Meanwhile in Castle Groenwald
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Story
Meanwhile in Castle Groenwald
June 8th, 2016, evening
It was never completely quiet at Castle Groenwald, though during the later hours the noise of business was dialed down to a steady hum of productive activity. The night shift carried out their duty, be it organizational, janitorial, or research, with the prompt efficiency of a truly Aryan work ethic. Lillian von Groenwald approved, and had used every means at her disposal to instill that very ethic into her subordinates. Every hour on the hour, the noise would lull as her little worker drones took their recommended break time.
For the queen bee at the center of this hive of activity, Lillian wished she could afford herself the same luxury. Executive orders meant executive effort, however, and that in turn meant reading report after report on various active operations. And how many of those there were! She nodded as she passed the updated file on Operation Candidate to the outgoing tray, complete with her personal stamp. It was going to be a wonderfully busy summer, at least.
A frown tugged the corner of her mouth leftward as she opened the next file. Operation Slavic Bozo was hardly a proper name for any business within the Green Cross organization, but Agent Sandmann got a special dispensation when it came to such things, both because of his track record and because he was her half-brother. That did not mean she wouldn't sigh and roll her eyes each time another goofball name crossed her desk.
The report itself was... unfortunate, if not surprising. Loosing the hounds of the Mutant Commission Office was the sort of thing one did as a gambit of opportunity, not as a solid plan of action. It might have worked, however, and at no cost to her organization. And if it had...
Her eyes fell upon a surveillance photo, one showing a golden blonde girl walking through a shopping mall with an older teen and a Negro woman in a blue jacket. If the gambit with the MCO had worked, then they would have been rid of that one completely and at no personal risk. Would that they could discreetly take care of the matter, but they still did not understand how young Erica could have seen through Agent Glas's psionic screening, and as such her half-brother was naturally disinclined to close the distance. Long-distance photography was the most he would contribute.
Ah well, there would be better times, better opportunities. Her official pen danced across a sheet of paper, outlining the next plan of action. The Schroeders and the Steins would be on guard now; there was no point in a second operation targeting young Erica at this time. Her errant cousins might still be led to the true path eventually, in spite of the mutant incursion into their bloodline. Until then, she could be patient. Lillian applied her stamp to the order and placed its folder in the outbox. It was her last for the evening, so with a click of a button the compact device processed the folders and sent them on to their proper departments.
Lillian got up to stretch, inspecting herself in the mirror. Despite the excitement of the previous week, she thought she was cutting a good figure. Her nose was healing straight and proper, and the bruises left by the Schroeder girl had mostly faded. Her pride was still black and blue, but that at least could be hidden behind the icy burn of her blue eyes.
Her heels clicked on the linoleum of the main hallway as she made her final rounds. The night shift were all hunched over their desks, working on computers or reading ancillary material before preparing reports, but each and every one of them took a moment of precious time to look up and make the short, minimal salute that her father had always preferred. She returned the gesture, two fingers touched to her left temple, and left them in peace.
There was only one thing left to do that evening, and her steps directed her to the covered bridge that connected her headquarters to the infirmary next door. An elevator took her down to the ground floor and then past it, deeper into the earth. The building above ground was not so large, though it served the needs of the surrounding community adequately. The parts below ground were another matter entirely, as was their reason for being. Few ever came down here with the goal of being made healthy and whole.
Herr Achziger was perhaps the major exception, though he was always a bit special in his own way. The centenarian-plus gentleman had his own suite within the complex, even if it looked more like Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory than any sort of hospice care. The old man was asleep — or perhaps 'deactivated' would be a better word — within a horizontal cylinder of glass and supported by the most comfortable therapeutic gel her technicians could synthesize. The monocle in place of his left eye had dilated shut, and that sheet of metal-grey hair was plastered to his skull. Tubes ran in, out, and through his frail old body.
Lillian could almost feel sorry for the ancient monster, but necessity demanded.
"Progress?" she asked as she strode in, not waiting for the usual salute or pleasantries.
"Eighty-six percent, Lady Groenwald," reported the medical technician on duty. "The new implants seem to have taken proper hold, and we should be able to prevent emergent cascade effects from interfering with his regular functions."
"That was what you told me the last time, and yet here we are." The tech wilted under her icy glare. "You did see what was left of Agent Baumgartner, yes?"
The man's skin went slightly green, and he nodded carefully.
"As long as we understand each other." Lillian stroked the cylinder glass and mused on its contents. Herr Achziger was, if not the heart or the brain of her operations, at least a vital part of them. Perhaps the spleen: survivable without, but better to have on the inside with the rest of it all. But, to stretch the metaphor to its limit, if the spleen decided to devour its neighbor the pancreas, well then, something needed to be done. Herr Achziger's penchant for going into a berserker repair mode would have to be curtailed.
The door to the module slid open, and Kessel entered with his face stuck in a file. Lillian looked him over with an approving eye, nodding. The young man was the first of a new generation of Thulean agents, members of the Aryan race enhanced by her late father's research, and he looked the part. Tall and sturdy, though not as muscular as some of his uncles, Kessel had the hair and eyes of a Groenwald born.
She had to clear her throat twice before he looked up. He even had his grandfather's tendency to get lost in scientific literature.
"Oh! M... Kommandeurin," he said, touching the first two fingers of his left hand to his temple in salute. "My apologies..."
"Do not worry," she said, not trying to hide her smile. "How goes the research?"
"Progressing." He presented the file for her inspection. "The dermal substitute is definitely a gadget, and not devisor-made. We have made enough to supply Herr Achziger's needs, and should be able to mass-produce it on a commercial scale soon."
"So I see..." The original product packaging was shown on the third page of the report, bearing the simple motto 'It Works', with little else. "Yes, I shall send this to Marketing, to see if we can do something with it. Definitely a mutant invention, then?"
"Oh, yes; there's no doubt about that," said Kessel. "Between its properties and its target market, only a mutant would have thought to develop it. Our reverse-engineered version is only in need of a few more tweaks before it is patentable on its own, we believe."
She nodded. "And the additions we spoke of?"
"On page 10," he told her. "The fluorescent effect only lasts for an hour or two after application, but that should be enough."
Lillian closed the file and handed it to the tech. "Good. We shall let marketing do the rest, then." Bankrupt the mutant, steal his clients, expose them — a solid plan all around. "Let us be going, Kessel."
"You're still young; you need your dinner. Herr Achziger is an expert in the field of waiting, so let him. Come." She started out the door, and the young agent was forced to follow.
They rode up the elevator in silence, and as they left the hospice their more public personae slipped into place. Lillian was not a receptive, not in the way her half-brother Wahrheit was, but the transition was easy to spot. Kessel's entire body relaxed, shoulders rolling back and spine gaining more of a slouch. His face smoothed out, rounded a little without the predatory focus of his agent persona, hidden now behind layers of amiable social graces.
Her own appearance was doing something similar, she knew, subtly altering her posture and expression in ways so well ingrained that she hardly thought about it anymore. Even her voice, when next she spoke, was softer and kinder, with none of the German accent she usually affected.
"So, George," she said as they quit the infirmary for the outside twilight. "How were your finals this semester? Have you gotten your grades back yet?"
The young man, now in his persona of George Richards-Greenwood, teenage, snorted. "Easy-peasy," he said. "Can't see why the rest of the class had so much trouble."
"Well, not everyone's as smart as you, sweetie."
"Yeah, yeah, Mom. I know the spiel, but I'm serious here. We need something better than the standard AP program if I'm going to get into one of the big schools the right way."
"I'll have Principal Kreuger look into it," she promised. Taking him by the arm, Lily Richards-Greenwood enjoyed a nice evening stroll with her son through the picture-perfect streets of Greenwood, Iowa. Families were out and about, playing in the parks and the streets without a care in the world, or even a lock on the door in many cases.
Her father had invested a lot in the town of her birth. As much as she'd hated it back then, under its new name of Greenwood it was a model community, the best of a dozen similar refuges sponsored by Greenwood Industrial, Mfg., for its employees. Here, at least, her people could be safe, well-tended, and prepared for their future role in society. Lily nodded at every happy greeting, at every pair of bright blue eyes to look her way and each head of light-colored hair shining beneath the streetlights.
Yes... the future would be theirs, and hers to lead.
The weather was too nice today, Lillian had decided. The sky was an eggshell blue, unmarred by clouds or contrails, and a soft breeze cut through the usual summer heat. It was perfect for a picnic or a game of baseball.
As she walked alongside the closed casket, its heavy oaken frame hefted by her four remaining half-brothers, Lillian could not find the grace within her to enjoy the weather for what it was. Not far behind her stood the Greenwood Industries chapel, where the Reverend Strauss had led them in their final goodbyes. Ahead, there lay the open grave, ready to receive what was left of Lorenz von Groenwald, a.k.a. Laurence Greenwood, a.k.a. Agent Mauer.
Lillian allowed herself one tear, gracefully streaked down her cheek, in memory of her late half-brother. It was not the first death her family had faced, but still it hurt. Mauer's death had been ignominious, a waste, as he was cut down by treachery and high explosives. There were many things, many debts of blood which Adolf Stein and his Jewess wife owed her, and this was first among them. One day, they would pay in full.
For now, however, she kept her face calm behind her black lace veil, and after the reverend had concluded the final prayers, she accepted Sandmann's arm as she walked to the open grave and threw in one last bouquet of daisies, Mauer's favorites. Only the strictest control kept her from breaking down into sobs.
