SUBJECT: Investigating [Team Charlie] and [.] involving "Wilson High School tragedy"
I feel it significant to point out that the mission failure was a result of poor Intel, which entirely influenced the decisions of our operatives. There was little we could have done, especially considering the time frame of the attack. Perhaps better Intel could have been obtained with more time, but considering what little [Team Charlie] was able to ascertain I think they performed admirably. Certainly this disaster could have been far worse.
"We have tons of sports programs. A great football team! Do you like football?"
"Of course," Danny Cantrell replied casually.
"Great! Our team, the Hounds, have games this whole month. Even one this Friday."
Danny liked this girl—Coral? She was precisely the gossip-speak he was looking for. She was definitely a prep, a fact he could easily tell by her expensive designer pants and low cut blouse. Lots of colors, and plenty showing as well. He checked his eyes, making sure they focused on her pearly whites and salon curled blonde hair.
"Since you're new, I could come with you," she continued. "Just so you have a familiar face."
He flashed a smile of his own. "That would be great."
He watched her bat her eyes and knew she was definitely hitting on him. The conversation turned to the school band, and from there naturally took a turn towards music. Danny liked her choices and soon found they had several favorites.
"You're doing it again."
Danny ignored the voice in his ear. Instead he smiled, his eyes focusing on the lovely hazel ones smiling back at him.
"Oh yeah I love their music," he said without missing a beat. "Have you listened to their new CD?"
Coral—he was pretty sure that was her name—nodded eagerly. "It was my favorite one!"
The voice in his ear exhaled loudly. "Where is this going, Cantrell?"
Danny didn't even have to try hiding annoyance. Truth be told, he enjoyed listening to her grumble over their private COMs. She should know better by now, but getting her panties in a twist was as easy as ever.
He divided his attention between listening to Coral chatter on about her band's music while also listening to Leslie grumble about mission objectives and all of that jazz. This was a case and point example of why he was in the field and she was in the van. Had their roles been reversed, Leslie would just alienate herself from the locals and no relationships would form. Even Danny knew how critical those were in picking up Intel.
"…their song Yesterday just makes me feel happy inside!"
Danny grinned, nodding in approval. "Love that song. I haven't even downloaded it yet.
Coral's eyes widened in surprise. "No really? We have to fix that."
Perfect. Now for the invitation.
"Well I'm not busy after school. I'll grab my iPod and we could grab some ice cream or something down the street."
It didn't take her long to think about it. "Yeah, totally! I'll meet you there."
"Great. See you then, Coral."
Her face dropped slightly. "Kori…"
Danny mentally slapped himself. "Right. Kori. Sorry, bad with names."
She shrugged it off and was back to her bubbly self. "Hey, you are new here. It's all good."
They said their goodbyes and Danny headed for his next class. His notes said it was Algebra. If ever a High School class inspired insanity, it was this one. Which meant it was right where he needed to be.
He was glad he had met Kori—gotta remember that, Kori—right off the bat. She had the lay of the land he so desperately needed, and plenty of juicy topics from here or there. First days were always a nightmare, especially since most students preferred you stick to your group of friends and shove it. This wasn't first day of elementary school where you shared lunch and everyone was excited to meet the new kid. Kori was a godsend that would make this mission all that much simpler.
Speaking of which…
"Great," the voice of God whined in his ear. "Now you have a pointless date set up. What a wonderful use of our time."
Normally Danny would jibe her a bit, but right now, he was in a pretty good mood, so he decided to leave her in suspense. She was just too straightforward for her own good.
He scanned the empty hall briefly before speaking to the hidden microphone on his person. "You doubt me, Chabala. That hurts, you know?"
"Right. Cut the bull. Keep your ears open, your eyes alert, and your dick under control."
He didn't answer as he walked into his class. Leslie lectured him for a minute longer, but quit as soon as the rest of class was all sitting. At least she figured he was getting some work done here.
The teacher launched into his lecture and Danny's eyes wandered over the various individuals scattered around him. These classroom settings were very valuable for reading different personalities. It was amazing how much he could learn from watching their unique isms when they were doing supposedly nothing. Some of it he had learned himself going through the high school years once already, but a lot of it was training that came with the job.
Very expensive training.
Sometimes the reality of it snuck up on Danny and left him dazed. Only six months ago, he was a high school graduate without too much of a plan. He figured he would go to some cheap city college and get the basics for business. Working with people. It was about the only thing he was good at. There wasn't a whole lot tying him down, especially as far as family was concerned. For most of his life, Danny had been little more than a player on the sidelines. He knew how to play the game, but rarely did. Then the spooks showed up to his apartment one day and made him all kinds of promises. They saw his talents and even things Danny had never seen in himself. But more importantly, they offered him a life.
They called it Initiative-8. Danny had never heard of it and could only guess it slid somewhere underneath one of the many three-letter-organizations the media loved to dramatize. Only there wasn't anything fictional about this. The work they did was very real, as well as the threats they dealt with. Terrorism was on a rise as always and the last decade had seen it rear its ugly head in schools all over the country. Teens were getting their hands on some pretty big guns you couldn't get down the street at the Sporting Goods store. The Second Amendment was hanging by a thread as more Moms and Dads buried massacred children with each passing month.
With every great threat comes a response, and Danny figured he was that response. Initiative-8 took young men and women his age and put them through rigorous, basic Intelligence training. Junior Spooks, some people called them. After five months of pumping iron and hacking computers, each operative was put on a team of two; one a handler and the other a field agent.
Danny knew from day one he would be in the field. It all came back to working with people and this was something his trainers also saw. What he hadn't expected was his pairing up with the introverted control-freak that was Leslie Chabala. But he didn't have much choice, what with being so brand new that his ears were still wet. Between the two of them, they formed Team Charlie, dysfunctionalities and all.
Class droned on, and as it did Danny watched a particularly meaty guy near the front clench and unclench his fists. Through school security and micro-cameras placed on Danny's clothes, he knew Leslie was seeing this as well. She would probably dismiss it—everyone has their own nervous tics—but he decided to log it away for reference. The guy was big enough to strangle someone with those hands, let alone heft a fully automatic rifle. Plus he looked scary, but that was just plain unscrupulous profiling right there.
Actually, now that Danny thought about it, there were quite a few athletes in this class. The football team? Maybe he would pursue that topic with Kori.
