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: Hot Air

Six Weeks Before the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Helix

I set my keys down on the end table in the hallway and went into the living room, taking a seat in the chair. Darryl shifted a bit on the sofa so we were looking more or less across at one another. Or at least, we could look right at each other if we wanted to, we avoided it at first. I cracked my knuckles, working the joints long past the point where there was any tension left in them, and finally found the courage to ask, “What brings you to my place tonight, Darryl?”

If my showing no surprise at finding him was bothering Darryl, he didn’t show it. Didn’t show much of anything, really, just carefully set his cane on the floor and leaned it against the sofa. Darryl is in charge of the regional Analysis office, and the job was high stress before he lost his wife. After all, it involves managing nearly sixty people with genius level intelligence and an unusually good ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated facts. They’re smart, they know it and yet sometimes their connections to reality are tenuous at best.

The last time I’d seen him before Mona died, he’d taken to using the cane and his hair and beard were starting to go gray around the edges. He was getting close to fifty, which wasn’t all that old, but if he always looked a little older than he was I chalked that up to the car accident he was in a few years ago and the stress of his job. Now the only color in his hair was gray and it seemed to be loosing the battle against the white rushing in; even sitting I could tell he was developing a stoop.

But the physical changes weren’t what bothered me most. He clearly had no idea what he should say. This is the man who started planning his wife’s birthday party three months in advance, had a gift sign-up sheet and made sure the new lamp and sofa she was getting were color coordinated. Darryl lives to plan things out in advance. But he’d shown up to talk to me with nothing in mind. He was falling apart before my eyes and I hated to see it.

“I’m sorry I didn’t stay longer at the funeral,” I blurted out, trying desperately to fill the silence. “I just spent a lot of time with people who rubbed me the wrong way and after the-”

“It’s all right,” Darryl said, finding his voice at last. “I really wasn’t that excited about talking to most of them, either.”

And that was pretty much all there was to say about that. “How are you do-”

“That’s a stupid question, and you know it.” He had me there. Obviously he wasn’t doing very well, and we were both smart enough to know it. I just couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Helix, I’m not here for platitudes.”

“No?” I had a feeling I knew what he was there for but I didn’t want to ask.

“No.” Darryl pulled his gaze away from his cane so he could look me in the eyes. It was like staring into a blast furnace. Trust me, I’ve done it. “I need you to do me a favor.”

That was what I’d been afraid of. “Darryl…”

“Let me do something, Helix.” There was a weird tone to his voice. It was like conviction, except darker. The only time I’d heard anything remotely like it; it had been coming from Circuit. “Let me help catch him. Let me back in the field!”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” I saw the indignation building up in his eyes and realized that had been a poor choice of words. I hurried to try and smooth things over. “Look at yourself, Darryl, you’re just not physically fit for that kind of work any more.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Darryl snapped, thumping his cane on the floor. “We’re short on field analysts and most of them are too mentally unstable to cut it out there. Voorman’s willing to give me a chance if we can get the Senate Committee to make an exception and let me into this investigation.”

“Well I’m not!” I slammed a hand down on the armrest of the chair and swore. “You’re in no condition to go out into the field. It doesn’t matter if you’re physically or mentally unable to keep up, you’re a liability either way!”

“Helix, there’s no one in the Project who’s been an analyst for Circuit’s cases longer than I have!”

I sighed. “That’s got nothing to do with it, Darryl. In the field-”

“I need to do something.”Darryl got up with a sudden jerk and I followed as he teetered unsteadily, as if he didn’t know what to do now that he was upright. He got his cane on the floor before I had to catch him, but it was a near thing. “You can’t sideline me on this. It was my wife-”

“Do not use Mona as an excuse,” I snapped. “You just want to get even. We’ve both been in this business long enough to know how that works out.”

For just a second I thought I was about to get hit with Darryl’s cane, and I might even have deserved it, but he managed to stop the motion before it was more than a spasm of his arm. “I am not trying to excuse anything,” he said in a dangerous tone, voice little more than a whisper. “I am going to find that man. And I am going to bring him to justice.”

