For the next two days, we were basically in a hurry-up-and-wait situation. On the second day, Wade and I decided to organize a sparring session to brush up on our swordplay. Before the Valkyrie blades went missing, the training seemed pointless, but at this point, it couldn’t hurt to be on top of our game.
Wade and I paired off against each other, mainly so we could discuss the current situation while we sparred. So amidst the clanging steel, striking, and parrying, we talked.
“So, Wade…what do you think of all this hype about the Twelve?”
“Are you asking my professional opinion, or my personal one?”
“Do they come with different answers?”
“Oh, most definitely.”
“Okay…then both, I guess.”
Wade pushed off my left blade and took a new attack stance. When he struck again, he began his answer.
“First, I guess I have to give my professional opinion. Up to this point, everything we have heard about them has been back-alley hear-say. Now, we have a witness, who may or may not be reliable, who is saying he met a representative of the Twelve. He gave us no solid information on their activities other than they have some sort of deal with the mafia in Chicago. Professionally, I say they warrant nothing more than a casual investigation. We don’t have any definitive proof that they exist at all; the whole thing doesn’t have a legitimate leg to stand on.”
We spent a few moments fighting in general silence. I kept waiting for him to continue, and after a bit, I thought maybe he had forgotten we had a conversation going.
“…what would your personal opinion be?”
“Well…instincts play a big part in this job. Following the facts only gets you so far; sometimes you have to follow what your gut says. My gut is telling me that we missed them somewhere. Truthfully, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that there was someone pulling the strings behind some of the high-profile missions we’ve had to take on.
“It always felt like we were a step behind someone, and there have been a lot of days in the field where I felt like I was being watched. Combined with the fact that whoever chased off Terry’s team was better trained than anyone they’ve ever fought, I’d say the Twelve needs to be our priority. I think it’s safe to say that Tragedy feels the same way.
“I have been wracking my brain looking for some thread I should have followed. I wonder if they have been there the whole time, right under our noses. It’s possible they could be the most well hidden group of criminals on the planet, but we’re damn good at our jobs. It’s hard to believe that there wasn’t some clue or some mistake that could have revealed them to us earlier.”
“Why haven’t you said anything about your suspicions before?”
“I have. I’ve had this conversation with Tragedy a few times, and I voiced my concerns in more than a few post-op reports. I never had any solid evidence, so I didn’t feel the need to chase them down. I mean, I’m still not certain. It’s a suspicion, something that just sits in the back of my mind. If I hunted down every hunch I had, I’d spend my career chasing shadows. You know how it is; we have to pick which gut-feelings are worth following, and which ones we need to simply let go by the wayside.”
I would have nodded, but by this point, we had somehow intensified the duel to a feverish pitch that made it difficult to respond, let alone nod (besides, at that speed, he probably wouldn’t have noticed a little head-bob anyway.)
We continued to spar in silence for a few minutes, until I was able to flip Wade’s weapons from his hands. Upon doing so, I stepped back, assuming the fight had been won. Wade took that moment to kick me in the chest and sweep my legs out from under me. By the time I hit the ground, Wade had his knee in my sternum and one of my own blades pressed to my throat. He winked at me and said, “Never let your guard down, Blazer. The fight’s not over ‘til the enemy is dead or incapacitated.”
I shoved him off of me, and grumbled, “If I ever wind up in a sword fight against anyone other than you, I’ll try to remember that.”
I stood up and sheathed my swords before saying, “You know, if the Twelve are as dangerous as people keep saying they are, maybe the rumors of their secrecy are just as credible. Maybe we haven’t found any signs of them until now because they haven’t made any mistakes yet. Maybe we haven’t had anything concrete on them because they are just as good at hiding their tracks as we are at finding them?”
Wade snorted. “So what you’re saying is we’re in a massive game of hide and seek with a murderous, global criminal organization?”
He was quiet for a minute, mulling over the possibility as we watched the other pairs finish up their duels. After a moment, he nodded slowly.
“I suppose it’s possible that they haven’t come across our radar because they haven’t made a mistake. You made a key point, though, when you said they haven’t made a mistake YET. Everybody slips up at some point, and now that we are looking for it, we’ll be able to hit them hard as soon as they do.”