"Guy's name is Todd," Leslie chimed in suddenly.
Danny checked the instinct to jump, startled. What did Leslie want all of the sudden?
"The dude with the clenched fists you've been watching," she clarified. "His name is Todd Sommers. Pretty clean file. On the football team as a backup defensive."
Well that confirmed the football theory.
"Looks okay to me," Leslie continued, "but if your spidey sense is picking something up I'll keep tabs on him."
Danny rolled his eyes. Now she was just patronizing him. And he hadn't even thrown out any accusations yet.
Leslie's eyes swept over the LCD monitors scattered around the interior of the van. From here, she had school camera views, interior and exterior, and Danny's own bugs. In yet another screen, she had school records shuffling through names and pictures, as well as any attached files. The monitor light was pleasant to the eye, and with the rest of the world blocked out, Leslie Chabala felt perfectly at home.
She was only a block down the street from the school, parked in some alley between storefronts. As far as anyone was concerned, the van was company property for one of the businesses. Leslie felt like God: utterly invisible and dangerously powerful.
Initiative-8 had been very kind to her geek. Lots of state of the art computers that were five years ahead of the curve, and no restrictions on how she used them. The kind of people that watched for hackers like her were now her employers. Sometimes it irked her a little; after all, she was plenty for sticking it to the man. The thought that only a few short years ago she was walking similar high school halls with Uncle Sam looking over her shoulder was enough to make her blood boil.
Mind your own damn business.
But how could she say no when I-8 came knocking on her door? The prospect of playing the ultimate hacker was just too juicy an opportunity to pass up. And it was for a good cause, wasn't it? Admittedly Leslie had been more than skeptical her first few months. Really, it had been part of some noble crusade to break up the empire from the inside. But she was all past that now. Wasn't that what time and perspective did for you? Make you bitter to your causes?
Well, no more bitter than divorced parents and social anxiety made you.
Leslie had to admit being one of the few long-time Junior Spooks had given her experiences she hadn't expected. The threats were real and the payoffs just as real. She was saving lives and nipping domestic terrorism in the butt. Four years of chasing electronic clues from high school to high school had prevented more than a dozen would-be shootings and bombings. For once Leslie had to hand it to Uncle Sam, but she would never ever admit it openly.
Then freakin' Danny Cantrell had to come in and make her job hell on wheels. The kid was barely out of high school himself and carried the arrogance with him. No, never mind her work experience and skill set. Obviously, mister rookie knew what he was doing.
Leslie exhaled again, throwing a handful of pizza pockets in her mouth. On her primary screen, she watched from Danny's point-of-view as he made his way out of Algebra… No wait; there was a brunette in a halter-top he had to go talk to. His confidence was annoying.
"Hey, I'm new here. Can you show me where a class is?"
He put on his usual puppy-dog personality and miss halter-top was more than happy to help.
"I'm Jen, by the way."
"Thanks Jen, I needed an angel like you today."
Leslie gagged on her food. She wasn't sure which was more disgusting; his stupid one-liners or the fact they worked. Arrogant bastard. Sure, it was all about delivery, but like hell if she ever understood it. Not that any guys ever hit on her. After all, she wasn't much to look at. Five-five, skinny, pale, ratty brown hair. Glasses.
She keyed her mike. "Cantrell, quit with the schmoozing. You're making me sick."
He ignored her as usual. "Was that your boyfriend back there?"
"What, Todd? No, ex. He's been a real jerk since, well…long story."
"No, no, it's okay."
Leslie exhaled again.
Okay, so she had to give him credit. He was good at what he did. While she didn't always approve of his methods—and heaven-forbid he ever take any of her suggestions for a change—Danny knew how to talk to people. Was she a little envious? Hell yes. But she just reminded herself that she was far better off in here, speaking the language of the machines. At least she knew how to carry on a conversation with them. Who needed biological friends when there were plenty of digital ones?
Leslie glanced back at the student files. She scrolled over Todd's again. His name seemed popular all of the sudden. Mostly she just wanted to focus her attention on something else. The real problem that she didn't want to admit right now was that she was irritated with watching Danny do so well. After working with three other partners in these teams-of-two, Leslie had never seen anyone so cocky and yet so skilled in fieldwork. And of course it didn't help that he was a rookie. Still, Leslie didn't see why it was fair at all that some punk like him could make so many new friends so fast and not miss a beat. If he would just freakin' follow her mission parameters every now and then, they could be great.
After finishing scrolling through Todd's file, she still came up short of anything suspicious. He was a junior, recently recruited to the football team. Denied last year, and looked as if he had almost been denied this year. Obviously being a backup player wasn't as glamorous, but he still played.
Leslie reclined in her chair. Oh well, nothing to be too upset about. It was only day one and right now, they were more interested in meeting people. Danny was good, but he wasn't that good. Wouldn't that be something; finding the targets on the first day. Especially with Intel as sketchy as theirs. Little more than a recovered arms shipment receipt to somewhere in the Atlanta area. Right now, there were plenty of other teams scourging the local high schools.
What were the odds that their school was the target?
Danny was sitting in a booth when Kori showed up. She was as energetic as ever.
"Danny! How was your first day in a new school?"
He shrugged, smiling. "Okay, I guess. Nothing too exciting."
She ordered something and then joined him in the booth. After a quick exchange of iPods and websites, Danny decided to move off the topic of music.
"I met this girl named Jen today. Real interesting."
"Jen Bristle? The one who just broke up with Todd?"
Danny smiled inside. Oh yes, Kori definitely had the know on juicy gossip.
"Yeah, yeah," he said nodding, trying not to sound too eager. "I asked her about the game this Friday, but she wasn't too interested."
Kori nodded, biting her lip. "Yeah…their breakup was kind of messy."
That much Danny had already gleamed from Jen. He didn't press the issue too much during their previous conversation, but he had brought up the Friday game and she was definitely not going. Apparently Todd was getting pissy about something and football was somewhere in the middle of it.
Danny chuckled lightly. "Sounds like Todd set his eyes on one of the cheerleaders. But that's football drama, right?"
Kori shook her head. "Oh he's dating a cheerleader now, but that's not why they broke up. Todd's been getting a lot of pressure from the rest of the team. None of them like him."
