Thunder Clap: Ups and Downs

Helix

The worst part was, it was a really good plan.

Both Circuit and I made a few adjustments but for the most part Izzy planned our general strategy in a very solid and flexible way. I guess I should have been proud of her, since she was a junior agent from my branch, but I hadn’t really had any direct influence on her training or really worked with her directly outside of occasionally being on hand when Jack or Teresa were running her through something. So mostly I alternated between feeling awkward at how little I was contributing and frustrated because Circuit was right there and I couldn’t do anything about him.

So for the most part, it was business as usual.

The worst part was finding out that Circuit didn’t know exactly where the master switchboard that gave Davis and his cronies control of the tower was. “I thought you cooked up this plan, Circuit,” I griped. “How can you possibly not know where the nexus of your plan is?”

“Contingencies, Helix, contingencies are all. There’s at least a dozen reasons the placement of the switchboard might need to change.” Circuit jabbed a finger at me. “You finding me or discovering a draft of my plans. Problems with the contractors who did the construction. Further renovations to the building. Other circumstances. There’s eight different places across six floors it might have been installed.”

“What’s the most likely one?” Izzy asked, prompting the hint of a smile from Circuit for some reason. Then she held up a hand and said, “No, wait. I have a better idea.”

Circuit and I exchanged a glance. He raised an eyebrow and said, “Such as?”

She went out into the hall where we’d trussed up the three thugs the two of them had been brawling with when I got there, using all but one of the sets of cuffs I’d brought with me.

For anyone else four sets would be excessive but for Circuit, it pays to be prepared.

I followed not far behind with Circuit’s chair struggling to keep up over the rough terrain. Yeah, that was another thing taking a lot of getting used to. Circuit was supposed to be a specter who loomed over my career with the promise of constant danger. He wasn’t supposed to be fumbling around in a wheelchair, laughing at my people as we unraveled everything he’d ever worked for. Normally, I’d think it was some sort of sham but with the wheelchair there, constantly reminding me of what he couldn’t do, it was hard to doubt any of the rest.

It didn’t help that the situation wasn’t leaving a whole lot of time for thought. I found Izzy in the hallway, ripping open the front of the hoodie on one of the three thugs they’d taken down. Underneath the baggy shirt was a complicated and bulky harness. She hefted him in one hand so we could look at him and asked, “Sykes, can you levitate this guy like you did the ones down in the basement?”

“It’s not levitation, per se…” He trailed off and thought for a second. “Well, I suppose the name is short for magnetic levitation. So yes, provided he’s near a relay. Which we’re not right now.”

“As long as it didn’t get broken earlier,” she said, hefting her thug up in the air and starting towards the elevator shaft.

I gave Circuit a curious look. He started to shrug but stopped with one shoulder lifted in a comical way. A smile slowly spread over his face, like oil over water, and he started his chair towards the elevator shaft saying, “I think I’m going to enjoy this.”

And that wasn’t worrying at all. It didn’t take Izzy long to get to the elevator shaft, she was hopping over debris like rubble strewn battlefields were where she’d grown up. Actually, considering where her dad’s church was located that might be a real possibility. For some reason the doors to the shaft were lying bent and twisted on the floor when we got there. I had no doubt how it had happened and I was more concerned about why we were there than why Izzy had wrecked the door earlier.

She shook the man she was holding gently, mixing in a smack or two, until his eyes opened and got halfway focused. Then she asked, “Where is your boss at?”

It’s amazing how belligerence focuses a person’s attention. The thug went from bleary eyed and lost to focused and angry almost instantly. He also pressed his lips together firmly and refused to say anything. After about three seconds of that Izzy got a grip on the door frame, hefted him up one handed and shot a glance back at Circuit, who gave a slight nod.

Then she threw him up the elevator shaft.

From the sound of the screaming he went up a good three or four stories before gravity took over and he came back down. This is known as juggling answers and it’s actually an accepted interrogation tactic for taxmen, the catch is you’re supposed to practice it a lot before you actually apply it in the field because if you miss the catch, or even just don’t make the catch quite right, you can wind up with a splatter mark and not an intelligence source. That’s why I’d been kind of leery when Izzy headed towards the elevator shaft. It was the only place in the building with enough room for Izzy to perform the juggling part of the trick but so far as I knew she’d never actually practiced it before. I was worried she was going to drop him.

In point of fact, she didn’t bother to catch him.

He went by so fast I almost missed it, even with the building’s power restored elevator shafts are dark places and by the time I realized what happened he was long since gone back the other way, his scream dopplering out behind him even as he found all knew levels of hysteria to vocalize. I stared at Izzy blankly for a second, she’d never struck me as the stone cold killer type, but almost as soon as the idea of saying something occurred to me there was a clicking noise from Circuit’s chair and the scream cut off. I glanced from him to the shaft and back. “You caught him with the maglev harness?”