With that, he clapped me on the shoulder, called an end to the session, and left the training hangar. I stood there a little while longer, still thinking about it all. It seemed we were all wondering the same thing: did they already slip up and we just missed it, or were these guys better than us? We were supposed to be the best at hunting down the bad guys, and neither of those options were very flattering; in fact, they were downright dangerous. The thought sent a shiver down my spine. I shook it off the best I could and went back to my room. Perhaps a little bit of T.V. would help ease my mind…
The next morning, my team and I were summoned to Tragedy’s office.
“Team 1, I have spent the last couple of days considering what our next steps should be. As I told Blaise before, I have decided that I will continue to send the other teams out on regular missions, but you and Team 2 will be solely focused on tracking down leads and hunting down the Twelve. I have determined that they are a valid threat, and must be sought out. Your first mission will be to go to New York and talk to a mafia informant there. I want to know if the Twelve have had any interactions with the dons there like they have in Chicago. I’ve already arranged the meet up; it will be on the roof of a building downtown.”
Ricky raised his hand, and Tragedy said, “Ricky, this isn’t grade school; if you have a question, just ask it.”
“Well, this might sound kind of stupid, but…why are we meeting on a rooftop? That sounds like something from a crappy movie. I mean, if that’s the most strategic and defensible position where we can meet the guy, then sure, I’m all for it, but that kind of thing isn’t really how we operate.”
Tragedy removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose as she responded, “Well, Mr. McMannis, that is a very astute observation. In fact, I had this very discussion with our informant when he suggested the meeting place. I told him that, generally speaking, we prefer to have these types of meetings indoors; somewhere we can be both discreet and defensible. However, he refused to meet anywhere else; he said he wouldn’t feel safe anywhere other than there.”
“So we’re taking orders from our own informants now?”
“The information we are seeking is of the upmost importance. If this is the only way he feels safe enough to talk to us, then this is what we will do. We’re not taking orders, Ricky; we’re making compromises for the sake of the greater good. If he knows anything about the comings and goings of the Twelve, a little compromise is absolutely worth getting ahold of that intel.”
Ricky crossed his arms and cocked an eyebrow. “And if he knows nothing, we’ll have put ourselves in a precarious position for absolutely no reason.”
Tragedy sighed, bridged her fingers against her lips, and closed her eyes for a moment. When she reopened them, she stood up, placed her hands on her desk and leaned towards Ricky.
“I know you are concerned about the security of the scene; I would expect nothing less of you. You are professionals, trained to see every situation in terms of defense and safety. There are times, however, where in order to achieve an objective, certain risks must be taken. You are the best team I have; I wouldn’t send you into this situation if I didn’t have the upmost confidence that you will be back in this office, safe and sound, in two days’ time. I am quite certain that even if this was a set-up and you walked into a trap that the three of you would be perfectly fine. I have no lack of faith in you or your abilities. Now, the question I have for you is this: do you trust me? Because if you trust me, if you trust my judgement, then I need you on a plane straight away. The Twelve are out there somewhere, and I cannot entrust the responsibility of finding them to anyone other than you and Team 2.”
All eyes were on Ricky at this point. He leaned forward in his chair and rested his forearms on his knees, seeming to stare at his shoes for several moments. Then he sat upright again, looked Tragedy in the eye, and said one word: “Okay.”
Tragedy came around to our side of the desk and handed over the dossier on the informant as she spoke.
“Good. I’m glad you decided to continue with the mission. Now, here is all the information we have on our informant. His name is Anthony Russo, but he prefers to be called Mouse. Apparently, it’s a nickname that was given to him by one of the dons when he was younger, and he has gone by that moniker ever since.”
I nodded absent-mindedly as I flipped through the dossier quickly. After gleaning the major details from the file, I looked up and asked, “How soon do we need to be in New York?”
“I set the meeting for tomorrow night. You have the rest of the day to collect your things, familiarize yourselves with the given file, and do whatever needs to be done to prepare for the trip. I would like for you to be on a plane to the city by tonight. I’m assuming you would still like to have some time to secure the area, or at least do some recon before you meet up with Signore Mouse.”
“That sounds reasonable; I think we can do that.”
“Good; now, unless any of you had any other questions about the mission at hand, I believe we can adjourn this little meeting.”
Pausing a second in case there actually were any questions that still needed asking, she continued, “Alright, team; let’s get to work. Would you mind sending in Team 2 on your way out?”
The three of us stepped out into the hall, and we saw that at some point during our meeting with Tragedy, Wade and his team had arrived and were waiting for their turn. Dianna addressed them and said, “Tragedy’s ready for you guys now.”
“It’s about time; I was starting to fall asleep out here you guys took so long,” Wade replied.
