Water Fall: Swept Away

One Week, One Day After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

To say that Hangman was struck speechless wouldn’t be exactly true, but she did sputter helplessly for a second before snarling, “Dad wants me to come home? Did you come all the way here just to tell me that? Because I thought pastors weren’t supposed to lie.”

“No one’s supposed to lie.” He rested a hand on the railing of the catwalk and eased himself down to the floor, sitting cross-legged and looking very out of place, like a Cub Scout leader had decided to burn holes in his clothes with a six thousand volt current then strap on body armor before campfire. “I have a daughter – three, actually – and I know how I would act if one was missing and I wanted her home. Not eating, sleeping badly, losing focus constantly at work – your father has been acting exactly that way. I wouldn’t have come out of retirement if I didn’t think he was sincere when he asked me to. Especially not with all the hassle my wife has given me over it.”

She snorted. “Mom put him up to it. He wouldn’t have asked you on his own. You think I’ll just waltz out of here with you? Do you think it will be that simple?”

“Not after what I heard you saying a minute ago,” he said with a shrug. “But I know a lot about falling in with a bad crowd and I know it’s not the end, Elizabeth.”

“Forget it.” She put a hand on a pistol I hadn’t noticed on her hip. “I’m not going back. You didn’t really expect to come in here and rescue the screaming girl, did you? Because it’s not going to happen.”

Samson sighed. “You know, when all that time went past and there was no demands… I’d wondered. What you might be doing.”

“What do you care?” Hangman demanded.

His expression hardened, ever so slightly. “Calm down, you. I’ve been the angry kid, too. You think no one understands or should try to understand, least of all your parents.” He spread his hands. “But before I work for the government I serve a carpenter from Nazareth who was sent to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. I know homes aren’t perfect. I have three daughters and I’ve never been the father to them that I should be. I’m here talking to you instead of picking up one from a chess tournament. But things can be better. Won’t you try? For yourself, if for no one else? You’ll regret it if you never do.”

“I said-”

I put my hand on Hangman’s shoulder. “Don’t answer. Not yet.” She turned to look up at me, the thunder still raging behind her eyes. “He’s right. You will regret. Take time to think it over. Whichever of us is left standing, we’ll let you go home. No strings on my part, I promise. He’ll probably make you testify against me-”

“That’ll probably be a must.”

“-but you can go home. Think about it.” I gave her a slight push towards Simeon who took her by the elbow and started down the catwalk towards the exit. To keep Rodriguez’ attention on me I said, “That fine by you, Samson?”

He sighed. “I suppose so. Of course, you could just surrender and save us all this trouble. There might even be lenience in it for you.”

“No thank you.” I holstered my gun and switched on my maglev harness and charged the capacitors in my vest. Without another word I pitched backwards over the railing of the catwalk and dropped. There was enough damage done to the storage facility to reduce its capacity but the total storage down there was still more than enough for some clever tricks. With the magnets in my working rig active it was child’s play to jump current around and create just about anything I could want. I fell about two feet before catching myself magnetically and throwing myself towards the far wall.

Samson was back on his feet before I was half way across the bunker, leaping effortlessly from one section of the catwalk to another in long, flat jumps. But he couldn’t turn in midair and I swerved towards the bunker entrance as soon as he started one of those jumps, getting all the way to the door before he clattered to the catwalk again.

It wasn’t a light door, it actually had more in common with an old style bank vault entrance than a traditional fire door. It took a few seconds to cycle the locking mechanism and get through it. That put me in the small kill box just outside, a four foot long pair of concrete walls that would funnel any would-be intruders trying to reach the door into a lethal field of fire. Assuming they didn’t just tear through the back wall with their bare hands.

Plan A had been to fly up and out from the entrance then arm the land mines there, solving my problem as soon as Rodriguez tried to come out after me. Unfortunately, almost as soon as I was through the door and started it cycling closed again he was there, smashing his fist until he got a good enough grip to crumple the door to one side like wet cardboard. I got four feet off the ground before he had me by the ankles and dragged me back down.

I hit him in the chest with my taser, drawing out a grunt of pain and he spasmed, twisting shoving me back through the door and into the bunker. I flew a dozen feet before I got control of my flight path again. Time for Plan B. Instead of turning around I sped up and headed towards the hole Samson had made in the back of the building.

After extensive practice there are some things you learn to do by rote. In my case, early in my career disarming, arming and detonating explosives remotely using nothing but my talent and a specially rigged transmitter the size of a nickel was one of them. Like I told Hangman, there are some things that are just requirements of the job. Being able to cover your tracks effectively is one of them, and for operations on the scale of Chainfall the most effective way to cover your tracks is carefully applied explosives. As far as I knew the guards were still in the building and covering the fees that came with their deaths on the job would be more expensive than I liked, but the circumstances demanded that I accept the loss. The moment I heard the sound of Samson clattering across the catwalks after me I started the arming sequence.