“I did indeed.” He leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied smirk. “Let’s see if he’s in a mood to be more forthcoming now, shall we?”

The guy was whimpering as he came into view over the edge, grabbing desperately for the floor before Izzy scooped him up by the back of the harness and shook him like a ragdoll. I felt a little sorry for him, a little, not that he was getting the crap scared out of him but I had been shaken like that once or twice in my life and my stomach twinged in sympathy. Izzy gave him an unforgiving look and said, “Want to point me towards your boss now?”

“You don’t understand,” he said between gasps.

“If I had a nickel for every time I heard that…”

“Agent Rodriguez,” Circuit said. “Please do keep in mind that if you handle him roughly and his harness breaks I can’t catch him in the maglev system.”

“Good point.” She adjusted her grip so that she had the man by the front of his harness and started to lean out into the elevator shaft again. “Let’s make it a little more unpredictable, shall we?”

“Wait, wait!” The thug kicked at the floor frantically in an effort to stay in place. The struggle got him nowhere but Izzy did wait like he asked.

“They’re on the seventy-eighth floor,” he said, calming down a bit when it became clear he wasn’t about go airborne again. “I don’t know what room they’re using but we checked in with a fat guy at the southeast meeting room.”

“I know the place,” Circuit said. “Sounds like Davis is there. Give him here, Rodriguez.”

Izzy handed the man to Circuit with a quizzical look but Circuit just shocked him back into unconsciousness. Between that, getting thrown around an elevator shaft and whatever beating he’d taken before I’d gotten there I suspected he was going to be in a lot of pain when he woke up again. “Right,” I said. “What floor are we on now? And how are we going to get that chair up to the seventy-eighth floor?”

“We’re six floors beneath where we need to be,” Circuit said. “And I was planning to just float my way there. The chair is maglev equipped and Izzy can jump the distance. How are you planning to get up there?”

“What’s wrong with the stairs?”

Circuit raised an eyebrow. “You mean, besides the fact that they’re very slow and the most heavily trapped part of the building? We can do better than that.”

I planted my hands on my hips. “Yeah? What you got in mind?”

“Hm…” Izzy was holding the unconscious thug up by his harness like she was studying an outfit at a shopping mall. She glanced at me, then back at him. “I don’t think he’s quite your size. Maybe one of the others.”

I looked from her to Circuit, who was nodding thoughtfully, and put up my hands. “Oh, no. I am not putting one of those on.”

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Heat Wave: Tempering

Helix

Amplifier chewed on her bottom lip, thinking. After a moment she got up out of her chair and paced away, taking a long pull on her bottle of water. Herrera shot me a concerned look, probably wondering why I’d laid it on so thick. Or maybe wondering how much of what I’d said was true. I had no doubt that she’d gotten a similar speech from someone when she signed up, and at least she had spent some time in the HSA, but the fact is, until you’ve actually been in the Project for a year or so you have no idea what the job is really like. But maybe that’s true of every job.

Herrera looked like she was on the verge of saying something but Amplifier beat her to the punch. “Which are you, Helix?” She ran her fingers casually along top of a small chest of drawers that was waiting for it’s second coat of varnish. “My grandma used to say that a person who tries to tell it like it is says more about themself than the way things are. Want to hear what I hear?”

“Sure, why not?” I folded my arms over my chest. “What’s your great insight into my inner workings?”

“One,” she held up a finger to signal the number, then leveled it so it pointed at me. “You love your job, or you wouldn’t put up with all the draw backs that come with it. You could have gone back to carpentry years ago, if that’s what you wanted.”

Amplifier strolled back over to where we were sitting and leaned her arms on the back of her chair. “Two, you’re a sweetheart trying to pretend you’re cynical and you’re bad at it. No one buys the shtick where you try and scare people off by pretending you’ve ruined yourself anymore, it’s overdone. I get that it’s a hard job, but people never got anywhere by running away from challenges. Besides, one of my best friends is a certified genius, and you know it or your people wouldn’t have tried to recruit him already. I think, between the two of us, we can come up with some ways to deal with the worst parts of the job.”

I raised my eyebrows a bit and said, “Anything else you managed to glean from all that?”

“Yeah.” She rested her chin on top of her arms and said, “You really think doing this job for as long as you have has ruined you somehow. Well, I’ve got a newsflash for you, I’m pretty sure every job you can possibly have does that. I worked in a fast food place for two years and it ruined my faith in humanity. I’ve been in a band for three years and it’s ruined my faith in art. I’m not sure you’re a worse person just because you job has ruined your faith in yourself or your talent. There’s plenty of people high on themselves already, anything that keeps you off of that has got to be a plus, right?”

