Heat Wave: Parallel Circuits


“Children’s stories?” Heavy gave me a skeptical look as Grappler slid the laptop away from him so she could see the screen. “You want me to believe that the Enchanter is basing a campaign of arson all across the city on a series of children’s stories?”

“Not the whole thing, no,” I said, paying more attention to rewiring my vest rig with new, better insulated and more conductive wiring. I’ve done a lot of electrical work in my time, but doing it with one arm in a sling was proving a real challenge. “But Hangman tells me that the villain in the series also called himself the Enchanter. He took over a city using fire magic and denied it ever had a king. His propaganda people had the slogan, ‘There is no king, only an Enchanter. Death to pretenders.’ Sound familiar?”

“Sure. How does that help us deal with him?” Heavy asked skeptically.

“I’m not sure yet.” I did a quick check of all the connections and set the vest aside. “I’ve already asked Simeon to try and procure a copy of the books, hopefully that will give us more insight.”

Simeon nodded in acknowledgement and went on arranging the day’s newspapers on my desk as he said, “Unfortunately, the books only had a small printing and is something of a collector’s item. It will take a day or two for the set I’ve ordered to arrive.”

Grappler closed the laptop with a snort. “I know that you’re not supposed to ask pros for their secrets, but how did Hangman know about this? The Project boys, places you can pull a heist, that kind of thing makes sense for a info dealer to know. This, not so much.”

“Believe it or not, I thought of that.” I slid my laptop out from under Grappler’s fingers.

She fluttered them over her heart instead. “You? Thinking of something? Go on.”

“I’m afraid so. I even went so far as to ask. As it turns out, it was pure coincidence. Hangman apparently knew someone who had shared them with him when he was younger.” I fumbled the laptop open again and hooked it up to a wireless card, then began loading the custom drivers I’d written earlier. “He’s been monitoring the Project’s investigation into the Firestarter independently for the last week or so, at my request. The Enchanter angle apparently reminded him of the stories.”

“Which is fine, I guess,” Heavy said. “Except that I don’t see how reading these books helps us find the Enchanter.”

“When I talked to Helix he told me that the Enchanter had left them a pattern in the locations he set on fire.” I slid a copy of the Tribune over and skimmed the front page as I spoke, not really paying much to the headlines beyond watching for any new arson stories. There’s useful information everywhere, if you know how to look, and reporters are paid to be inquisitive. I might as well take advantage of the fact. “All patterns have to come from somewhere.”

“Yeah, but he was using their names and addresses as the basis, not something out of a storybook,” Grappler protested. “Why change now?”

“Because he has their attention. He knows, or at least he thinks, that they cracked his pattern and probably that they did it by bringing in someone smart, who will even now be tracking down who he is and what his motives are. He’s going to start dropping them hints, and if he’s named himself after a storybook villain he’s going to hint at that until someone figures it out. People like him have to advertise themselves. It’s part of their nature.”

“You’re the expert on that, so I’ll take your word for it,” Heavy said, swiveling his head so he could read the paper. After a moment he said, “Did you see this, boss?”

I looked over at that part of the paper. The headline that had Heavy’s attention read “Police Mocked in Serial Arson Case as Tempers Flare”. There wasn’t much there, just a short article chiding the city police and fire department, along with several man-on-the-street quotes to show that people wanted to know how their tax dollars were being spent to catch the man responsible. But at the end of the piece was an anonymous quote mentioning that the police had heard from directly from the arsonist. I glanced at the name of the author. “Anyone heard of this Grant Bennet before?”

“He’s a relatively new reporter,” Simeon answered. “Written for the Tribune for three years or so. The editorial staff has taken a liking to sending him after anything they want attacked in a way they can easily distance themselves from. He does seem to be well connected, though.”

All the good journalists are. But a little known journalist, new to the city and looking to make a name for himself? Potentially useful. “We need to reach out to him. See if he knows anything and if he might be persuaded to share it with us.”

Simeon took out a small notebook and scribbled in it for a moment. He asked, “Do you want to do that personally, or through channels?”

“It needs to be soon…” I thought for a moment. I like to do some things myself, and drawing new people into the fold is one of them, especially since the fiasco in Morocco. But I am also a limited resource. Still. “Other than optimizing the latest batch of transformers for the Chainfall site, there shouldn’t be anything more important than tracking the Enchanter this week.”

Simeon cleared his throat. “Actually, I heard from Mr. Davis while you were out yesterday. He said he hoped to have a preliminary test product for the mass produced hydroelectric system on Thursday. You have another engagement that day, so I made a tentative appointment on Friday.” Simeon folded his hands behind his back, looking very pleased with himself.

“Wait a minute.” I frowned. “I have something on Thursday?”

“Yes. On the other side of the partition.”

“Ah.” That meant my other, commonplace identity had a meeting or something similar that couldn’t be handled through teleconferencing. I wasn’t ready to give up that identity just yet, if for no other reason than it being a good fallback if I should ever need one. “It can’t be helped, then. When did Davis submit the production plans?”