I ran a hand over my face, wondering when the day would be over. This could have gone a lot better if I wasn’t so tired from the last few days. Weeks. Years, really. “Go home, Darryl. I know that Frostburn and Coldspike came by with a new boss who was offering you a job. If their boss wants to get some fresh faced kids killed working with you, that’s his call. I’m not doing it. If you were half the man I thought you were, you wouldn’t want to do it either.”

 “Fine.” There was an ocean of meaning in that one word. I couldn’t meet his eyes so I stared away and into the kitchen. I heard his cane tapping on the floor, then the sound of the door closing behind him. I glanced at my watch and realized I’d managed to ruin a friendship in less than five minutes.

——–

After Darryl left I found I couldn’t sit still. I tried to cook up some salmon for dinner and wound up fumbling with the vacuum sealed packaging on it for five minutes until I accidentally melted it into a semi-toxic mess in a moment of frustration. After glaring at it for a second like the fish was somehow to blame I tossed the whole mess in the garbage and changed out of my suit and into a comfortable set of sweats, grabbed the key to my workshop off the key rack in the closet and headed downstairs intending to burn off as much frustration as I could with hammer and power tools.

Unfortunately a much more convenient target showed itself before I could get out of the building.

I took the stairs down to the lobby instead of riding the elevator. It was only four flights and driving mad is never a good idea so I figured the exercise could only help. Maybe if I’d taken the elevator I would have missed Teresa on her way up, and maybe that would have been for the better. As it was, I nearly ran her down as I stalked through the small ground floor lobby of my building.

Apparently my mood at the moment was close enough to normal that she didn’t immediately tumble to the fact something was up, because as I stalked past she cheerfully waved at me with the folder she was holding. “Helix! Good timing.”

Now it goes without saying that anyone who deals with criminals and information control on a regular basis develops a certain amount of professional paranoia as a matter of survival. And we at Project Sumter have more than most. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that I felt like I’d walked into a set up. It sure seemed like Teresa was confirming it when she said, “I brought the paperwork for the-”

And I couldn’t stand it anymore. At the word paperwork I grabbed the folder so fast I could still see the afterimage of me grabbing while I was throwing it into the trashcan by the elevator. Yes, it was incredibly therapeutic.

Judging by Teresa’s slack-jawed expression it was also not what she was expecting.

“What is this, Teresa?” There weren’t any other people in the lobby at that exact moment but longstanding force of habit kept me from raising my voice. I settled for crowding her a lot closer than I would usually get to someone who knows what I can do and using the harshest tone I could manage when talking in a whisper. “Darryl makes sense, and even Sanders, but what the hell are you doing sticking your nose in this?”

“What? Sanders wasn’t-”

I lashed out to the side, smashing my fist into the frame of the elevator door and sending a spike of pain lancing up my arm. “Don’t tell me he didn’t put you up to this. Who else-” A new, even worse idea occurred to me. “Is this some kind of stupid political play? Is Dawson trying to get Darryl fired or disgraced or something?”

“Is Brahms-” Teresa shook her head, confusion giving way to frustration. “Look, I don’t know what the deal is between you and Senator Dawson, but he’s not in the business of playing games with what he thinks is important. And that includes Project Sumter.”

“Then tell me what’s going on here!” I jabbed a finger at her accusingly. “What good can it possibly do to drag a grieving man out into the meat grinder? Circuit’s ruined hundreds of people’s lives in his crazy attempt to do whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. Darryl’s got enough to deal with trying to put himself back together he can’t possibly do any good coping with a megalomaniac on top of that.”

Suddenly the whole mess was more than I could take and I found myself walking away, back towards the stairs, without realizing I’d decided to storm out. You’re really not supposed to walk out on your supervisor like that but by the same token once you’re mad enough to actually do it the supervisor is supposed to let you go cool you head for a bit, kind of as a matter of courtesy. It’s an unwritten rule.

Teresa apparently never read the unwritten rulebook, because I’d barely gone five steps when I heard her heels clacking on the floor behind me.