“There’s a delicate balance somewhere in there, Amplifier, and I’m not sure you’re hitting it.”

She laughed and swung herself around the chair and back into the seat. “Well, not everything has to go one way. You mentioned going into research a minute ago. What’s that about?”

“Well there are a few people, most of them with letters after their name but no talents in the Sumter sense, although there are exceptions, who do research on exactly what talents do and how they might be related. For example,” I held up my water bottle and sloshed it back and forth. “What I did to cool this water down from room temperature to cold and refreshing is technically known as ‘cold spiking’ and it was once considered a separate talent from mine. About three decades ago some eggheads on the West Coast got a heat sink and cold spiker together and they managed to duplicate each other’s abilities on a small scale. Now they’re considered the same talent, but they work different sets of muscles, so to speak, so most people figure out how to do one early on and have a hard time working up to the same level of proficiency with the other. Most of that kind of info funnels back to the Project and helps the analysts and field agents out. In your case, there’s even more experiments being run, and if you just wanted to help out from time to time, I’m sure no one would say no…”

Herrera and I spent the next hour and a half explaining the many different possible things a person could do while working directly for the Project and as contractor. In the end Amplifier left not because we were done covering all the possibilities but because she had to get to class. I walked her to the door and was surprised to see that she hadn’t come on a motorcycle, or even a slovenly old junker but rather a sleek new hybrid station wagon. It didn’t do much for her image as a member of a garage band although it was probably pretty useful for hauling all their equipment around.

I shook my head and glanced around the parking lot. It was still early in the day so the only other car, besides mine, was the kind of rust bucket I would have expected from my other guest. I glanced at Herrera. “You two drive over separately?”

“What makes you think I didn’t just ride the subway?” Herrera asked with a raised eyebrow.

“People in our line of work don’t usually enter an enclosed space with a bunch of strangers unless it’s part of our job.” Since Herrera hadn’t made any move to leave I stepped back into the workshop and closed the door behind me. “Was there something else, besides the spontaneous recruiting talk?”

“As a matter of fact, there was.” Herrera strolled over to the chest of drawers Amplifier had been examining earlier and looked it over, as if she could figure out what Amplifier had been thinking while looking at it. “But before we talk about that, what was with that recruitment speech? Not the most encouraging thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Can I be honest?”

“I can’t imagine lying would help.” She shot me an evaluating look, softened with the ghost of a smile. “And I’ve gotten the impression you’re pretty bad at it.”

“You see right through me.” I scooped up the tabletop I’d been working on the night before and moved it to the side of the room, taking the moment to gather my thoughts. Once I had it leaned against the wall I did the same with myself and said, “It’s like this. I’ve had a few different oversight people in my time, but I’ve been with Bob Sanders the longest. We worked out a system for pretty much everything we could expect to do as talent and oversight, and we played to our strengths. For the most part, that means I was the bad cop. Now I gather that you may not like the idea, but the fact is it worked and it worked because we each knew what we were doing. I’m not Sanders’ biggest fan, but he knew what he was doing and he made sure the rest of us were on the same page.”

I held up two fingers. “Twice now you’ve taken us straight into important discussions with a valuable but potentially dangerous individual with little to no warning or time to plan our strategy and which way the conversation is to go. That was sloppy.” I jerked my thumb at my chest. “The first time was my fault. I’m the more experienced agent, I should have said something before we went in to talk to Amplifier yesterday. I definitely should have said something afterwards, and in fact I meant to bring it up tomorrow, because I didn’t think it would be relevant until then. It shouldn’t have been. But in the four days you’ve been my boss you’ve piled in a month’s worth of work.”

“You think I’m moving too fast?” She didn’t sound offended or curious, just a little sad. Not what I had been expecting.

“To use a handy analogy, if you don’t know what kind of wood you’re working with,” I rapped my knuckles against the tabletop, “you won’t know what the right tools for the job are. Or, measure once, cut twice. Or even-”

“All right,” she said, her faint smile coming back. “I get the idea. Two, megalomaniacal ass? Voorman wasn’t very happy with your cursing at a person of interest over the phone yesterday-”

“We monitor all phone calls as a quality assurance measure.”

Her smile twitched but didn’t grow, and she loose her train of thought either. “-and I’m not sure he’ll be any happier after hearing about that.”

“It can hardly be unprofessional to mention a term used on the Federal NBH Employment Termination form.”

Herrera’s expression wavered just a bit, the kind of look people get when they think you’re joking… but they’re not quite sure. “You’re kidding.”