"Thank you," she murmured to Sandmann and Glas as they walked her away. "It was selfish of me to request, but you managed it anyway."
"Not a problem," Sandmann assured.
"A simple thing," Glas said. "A matter of paperwork and decoys. The FBI shall not realize the bodies are missing for some time."
"The families of the other agents would thank you as well, I'm sure," she said. There'd been four bodies buried in this cemetery in the last week — five, if one counted that bucket of Baumgartner as a complete body — all thanks to the two brothers now walking by her side.
"Do we get an award or something?" Sandmann grinned.
"Only the usual for those who work hard and well," she replied.
Glas nodded. "A job?"
"Yes. To Chicago this time. It should be a simple retrieval mission, but be careful anyway. Details are in the mission folder."
"Awright, Kommandeurin." Sandmann's grin was gone, replaced by his business scowl. "For family, for race, for honor." Giving the two-finger salute to the sides of their heads, he and his brother left to be briefed.
"Can't I order a pizza? Just one?" Sandmann's stomach rumbled. "I mean, we're in Shy Town, of all places, and we can't even get a decent pie while we're here?"
"That is not why we came," Glas pointed out, surveillance glasses never leaving his face. "Stake-outs are neither the time nor place for that."
"Ooh, yeah, a steak would hit the spot just right..." It was not his stomach that drove him to complain, they both knew, but his nerves. Glas was behind the wheel of a shitty little compact Jap-car, because for some reason his no-see-um act worked better that way, but it meant that his brother was stuck in the back with very little legroom and even less to do.
He'd get out, only he didn't feel particularly suicidal that day. In his experience, Chicago as a whole was a pretty safe place to walk around and grab a bite to eat, but here and there were neighborhoods that helped skew the entire metro area's violent crime rates deep into the blood-red. So of course that's where every cut-rate black ops researcher put their secret laboratory, because even mad scientists had a bottom line and the property values around here were only slightly higher than sea level. Their rugged good Aryan looks were better than any target they could put on their backs. Even Glas's social invisibility hoodoo had a hard time keeping them incognito outside the car.
The mission folder was bent, folded, and coffee-stained in his hands, but for lack of anything better to do he read through it yet again. The lab they were surveilling didn't belong to any of the big players in the area, just some up-and-coming nerd with a few cool ideas and enough connections to get a down payment on a basement in the slums. The nerd in question apparently frequented the same online forums as Kessel, and the wunderkind thought one of those ideas was worth the effort of pinching. So there went his uncles. Sandmann hoped his nephew had something cool lined up for his birthday, after all this.
"Anything?" he whined.
"Can we bust in yet?"
"Can we order a pizza?"
"After the job is done." Glas nodded at something in his spy glasses. "Soon. The crowd is thinning."
The target was a basement lab, but the problem was aboveground. Namely, they had to get through the neighborhood's only eatery, an old diner that looked like it dated back to the mobster era, to judge from the age of the bullet holes in its facade. The place was dirty, rubbish, but damned if he didn't want to get a bite to eat. The only thing really stopping him was the fact that he'd stick out like a bar of soap in a coal seam, and half the clientele appeared to be wearing gang colors.
Half an hour later, his brother nodded again. "There are perhaps five customers inside, plus the afternoon staff. That is about as good as we can expect."
"Still say we shoulda tried a night raid."
"Not with the night life in this neighborhood," Glas noted. "For now, the worst elements are resting up for the dark hours."
"Awright, then. Time to make an entrance!" Before his brother could object, he popped the lock on the crap-car's door and escaped into the none-too-fresh air of a Chicago slummer summer. With a sigh and a resigned shake of the head, his brother followed.
It wasn't too noisy in the diner, and what murmured conversation there was halted completely as the two blond men in black suits walked in. His brother sauntered, but Glas slinked, unnerved by the feeling of eyes upon him.
He'd never been comfortable under scrutiny, and had happily allowed his brother to take the spotlight all through grade school. Their mothers were twins, so the two of them were always close, linked more strongly than any of the other Groenwald children by both blood and personal relations, but never had two boys been less alike in personality.
When he'd come into his power of transparency, it was with a feeling of contentment and completion. Nothing had felt more right than to walk through the throng as if he were a ghost, not there at all.
Unfortunately, circumstances could work counter to the effect, as was the case now. By habit, he let his brother take the lead.
"Can I... help you?" the old Negro behind the counter asked. The nametag read "Jim." His eyes were set on Sandmann, but flicked over to Glas every few seconds.
"Yes indeed you can, my good man!" boomed Sandmann. "I'll have four roasted chickens, whole, and a diet Coke. For my brother here, some white toast, dry, no jam or butter, and a glass of water."
"Er, yer jokin', right?"
"Look at my bro, Jim," said Sandmann. "Does he look like the joking type?" Pulling Glas over, Sandmann used his pointer fingers to tug the corners of the dour brother's mouth into a grimace. He suffered the indignation with his usual indifference.
The old Negro sighed. "Ain't my place to say, but I think you boys'uv walked into the wrong diner."
"Oh, of course we have," Sandmann agreed. "In fact, we wouldn't even be here if that lab in your basement had a fucking proper secret entrance." Jim's baggy eyes bulged as a handgun appeared in his face. It was a Kessel special, adapted from some old liberated tech and reworked into a vicious-looking package. "Now, if you'd lead the way, Jim-my-man?"
Glas stepped away, letting the weapon do its other job. Nothing attracted attention like a handgun drawn from its holster, and any such distraction only boosted his own abilities. The little knife in his hands did not command nearly as much respect, and in fact the other men in the diner did not notice it — or him — at all as they rushed in to help the old Negro. Severed arteries made for excellent reminders, though of course no one was fit to react once so reminded.
He tsked as he stepped over the first two bodies, now lying in growing pools of red upon the linoleum. The other three customers had rushed on past him, and when they turned around to see what had happened, his knife was only too happy to greet them in the face.
Stepping over the next three bodies as they twitched and bled, he rejoined his brother at the counter. Old Jim was sweating bullets, heavy caliber ones that rolled down his balding head, over heavy wrinkles and onto the counter below.
"Ain't nothin' here," the man stuttered. His eyes almost popped out of their sockets as they tried to focus on Glas, only to be drawn inexorably back to the barrel of the firearm.
"Nice double-negative, Jimmy," said Sandmann. "And you and I both know that's exactly what it is, right? Linguistic indeterminacy to confound potential truthing measures? God bless the English language. Now look," he continued, tracking the gun back and forth. "We're here for one thing. We get it, then we're outta here. No more muss, no more fuss."
Old Jim broke eye contact to look pointedly at the floor behind them.
"Well, yeah," grunted Sandmann. "Cause a problem, and there's plenty of muss and fuss, but to be honest, Jimmy, we don't care if you live or die." The gun clicked faintly as he adjusted his grip. "I dare say that you do, however."
The old Negro gulped and nodded in understanding. "In the back, door's next to the freezer."
"Thanks a billion. Why don'tcha show us the way?"
Carefully, Jim worked his way around the counter, hands in the air, and walked over to the swinging doors leading to the kitchens. Glas stepped in beside him, peering into the next room. The old Negro actually had his eyes on him now, but the fear in them made it tolerable. Jim made a talking motion with his hands, then pointed inside. Glas nodded, so the old man said in a loud voice: "Brian? Got some folks to show to the Doc's place. Ain't wantin' any trouble, ya hear?"
There was a grunt and the sound of something heavy being dropped to the floor.
"Good idea, Jimmy," Sandmann said cheerfully.
Brian, as it turned out, was a strapping man of no fewer years than the average Methuselah, making Old Jim look positively youthful in comparison. Wary eyes watched their little parade through the kitchen and down the steps to the lab.
As such places went, it wasn't much to talk about. Once you'd seen one Frankenstein or wannabe Prometheus, you'd seen 'em all, as far as Sandmann was concerned. This lair didn't even have suspicious drippy fluids or one of those big electric towers that went br-zap at random moments, so clearly the owner was barely an odd-jobber.
It took Glas hardly five minutes to extract the data they needed, using a handy little gadget that Kessel had cobbled together. Even in its bleeps and bloops, there seemed to be a concerted disdain for the lack of effort required. The entire setup, some sort of ongoing computer simulation by the looks of it, was running off a fifteen-year-old laptop using a Linux kernel, and Sandmann only understood that much from listening to his nephew rattle on over the years. Pathetic is what he'd call it.
Despite the promising start, it looked like this mission was going to be a bit of a dud. Very little action, minimal security, and — unless Old Jim finally grew a pair — no excuse to shoot anything. Sandmann was composing fake reviews in his head, stuff like "One star, would not perpetrate again," as they climbed the stairs back to the diner. Their second trip through the kitchen was duller than the first, and one look at the deep-fryer was enough to turn him off of any snacking before they left.
Then, just as they were back into the dining area, the front door blew inward and a set of obvious minions in ill-fitting purple jumpsuits rushed in.
"Awright!" Sandmann growled, dumping Old Jim to the floor. "This is more like it!"
He shook his head as his brother leapt at the opportunity. It had been a nice, quiet mission so far, body count notwithstanding. In, out, and done with — that was professionalism. This new group, whoever they were, obviously lacked such. Off-the-rack uniforms in awful colors, poor tactics as they entered, and flashy looking guns which they handled like novices.
Glas let himself blend into the background as Sandmann took advantage of their fumbling. His brother's gun had returned to its holster, but his fists needed no help in such close quarters.