If there’s one downside of being a short guy – okay, one downside of being a short guy that’s particularly important in times like these – it’s that you can’t do a good job of glowering at anyone who’s taller than you. You also can’t really loom over them or do a good job of growling out threats. So when you’re mad and you need to prove it to someone exploding is pretty much the only option you have.

I skidded to a stop and whirled around, shouting, “The answer is no! I don’t care who asks, or why! I’m not going to sign off on Darryl going out in the field again. He’s a wreck and he’s going to get himself killed. Don’t ask me to give the okay on burying him next to his wife! It’s not worth it-”

“Helix, shut up,” Teresa said, grabbing my arms by the elbows as I flailed them aimlessly in the air. “You’re sinking.”

More than the fact that she managed to grab me by my elbows, which can’t have been an easy shot, or what she was saying what really got my attention was her tone of voice. She wasn’t yelling, wasn’t hissing under her breath, wasn’t even using a lecturing tone like I might get in a dressing down from Voorman or Sanders. It was an even, pleasant, almost banal kind of a voice, like you might use when discussing the weather. Or highly classified government secrets while in a very public place. It was out of place enough to get my attention.

And as soon as she had it I realized she was right. The air around my hands was shimmering like a blacktop driveway on a hot day in July. I’d subconsciously formed a small heat sink, not even hot enough to boil water but still enough that someone might notice if I leaned on a wall and made the paint bubble or something. It was also why she’d grabbed me at my elbows, rather than my wrists. I exhaled slowly and did my best to loosen up. The heat around me relaxed and trickled back to its normal placement.

“Helix,” Teresa said, speaking quietly and making sure she had my attention before she went on. “I’m not here to talk to you about Darryl. I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about there, although I can guess.”

“You’re not.” I stared at her for a moment, trying to get a read on her expression and finding I was way too wound up to pull it off. “Why are you here, then?”

She let go of my arms and took a step back, straightening her suit out with quick, practiced gestures that disguised the way she quickly glanced around to make sure we were still alone. Once she was sure we were she said, “Three days ago a military convoy in Nebraska was robbed by a flying man.”

“That’s not possible,” I said, then immediately wanted to kick myself. Most people would say that about heat sinks like me.

“That’s what the Inland West office said, too. But in the process of interviewing the guards it turns out he could also make lightning arc from light fixtures into people.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s a bit different, but still sounds familiar, am I right?”

It was a bit different from what I’d experienced on Diversy Street a few weeks ago, at least in scale, but she was right. It did sound a lot like Circuit. “When are we going out to look?”

“Hold up.” She put a hand on my shoulder and lowered her voice. “Are you sure you’re ready for this? We can send someone else if we really have to. It’s basically just a postmortem at this point, Circuit’s long gone.”

I nodded slowly. “I’m good, Teresa.”

“Helix.” Her eyes flicked away for a moment and she took a deep breath. “Look, I know a few things about survivor’s guilt. You know about my dad. And he…”

He was her only family, before he ran into a serial killer. I’d always assumed her job was part of a search for closure. Now I wondered if it was something more. “Yeah, I know. This isn’t the first time I’ve lost a fellow agent, Teresa. I was closer to Mona than most. But I’ve dealt with this before.”

She slid her hands down until she was holding mine, a surprisingly trusting gesture given what had just happened, then looked back up at me and I saw a glimpse of raw pain in her eyes. “It wasn’t your fault.”

I wasn’t sure which of us she was talking to. For a second we stood there, looking like we were sharing some sort of intimate moment, feeling like a mess. Then I realized something. “Teresa, did I just throw the file on that hijacking into the trash?”

“What? Oh, yeah, you did.”

I stepped away and quickly fished it out after hitting the elevator call button. For some reason I felt too drained to go back up to my apartment by stair. “Okay, let me grab my go bag and I’ll be right back down with you.”

“Helix. You’re sure you’re fine?”

The question was asked with all her usual polite calm. So I nodded and said, “Sure.”

After all, if she could lie about her feelings, so could I.

