I got up in time to catch the last bit of the sunrise coming up over the Dodoma skyline. It was nice; I had a chance to relax and watch the city start to wake up while I got myself ready for the day. Once I had cleaned up, I locked up the room and headed down to the street. I wasn’t in much of a hurry since I didn’t have to be at the coffee house for another half hour, so I lazily strolled through the nearby streets, absorbing the early morning warmth.
The shops and carts were all in their places as I walked by, with locals trying to sell me one thing or another along the way. I stopped to check out a few of them as I made my way around, finally finding myself where I needed to be. Apparently, my little walk through the city had taken longer than I thought, because both Dianna and Ricky were already sipping on their drinks when I arrived. I made my way past the hostess and walked up to the table on the street side patio where my partners were seated.
“It’s about time you showed up; we were about to report you missing to the authorities,” Ricky quipped as I sat down.
Dianna smirked from behind her cup as she said, “Can you imagine that? ‘Excuse me, officers, we assassinated the mayor last night, and one of our buddies went missing afterwards. Can you help us find him?’”
I chuckled and shook my head. These two could find humor in just about any situation. One time, Ricky had gotten hurt really bad during a mission. He got his hand caught on a hydraulic lift, and nearly had his arm ripped off. During his recovery, he kept cracking corny jokes about “needing a hand” since he had nearly been “disarmed.” For as serious as our jobs were, I’m really glad I was teamed up with them. This line of work requires a balanced perspective, and they definitely provided it.
I flagged the waitress so I could order my drink, and I said, “So, how was your evening?”
They both shrugged. Dianna spoke up first. “I wasn’t really followed. Once we got over the wall, no one followed me. It makes me a little uneasy; the getaway was too easy for my taste.”
The conversation died down for a moment as I placed my order. When the waitress had walked out of earshot, Ricky said, “Oh, c’mon. Everything went according to plan. We’re good at what we do; you should be happy about the way things went. I wasn’t really followed either. We went over the escape routes a thousand times it seems, and when it came time to get away, we stuck to the script. Don’t be such a worrier. Everything’s fine.”
I took a deep breath, leaned my head back, and closed my eyes for a moment. The sound of someone playing a taarab could be heard in the distance. The soft hustle and bustle of the people on the street, combined with the music and the birds chirping was quite calming. When I opened my eyes again, my coffee was sitting on the table in front of me, and my teammates were looking at me, waiting for me to weigh in on the situation.
I tested the temperature of my drink and took a long, slow sip before I offered my opinion. “I’m not going to pick a side here. You’re both right. Things did go exactly as planned, and we seem to have gotten away clean. No one from the corrupt mayor’s advisory board has seen us, and they weren’t able to keep up, so they shouldn’t be able to find us. However, it is always best to exercise caution, whether a mission goes as planned or not. Getting comfortable gets people killed. This is all stuff both of you know, though, so I really shouldn’t have to say any of it.”
Ricky nodded quickly and beamed at Dianna. “See? I was right. Relax, Di; let the music soothe you.” With that, he snapped his fingers, turning on the nearby jukebox on (he is a spark, after all), leaned back, and put his hands behind his head. In response to Ricky’s happy-go-lucky smile, Dianna squinted and scowled at him for a second before turning to me.
“So, Blaise, what now?”
“Well, now we wait for Tragedy’s political ground team to address the other local officials.”
“I knew that part of the plan. I kind of meant what happens with us? Do we stay in Dodoma, or do we go back to base?”
“I’m not sure, really. I have to call Tragedy and find out whether she wants a team on stand-by here or not. I would say once we have confirmation that the PGT is on-scene, we will probably have permission to leave. However, considering there have been situations in the recent past where the PGT boys were less than successful, she might want a team here until an election can be held.”
Dianna nodded quietly, and there was a moment of silence. Given the dangerous nature of our line of work, quiet moments rarely last long, and today was no exception. All at once, the three of us looked up at each other. We all could sense it; someone was watching us. We sat still for several seconds, waiting for the right moment to slip away. As luck would have it, a city bus was coming down the street, and as it rambled our direction, under my breath I told them, “I’ll get ahold of you after I have a chance to talk to Tragedy.” The two of them nodded almost imperceptibly, and quickly finished their drinks. As the bus passed, we leapt into action, disappearing into the city. To anyone watching, it would appear as if we had never even been there, except for the money sitting on the table. (Of course we paid for our drinks; we’re assassins, not thieves.)
After leaving the coffee house, I meandered through the city for an hour or so, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be following me. In the Order, we are trained to pay attention to every detail of our surroundings; the rustling of trees, the flow of traffic, even the breathing patterns of those around us. Not every detail is immediately important, but every little thing could wind up being the thing that ends up saving your life. I couldn’t tell you what made us all uneasy about the coffee house at that exact moment, but some instinct told us that we weren’t safe, and that we were being watched.
