While Kotori Leonetti and Sally Vinebrook were busy speeding across the Atlantic at 35,000 feet in the air, the servants of Romafeller were once more on the move.
Captain Mike T. Philips, former Navy SEAL and current commander of the autonomous unit of Romafeller troops that served under the direct command of the Chairman's right-hand agent Cipher, sat with his customary military stiffness against the supple black leather bench seat of the SUV he and his direct superior were currently speeding through the rain-soaked streets of Anacostia in. The diminutive girl in her early twenties sitting beside him had her back turned to him and was currently staring out the driver's side window at the poorly lit and trash strewn sidewalks that were rapidly passing by them as they drove, giving him every impression that she hadn't heard a word he'd just said.
Suppressing a grimace at his boss' juvenile antics, the captain forced himself to breathe out calmly through his nostrils as he ran one of his large calloused palms over the neatly-trimmed metal filings of his salt and pepper hair. Cipher had always had a bad habit of zoning out right before a mission got started, and he knew that trying to chew her out over it wouldn't get him anywhere. She was a cold fish who only responded to praise or criticism when it came directly from the Chairman, and he'd just be wasting his breath if he let the girl get to him. Still though, he could at least indulge himself in a little bit of silent grumbling.
God damn brat, I wish the Chairman would knock some fucking sense into her already, geez…
He was of course very careful to keep this thought to himself however, after all he was frustrated not stupid, and instead cleared his throat loudly, hoping that the noise would be enough to get the girl's attention. Thankfully it did the job, and although Cipher showed no outward signs of being startled out of any daydreams or embarrassment at having been caught ignoring him, she still nevertheless drew her gaze away from the window where fat heavy raindrops were slowly beginning to pelt its smooth surface, and shifted in her seat to fix the captain with her customarily frigid thousand mile stare.
"You may proceed Captain."
Unlike most people who saw them head on, Captain Philips was unfazed by the girl's cold eyes. While it was true that they still gave him the creeps whenever he thought about them too much, he'd known her for long enough now that he'd gotten used to them, even if he did hate seeing them on a girl so young. Cipher was about the same age as his own daughter, and he'd practically watched her grow up under the Chairman's dubious care. He'd seen how her eyes, once so bright and full of life, had slowly dimmed and cooled over the years as she'd performed task after task for him, until finally they'd become the cold hard emeralds that they were today.
Maybe it was because she was so close in age to his own daughter, or maybe it was because he and his men had been by her side ever since her first field mission all those years ago. In the end he knew it didn't really matter. In those quiet moments late at night when he'd be lying awake in bed unable to sleep, those eyes would swim up to the forefront of his mind and he'd have no choice but to face up to what he knew deep down inside his heart but was afraid to admit out loud. Eyes like that didn't belong on a girl like Cipher, and he was a pathetic excuse of a man for doing nothing to help her. They were too hard, too cold, and too… wrong.
He'd seen eyes like that all the time on the faces of child soldiers back when he'd been deployed to South Africa by his first private military contracting firm after he'd left the Navy. They were the eyes of someone who had been forced to endure too many horrible things in too short an amount of time, and he hated himself more than anything for the role he'd played a in giving them to her. As far as Captain Philips was concerned, a kid like Cipher should have been out on a date or bar hopping with friends on a night like tonight, not heading deep into the heart of some ghetto to… Well, it didn't matter. They were here now, and they had a job to do. He'd push his misgivings back down like he always did and keep moving forward. After all, he was being paid to follow orders, not to think.
God forgive me.
Clearing his throat again, this time to focus his thoughts rather than to get Cipher's attention, he launched himself headlong into the briefing he'd prepared for the mission they were about to embark on.
"The target's name is Dessel Jones, age thirty-six, dark skin, dark hair," he began to explain in his usual clipped military diction, "At seventeen forty-three local time today, he reached out to us via one of our information brokers with an offer to sell us information regarding the identity and location of Toybox. He isn't the first person to come forward with such information since we put out that bounty after losing contact with her last night, but he is the first to show any actual promise."
At this he paused for a moment to see if Cipher would ask him a question, or at the very least show some outward sign of interest or excitement, but as usual, she simply stared and waited. He wasn't surprised.