The agent in black slammed the first idiot in purple square in the solar plexus, leaving him collapsed on the ground and ready to trip up the next idiot. Someone in back fired a shot, as bright and flashy as the weapon that loosed it, but Sandmann was already out of the way and uppercutting Idiot #3, then grabbing him to serve as a shield against the next two shots.
The hapless shooter was the last to go, and Glas's brother was obviously enjoying himself now. Sandmann ducked in low, tackling the man and slamming his head against the linoleum a few times until something went crunch.
"What is going on in there!?" came the voice of someone who apparently thought he should be in charge. Glas sidled over to the window and saw another half-dozen lackeys standing around a man who must surely have been paying well, for there was no way he could be leading by charisma alone. The leader's jumpsuit appeared tailored, at least, but nothing could hide the obvious paunch, and his mask was forced to make room for a nose like a parrot's beak. He certainly squawked like one.
Glas sighed and drew his own sidearm. He'd have his brother draw attention, and then walk over to the lead idiot and shoot him in the face. The world may even thank him for the mercy-kill.
It was a solid, simple plan, one that had worked well enough on countless occasions, but he was as attached to it as he was to anything that was not family, so he was by no way disappointed that he did not have to follow through with it. There was a roaring shout from down the road, and then a new figure slammed into the crowd of minions, knocking them over like a set of purple bowling pins.
In the middle of the growing fight was a young Negro, probably still a teen but sporting the figure of a football player. Glas calmly noted the slight discoloration of the skin and the facial deformities, like a nub of horn over the nose, that led him to conclude mutation.
He did not sneer at that, but held his brother back before he could rush into the fray.
"Hey, whatcha doing?"
"Peace," he told his brother. "Let the young mutant finish it for us, and then talk our way out."
"But I wanna cap 'im."
"We do not know if bullets will even harm him," Glas noted. “The guns of our current competition do not seem up to the task, at least. Granted, that may be because they cannot shoot a wall in broad daylight, but..."
They watched the melee from the front door, commenting on technique and finesse. The mutant teen lifted one heavyset minion off the ground with ease, hanging on to the man by the ankles as he whirled around and wiped out two others. Then he ripped a manhole cover right off the road and slammed another enemy in the gut. There were scorch marks on his jersey now, evidence that someone on the other side could aim, but no blood or other sign of injury.
Once the purple gang was completely pulverized, black and blue and bleeding on the asphalt, it was time to move in. The teen stood there huffing and puffing like a stalled locomotive as Sandmann sauntered forward, clapping loudly.
"Nicely done!" his brother cried. "A little rough and raw on style, but with a bit of polish, whew..."
"Who da fuck're you?" Slate-grey mutant eyes glared.
"Just someone here to do some business, nice and quiet and proper," Sandmann assured. "Was heading out when those goons decided to make a ruckus. Took down a buncha them inside, myself."
"Is fine," the agent said, "though I can't say the same for the other fellows in his fine establishment. I'll leave that to you. Got a name, my young hero?"
"Well then, Franklin. Nice to see a promising young man such as yourself in action. Perhaps our paths shall cross again someday. Until then!" Sandmann strode confidently away, so full of himself that the teen never noticed Glas in his brother's shadow.
"So, how long till he gets the low-down from Uncle Jim , you think?" Sandmann said out of the corner of his mouth. His brother's hand was on his other holster, the one filled with the special sand that enabled his powers and lent him his code name.
"I do not know, but..."
If the diner's door were not already broken, the teen would have demolished it on his way out. Franklin's roar of outrage barely had time to herald his charge, so fast did he cover the ground between them. The teen's path took him straight through a cloud of Sandmann's glittery grit, the physical component to his psionic whammy. The first hit barely slowed the kid down, but that was just enough to give the agent time to throw a larger handful of sleepy-sand in that be-horned face.
"Kid's got moxie," Sandmann commented as they left Franklin crumpled on the pavement. As their crappy little Jap-car zoomed away, they could see the teen get up on wobbly knees and blink in confusion. "So, can we get a pizza?"
Lillian von Groenwald
There were many things which Lillian von Groenwald liked about Washington, D.C.: its architecture, its sense of organization, that feeling of being within the beating heart of a nation. True, its major arteries were clogged with traffic and the congestion of bureaucracy. There were offices nested within offices, doors that existed only to be slammed in one's face, and a coded language so layered and subtle that it could take a lifetime to learn.
Which was why, when Lillian had need to visit this buzzing hive of political iniquity, it behooved her to have a guide.
For many villains, politicians, and other sort of rogues, that guidance took the form of one Persephone Elfmann, whose office occupied a corner space that would overlook the Capitol Mall if the curtains ever opened. Getting into that office was an exercise in diplomacy and negotiation in itself, as no corridors led directly to it, nor was its mistress's name to be found on any door plate. Without the proper words, and the names to back them up, one couldn't get within five doors of the place.
Lillian approved, in a way. The higher one rose, the more distractions grew upward to drag one back. It made sense to build barriers to weed out the nuisances. She did not actually like having to jump through someone else's hoops, but she could understand the need for them. Once she did get through, the mistress of the office did not waste much time on polite greetings.
Persephone Elfmann was not a tall woman, but rather one who knew her size and made advantage of it. Careful selection and placement of furniture made her space seem larger than it really was, while depriving visitors of mobility. The bookshelf behind her stretched wide instead of high, and the forest of bookmarks left little doubt that she made full and regular use of every tome.
In a realm of dark, oaken panels and thick red curtains, Ms. Elfmann was a pale splash, a sunless phantom whose light brown hair billowed and curled around her face. Grey eyes glinted in the light of her desk lamp, matching the metallic shine of the bull's-head pendant around her neck. The rest of her outfit was sober and severe, as well as impeccably tailored.
"Lady Groenwald," the woman said, shutting the folder she'd been perusing. "I would ask what brings an honest Nazi such as yourself to this foetid swamp of a city, but you've already had the courtesy of informing me." She tapped the folder. "It was an interesting read, at the least."
Lillian gritted her teeth and smiled. "I am happy to see you amused," she said.
Her hostess snorted. "Liar. You hate having to come here, and you hate asking for help. Well, even your Fuhrer had need to go to the bankers, didn't he?"
"And look what happened to them."
"And look what happened to him," Ms. Elfmann echoed. "You're a smart woman, though. I'm sure you can swallow your pride and not burn all your bridges while you're standing on them. Still," the woman continued, "it is a bold move, what you've outlined here. I assume you've prepped this candidate of yours?"
"One very damaging scandal, properly cultivated and currently suppressed by my agents."
"Live boy or dead girl?" Ms. Elfmann snorted again. "Eh, doesn't matter in the end, I suppose. And you're here to secure access to political capital. Hm..."
Lillian studied the woman as she mused. There was very little information on Persephone Elfmann available, which made what little was known doubly suspect. The woman was a broker, of money and influence, which meant power, here in the dirty sink of the government where the roaches skittered in expensive suits. Her stable of congressmen and lobbyists were remarkably reliable, making the Nazi wonder just what the broker had on them.
Her eyes kept turning back to that pendant around the woman's neck, the head of a bull with horns curving up to meet at the clasp and chain. It was the only thing in the office that even hinted at personal importance, and Lillian had never seen the woman without it.
"Yes..." said Ms. Elfmann. "I believe we can do business here. A general quid pro quo for votes and support. From time to time I may request that you lean on someone, in that wonderful way you do. I assume you do not care too much about the actual policies involved, as long as your interests are realized."
Lillian let a thin smile crack her face, but nothing else.
"Didn't think so. A fairly normal sentiment, these days. Well," Ms. Elfmann said. "I will send the contract via the usual channels for your legal team to fuss over."
"It does give them something to do."
"Doesn't it?" The woman grinned, teeth flashing bright in the low-lit room. She extended a hand, which Lillian did not hesitate to take in her own. The skin was strangely warm, not quite feverish, but the handshake was short and firm. "A pleasure doing business with you, Lady Groenwald."
Persephone Elfmann's eyes followed her guest to the door, and only when it was firmly shut behind the lovely Lillian did she allow herself to really smile. No one who'd ever truly done business with her, either as Persephone or her old moniker Pelf, would find the expression comforting. She leaned back in her chair and leafed through the immaculately prepared precis for her newest client's proposal.
Oh, it was wicked, this one. Subtle, too, in a way most of these modern-day Nazis never bothered with. Even if it failed, it had the potential to rock the nation, and if it succeeded...
"You should not have accepted." The voice that rolled through the silence of her office was low and deep, with the weight of the earth crushing down. To any outside observers, it would seem to be coming from Persephone's own throat.
"Now, now," she tutted in her own alto tones. "It's a fair deal in an unfair business. No matter how it turns out, we're ready to profit."
"That one wants too much, needs too much. The price of her soul is too great. You will never be able to match it." What followed was the angry snort of a wild beast.
Persephone lifted the bull's-head pendant on its chain and dangled it before her eyes. It twirled three times, showing the word AVARITIA inscribed in deep letters on the reverse side. "You never chose me for my timid nature, Mammonas," she reminded him, "nor for my willingness to settle for second-best. Lillian's fervor and zeal may outweigh her greed, but her aspirations may also exceed her reach. Let her grasp, to succeed or to fail. If she prospers, it will only drive more desperate souls to us. And if she fails, it is she who will be back in that chair begging for help. And when that day comes..." She leered as light glinted off the metal pendant. "That sweet little Aryan ass will be all mine."