Danny raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Oh yeah. The only reason he's dating one of the cheerleaders is because she's an ex of one of his buddies, Kyle. Also a backup player. The two of them have a bad rap with the rest of the team. Todd's been a real asshole since. I'd stay out of that whole mess if I were you."
"Interesting," the voice of God mused in his ear. She sounded unusually pacified.
"I'll take your word for it," Danny agreed. "You don't piss off the hornet's nest when they're already buzzing."
Kori nodded again. "Damn straight. Especially with all of the threats the rest of the team has been giving him. He's been so pissed lately I think he's going to snap."
The word echoed in Danny's mind.
Leslie moved the van to their temporary fallback at an I-8 owned warehouse. It was where they called home during this particular mission and less than a stone's throw from the school. Even though it was night now, the whole room was stuffy with Georgia humidity. She worked inside the van with the side door open and stripped down to a tank top and sweat shorts. Danny was in boxers and a tank top as well. He was lying on a cot he had set up outside the van, his own laptop open.
"No records of a gun license," he muttered, wiping sweat off his face.
Leslie's fingers danced across the keyboard, her eyes darting over the various forms that sprung up on her screen.
"Doesn't matter," she replied. "He obviously won't own any of the guns. All he needs is the lunacy to take them from whoever offers."
Her mind was still racing with the day's revelations. Todd was the target. The answer had come delivered to them on a silver-platter. Her Initiative-8 experience had taught her to look for profiles like this. Usually someone bullied, with co-conspirators, and plenty of psychological stress to jump at the opportunity of retribution.
From Danny's conversations, they had learned that Todd Sommers and Kyle Downe were practically brothers. The new cheerleader girlfriend, Sarah Westland, was also onboard their little posse. The other players had bullied Todd and Kyle since they failed to make the team last year. Sarah wasn't that popular either, and rumor was she was about to get booted from the cheerleading squad. The three of them were not well liked and plenty bullied in their circles.
Then Leslie had stumbled upon some very interesting developments that she had missed previously in Todd's record. He was seeing both a school counselor and a professional outside. She hadn't been looking for it before, but once she stumbled upon it she had the clearance to review the files. Or at least the skills to hack them. The resulting notes were all conclusive; Todd was in a bad spot emotionally. Kori's words from earlier were dead-on.
I think he's going to snap.
"What do we know from the other teams?" said Danny.
Leslie shrugged, not taking her eyes off the screen. "It's only day one, Cantrell. No one has any leads. Nothing like ours, at least."
Danny laughed tersely. "And what does HQ think about it?"
Obviously, HQ wasn't holding their breath right now. But Leslie hoped to change that. They still had some time to gather more Intel and put together a picture. And they had to hurry.
"They want more Intel," she murmured. "Which means you need to step on it. I have a sneaking suspicion Todd's going to make his move at this Friday night game."
The thought made Leslie's heart race, both in anticipation and excitement. The theory had been escalating in her mind all day. Friday night's game was going to be big: against Wilson High School's archrivals. The whole school was going to be there. With Todd at the breaking point and Intel about a large arms deal in the Atlanta area, all signs pointed to the shooting taking place that night. HQ regarded her theory, but still needed more confirmation to be sure. They had a lot of work to do, and it all rested on the rookie.
"C'mon, Chabala," Danny chuckled, sitting up. "You still mad at me for my little date?"
Leslie didn't answer him. She wasn't mad about that per se; she was mad that Danny had once again taken his own approach and succeeded no less. What started out as flirting turned into an untapped source of Intel. How was she supposed to know he wasn't just looking for a pretty face to make out with?
Danny chuckled. "You are, aren't you?"
Oh great, now he was getting up and leaning into the van. His body reeked of sweat and a mixture of school smells. He was violating her personal space and she refused to meet his eyes.
"Now Leslie," he began in a snobbish tone, "you've gotta learn to trust my way to meeting people."
"And you have got to learn to follow my command of the mission." She was the handler, wasn't she? While not exactly superior ranking, it was implied. Of course, that was with the intent that the two operatives planned ahead of time, and then the handler more or less oversaw to make sure it was carried out. Details, details.
Danny chuckled again and squeezed her shoulder. Leslie shrugged it off and shot him a death glare. He looked too pleased with himself, standing there smiling like an idiot.
"I know you're not thrilled that I wasn't just screwing around and that it worked out, but lighten up. We're on the same team. I'm not trying to undermine your authority."
Leslie found herself unconsciously adjusting her glasses. A nervous tick that Danny was no doubt reading. That just made her more frazzled. And he really needed to get out of her personal space…
Danny tilted his head, still smiling. "K?" He tapped her shoulder again, and she folded her arms in protest. "You're the boss. I just do my thing 'cause I know it works."
He backed off and lay back down on his cot. Leslie took several calming breaths. She wasn't angry, just unnerved. Danny was playing her just like he played their contacts. But she felt like he was being honest enough with her. And damn it, that made her feel a little more at peace inside.
"You're full of yourself; you know that, right?"
He laughed. "Love you, too."
Leslie shook her head, smiling in spite of herself. "Laugh it up, Cantrell. You've had your day of glory. I'll admit it."
She glanced out at him. His eyes were closed, but he raised his right hand and fist-pumped. That made her chuckle. Well, it was more of a giggle.
Danny Cantrell. Well, it was a love-hate kind of thing. Leslie still wouldn't forgive him for his rookie arrogance, but at least he was true and blue to the mission. True to Initiative-8? Maybe not. But that might be why they got a long. Regardless of who was pulling the strings, they had a mission, and that took priority.
He grimaced as he pushed in through the open door.
From the porch, he could smell the alcohol and cigarette smoke. Inside, the house was a wreck, trash and junk strewn about his ankles. A figure lay sprawled out on the couch, a half empty can in one hand. In the kitchen, he could see Ray and his buddy smoking. Both started snickering when they saw him in the dim light.
"You want some?" Ray muttered through half slurred words.
Danny ignored him and started down the hall. Ray started laughing again, plastered out of his mind as usual. At least he wasn't drunk. Danny probably wouldn't have made it to his room.
He negotiated the small hallway and made towards the last door on the right. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted his sister, Tina, in her room feeling some guy up. He headed into his own room and locked the door behind him. After throwing his backpack aside, he fell back against his bed, letting the fatigue wash over him. He briefly considered grabbing a quick bite of something, but eventually decided against it. It was best if he just stayed here until morning.