"According to Records, the man is a well-known document forger and escape specialist here on the East Coast, and is therefore likely someone that Toybox would seek out if she is traveling with Teacup like we suspect. According to Jones, Toybox was brought to his studio by a woman in her mid-twenties this afternoon to purchase documentation for a new legend, and that they are planning to leave the country tonight via airplane. He refused to provide us with a name for the woman accompanying Toybox, but he did describe her as having tan skin and Asian features, as well as informing us that she has done wetwork for him in the past. All of which matches up with what we already know about Teacup."
Again Captain Philips paused for a moment, this time moistening his tongue and double checking his notes before continuing.
"At twenty-three forty-five local time we received orders from the Chairman to detain and interrogate Jones. We are to extract all information regarding the destination Toybox and Teacup are traveling to, as well as what identification they are using to get there. Once we have that, we are to initiate cleanup using protocol ten and then pull out of the area. The Chairman also appended a message for you with the orders as well. It reads, 'Continue to guide the maidens along the most correct path. This is of the utmost importance. Do not fail me.' That is all."
Cipher acknowledged the captain's briefing with a slight nod of her head, and a moment later her eyes grew unfocused and she cocked her head to one side as if she was listening to someone else speaking that only she could hear. It always gave Captain Philips the creeps whenever she got like this, but again, he wisely chose to keep his mouth shut while he waited for her to snap out of it.
A few minutes later their SUV rolled to a stop outside their target's house and Cipher broke from her trance. Focusing her gaze once more on Captain Philips, she dragged the corners of her lips up into a cold thin smile, and in her usual soft and chilly voice said, "Well done Captain. Now let us endeavor to carry out the Chairman's wishes to the best of our ability."
Captain Philips and Cipher stepped out of the back of their black SUV and into the heavily pouring, and very cold, rain as they surveyed the dilapidated-looking two story house across the street from them.
Waiting for them in the middle of the deserted street in front of the house were eight men standing rigidly at attention in two precisely arrayed rows of four men each, seemingly impervious to the frigid downpour pelting them non-stop. On their way in, one of them had shot out all of the streetlights along this particular stretch of road, and in the near total darkness of the early morning hours with the rumbling thunder clouds over head, the men were all but invisible as they stood there patiently waiting for orders.
Each man was dressed from head to toe in black and gray combat fatigues, complete with Kevlar tactical vests and helmets, and they all wore black balaclava masks that completely covered their faces. Cradled across the chest of each man was a matte-black integrally suppressed MP5 submachine gun, and their disciplined trigger fingers were resting softly against the outer edge of the weapons' trigger guards. Each man was a lethal warrior and a seasoned veteran of countless battles in countless settings, and they all reported directly to Cipher.
As Captain Philips and Cipher approached them, one of the men stepped forward out of line and snapped off a crisp salute before barking out, "Ma'am! All advance teams report that they have successfully located and neutralized all long-range sentries and scouts within a four block radius!"
"Well done soldier!" replied Captain Philips with a salute of his own. As always, Cipher let him take the lead with her troops, preferring to let the burly man who had been by her side ever since she took on the name Cipher bark out the orders for her. Turning to her, he returned his right hand back to his side and asked, "Your orders ma'am?"
"You may begin Captain," came Cipher's mild reply a moment later.
"Understood ma'am," then turning to address the men in front of him, Captain Philips barked out, "Echo team, move out!"
On his command, the eight men performed an immediate and simultaneous about face, and began to jog the short distance across the street toward the house and workshop of Dessel Jones.
Marvin and his crew of two thugs had gone off duty more than an hour ago and had been replaced by a trio of fresh-faced nineteen year olds who were unlucky enough to have been assigned to the graveyard shift for that evening. The three of them had been standing underneath the shelter of the patio awning and watching the exchange between the nine men and the cloaked figure with a slowly growing sense of apprehension as they tried to figure out what they should do next. The near total darkness and the pouring rain made it difficult to pick out details from such a long distance away, but it was clear to them that the people weren't cops, and they hadn't yet made any moves to come near the house, but there was still something about them that made all three of the young men feel very nervous.
They had not yet realized that they were staring into the face of Death.
Any thoughts of what to do next fell by the wayside, when they saw the men turn around and begin running toward them. Realizing instinctively that they were under attack, they each began to claw desperately at the front of their pants for the weapons they had tucked there, but they were far too late.