“Important missions tend to have longer briefings; I’m sure you’ll be out in a cool five minutes, though,” Dianna shot back.
Wade smiled. “Ouch; you win this one, princess. That stings a little.”
Dianna laughed softly as she said, “You liked that, huh? Yeah, they call me the comeback queen for a reason. Good luck out there, if we don’t see you before you ship out.”
“Yeah, you guys too. This crap is getting dangerous; watch your asses.”
With that, Team 2 went in for their pre-op briefing, and we returned to our quarters to gather whatever we were going to need for a two day trip to New York. A good rule of thumb with any operation is to pack twice as much as you were going to need. In this case, we expected to be gone for two days, so I was packing clothes for four days. The reason for that was you never really knew how long these things were going to take. A mission could get messy and require laying low for a while, or you could run into something as simple as your informant had a scheduling conflict and had to change the date of the meeting. Basically, you didn’t know what you were in for, and it was always a good idea to be over prepared as opposed to being under prepared and ill-equipped.
We were all set to go pretty quick, and we were in the air headed for New York by five o’clock that evening. When we arrived, we took a cab to our hotel. Once there, we all went through our little rituals to ensure the safety of our rooms. Personally, I went through the room, inspecting every inch of the place, making sure the window was locked, checking for holes in the walls, looking in the bathroom and under the bed. I’m sure it all seems very paranoid (my inner cynic never ceases to tell me how crazy some of my habits are), but it just comes with the job. We were all a little more paranoid than your average Joe.
When we had finished settling in, we looked up the address of the place where we were meeting our informant the next night. Making our way over there, we staked out the neighborhood. We walked around the surrounding area, checked out the nearby rooftops, and finally worked our way up to the actual rooftop where the meeting would occur. Combing over it, we found nothing suspicious or unusual. As we looked for some cause for concern, I had to laugh to myself. We were essentially doing what we did in our hotel rooms on a larger scale. We were going through a place, ensuring that we knew every inch of it and we were not in any danger while we were there. I mean, it’s not necessarily funny to anyone else; I just found it kind of funny at the time.
Regardless, when we were satisfied with our search, the sun was just peaking over the horizon. Considering our meeting was after sundown, we decided to head back to the hotel and get some sleep. Or, as Ricky put it, “We should go hide from the sun like the vampires that we are.” As I lay in my bed, drifting slowly off to sleep, I wasn’t worried or anxious like I had been lately. Now that we had a potential lead on the Twelve, the only thought on my weary mind was “I hope we can get something useful out of this guy. The sooner we pin these guys down, the sooner we can stop chasing down leads and get back to REAL work…”
“…All I’m saying is we spend a lot more time on the top of tall buildings in the middle of the night than I’m comfortable with.”
Dianna rubbed her arms, trying to keep away the chill as she continued, “And why do we always do this stuff in the most densely populated areas on the planet? Would it kill Tragedy to send us someplace where we can have a ground-level conversation with the target without having to hide from six million pairs of eyes?”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Ricky tutted, “I’m disappointed in you, Dianna. You of all people should have figured out by now that we can’t take a mission without fulfilling at least six spy-thriller/crime noir clichés. All that brain power, and she can’t put two and two together. Can you believe this woman, Blazer?”
“Oh, please; give me a break,” she replied.
“I’m being serious; there’s a checklist and everything. The Order cannot go into the field without a guarantee that we’ll hit our quota. It’s in the contract.”
“What contract would that be?”
“You know…the contract Tragedy has with the Tri-Council…it’s all very technical and stuff.”
“That’s enough, you two. I’d like to discuss the ridiculousness of these types of situations as much as the next guy, but right now we’re a little busy for that,” I finally said.
Ricky raised his eyebrows as he leaned in towards Dianna.
“Oooo, look, Di: big brother is getting involved. We should probably behave now.”
“Ricky, you insufferable overgrown child, I would love to engage in more unnecessary banter with you simply to annoy the piss out of Blaise right now, but I think he may be right. We should table this discussion until later. Maybe we should have a closed door meeting with Tragedy, but for now, let’s get what we need and get out of here.”
“Ten-four, little lady.”
Thankfully those two quit their idiotic rambling before our informant, “Mouse”, walked within earshot. The entire conversation occurred as he made his way across the rooftop to where we stood waiting. As we watched him walk towards us, I pondered a small note that had been in his file; apparently he picked up his nickname many years prior. According to what we knew of him, he had been one hell of a pickpocket in his younger days. He was able to get what he wanted and scurry away undetected with great skill; when one of his bosses needed something lifted quietly, they started asking for “the mouse.” He didn’t look like he would be able to get away from anyone very fast, but they say looks can be deceiving. He addressed us as he came closer.