There wasn’t quite time to get through the wall and out of the bunker before the small explosive packages went off. Fortunately these weren’t the Hollywood masses of raw pyrotechnics that you see in movies but rather shaped, directed explosions strategically built into the framework of the building that removed enough support it collapsed under it’s own weight. I still nearly got crushed by debris as I shot out the hole.

I got clear and pushed upwards, scanning the dust and rubble for signs of life. My earpiece chimed and Simeon asked, “Are you all right, sir?”

“For the moment,” I answered. A large chunk of rubble sloughed to one side and Rodriguez stepped out from under it, one of the guards slung under his arm. The idea that he might be unkillable nagged at the back of my head but it wasn’t very productive so I quashed it down. “Keep going, Simeon. Get everyone out of the command bunker that we can spare, it’s time to start evacuating. And keep Hangman with you!  Rodriguez is probably going to be looking for her as much as me and I want her out of trouble.”

“Yes , sir. Where will you be?”

“I’m going to meet Heavy. Take care.”

I suited actions to words, taking a zig-zagging path through the trees at a slower pace for the first minute or so, to avoid being spotted by Rodriguez. I had just popped back up over the tree line, intending to speed back to the crossroads where we’d been planning to greet the rest of Sumter’s agents, when Heavy called me.

“Boss, they’re at the dam! Guards there say the water’s freezing and it’s so cold they’re starting to change color. They’re bugging out, say they’re not equipped to fight frostbite.”

Once again I came to a sudden stop and started in a new direction. I hadn’t thought of the two women who froze the streets during our escape from the city. If they could freeze the whole river they could cut off more than half our power generating capacity. With the reserves out that would just leave the low headwaters turbines, not enough to power the full maglev relay network, much less charge empion grenades or allow the construction of CPC superconductors. “We have to keep the dam, Heavy. Get everyone there you can.”

“On my way, boss.”

The dam was farther than anything else in the compound, it took almost seven minutes to fly there, pushing the relays to their limits, and I could feel the available potential behind the network starting to drop off as I got close.

The dam was a surreal sight. The river wasn’t just frozen behind the dam, water had actually frozen as it fell from the sluice gates. A pillar of steam rose up from the surface of the ice maybe a hundred feet behind the dam. There were two people standing near the steam cloud, mostly obscured except for the long, blonde hair whipping in the unnatural winds of the altered weather they’d created. I stretched out to try and grab the building charges that wind had to be creating, to funnel the lighting down against them like I had with Helix outside the Diversy Street school building, but I didn’t have a full strength lightning funnel built into my current set of gear, they were too bulky to be practical and too heavy for  the maglev harness besides. I couldn’t extend my reach that far and, even if I could, there was no guarantee I could make the proper changes in potential without a funnel to back me up. The work is at once strenuous and delicate, I designed lighting funnels to do the heavy lifting and leave the detail work to me. I’d never attempted to channel lighting from a storm without one.

The only option left was the SIG. I dropped some altitude and drew my sidearm, fighting to stay steady in the winds that had kicked up. I mentally cursed Helix and all the other heat sinks and cold spikes in the world for their effects on the weather and did my best to get a couple of steady shots at them.

Heavy was yelling in my ear, “We’re here boss! Want us to just sweep up over the top?”

I glanced over to try and spot exactly where they were and yes, I could see Heavy and Grappler leading half a dozen other people towards one side of the dam. I was about to reply, something about tossing a grenade down the steaming hole in the ice I believe, when the world behind them seemed to bend and an incredibly intense, strobing light blinded me. With a confused yelp I threw my hands up in front of my face and, given all there was to think about, just for a second, I lost my concentration.

Suddenly I was falling, the magnetic fields that kept me aloft slipping out of proper balance and sending me careening wildly in all directions, but mostly down. Frantic, blinded and with no sense of direction I rubbed my eyes and blinked furiously, dropping my pistol in the process. My vision cleared enough to realize I was about to smash into the ground and I pushed out with my maglev harness, breaking my fall some but still landing badly. I gasped for a moment, fighting a new wave of stars in my vision and trying to get my wind back. The whole process took maybe five seconds.

I’d just pushed myself up to my knees when I heard a sound like a tectonic plate shifting. I didn’t have to be able to see to know the dam was breaking. Getting the focus and strength to push upwards again cost me a split second and it was just a split second too long. I’d just gotten clear of the ground, gone up maybe five feet, when a chunk of concrete clipped me in the leg and I tumbled into a torrent of icy water…

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#63 (Part Two)

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

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

“You’re crazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old man smiled and said, “Frostburn?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” They asked simultaneously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Index

#63 (Part One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds smelly,” one of the twins said.

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

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

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

“So this person was alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course not,” the left twin said.

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin grimaced. “Yeah, that’s her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Index