Chicago is a beautiful city, especially at night. From the high-rise where we stood, the view was spectacular. In the moments before we began repelling down the side of the building, I had a chance to soak it all in. The lights shone down below, the lake stretched out to the East, and for a second, I forgot I was about to run down the side of a sixty-story building. Then the signature wind began to blow, and I was suddenly brought back to the task at hand.
I looked over at my teammates, who were double checking their gear before the drop. The wind made it rather difficult to be heard, so instead of asking them if they were ready, I gave the thumbs-up signal. When they both returned the signal, we began our descent. We hopped over the ledge and began running straight down the side of the building. We were headed for the balcony on the forty-fifth floor. The sound of the repelling cables zipping through the cinches was the only thing that could be heard over the wind.
The descent took less than a minute, and when we arrived at the balcony, we immediately began unhooking our repelling gear. When we were free of the gear and the ropes, we tossed them over the side. It is impractical to carry a backpack around during an extraction, especially when combat is probable, and it was incredibly unlikely that we would have the time to come back to the balcony and retrieve our stuff. It was simply better to get rid of it now, while we had the time and the opportunity.
While Dianna and I got rid of the repelling gear, Ricky deftly popped the latch on the door leading inside. Once we were inside, we quietly made our way to the hall. The man we were after conducted business from this floor, and considering he probably was expecting us, Church would most likely be in the conference room in the center of the building. With his mafia connections, he would know a thing or two, like to avoid a room with windows. We lined up and made our way down the hall, checking the offices we passed along the way.
Finally, we were at the conference room door. Pausing for a second, we stacked up and prepared to breach the door. Just as I was about to kick the door open, a shotgun blast blew the door off its hinges from the inside. As soon as the door hit the floor, dozens of shots rang out from inside the room. We back-tracked a few feet, waiting to see if anyone would come through the door.
After a moment, the gunfire ceased, and the sound of reloading could be heard. At once, we made our move. Now, there was a strange phenomenon that would occur for me as we entered into critical situations: time would seem to slow down to a crawl. So as we burst into the room, I’m sure everything happened in a matter of seconds, but it felt as though it took hours. We rushed through the doorway one after another, with Dianna cutting right, Ricky cutting left, and I went down the center of the room. I could see Dianna spinning, kicking, and slicing out of the corner of my eye; I could hear the crackle of electricity as Ricky got busy. The smell of gunpowder filled the room, as every shot our opponents fired added to the smoke that wafted around the room.
Suddenly, a bullet struck my shoulder. Normally, I can make it through a tight situation without a scratch, but there is a reason our tactical suits are bulletproof. I grunted and stumbled before recovering from the blow. At that point, I went from focused to furious (being shot will do that to a man.) I lit fire to my blades and charged ahead, burning and cutting through the dozen or so armed men in front of me. Before long, the only man left facing us was the well-dressed fellow we had been sent to retrieve, and surprise! He was aiming an automatic weapon at us. He didn’t fire, and we paused where we stood. There was a moment of silence as we caught our breath before Mr. Church spoke.
“I was expecting you days ago. Now, I’m a busy man, so I’m going to cut right to the chase. I didn’t have a chance to offer this deal to your friends last time, and that’s something I truly regret. You three are fast, but I’m willing to bet that you’re not faster than a bullet. Even if you were faders I doubt you could move fast enough to get out of the way before I blew your heads off your shoulders. I’ll let you turn around and walk away, right now. This is a one-time offer.”
Ricky laughed and said, “I’ll take that bet.”
As the man shifted his aim to Ricky, I threw the blade in my right hand at him. It rotated twice in the air before the hilt struck him between the eyes, knocking him out cold.
Ricky sighed. “Dammit, Blaise. You didn’t give him the chance to tell us what we’d win when we won the bet.”
“Guess you’ll have to settle for a high five and the satisfaction of a job well done,” Dianna quipped.
“I get that all the time. I was at least hoping for a big stuffed bear.”
I turned to him with a quizzical look on my face. “Ricky, we’re at work, not the carnival.”