The only sound that could be heard as three of the rapidly advancing men brought up their submachine guns, centered their respective target's head in the middle of their red dot sights, and then pulled the trigger was a dull "fut fut fut" as a single 9mm Glaser Safety Slug exploded from the end of each man's sound suppressor.
The force of the bullets' impact punched a dime-sized hole in between the eyes of each young man as they found their mark, burrowing in past bone and brain matter for about an inch before their hard polymer tips shattered and released their payload of hundreds of tiny metal pellets which then proceeded to wreak havoc with the soft tissue inside of their target's skull.
Not a single cry of pain or surprise escaped from the lips of the dying men as each of them collapsed into a lifeless heap on top of the patio floorboards with a dull thump. They were all dead before they'd even hit the ground.
None of the advancing men broke their stride as they took their shots, and they soon reached the insubstantial chain-link fence that ran along the outer perimeter of the house's unkempt front yard. One of the lead men stepped ahead of the rest of the group and flung open the gate with a screeching creek of unoiled metal on metal, and held it open for the rest of his comrades as they advanced forward past him, before taking up a new position at the back of the group.
The men then chewed up the remaining distance between the curb and the front door in less than three seconds, and upon reaching the patio, the new lead man stepped ahead of the rest of the group and kicked open the front door using the wide sole of his combat boot. The front door slammed inward under the heavy boot's assault, smashing against the opposite wall with a resounding crash that reverberated down the long front entryway of the house.
With the way now cleared, the eight men moved forward into the house, and began breaking off into two-man teams as they advanced down the hallway, each pair moving into a different room, searching for their target and eliminating any hostiles they came across along the way.
Precisely ninety-five seconds after the order to begin the assault had been given, the radio clipped to Captain Philips' right hip crackled to life.
"Echo Three to Echo One, Echo Three to Echo One. Area is secure. Repeat, area is secure. Have located the package and secured for interrogation. Over."
"Echo One to Echo Three. Roger that. Cipher and I are inbound, hold positions. Over."
"Echo Three to Echo One. Roger, will hold positions. Over and out."
Returning the radio back to his hip, Captain Philips cast a sidelong glance at his boss to see if she was ready to move out, and then proceeded to escort her across the rain-slicked street. Upon entering the house, they were met by a man from the assault squad who identified himself as Echo 6, although thanks to the full face mask the man was wearing they had no choice other than to take his word for it, and were then led through the entryway and into the living room area of the house that had been converted into Dessel Jones' workshop and studio.
The man himself was bound with black nylon ropes to a straight-backed chair in the center of the room, with his wrists lashed together behind his back and his upper torso secured firmly to the seatback so that the only things he could move were his head and the lower parts of his legs. He was currently in the middle of struggling mightily against his bonds and cursing up a storm, alternating between demanding to know what the hell was going on and making dire threats of retribution if he wasn't released immediately.
Three men from the assault squad stood in a tight semi-circle behind the forger, ignoring his blustering as they kept the barrels of their weapons leveled unwaveringly at the back of his head just in case he somehow slipped his restraints and made a move against their commander. As Captain Philips entered the room, his massive bulk clearing the way for the diminutive Cipher, he barked out a brisk, "At ease men!"
At their captain's order, the men immediately shifted their stance into the very model of parade rest. Their feet spread a shoulder's width apart with their torsos upright and shoulders back, and their submachine guns once again cradled against their chests as they awaited further orders.
Ignoring the man pleading for his life in front of her, Cipher slowly approached him until she was standing only a few feet away from his trembling knees. She then surveyed him coldly for several long seconds, appraising him critically as she attempted to discern something that only she could see, before she reached up and drew back the hood of her cloak to reveal her face and the shock of dull blonde hair tied up into a severe bun that had up until that point been hidden underneath.
"S-Sally?!" spluttered the man in a mixture of shock and confusion as he got a good look at the girl standing in front of him, "What the fuck is goin' on here?! Who're these people?! Where's Ko-"
"Be quiet," interrupted Cipher.
She didn't raise her voice, but then again, she didn't have to. Her words struck the man like a cold hard slap to the face, and his mouth immediately clamped shut with an audible clicking of teeth.
"Earlier this evening you contacted us with information regarding the whereabouts of Toybox, did you not?"