July 4th, 2016
There were a few words that could always describe summer in one of the plains states: hot, dry, and golden brown. Oceans of corn and seas of wheat, as well as patches of the original prairie of old, had matured and desiccated in the summer sun, and once again this year the weather service had issued strong advisories and bans against amateur fireworks displays.
Once again, George Richards-Greenwood ignored them, but he was hardly an amateur. Even as a small child, well before his mother had allowed him to undergo the second stage of Groenwald Protocols and achieve his full potential, he'd been interested in gears and mechanisms and things that went BOOM!, and now he had the skills to make things of which normal pyrotechnicians could hardly dream.
"Whew-ee!" one of his friends shouted as a Greenwood Industrial prototype launched itself into the indigo sky, bursting into a perfect circle of yellow with a deep green cross pattern in the middle. "Nice one, George!"
He waved his hand in thanks, then went back to his planning pad. The touch screen interface let him submit designs to the launcher, to be arranged within the rocket on just a few minutes' notice. The gadget could only accommodate four designs at a time in its stock, so he was busy cycling through the larger library he'd assembled in order to keep it firing at a regular pace.
"When can we have a go?" the friend asked again. Freddie Manchester was George's oldest buddy, since before kindergarten even, and the tow-headed youth understood that George needed regular reminders to put down his toys and socialize.
"Just another minute," he promised. "Got the last series set for the big launcher, and the little ones on the side as well. After that you all can have fun with it."
Freddie grinned and plopped himself down on the old quilt they'd laid in the middle of the pasture. Greenwood Industrial Mfg. owned all the farmland within a good distance of town, either directly or via agent proxies, and they kept enough cattle to be picturesque and supply local demand for dairy.
George could hear the animals mooing in the distance. The agent part of his brain idly wondered how difficult it would be to continue and perfect that old Nazi program for resurrecting the European aurochs, but he shelved it away for later. He had more important things to take care of.
He took his spot on the old quilt, in the middle of his circle of friends. Freddie, Electra, Malorie, the twins Jason and Emma, and himself: they were the core of their school's German Heritage Society, though their roots in that country were variable and tenuous. There was no denying that they looked the part, at least, with fair hair and blue eyes for all. They were all the same age, and their parents were all highly ranked in the organization which hid behind the Greenwood name.
With a grand flourish, George stabbed the big red button on the touch screen, and the grand finale began. The side launchers let loose a barrage of Roman candles in preset patterns, while the main cannon belched forth its customized payloads.
*A field of green Iron Crosses, twinkling like stars in the sky*
*An American flag, with the stars in the upper left corner slightly altered, and the blue tinged to a subtly greenish hue*
*The face of a teenage girl, with sapphire eyes and a ponytail of molten gold, who even managed to wink before she faded away*
*Seven words, spelled out in large, glittery letters: ELECTRA WILL YOU GO OUT WITH ME?*
All eyes in the group were on the tall, athletic girl with her hair tied back. Electra's own ice-blue orbs were on George, and he grinned nervously as they bored into him.
"Um, surprise?" he said.
"Took ya long enough," Freddie sniggered. The rest of their friends followed suit as Electra stood and put some distance between herself and the quilt.
George tossed the smartpad control to Freddie, then rushed after her. "Um, er, sorry to spring that on you..."
"Was this your mother's idea?" Electra demanded.
"No! Well..." He could feel his cheeks burning in the twilight. "She has mentioned that I should get out of the labs more and socialize, and she wouldn't mind me dating or anything, but she never said who or how or—"
"That's all I wanted to know." Electra sighed. "Hard to tell with you sometimes, what's your idea and what's hers."
"She is who she is," George admitted, "but she tries not to be die Kommandeurin when it comes to personal family stuff, honest."
"I guess that'll have to do," she said. "So I need to properly answer that question of yours."
"What do you—" He never had the opportunity or need to finish that sentence. Electra was athletic, with a Valkyrie's physique, and when she pulled someone to her, that person didn't have much choice. With his agent training, George probably could have slipped out of her grip, but he didn't really want to. The liplock didn't stop until the sound of fireworks overhead broke it for them.
*Their names, written in gold against a lumpy, lopsided heart*
*A rough outline of a tree with pink and blue stick figures sitting in its boughs*
*The letters K-I-S-S-I-N-G flashing into existence and then fading away in quick succession*
The last was a very rude image, both in the ability of the artist and in the nature of the subject matter. It only lasted a second, thankfully, but it would still have been visible for miles.
Later that evening
Everyone got a turn with the fireworks designer, though George had to put his foot down on a few of the more objectionable ideas from Jason and Freddie. The rest of the evening was spent chatting, laughing, and passing around a bottle or two of liquor that his uncles had picked up on their trip to Chicago, "to enjoy the best years of living," as his Uncle Rich had said with that devil-may-care grin of his. Uncle Rob had been his usual quiet self, but that didn't stop him from gracing them with his own favorite tipple as well.
"So," Freddie said as he sipped at the bottle carefully, "when's it our turn for real?"
Like that, the atmosphere of their prairie picnic changed. Casual as it was framed, that was a business question, and George's agent persona stirred at the words. All around, his friends were also sitting up straighter, and if he could see their faces clearly, then their training would be apparent in their expressions as well.
"Soon," Kessel promised to his future team of agents. "We finished the tweaks on the second-stage protocols, Aunt Danielle has responded well to the new formulation, and everything else lines up with Grossvater's notes. It's just a matter of time before we have enough of the Thulean serum ready for you all."
His grandfather, the second-generation Nazi operative sometimes known as the Green Death, had lived just long enough to start his in utero enhancement program again, with the unborn children of his most trusted agents as the recipients. The results were sitting with Kessel now. But the old man's death had thrown the plans for later, full enhancements into limbo. The last dose of Thulean serum had been carefully conserved, to be used on Kessel himself. With his help, the researchers had it replicated just in time to accommodate the surprise arrival of his new aunt into the fold.
The rest of the German Heritage Society had been champing at the bit to get their own abilities, once his skills with gadgetry had become actualized. Every time the topic came up, the speculation over who would get what began in earnest. Of course they all knew that simply wanting a power wasn't enough to determine such things; Kessel had fully briefed them on the nature of the protocols. Physical and mental enhancement, a more robust immune system, and a singular psionic ability of some sort, that was all that could be guaranteed. The actual ability varied widely among the ten people who'd received it, and there was potential for even more, if Grossvater's writings were to be believed.
"Flying, man. That's what I'd like," said Jason.
"Gotta be careful with that," Malorie noted.
"Yes," said George, his agent persona sinking back below the surface. "I told you about Uncle Paul, right?" His mother's late brother Paul, also known as Agent Adler, had gained the power of PK flight, but unfortunately not the good sense to take an oxygen tank with him when he decided to see how high he could go.
"A couple of times," Jason admitted. "How about you, sis?" he asked Emma.
His twin thought for a moment. "Walking through walls," she decided.
"Fireballs!" shouted Freddie.
"Psychic disguises," said Malorie.
That left Electra, who considered as she snuggled in close to him. "Doesn't really matter," she said finally. "Anything would be good for an agent to have. Offensive, defensive, extra-sensory; power is power."
"But?" George prompted.
"But if I could choose anything, I'd go for PK supergirl," she declared.
"Heck, yeah!" said Freddie. "Aim high!"
"Correction," said George. "Aim for the target. That said, have I told you all about my cousin on the Abendritter side..."
Lillian von Groenwald
There was a file on her desk, one that she'd seen, perused, and stamped as closed only a few weeks before. When she'd come in on a Wednesday morning to find it there, she'd been surprised. When she'd read the note appended to the front, several agents were immediately summoned to her presence.
Agent Winslow was a solid, methodical fellow, just the sort to manage an office well. He'd served her father before her, and his twin children attended school with Kessel.
Agent Haskel was new, and looked both confused and frightened. For him, she flashed a brief second of calming emotions. Scared minions were hardly useful minions.
Agent Fox was the surprise member of this gathering. As a member of the field command team, he shouldn't have been involved in secondary mission profiles at all, only he was at loose ends since the Kansas debacle. She'd told him to poke around, see where he could help advance their cause.
She hadn't expected him to choose this particular project, however.
"I thought Operation Prodigal was closed," she said to the three of them, "and yet you allowed expenditures to extend it for at least another month. I trust you have good reasons, but I would like to know why."
"Ah, Lady Groenwald, we..." Winslow began.
"It's my doing," said Fox. "On my own initiative, I decided to expand the mission parameters."
"My brother Jan is already dead," she pointed out.
"Yes. Johannesburg, 2006," Fox confirmed. "But, given the time and his age, I felt it worthwhile to run some algorithms that my old employer used for insurance claim investigation." He presented her with a new file. "Something came up, and I tasked the agents on site with looking into it."
Lillian took it, noting the title printed on the front. Operation Foundling. The very first page was a photo of a girl, perhaps seven years old, with lovely blonde ringlets and eyes of a particular shade of blue that she knew so well. Lillian saw it in the mirror every day.
"How did we miss this?" she demanded, looking at Winslow and Haskell. The senior agent had a nonplussed expression, while the rookie was about to faint from fear.
"Your brother never married the mother of his child," said Fox. "There were no official records linking them, but enough circumstantial material that my algorithms were able to find her. Agents Winslow and Haskell were kind enough to allow me the extension to the mission."
"So our agents have her in hand?"