Someone knocked on his door. He ignored it until Tina started cursing on the other side.
Danny exhaled, pushing himself up and unlocked it. Tina leaned against the frame, her loose clothing barely clinging to her and probably a week without washing. Several small ringlets hung from her lower lip.
"Danny, I need you to spot me twenty bucks."
He shook his head. "I don't have any money on me right now."
She pushed him back violently with both of her hands. "Bullshit!"
Danny steadied himself, staring down into her bloodshot eyes. He knew exactly what she wanted the money for, and even if he had it on him, he would never let her have any of it.
"I know you got paid to today, so don't give me any of that crap," she growled.
He reached into his back pocket and helped open his wallet for her to see. "I'm not carrying a dime, Tina! Get your drug money somewhere else."
She swiped his wallet out of his hand and examined it briefly. None of his cards were in there; he had already made that mistake once. Tina cursed loudly and threw it on the floor. She yelled to the guy in the next room and they disappeared down the hall.
Danny let himself cool off a moment before locking his door again. Then he threw himself back on his bed, trying once more to block out the mediocrity around him. He was better than this.
It was lunch, and Danny found himself eating with Kori and her little gaggle of friends. All of them were just as preppy, with plenty of designer clothes and personalities to match. Right now the big conversation was about some guy named Joey who was cheating on so-and-so and was doing such-and-such and really not that interesting to Danny right now. He nodded and interjected here or there to stay within the conversation bubble, but his mind was elsewhere.
Back during his own high school days, he probably wouldn't have hung out in a crowd like this. Then again, he never really saw himself fitting into any one particular group. He gave plenty of airtime to anybody from any clique.
"I think he's going to kick Todd out after Friday night's game."
Danny blinked. "Joey's on the football team?"
Kori laughed. "Sorry Danny, forgot you've only been here a couple of days. Yeah, Joey's the Team Captain."
"And I bet you him and Mark have got something nasty planned for Kyle and Todd on Friday," said a girl who Danny had learned was Shelly.
Kori waved her off. "Please. Mark, maybe. But not Joey. He's already on academic probation for his little stunt last month."
"Oh, what was that?" asked Danny.
"He got pulled over in the school zone with a firearm in his car," said Shelly. "It was the weekend and he wasn't actually going to the school, but still landed his ass in a lot of trouble. I'm surprised he didn't freakin' get suspended, let alone locked up."
Danny processed all of this new information. "And what's Mark's deal?"
Shelly shrugged. "He's Joey's little butt-buddy. The two love to torture Kyle and Todd. And it's no secret Mark wished neither of them got put on the team."
"They're not going to do anything," Kori insisted. "Joey is trying to hold the team together enough as it is. He's gotta make this game a win, and pissing off Kyle or Todd will just make it a mess."
Shelly just smirked. "Well you just wait and see."
Leslie snorted. "Are-you-serious?"
On her screen, she could see the wobbly mini-cam view of a janitor's closet. Danny had sidestepped in there of all places to tell her his big revelation.
"I am, Chabala. Especially considering what little Intel we have to run on."
Leslie sighed, running over the details of his new idea once more in her head. It sounded more like a conspiracy theory. "Never mind all of the facts we've already gathered, you want to chase down a random tangent?"
"Just think about, K?" His screen jolted as he moved his hands animatedly. "Joey is the ring-leader of the group who got a hold of the arms. Since he's the football team captain, the rest of the team is in cahoots until Todd and Kyle get themselves on. Obviously, Mark is Joey's wingman, and he's not thrilled at all to have two oddballs suddenly in the mix. So they ostracize and bully the hell out of them to keep them out of the loop about their plans."
Leslie wasn't too impressed. Danny seemed to have concocted this whole notion over the remainder of lunch. Which further supported her thoughts that this was just an easy coincidence of facts that his brain had jumbled together.
"But seriously, Cantrell? The whole team is on it? Joey isn't exactly best buds with everyone, and I bet you he certainly doesn't know the rest of the backup players."
Danny didn't say anything at first. Of course, now reality was setting in. Leslie felt herself smirk in the faded monitor light.
"Maybe Joey and Mark don't have the whole team in on it," he said at length.
Now for the closer.
"Then why the hell would Todd or Kyle matter to them? As far as they care, they're just a couple of losers that somehow made the team, much to everyone else's annoyance. And if that is the case, which it probably is, then we have no Intel to suggest any of the rest of the team is involved. In fact, the Intel still points to just Todd, Kyle, and Sarah."
She heard Danny exhale on his end of the COM. Well at least maybe he was listening to her for a change. While he was good at working with the people, visualizing the big picture was better left in her hands. That's why he was the field agent and she was the handler.
"Leslie," he grunted, "just let me pursue this some and see if it goes anywhere."
She rolled her eyes. "That's Chabala to you, and no you may not. Get on to your next class; you're running late."
He stood unmoved for a moment longer in the dark. Finally, the door pushed open and Leslie winced as daylight flooded her screen. He was quiet the rest of the way to class. No doubt, he was probably mulling over his theory right now, which meant he hadn't given up just yet. Leslie figured there was little she could do about that, but at least it wouldn't lead anywhere. As long as they kept Todd in their sights, they still had priority to prevent him and his two buddies from getting anything off the ground.
Unless of course Danny decided to lose focus. Then Leslie would have to take matters into her own hands.
Danny hated slinking around in the dark.
In daylight, surrounded by people, he was as invisible as the wind: an aspect of I-8 that appealed to him early on. Very little cloak and dagger business; mostly just hanging out in the open to observe while no one had a clue who you were.
The reality was that as a field agent, he still had some cloak and dagger work that required his attention. Because in truth, not all Intel could simply be picked up through leisurely conversation. Sometimes you had to sneak around in the shadows to find what was never hidden in broad sight.
He noted the Neighborhood Watch sign posted in bold on the lamppost. It was a warning to him directly that if anybody saw him creeping around out here, then they would call the cops in a heartbeat. Fortunately—or luckily—enough, there was a line of hedges that ran parallel with the sidewalk and street, and left a convenient walking space between them and a chain link yard fence. That would disappear once he veered off the main avenue, but at least it was some cover. And according to his PDA, the target was only a short way in.
