d visited my desk, although it was really more like two and a half weeks, but by some miracle it had been kept clear of paperwork. Of course, I had a small book’s worth of handwritten notes in my bag that would have to be typed up and turned into something Cheryl could file. I wasn’t really looking forward to that, since it all basically boiled down to, “We talked to a lot of people who say they haven’t seen Circuit ever, or, if they’ll admit to that, not in the last six months to a year.”

That was probably to be expected, Circuit had to have been planning his most recent job for some time and for something of this size it’s no surprise that he avoided using any contacts we already knew about. It’s entirely possible that he’d even set up an entire network just to carry out this one job. That would be the kind of ridiculous groundwork I’ve come to expect from him.

Jack deposited his bag on the ground next to his desk, which was right beside mine, and gave me a critical look. “You should go home and get some sleep, Helix. You look like you’ve been awake for the past month.”

“How do you know I haven’t?” I gave him a critical look. I had no doubt I looked pretty rough, I sure felt like I’d run the whole way from Evansville back to the regional office. But never let it be said that Agent Jack Howell let a little road trip get him down, he still looked like he always did: like he was too big to quite get his suit to sit right. Today that was enough to make him look fresher and more alert than anyone else on the team, even the normally unflappable Teresa.

And he wasn’t about to pass up the chance to rub it in. “Because, unlike some of us, you look like you’ve been sleeping on park benches, not beds.”

“Some of the places we’ve stayed, that might be what those beds started life as.” I rubbed my eyes blearily, seriously tempted to do as Jack suggested. After two weeks on the road, no one was feeling their best. But I’d seen Teresa headed off towards her office a moment ago and I was willing to bet she wasn’t planning to leave any time soon. Bergstrum and Kesselman were at their desks just behind us and Mossburger had headed back towards Records. Now was not the time to be lying down on the job.

I glanced at the time and shrugged. “It’s barely after noon. I can put in a few hours before knocking off.”

“Suit yourself.”

Jack started unpacking his bag and I did the same. In about ten minutes I had all the stuff that was supposed to go back in my desk put away and my notes in a pile on one corner of the desk. With a sigh I picked them up and started sorting them into chronological order…

——–

Five Hours Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

Lincoln claimed he was getting closer to finding Hangman, who he insisted was not as inactive as people had originally thought. Apparently he’d spent the last two weeks dragging Records personnel off of whatever assignments they’d been given and running them through archives and computer code from all over the Internet to help him find traces of Hangman’s activity. It had become almost an obsession for him.

I knew this partly because, when I’d gotten back into town two days ago I’d checked in with sifu to see if Lincoln had found anything. Sifu told me the family practically hadn’t seen him since the week before. Now, outside of wushu training, I hadn’t really gotten to know Lincoln much and I couldn’t tell if that kind of behavior was typical. But sifu didn’t seem to find it that surprising so I didn’t worry myself. If there was anything worth reporting I figured I would hear about it.

The other way I knew it was because, as soon as she heard I was back, Cheryl asked me to drop by so she could complain.

“Look, Agent Massif, I know that he’s working on an assignment that’s important to the Project but he can’t keep diverting our resources like this.” She leaned back in her chair, drumming her fingers on the empty desk. We’d moved into the vacant Records supervisor’s office since Cheryl wanted privacy for this conversation. There was only the one chair in the room at the moment so I was standing. Looming over Cheryl like that should have given me the upper hand in the conversation but it really didn’t feel that way. “In fact, in the last two days I don’t think he’s called for a single file from the archives. Put him out on the floor or turn him over to Analysis but get him out of our hair.”

“No.” I folded my arms over my chest and did my best to give her a hard look without anything more than a vague idea of where her eyes were. “Lincoln’s probably familiar with a lot of the big picture, our structure and a general idea of what some talents do, he’s still not cleared for the specifics of our open cases. He doesn’t even know about Circuit, just that Hangman is a person of interest in an open case. There’s too much classified information he could overhear in Analysis or on the floor. You Records people don’t discuss what you file; you just keep it in order. I think it’s the best place to keep him and Harriet agrees with me.”

“He’s in the way,” Cheryl said, sitting up and dropping her voice. “We don’t discuss active cases as much as you field agents or Analysis do but we still have to watch our step when he’s around.”

“Look, I know you’re busy but my team has been busy suppressing rumors related to the Emancipation Proclamation theft for the last four days, and before that we were all over the state of Indiana trying to find traces of Circuit.” I spread my hands helplessly. “We just don’t have the people to keep an eye on him right now and he’s part of an active investigation. If it’s becoming a problem, take it up with Voorman or apply for field work and take over that angle of the investigation yourself.”

I turned and headed towards the door because I really felt I didn’t have time to argue any more. Helix was supposed to be getting back sometime that afternoon and I wanted to see if he had anything new we could follow up on. Lying to the media and the victims of crime is a part of our job but it’s never sat well with me. My priest tells me I’m forgiven when I go to confession but it doesn’t do much for the guilt. And I have to wonder what the lies do to the people we tell them to. At the very least, in the case of Agent Herrera, I heard they created long term issues. As I reached for the doorknob I found myself almost envying Cheryl her dilemma-free Records work.

Then she said, “I transferred here in the oversight program, you know. Made it halfway through the training course before I got sidelined. Some sort of autoimmune problem led to a dethatched retina. There was a surgery and a long recovery time.” I heard the chair she sat in push back from the desk, caught a glimpse of movement as she stood and approached me, resolving into a solid shape as she got closer. What I could make out of her face suggested she was mad. Really mad. “I’m legally blind without corrective eyewear, get something like 20/80 vision with it. And I have permanent gaps in my vision. It’s enough to keep me out of the field. But don’t ever think I’m just here to babysit your files and extraneous personnel. I could do deskwork for any hidebound bureaucracy on the planet, I stay here because I know how important Project Sumter is. Let me do my job and I’ll let you do yours.”

The bitterness in her tone was strong enough I caught myself cringing, just a bit, and straightened back up. “I’ll talk to Lincoln.”

“Good.” Cheryl pushed past me and out of the office, leaving me feeling a little disoriented and very ashamed.

——–

One Hour, Fifteen Minutes Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

I tugged the scarf around my neck, accepted my long jacket from Simeon and slung it over one arm. The small garage on the city outskirts we were staging from wasn’t particularly cold, compared to outside, and I was already feeling a bit warm. The heavy pillar containing the Emancipation Proclamation had just been loaded onto the main van and strapped down. I touched my fingers onto the electrical contacts in the palms of my hands and ran a quick final check on the wiring in my gear. It wasn’t too late to cancel if things weren’t just right but it turned out I didn’t need to worry. Everything checked out.

Time to call it. “Heavy?”

“Everything looks good, boss,” he said, poking his head out of the back of the van and patting the Proclamation affectionately. “You want to make ’em let your people go? I think maybe they’ll hear you with this.”

“Grappler?”

She took off her signature long vest, folded it and handed it to Simeon, who slung it under one arm without comment. Then she slung her SMG and said, “I’m ready, so is crowd control.”

I nodded at her weapon. “Make sure the CC teams know we’re not actually planning to hurt anyone unless we absolutely have to.”

“Hurting regular people means they’re less likely to help us later.” She shrugged. “I get it. But you know how it is.”

Another nod, because I did know, and it was back to addressing the room at large. “Wallace?”

A van’s hood closed with a bang and Wallace leaned on top of it, wiping greasy hands. “Everything’s hooked up and running to Davis’ specs. I dunno if it’s gonna work as advertised but that’s not my department.”

“No it’s not. You and Simeon beat feet to Chainfall and see if there’s anything you can do there. Hangman?”

“No one’s ever done anything exactly like this before,” she said, tapping the bulkier than normal laptop she had an equally oversized shoulder bag. “But I should be able to kill satalite coverage of the city for fifteen minutes. We’ve got no more than that.”

“That’s still five more than we were expecting.” I rubbed my hands together and looked over the crowd of people we’d pulled together for this, the bang that signaled the opening of Operation Chainfall, the prelude to Thunderclap and the beginning of the end. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s showtime.”

——–

Helix

“Hey.”

I snapped awake and nearly slid out of my chair. Lying face down on your desk is not a comfortable way to sleep so I’d apparently decided to drift off leaning back in my chair instead. When Teresa woke me I’d slid so low I would have jerked myself straight onto the floor if I hadn’t grabbed onto the edge of my desk first. I took a moment to get myself in a better sitting position, ignoring Jack’s snickering and the papers I’d dropped on the floor, and said, “Something up?”

She smiled slightly and tossed another stack of papers onto my desk. “Latest write-ups on the efforts to keep the Proclamation theft quiet.”

“By which you mean the use of talents in that robbery quiet,” I said, picking up the stack and looking it over blearily. “The robbery itself was in the news for almost a week, I think they know about it in sub-Saharan Africa already.”

“Maybe.” She shrugged. “So far none of the major news agencies have mentioned women walking on walls or men jumping off balconies without getting hurt.”

“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ in there.”

Teresa smiled. “In this case the key word is ‘major’. Several local news sources have hinted at strange goings on, to say nothing about the tabloids.”

“Did we feed any of the tabloids the real story to help discredit it?”

“Better than that.” I glanced over the top of the papers in curiosity. “We broke the details up into two stories and sold them to different rags. Now if the real story comes out it will look like someone just took them and ran them together to try and make things more sensational.”

I tossed the report on my desk in disgust. “This is still threatening to get away from us. Sooner or later someone’s going to be able to put out real, solid proof and we’re going to wind up looking like fools. We’ll wish we’d thought about our own credibility then.”

She sighed, picked up the report and put it on top of my go bag. “For now, just make sure your familiar with the story so you can stick with it in the field.”

“I guess I’ll have to.” I picked up the papers again and opened my bag, looking for a free spot to put them.