"It's not that simple..." Now Fox showed his nerves. "Page four, my lady."
She turned the page, scanning the material quickly. Then she read it again. "This is... unexpected," she said. "You have confirmed her current location?"
"As well as we can, Lady Groenwald," said Fox. "We thought it best if you handled the communications from here."
"Yes..." She nodded to them. "Thank you, gentlemen. Commendations for all involved. Haskell, if you could go to the business liaison department and arrange something with one of our European partnerships? Important enough to warrant a visit from the CEO of Greenwood Industrial Mfg.? Winslow, I entrust you with moving Operation Candidate forward. We have a strict window of action, so make the most of it. I want things well underway before I get back. Thank you."
The three men saluted, two fingers to the left temple, before filing out to leave her with her thoughts.
July 17th, 2016
It had been two days since Kommandeurin had left in a rush for Europe. She hadn't explained why, only that if things went well she would have such a surprise for them all. Of course, he could have checked the missions database directly, but Kessel didn't begrudge his mother the occasional mystery.
Instead, he did what any technically minded teen did when Mom was out: stay up till all hours, devour copious amounts of junk food, and have his girlfriend come over as often as possible.
Elektra's father had had words with him later the first night, however, so for the moment his attention was held solely by the gear in front of him. His mother's organization pulled in tech from any source imaginable, and a few that simply weren't. As an example, at the moment he could not ascertain how the item in front of him actually worked.
It was, or appeared to be, a new model of portable printer. A plastic frame held a piece of A4 paper, and the main body moved across it, filling white space with tiny black letters and vivid illustrations. The problem was that it did not have any observable ink reservoir, no direct means of data input, nor even a need to be plugged in, though it did run out its charge after a few pages. After fifteen minutes, it was ready to go again.
Placing his thumb on the pad that was clearly labeled for such, he focused his thoughts on Elektra. Immediately, the printer sprang to life, illustrating a perfect portrait of his girlfriend, wearing a hat, a smile, and not much else. The text box to the side spelled out a tale that could have come straight from one of his uncles' old Penthouse magazines.
Scheisse. He snatched the page from the tray and failed to not spend several minutes staring. It was a photo-realistic image, down to details he had yet to get a chance to see. His ears burned as he slipped it into a plain manila folder and hid it in a desk drawer.
"How's it goin', George?" boomed a voice from the front door, two rooms away. Sandmann sauntered in, followed as always by Glas. Or rather, his uncles Rob and Rick, if they were using public family names for the conversation.
"Hey," he called back. "Good enough, I suppose."
"Got the gizmo figgered out yet?"
"I wish. It's mad-tech, for sure. Interesting, but not very useful."
His uncle grinned, or rather had all his teeth showing in a configuration that might be taken to be humored. "So you're pretty much done for the day?"
"Great!" Uncle Rob hauled him up out of his seat by one arm. "We're headed into Des Moines for the day, and could use another driver. Unless you're not interested in takin' that license of yours out for a spin?"
Oh yeah. He was legally old enough to drive now. Even before he'd undergone the protocols and been named Agent Kessel, short for der kesselflicker, George had often talked his uncles into letting him drive stuff. Cars, trucks, tractors, anti-personnel assault spinners — there was nothing a young boy liked more than things that went vroom. He'd had a few years of experience under his belt when he finally took the driver's test for real.
"Let me grab my things." In went his phone, a notebook, a black box, and his wallet. The tech stores in town might have some interesting stuff. And he really needed to buy a gift for Elektra, he supposed.
It was roughly one hundred miles to Des Moines, or about an hour and forty-five minutes by normal, sane highway speeds. His Uncle Rick's power of social invisibility prevented the agent from ever coming to appreciate the niceties of polite automotive operation, so on a nice day with less traffic it only took them about forty-five minutes in all.
Once they were in town, George switched to the driver's seat of the old Chevy, enjoying the hum of its non-standard engine under the ultramarine hood. With its crackles of lightning patterned along the sides, it stood out more than any other car the twin uncles owned, and it spent more time being lovingly maintained than on the road, where it might interfere with the Glas effect.
Under his uncle's direction, he wended through an empty post-suburban zone, full of houses voided in the last few years by the quirks and vagaries of economics, until they pulled into a short driveway in front of a squat house that was remarkable only for how well it integrated with the bland appearance of its neighbors.
"What's here?" he asked.
"Safehouse," his Uncle Rob replied.
"And a staging area," added Uncle Rick from the back seat.
George sighed. "This isn't really a shopping trip, is it?"
"Sure it is!" boomed Uncle Rick. "As soon as we take care of a little business, that's all."
As they walked into the house, George could sort of tell when his uncles dropped the facade, leaving friendly old Rob and Rick at the door so that Sandmann and Glas could get to business. It only took George himself a second longer to do the mental shift to Kessel, but he was still aware that, agent or not, he was still the same teenager beneath it all. His uncles sometimes seemed like completely different people.
The windows had been fitted with scene-screens, one of his own early inventions. Looking in from the outside, no one would ever guess at what was actually piled up on the tables or floor, because the dynamic circuitry within the plastic screens were programmed to fake the images of whatever sort of place they needed it to be, adjusting for weather and time of day to keep the illusion intact.
Kessel was quite proud of them, and knew the CPU would already be accommodating for their presence, showing them in some anodyne activity like watching football until they left through one of the public exits.
Ten minutes and a change of clothing later, Glas was driving a brightly and patriotically appointed van out of a culvert in a different part of the housing division. It was doubtful that the local land management authority realized how extensively the area's storm shelters were linked.
"Why are we dressed like this?" he had to ask. The three of them were a matched set in red, white, and blue spandex, with gold stars affixed over suspicious amounts of padding in certain areas. The suits covered their heads, except where mask-like goggles fitted on.
"What, ya don't recognize the Flag Men?" Sandmann grinned. "The mysterious defenders of Des Moines who appear in times of crisis?"
"Well, yeah," he admitted. "But what..."
"That's us, Kessel-my-lad! Always has been, though we swap it around a bit between agents, depending on who's available. With Mauer gone..." There was a short pause and salute. "...and Sänger preoccupied with the missus, that doesn't leave us a lot of options, yanno? Wahrheit's not one for fightin', neither, so we asked you to come with."
"But what..." Kessel repeated, hoping for a clearer answer.
"There have been reports," said Glas. "A rogue mutant. Probably a recent manifestation, on the east side of the city. Several incidents of property damage over the last month and a half."
"So the city needs a hero! Someone to end the reign of terror and destroy the mutant menace!" Sandmann finished with his usual bombast. "That gear in the back good for you?"
"Yeah." It was a standard tech set-up for the organization, with the basics for mutant-hunting. Weapons, ammo, forensic equipment and some personal force shields. "What's the intel on this mutant?"
"Young, of course. Flashy, probably an energizer, but not much else known. Property damage is too low to be a rager. Probably."
"And the cops're too chickenshit to take it down on their own!"
Kessel's heart was sitting low in his bowels for the short trip to the scene of the most recent incident.
The old convenience store had been sorely inconvenienced by the police tape cordoning off part of its meager parking lot. By the look of things, the tape had been there for a few days, but there was a police officer awaiting their arrival. At least the cop looked happy to see the red, white, and blue trio as he waved them over, even if the donut never left his mouth.
Sandmann, currently known as Red, had a quiet gab with the man, then waved to Kessel. "Okay, Blue! Do your thing!"
He passed the scanner over some of the most obvious scorch marks. The handheld gadget ran a quick comparison check on physical and energetic residue, then listed the results on its monitor.
"Definitely an energizer," he reported back. "Not thermal or electromagnetic, though. Still crunching the data, but it looks like one of those exotic energy types that drive physicists batty."
"Good work! The security video's shot to hell, but the manager thinks he's remembered what the perp looks like. Short, black hair, blue and pink windbreaker." Sandmann/Red snorted. "We'll see how far that gets us." Kessel's uncle made a sudden turn, addressing the store clerks as they sent jaded stares of boredom his way. "Never fear! The Flag Men are on the case, and these colors never run!"
Kessel's eyes were still rolling half an hour later, when the scanning device in the van picked up an echo of the same exotic energy pattern as they drove down Guthrie Avenue. It wasn't a strong positive, but it was persistent, and after a few minutes he was able to triangulate the position of the source. The van swerved left onto Saylor Road, and then into the small park area in the center of town. There were just enough trees around to describe it as wooded.
Not enough trees to block the sight of smoke, however.
The north end of Union Park had an old-fashioned wooden carousel. Kessel could remember riding its gaily colored animals around and around as his young mind tried to figure out its inner workings. The attraction was, he was happy to see, not damaged, though a nearby table was smoking enough to fool from a distance.
A small crowd huddled by the carousel, as far from the table as possible, and the people cheered as the Flag Men's bright van drove up. From the decorations and banner, it looked like someone's birthday party had just been ruined.
"She ran that way!" shouted a red-faced gentleman who'd obviously had his fair share of birthday cake in the past. As they walked up, Kessel's nose told him that the cake had been washed down with copious amounts of beer. By his side was the birthday girl, who'd apparently not enjoyed much cake in the past, and wasn't enjoying her father's breath at all.
"Thank you, my good man!" said 'Red.' "Could you tell me what happened, while my partners get the gear ready?"
"That... that little monster invited herself to our party!"
"Daddy, I told you Sookie was coming..."
"...and that little tramp tried to steal from us!"
"She only wanted a piece of cake..."