“Yesterday, sir. Mr. Davis proposes that…” I tuned the rest of Simeon’s summary out. While in a lot of ways he behaves as a secretary or a butler, the fact is Simeon has an MBA and a couple of decades of business experience. If he thought it was worth my time to see what Davis had to show me, it was worth my time to see it. What bothered me was the timing.

It had been five days since the Enchanter’s last arson. He had never struck twice in a week and never gone more than sixteen days without a fire. By that math, Friday was the day we could begin expecting something from him.

On the other hand, he’d stumbled into Project Sumter’s boys during his last escapade and he had to know his pattern had been cracked. The fact that it had been cracked by someone else and the Project hadn’t known about it when they scheduled the visit to that location wasn’t really germane. The question was, would that change his timing? Did he have a plan ready to go as soon as he was discovered or had he not been expecting that? Or was he reeling in confusion after his run-in with Helix, surprised to find there was someone who could match his talent?

While I was fairly certain what kind of behavior we could expect from the Enchanter once he finally got his bearings, I didn’t think it likely that the Enchanter had actually thought this far ahead. Personally I found it more likely he was licking his wounds, and would lay low for longer than normal while he decided what to do next. But I wasn’t sure enough that I wanted to commit myself every day next week. Chasing the Enchanter was technically a side project, and Davis’ work the main goal, but I was becoming more and more loath to leave the matter alone. The man was dangerous, far more so to my long term goals than well intentioned but misguided people like Helix could ever be.

And that was enough to make the decision for me. “Meeting with Davis on Friday is fine,” I said. “But after that we’re going into high gear on this. The Enchanter is our number one priority. Grappler.” She sat up a bit straighter. “I want you to find this Grant Bennet person and talk to him. Try to work out if he knows more than we do, and if so what. Turn on the charm.”

She favored me with her best smile and said, “You know he won’t be able to resist. But next time, I want in on the big show, no leaving me out.”

That prompted a smile. “Don’t worry about that. It’s not like I can afford to sideline one third of the talents at my disposal when we’re going up against both Project Sumter and the Enchanter. Speaking of which, Heavy, I want you to get in touch with some of your old friends, anyone who might have heard about that human wall we ran into last night. If he turns up again, I want a better picture of what we’re dealing with.”

“I’ll run down some leads. But with that,” he pointed at my sling, “are you really going to be in any position to take on the Enchanter when he turns up again? And what if the Project comes along for the fun?”

I rubbed my arm and grimaced. Just talking about it caused psychosomatic itching, and I hadn’t even been in the sling a full day but if I wanted the arm to be useful in the future it had to rest now. “Honestly, I’m not in a good position to aid in arresting a criminal right now. And I don’t want to risk taking on a heat sink in something that doesn’t approach top form. So we’re not going to try and grab the Enchanter during his next arson, even if we can successfully predict where it will be.”

“We’re not?” Grappler asked, confusion evident on her face.

“No.” I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “We’re going to rest up and try to crack his patterns, compare our conclusions to his next attack and be ready for him the time after that. I’m not happy about it, but it’s the best move we have with our limited resources.”

Heavy leaned forward, looking concerned. “I’m not happy about messing with a guy who can boil water just by getting a little worked up, but if you want to catch him isn’t it better to do it quick? What if the Project catches him first?”

Then the Enchanter remains a potential problem, albeit a contained one. There hadn’t been any fatalities in his arsons so far, so a murder charge and the resulting death penalty case was out the window, meaning the Enchanter would always be around. I wanted the problem solved more permanently. Also, any likelihood of finding common ground with the members of Project Sumter would dwindle. I wasn’t optimistic about anyone spontaneously switching sides just because I had helped them catch a few criminals over the years, but when my time came I would need trained, experienced law enforcers and talents would be a nice plus. Overtures of good will now could go a long way in the future. But the Enchanter was not the only avenue for such overtures.

“If they catch him, then good for them,” I said. “Chainfall becomes our number one priority again.”

“Our position is unique,” Simeon said, a glint of excitement shining through his normally placid expression. “The Enchanter thinks that Project Sumter is what we represent, but we face no repercussions if we choose not to rise to his challenge. There is no one to punish us if we do not catch him before he strikes again, our funding cannot be cut and we cannot loose face with our superiors. Waiting to see what he will do costs us nothing but time and can gain us a lot.”

“Especially because it gives us time to prepare something special for our hot tempered friend.” I waved the hand with the sprained fingers in Simeon’s direction. “With this thing as it is, I’ll need help from you to get the plans drawn up and I want Davis to help us test it. Let him know we’ll be doing that as well on Friday.”

“Of course. How soon do you expect to need this surprise ready?”

That was a good question. While nothing about his activities had ever struck me as impulsive, I couldn’t get over the feeling that the Enchanter would move faster now that his game was getting more interesting. He would probably make himself known in less time, rather than more. Call it ten days from one fire to the next, no more.

In which case we would need to be ready sooner rather than later. “Ten days. In fact, we all need to have our share done by then, a week if you can swing it. The clock is ticking, people. Get to work.”

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