I’d just decided I could squeeze them under the laundry and next to my shaving kit when I heard Voorman yelling. That’s about as common as snow in June around these parts. My head snapped up and I saw him come rushing into the room, Samson trailing behind him like a thundercloud, yelling, “Clear the floor. We are now at Condition One, clear the floor!”

Clear the floor is one of those phrases that has it’s own unique meaning in Project Sumter. In fact, we drill on clearing the floor once a month, at least when we’re actually in the office. I was turning my chair upside down and shoving it on top of my desk before Voorman was finished talking. Desks started sliding towards the edges of the room within fifteen seconds. Mine was near the center of the room and I never got a chance to move it myself, Voorman said something to Teresa, who had stopped on her way back to her office to see what was going on, and she came and pulled me aside.

The first thing I said was, “What happened?”

“I’m not sure but Voorman wants you on it.”

There’s a giant map of the US built into the floor of the room, which is why the euphamism for that palce is “the floor” and not something else, but there’s not enough room in most buildings for a map of that scale to be left clear all the time so it doubles as the field team’s staging room. Voorman was pacing along one wall, waiting for the carpet over the map to be rolled back, when we got through the chaos and over to where he was.

“Open Circuit just hit Michigan Avenue,” he said without preamble. “A couple of city blocks were knocked out by EMP, he gave a speech while flying-”

“Flying?!” Teresa and I demanded in unison.

“Flying! Don’t ask me how.” Voorman shook his head in exasperation. “We heard through the police switchboard once they got a clear picture of what happened.”

“When was this?” Teresa asked.

“Minutes ago, less than ten, I believe. They were very excited about it.” Voorman gave no sign of amusement at that colossal understatement. “There were hundreds of people there.”

I thought about what I’d just been reading. “How are we planning to keep this quiet?”

“I don’t think we can. The fallout from this could break the Project. Only chance we have of weathering this is to grab Circuit before he can make things worse.” Voorman gave me a surprisingly steady look for a man who was usually a big ball of nervous energy.. “I think we all know you’re the best person for that job. Find Massif, take Samson and get it done.”

In spite of the insanity of the situation I felt a satisfied smile creep across my face. “It would be a genuine pleasure.”

Fiction Index
The Michigan Avenue Proclamation
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Water Fall: Seismic Shock

Two Weeks, Five Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

There wasn’t much to see at the reception, at least not from our point of view. Sure, there were a lot of interesting looking displays of pictures, letters and other junk that probably had historical significance or near significance of one kind or another. But I couldn’t imagine that stealing it would get Circuit anything worthwhile. Helix seemed to think there was something symbolic at work but I just couldn’t think what kind of symbolic statement you could make with original copies of political cartoons from a hundred and fifty years ago. He had some idea what Circuit might be after but no one had thought to pass it down to us and, since the event had come to light only hours before it started, there hadn’t been time for a conventional briefing.

That pretty much left us to wander around and try to guess exactly what Helix thought Circuit might have been out to steal.

Unfortunately I’ve never been as good at reading people as Helix, who I swear is some kind of a savant, or even some of the more experienced field agents like Harriet or Bob Sanders. And symbolism is almost always a visual thing, so that’s not really my forte either. Which pretty much left me moving through the crowd at random and hoping I’d catch something of significance. This is known as the ‘get lucky’ school of policing and it’s not generally of much use in real life, although many fictional detectives do quiet well with it. Still, when it’s the only game in town you go with what you’ve got.

The book room wasn’t that crowded. Once you entered the door closest to the elevator there were bookshelves to the left, a table almost directly in front of you and a freestanding bookcase in the middle of the room on the right. I was following the wall around the outside of the room, finding these things out, when I discovered a second set of doors, closed and locked, in the middle of the back wall. I stared at it, trying to find a sign or something that would tell me what it was.

I was still looking when Samson stopped beside me and asked, “Did you find something?”

“I dunno,” I said, doing my best not to look directly at him. “Can you see anything that tells us what’s in here?”

There was a moment’s quiet, then, “No. It doesn’t look like it’s labeled. Maybe an equipment closet?”

“Could be.” I shrugged and jiggled the handle again, as if that would make the door magically spring open. “I guess we could ask the librarian.”

A short pause, then Samson said, “I think I see him over by the Emancipation Proclamation.”

I turned to give him a blank stare. “The what?”

That’s when the fire alarm went off and the shooting started.

——–

Circuit

In the age of electronic surveillance the person most adept at manipulating computers has a distinct edge. While it’s not an inherent part of the fuse box talent, if you’re very, very good at pattern recognition and you practice a lot you can manipulate and even program computers, to a certain extent. But the ability to do that assumes a lot, like familiarity with the computer systems you’re going to be working with, or a lot of time to feel your way by trial and error.

At that particular moment, in the library’s security room, I had neither. And keeping up a running dialog with Hangman kept me from concentrating like I normally would. “What did she say?”

“Just that she could watch her own back and that she didn’t need a couple of wannabe master th-” Hangman caught herself before saying thieves but it was a near thing. From this I gathered she was still in an occupied part of the library. “Sticking their nose into her business.”

“She may think differently when that monster priest from Sumter comes after her.” And Rodriguez hadn’t left the area around the rare book room. He was big enough to pick out easily on the security camera, browsing casually through displays. Worse, I was pretty sure I saw the immovable wall man Hangman said was called Aluchinskii Massif. We still had no idea what his talent was.

I couldn’t program the local network by touch but I could “type” much faster than a person who was constrained by an actual keyboard. It took a second to find a part of the keyboard conductive enough to let me trip the keys – I actually wound up ripping out the Enter key and working through the exposed contact – but once that was done I was off, working rapidly through menus and shortcut commands to asses my options and the building’s state of lockdown.

As it turns out, libraries are not built with lockdown in mind. We still had plenty of options.

“That means she’s still going to make a try for the objective,” I said in resignation.  “I need you to find some place where you won’t draw attention and feed her the new plan. And Heavy has new work orders, too…”

——–

Massif

As always, hindsight is twenty-twenty – even for someone like me. It later turned out that the Lincoln Foundation either owned or had borrowed a printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, from the original print run, signed by Lincoln himself, and put it on display.

Their means of securing it consisted of encasing the document in a Plexiglas sandwich-board about two inches thick and a foot square. This was, in turn, chained to a plastic easel so it was more or less at chest height. It was way too bulky to be moved easily and there was no way it could be concealed.

When the fire alarm went off Applewood and the security guard spooked. Since the rare book room fire system put out fires by sealing airtight and flooding the room with chemicals that sucked oxygen out of the room – a method that’s better for the books than spraying water all over the place – they had good reason. The guard started trying to hustle people out the doors while Applewood went and hit a button on the wall that would prevent the doors from sealing. Samson and I were still trying to figure out what had happened when we heard the gunshots.

That was the thief, who we later guessed was Grappler, shooting through the chain with a .45 so she could remove the Emancipation Proclamation.

To say it got our attention would be an understatement. Unfortunately it panicked everyone else in the room even more. Whether or not they knew that they faced immanent suffocation – and since not even I knew that at the time I’m betting most of them didn’t – guns are still pretty scary to the average person.

Most of the not-so-average people I know, too.

We were in no danger of getting knocked over but getting through the crowd without hurting anyone was another matter entirely. I actually saw Samson rise up on his toes, almost like a ballet dancer, the potential forces he kept in check seeming to draw deeper into him, away from fragile civilians. Then I saw Grappler running down the hallway outside.

I couldn’t make it out but they tell me she just stuck the Plexiglas holding the Proclamation on her back. Literally stuck it there, although there’s nothing sticky about Plexiglas. This is a big part of the reason why we assumed she was Grappler, while her talent is called wall walking it’s really just control the friction of a surface.

What I could see was Dominic moving to block her as she went down the hall. And Grappler going up the wall, running as effortlessly over the windows to the room we were in as she had on the ground below.

No matter how much we’re trained to expect this things, the human mind will never be quite prepared for that kind of weirdness and Dom hesitated a vital second before changing his stance. It was enough time for Grappler to hop off the wall and onto his chest, knocking him flat. Somewhere along the way she added an absurd friction coefficient to his bulletproof vest, effectively locking him in place until he could squirm out of a couple layers of clothes.

Harriet wasn’t in a position to block Grappler at all and the area was too crowded to risk shooting at her. As a result, Grappler made it over the edge of the balcony and down into the lobby below without anyone else in a position to stop her. Samson and I reached the balcony just in time to see her bolt through a pair of doors on the left hand side.

With no one on the floor below to get in the way Agent Samson decided the best way to keep up was to vault over the railing and freefall to the ground. I’m not sure what kind of trick he pulled to land without hurting himself but it wasn’t a stunt I could duplicate. I had to keep one hand on the wall as I fell, transferring the impact on landing from my feet to the wall and cracking the wooden panelling badly.

Samson literally covered the entire distance from his landing spot to the doors Grappler had gone through in a single step, despite it being a good twenty feet. He crashed through the door at the end only to yank himself back to the tune of more gunfire. Sure, he was wearing a vest but he wasn’t stupid.

Stupid was my department and I was glad to have the work. It took me a little longer to get to the door but the gunfire continued the whole time, keeping Samson from going through the door. Grappler must have been carrying more than one weapon. Samson let me through the door as soon as I got there. I found Grappler at the other end of a long hallway that sloped gently downwards, then pulled a sharp left hand turn. As soon as she realized her bullets weren’t hurting me Grappler bolted off around the corner.

I expected a repeat performance as I rounded the corner after her. What I found was a couple of steps up and a midsized room beyond. It turned out that this was where the library’s freight elevator let out. The hallway went straight through the room and farther into the building. Grappler was already out of the loading area into the hall beyond, ducking through a door. But I only got a glimpse of her around the huge, rattily dressed African American man who was in the middle of pouring a bucket of water onto the floor.

He glanced up at me just long enough for me to notice he had a scarf pulled around his face then swept his hand across the wet floor and bolted down the hall towards the door Grappler had taken. Naturally I went after him.