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Heat Wave: Feed the Flames

Helix

To most people it probably seems strange that I could be relieved of duty one day and, not twenty four hours later, walk back into the office to take on a new position. It’s not really a surprise if you think about it, though. There are over four hundred living talents on record in the continental U.S., yet the Project employs only eighty-eight of them.

With those eighty-eight talents the Project must keep a vigilant eye out for criminals who are aided by talent, try to find new talents as they crop up and warn them to try and keep a low profile, and remain ever vigilant against the possibility that foreign powers will use talents as spies, or worse, soldiers. As you can imagine, we’re pretty busy. Unless we’ve done something that seriously threatens the public interest, Project Sumter can’t afford to remove us from duty for more than a week or so and that’s more like a slap on the wrist than a real disciplinary measure.

Sure, coming back in less than a day was unusual, but these are strange times even without Senator Dawson in the picture.

When I walked into the office the next day I didn’t head up to the floor where Sanders and the rest of our team usually meets. For one thing, I wasn’t really a part of his team anymore, which was both freeing and uncomfortable. I’ve worked with Sanders since I started with the Project, and there’s a certain amount of familiarity to him no matter how much I think he’s a shallow jerk. Also, if the Senator was involved in getting someone appointed to the Project I had no doubt he’d be there to log some face time with the “regular Joes” who worked with us talents and we don’t receive VIPs upstairs.

But most importantly, the phone call I got told me to go to one of the ground floor visitor’s meeting room.

If I hadn’t been sure that Brahms Dawson would come to see his pasty off on her first day of work before I got to the office all doubts would have been removed as soon as I stepped in the door. The ground floor reception area was crawling with people who had the unmistakable look of private security agents. To the man on the street telling the difference between a private security firm and a member of the FBI might seem challenging. After all, we both wear dark colored suits to work every day, unless we’re undercover, right?

Here’s the secret: Private security can afford nicer suits than we can.

Unlike the reception areas on the other floors, our ground floor entrance sees the occasional guest from the general public, and as such has things like chairs, potted plants and receptionists who know how to smile in order to make people feel more at ease. It’s a nice contrast to, say, Records, where there’s no seating and Cheryl will scowl at you until get out of her foyer and get back to work.

The only concession to the secure nature of the building in the public entrance is Shelob’s desk, where our unusual building security chief can usually be found. Except that morning Shelob wasn’t there, replaced with one of the many security suits that mobbed the area. I had to go right past him to get to the conference room and I hadn’t even gotten to the desk when he spoke up.

“Sir, you can’t go back there,” the suit said. He got up from the computer terminal he’s been sitting at. From where I was standing I could see that, regardless of whether this guy had booted Shelob during the Senator’s visit, they’d seen fit to leave to leave her feeds from the outside security cameras untouched, so at least they had some good sense.

I held up my ID, which should have been enough to get me inside this or any other building connected to the FBI or Project Sumter. “I’m cleared for this area.”

“Yes, sir, I can see that,” the bodyguard said. “But right now the main conference room is being used by Senator Dawson and Mr. Voorman, and the Senator does not want to be disturbed.”

Now all the conference rooms in our building are pretty much the same size, and I was tempted to point out that only the enormous ego of a US Senator could instantly transform one into the “main” conference room, but in the end I figured I was best served by letting it be. If Dawson and Voorman were hashing something out it was probably best that I leave well enough alone. Voorman may not be my favorite person to work with, but he’s better at making sure the Project and its Talents are looked after than anyone I know.

I shrugged and said, “Okay, if that’s the way he wants it. Does he know you’re watching that?”

The man started slightly and turned back to his computer in surprise, one of his camera feeds had changed to a documentary on the life and habits of wild donkeys. I left the guard to work out how that might have happened and walked back into the foyer. The one person who didn’t look like he belonged to a high class rent-a-cop service appeared to be in his late fifties, was dressed in a long sleeved shirt in spite of the heat, and sat on one of the benches with a briefcase and a cane by his side.

I walked over and sat down next to him. “How are you, Broadband?”

