Thunder Clap: Bad Company, Stranger Characters

The straps holding him into his wheelchair were very sturdy. Nothing short of a chainsaw would be getting him out of the chair until they were removed. The wheels were firmly locked in place by the clamps in the floor of the van. Matthew Sykes leaned back in the chair and did his best to get comfortable. At the very least, that was one thing wheelchairs had in their favor – they were intended for people who spent a long time in them.

The stress ate at him for a while, inevitable considering his circumstances, but mostly he worried about his wife and whether she’d met her guards or made her flight rather than his immediate circumstances. He’d never been the worrying kind, business wasn’t kind to those who couldn’t have confidence in their decisions, but the situation he was in was unique, and not directly a result of his own decisions. But even with all the stress he was under, certain facts, like being woken up very early, were inescapable. As the van roared to life and started towards it’s destination a gentle sloshing sound from one side of the van slowly  lulled him to sleep.

Sykes woke to the sound of a low flying jet coming in through the back door, currently open to allow the big man from earlier and a new friend of his to wrestle a second wheelchair into the back of the van. It took only a few minutes for them to clamp it in place and tumble out the back. They were silent during the whole process and Sykes saw little point in talking to them.

And the van’s new occupant was doing plenty of talking for everyone, laughing and joking about the wild living of young people these days. He sounded almost like a stereotype of a ninety year old man, his voice gone a little high and wheezy, and he was speaking with an odd rhythm that suggested he was a little short of breath. Sure enough, as the men who’d brought him in moved away Sykes could see that there was an oxygen tank attached to his chair and tubes running up to his nose.

The man’s obvious infirmities didn’t seem to have handicapped his voice or good humor, though. Once he was in place and the back door was closed again, leaving them alone in the relative darkness of the early hour, the old man turned to Sykes, a glint on his glasses the only sign of the motion, and said, “Well, son, what brings you here this time of night? Most respectable men are still asleep right now.”

“I couldn’t really say,” Sykes said, rubbing absently at gritty eyes. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Oh, six thirty, I would guess,” was the answer. “I’m surprised you don’t know. Didn’t you fly in?”

“No,” Sykes answered quickly and decisively. After a moment’s uncomfortable silence he added, “I tried learning to fly once. I don’t trust myself on planes now.”

The old man gave a huff that might have been a laugh. “That why a man your age is in that chair? It doesn’t suit to run from the things that weakened you.”

“I’ve lost four parents in this life, to suicide, drugs and airplanes.” Sykes shrugged, more uncomfortable by the moment. “It’s a short enough list of things to avoid, and not likely to get any longer.”

Another awkward silence. “Sorry, son. That was rude of me. I think I’m loosing my touch.”

“No worries,” Sykes said, the ghost of a smile on his face. “I’ve made my peace long ago.”

“Still, it begs the question,” the old man said. “If you didn’t fly in, and I didn’t, why are we at an airport?”

“I don’t think we’re going to learn that any time soon.” Sykes looked his companion over again. It was hard to tell in the light but he really didn’t look like anything other than an infirm old man. “Speaking of obvious questions, what brings you here?”

The gleam of the old man’s smile was back. “Me? Old Stillwater just couldn’t pass on the chance to get back in the field. If I don’t keep my hand in the game I’ll keel over and die. What about you?”

“I suppose…” Sykes trailed off and tried his best to sort through the possible answers to that question. “I suppose I’m paying for my sins.”

“As good a reason as any. Poor choices or poor friends?”

Sykes chuckled ruefully. “You can’t have the second without the first. But in my case, I think it was mostly bad friends.”

“Poor choices are easier to straighten out, poor friends tend to fight back,” Stillwater said. “My sympathies. Had a few friends that didn’t get on with reason in my time.”

“Just a few? I’d think a man your age would have had more friends than that.”

The old man laughed. “Okay, more than a few. But only a few that really went off course. Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems – it isn’t always.”

“No,” Sykes said softly. “I’m pretty sure it’s bad.”

“You’ll just have to be better then.”

Sykes narrowed his eyes, trying to make out the old man’s expression in the dim light of the van. He didn’t sound insincere. “What do you expect me to do under these circumstances?”

“For starters you can get your mind on the problem.” Not insincere but definitely annoyed. “I know you got a life outside this van, but I served on ships full of guys that had lives outside the hull. When you spend your whole shift on the sonar, listening for the Kraut U-boats coming for you, there’s nothing you can do but listen and think. So you learn to plan ahead and good. Who do you talk to as soon as you hear the screws in the water? How fast can helm be notified of incoming torpedoes? What do you need to do to light a fire under whatever needs burning?”