Unnaturally, I found myself stuck to the floor. Instead of being slippery, which I’d been ready for, the water on the floor was as thick and sticky as glue. When my foot refused to pull free I staggered, catching myself on the wall just in time to avoid getting my entire right side caught in the mess. I reached down for my shoelaces, intending to go barefoot and try and find a way around, when to my surprise Samson vaulted up on my back and from there across the room. Anyone else would have been squashed flat but I guess Samson was counting on my ability to stand up under pretty much anything to keep me on my feet.

And he wasn’t wrong but it would have been nice to be consulted first.

It only took Samson a second to get down the rest of the hall and through the door the other two had taken. Almost as soon as he was through it I heard a series of muffled whumps that sounded an awful lot like muffled explosions, followed by a lot of very loud crashing…

——–

Circuit

As soon as I confirmed that Grappler and Heavy had made it up the stairwell and Rodriguez had been blinded by the ink grenades Heavy had dropped for him I fried the security switchboard with an EMP and made myself scarce, taking a different set of back stairs up to the first floor to meet Hangman. We were evacuated outside the library with all the other library patrons and staff. To avoid drawing attention we milled around in confusion with the rest of the crowd for a little while, during which time Heavy called and let me know that Wallace had picked the two of them up on time and they’d gotten away clean.

Five minutes later we returned to the car Hangman had arrived in and left. It was a closer call than I would have liked, but we’d gotten what we came for and more people than even Sumter could silence had seen what we did and, more importantly, how we did it.

All in all, not a bad day’s work.

——–

Helix

Our van pulled up to chaos. A couple of ambulances were still parked around the library and a fire truck was just leaving when we arrived. I leapt down from the back of our van and waded into the confused crowd of library staff, EMTs, police and Project agents, trying to find someone who looked like they knew what was going on.

I found Amplifier sitting in the back of an ambulance, wrapped in a blanket and holding a bottle of water. She gave me a weak smile and said, “Hi, Helix.”

Leaning against the side of the same ambulance, scrubbing his face with a towel, was the familiar bulk of Manuel Rodriguez. He looked like he’d been attacked by a flock of angry fountain pens. I realized that the person sitting in the door of a police cruiser just down the street was Al Massif. For some reason he had, as the poem says, one shoe off and one shoe on.

For a second I just stared around at the disaster in awe. I felt my shoulders slump and, although I thought I already knew the answer, I asked, “What happened here?”

Amplifier glanced away. I don’t think Rodriguez heard me over his efforts to scrub his face clean, Al looked over like he was seeing me for the first time, which he probably was. No one gave me an answer until Teresa walked over, face grim. “Circuit got away with a copy of-”

“All this,” I said, waving expansively at the bedlam around us. “And he got away?”

Teresa sighed. “Unless you have any ideas about where he might have gone?”

I grit my teeth and did my best to choke down my irritation. “Well, the last time he worked in Indiana he used contacts in South Bend, Winchester and Evansville.” I hauled out my phone and started looking up contact numbers.

“What are you doing?” Amplifier asked.

I glanced up at her. “Working my case. Are you going to be okay, kid?”

“Sure.” She managed to squeeze out another lackluster smile.

“Great. Then let’s leave the cleanup to the locals and run down some of these people, see if they can give us any leads before the trail goes cold…”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Water Fall: Ocean’s Currents

Two Weeks, Five Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

“No, of course I don’t think I’m Nicholas Cage,” I said in annoyance. “I wish you people would stop suggesting that I do.”

“You do a pretty good impression, that’s all I’m saying, boss,” Heavy replied, slouching along behind me. “You’re a bit shorter, sure, and he’s got a different nose, but otherwise…”

“Enough.” I stepped up onto the sidewalk and onto the fair sized plaza just outside the target building. “For once let’s try to do this without any witty banter, hm?”

“Yeah, right!” The response came in stereo, from both Heavy to my left and Hangman in my earpiece.

“We’re going into a public building this time, boss,” Heavy added. “This is the time for witty banter. I lived out of a library for a month and a half, it’s what they expect from people like me.”

There wasn’t much to say to that, Heavy was dressed like someone who’d spent the last month or two living rough and we’d gone with that since it was a very typical kind of person you can expect to find around a public library. Heavy assured me that building security wouldn’t look twice so long as he didn’t cause trouble and I was willing to take his word on it. I was less sure how much witty banter they’d be expecting from him but you can’t win everything so it’s important to pick your battles.

Speaking of building security, it was waiting for me as I came into the building, a slightly overweight man in his thirties with a scruffy blonde beard and a pleasant greeting. He nodded at me as I came through the doors off the plaza and returned his attention to the outside. I gave him a polite nod in return and glanced around. To my right was a wall with various large alcoves full of book displays, to my left a short hallway that split to give access to a coffee shop in one direction and some meeting rooms and the local public access television station in the other. Going straight took me into a large, cavernous hallway that ran up through both above ground floors of the building. According to the plans we’d studied I could use either the main hall or the side hall to reach my destination but the side hall would make getting there easier, so I took a right and headed that way.

Once I was in the hallway and made sure there was no one near by I touched my earpiece and said, “One guard accounted for at the east entrance.”

“Got it,” Hangman said. “Grappler’s now patched into the building’s wifi phone system.”

“Any sign that they’re aware of our presence?” I didn’t think there would be but it never hurts to check.

“None.” An immediate reply. “Their security is really shoddy. Are you sure you don’t want to do something about that guard?”

“No. This is a public library, Hangman, not City Hall, or even a bank. That guard wasn’t even armed. Think about it – most of the things people could want in this building is already available for free and don’t have much resale value.” I glanced at a room full of computers as I passed by it. “And what might be worth taking isn’t exactly easy to make off with. Even for a top rate library system, security exists less to keep people from taking things as keeping out minor troublemakers. They leave any really big problems to the police.”

“But what if he tries to make problems when you head back out?”

“Ah.” I smiled, even though Hangman couldn’t see it. “Leave that to Heavy.”

The elevator doors opened with a cheerful “ding” as soon as I pressed the call button. According to the blueprints, this elevator led to staff-only parts of the building. It wouldn’t take me anywhere without a staff ID badge to swipe over the scanner, at least in theory. In practice, those kind of electronic security measures are even less effective against me than normal locks.

It was a short ride down to the subbasement, which in the vernacular is the basement below the basement. When I got there I stepped out into a room full of brightly lit shelves of books. They ran off a good forty or fifty feet to my right, another ten or fifteen to my left. I headed to the left, asking, “What’s Grappler’s position now?”

“She’s entered the west side of the building-”

“Excuse me, sir?” I turned to find a stocky kid in his early twenties poking his head out of one of the aisles. A waist high wooden cart with a couple of shelves half full of books sitting next to him led me to suspect he was an employee. “Are you looking for the Lincoln Foundation event?”

“Yes.” As a general rule of thumb, the professional criminal can get away with a lot more if they allow other people to supply excuses for them. I gave the kid my best slightly confused look. “This isn’t the place?”

“Well, their office is down that way,” he said, pointing in the direction I’d been headed. On the blueprints the room there hadn’t been labeled and we’d assumed it was storage, but I could see that there were a number of plaques and pictures of Lincoln on the walls so perhaps it had been repurposed since the building was built. “But it’s closed right now. I think the Lincoln Library people are up one floor, schmoozing with the guests in the rare book room.”

I let myself smile slightly. Another reason to design my equipment with an eye for refinement – in awkward situations people are more likely to think well of a well dressed man. With my gear hidden under a tailored vest and suit jacket I no doubt looked like I would fit right in with the other schmoozers. “I guess I got pointed in the wrong direction.”

The employee sighed and put the book he was holding back on his cart. “Well come on. I’ll take you to the right elevator.”

I made a motion as if signaling for him to lead on. As soon as he started to move past me I grabbed him with both hands and triggered my taser. I felt a little bad for him, since he wasn’t even a security officer and he couldn’t possibly have signed up with this kind of thing in mind. But I’d have felt even worse if he’d reported me and I didn’t actually want join whatever kind of even the Lincoln Foundation was sponsoring, either. So I took his cart, quickly stacked the books there onto a mostly empty shelf, then slung the unconscious employee over the cart and wheeled him along with me.

Just around the corner and down the hall from the Lincoln Library office was the main security station. I brought the cart to a stop outside and poked my head through the door. A guard was sitting at a large desk in the center of the room; sitting on the desk were at least a dozen computer monitors switching between views of the building’s security cameras. There was some miscellaneous equipment strewn around the desk, I suspected at least some of it had to do with making the badges the staff used to get around. In short, it was pretty typical.

The guard at the desk looked up, a moment of confusion crossing her face. She was a middle aged African-American woman and I got the immediate impression that she’d see right through a merely average excuse. Fortunately I’d brought a prop along. “Excuse me.” I jerked a thumb at the man I’d just tased. “I found this guy collapsed outside the elevator down the hall.”

“Who are you?” The guard replied, getting to her feet and coming cautiously around the side of the desk.

“I’m a guest at the Lincoln Foundation event,” I said, figuring if it worked once it might work again. “I was on my way down when I found him.”

The guard sighed. “Somebody sent you to the wrong place,” she said, stepping towards the door and the cart beyond it, clearly intending to have a look at the man there. “They’re on the next-”

I slung her onto the cart, too, then found a roll of tape in the guard’s desk and made sure neither one of my new friends would be causing problems then I closed the door to the security room and took the seat behind the desk. “I’m in the security room. They won’t be able to call for help this way.”

“Good.” There was a hint of amusement in Hangman’s voice. “Do you want that update on Grappler? Or is there more trouble to take care of, first?”

“Like taking candy from a baby.” I leaned back in the chair and studied the monitors. “What’s Grappler up to?”

——–

Massif

“Why didn’t Helix just fly in with us?” Amp asked as we hustled down the library’s main hallway, the security guard just in front of us.