"I tried to inform her on her bad behavior, because you know how kids are these days. You have to be in control or else they'll just go plain rotten and steal your cake! We can't be having that!"
"You scared her, daddy..."
"Now, now, I know you were scared, princess, but the grown-ups are talking here! Run along now."
The birthday girl, who looked old enough to be in high school that fall, flounced away from her father. Maybe it was because they were fairly close in age, but only Kessel seemed to notice how her shoulders slumped a little, or how the tip of her nose was turning red.
"Are you going to be okay?" he asked her quietly. "I mean, a mutant attack can be an awful experience..."
"It wasn't an attack," she sobbed back, also keeping her voice down. "Daddy decided to be upset about stuff today, and Sookie got in the way somehow, so he unloaded it on her. Next thing, boom!" She sniffled. "Please, you have to believe me. She's not meaning to do stuff like this. We've been hiding it for over a month now, but it just sorta gets out sometimes."
"Okay, okay... what's your name?"
"No." She hiccupped a giggle. "It's just Sara, but... we found the name on the internet, and it sounded cool, yanno? Sarabine and Sookie. It's stupid." Her shoulders slumped even more. "Stupid, stupid thing to talk about at a time like this..."
"Look," Kessel said, patting her on the shoulder. That was something heroes did, right? "The Flag Men are on the trail. We'll take care of your friend. Don't worry."
It sounded good, even if the last sentence was a lie.
The target — the mutant, the girl, Sookie — hadn't gone too far. From the carousel, she'd dashed north, back across Guthrie Avenue and into the warren of residential streets, white picket fences, and neurotically manicured lawns.
She didn't know that someone was already after her, but she didn't need that information to know that it wasn't a good idea to stick around. Over the past month, she and Sarabine had put a plan together, a way to escape in the event that her powers slipped out again. They'd almost used it, after that drunk guy grabbed her in front of the convenience store a few days back, but her friend was able to get close enough to the manager's office in back to screw with the video.
Now she really wished they'd gone and done it anyway.
Plan: get to the house, make sure Mom and Dad really are out for the day and not just lighting it up in the back yard, grab the cash reserve, meet Sarabine at the bus station. Easy, simple, and hopefully fast enough that the police wouldn't have a description yet.
Her legs were a lot faster than they used to be, and she was already halfway home without having to huff or puff at all. For someone as chronically un-athletic as she, this was a nice change of pace. She could almost learn to enjoy it, even. Then the van pulled up to block her way.
It was sort of an ugly vehicle, in that garish way that fetishized patriotism way too much. The red, white, and blue mish-mash of stars and stripes were familiar, though. Three years ago, the Flag Men had rescued her father from a mad science experiment gone rogue, and she'd heard nothing but fine words about them ever since.
Maybe she and Sarabine wouldn't need the plan, after all? Maybe they could get the Flag Men to help them out. Maybe...
The three heroes jumped from the van. The one whose outfit was mostly blue had a weird little box in his hand, and it beeped like crazy when he pointed it her way. The one who was mostly in red was holding a weird little bag, but her attention was more on the gun at his hip. The one in white—
Mr. White was already next to her, even though she hadn't seen him move at all. Surprise forced a burst of the purple flame through her legs, scorching the ground as it pushed her back and out of the way of the man's wicked-sharp knife.
Her? They were after her? They were after her! Why? What had she done? Well, yeah, she'd almost flambeed Sarabine's dad, but he'd started it with that stupid tirade about cake, and anyway, three minutes spent around the guy was enough to make anyone want to...
That didn't matter, though. Plan A was out the window, which only left Plan B: run like heck. Her legs were already on that one, and the purple flame was adding its own oomph to each step to carry her farther and faster. There was no point in worrying about the track of craters she was leaving behind in the asphalt.
She did settle it down once she was around the corner and had a few options to take. This was her neighborhood, and she knew where to climb fences or sneak behind sheds full of neglected gardening supplies. It should have been easy to hook around and have the Flag Men searching the wrong street entirely.
So when she popped out of hiding to make the last dash to her front porch, she wasn't expecting Mr. Red to be there. But he was, with that funky-looking bag in his hand. A spray of grit blew over her face, and that was the last she remembered before it all went black.
"Whup, there we go," Sandmann said as he hauled the girl's limp form into the yard behind her house.
"What are we going to do with her?" asked Kessel, who regretted already knowing the answer.
"Normally, we'd turn her over to the police, and the'd give her to the MCO for their usual thing," his uncle explained. "But after that show she put on while tryin' to escape, I think we can justify somethin' a bit more final. The cops'd even thank us for getting rid of the middleman, as it were."
Sandmann laid the girl on the ground, then drew his pistol. He presented the weapon handle-first to Kessel. "Go on, you do the honors."
"Me?" Surprise managed to break the composure of his agent persona, if only a little.
"Sure! Gotta start somewhere, right?"
He accepted the weapon, heavy in his hand despite its weight. "Um... do you guys... have to watch?" he asked.
His uncle grinned like a guillotine. "Stage fright, huh? No worries, we'll be out front in the van. Better be quick, before she comes around. Only gave her a ten-minute puff at best."
They left him there behind the house, alone with the gun, the girl, and his thoughts. A few minutes later, there was the sound of a gunshot, muffled by a silencer. His uncles were listening for it, but otherwise no one seemed to notice.
"Let's go," he said as he got in the van. "She started sparking right after. If she explodes, I don't want to be nearby."
"Good goin', Kessel." Sandmann clapped him on the back.
She woke up with a start, the echoes of some loud noise still ringing in her ears. In the space between those ears, it still felt a bit stuffed with cotton. She rubbed her forehead, only to discover a piece of paper in her hand. Just a scribbled note in pencil, but no words had ever made her pay attention more.
"Sookie. This is your one chance. Get your stuff, say bye to your friend, and leave town. Before you go, blast as much of your backyard as you can. I'm going to tell them you self-destructed after the gunshot. The item next to you—"
A quick check revealed a sort of collar or bracelet, kinda cyberpunk in a rough way.
"—should be able to dampen your energy output when you wear it. No guarantees, and it could overload if you stress it too much. Now, get going!! —Your reluctant enemy."
Sookie Webster was certainly no idiot. She was in and out of the house in three minutes, and two minutes after that her entire backyard was ablaze with crazed purple energies. The screaming sirens of the fire engines passed her as she raced to the bus station.
Lillian von Groenwald
In her persona of Lily Pritchard-Greenwood, Lillian was a frequent visitor to the old countries. Her grandfather, the Nazi theme operative known as the Green Skull, had had a broad network of friends, colleagues, and collaborators, in spite of his fabled seclusion after the war. Many of those had since been exposed or simply retired out of any useful positions, but they'd left a legacy and heirs to continue it. In Britain, the fascist Dr. Graves may be remembered in infamy, but his grandson controlled an important bloc of the British medical research industry. Le Mecanicien was long dead, but that techno-cult he'd founded, les Fils de Reseau, had their wires plugged into corporations across France and into much of the rest of the Euro-zone. La Limpieza had survived the Franco years much enriched, and Lillian did so enjoy visits to Madrid.
Ironically, it was Germany where she had the fewest contacts, and fewer still of those were willing to take even the slightest of risks. She stopped in Munich for some strudel, but left with the pastry as she headed south.
Now she was on an unnamed road outside of Lucerne, in a black car not of her hiring, driven by a man who would do his best to kill her if so ordered. Such was the world they lived in.
It was night, but the car's headlights were not on. The driver didn't seem to be bothered, and Lillian's own eyesight was quite good in low light. Certainly, she could see the sign on the gate as they arrived at their destination.
Her grandfather had worked both with and against old Simon DeVille during the Great War, and her father had employed several graduates of the dark academy over the years, including many of her own instructors. She'd hated each and every one of the bitches, but there was no denying that they were the best, the most professional members of a world where betrayal and assassination were commonplace occurrences.
She was greeted at the door by a steely-eyed woman in a dark suit, but no introductions were made, nor were any pleasantries exchanged. They knew who she was, and all details had been firmly thrashed out well in advance of her arrival. Instead, Lillian let herself be led through the academy's deceptively picturesque facade, a Swiss chalet with gingerbread detailing fit for some soppy musical performance, and into the depths of the real DeVille Academy.
Much like her own facilities, this was a place that operated underground as a matter of habit and professional philosophy. Lillian only had anecdotes for reference, but anyone in the business of terror, extortion, and subterfuge had heard the tales. She was sure that some of it had to be exaggeration for the benefit of the school's reputation, but it was hard to say what.
It wasn't as if she was here for the tour, in any case. Her guide let her into a conference room, minimally decorated with spartan furniture, where a school docent waited at one end of a glass table.
At the other end sat her niece. Even ten years removed from the photo in Agent Fox's report, this was obviously she. The ringlets had given way to cascades of gilded platinum, but the eyes were the same, as blue and as hard as any sapphire. The face had long since lost its baby softness, leaving in place the stark beauty of a Groenwald maiden. Lillian could well have been looking at her own high school yearbook photo.
The teen was examining her just as closely, keeping her expression set to the default of neutral disdain that seemed to be the hallmark of this school. Her uniform was a splash of inky black in a room otherwise dominated by metallic grey.
To be sure, Lillian's own dark green business suit stood out in a similar fashion, but to be safe she upped the charm as only she could, slowly increasing the strength of her charismatic empathy's attention-grabbing effect. She wanted this girl to remember every word said here for the rest of her life.
"Good evening, Madame d'Eon."