It was those same instincts that told me then that I had shaken whoever had been watching us. I stepped inside a local shop and ducked into the bathroom for a minute to think. No one will follow you into a bathroom, and if they do, it’s a relatively safe place to start asking them for some answers. Reflecting back, it really was quite strange; it didn’t feel like the guards from the night before had found us. It was a much more refined feeling, like a predator had us lined up in their sights. Truthfully, it scared me a little bit, because it almost felt like we were being tracked by someone who was as well-trained as we were.
I stepped out of the bathroom, bought a pack of gum, and stepped back outside. I carefully made my way back to my hotel room, performed my usual search of the place, and immediately got on the phone to call Tragedy. When she answered, she was all business.
“I assume the first phase of the mission is complete?”
“Yes, it is. We’re all fine, by the way.”
“If any of you had died, it would have been all over the news and I would already be knee-deep in a cover story. Besides, you’re one of my top teams; of course you’re fine. Now if you’re finished with the banter, I’d like to get back to the purpose of your call. We can catch up on a personal level when you return to base.”
“Fair enough; alright, so we took out the mayor like you said, and we made a clean getaway. There might be someone tailing us down here, but it’s a professional. Maybe a military intelligence agent, maybe we’re all being paranoid. Anyway, the extermination is complete.”
“Wait, you said you had a clean getaway, but someone might be following you? How does that work?”
“Well, we shook the guards after we took out the mayor. Today, at the post-op briefing, we all felt like we were being watched. We couldn’t point out anyone in particular who was watching us, but something wasn’t quite right, so we split. Only someone who does surveillance for a living can hide from us (and even then, we’re pretty good at picking out a scout or a tail.) What I’m trying to say is we felt like we were being watched, and this person knew what they were doing because we couldn’t figure out who or where they were.”
“Okay…did you feel you were in any danger?”
“Not really; it was just uncomfortable, more than anything.”
Tragedy paused a second, and I’m sure she nodded her head before continuing.
“Alright then; putting that on the back-burner, is there anything else you need to tell me about the situation before we move forward with the next phase?”
“No, everything went according to plan, and by my assessment, we are ready to begin the election phase.”
“That is good to hear. I have a political team on the ground already, so I will have them gather the local leaders and begin the election process. You and your team should be cleared to come home within twenty-four hours.”
“What about a local security detail?”
“As soon as I get off the line with you, I will dispatch another team to stay in the area until the local affairs have been peacefully completed. Don’t worry; we’re not having a repeat of Dubai.”
“Okay then; that was my only concern.”
“Humph. Yours, or Raven’s?”
The things this woman knew astounded me sometimes. Still, I played dumb; I wanted to know how she knew Raven was here (not that it matters, of course; I was just curious, and she probably wouldn’t tell me if I asked her straight up.)
“What do you mean?”
“I know you trust me enough to not even ask that question on your own. Given that Dubai was such a mess, and I had a lovely personal visit from Ms. Stockhart afterwards, she is bound to be in Dodoma to keep an eye on how things are handled.”
I chuckled and shook my head. I suppose, given the history between the two women, that it wouldn’t be too hard for Tragedy to figure out Raven would be in town for this. Getting back to the matter at hand, I said, “Yes, Raven did raise her concerns over how this particular event was going to play out. However, this little rabbit trail has probably wasted too much of your time already, so…this new team. They get here within a day or so, and then me and mine ship out immediately?”
“That is the plan, yes. Brief the incoming team and head back to base. I need a full, official briefing for the records when you arrive, and then we have a few things to go over before you are sent back out into the field.”
“What sort of things?”
“The top three teams are up for training and field evaluation for the year. The Council won’t let us send you on another assignment until we run your yearly training and send back a clean report. On top of that, we want to run a few new exercises and leader assessments with your set before we try them out on the rest of the Order.”
I sighed. I hated the stupid mandatory training, but the Tri-Council required it if we were to stay operational and acting under their authority (not that we needed their approval or their authority at this point, but the politics involved with our relationship with the Council were dizzying sometimes.)
“Okay, I’ll let Dianna and Ricky know.”
“Thank you; and Blaise, if you see her (which I’m sure you will), let Raven know what’s going on as well. The last incident was regrettable, but we have learned from our mistake.”
With that, she hung up the phone. When I think about it, there’s no surprise Tragedy wound up running the Order. She’s very professional and very good at what she does, but she has just enough of a personal touch in any given situation to remind you that she’s not a bureaucratic robot. She handles things with just the right balance of bitchiness and finesse. She can be kind of a pain sometimes, but she gets the job done, and she gets it done well. I suppose that’s all anyone can really ask of their boss, especially when they manage twenty-seven assassins for a living.
