Number 74 – Are You Challenging Me?

The brush caught on a knot, making her tug at it until the knot came loose and the instrument could move freely through her thick red hair. She slowly placed the object down, drawing her gaze to stare into the mirror. The room was silent, not even the sound of birds puncturing the air the walls and windows. Security was high. It always was, of course, but since one of their own had gone missing, it had been tightened.

She glanced down at the brush.

It was an instrument of vanity, a tool for perfecting their appearances so both men and women could stare and judge. Un-kept hair was, to some, an ugly sight, one that indicated the person simply did not care for their appearance.

But she, with her thick red hair, did care. Not because of vanity. She cared because if she did not have the right look, people wouldn't take her seriously.

It was bad enough dealing with men, anyway.

She placed the brush beside the mirror, standing and straightening her black shirt. After a quick wink and smile to the image of herself in the mirror, she was gone, striding through the halls of the mansion until she reached the room where they were waiting.

Her lieutenants. Her right-hand women, the ones she would trust with her life and more. The room was large, with a table big enough to hold thirty. There were currently four sitting near the top, two either side of her chair at the head. They glanced up as she entered. Three, with her sleek black hair and dark eyes, wearing a tank top revealing the Yin/Yang tattoo they all carried, and the Chinese dragon, the symbol she had chosen to represent her birthplace. Beside her was Five, short chopped blonde hair and a golden lion stretching it's claws across her back.

Nine and Eighteen sat on the other side of the table. Nine had replaced her mother four years ago, and was one of the youngest of the twenty-nine. One had known her since she had been born, and she was one of the few girls who had grown up completely in the embraces of the others. Trained since she could walk, she was fierce and cold, quiet and sly, the ideal assassin. Her light brown hair was tied back from a tanned face, and One remembered the first displays of emotion she had seen in the girl.

It had been four years ago. She had seen grief in Nine, then known only as Child, after her mother's death. But the grief was quickly replaced by something else; a grim joy as the tattoos were etched in her skin. She had not chosen a symbol of her country. Instead she had chosen a tattoo of her mother's favourite weapon. The dagger on her back dripped with blood, the droplets falling down, six in all, a new one added for every kill she made.

Eighteen was, in contrast, one of the oldest, there before One. Her skills had enabled her to survive longer than most did. Perhaps, One mused, Eighteen would be the first to ever retire. It was possible, but most of the girls never dreamed of living past the group. Death in the line of work was a certainty, with the current exception of Eighteen, and she suspected that if she did retire, Eighteen would be a loss for what to do.

One moved to the head of the table.

Eighteen's skin was pale, her hair thick and dark, her eyes a dark shade of brown that was almost black. She had joined at the time when it was common for the second tattoo to simply be a flag. The German flag, drawn to look like it was waving, sat on her back.

"Any news?" One began, eyeing the women. Immediately, three pairs of eyes looked down, staring at the table. Only Eighteen held her gaze.

"None," she stated, her accent thick. "We have eyes and ears everywhere. There is no sign of her."

"God damn it. How many of the other girls are aware of the situation?"

"Twenty-Seven has been informed," Nine told her. "As has Six."

She nodded, glad the news had not spread further. They didn't need a trace of fear in their ranks. It made sense to tell Twenty-Seven and Six. The former had worked closely with her, the latter was their best tracker.

"Good. Inform Twelve, too."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Five asked, her head snapping up to stare at One. It was understandable; Twelve was not good at keeping secrets, not among the other girls, anyway. But she was brilliant with a keyboard and a screen. Twelve was one of the best hackers in the world. At the age of fourteen, she had hacked into the FBI database. At seventeen, she had temporarily knocked out access to the internet for the whole of North America.

One had personally gone to recruit her.

"Don't question me. Get her working with Six. They should be able to find her whereabouts between them. And tell Twelve that if she breathes a word to anyone, it will be me she answers to. Understand?"

They nodded, Eighteen with the slightest of smiles on her face. One glanced to her, glad to see just a flicker of approval in the older woman's face.

"We need to find her," One growled, eyes darting down to the table. "If we cannot protect our own, we will fall apart."

The others nodded in agreement.

X X X

They were the most dangerous people in the world. They had more power than any country's leader, with contacts that Presidents and Dictators could only dream about. For the most part, they acted as hired hands, and that was all most saw them as.

Thinking of them as tools kept most people feeling safe. For the most powerful people in the world, the twenty-nine were a point of contact used as a last resort. For others, they were the first port of call.

Favours were exchanged, and as One moved down the corridor she knew it was time to call most of those favours in.

Organised crime was still seen as something of a conspiracy. Despite the evidence saying otherwise, the majority did not believe that a single group could stretch around the world. Of course, with great power came the ability to push the idea that it was all just a conspiracy. And for that, One was thankful.

Reaching her office, she picked up the phone. She used the direct line, and was soon speaking to an old friend.

"Tony, I need your help."

"You're asking for help?" He laughed, and she could just imagine the sod shaking his head. "Well, whatever you need."