Laughing again, he replied, “We just walked into a shooting range that was orchestrated by a man in a tacky suit; the only thing missing from this carnival was the kiddie roller coaster.”
“Well, consider him your big stuffed bear. Bag your prize and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Ricky picked up the target and we made our way back to base by sunrise. Tragedy met us as we got off the plane.
“Get him into the interrogation room. Wade’s team is still tracking down Team 4, so get as much information out of this dirt bag as you can before they get back.”
We dragged the barely-conscious mafia accountant into the interrogation room and handcuffed him to the chair. After a few minutes, he began to wake up and find his bearings. Tragedy and I were seated at the table, across from him, while Ricky and Dianna stood behind us. He tested his handcuffs before looking at us.
“Where am I?”
Tragedy folded her hands and replied, “Mr. Church, you are being detained by the Valkyrie Order.”
“Why? Don’t you guys usually just kill people like me?”
“We carry out justice as it is deemed necessary. In your case, we have entertained the possibility that you may be useful to us. I understand that you offered my team a deal when you first met. I also have a deal, for you.”
The man scoffed. “What would that be? Wait, let me guess: you want me to turn on my employers, and in return, you’ll let me go. Let me tell you, princess, you might as well kill me. Even if I didn’t give you anything, the moment you let me go, I’ll be picked up and given a sentence worse than just death.”
Tragedy raised an eyebrow. “You underestimate me, sir. I have something much better than that. If you choose to answer my questions truthfully, I will arrange for a minor sentence to be served in one of our detention cells. You will be well fed, given access to entertainment and recreation, and above all, you will be protected. If you refuse, I would be happy to return you to Chicago and spread the word that you sang like a bird from the moment you were apprehended.”
Church went pale immediately, and his shoulders sagged as the ramifications for refusing to talk ran through his mind. Tragedy waited a few seconds, letting him think it over before continuing.
“Now, you and I both know what that would mean for you. It is in your best interest to cooperate with us. Under our custody, you will be detained, but you will not be mistreated. That is much more than I can say for your employer. So, do we have an agreement?”
The accountant nodded, slowly at first, and then vigorously. “I’ll give you everything I have. I just have one request: give me a life sentence. You can’t ever let me back out onto the street. My employers don’t forget, and they don’t forgive. And that’s just the mafia; the guys they are working for are even more ruthless.”
Tragedy wrote something down on the pad of paper in front of her. “We’ll get to that in a moment, but the first thing I want you to tell me is what happened to the first team that was sent to dispatch you?”
He shook his head as he said, “They’re dead, as far as I know. I was in a meeting with my bosses and a guy who said he was with the Twelve. When your boys came flying in, they took out a few of my guards, but the guy with the Twelve had guards who were much better trained than mine were. They chased your team away, and when they came back, they were carrying one of your guys with them. The meeting was cut short, and they agreed that they would finish their conversation at the next meeting. Then, they left with the guy they carried in. As they were leaving, he told me that you would send more men to get me, and that I needed to be prepared. That was about a week ago.”
“Now, you keep referencing the Twelve. Who are they, and why are they meeting with the mafia dons?”
“I don’t know much about them; they like to remain anonymous. I’ve never heard of anyone actually meeting them. They always send a representative to do their business. They are in the process of negotiating a deal with the dons. I don’t know a whole lot about that, either. The only reason I was in on the meeting in the first place is because I run the books for the families in Chicago. The representative that the Twelve sent wanted to see how profitable business had been lately. He was saying something about having a plan on how to improve our profits if the dons agreed to renegotiate the deal they have with the Twelve.”
“So they already have a deal with the Twelve?”
“I think so. I think the Twelve has a more world-wide operation going, and the dons are a part of it. The dons send a portion of the quarterly profits to them in return for the Twelve providing some sort of support in the city. Apart from that, I don’t really know anything; I’m just a glorified accountant. I run some small operations for them in the corporate sector, and I balance the books for them. They don’t tell me anything that they don’t have to; I don’t even know what half the books I balance are for.”
“Alright. That’s fine. Now, outside of that meeting, what else have you heard about the Twelve?”