After being hung up on by Tragedy and meandering my way through that short bit of professional reflection, I called Ricky and Dianna. I gave them the run-down of my conversation with the boss lady, and told them that as soon as the new team arrived, we would be shipping back home. Since our jobs here were pretty much done, I told the two of them that we could relax for a day or so, and simply keep an eye on the city. If things got out of hand, we would get back to work, but for the most part, our job here was finished.
Over the next few hours, I wandered through the city streets, not really looking for anything in particular, just watching the people. Nothing really exciting happened over the rest of my time in Tanzania, so I’ll fast forward to the part where the next team arrived.
When our relief showed up, I gave them a complete briefing on the situation, and turned over a copy of all the dossiers and files we had on the mission. Once they had been filled in on the situation, my team and I climbed on the plane that had brought the new team in and flew back to base.
Now, “base” is kind of a misnomer, mainly because we had three of them: one in Langley, one in San Diego, and one in Cheyenne Mountain. We shuffled between them for various reasons (they were undergoing constant maintenance, and Tragedy felt changing up our scenery now and then kept us fresh and motivated), so at this point in time, we were stationed in Langley.
Upon arrival, we departed the plane (obviously) and settled in. Tragedy was busy in a meeting when we got in, so we simply took our stuff back to our apartments and called it a night. Each base had a small living space for each operative. We didn’t have homes outside the Order, so base was as close to home as we got. Each of us had a small apartment at each base, with a bedroom, a small kitchenette, and a living space big enough to put a couch and a T.V. in. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was enough. It gave us a little bit of privacy when we weren’t out on assignment, and it was a lot better than being stacked up in bunks and barracks. Anyway, we all went back to our little corners of the place and got a bit of sleep before we had to report back to Tragedy in the morning. I tell you what, after being in the heat of Tanzania for a week, running around in the streets, it felt really good just to drop my bags and fall face-first into my bed. That moment was always the best part of any mission, hands down.
Tragedy’s meeting went a little later into the night than she was anticipating, so my team and I were left to our own devices until almost noon the next day (and by “our own devices,” I mean “allowed to sleep undisturbed.”) At a quarter to twelve, there was a knock at my door from one of the administrative assistants telling me that my presence had been requested in the briefing room by Tragedy. I reluctantly rolled out of bed, made myself presentable, and made my way down to the briefing room.
I walked into the room and Tragedy was the only other person in there at the moment. She was going over notes at the conference table while absent-mindedly using her gift as a mover to make herself a cup of coffee from the other side of the room while she waited for the three of us to arrive. Erica “Tragedy” Thompson really was a marvelous human being. Her father had built the Order from the ground up, but it had been Tragedy who shaped us into the elite, respected group of fighters that we had become. When The General announced to the Tri-Council that she was to be his successor as leader of the Valkyries, most of them were skeptical of her abilities. Within a mere three months of taking charge, she had proved her competency so thoroughly that the Council removed the supervising assistant that they had hired to watch her. She actually gained her nickname through this process, as at the hearing where the Council decided to remove the supervising assistant, one of the U.K. councilmembers was recorded as saying, “That girl is a gale-force hurricane; this unstoppable force of nature has proven herself as her father’s daughter. She is cunning and capable enough that I say we let this tragedy run its course; she has nothing left to prove.”
After that, it was all business for Tragedy. With the exception of a select few people, she kept things very close to the vest. I was fortunate enough to be one of the few she considered friends. As I walked up to the table, she stopped stirring her coffee for a second and flicked a finger towards me, pushing a chair out from the table.
“Have a seat, Blaise. The meeting won’t start for at least a few more minutes; would you like some coffee?”
“Nah, I’m alright for now. How are you, though? You seem a little preoccupied.”
She sighed and took off her glasses. “I’m fine, really. I’m more concerned about a minor detail here or there than I should be. It’s no big deal.”
“I don’t know, Tragedy; it’s not like you to needlessly worry. What’s up?”
“Well, I haven’t heard from Trodaire in months. Ever since he officially retired, he has been much more reclusive, but he still calls once every few weeks to check in. He is still our initial trainer, he’s the only one who knows how to design the Valkyrie blades, and it’s not like him to go so long without checking in. I’m just worried; I’ve been trying to read over these papers, but I can’t focus. My mind keeps wandering back to Trodaire.”
“That’s understandable. He’s an old family friend, on top of being heavily involved in the Order. It’s perfectly okay for you to be concerned about him”
“I know, I just have a few too many other things that require my attention right now. I can’t be worrying about him at the moment.”
“Fair enough; let’s knock one of those things off the list, then,” I said just as Ricky and Dianna walked into the room.