Danny cursed silently as a sharp branch jabbed into his leg. Up ahead a pedestrian was headed towards him down the sidewalk. He paused patiently, letting the middle-aged man pass by, and then continued on to the next street. Here he took a quick sweep and found himself alone with only one lamppost to negotiate. It was just late enough that most of the houses had gone dark, and few even had porch lights on. Still, with what light there was, Danny could tell this was one of the nicer neighborhoods. The houses, with their manicured lawns and freshly painted facades, looked expensive enough.
He slipped through the shadows, hugging close to the shrubs outlying in each of the front yards. Barely half a block in and his PDA confirmed he was right on target. The one story, single-car garage cookie-cutter was completely dark. He scanned for motion-sensor activated lights, found one over the garage, and cut away from it towards the backyard. Intel so far indicated no pets, but Danny wanted to be absolutely sure.
He exited the GPS function on his PDA, switching over to a single audio-file. He clicked it, and to his human ears he heard nothing. Two houses up and one somewhere behind, a couple of dogs roused and started barking. The high-frequency screech was nothing more than an annoying wake-up call to any canines that might threaten his task.
There was no response from the targeted backyard, so he killed the program and the other dogs began to quiet up. Danny scurried over the chain-link fencing with ease and crouch-ran across the back lawn, around to the patio. Here he spotted a single bedroom window lit, partially obscured by half closed blinds.
Inside, the room was adorned with the usual teenage material. Band posters, scattered homework and clothing, old food, video games, and a drum-set that was maybe from middle school. He immediately spotted Kyle, lying across the bed with a notebook open. Todd was somewhere behind him, on the floor with a notebook of his own.
"Get me some audio," the voice of God commanded.
Danny slipped an electronic bug out of his vest pocket and found a small crevice for it in the window frame. A flexible, hair-thin microphone cable slipped out and easily fit in the creases of the closed window. There was a wash of brief static and then Leslie was satisfied.
"Got it," she said. "Sound like they're reviewing plays for tomorrow night's game."
Danny watched silently on his end. The audio didn't feed into his COM, but he could see the diagrams now in Kyle's open notebook. Todd looked up at someone through the open bedroom door and said something.
"Crap, Sarah is heading out back. Time to move, Cantrell."
Danny moved back from the window cautiously and headed for the gate. He heard the back-porch door creak open and decided to take refuge behind a small bush. From here, he could see Sarah standing barefoot on the concrete lighting up a smoke. She took a couple of drags and then Todd came out as well to light up. This could take awhile.
"You ready for tomorrow?" Sarah said, finally acknowledging Todd.
He shrugged, letting his shoulder slump. "Whatever."
Sarah flicked away her cigarette. "You can't let Mark walk all over you. Not this time."
"Oh yeah, baby," Leslie purred. "All we need is a confession and I can have the authorities there in minutes. Keep your COM going, Cantrell."
Todd folded his arms, staring up into the night sky. Sarah walked around so that she was standing in front of him.
"Screw Mark," Todd growled. "It's Joey that calls the shots. And it's Joey I have to freakin' deal with. Mark can run his trap for all I care."
Sarah leaned up close to him, putting her hands on his chest. "Mark's just as big an asshole. This is going to be huge. Don't blow it."
Todd started nodding. "Kyle and I are working on it. Don't worry. We won't blow it."
Danny waited, but apparently the conversation was over. Sarah leaned in closer and the two started playing suck-face. He wasn't sure how long it was going to last, but they were distracted enough as it was, and time was running short. He slipped out across the open space silently, disappearing behind the side edge of the house. In five seconds, he was over the fence and back in the street. Leslie sounded distracted enough on her end, which meant he had just enough time for one more stop.
"Unbelievable," she said while typing. "This shit is really going down at tomorrow night's game. Just a little more and we almost had enough verbal evidence to call in a confirmation to HQ. Weirdest part is Kyle is actually working on game-plays. Why the hell would he care about the game at this point?"
"Maybe he's planning to actually play," Danny whispered back. He decided to stick casually to the sidewalks for this next part.
It just so happened that down the street and around a corner from Todd's house lived the high school starring quarterback. Danny would have preferred to stop in at Joey's, but Mark definitely had to be in on this, and Leslie wasn't going to give him any second chances tonight.
"So you're suggesting they plan to shoot up the school after the game?" Then she had an ah-ha moment. "Or perhaps you're still clinging to your little conspiracy theory about the rest of the team."
"Haven't found your evidence, though, have we?"
"Danny..." She sighed explosively. "Wait, where the hell are you going?"
"Just taking a quick peek."
He rounded his corner, and, after checking the second marker he had programmed into his PDA, picked his next target. The house was two-story, double car garage, and blacked out like the rest. Danny spotted a kennel in back, but his canine audio-bit only upset a few neighbor dogs. Maybe this one was inside.
"Who the hell lives here? Someone on the team?"
Danny ignored her, crouch walking around to the back door. From here, he could see Buddy written over the kennel. None of the house windows were lit up back here. And no dog-door. However, he did spy a basement window-well. He scanned it briefly with a flashlight and could faintly make out a large, unfinished room. Scattered across the concrete floor were some kind of crates.
"You seeing this?" he breathed into his mike.
"Yes, Cantrell. It's called a basement. People usually store things down there. Like Christmas decorations, or junk—"
"Or weapon caches." He produced another small device from his vest, this one magnetically attaching to the middle bar in the window. If there was a burglar alarm, this would send a false signal to the rest of the system, allowing him access from this point. It wasn't locked, oddly enough, and soon enough he was dropping down silently into the darkness below.
"If you get caught, I'm not lifting a finger."
Not true, Danny didn't say aloud. Even if by some happenstance cops were called on him and arrived before he could make an escape, Leslie wouldn't let him spend more than the night in some holding cell. But he knew she was irritated with him radically breaking mission parameters, so it was best to tread lightly.
"Just need to see something," he whispered in reply.
The crates were all wooden, and, unfortunately, all empty. There were sheets of packaging foam stacked at the bottom of each box. While innocent enough, they could easily be used to secure packing for multiple assault rifles. There were no outlines in the foam, which meant if that were the case, then there were smaller containers used to hold the actual weapons.
Danny checked the rest, finding them all in similar condition. He got some good shots from his camera both for Leslie and for record. Still, there was nothing solid enough to point any fingers.
"Happy? You infiltrated a harmless suburban family's basement to look through their junk. Get out of there before they find you, you creeper."