“Not much. There are rumors that they are building an army, but that’s just hearsay. I’ve overheard a few people discussing it; I’ve never heard any details or anything, just enough for me to get nervous when they come around.”
“What about those rumors makes you nervous? It sounds like any business they have with you would make you fairly rich.”
“That’s true, but it’s not the money that makes me nervous. I’m concerned about what happens if the dons don’t toe the line. These guys, the dons I work for, have been around for ages, and they don’t like being told what to do. If they decide to break their contract, I don’t think the Twelve would be very happy. From what I’ve heard, they have had people tortured and killed for turning them down before. Not just the guys involved, either; entire operations have been wiped off the map, whole families have been literally skinned alive. I used to think that the cartels were the most brutal people in the world; from the whispers I’ve heard, the Twelve make the cartels’ acts of barbarism look like a tea party.”
The man shivered as he finished. I still wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of “the Twelve,” but something about the way he talked about them made me wonder if there was a reason we had never been able to find a trace of them anywhere. Tragedy finished taking some notes, and then looked back to Church.
“Alright, that should do for now. We may have more questions for you later; if you think of anything that may be helpful to us, let your guards know that you need to speak with me. Now, we’ll have you sent to your cell. I assure you, if what you say is true, then this is absolutely the safest place for you in the entire world.”
I had Ricky and Dianna escort him to his cell, and I pulled Tragedy aside as we left the interrogation room.
“Do you think he’s telling the truth?”
“It’s hard to say; he could simply be repeating rumors or making things up so that we don’t send him back to Chicago. I am hoping that we will know more when Wade and his team return from the field. Go get some rest, Blaise; you guys have done a great job. You deserve a chance to catch your breath.”
She patted me on the shoulder, and then walked back towards her office. I wandered through the halls for a while, with all the rumors of the Twelve I had heard running through my mind. Supposedly, they were this secret group of super-criminals who wanted to take over the world. They had been credited with numerous deaths around the globe, but no one had ever seen them, or really knew what they were after. World domination was an easy guess, since every conspiracy theory involves mass-takeover of some kind or another, but their purpose and mission had never been expressed. Until today, I was pretty sure they were just a ghost story, something the bad guys talked about in the dark to scare each other. However, I was beginning to wonder if Raven had been right; perhaps we should have looked deeper into this from the beginning.
After a while, I found myself at the training hangar. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep due to all the things on my mind, so I had the course instructor set up a solo course for me. I spent the next few hours fighting imaginary foes, defusing bombs, and generally wearing myself out in the best way I knew how. Once I completed several courses, I got bored and decided to head to the gym. Halfway through my run, Dianna came flying into the gym.
“Blaise, Tragedy wants you in her office ASAP. Wade is back; they found Team 4.”
I jumped off the treadmill with the machine still running and raced down the halls to Tragedy’s office. For the second time in a week, I burst through her door completely out of breath. Inside, I found Wade and Tragedy knelt down in front of a human being so battered and bandaged that I couldn’t recognize them. Tragedy beckoned to me without looking up from the bandaged person.
“Blaise, come in. We were just asking Terry what happened the night of the assault.”
Terry…this was Terry? The team leader of Team 4? Terry was one of the toughest people I’d ever met, and being a Valkyrie, that was saying a lot. This guy could take an entire clip of .45 slugs to the chest and not flinch. What had they done to him?!
“Now Terry, can you tell us what happened, starting with that night?”
Terry took a shaky breath. “We broke into the building no problem. There was literally no one watching the place, which we thought was weird. Regardless, we proceeded with the operation. When we found the target, he was in a meeting with a bunch of people. Mafia dons, guards, and some guy with white hair. The guy with the white hair was standing at the end of the table, giving some sort of presentation; he seemed to be running things. We dispatched the first group of guards almost immediately. Then a bunch of guys attacked us, and they were much better fighters than the others. It almost felt like we were fighting some of our own guys; they were really good.