“His tactical team needs too much specialized equipment that wasn’t on hand. Driving it over is easier and faster than trying to bring it along on the flight.” Harriet glanced at her watch. “With all the time we spent getting to and from airports and other nonsense he’s probably no more than a half an hour to an hour behind us.”

I shot a glance to my left, where Agent Samson was keeping pace while studying the building with open curiosity. “What I don’t understand is why you’re here.”

Samson turned to me, a nauseating display of shifting movement, and I wondered, not for the first time, how other people couldn’t notice what a freak he was. Surely that much contained energy was noticeable. “I’m not sure what you and Helix have against me, Agent Massif, but I do have my own case to follow up on. And I didn’t get to do much when we raided that arms dealer’s warehouse.”

“We could use an extra set of eyes,” Dominic said in a placating tone as he ran his hands over his gear for the umpteenth time, checking on it’s placement. “I’ve never bumped into Circuit before but from what I’ve read he’s a master at giving us the slip. More people with tricks to keep him guessing, happier I’ll be.”

I just grunted and waved to get the guard’s attention. “Any word from the party, yet?”

The man just patted his walkie talkie. “You’d have heard it at the same time I would, sir. Even with event security there’s not a whole lot of us here this time of night and it’s a big building. It may take a few minutes for the other guard to get there from wherever they were.”

“Right.” I sighed. The desk guard had let the switchboard and the roaming guard in the building know we thought someone might be coming to disrupt the Lincoln Financial Foundation’s event. Even with a small financial group backing them the Foundation needed cash to keep going and relied on private backers to help maintain it’s operating budget. Helix thought that Circuit had picked the locations for his recent activities because they pointed to the people he thought were most important in his private vendetta against Project Sumter. Charleston and Atlanta because of their connection to his family, Phoenix because it was the place where he first made a name for himself.

But the person who instituted all the rules that Circuit found so onerous was Abraham Lincoln. He decided to keep talented people secret and out of positions of authority, a stance the government still adhered to. Which meant Circuit still needed to make a play for something related to the 16th president. Why Helix thought he’d do that here instead of somewhere more high profile, like the Lincoln Memorial in DC, was less clear to me.

I mean, when I think Abraham Lincoln, the library in Fort Wayne, Indiana is not what pops to mind first. I’d look into that memorial, or maybe Ford’s Theater or something.

Still, he’d managed to convince Voorman the idea had merit so here we were. I drifted back to Amp and quietly said, “Can you hear anything coming from downstairs?”

“If you’re going to whisper like that you need to work on your diction.” I didn’t actually see her lips move when she said that. The words just sort of drifted into my ears, barely above a murmur, and I was pretty sure I was the only one hearing them. Creepy. “There’s too much noise in this stupid big hallway. Acoustics are bad, sorting things is tough. If there’s any sound leaking up from the basement it’s being drowned out.” She cocked her head to the side in a thoughtful pose. “Not that I’m not listening. So some quite please?”

I shrugged, since that seemed fair enough. It was only a few more steps to the stairs down anyway.

“Hold up.” Dom had his hand on the security guard’s arm, keeping him from starting down the stairs. My tac team lead looked back at me and asked, “Do we want to go in live?”

“No,” Harriet said. “There’s no signs he’s actually here yet. We’re already going down there with body armor and weapons. No need to alarm the guests further.”

“We appreciate that, ma’am,” the guard said. Dom moved his hand and he led us down the stairs.

The so-called rare book room was a floor down from the main hall. The stairs let out on a small landing that overlooked some kind of lobby. To the right was a short hallway line with glass cabinets. Locked security doors on either end presumably let into the stacks in the rest of the building while the other side of the hallway looked into the room we were after.

The doors into the rare book room were open and a number of people were milling about inside and in the hallway. There were a bunch of displays set up, which I’m sure were very interesting, but that’s not what we were there for. The guard wandered into the crowd and returned in less than a minute leading an impossibly thin man who was even taller than me.

“This is Vern Applewood,” the guard said. “He’s in charge of the Lincoln Library.”

“Hello.” Harriet pulled out her ID and displayed it, I think we were posing as FBI agents this time around but the librarian didn’t seem that impressed. “Mr. Applewood, do you have a guest list for this event?”

“No.” His answer was quick and blunt. “This is an open charity event, we’re hoping to attract as many prospective donors as possible. Even if we had one I don’t think I could share it with you.”

“Then let’s look at it from a different angle…”

Harriet sounded like she was getting ready for unproductive conversation with an unpleasant man. Thinking I might get a head start on actual productive work I glanced around for Amplifier.

She wasn’t there.

I mentally cursed myself for not paying attention – by definition she was the most noticeable person in the room, at least for me. How could she have wandered off?

A second, slower look around confirmed that she wasn’t there. If she had been the weird effect her sound manipulation had on the movement in the air would have stood out like a beacon. Muttering under my breath I pulled out my cell phone to call her. I had no bars.

“You can’t get signal down here,” the guard said helpfully. “We have to use wifi phones or landlines to keep the people who work down here in touch.”

“Great.” I shoved the phone back into my pocket. I glanced at Lance Baudin, the other man on my tactical support team. “Go upstairs and find Amplifier or get her on the phone, tell her to get down here.”

He gave me a surly nod, which is typical for him, and headed back up the stairs.

——–

Circuit

Screaming in someone’s ear while they’re in a dangerous situation is not helpful so I waited until the brief sounds of a scuffle ended before asking, “What’s happening, Hangman?”

There was no answer. I started toggling through the security cameras in an attempt to figure out what part of the building she was in. I’d gotten through about half of them when her voice finally came back. “I’m okay.”

“What happened?” I asked again.

“Some girl snuck up on me.” Hangman’s voice was shaking a little bit but she managed to keep going. “Wanted to know who I was talking to.”

“Who did you have on the line?” The security monitors continued to flick through cameras one after the other.

“Heavy.” Now it sounded like she was walking somewhere. “Circuit, she was wearing a bulletproof vest. I don’t like the looks of this.”

The screen showed a view of the room where the Lincoln Financial reception was and I paused it. I’d spotted familiar faces. “Switch me over to Grappler’s line.”

“Circuit, I don’t think the phones work like that. They’re-”

“Then tell her to get out of the building. Now. The job’s blown.” I leaned forward and tried to pick Grappler out of the crowd, as if looking at her would somehow make her aware of what I saw. “Project Sumter has come to call.”

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Water Fall: High Resistance

Author’s Note: Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s been pointed out to me that last week’s post was a duplicate of my last post before Christmas break. I’m not sure how that happened, but it’s not what should have been put up last week. Rather than repost I’ve just edited last week’s post with the correct chapter. You may want to read it before reading this. I apologize for the mistake. Now on with this week’s chapter!

Nate Chen

——–

Three Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

“Well?”

Hangman shrugged and shook her head. “There’s nothing for sure here, you understand. Not everything the Project does has to come through the Senator’s office.” She waved at a collection of e-mails and drafts of memos she’d pulled up. “But from the looks of things nothing’s happened.”

I drummed my fingers absently on the back of her chair until she gently put her hand over them to make me stop. “Replacing a regional director-”

“The technical term is Senior Special Liaison.”

“-or whatever they call them has to be something that requires the Senate Committee’s approval.” I snorted. “And I’ve seen Mr. Wells in action before. There must be half a dozen times he could have made a major bust if he’d just asked Helix what he should expect. He’s not going to give up his grudge just because the greater good is at stake. They’re not going for the bait.” I took her hand and raised her out of the chair.

“Well, it was worth a shot,” she said, smoothing down the front of her skirt. “And regardless of whether Helix is down south or at the regional office he’s not going to be in position to respond to our next move.”

“Yes. Our next move.” At some point they’d stopped being my moves. Not for the first time in the last few days I thought back to my conversation with Simeon. Time to take some distance again. “How is the shooting practice coming along?”

She tucked her hands behind her back and did her best to look innocent. “Heavy says I’m qualified to teach a course on handling and maintaining sidearms and I should be competent with submachine guns by the time we leave for Indiana.”

“Really?” I stared at her blankly. “I know that he’s a good teacher but not even I passed muster that fast.”

“You didn’t grow up in Wisconsin as the daughter of an important politician, Circuit.” She shrugged. “I’ve had self defense training since I was ten and, when I turned eighteen, I went through a basic shooting course, too. My father thought it would be good for my self-confidence, even if I never had to use any of it.”

“Have you?”

“Only the part about being aware of your surroundings.” She gave me a knowing smile. “Of course, I’ve always been good at that. As for the gun training, I never bothered to get a license in Wisconsin because I was going to school in California and who knew where after I graduated.”

“Sensible.” I led her out of the server room and into the antechamber outside my office. “Of course, I don’t suppose self defense training includes any lessons on stealth or insertion techniques?”

She shook her head. “Being highly visible is a part of self defense. Assuming, of course, you’re a law abiding citizen.”

“It’s amazing how many different aspects of life take that for granted.” We were back on the landing outside my office now, the locks clicking closed as I pulled the door closed. “How is the Sorting Algorithm of Evil coming?”

“Currently we can run comprehensive background checks on anyone from the lower 48 states and Alaska. Gaining access to Hawaii’s databases comes next, followed by the larger Canadian provinces.” She held up a hand to forestall questions as she thumbed her phone and consulted something there. “We also have access to some other, less official sources of information integrated already – all the contacts you’ve built in the south, north Africa and Europe, plus a few from Hangman’s heyday. I’m working on gaining access to some classified government stuff and maybe a few unsavory sources that won’t know they’re working for us.”

Once she gave me an expectant look I went ahead with my question. “What if we get people from Mexico?”

“Normal citizens with have to clear customs and get this far north, which means we have some time before they get to us and need vetting. If they don’t come through legal channels or they’re not normal citizens then we already have the contacts to vet them via your southern crime rings.” She pocketed her phone and gave me another knowing look. “Or whatever it is you call them.”