The two of them sat down quietly, and I gave basically the same debriefing as when I was on the phone with Tragedy in Tanzania. Ricky and Dianna supplemented the story a little bit with various bits of information from the times where we had to split off, but in a nutshell, our report was this: Job complete.
“Alright, it sounds like you guys did a superb job, as always. Thank you for your professionalism in the field. Now, are there any questions you have for me before I send you off to training?”
Dianna nodded, saying, “What is the situation like now that we have left the region?”
Tragedy smiled and replied, “What, have you been talking to Raven as well?” Looking down at the sheets in front of her, she continued, “It looks like the elections will be held within the next couple of days. The city is still peaceful, and we still have a team on the ground in case there is a disturbance.”
We all nodded at that point. That was about as good of an outcome as we could hope for in that situation. Looking at the three of us, Tragedy said, “If that is all you have for me, then I believe we can close this meeting. From here, I need all of you to report to the classrooms. I know that these refresher courses can be boring, but we have an obstacle course and a field exercise this time that I think makes up for it. Half a day of classes, and then you get a day and a half of field fun. Do you think you can handle that?”
Ricky smiled and cracked his knuckles. “I think we can manage.”
With that, we all left the conference room. Tragedy walked back towards her office as my team and I made our way towards the classroom wing of the compound. As we walked, Ricky and Dianna excitedly discussed what could be waiting for us in the field-exercise portion of the training. Ricky described in intimate detail a scenario involving lasers, trained monkeys, underwater kickboxing, and a trampoline (I’m not sure how it all fit together; I was only half listening.) While that was going on, I was beginning to wonder what had happened to Trodaire myself. I didn’t have the history with him that Tragedy did; in fact, the only time I had met the man was when he had fashioned my blades and given me some training on their proper use. Still, from a practical angle, his absence was something to be concerned about. If he wasn’t around to make blades for new recruits, what would happen to the Order when we actually needed new recruits? As far as anyone knew, Trodaire was the only person in the world who knew how to forge the blades. We needed to find him before anything happened to one of us. Of course, Tragedy had probably come to that same conclusion several times over, which only added to the stress of her situation.
Arriving at the main classroom, we were divided up. Team leaders took one class, members took another. I made my way over to my classroom, where I found Wade. Jonathan Wade was the leader of Team 2. At first blush, he was a surprisingly intimidating person. His spikey hair and cold blue eyes always looked like they were itching for a fight. He wasn’t a particularly big guy, but after one glance at him, you knew he wasn’t someone you wanted to tango with. Add to that the fact that he questioned and debated just about everything, and it was no wonder the General picked him to be a team leader.
The story goes that when Wade was a kid, he lived on the streets (that wasn’t so hard to believe, since foster care or alleyways were where the Order found a lot of us), and when he was 13, he got caught stealing a loaf of bread from a bakery where the General happened to be shopping. Apparently, when he caught Wade, the shop owner decided to teach him a lesson. Taking the bread away, he reared back and clubbed Wade across the side of the head a couple dozen times. The General watched from the back of the shop as after every single hit, Wade just glared furiously into the shopkeeper’s eyes.
Once the man decided Wade had learned his lesson, he turned him loose. The General caught up with him and told him that he was the toughest and ball-siest kid he had ever seen. He offered Wade a home, a life of excitement and action, and a chance to live up to his potential. Now, no street urchin is going to pass up an opportunity like that. Wade went back with the General, who immediately put him on the team leader path. Jonathan Wade was the last Valkyrie to be chosen and recruited by the General, and with every mission that went by, he continued to prove himself as one of the best operatives the Order had ever produced.
Leaned up against the back wall of the room with his arms crossed, he nodded to me as I entered the room. I walked over to where he stood and said, “Are you ready for all this excitement?”
He snorted and replied, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”
“When is this supposed to start, anyway?”
Wade shrugged his shoulders. “Whenever the Team 3 leader shows up, I guess. I heard they were on assignment and got back just after you did. They might be in a briefing still.”
I nodded, and Wade continued, “So I heard you got a little paranoid the other day; catch a little sun stroke, did you?”
“I don’t know…it seriously felt like someone was watching us, but none of us could pin them down. You know that feeling you get when you suddenly wake up and know, even before you open your eyes, that someone else is in the room with you? It was a lot like that.”
“Eh, don’t get too worked up about it. I’m just giving you crap, but in all seriousness, this job will do that to you. I look at it as a good thing. If you are constantly on the lookout, no one can get the drop on you.”
We continued to chit-chat until the class began. However boring and mundane Tragedy had made it out to be, it was five times worse. It was a very slow day; we discussed the role of a team leader, standard protocol, and basically it was a refresher course of all things we learned as recruits (minus all the fun stuff.) When we finally came to the end of the class, all three of us felt like the life had been sucked out of us. Luckily, after a quick lunch, we moved on to the enjoyable part of the day: the obstacle course.