Two Weeks, Five Days Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation
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.
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…”
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…
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.
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.