Danny exhaled, finally turning to climb back out through the open window. He removed his security zapper and was on his way. Regardless of how much hard evidence he had stumbled on, the crates were still pretty incriminating. There wasn't even a single serial marker on any of them. Leslie wouldn't draw anything from it since her mind was already made up.
Which meant he had very little time left to find the evidence he needed.
Leslie's eyes tracked the motion across her screen.
"Okay, I have two orcs sneaking up through the hollow down by the creek."
"What?" her friend's voice chimed over the headset. "I can't see them. Are you sure?"
"Positive," Leslie insisted. "Stay put and wait until I get to a better vantage point and can guide you safely through."
"I don't know..."
This was not the time for Katie to start questioning her. They were this far into the game and already neck and neck with the other teams. Leslie had spent several all-nighters this week confirming this route they needed to level-up. Sure, her mom wasn't thrilled about her staying up so late to play MMORGs ("not video games, mom; massive multiplayer online role-playing games"), but Leslie could catch a wink or two in school and still cruise through her homework. That was the only reason she justified letting her nerdy interests dominate over schoolwork.
Schoolwork was easy enough. But when you were racing against the clock with rivals in your gaming district for bonus level-up experience points, priorities needed addressing. And right now Katie had to freaking follow her instructions or they would blow this level entirely.
"Katie," she began desperately, "listen to me. They're probably using some kind of cloak. You won't know they're there until you're dead. Let me come down through the meadow pass and we can both take them."
"But we're so close!" she insisted, her online avatar starting back down the path. "All I need to do is pass this forest and I'm at the portal. We'll win!"
Leslie groaned. "Not if you die getting there. Then we lose all of our forward momentum."
Katie's avatar hesitated briefly. But Leslie was running out of patience.
"Damn it, Katie, as our guild leader, I command you to stay put."
That stopped her. It gave Leslie the time she needed to move around to flank the orcs. And there they were, waiting just up ahead of Katie, off the beaten path and using some kind of concealment cloak. But luckily that meant they weren't packing much else. The two of them could take them.
Leslie cast her spell, and the orcs immediately lit up into view.
"Holy shit!" said Katie. "You weren't kidding!"
She cast a spell as well and a minute later the two creatures were nothing more than burnt patches in the path. Leslie moved her avatar around to join Katie.
"Hey, I am sooooooooo sorry I didn't listen to you. I'll admit it; you were right."
Leslie smiled to herself. "It's okay. Just follow my lead. I know what I'm doing."
I always know what I'm doing.
From the camera view, she could see Danny was approaching Kori through the end of school crowds in the main foyer. Probably hoping to snag a seat with her at the game that night.
Not that it mattered; by the time Kori wondered if Danny would actually make it to the game, the two of them would be in the locker rooms confronting the trio before bullets started flying. Leslie preferred if HQ would send professionals in to handle this part, but for once they were siding with Danny and didn't view their Intel as credible enough to stage a grab and bag operation. It was up to her and Danny to catch the two with their hands dirty before they were in a position to do any damage.
Danny, of course, wasn't making this easy. All day he seemed determined to ask questions about the rest of the football team. He wasn't even acting remotely interested in Todd or the others anymore. He was so set in his theory that it was beginning to distract from the mission focus. If she didn't have him completely onboard tonight, who knew how their confrontation with Todd and his gang would work out?
Danny needed to get with the program.
"Haven't you heard?" Kori said, her peppy voice bringing Leslie out of her thoughts. "Jessica broke up with Joey. It was such a big stink that it sounds like Joey might throw tonight's game."
"Why? What happened with Jessica?"
Kori hesitated. "I guess she was at some kind of party with the rest of the team last night and things got...weird. I didn't hear all the facts, but there was something about death threats and I think a dog got tortured. It really freaked her out and she ran out. Joey's been trying to calm her down all day, but she won't have anything to do with him."
Danny seemed enthralled. "Oh wow, that's nuts."
"Yeah. All kinds of strange things have been floating around about the team today. I don't know how many people are too thrilled about tonight's game."
Oh great. This was more fuel on the fire that Danny needed for his witch-hunt. Leslie didn't know what it was all about, and sure it sounded weird as hell, but she kept her eye on the ball. Whatever the creepiness the rest of the team was involved in paled in comparison to the shooting the two backup players and their girlfriend were planning.
Focus, Danny. Please focus.
"I think I'll probably skip out on this one, too," said Danny. "Let things cool off."
"Me, too. I'll catch you around, Danny."
Kori headed off, and Danny made for the exit. When he was outside and out of earshot, he spoke.
"Chabala, I'm taking a quick peek at Joey's place."
Leslie blinked. "Like hell you are. Get your ass back here now! We've got plans."
He headed across the street and around towards another alley. "Relax, I'll take the Toyota and be back in time."
"No, no, no!" She growled, running a hand through her hair. "Joey lives on the edge of the school district; it'll take too long to get out there and back. Not to mention your battery is running low and we'll be out of touch."
Danny paused for a second. She could tell he was checking his COM battery stats, which were conveniently displayed on one of her screens. He only had about an hour left. This was not the time to divide and conquer.
"If I don't make it back in time call my cell."
Leslie sighed. "All right, fine," she said at length. "Just get there and have your looky-loo before shit goes down here."
She could almost hear his smile. "Leslie, just sit tight and I'll be back before you know it."
She watched him round the next alley corner to the spot they had their other car stashed; a maroon, Toyota Corolla. He really was going to do it, the bastard. In all fairness, he had a small time-window, not to mention a few basic clues that warranted investigation. After all, their current Intel wasn't that great. Their bug on Todd's place hadn't picked up anything incriminating since Danny had placed it.
But damn it, she was sick and tired of him chasing wild tangents. She knew who the targets were. And she knew when they were going to strike.
Oh well, worst-case scenario, if Danny didn't make it back in time, Leslie was trained in marksmanship and could at least detain the targets herself. There were only three of them, and she had the actual training.
She knew what to do.
The drive through town was only delayed by rush hour traffic.
When Danny pulled to a stop down the street from the house, he could see the rest of the team's cars parked outside. Well, the players who had an in with Joey. Todd and Kyle certainly weren't among that group.
He checked his COM battery life again and cursed silently. He wasted twenty minutes getting here. At least Leslie was willing to entertain his last wild goose chase.