“Look it up. It’s under section four, mental instabilities.” I stood up and started collecting the empty water bottles. “So. Something else besides the recruiting talk?”

Her fingers drifted down the left side if the chest of drawers. “How long have you been selling furniture?”

“I started selling independently instead of through a dealer about a year and a half before my pieces started showing up in Circuit’s instillations. That is what you’re wondering about, isn’t it?”

She turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “Actually, I was wondering how I missed the fact that your maker’s mark is half a strand of DNA when I saw it in Circuit’s warehouse.”

“Most people think it’s a spiral staircase.” I shrugged. “After all, as Amplifier said, carpentry isn’t very agentish. DNA isn’t very carpenterish, for that matter. I’m not sure how Circuit figured out I was making the stuff, but I’m guessing it had more to do with his hacking skills than the maker’s mark.”

“Has anyone ever followed that up?”

I spread my hands. “How are we supposed to do that? Put a tracer in each piece I sell? Even if we could afford the time and resources to do that and track them all, how are we supposed to tell which pieces Circuit’s bought? And what do we tell the judge when we ask for a warrant?”

“Point taken.” Herrera turned from the chest and folded her arms across her chest. “The Project headquarters was broken into last night.”

I paused, an empty water bottle halfway into the empty paint bucket I kept for recyclables. “What?”

“Someone got into the building, ruined a security camera, broke into the evidence room, tased three agents including Al Massif and stole all the evidence relating to the Firestarter case.” She picked up a messenger bag she had brought with her and fished out a sheet of printer paper. “There’s a video of the pair of them, from the security system of a restaurant down the street, but otherwise no indication of who it might be. Here’s a still frame.”

I snatched the sheet out of her hand and stared at it. It was just a blurry image of two men in street clothes jaywalking. The camera that took the video must have been forty feet away, making it pretty much useless for purposes of identifying who they might be. I looked back at Herrera. “That doesn’t tell us much, but I’m guessing we’re assuming this was Circuit and one of his people?”

“Not officially, but the evidence all points that way. He just expressed an interest in the Firestarter case a few hours before the break-in, and he strikes me as the type to be ready to take what he wants if no one will give it to him nicely.”

“You’re a good judge of character,” I said, trying not to grit my teeth. I try not to take my job personally, but some things really grate on you. “What’s our next move?”

“We move.” Herrera rubbed her arm absently like she felt a draft. “The location of headquarters has been compromised so the whole office is being packed up and moved to the auxiliary location.”

Which had been our primary location until three years ago. It was a decent facility, but farther out than our current location and missing some of the nicer bells and whistles, like a lead lined holding cell, that incorporated the state of the art in talent countermeasures. “Wonderful. I suppose we’ll have to wait a few days until we get settled before we get back to the case.”

“Excuse me?” She glanced over her shoulder as if checking to see if there was anyone else in the room. “Are you still talking to the woman who did a month’s worth of work in four days?” She looked back at me and smiled. “I’ve talked Mossman into putting us up this afternoon. We’re meeting at his place at three this- Helix!”

I jumped a bit then realized she was staring at my hand, which was still holding the sheet of paper she’d given me. Except it was now on fire. “Sorry! Sorry.” I quickly balled the sheet of paper up in my hands and began gently pressing the heat out of it. “That happens sometimes. Just FYI, you probably shouldn’t hand me anything flammable then tell me bad news.”

“Right.” Herrera watched wide eyed as I tossed what was left of the paper in the trash and dusted the ash off my hands. Then she slowly shook her head and said, “I guess hearing about it and seeing it in action are two different things after all.”

“I guess they are.”

“So. Mossburger’s place, three o’clock. You mind showing up on your day off?” She started rummaging through her messenger bag again.

“Normally, yes, but for Circuit I’ll make an exception.”

“Good. Now, you remember how I said I thought I had an idea about the Enchanter when we visited Circuit’s place yesterday?”

“Sure.” I nodded. “You said you needed to look into it.”

“Well, I did. It’s especially relevant after hearing that Circuit thinks the Enchanter and the Firestarter are the same person. I think I know what the source of the name is, and hopefully that will give us some insight into the Firestarter and, by extension, Circuit.” She pulled a pair of thin, well worn books out of her bag and started to hand them to me. Then she paused and gave me a skeptical look. “Are you safe with flammable objects yet?”

I put my hand over my heart. “I promise that they will not catch on fire.”

Apparently satisfied, she gave me the books and a moment to look them over. One was green, the other purple. They had charming watercolors on the front of fraying, well handled dust covers. One had a long rip along the back that had been taped together. They looked more appropriate to a library’s story circle than a criminal investigation. I looked back up at Herrera with a skeptical expression. “Children’s stories?”

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