“Well enough, Helix.” Broadband’s face twiched, followed by the sound of muted cursing from the man at the desk. “Just here to file some reports with Cheryl.”

“What’s the hold up?”

“The elevator is currently undergoing a security check that would be compromised by the presence of unauthorized personnel.” Broadband grimaced and rubbed one knee. “I guess I’m stuck here until they free it up.”

I grunted. “If the Senator’s still on the ground floor, what do they care about the elevator for?”

Another twitch of the muscles on Broadband’s face. “I don’t know, son. I don’t know.”

“Funny,” I said. “I met a man the other day who didn’t want to be my dad. Now you’re volunteering.”

Broadband laughed. “Takes all kinds, son. Let an old man talk, you might learn something. Why the other day, while I was in Cincinnati with the boys…”

He kept rambling and I let him. Harmless talk is one of the things that makes him so go at what he does, I’m told, and it never hurts to let people keep in practice. His face kept twitching, the senator’s guards kept cursing, and I just enjoyed the show.

After about ten minutes of that Voorman finally put in an appearance, walking out of the conference hallway while mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. He glanced around the room and spotted me then motioned me over. “They’re ready for you. I won’t ask you to be nice, but don’t deliberately try to piss off the Senator, please?”

I put my hand over my heart. “I promise not to tap the window, stick my fingers in the cage, feed it, or otherwise excite the politician.”

“That’s the idea,” Voorman said, giving me a light slap on the shoulder and headed towards the elevators without a backward glance. The suit started to get up to say something to Voorman but then I heard Broadband cough and the computer screen went crazy. I just shook my head and headed back to the conference room, if our counterintelligence specialist managed to slip Voorman past the security goons I was sure I’d get the play by play from Shelob later.

I had been expecting to be the first person on Herrera’s ops team to show up. After all, there hadn’t been anyone else out there with me, and getting places early is one of my specialties.

So I was surprised to find Pritchard Mosburger in the conference room when I got there. I looked around in surprise, wondering if perhaps I had the wrong room, then glanced back at him. “What are you doing here?”

“I was called here by Mr. Voorman,” Mosburger said. He hunched his shoulders defensively. “He said this would be a simple starting assignment. Apparently I’m up to field training already. It was a sudden thing, I’ve been here since six, filling out all the paperwork for HR. Then Mr. Voorman comes up and says am I ready for an assignment? So I said sure, and here I am.” Mosburger relaxed a little and offered a weak smile. “Two days on the job and I’m already a field analyst. Must be doing pretty good.”

“It depends on how you look at it,” I muttered, leaning on the back of one of the chairs. It seemed a safe guess now that Dawson and Voorman had been arguing about who our field analyst would be. Analysts fit for the field are almost as rare as talents, and in just as high demand. I was willing to bet the only other qualified person available was Mona Templeton. The senator knew her already; I was willing to bet he’d rather have a total rookie who didn’t like Voorman yet than an actual field ready agent who did.

“Where is the Senator?”

“Agents Mosburger and Herrera were waiting in the other conference room.” Senator Brahms Dawson walked in as he spoke, looking as immaculate as always. I took a minute to reckon it up. With his steel gray hair shellacked into a perfect side part that wouldn’t move in the wind, his tailored brown suit pressed to razor sharpness and his fit figure showing the signs of daily exercise, I estimated that, in order to get here early enough to argue about field analysts with Voorman he must have gotten up some time around three this morning. Momma taught me to be a stickler for punctuality, but even I don’t start getting ready that early.

“Taking a moment to make sure Agent Herrera didn’t want to back out?” I asked.

“Why not ask her yourself?” Senator Dawson favored me with a sardonic half smile as he stood by the chair at the head of the table. His question made me realize that he wasn’t alone. Tunnel vision is one of my biggest problems in tactical situations, and the Senator must qualify because I’m sure there’s no way I would have missed Agent Herrera otherwise.