Danny waited another fifteen minutes before deciding to make his move. He parked the car up another adjoining street and parked at an obscured angle from view of Joey's house. He got out and walked around to where he could see their cars again. A good number of them were pickups and loaded down with something. It looked like more crates.
He was about to go take a passing glance when the front door opened and the team spilled out. Danny took a cautious position around behind a series of thatched arches an owner had set up to let flowers grow over in the side yard. The team all divided between their cars and disappeared in a hurry.
When they were gone, Danny crossed the street and headed up to the house. There were no other cars around, and he had a hunch neither were the parents. He rang once, knocked twice, and received no answer. After taking a quick glance over his shoulder, he tested the knob. Unlocked.
Inside, the house was littered with trash. Cans, old food, and plenty of garbage that never made it to a trashcan. It sent waves of memories of back when Danny was still in high school himself. Still, this was a very nice community to have these kinds of neighbors.
He checked around the first floor with no luck. Upstairs, he found that several of the other players had taken up a residency in adjacent bedrooms. Their stuff was lying everywhere. But there was no sign of the parents in the master bedroom, or any indication that they had been there for some time.
Last, he checked the basement. The moment he opened the door, a strong odor washed up into his face. It reminded him of the time rats got trapped somewhere in his vents back home. None of the rest of his family cared one bit, so the stench lasted a week before he finally tracked it down. But he could also smell something else intermixed in. And this, too, was very familiar.
At the bottom of the stairs, he was treated to an impromptu shooting range. More of the crates had been stacked systematically at the base of the stairs. Along the back wall, paper targets were taped up, shredded and riddled with bullet holes. Loose concrete littered the floor.
The odor was strong now that he was in the middle of it. He nearly gagged, and turned his head to try and flush it away. It only seemed to get stronger in this direction. His eyes landed on a sports duffle bag lying off to the side of one of the crates. It looked full.
Danny walked over quickly and unzipped it. A small cloud of flies buzzed into the air. Inside he spied the bloody remains of a Boxer mix. It's collar was still legible; Buddy.
Danny jumped back. He stared a moment longer in mixed horror and disgust before tapping his COM.
"Chabala I hope you're seeing this, because I think we just got our proof."
Leslie remained silent.
He looked down at his PDA and swore. His COM had shut down at ten percent to protect against complete system failure. He had already lost Leslie and she hadn't seen any of this.
Danny switched to his cell phone and dialed her number. He listened to it ring for a solid minute. Then it occurred to him that Leslie rarely kept her cell phone on her person. She was always so wired into her station in the van that she didn't need to. And that could only mean one thing.
She was on the move.
Leslie had watched Danny's COM system just as it was going into shutdown protocol. He was still in Joey's house and headed back downstairs. As if on cue, as his screen went blank, another one nearby flashed to life chiming with some alert. This one displayed a mini-cam they had placed outside the locker room that was set on proximity sensor. Now she could see who had tripped it: Todd, Kyle, and Sarah. All three of them were carrying large duffle bags.
Leslie quickly pinged a priority-one alert to I-8 before jumping out of her little computer nook and into the driver's seat. Thankfully, she was only a block away, so aside from negotiating the late afternoon traffic, her journey to the school was timely. Through the adrenaline rush, it felt a little strange actually being to the school in person. On all of her ops, she had always seen it through the lens of a camera, but here she was in the flesh. All at once, she appreciated the work that field agents did.
She pulled in to an open space near the annex by the football field. Here a side entrance led straight to the locker room. Leslie checked her sidearm, a SIG P226, made sure it was loaded and that she had her non-lethal gear (tear gas and taser). Then she headed out.
The door was locked, and Leslie didn't have time to pick it. Not to mention she felt suddenly very conspicuous and self-conscious. A small group was already heading out to the football field and sending a few odd glances her way. She wondered bitterly why anyone was here long before the game was due to start.
She made for the front door, feeling her stomach lurch tensely. This was the first time Leslie had ever been in a potential combat situation. All of her training, past and present, could only do so much to prepare for this moment. She remembered it all perfectly, but none of it consoled the panic rushing through every nerve in her body.
This was really happening. Right now.
Leslie negotiated the hallways quickly and concisely. With her right shoulder, she pushed in through the locker-room door violently. She brought her P226 up to bear, consciously steadying the aim as she swept the barrel past each row of lockers.
Half way down she found the trio; Kyle and Todd putting on the last of their football gear, and Sarah sitting on a bench, holding several notebooks under her arm pressed against her body. They all froze, staring wide-eyed at Leslie.
Kyle's hands darted up into the air in surrender. "Shit, who the hell are you?"
It didn't take long for Leslie to assess the situation. All three duffle bags were open, more football gear visible in each of them. There were no weapons. While Kyle looked panicked out of his mind, Sarah and Todd seemed more annoyed than anything else.
"You've gotta be kidding me," Sarah muttered under her breath.
Todd took a defiant step forward. "Did Mark put you up to this?"
A few scenarios quickly ran through Leslie's mind. Several consisted of the three having hid the weapons in the time it took her to get there. That might allow them to get the drop on the rest of the team. But the reality of the situation, as Leslie gravely began to understand, was that these three weren't the targets. Her Intel had been all wrong.
She lowered her P226. "What are the three of you doing here?"
Kyle blinked, lowering his hands slowly. He seemed to be catching on to her error.
"It's obvious, isn't?" said Todd. "Putting the playbooks back before the others show up. Isn't that why they sent you? To catch us?"
Leslie shook her head. "I am a special agent of the federal government preventing a school shooting."
"She's a fed?" Kyle stammered.
Sarah chuckled to herself. "What kind of shit did you two get messed up in?"
The lump in Leslie's stomach got bigger with each passing second. She had pegged the wrong targets entirely. These were just pissy teens snooping around the rest of the team's stuff. And she, Leslie Chabala, had completely abandoned her station as handler in support of her field agent, just to run on wild goose chase and expose herself.
"Listen, lady," Todd began, "I don't know if you actually work for the government or not, but we're not terrorists."
There was a loud crack as the outside doors to the locker room burst open. Leslie's head shot around to the source of the noise, and watched as the rest of the team came in through what had been locked doors only a few short moments ago. They marched solemnly up the main aisle, each toting some kind of large carrying case. Leslie recognized them immediately.