“Hopefully you haven’t been waiting long. Now, before we get down to business, I need to know you’re the people I’m supposed to meet with.”
Ricky couldn’t help himself. “Nope, we’re just three random people hanging out on top of this skyscraper. Sorry, dude; your princess is in another castle.”
The man blinked a few times in pure confusion. “What…what the hell does that even mean?!”
Ricky shrugged. “I don’t know; my grandpa used to say it to me. I think it might be an old-timer saying, but I can’t be sure.”
Shaking his head as if to shake the nonsense he just heard from his memory, he returned his gaze to Dianna and I. “Given he’s apparently the funny one, that must mean one of you is in charge. Now, our mutual friend will have told you what to say to me?”
I cleared my throat. “I think what you’re asking for is this: Ozymandias.”
He stroked his chin. “Alright, you guys check out. Let’s get down to it…”
“Ahem…I believe you have something you need to say to me before the proceedings begin?”
The man sighed. “I am the Troubadour. Can we get this show on the road now?”
“I think that would be wise.”
“Okay…now, Tragedy said you had some questions for me, the kind of stuff that could only be asked in person. What can I help you folks with?”
“We apprehended someone last week who gave us some disturbing news involving the dons in Chicago. We’re wondering if anything similar has happened here.”
“Yeah, sure; what kind of stuff is happening out in the Windy City?”
“According to our source, a group known as the Twelve have struck a deal of some kind with the dons. We’re unsure of specifics, but whatever they are working on together can’t be good.”
Even in the dark, we could see the man go pale.
“No…you’ve got to be kidding me…”
“What is it? What have you heard?”
He swallowed hard before continuing. “I wasn’t sure it was real. The Twelve, that is. Just a couple days ago, I heard the dons here in town, and more than a few from the Eastern Seaboard, got together for an annual meeting. This year they had a special guest: from the rumors the guys on guard duty were spreading, it was a representative of the Twelve. I thought they were just yanking my chain, but I guess they must have been telling the truth.
“As far as what they want, I’m not sure. I have heard a few scant details about lining up the business sector and dividing up various aspects of the work a little bit differently, but nothing earth-shattering. I know they offered something new, a proposal, and they gave the dons some time to think it over before they agreed to it. Like I said, I thought the guys on protective duty were just spinning yarns. I didn’t press them for too much information because I thought it was all just bullcrap.”
“Fair enough; was there anything else? Anything at all about the Twelve, the new deal, or what the end goal is?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. If they have been here and in Chicago already, then I’m guessing Vegas is next on their list, if they haven’t been there already.”
“Vegas? The mafia hasn’t had a presence in Las Vegas in decades.”
“Ha; c’mon, man. It’s Vegas: that town has always belonged to them. Now, I don’t know anything else about the Twelve. Is there anything else you’re looking into that I can help you with?”
“I don’t think so; we’re here strictly doing recon on the Twelve.”
“Alright then. If we’re done here, I believe I was promised a treat if I performed all my tricks?”
Dianna pulled several cards from her pocket, bound by a rubber band, and tossed them to him.
“Here; these are tied to a temporary bank account with all the money you were promised. Make the withdrawal within the next five days, or the money disappears forever.”
“Ahh, sweet, sweet cash. Tell Tragedy if she needs anything in New York, I’m your man. Anything at all, I’ll do what I can to help out.”
Dianna had a puzzled look on her face. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but why’s a crook like you so loyal to the enemy? I mean, why are you so buddy-buddy with Tragedy?”
Mouse smiled. “Let’s just say she pulled me out of a tight situation a long time ago. Anything I can do to repay the favor.”
Mouse shoved the cards in his pocket, and with a wave, walked away, leaving us alone on the rooftop again.
We stood there quietly for several minutes. After a while, it began to drizzle, and Ricky broke the silence.
“So…who’s down for picking up the conversation where we left off? Maybe over some pancakes? Hmmm?”
Dianna sighed. “You know, that’s not a bad idea. Where did we leave off, exactly?”
Ricky’s voice took on a very serious tone as he said, “To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I do believe, however, that we should discuss in detail the whole ‘code word’ situation. I mean, seriously; which late-night B-movie is she getting this stuff from?”