“Extralegal resources.” I considered what she’d told me. “Check with Heavy or Grappler about scheduling some basic breaking and entering training. We may need you ready to pick some locks or otherwise help with petty larceny in the near future, provided you intend to continue working in the field.”

She laughed. “Don’t get me wrong, Circuit. Doing data analysis here for you is way more interesting than any college course I ever took, but I wouldn’t miss being in the front seat of history for anything.”

She swept off across the walkway and down the stairs to the ground floor where she would no doubt begin bugging Heavy until he stopped whatever he was doing and showed her some of his very, very wide arsenal of criminal techniques. I felt bad about sending Hangman after him but I thought it best to keep some space between us for a while. It was a delicate time for – well, everything, really.

There was plenty to do for my part, too. New maglev relays to check out, the EMP countermeasures to install and a personal visit to the Chainfall site to schedule. Our last major job before beginning Operation Chainfall was in two days and there were a million details. But before I could loose myself in them first I had to do something I hated. Manage my people.

There was an odd patch of shadow at the top of the wall. I turned to it but purposefully didn’t look up. “You can come down now, Grappler.”

There was a soft whisper of fabric and then she dropped to the ground from about shoulder height, landing with a barely audible thud, the beads in her dreadlocks rattling softly as they swished through the air. She was wearing her typical non-burglary clothes, a variation on pants, blouse and a knee length vest ensemble. This vest was a pale blue, with silvery plant life embroidered in it and she was wearing a matching bracelet.

Her grim expression was a stark contrast.

“That girl’s toying with you, Circuit,” she said with a huff. “You should just tell her to be on her way. Or better yet…” Grappler slid closer and laid an arm on my shoulder, leaning until she was almost brushing against my chest. “Show her you’re already taken.”

Simeon had mentioned that someone suggested the possibility Hangman was sweet on me to him, now I knew who to thank for that. I gently, but deliberately, took her arm and moved it off my shoulder, forcing her to straighten up to maintain her balance. “Grappler, I’m not in the habit of lying to people. When we transform from smalltime crime to serious business we’re going to need her information gathering skills more than ever, she can’t be nearly as effective as she is at that if she’s ‘on her way.’ And I’m not taken.”

Grappler tilted her head to one side and gave me a dazzling smile, the kind she used when she got caught casing a job and needed to talk her way out from security or suspicious property owners. “Not even a little bit taken?”

“If I wasn’t the time you showed up while I was in the bath I’m certainly not going to change my mind just because you flash a smile at me.” I shook my head. “Grappler, I don’t know what your problem with Hangman is.” I was guessing it was jealousy but I didn’t know that for sure. “But you’re not going to change my mind. She stays. She keeps doing what she has been. And that is all she’ll be doing.”

Grappler took a step back and gave me a critical look, as if trying to decide if I was the real Open Circuit. “Please don’t tell me you trust her.”

“Grappler…” I heaved a sigh and glanced around once, just to make sure we were still alone on the walkway. When I was sure we were I went on. “Just because you and your late husband lied to each other for four years doesn’t mean everyone is automatically untrustworthy.”

“I know that, you idiot.” To my surprise she wasn’t angry, but almost laughing. “I trust you, don’t I? And Heavy. Maybe even Simeon, when I understand what he’s saying. Your problem is, you trust too much.”

“Me?” I did a mental inventory of all the paranoid security measures I’d taken in the last twenty-four hours. It was a lengthy list. “Sorry, I’m not sure I follow that one.”

“Well, let’s see. You got four people you really count on right now.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One is a guy who thinks he’s a butler out of an Agatha Christie movie.”

“Simeon prefers the term ‘office manager.'”

Finger numbers two and three. “Two of us were professional thieves who also managed to somehow miss the serial killer right under our noses.” Finger four. “And one is the daughter of a U.S. Senator who probably learned to lie before she learned what the truth was.”

“Davis will be disappointed to hear he wasn’t on that list.”

“Except you’re not going to tell him, because not even you’re dumb enough to trust that guy.” Grappler planted her hands on her hips. “Sometimes I’m amazed one of us hasn’t just clubbed you with a candlestick and had done with it.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why would Simeon do that?”

“He’s a butler.”

“Office manager; and that’s an unfair stereotype.”

She gave me a frank look, her dark eyes boring into mine. “You want to go big time, you need to trust less, Circuit. Everybody’s going to be after you when these gigs are done. I don’t care about your crusade, but at least you pay the bills. So do me a favor and be a little more careful, okay?”

“I never thought I’d hear that advice from you.” I smiled and put one hand over my heart. “But I swear I will take no more risks than are absolutely necessary. Does that satisfy?”

“You swear with your right hand over your heart, Circuit.”

I glanced at my hands in mock surprise. “Is that a fact?”

Grappler watched me in poorly concealed amazement. “There’s something wrong with you lately. You were never like this before. Maybe it’s too late for you already.” She sighed and turned towards the stairs. “Just keep your head, okay, Circuit? All I’m asking.”

“I’ll try.” I watched her until her head disappeared down the stairs, then added, too softly for her to have heard, “But you’re right. It’s already too late for that. Far, far too late.”

——–

Helix

“Please tell me you have something in here.” I poke cautiously at the enormous pile of paper on Teresa’s desk, not entirely sure there wasn’t something alive in there. It certainly seemed to have a mind of it’s own, with files and stacks of paper occasionally rustling or sliding around without apparent cause.

She waved a hand vaguely at the assorted mystery papers on her desk. “I have a lot of somethings. Pretty much anything you could want. Care to be more specific?”

“Something on Circuit would be ideal…”  The labels on the folders mostly faced one way and I browsed over them, just for kicks. Most of them covered parts of the case I was already familiar with, a few of them were flagged from the Southern office and it was probably best for my sanity to ignore them, since Wells wouldn’t me do anything about them anyway. One near the bottom caught my eye and I started carefully fishing it out.

“Your friend has been keeping a low profile for the past week. Aside from the vandalism in Charleston and Atlanta the only peep from him has been that stunt in Phoenix.” Teresa shrugged and closed down whatever she had been doing on her computer so as to give me her full attention. “Of course, Analysis isn’t sure that was Circuit but…”

“But it’s another case of a weird symbol turning up in a place connected with me in a high profile manner. This time as a hacking attack, in the same place Circuit made his first big cyber attack. And Hangman, or someone like him, helped break the story. That can’t all be coincidence” I started browsing through the file, which was a summary of the various leads Pastor Rodriguez – excuse me, Agent Samson – had been following up while trying to locate Senator Dawson’s daughter. There were a lot of false leads and he’d found couple of women with similar appearances, but no sign of Elizabeth Dawson herself. “Are you still working this case?”

“Just keeping tabs on it.” Teresa sighed and leaned back in her chair, staring into the corner of the cramped office. She hadn’t had enough time, either here or in the old building, to accumulate the mountains of assorted crap that supervisors always seem to wind up with. But in it’s own way that just made the office seem more bleak. “After the talk you and Jack had with the Senator it’s pretty clear there’s not much more we can do, for the moment.”

I closed the file and tossed it down. “Sorry about that. We probably should have discussed that ahead of time.”

She waved me off. “There wasn’t time, and you’re points were valid. It would have been different if we knew Brahms was coming ahead of time.”

“If it’s not too much to ask, how do you know the Senator and his family?” I closed the file, since there didn’t seem to be anything important there that I didn’t already know. “Seems a bit odd for a girl from the West Coast to know the family of a Senator from Wisconsin.”

“I met Elizabeth when we were in school. She was on the school paper and interviewed me as part of a series on adopted kids at Berkley.” Teresa smiled and her stare went off into the past. “After that she didn’t leave me alone. I think she knew a little bit about what her dad’s role on our Oversight Committee was about, and realized I’d brushed up against something similar. We talked about it a lot. She brought her dad to meet me when he made a campus visit, and the rest is history.”

“So you’re here to catch the bad guys thanks to a chance meeting in college?”

“Except I can’t quite seem to get the catching bad guys part right.” Teresa picked up the folder and glared at it, like she could somehow make it show her where her friend was through sheer willpower.

I sat down across from her and gently took the folder out of her hands. “Welcome to the real Sumter experience, Teresa. We’re not supermen. We’re just people with weird abilities.” I set the file aside again and said, “Let it bother you. You wouldn’t be human, otherwise. But remember that it’s not your fault. Ultimately, the problem here isn’t that you can’t fix this – it’s that Circuit broke things in the first place.”

Teresa laughed and it was surprisingly giggly. I wondered if she was more tired than she looked. “You make a good point.” Her smile faded almost as quickly as it came. “How did you meet the Templetons?”

“Darryl was my field stress test oversight agent. We worked off and on over the next two years when I was out west; then he agreed to go migratory when I needed a new oversight agent. That’s when he met Mona, she was in the Analysis office here.” I sat down in one of the chairs by the desk and leaned back. “They were a weird couple but it worked out.”

She leaned back in her chair, giving me an evaluating look. “And now they’re both gone. Are you going to be okay?”

“Maybe one day. You can never tell for sure.” I sighed and picked up a huge stack of fliers and promotions for historical sites and events around the nation, leafing through them for a distraction. Everyone had gotten them when Circuit’s pals had hit the historic Fort Sumter in their vandalism campaign. With the Phoenix airport on the hit list, too, historic sites seemed a lot less relevant all of a sudden. “I guess I just wish Darryl hadn’t left on some sort of a vendetta. I would get leaving because the job reminds him of Mona. But he just wanted to hunt Circuit. It’s like something out of a bad movie…”

I trailed off as came to a brochure from the Lincoln Financial Foundation, a finance group that had named itself after the president and started collecting related memorabilia. Since it seemed like I was done Teresa said, “You know, you could take a little of your own advice. Darryl is his own person, and while he’s not in the best place right now he is qualified to make his own-”

“I don’t believe it.” I shoved the rest of the pamphlets and junk onto the desk, jumping out of my chair with the Lincoln Financial brochure clutched in one hand.