"One of my girls has disappeared off the grid," she told him, glancing around the room. The furniture was dark, all of it crafted by fine hands. "If you see her, I need you to keep an eye on her."

"She on a job?"

"Yes. And it's...delicate. She cannot contact us directly. So..."

"So you need me to send you reports?"

She smiled. "If you would."

"I'll get my guys on it. Which one?"

"Twenty-Six. I'll e-mail you her photo."

"I'll let you know the moment one of my guys spots her."

"Thanks."

"No problem. You free next week?"

"No."

"When you going to let me take you to dinner, darling?"

She rolled her eyes, eyeing the books lining the shelves behind her desk. "Not going to happen, Tony."

On the other end of the phone, he chuckled. "You keep saying that. It will, one day."

"Goodbye, Tony."

"Bye."

She put the phone down, before dropping into the seat behind her desk. Twenty-Six's face haunted her mind. Twenty-Six was the youngest and newest of the girls, and it worried her how easily the girl had disappeared. Escape for their targets was impossible. They had eyes and ears everywhere, had access to the databases containing information about every person in the world, had access to the cameras that tracked each individual, whether they were robbing a neighbour or doing their daily shopping.

Nothing was out of their reach.

Except Twenty-Six.

She tried to remember if her predecessor had ever mentioned anything like this happening before.

She was sure it hadn't.

One spent the rest of the day pacing the office, jumping every time the phone rang, praying the person on the other end would contain information about the girl's whereabouts.

They never did.

X X X

The days went by.

Tony called, sounding surprised as he informed her none of his men had spotted the girl.

"Keep looking," she told him, before hanging up.

She tried to keep distracted by logging upcoming missions, matching them to the best girl's for the job. The monotony of it all was broken only when one of the girls did call, checking in or telling her their last mission was finished. She passed on the next, feeling a slight sting whenever she was reminded that one of them was missing.

It wasn't right.

They sometimes lost contact with the girls, for various reasons, but usually it was only for a few days. But it had been six weeks with no word from Twenty-Six, no sign of her location, and those who knew only grew more and more worried.

"We'll find her," she kept telling herself, stopping at the large bay window and looking out over the grounds. A knock at the door stirred her from her thoughts, and she whirled around, facing it as she called, "Come in."

Eighteen stepped inside, wearing her usual business attire. A white blouse under a blue blazer, a pencil skirt revealing her long legs. She held a file in her hands, and dropped it on the desk before joining One at the window.

"Still nothing?"

One shook her head.

"Perhaps she has left us."

One turned sharply, nostrils flaring as she stared at the older woman. "She wouldn't do that."

"Perhaps she does not want to be found."

She scoffed, moving away and towards the desk, opening the file and glancing through it. "None would desert us."

"Because they are scared. They know we can find them anywhere. If Twenty-Six found a way to escape, to hide..."

"She wouldn't do that!" she snapped. "And it is not simply pure fear that keeps them here! It is loyalty."

"Are you sure about that?"

"Of course I am!"

"Because it used to be about loyalty. Every single woman remained because they felt a bond with their superior. But if Twenty-Six has deserted us, has found a way to elude us, it says a lot about your leadership, my dear."

One was shaking, sweat building on the palms of her hands as she stared at Eighteen. Her eyes were wide, as anger bubbled under her skin.

"How many times have we been told that emotions are a weakness?" Eighteen drawled.

In seconds she was pinned against the wall, One's arm across her neck. A flash of a smile appeared on Eighteen's face before disappearing.

"Do not question me."

"You are allowing your emotions to win."

"They are loyal to me!"

"Are they? Because I, personally, sense some dissatisfaction in the ranks. Perhaps Twenty-Six was just the first."

"You know the price for challenging your leader!"

"And we know the price for desertion. But Twenty-Six seems more than willing to risk paying that."

Eighteen felt the cold metal against her stomach. Her eyes remained cold, blank as she stared at her leader. "I'd be careful, dear. I do think the girls are unhappy. Change your methods or risk them all abandoning you."

The shot rang out through the room. Eighteen slumped to the floor, eyes following One as she stepped back, body shaking as the realisation of what she had done sank in.

To her surprise, Eighteen laughed, as the blood seeped from her stomach, covering the hand she now held there. "I never wanted to retire," she rasped, still laughing as death's grip slowly took over. "You've signed your death warrant, dear. Think any of them will want to follow you now?"

One shot again. Despite her trembling hand, the bullet hit its target. Brains and blood splattered over the wall, some of it landing on One's clothes and skin. She returned the gun to its place at her hip, before crossing to her phone.

She hit speaker, before pressing a button on the speed-dial.

"Nine, send in a cleanup crew. And send someone to Alicia Albert. We need a new number eighteen."

A/N: For anyone who is interested, this is linked to Light and Breathe Again. So if you want to find out a bit more about these characters, I'd suggest checking them out. Also, I have a blog! Yay! It's .com.