It took the forger several long seconds before he realized that the girl standing in front of him, who was the spitting image of the one he'd spent all afternoon with, was expecting him to answer her. It took even more time before he was able to find his voice again, but when did, it was full of venom and outrage as he spat, "That's right you bitch. I had information to sell you mother fuckers, but you can just fuckin' forget about it now! Just you fuckin' wait! My boys ol' be here any fuckin' second now, and when they get here, they're gon-"
"Be quiet," interrupted Cipher again, and just as before, the forger's jaw clamped shut, nearly biting his tongue off in the process.
Casually Cipher began to close the distance between her and the forger, whose face grew more and more terrified the closer she drew to him. However when she finally reached him, and was standing with her thighs pressed in firmly against his kneecaps, instead of striking him like he'd been expecting her to, she instead reached out her slender hands and gently cupped his face, tilting it upward so that he was forced to look directly into the bottomless pits of her cold dark eyes.
"You do not need to speak," she said in a voice that was almost intimate in its softness, "All you need to do, is listen."
With that, Cipher began to chant softly under her breath in a low murmur that made her words muddled an indistinct, but yet did nothing to mask their ominous power. As she continued to repeat her mantra over and over again, she and the forger were gradually enveloped in a dark swirling mist that slowly began to shape itself into thin pulsating tendrils of dark purple energy.
The four men watching this spectacle unfold in front of them showed no outward signs of being startled by what was happening, having seen it all before several times in the past, but they still nevertheless took several steps back in spite of themselves. When it came to Cipher's work, it was far better to be safe than sorry.
Dessel Jones on the other hand was not so lucky.
As he sat bound to the chair, his face feeling as though it were locked into a steel vice even though the girl's touch was light as a feather, he could sense the swirling purple tendrils trying to worm their way inside of him. He did his best to try and resist what was happening to him, but it was like trying to swim against the relentless undertow of an ocean current. With each passing moment and each repeated phrase, he could feel the words beginning to coalesce themselves into a physical form as they inexorably burrowed their way deeper and deeper into the recesses of his mind.
They wrapped themselves around his will, trapping it, shaping it, and slowly but surely bending it against their unrelenting pressure, until finally, it snapped. And as it snapped, Dessel Jones felt all of his thoughts and memories, everything that made him him, come rushing out in a tidal wave of intangible matter and energy. Like a vase filled with water that had been smashed against the hard ground, the ethereal and immutable border that had given the existence known as "Dessel Jones" its shape and form had been irrevocably rent asunder, spilling his very soul out upon the ground, never to be whole again.
While this was happening his heels pounded out a staccato rhythm against the hardwood floor beneath him as his body convulsed within the confines of his bonds, and he began to gurgle wetly as a pink froth welled up from between his lips. A moment later his body was seized in one final great spasm, and then he fell limp, like a marionette whose strings had just been cut. He was not yet dead, his lungs continued to draw shallow rattling breaths into his lifeless body, driven purely by biological impulse and decades of muscle memory, but Dessel Jones was no longer truly alive either. His mind, heart, and most importantly of all, his will, had all been broken beyond repair, and he would never be whole again.
Stepping back, Cipher let go of the man's face, and his head lulled off to one side, his eyes wide open and frozen forever in a look of shock and terror. Brushing her hands off on the front of her cloak, she turned to address Captain Philips and his men.
"The maidens have already left the country. They are traveling on British Airways flight eighteen thirty-seven and will land at Heathrow in six hours. Toybox is traveling with an American passport under the name of Anita Smith, and Teacup is traveling with her, but he did not know what name she is flying under. Alert our teams stationed in London to be on the lookout for them when they arrive, and remind them that they are to observe only. No rendition attempts are to be made under any circumstances, and they are to employ nothing outside of passive surveillance measures. Is that understood Captain?"
"Yes ma'am!" snapped Captain Philips with a sharp salute, his uneasiness over what he and his men had just witnessed forcing him to be far more formal than he normally would have been.
If Cipher was caught off guard by the captain's brusqueness she didn't show it, and instead continued by saying, "Prepare your men to leave Captain, we too must make haste for London. The Chairman wishes for us to continue to oversee this operation… personally."
"Understood ma'am," replied Captain Philips, this time with something approaching his usual calm professionalism, "And the bodies ma'am?"
"Leave them to me," answered Cipher, eyeing the man in front of her as if he were nothing more than a bit of loose garbage she needed to throw away. She dipped her right hand into the small leather pouch at her hip and withdrew a handful of black raven's feathers, "Have your men pull out Captain, we are finished here."