Teresa got to her feet a little more slowly, a confused look on her face. “What’s wrong?”

“We need to go,” I said, holding up the colorful, glossy piece of paper for her inspection. “I know where Circuit’s going to be.”

“What?” She snatched the flier out of my hands and glanced it over. “Indianapolis?”

I flipped the paper over and pointed to the right panel. “Right state, wrong place. He’s going to Allen County. He thinks he’s Nicholas Cage.”

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Water Fall: Crumbling Foundations

Three Weeks, Five Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Massif

“You ever done this before?”

Lincoln shook his head, somehow turning the gesture into a sweeping glance around the floor, the big, open section of the office where most of us grunts reside. “Fifth uncle does most of the work with you Project folks,” he said, doing his best to see as much of the office while keeping the conversation going and not letting me get too far ahead. By fifth uncle I knew he meant my sifu. Chinese families have this weird tendency to refer to relatives by number, even in English, something to do with correct forms of address. “I’ve never actually spoken to anyone from your organization besides you. And uncle doesn’t talk much about it. Assume total ignorance.”

“In that case there’s a lot of nondisclosure agreements and such that you’re going to need to sign.” I skirted along the outer edges of the floor, past the coffee station and towards the back hall that led to Records. “Fortunately, the people in charge of handling NDAs are also in charge of the files you’re going to need to look at, so we won’t need to run all over the building.”

“I have to admit,” Lincoln said, “this place wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I mean, you don’t even have a giant map of the country. Or a giant globe, or whatever.”

“We’re a regional office,” I said with a shrug. “Of course we have a giant U.S. map – we just put it away when we don’t need it.”

“Oh.”

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that from someone new to the Project I’d have a decent start on a retirement fund.  Once we got through the floor Records was only a short hallway away. We had to pass the office of the Records chief but that position was empty at the moment, something to do with seniority requirements. Sooner or later Cheryl O’Hara would be moving in, but it hadn’t happened yet. So Lincoln would get the riot act from Cheryl in the Records department proper. I let us through the door and glanced around.

Unlike in the old building, where the shift supervisors had occupied a sort of reception desk that let them keep an eye on everyone coming and going into the record stacks, here there was just a set of eight desks in front of the aisles of file cabinets that stored the bulk of the information that Records was in charge of. At any given time you could expect half a dozen people to be at those desks and just as many to be circulating through the files proper. Not all of those people were actual members of the Records department, case in point, when we got there I immediately heard Cheryl quietly arguing with someone I tentatively identified as the analyst I’d met from Helix’s team a few days ago.

Normally when Cheryl’s arguing with someone it’s best to just talk to another Records staffer and it looked like we had at least three others to choose from. Problem was, we needed a Records Chief or suitable proxy to sign off on Lincoln’s presence in the department.  Now  under normal circumstances the  Analysis chief could serve as that proxy. But since Darryl Templeton quit and hadn’t been replaced either, Cheryl was the closest thing we had.

So I took a deep breath and braced myself. As an afterthought I warned Lincoln, “This could be a little rough.”

“You’ve never seen fourth aunt when she finds out she’s out of szechuan sauce.”

I tried not to laugh, not so much because it was funny but because I have an aunt who’s the same way, except with lutefisk. And she’s Polish, not Chinese.

“Hi Cheryl, hi Mossman.” I made a point of calling to them from a decent distance away, before I could even see them as more than dull gleams of motion as the gestured to one another, so they had enough time to compose themselves before we got to Cheryl’s desk. “I was hoping-”

“Is this important?” Cheryl cut me off. As the new holder of the “person who is tardiest with paperwork” award, ending Helix’s two year reign, I was not one of Cheryl’s favorite people. The fact that I have a legitimate, untreatable condition that makes paperwork nearly impossible for me to do quickly or neatly isn’t an excuse in her mind. “We’re in the middle of something here.”

“I can see that, and if I could get someone else’s help…” I shrugged. While some people might be worried about offending Cheryl by implying they’d rather not work with her, anyone who’d known her for any length of time accepted that Cheryl wasn’t bothered by things normal people would be bothered by. I turned the shrug into a hand wave in Lincoln’s direction. “This is Lincoln He, one of our contacts in the greater community. We’ve brought him in because one of the people he’s worked with in the past keeps turning up during this investigation. But-”

Lincoln had been peering over my shoulder the whole time I’d been talking. Apparently Cheryl’s brusque demeanor didn’t intimidate him much, and since I’d met some of his aunts and his mother in the past I can’t say I was surprised. In terms of brusqueness they were at least Cheryl’s equals. That didn’t explain why he suddenly leaned forward and reached for Cheryl’s computer monitor.

Now being in the Records department means being a part of Project Sumter, and you get a fair amount of training to go along with that. How to recognize some of the more common talents, legal ins and outs of classified information and some very basic hand to hand combat training. To go with all that, a focus on preserving the secrecy of the records they’re in charge of that borders on a psychological condition – you really shouldn’t touch their computers or files with out written permission in triplicate. When Cheryl grabbed for Lincoln’s hand she wasn’t just trying to bat it away or stop him from touching her computer, she was aiming to put him in a fairly painful wrist lock and pin his arm against her desk.

And if Lincoln hadn’t studied wushu since he was eight it might have worked. Cheryl was surprisingly fast for someone who had spent most of her time at the Project behind a desk but she wasn’t anywhere near on par with sifu. Lincoln caught the movement and spun his arm in a snaking motion that knocked her hands aside just enough to let him recover his arm without ever being in any danger.

Before things could get any worse I moved between the two of them and said, “Whoa! Let’s all take a breather. Agent O’Hara, unless there’s more to you than has ever been officially disclosed, Lincoln could knock you senseless left handed and standing on one foot. Lincoln, try it and I’ll have to lock you in a tiny little room in an undisclosed location and try to get information on Hangman from someone else.”

“He’s not getting cleared for anything if he keeps acting like that,” Cheryl snapped. “In fact, I think he’s going to go in that tiny little room right now.”

“Did he say Hangman?” Mossburger asked.

I planted my feet, a subconscious move bred from long training. There was no way I was getting pushed around. “That is a decision to be made by a field overseer.”

“Not when it happens in my Records office.” Cheryl was looking at Lincoln, not me, so I guessed she was glaring at him.

He was nodding at Mossburger. “When were those pictures posted?”

“Pictures?” I stared hard at Cheryl’s computer screen. Then sighed and squinted, a shortsighted man in a world of corrective lenses.

“The Watch found them a couple of hours ago,” Mossburger said, swiveling the computer monitor so I could see it. I noticed that Cheryl wasn’t trying to stop him, but since I was leaning closer to the screen and squinting hard there may have been some kind of byplay between her and Lincoln that I wasn’t catching. “They went up sometime last night. We’re not sure what they mean.”

“See this?” Lincoln flicked a finger at the bottom corner of one of the pictures, a banner that clung to the side of a building. I couldn’t tell how it was held in place. In the corner Lincoln had pointed out there was the watermark of a gallows, a mostly completed stick figure dangling from the noose. The only thing it was missing was the head. “That’s Hangman’s mark. He attaches it to any kind of general statement he makes to the community at large.”

“This isn’t the reposting of something that he’s done before?” I asked. I’m not a huge Internet buff but I knew that kind of thing could happen.

“No, these are things that just happened recently,” Cheryl said, the edge in her voice suggesting she still didn’t like this but was willing to play along for now. “The Watch has been trying to keep them quiet, but these images went up on a couple of major news networks before we could put the fix in. We’ve got no idea how many people have seen it. I hear Senator Dawson might be on his way to chew us out personally.”

“You?” Lincoln shook his head. “Why?”

“Look at these pictures.” Mossburger pointed to the one Lincoln had used as an example earlier. The banner in it depicted a man wrapped in a rope that looped around him, snake-like. One end of it ended in a grappling hook. Then he gestured to the other picture, which looked like a stone wall with 2H2O written across it in black paint. “Two known associates of a suspect in the cases we’re working are codenamed Grappler and Heavy Water.”

“Oh.” My turn to say it. “Well that explains the first one. But what’s up with the weird chemical formula?”

“2H means deuterium, hydrogen with an extra neutron mixed in,” Lincoln said. “Combine it with oxygen and you get water that’s a little heavier than normal.”

“So it’s called heavy water,” I said with a snort. “Always inventive, those scientists.”

“What’s the deal with this Hangman person?” Cheryl asked. “What does he have to do with Circuit?”

I glanced from the screen to her, then over my shoulder at Lincoln. “That’s what he’s here to help us figure out. So we’d better keep him out of the little rooms and get him cleared for access to this stuff ASAP, don’t you think?”

Cheryl heaved a sigh but didn’t contradict me.

Mossburger checked his watch and said, “Well, I’ll come back when I can, but I think I need to get downstairs and check in with Agent Herrera. She wanted our whole team there when we briefed the Senator.”

“To make sure nothing got overlooked?” Lincoln asked.

“To make sure they all share pain equally,” I said.

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Sounds fair.”

“Thank you, gentlemen. You’re real pals.” Mossburger shook his head and started towards the elevators, leaving us with a still-simmering Cheryl and a lot of records diving to do. All things considered, I think I would actually rather have gone to the briefing.

——–

Helix

“So what brings you here?” I whispered to Amplifier, doing my best to ignore the increasingly bitter argument between Voorman and Senator Dawson.

“Scouting out the Senator.” It may have been my imagination but it sure didn’t look like she moved her lips to say it. I doubted anyone else in the room could hear her, which was just as well since, on top of Voorman, Verger and Teresa were in the room, along with that Movsesian kid we picked up at the same time as Amplifier, Mossburger and Jack Howell, my tactical team leader. I didn’t think anyone there would rat her out if she said something stupid, but it’s best that the opportunity never arises. “Harriet told me he’s the most important vote on the Oversight Committee and I should try and get an idea how to approach him.”