She was standing a half step behind the Senator and let me just say, as an expert on the subject, that she was smoking hot. She had high cheekboness and a strong, sharp nose and she was tall. I’d guess she was about five-foot ten, although an inch or two of that might have been heels, I didn’t want to bend over and check, but more than her height or looks she had the kind of presence that attracted attention, part practiced poise, part natural charisma. I recognized that kind of thing from Sanders and, for that matter, the Senator.

In another ten years I suspected Dawson might not want to be in the same room with her. He’d be overshadowed, and that’s the kind of thing politicians can’t stand. “Special Agent Herrera.” I stepped away from the chair and held out my hand. “Special Agent Double Helix. No offense. This is a strange job and not everyone wants to be here.”

She favored me with what looked like a genuine smile and gave my hand a firm, friendly shake. No trembling, no jerking the hand back as soon as I let go. Surprisingly normal. “No offense taken, Double Helix. And please, call me Teresa. I knew what I was getting into when I volunteered for this position; I hope you’ll find I’m ready for it.”

I glanced at the two inch folder she was holding under her other arm. It looked a lot like she’s already had a chance to do a little reading on me, so maybe she did have some idea what she was in for. “Let’s hope you’re up for the challenge, then. And if we’re being informal, you can call me Helix like everyone else. Less of a mouthful.” I looked around at the room, then back at Senator Dawson. “All we’re missing is the tactical team. Who do we have? More handpicked rookies?”

“Actually,” Herrera said, “I’ve asked that your previous tactical support team be transferred over with you. I’d hate to have you be the only experienced agent on the team, and I’m told your talent can be difficult to work with.”

“‘Doesn’t play well with others’ often appeared on my report cards,” I said dryly. However, I was also relieved. It had taken Jack and the others a while to get used to some of the difficulties heat sinking can pose, I hadn’t really been looking forward to the idea of breaking in a new team. “Are they coming?”

“Agent Sanders apparently told them they could come in a bit late today” Dawson said, a hint of disappointment tingeing the statement, as if he’d been looking forward to seeing a bunch of guys who’s major hobby was adjusting gunsights. “Apparently most of them were here late last night, in some sort of strategy meeting.”

I shrugged. “Then I assume this is all of us?”

“Correct, Helix,” Herrera said, stepping away from the table and closing the door to the meeting room. To my surprise, Senator Dawson slipped into a chair as Herrera moved to the head of the table. I had assumed that the Senator would take the lead in this meeting.

Agent Herrera handed me a normal looking manila folder marked with Open Circuit’s talent ID number. I glanced up at her as she handed a thicker folder, probably a copy of Circuit’s file on top of whatever I got, to Mosburger and cleared my throat. Herrera looked back at me and said, “Yes?”

“We’re going after Open Circuit?”

She gave me a surprised look, perhaps because I’d recognized the ID number without having to look it up, but gamely said, “That’s right.”

“Huh.” I glanced down at the folder again and felt a powerful urge to incinerate it. Unfortunately, I had a feeling that might be misunderstood in the present company. I folded my arms firmly across my chest in an attempt to suppress that urge, the leaned back in my chair to give Herrera a second, closer examination.

She was still well put together, no getting around that. But now that I was paying more attention, I realized that she also looked fairly young, maybe even a few years younger than me. I put her somewhere around twenty five, tops. Young, and possibly naive. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but as a rule of thumb Project Sumter does not encourage its talents to develop any kind of antagonistic relationship with persons of interest.”

Mosburger paused his perusal of the folder to stare at me. “What’s that?”

“I believe Helix is trying to say that he doesn’t have an archrival, no matter how much it seems like it,” the Senator said with a wry smile. “But he has the most experience working against Open Circuit, which is one of the reasons he’s on this team.”

I wasn’t sure if he was saying it was one of the reasons Voorman had pushed for me to be on this team, or if he’d decided my presence was an acceptable risk to whatever Herrera’s goals were because of it. I just shrugged. “I want to make sure we’re not struggling under the unfortunate stereotypes perpetuated by comic books and movies. Project Sumter does not like emotions interfering with its operations.”

Herrera leaned forward slightly, looking a touch worried. “And yours could?”