"To you as well, Lady Groenwald." The docent was a tall woman, and solidly built. Grey-streaked brown hair was cut into a severe bowl.
"And good evening to you, Miss van Zyl," Lillian continued.
The teen sat up a little straighter and scrutinized her more carefully. "Do I know you?" she asked.
"Not yet, though I've heard some interesting things about you. Lieke van Zyl," Lillian declaimed, reading from her mental notes. "Born July 2nd, 1999. Happy birthday, by the way. Father dead before your eighth birthday, mother by your ninth. Spent time in foster care in Randburg, South Africa, but with a laundry list of destructive and delinquent behavior over the next year, which presumably caught the attention of a recruiter for this fine institution in which we sit, where you have spent the last seven years. Impressive, given the reputation of the place."
"And you are?" demanded Lieke.
"Ah, yes. Where are my manners? My name is Lillian von Groenwald. Your aunt."
"That is funny. I thought my mother would have mentioned any sisters."
"I'm your father's sister, actually."
It was like watching a glacial cliff melting in time-lapse. The cool facade of the girl's demeanor crumbled, tumbling away to reveal the raw heat of a volcano behind it. "That man never cared for Mother or for anyone else."
"An unfortunate thing," Lillian agreed, pouring out the positive vibes as she did. "Family is too important to be squandered. I only wish that we'd found your father earlier, instead of ten years dead. But we found you, and now we want you back."
"Tough on you, then. No one leaves the Academy without either a diploma or a body bag."
Lillian shared a look with Mme. d'Eon. "That is as it is," she said. "And one tenet of Simon de Ville's philosophy is that everything is negotiable."
Her niece wasn't buying it. Waves of goodwill Lillian poured out, only to break on the iron stubbornness of a seasoned DeVille. "If this is another loyalty test," Lieke said to the docent, "then it's not nearly as good as the last one. This woman knows nothing about me she could not have gleaned from my old juvenile record."
"I know that you are on course to die before the end of the school year, if not sooner."
"Not if I get the other bitch first."
"Doubtful," said Lillian. "Your primary rival, Elisabeth Allard, has a precognitive mutant ability. Not a terribly strong one, but enough to make it very difficult to plan around, or even deadly, if she can continue to keep it a secret from other students."
The girl's scowl could have broken mirrors by blunt impact. It only deepened as the meaning of those words sank in. "I do not know where you got that so-called information, but—"
"From us," Mme. d'Eon spoke up. "For a dear sum, of course."
"But Liz, a mutant? The Academy..."
"Makes full use of all talents at its students' disposal," said the docent. "And while we do not countenance or cultivate mutations of the extreme or obvious varieties, that does not mean we discard a valuable student for having subtle means at her beck."
Lillian moved in for the kill. "It does not matter how good you are, for this mutant filth will always have the upper hand for as long as you remain here. It does not require a similar gift to predict that your life expectancy is shorter than it should be. What does the deadpool say, Madame?"
"My money is by the end of August, either dead or removed."
"But, but..." The cool exterior had melted, and now the lava underneath was cracking to pieces, making it all the easier for waves of persuasion to flow in. "No one leaves alive without a diploma!"
"True," said Mme. d'Eon. "That is how we may command such high prices for the services of our students. But such high quality takes much money to properly develop. The killing fields of adolescence being what they are, deaths beyond a certain year present us with diminishing returns. To whit: if you die now, that is seven full years of investment wasted, as opposed to the very generous offer that your aunt has made for your repatriation. The docents and professors have conferred, and the proposal has been approved, with some caveats."
"Name them," said Lillian.
"One, to maintain the reputation of this school, no mention of this agreement shall ever be made public, or even hinted at within any circle of the shadow societies. To that end, Lieke van Zyl will officially be declared dead in our records, and you shall provide proper documentation for her new identity."
"I have passports and other papers for one Angelique Greenwood, ready to use."
"Second, her identifying features must be altered enough to provide deniability."
Lillian nodded. "Difficult, but expected. Arrangements are being made for fingerprints."
"Third, she must leave tonight."
The teen stiffened, then nodded unhappily. "Am I allowed to take my personal effects?" she asked.
"I would suggest you run, if there is truly anything worth saving," said Mme. d'Eon. "In twenty minutes, your room and all its contents will be destroyed by a controlled conflagration. No blame shall be assigned officially, though we expect three names to come up among the student body as suspects. A body will be recovered — whether it is yours or not is up to you and the speed of your feet. Of course, if anyone sees you, then the deal is void."
"Nothing worth my life," said the girl, looking towards Lillian.
"We will be making a stop in Paris," she confirmed. "That is, if we may leave immediately? Our flight is waiting."
The school docent led them out, though from the confusion on her niece's face it was apparent that this route was not known to the student populace. Certainly, the spot where they exited the academy was nowhere near the entrance she had used, and the driver waiting for them was not the same man. The car might have been the same, but more likely DeVille kept its own flotilla on hand for visits such as hers.
The newly christened Angelique Greenwood kept her silence golden and her body steeled to spring at the slightest sign of treachery. Lillian was no less alert, but her posture was a study in predatory relaxation. The DeVille Academy, she knew, would tow the line, maintain the letter of the contract and nothing more, which was why the boilerplate her legal team had used included so much fine detail. No, the academy docents would not double-cross them — not at this point in the game, at least. And anyone else who tried to attack them now... well, such idiocy deserved what it got.
In the meantime, she and her new niece would enjoy the shops of Paris.
Paris, 18me arrondissement
Paris in July was surprisingly pleasant, compared to the vagaries of her native Iowa. Lillian rarely passed up an opportunity to stop by, though she'd never consider living there. Too many French people, to begin with. But after one afternoon of traipsing through boutiques and inflicting a calculated and awful American accent upon the delicate ears of the locals, there was nothing like a stop by a cafe for drinks and a croissant.
Her new niece sipped her cafe au lait with an appearance of calm that never quite reached her eyes. Those blue orbs darted back and forth, constantly assessing the wait-staff and anyone who passed too close to the windows.
"Your paranoia is showing," Lillian teased, even as she did her best to soothe the girl's nerves. It had been an uphill battle the entire day, working her empathy through the cracks in Angelique's emotional facade, but her niece did seem to be warming to her.
"It's not paranoia if..."
"... they're really out to get you, yes." She sipped her own drink, substantially more potent than her niece's, and gave a relaxed sigh. Then a manicured nail tapped on a particular spot in the art nouveau pattern of the tablecloth. For a second, that square millimeter of lines glowed, its circuitry made evident, and then all ambient noise from beyond the table seemed to vanish.
"What?" Her niece was alarmed, but still hid it well.
"This cafe is run by les Fils de Reseau," Lillian informed her. "What can you tell me about them?"
"Millennial cult, founded by some nutter of a French fascist two decades after the war ended. They think it's inevitable that we'll all end up hardwired into computers or something. Obsessed with informatic systems, data brokering, and encryption." Her niece did not bother opining further, though her eyes communicated volumes.
"They also run the best possible rendez-vous points for clandestine affairs and off-record business," Lillian noted. "If you look closely, you'll see the networking circuitry hidden behind the left ears of the waiters. They do their job perfectly well, yet recall nothing that is said in their presence while on the job. As well, les Fils pride themselves on having the best anti-surveillance systems available for any paradigm. So," she concluded.
"It's time for some girl-talk." Lillian grinned at the sourpuss the girl's face made. "Come now, we've hardly had a chance to chat since we met, and there are years and years to catch up on. I'm curious to find out more about my niece. Is this your first time in Paris?" she led with.
"Ah, no. The academy arranges excursions to various cities around the world for the upper forms. Last summer we hit Paris."
"There's a tale for the telling, I'm sure." Lillian chuckled as the girl surreptitiously checked for eavesdroppers, then poured out another wave of sympathetic vibes to go with the coffee and croissants. "This is as private as we're ever going to be, and I'm curious. Humor your auntie."
"Heh. Auntie. Sure..." Her niece scowled, but there was no heart to it. "Well then. I was on a four-student team, and our target was a safe in a house out in the country that our docent had picked out..."
July 3rd, 2015
Outskirts of Paris
Lieke van Zyl
Paris was the City of Lights, and there were so many sorts to be seen. In this moment, a young lady who was currently not known as Lieke van Zyl was admiring one exemplary model in exquisitely fitted panels of leaded glass. The lamp held court over an elegant old desk, elm coated with a varnish that made its grain shine golden in the warm light drifting from above. Those glass panels projected other colors upwards, painting the white plaster ceiling with a kaleidoscope of brilliance.
"Ah! You spoke true, Aurelien," she declared happily in French. Her accent was broken in just the right spots to sound authentic. "C'est magnifique, this light show. But, if we have la lumière, where is le son?"
Her host kept his silence, saying a thousand pleasantries without a single word as his smile spread across his face and then to hers. The young man tapped a music box upon the desk, flipping it open so it could send a tinny waltz into the air.
She let him lead the way around the reading room, trusting him to steer her around the obstacles of fin de siècle furniture — or not, as they both toppled over a conveniently placed divan. Neither of them was in any rush to get back up for a while after that, and they hardly noticed when the music box slowly ground out the last of its notes.
"Mon ange, mon Evangeline..." Aurelien gasped happily, that lovely smirk never leaving his face as they arranged clothing back into some form of presentability. "Where have you been all my life?"
"Penned up in a nunnery." She sighed dramatically. "So quiet, so structured, so... dull. It is a shame I must return soon for my studies."