That explained the slacks and wine red blouse she was wearing, as opposed to her usual slacker-punk ensembles. I wondered, not for the first time, what kind of family background had produced her. She seemed just at ease in a stormy conference room as in a warehouse owned by a supervillian.

“I’m guessing screaming like the fat man isn’t the best approach to take.”

At ease, but not necessarily able to survive. “Just keep in mind he’ll be your boss if you make the cut.”

“Which one?”

I smirked. “Both.”

“Do you have something you’d like to add to the discussion?” Brahms Dawson slammed his hands on the table in front of me. “Or do you find this funny?” He’d apparently never figured out that neither his loft position as Senator or any of his physical bluster could intimidate me. My grandfather once flipped a Panzer Mark IV onto it’s back and I lived around him for half my childhood.

On the other hand, his daughter had been missing for close to a month now. He probably deserved some credit for being as restrained as he was. “Senator, with all due respect, all the leads we have right now can only be followed up by going to the Carolinas, Virginia or Georgia. I would love to be able to contribute by working those angles – but for that to happen you’ll have to strike some kind of a deal with Senior Special Liaison Wells, or take him out of the picture. I’d also like to point out that, under normal circumstances, I’d be migrating out west in about two weeks. It’s hardly a time for me to be leading the charge on an investigation.”

Dawson opened his mouth to say something but Voorman jumped in first. “Helix, this wouldn’t be the first time you’ve stayed north during the winter to help track Circuit. And you know changing the leadership of a region will not help the situation any.”

I snapped my fingers. “Exactly, Voorman.”

“Exactly what?” Dawson demanded. “There has to be something you can do. What about that real estate angle you were supposed to be following up on?”

“So far it hasn’t turned anything up, Brahms,” Teresa said, clearly doing her best not to stand up and try calming the man. The Senator was a friend and had gotten her a job with the Project; but Teresa believed in professionalism too much to try a personal approach here. Using his first name was clearly as familiar as she was willing to get while on the job. “We’ve done what we can to smooth the way for Analysis but…”

Jack cleared his throat, shifting his bulk slightly in the chair so he looked a little less like a side of beef waiting to punch something and more like a side of beef discussing strategy. “But with all due respect, Senator, we need to be here, waiting. Not running down leads.”

“What?” Dawson spun to glare at Jack, who was on the opposite side of the big U table. “That makes no sense.”

“It does if you remember that there’s more to this than just a crime spree.” Jack waved his hand in my direction. “This is personal. Circuit doesn’t just want Project Sumter to notice these crimes, he wants Helix to be involved.”

Jack was setting me up and I ran with the cue. “Why else hit the places he did? A banner held to the walls of Fort Sumter by nothing but altered laws of friction? Superviscus ink globbed all over the walls of Peachtree Station in Atlanta? Those aren’t just major Civil War sites, they’re part of my family history.”

“And the talents used to vandalize them are ones he’s deliberately drawn to our attention,” Mossburger pointed out. “He’s been building to this for a while, I think.”

“No thinking needed,” Jack said with a laugh. “I know. Circuit wants Helix running all over the place, trying to work out these petty vandalisms while he gets ready for something serious. If he gets us to change the management structure of a regional office or two, that’s just bonus confusion.”

Dawson narrowed his eyes and drew himself up to his full height. He wasn’t as imposing as my grandfather, or even Jack, but he did radiate a strange kind of menace all the same. Even distracted with worry for his daughter, even angry and, from the bags under his eyes, more than a little tired, he still had impressive charisma. “Those so-called petty vandalisms are on the verge of exposing everything we’ve worked to keep secret.”

“Then tell Wells to put an extra team or two on keeping a lid on it.” I sat forward in my chair, inverting Jack’s earlier move in order to get Dawson’s attention back on me. “That’s his job, and he doesn’t want my help doing it. That’s fine. Because right now my job is to prioritize finding Circuit over everything else, and running down south won’t help with that one bit.”

“They don’t have the experience-”

“So swear in Amplifier here.” I jerked my thumb in her direction and she jerked fully upright in surprise. “She just passed her field stress test with flying colors and she’s already come across Circuit’s operation more than most of Wells’ people. You can send her, if it will make you feel better.”

Verger straightened up, too. “Hold on. She doesn’t have a team ready to move with her. Unless Wells is going to set her up with one.”

“Then she’d wind up in the Southern office’s jurisdiction,” Voorman grumbled. “We’re shorter on agents.”

“Not my point!” I said in exasperation. “I am staying here. I am waiting for Circuit. And the moment he sticks his head out of whatever hole he’s dug for himself, I am going to chop it off. That will be the end of all this fooling about.”

Brahms stared at me for a moment and I crossed my arms, waiting to hear what his new complaint would be. To my surprise, all he said was, “Fine, then. But the next time he shows up in the Midwest I want you there with hell’s bells on, and I want you to sit on him until I get there and can drag some answers out of him.”

I raised my eyebrows at that. “Senator, if that’s what you want I think you’ll have to get in line.”

Water Fall: Frogs in the Pot

Four Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

“Mossburger!” I jumped up from my desk and hurried across the floor towards my analyst, who had just stepped in to the office and was headed towards the Records department. A handful of heads looked up from desks scattered around the room but for the most part this had gotten to be commonplace and I was ignored. Well, Mossburger looked like he wanted to bolt so it’s not like he was ignoring me but it’s not like we were attracting an audience either. “Where are those-”

Pritchard held up his hands to try and hold me off. That never works but he keeps trying. “Look, Helix, I know you’re still waiting on my analysis of the drug cartel-Morocco connection but until Forensics finishes cracking that shell company in Malta there’s not much we can do.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?” I threw my hands in the air. “This is supposed to be my case and I’ve been locked out of it just because my grandmother supposedly betrayed the Lost Cause! Every lead we’ve developed so far leads south of the Mason-Dixie line.”

“Of course they do, Helix,” Mossburger said with a sigh. “Circuit set it up that way on purpose, to try and keep you away from his organization, remember?”

I rubbed my hand over my face. “You know, some days I really hate that man. Tell me we have something. Anything.”

“Well…” His voice trailed off and he glanced down at the folders he was holding. “It’s not directly related.”

“What’s not directly related?”

Mossburger sighed and handed me one of the files, which was had the codename “Grappler” and a talent indexing number on it. We number talents as we find them, with the very first being my great-great-grandfather, Corporal Sumter. Codenames are an easy way to refer to them but not easy to keep track of in databases, particularly since they get reassigned on a semiregular basis – there are over four thousand talents on record after all, and many of them never do anything of note with their abilities. Code names, on the other hand, are a limited resource so there’s some recycling that goes on.

But Analysis does like to try and be poetic when handing them out, and Grappler didn’t sound like their style. From the indexing number it looked like Grappler was a recent find, too. I flipped the folder and glanced at it. “How does this tie back to the weapons dealers again? Another associate of theirs?”

“No. Remember last month, when Circuit broke into our old facility and installed a back door into our computer network?”

“Yeah.” I snorted. “That was a mess. Gutsy, unexpected and surprisingly effective. Typical work for him. Did we ever track down what all he did while he was in our systems?”

Mossburger waved the folder he was holding at the one I was looking at. “I think Forensics is still working on it, but they’re sure these two files were part of it. He created them and appended them to his file as known associates. Presumably that’s why there’s so little information on them.”

I studied the file with a great deal more interest and discovered that he was right. All of the biographical information was blank – not redacted, which was to be expected, but entirely blank. If the Records department had returned an entirely blank file to Analysis after the discovery of a new talent I think Cheryl would have personally hunted down whoever was responsible and locked them into the vault for the rest of their life. Other than noting that Grappler was a wall walker, a person who could tweak friction in bizarre ways, and that he or she was a known associate of Circuit, there was nothing in the file.

I closed it and handed it back to Mossburger. “And the other one?”

“For a talent called Heavy Water, a water worker. Analysis thinks he’s the one that came with Circuit the night of the raid. Massif was sure there was a water worker with them, and how many can there be in one group, right?” He took the file and shrugged. “We’re not sure why Circuit wanted them entered into our files under those names but I thought it might be worthwhile to check into old cases involving Circuit and see if I could find evidence of their involvement we might have missed because we were so focused on looking for the work of a fuse box.”

“Right.” I cracked my knuckles. “Well, that’s something, I guess. Did you want a hand?”

“Actually, there was-”

“Helix!” Jack was waving to me from his desk. “Someone calling for you or the boss. You gonna take it or you want I should track down Teresa?”

I sighed. “Nevermind, Mossburger. Let me know if you can turn anything up, though.” He nodded, looking a little relieved, and I headed back towards my desk. “I’ll take it, Jack. Who am I talking to? State police? FBI? Senator’s aide?”

“I don’t think he’s any of the above,” Jack said, handing me his phone rather than bothering to transfer the call to mine. “He said his name was Sykes.”

——–

“Glad to see you again.” Matthew Sykes greeted us from his wheelchair as the secretary ushered us in to the conference room. “I apologize for the poor accommodations, I’m afraid our office here isn’t very large.”

It’s true that it wasn’t a very spacious room, around fifteen feet square, and there weren’t any personal touches to it. But it had a table and chairs, and as far as I’ve always been concerned that’s all you need. It’s not like anyone would want to spend much time in one. I took a seat in one of the two chairs closest to the door and Teresa took the other, putting us directly across from our host. “If you think this is a poor accommodation, Mr. Sykes, you’ve never been to a meeting in a government office.”

He chuckled a little even though my joke was pretty flat. “I have to admit, Mr. Sykes,” I continued, “I’m not quite sure why you’re here. I don’t suppose you’ve spent the last two weeks here in town?”

“No, not at all,” he said, drumming his fingers lightly on the table top. “I’ve been back to Springfield and out at a few other places where we’re – but that’s not important. No, I’m afraid I’ve come back here specifically to speak with you.”