“They chased us out of the room, out of the building, and onto the street. We couldn’t outrun them, so we wound up fighting them on a bridge over the river. We were outnumbered, and they beat the hell out of us. Kyle and I almost died. We had both been shot a few times before getting to the bridge, so we were hurting pretty bad by the time they caught up to us and we got into the hand-to-hand. We took out a few of them, but after a few minutes, I gave the order to jump into the river. Me and Kyle made it over the side. They grabbed Sydney as he climbed the railing. We were too weak to go back for him.”
At this point, tears began pouring down Terry’s face. “We couldn’t save him. I don’t think he had the energy to escape. If he’s lucky, they killed him right there. The last thing I saw as I was floating downriver was those goons dragging him away from the side of the bridge.
“We floated for a while before we climbed out and found ourselves a shady hotel where we could hole up and heal up. No one found us there until Wade and his team did.”
“Thank you, Terry. We’ll take you over to the hospital wing and get you fixed up. Kyle has already been admitted; I’m sorry we couldn’t admit you right away, but we needed to talk to you as soon as possible.”
“I understand, boss. If anything I have to say can help keep the Order safe in the field, I’ll talk, no matter how bad off I may be. Besides, it’s been a few days; I’m starting to heal pretty good now. I should be on my feet soon.”
“Of all the gifts humanity has been given, I think accelerated healing may be the one for which I am most grateful. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to give me a call. I’ll be by to see the both of you as often as I can.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
A nurse had arrived at the door during the conversation with a wheelchair, and entered Tragedy’s office at this point. As she tried to help Terry get into the chair, he swatted her away.
“Woman, I don’t need no chair. I can walk.”
Wade laughed. “Dude, get in the damn wheelchair. You’re banged up worse than you think.”
“No way! I’ve been worse, and I didn’t need no stupid wheelchair then.”
“Seriously, just sit down and let her take you to your room. It’s her job; stop being difficult.”
Glaring at the three of us, Terry made a point of standing up on his own and sitting down in the wheelchair. We could hear his grumbling as the nurse proceeded to wheel him out of the room and down the hall.
Wade shook his head. “Stubborn old goat.”
Tragedy sat down behind her desk. “That tenacity may be the very thing that kept him alive. He’s a fighter; it’s one of the reasons he’s a team leader.”
Wade and I sat in the chairs opposite Tragedy, and I said, “So, how does that affect what we already know?”
“First we should catch Wade up to speed.” Turning to Wade, Tragedy continued, “Last night, Team 1 apprehended the target. He didn’t have much to tell us, but what he did say concerned me somewhat. He said that there is a rumor that the mafia is working for a group known as the Twelve. Until now, all we have ever heard about this group has been rumors and whispers.”
Wade cocked his head to the side. “Until now?”
“Yes, the meeting that Terry was talking about matches up exactly with the statement given by Mr. Church. He says that the meeting that our operatives disrupted was between the mafia dons in Chicago and a representative of the Twelve. They were discussing a new business venture that would alter the terms of whatever current agreement that the two groups already have. The man who was giving the presentation in Terry’s version of the tale sounds like he could be the representative in question.
“At this point, we still have no definitive proof that the Twelve truly exist, but if they do, they are a very valid threat. Combined with the various other things we know about them, the Twelve are now going to be the primary focus of your teams. I think we may have made a mistake in not putting more manpower into finding the truth behind these rumors until now, but that can no longer be helped. From here on out, you are going to be on assignments that will pertain to finding the Twelve. If they do exist, and I have a strong suspicion that they do, then it is your job to tear them apart before they can do any serious damage to the current world order.
“For now, I need you and your teams to rest and prepare for deployment. I will gather a team of field researchers together and we will figure out where to send you next. Sydney is still out there somewhere, and that will factor heavily into our next move, but I need some time to look at the situation from all angles and gather as much information as I can before I make a decision on your next assignments.”
With that, we were dismissed from Tragedy’s office. I wanted to talk to Wade about finding Terry and Kyle, but he seemed rather exhausted. I decided to follow his example and simply head back to my room. Surprisingly, as soon as my head hit my pillow, I fell asleep. It was a fitful, troubled sleep, filled with dreams of the Twelve, but it was sleep nonetheless.