“You must have been a real terror to your ratings.” Sykes shook his head. “Still, you do have a point. What-”

The back doors of the van swung open again, cutting off his next question. “Alright, it looks like everyone is here.” There were two new people at the back of the van. The speaker had a smooth, cultured voice and the clean, elegant cut of his suit could be made out beyond the harsh glare of parking lot lighting behind him. “I was caught a bit unawares and I do apologize. However, now that everyone is here I suppose we can set things in motion.”

He turned to the other new person, a tall, African-American woman who looked like she’d fit better in a Greek myth than modern America. Her long, tan vest covered a shapely figure from shoulder to knee and her charcoal clothes were accessorized with paracord and a host of indistinct but dangerous looking equipment. The man handed her a slip of paper and said, “If you’d care to get behind the wheel, this is a list of your destinations. I’ve already spoken to the rest, they know where they’re going and where to get off. Your instructions are on the next page. Don’t read them until you reach your final destination.”

The woman took the papers hesitantly. “What about you?”

“As always, I have my own business to attend to. You take care of yours and this will all end as planned.” The well dressed man clapped his hands together and said, “I suppose we should get on our way. Good luck and stay out of trouble. At least, until it’s time for you to cause it. Then you can do as you like.”

The two men from earlier climbed into the back of the van and pulled the doors closed behind them, then found seats on some crates strapped into the back corners of the van. There were no real chairs, although the brief illumination while the doors were open was enough to see that something had been bolted along one side of the van at some point. A half a dozen tanks about the size of fire extinguishers strapped down along the opposite side was the source of the sloshing sound heard when the vehicle was in motion.

While one of the two men was the man who’d come to Sykes’ door earlier in the day, the other was a strange, nondescript man with brown hair and an athletic build. Sykes frowned. “Who are you?”

Stillwater answered. “That’s my tactical agent. It’s been a while since I did field work, but when talents came out of the woodwork a while ago Sumter thought I should have someone to keep me out of trouble.”

“You mean this doesn’t qualify?” Sykes asked, incredulous.

“This is the definition of trouble,” the brown haired man answered. “But it’s also the biggest chance a guy like me gets. Chief Stillwater wasn’t the only one who couldn’t pass on the chance.” He broke into a grin. “We’re on our way to catch the biggest criminal Project Sumter has ever let get away.”

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Thunder Clap: Rude Awakening

Matthew Sykes snapped awake, aware of three things almost at once. His wife was not in bed with him. But then, she was at one of those charity networking things, out of town for the weekend. He’d gone himself in the past but this year he just hadn’t had the energy the trip. Rather than back out his wife had offered to go in his place. Sykes found he missed her being there even though she’d only been gone a day.

The sky was still dark out, which surprised him. It was mid summer and the sun rose early. He was not the type to sleep restlessly so waking up before the dawn was not a usual part of his life. Then again, there was that vaguely musical jackhammer sound that might be what had woken him. A moment’s groggy though placed the noise.

His phone was ringing.

Not the public line, which didn’t even have a receiver in the bedroom and mostly went straight to voicemail, so his secretary could screen the messages, nor the direct line to the office of Sykes Telecommunications, the tristate company he remained sole owner and operator of. It was his private line, the one only a small handful of people knew the number for. To make sure it stayed that way he changed the number every six months, something he’d done only three weeks ago. Anyone calling that line was important enough to warrant a little lost sleep.

Sykes sat up in bed and fumbled for his glasses and phone. Once he was fully equipped he checked the number on the screen. It wasn’t familiar but it was in state. That could just mean someone was calling him from an unfamiliar location. Or it could be his number had wound up with someone he’d rather it didn’t. No way to find out but answer it, so he slid his finger across the touchscreen and said, “Matthew Sykes. What can I do for you?”

“Good morning, Mr. Sykes. I’m sorry to-”

“No amount of apologizing is going to make me less tired but it might bore me into drifting off again,” Sykes said, using the grousing to buy time to try and place the voice. It sounded familiar he wasn’t having any luck putting it to a name or face. “Just tell me who you are and what this is about and I’ll decide if I’m letting it go then.”

“Very generous of you,” the voice said dryly. “My name is Alan Dunn, although you might be more familiar with the code name Double Helix, which the media still likes to use.”

“Yes! I’ve seen you in the papers.” Sykes struggled around until he was sitting up in bed. “Is this about the Enchanter business? I heard he was trying to have his sentence overturned again and my office was contacted by the Project about the threat we received from him a few years ago.”