“There was an operation a while back.” I felt my face twisting into an uncomfortable grimace and tried to squash it. “It was for the CIA, so I can’t talk about it unless you’re cleared for that.” Herrera shook her head. “But it’s definitely compromised my emotional distance. I’d prefer not to run the risk of another face to face encounter.”

“What kind of risk?” Mosburger asked. “I heard a little bit more about your talent yesterday, and this guy,” he waved at Circuit’s file, “doesn’t sound nearly as dangerous as you.”

“I’m not worried about him hurting me,” I said. I shoved my way up out of the chair and stood. “But last time I came pretty close to roasting him. I’d rather not have a repeat performance.”

“But you have no problem destroying property at random,” Dawson said dryly.

“Hey, that helicopter had it coming,” I said, trying to lighten things up.

“That helicopter was government property,” the Senator replied.

“Which had its control systems overridden by Circuit, making it a material threat to the surrounding area.” I shrugged. “Sure, melting it cost money but not as much as letting a fully equipped Apache off the reservation would.”

“Helix does have a history of collateral damage,” Herrera said, holding out his hands to calm us down. “But he’s almost caught Circuit twice, and his talents do offer him certain strategic advantages against Circuit’s. Hopefully that will offset the risks involved in his working on this case. Particularly because this time we’re fairly certain that we already know where to find Circuit.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Do we, now?”

“We’re going to be acting on some information the HSA acquired recently.” Herrera opened her own folder and set it on the table in front of her. “You’ll see that we’ve traced several strange transactions through a series of shell companies to this location in the city.”

Mosburger was looking at his own folder again. “Concrete and steel, nothing special there. Lightning rods and outboard motors. That is strange. Wireless routers and fishing tackle?” He glanced up. “What kind of places sells both those things?”

“It was an Amazon.com order that we intercepted through other means,” Herrera said, handing out a photograph of an inconspicuous looking warehouse. “All these materials, and a few other things, have wound up here in the last two weeks. We’re fairly certain, based on the kinds of materials purchased, the location and the kind of financial shell games used to get them there, that this is Circuit’s work.”

An inconspicuous warehouse on the east side of the city is harder to find than many people think. Which is to say, they’re rare, which actually makes them stand out more. I wasn’t actually sure why Circuit would have chosen such a place for storage, and thinking about it too much sounded like one of those “but if he knows we know then…” headaches waiting to happen. So instead I said, “He won’t be there.”

Herrera’s confident smile slipped just a bit. I expected to see resentment or maybe outright anger at being contradicted behind it. She struck me as an ambitious career woman, maybe someone planning to piggyback on the Senator’s political standing. I figured raining on her parade might crack her pleasant exterior and show what was within, and I was right.

I just hadn’t been expecting to see uncertainty under all that poise. I knew that look. It reminded me of someone who had to do a presentation in Public Speaking 101 and got asked the one question they didn’t have an answer for. It was one of the reasons my highest educational letters are GED.

“It’s not a bad idea, I just don’t want you to get your hopes up,” I said quickly. “Circuit’s downright uncanny at dodging things. There are plenty of signs that he leads a large organization, but we’ve never caught any of them in a raid. In fact, I think we’ve only caught two of them in all, and that was by accident. Putting all this together is impressive, don’t get me wrong, but it could just be something meant to distract us. That kind of wheels in wheels is his thing.”

Herrera nodded, her moment of uncertainty gone. “You’re right. But our records show that his latest shipment of goods hasn’t actually arrived yet. He clearly thought this location was secure as recently as a week ago. Even if he has heard about this already hopefully he won’t have had time to get away clean. And if it’s just a decoy, at least we’ll know that he’s getting desperate. I can’t think of any other reason for such an elaborate ruse. But I do appreciate your input, as the Senator said, it’s one of the reasons I asked for you on this team.”

She had asked for me. Yet another strange thing to add to the growing list of oddities in Agent Herrera’s stay here at the Project. “Well,” I said, “I guess I should also mention that he’s very fond of booby traps…”

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