“Then I hope that the trip will prove worth your time,” Teresa said, leaning forward in polite interest. “But I’m afraid I’m just as confused about the nature of your call.”

“Yes, well…” Sykes studied his hands for a minute. That slow, sleepy attitude that had stood out to me when we first me was still there, but where before it had seemed like general good humor now it felt different. More like being watched by a sleepy cat that wasn’t sure if you were a problem yet. “You know, one of the ways we businessmen survive is by talking to each other. Even when it isn’t strictly proper for us to do so.”

I nodded. “What you’re trying to say is that Roger Keller told you why we were visiting him the day we met.”

“And with good reason,” he was quick to add. “You see, I’m an investor in several of the properties you were asking him about. He thought I should know, in case there was anything I thought I should bring to your attention.”

“And it took you two weeks to think of something?” I folded my arms over my chest and leaned back in my chair. “That’s quite a delayed reaction, Mr. Sykes.”

“Only because there wasn’t anything I could think of until the news broke yesterday.” He reached into the inside pocket on his jacket and pulled out a rumpled envelope. “Do you remember those serial arsons that took place a month or so back?”

Teresa and I exchanged a glance. That could only mean the Enchanter case, but I could tell by her expression that she didn’t have any more idea how Sykes had connected our inquiries into Circuit’s real estate to then Enchanter than I did. It had been highly classified stuff – still was, as far as I knew. “We were briefly involved in that case, as a matter of fact,” Teresa said noncommittally. “Why do you ask?”

He slid the envelope across the table and sat back in his wheelchair. “I’m not sure if you would have heard, then, but at least a few places hit received a letter before the arsonist struck.”

With a sneaking suspicion of what I would find, I picked up the envelope and looked inside. Sure enough, there was a typed letter inside that said, “There is no king in America. Death to pretenders.” It was signed by the Enchanter.

I handed the letter to Teresa and asked, “When did you get this?”

“I’m not entirely sure. My secretary is actually the one who handled the letter initially, believe it or not we get all kinds of cryptic or outright threatening letters. It comes with being a successful business.” Sykes shrugged carelessly, he seemed a lot less tense now that he’d handed the letter over and we weren’t yelling at him. He looked less like a watchful cat and more like a man who found life amusing at best and boring most of the time. But as he explained he did seem to grow a little more animated. And why not? Everyone enjoys talking about themselves a bit.

“We keep a file where a lot of the minor stuff goes, while the dangerous stuff like death threats we turn in to the police. That,” he waved at the letter, “went into the file. If you leave me an e-mail address or similar way to contact you I can see that the details get to you.”

“And this was sent to one of the properties you and Mr. Keller are investing in?” Teresa asked, slipping the letter back into its envelope and setting it on the table.

“That’s right. And I’ve contacted Roger about it as well. He’s checking to see if they received anything similar.” Sykes rubbed a hand over his face, for just a moment looking less like a sleepy philosopher and more like a tired, middle-aged man. “He didn’t say why you were looking into the properties, but from the sounds of it the arsons weren’t the reason. I suppose this wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped.”

“No-” I started, but Teresa touched me on the arm.

“I’m sorry,” she said, getting to her feet. “Could I consult with my colleague outside for just a moment?”

Sykes laughed, his expression closer to what I assumed was normal for him. “Sure. Take your time.”

The hallway outside was fairly quiet, the only noise was the bustle of the telecom company’s phone operators a good twenty feet away. Once the door was closed behind us I asked, “What is it? The Enchanter is under wraps now, I tend to think Sykes is right – there isn’t much here that’s useful to us.”

“Except the Enchanter got a lot his information from someone who worked with the underground talent community,” Teresa said, ticking points on her fingers. “That person went by the name Hangman and only worked over the Internet. At some point, Hangman warned the Enchanter that Circuit was on to him and probably going to take steps to stop his arson spree. Later, Massif’s investigation into Hangman dead-ended when it turned out no one had heard from him in a month or two.”

“You think the Enchanter isn’t the only one who got on Circuit’s bad side?”

She nodded. “It’s certainly possible. If nothing else, it might justify putting more resources into finding this Hangman person.”

“True.” I shrugged. “But one letter to one of the owners of a piece of property Circuit might have been interested in isn’t much of a connection.”

“Fair enough.” With that, Teresa stepped back into the conference room and picked up the envelope with the letter in it. “We appreciate your telling us about this, Mr. Sykes. It may lead to a new development in the case. We’ll be sure to contact Mr. Keller and ask him if he or any of his clients might have received similar letters. I trust we can take this with us?”

“Of course.” Sykes grinned again, looking pleased like a child that had just won a footrace. “I’ll be sure to let Roger know. I’m sure he’ll lend a hand – we’re always glad to help out. It’s almost a requirement for people like us, but I’m sure you’d understand that, Agent Herrera.”

——–

Circuit

“Long day?”

I glanced at my watch. It was nearly midnight. “I’ve only been awake fifteen hours, Hangman. It doesn’t start being a long day until we roll over thirty. I appreciate your concern but there’s far too much to do today to be wait until tomorrow.”

“Technically speaking it’s tomorrow already,” Hangman pointed out, but not in an argumentative tone.

“You’ve been poking around in East Coast servers too much lately,” I said. “We’re on Central Time here.”

“Of course. It will be tomorrow soon.”

I smiled slightly to myself and said, “Go ahead and ping the servers. I want to get this set up as soon as possible.”

“If you say so.” From my place in the server room it was easy to get a feel for the constantly shifting electrical potential of my outpost. Hangman’s laptop may have been two rooms away in my office but, thanks to the top of the line network that ran through the building I was able to feel the constant, subtle shifts of her typing, the computer’s processors whirring away. As she set up her next hacking maneuver her voice was fed through the intercom, so we could follow what the other was doing. “I’m still not sure why you want to do it this way, instead of just turning the information over to third party reporters like we did with the letter from the Enchanter. It would be safer that way.”

“There’s more to this game than safety, Hangman. They need to know someone other than the usual suspects is behind this. It has to be distinct from the other news from the beginning.” I shifted the balance of my own talent to the handful of routers that actually led to the outside world. “Ping the server.”

“The query is away.”

In less time than it took her to say it a data packet pulsed out of our network, through a barely discernible path to a newscaster’s servers hundreds of miles away. Getting information from that distance was as much art as science, like a spider reading vibrations coming along it’s web. But most firewalls are not subtle things and the denial of access that blocked Hangman’s probe was easy to spot.

“Again,” I said, shifting potentials again to lock down the the code that would deny access. Ninety seconds later, Hangman had convinced the firewall that her presence in the system was legitimate and I no longer had to hold my foot in the door. It had happened three times as fast as using an automated program to accomplish the same work. There certainly were upsides to having someone like Hangman around to make my load lighter.

Since this was the last intrusion we had planned I disconnected from the servers, stripping off the Velcro wristbands that held the electrodes in place against my skin and closing up the specialized router I used for these intrusions. While I can do this kind of work just by touching a keyboard, Davis had put this system together to increase my sensitivity by a considerable amount and I’ll confess I’ve grown fond of it. For my first joint cyber-espionage endeavor with Hangman I thought it prudent to have every advantage and, although we hadn’t needed it, caution pays. Especially in my line of work.

I let myself out of the server room, locked it and joined Hangman in my office. “Progress?”

“All over but the waiting.” She didn’t look up from her computer screen as I glanced over her shoulder. It looked like the software that would let us manipulate the major news network’s content, at least for a short period of time, hadn’t encountered any hangups on instillation so far.

I nodded with satisfaction and dropped into the seat behind my desk, swiveling in it so I could look out into the undisturbed Wisconsin forest outside. “Soon enough we’ll be ready to move out of here. Chainfall’s coming up soon.”

“Are you going to miss it?” Hangman got up and moved around to the side of the desk, looking out into the dark with me. “For all your technological focus you’re surprisingly fond of places like this. The Chainfall site isn’t that different. You even told Grappler to be easy on the Stillwater facilities.”

“That company was owned by a former Project agent, you know.” I leaned back a little in my chair. “In the old days, Project Sumter did more harm than good. They just haven’t reevaluated themselves in the last fifty years. That’s their real failing. People like Chief Stillwater, he was in the Navy during the Second World War, they’ve earned a little respect. They were a force for good, in their time.”

Hangman’s hands slipped over the back of my chair and began massaging my shoulders lightly. “And now it’s your time, I suppose?”

Simeon’s warning came back to me then. The possibility that Hangman had come to me interested in more than a chance to show her skills. That she might have some sort of a romantic interest, childish or otherwise.

That one way or another, she’d have to face the reality of Thunderbird.

I got up from the chair, letting her hands fall away as I stood. “Now it’s time for sleep, I think.”

“Even after just fifteen hours awake?” She asked in a teasing tone.

I gave her an arch look over one shoulder. “An old man needs his rest.”

“Old?” She smiled. It wasn’t a smirk, like she so often used when joking with Simeon or Heavy, nor an attempt to ingratiate herself, like I had seen in pictures I turned up when trying to gather information on her, like she used when dealing with Davis or one of the other men in the installation that seemed to gather around her when she wasn’t locked away with her laptop running some kind of data analysis. There was something genuine there, not a front or a tool for dealing with people. I just wasn’t sure what it was. “The future shouldn’t be calling itself old, Circuit.”

“No?” I put a hand on her shoulder and gently maneuvered her towards the office door, being careful to stay behind her every step of the way. For some reason I was suddenly ashamed to look her in the face. “Well, a word of advice. We’ll all need all the rest we can get in the next few days. Big things are coming.”

Hangman laughed. “Whatever you say. Good night, Circuit.”

“Good night, Elizabeth.”

I don’t think I realized then I’d called her by name. Didn’t notice her staring after me with that strange smile as I walked away. All I really knew was that, for the first time since I’d become Open Circuit, I was on the run from something and I had no plan how to deal with it.

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