“Actually, no. I think if the Enchanter case was a problem we would have waited until office hours to try and contact you.” Helix sounded apologetic and more than a little tired himself. “You may not remember this but we actually met in person shortly after the Enchanter’s arson spree. I was operating under a pseudonym at the time, so that’s probably a part of it. We were following up some properties that you and Mr. Roger Keller had been investing in.”

“Oh yes!” Sykes scratched absently at the stubble on his chin as he thought. “Hoffman, wasn’t it?”

“That’s the one. Mr. Sykes, are you at home right now?”

“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”

There was a muffled sound on the other end of the line, like someone was talking with one hand over the receiver, then Helix was back. “We’re sending someone over to pick you up. I’d like you to come in to our regional office… or at least somewhere close by. We’re still working on that part.”

“I’d be happy to, Agent Dunn, but I can drive myself, condition not withstanding.” Sykes slapped one of his useless legs and said, “There’ve been cripples longer than there’ve been cars, you know.”

“Yes, I didn’t mean to imply anything about your ability to get around. Mr. Sykes, I suspect you just woke up and haven’t watched the news yet so I’ll give you a condensed version. The Waltham Towers, one of  the buildings you and Mr. Keller collaborated on, has been taken over by insurgents. We believe they somehow influenced the remodeling of the structure and have been planning this move for years, if not longer. We’re hoping you can give us some insight into what was done during the time the property was in the possession of Keller Development and Restoration.”

“Well we did redo the LAN and some of the infotech in most of the remodeling jobs we’ve done but…” Sykes shrugged, although Helix couldn’t see it. “Really, Roger could tell you more about the details. I’m not even sure I remember which building Waltham Towers was.”

“We’ve tried to contact Mr. Keller but haven’t been able to. And his house has been broken into.” There was something that sounded a lot like someone on the other end of the line being slapped for having a big mouth. Then, “That’s why we’re sending a team to pick you up. They have this number and will call you when they arrive. Do not answer your door until they do. If someone tries to gain entrance to your house before our agents arrive contact me immediately at this number.”

“That… sounds like good advice, Agent Dunn. Thank you for notifying me.”

“Stay safe, Mr. Sykes. I hope to see you when you get here.”

Sumter’s agent hung up without waiting for a goodbye but Sykes supposed he was busy enough that the rudeness could be forgiven. The businessman stared at his phone for a moment, putting together a new morning to-do list. First things first. He called the office and left a message letting them know he wouldn’t be in. Then he made a few other phone calls to make sure things would run smoothly. Then he levered himself out of bed and into his wheelchair.

Before his parents had died TV had been a kind of family vice. They would all gather around and watch it while eating dinner, laughing at whatever silliness was on that night and generally enjoying not having to work at getting along for an hour or so. But after prescription drugs wore out one parent and depression another, and he wound up in the group home, fighting over the TV had turned into a game only the older, meaner kids could win. Then the Sykes had taken him back out of there, and they didn’t believe in TV. In time, Matthew had become a convert in most respects.

Of course, anyone who didn’t share his upbringing might have more broadminded views. Like his wife. In the time they’d been together Sykes hadn’t quite managed to wean her of the habit just yet and so the only TV in the house was in her office, and that was where Sykes headed. Of course, as the owner of a multistate telecommunications company he was aware that there was news available on the Internet. But in odd ways he was a traditionalist and the one exception to his no TV policy was the news. Usually he watched it over lunch on the office lounge TV, mostly because he liked the local broadcast anchors. But at 4:30 in the morning, cable news would have to do.

“…insurgent organization has not identified itself,” the cable anchor was saying as the TV switched on. “But the spokesman who has been seen in the videos being posted has identified himself as Open Circuit. Project Sumter, the Federal Government’s agency dealing with unusually talented individuals, has confirmed that this is the same identity used by the man who first revealed the existence of the Project and unusual talents nearly two years ago. They have not said whether they believe this to be the same man or not. So far, neither Open Circuit or other members of his organization have made demands…”

Sykes muted the TV and fumbled for his phone, then made a few more phone calls, including one to a private security firm and another to his wife, telling her that the bodyguards were on their way. With that taken care of he copied down the URL for the videos the anchor had mentioned and started watching them. He’d only gotten through two and just started a third, mostly boring declarations of dominance and moral superiority and the like, when the doorbell rang. Sykes quickly rolled himself out of his office and to the front door, which he yanked open. “It took you long enough.”

The huge African American man on the other side of the door just smiled. It wasn’t a very comforting expression.

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