At the head of the group were both Joey and Mark. They froze at the sight of Leslie and her lowered pistol. Someone yelled "Cops!" Everyone dived down different locker aisles as Leslie's training kicked into gear. She brought her sidearm back up, drawing a sight on the remaining players still visible. Her eyes focused on a single target and she discharged two rounds. It happened fast. The player crumpled to the floor, his gun-case flying from his grasp and sliding across the tile floor.
"Everyone freeze!" she screamed, the adrenaline in her system reaching its peak. "You are all under arrest!"
No sooner had she said it than she heard cases clicking open and the sounds of moving metal parts. The situation quickly became apparent. Leslie was outnumbered, outgunned, and without backup support in a nightmare environment.
She dived back down the aisle where Todd, Kyle and Sarah were now huddled on the floor, taking shelter behind the large metal lockers. From here, she could see out across the main aisle and down another row of lockers across from her.
A head peeked out down at the farthest end from around a corner and she discharged another round. A cloud of blood shot out from the head as the body dropped. Someone growled and Leslie heard more clicking as rounds were loaded into magazines. Everyone was armed.
Sarah screamed, and Leslie whipped around in time to see Mark coming up from a corner at the end of their aisle. He held a stripped-down AR-15, and had a bloodthirsty look on his face. She barely registered as the muzzle flashed and rounds pinged off the metal lockers around her. Through the pain and world turning over she watched as Todd, Kyle, and Sarah collapsed to the floor, bright red holes appearing through their backs.
Leslie stumbled back against the locker, a painful fire spreading throughout her abdomen. With her sidearm still up, she clicked off two more rounds that hit Mark squarely in the chest. He dropped like a rock, his AR-15 flying up and sending off a few more stray rounds, one of which found its way through Leslie's left lens in her glasses.
She never felt it.
The traffic was worse.
Through it, Danny somehow managed to cut his return travel time in half. Some red lights were run, but by the grace of God, he encountered no cops. I-8 could take care of cleanup work later. Right now shit was going down.
Sure enough, he found the van parked by the annex, surrounded by the rest of the team's cars. He could also see some of the early-comers walking tentatively from the football field, coming over to the closed locker room doors. Something had happened.
Danny parked and raced over to the van. Thankfully, he had his own set of keys. He checked the monitors inside, but Leslie didn't carry body-cams like he did, so there was no way to see what she was seeing. Still, there was the COM.
"Chabala, what's your status?"
No response. A sick feeling began to creep up on Danny.
There was a bang and he looked up to see the locker doors now open. There was the rest of the team; all armed with light assault rifles. The stadium crowd wasn't even here and yet they were going after the early-comers. Something must have changed their plans.
Danny hopped into the driver's seat, started the van, and whipped out backwards towards the locker doors. The rest of the players looked up in surprise when they heard tires squeal. Dan slammed his foot on the gas, steering while looking over his shoulders. The van lurched backwards, coming up to meet the open doors. The team barely had time to duck back.
Metal crunched loudly. Danny's seatbelt kept his head from flying backwards into the computer station. The impact had knocked the van slightly askew, part of it sticking inside, the rest of the back wedged through the doorway. The team would not be coming out this way.
Danny put the van in park and then grabbed his gear. Just as he was hopping out the cops pulled up. At least Leslie had gotten off a warning.
The cops weren't thrilled to see Danny with his sidearm out and he had to produce his credentials to pacify them. Naturally, none of it pointed back to Initiative-8, but it was enough to authorize him to be a federal agent. That of course earned a few skeptical looks, but their system cleared him, and in the next minute, he was helping clear the halls as they made it to the other locker room entrance.
A few of the players had made a quick dash. The cops handled those. The majority had held up in the locker room. A few tear gas canisters dispatched them. By the time the cops had moved in to haul them off, I-8 cleanup crews arrived on the scene.
Danny found her body first.
Leslie Chabala lay sprawled out on the tile floor, several shots through her gut, and a bloody hole where her left eye should have been. She still held her P226 tightly in one hand. She was also soaked in the quickly pooling blood. There were no shortage of bodies to contribute.
He knew right away had happened and a part of him was pissed at her for it. She had come charging in here to stop those three and walked in just as the others were launching their massacre. But a part of him couldn't help smiling bitterly that she had gone down fighting. She had even managed to take down a couple other players.
Footsteps clicked off the tile floor, and a figure loomed somewhere over Danny's shoulder.
"I'm so sorry, Cantrell."
Danny exhaled, turning to face the woman behind him. She was middle-aged, with short, styled black hair, and wearing some sort of nondescript uniform that hid the lethality hidden beneath.
"I know, Mavis."
She sighed, glancing down at Leslie through her mirrored sunglasses. "She was one of our finest. Initiative is going to miss her." Then she turned her attention back to Danny. "If you need some time alone, this is it."
Danny nodded. Initiative-8 cleanup policies were nothing short of scary. He wondered if Leslie's family would even know she had died.
He knelt down low, taking her free hand in his.
He smiled again, thinking over their last couple of missions. Despite their very different personalities, somehow they had clicked and it worked. He felt a little guilty for stressing her as much as he had. Maybe that's why she was so set in her targets during this mission. Maybe he should have played by her rules and she wouldn't be in this position...
No, he realized, closing his eyes tightly.
If he hadn't gone out of her way, then they might never have discovered the rest of the team's involvement. Leslie had sacrificed herself today to stop what surely would have been a much bigger tragedy. She had immortalized herself in the lives that were saved. Maybe they could have had many more missions together—they certainly would have been fun—but today she had finished her mission.
"Goodbye Chabala," he whispered, standing back up.
He turned, and found Mavis had returned. Sometimes that woman gave him shivers.
"It's done," he said.
She nodded. "Wait outside in my car. We'll be leaving shortly for HQ. Obviously you need a new handler."
Danny nodded, making his way back out of the locker room. The battle had been won, albeit with a steep causality he would never forget. But the war was far from over. He needed to be better; rise above mediocrity if he was going to stay in this fight.
This was just the beginning.
My evaluation is complete. After [Agent Cantrell] has completed mandatory downtime, transfer him to a new team and resume his active operations immediately. He is a valuable asset to Initiative-8 and we certainly could use more field agents like him. However, it is imperative that we keep a close eye on his emotional state through routine psych evaluations. His family situation obviously pushed him to this point, and this incident with [Agent Chabala] no doubt pushed him further.
Be always watching.