"Must you? Then it shall be so dull here, non plus!"
The soi-disant Evangeline tutted him, tapping his lips with her pointer finger, then pulling back before he could nibble on the tip. "Alas, my parents insist that I finish my coursework."
"You could study here!" her beau cried. "We have a wonderful library around us at this very moment!"
"So I have noticed..." The reading room's walls were lined with sturdy bookshelves, carrying weathered, stately tomes. "So many books, and such letters!" She plucked one thin volume from its perch. "Is this Russian?"
"Oui. My great-grandfather was a collector."
"And what do you collect, Monsieur le Comte des Acres d'Allouette?"
"Would you fault me if I said 'beauty'?"
She poked him in the chest, feigning affront. "Bien sûr! Am I some bauble, to be added to your shelf? Non!" Her hop to her feet was impeded by her dress skirts, not all of which were back in their proper place. As she tripped and stumbled, she managed to knock a decorative urn off the end table and hit the window hard enough to pop the lock and sent it swinging open.
Alarm bells sounded, and a completely different sort of son et lumière came to life. Aurelien muttered a delicate French profanity, then searched his trousers thoroughly for his cell phone. "Allo-allo? Manu? Oui, this is Aurelien. We, ah, set off the security alarm in the west reading room. If you could be a dear... oui, merci," he continued as the light show settled down. "Euh... if you could perhaps not mention this to my mother? Oui, merci encore."
"Mes excuses!" she cried.
"De rien," he said, kissing her energetically. "These things happen. Now, I believe we have a party to attend?"
She giggled and pulled him to her, letting him trip a bit over his own trousers. "Well... if we must..."
After another unfortunately short moment, they were ready to face polite society again. Her dear Aurelien never did check to see if the window was properly shut.
The lights in the powder room were bright yet soft, complementing the ruby shade of her lips as she fixed her make-up properly. Not that it had been too badly smeared — mais, non! Aurelien was too gentle with his affections to do that — but it was always a handy excuse to have a spot of privacy.
She bent her fingers around the gem dangling from her left ear, which looked more like a diamond than most lumps of crystalized carbon could ever dream. A little extra warmth and pressure activated the circuitry lodged in its facets. "Allo-allo?" she sub-vocalized.
"It's about time!" Liz's voice sounded tinny in her ear, but the crossness translated perfectly. "You're behind schedule!"
"I am so sorry. We lost track of time."
"Sure you did." There were two more words to follow, muffled, but they sounded like "lucky bitch."
She chose to ignore it. "The way is clear for Toglia."
"Good. Go, mingle, have fun! See if I care."
"You could have asked to play the face on this one," Lieke pointed out.
"What, and leave you bozos to muddle through this without proper overwatch? I don't think so!"
Lieke had nothing more to add, so she finished the last touch-up, returned the kit to her purse, and left to have the sort of evening that would only make Elisabeth la Allard greener with envy.
The family of the Acres d'Allouette were old-money French, holding a patent of nobility stretching back more centuries than most cared to remember. With that came the usual quirks, such as a manor house of the sort featured in heist films or bad spy movies. There was even a ball room, fitted with a chandelier like a cascade of crystal, lit now by modern electronics that kept it clean and bright.
"Evangeline!" Aurelien called to her as she entered. "Vite! Vite! You must meet my cousins!" Her erstwhile beau held court in one corner of the vaulted room, well away from where his mother was entertaining her own coterie. The exact reason for this occasion was lost on his guest, but she was intent on enjoying it.
The cousins in question were two boys, both younger than she or Aurelien by at least a year, though they all shared the same athletic build. "Enchanté," they said in perfect French, with only the barest traces of accent.
"Go on," Aurelien encouraged her. "Guess where they are from."
"Well, if I am to assume that they are neither of them French..." She ran an appraising eye over both. "The one on the right is perhaps of German extraction, while the other... British?"
Her lover guffawed at the sight of his cousins' faces. "Oui! That is correct! But how? Gregory? Albert?"
She nodded to the presumed Albert. "This one's cologne is strong, and not at all like a regular Frenchman's. I confess to making conjecture after that. I was lucky. As for the other..." She giggled as Gregory blushed. "There is a tag sticking out of his collar, with a Londonian tailor's mark."
Aurelien was beaming now. "Beauty and brains! A delightful combination. Well, this is Gregory Crumbley of the British peerage, and Albert Baron von Korff, from the Rhineland on my aunt's side. We see each other a few times a year, whenever our mothers have another of their soirees. And then, it is like the Three Musketeers, non?"
"So who is Athos, who Porthos, and who Aramis?" she inquired.
"Athos is I, of course! Senior in experience, wise to the world, and willing to guide my juniors along," Aurelien declared. "Euh... Albert does, as you have noticed, have a particular care for his colognes and his clothes. A good Porthos, he! Gregory, I believe that leaves you with Aramis, equal parts choir boy and rapscallion."
"I can live with that."
As the three of them laughed and joked, the young Milady de Winter in their midst nodded and smiled at their jests, but her true attention was elsewhere. From the gemstone in her left ear, Liz was quietly updating her on the others' progress. When she looked across the ballroom, she caught a glimpse of Aaron in the uniform of the waitstaff, and though she never saw him in the act, many ladies were missing small bits of jewelry after he'd brought the canapes and champagne flutes around.
Her expression never wavered, but inwardly she groaned. Aaron had a terrible case of sticky fingers, and his timing was execrable. Couldn't it wait until after Toglia was done?
At one hundred fifty centimeters, Toglia was the shortest kid among the DeVille upperclassmen, a fact that he'd leveraged to his benefit. His thin and wiry frame was perfect for learning escape artistry and contortionism, and he could slink through security systems with ease. Of course, it helped that he had people on the inside as well. Aaron had slipped some happy drugs into the guard dogs' evening mess, for example, and while the canines were not unconscious, they certainly weren't interested in chasing anyone.
He'd just received the head's up that Lieke had cleared his way through the library. Blonde bimbo was good for something, at least.
It wasn't a particularly complicated heist, as such things went, but it made for a good summer homework assignment. All that was left was for him to get in through the window, sneak through the mostly unoccupied wing of the manner, and raid the family safes. Easy-peasy, and then he'd be a shoe-in for the top grade.
The window was unlatched and slightly ajar, with its security line already tripped but never reset. Good work, bimbo. He oiled the hinges, just to be safe, and then like the mongoose he was squeezing his way through the smallest possible opening. Everything was going perfectly well, until the urn happened.
The damned end table was half a meter off from where it should have been, and the porcelain urn that balanced precariously upon it crashed to the floor, shattering the silence like a finely crafted antique explosion.
He froze in place. If an urn fell in the reading room, and no one was around to hear it...
The night held its breath, and the — BWEEP! Alarms screamed and security lights flashed. The skinny burglar mouthed awful, nasty things in half a dozen eastern Asiatic languages as the bars descended on the window he'd just entered through.
The security system for the building was compartmentalized, so she was aware of the goings-on in the west wing of the building, via Liz and the earring connection, well before anyone else in the ballroom. There wasn't much she could do about it, so she accepted a flute of champagne from Aaron as he passed by, and for now pretended she did not notice that her cameo necklace had disappeared from around her throat.
Liz was squawking at her, demanding that she do something, but what was there for her to accomplish, really? Just bide her time until Toglia inevitably led the merry chase of the security complement around towards the ballroom, and then, once others had noticed the commotion...
"My necklace!" Muddy the waters. With one shouted statement, the ballroom turned to chaos. All of the women, and no few of the men, frantically checked their accoutrements, only to find things missing. Short little Toglia had no trouble confounding pursuit as everyone started making demands of security.
Now, which fallback plan would they use? Lieke was ignoring Liz's breakdown from the ops station, and she assumed the others were, too.
Plan #1: Aaron would pretend to stop the burglar himself, earning him an accolade and an opportunity to pilfer the house safe on his own later in the evening. It almost worked, too, except that when the faux waiter collided with the half-pint infiltrator, something went -pop-, and he flinched from an unexpected bit of heat burning its way out of his pants pocket. The two collaborators knocked together hard enough to stun, and then random bits of jewelry could be seen flowing to the floor.
She could only revel in the schadenfreude as the security detail nabbed both of the young men. Aurelien had his own arms around her protectively, and she enjoyed that warmth as well.
"Initiating Plan Zed!" Liz called in her ear.
Wait... what was that? She couldn't very well ask at the moment, because Aurelien might hear her sub-vocalizations. It was a wonder of engineering that he couldn't hear the frantic noise coming from the ops center girl. But what was Plan Zed...
There was a roar from out on the front lawn, an angry, primal scream that rattled the windows. Before anyone could go to look, the originator of that roar came to them, through the front doors without bothering to open them first.
Lieke recognized the lumpen form that plodded into the ballroom now. The mutant who referred to itself as Pantagruel was a wild card, a mercenary and anarchist who worked as much for the thrill as for the cash. Its dossier had come up during the planning stages for the heist, but they'd dismissed it as an option due to its unpredictable nature. Or so she'd thought, at least.
Pantagruel was a good two and a half meters tall, most of it torso. Its legs were almost comically short, while its head and shoulders were so hunched that it practically had no neck. What skin was visible beneath all that shaggy hair was a mottled green. It wore a kilt, thankfully, but nothing else.
"Get back!" Aurelien hissed, pulling her towards the curtains as Pantagruel tore into the security team with tooth and nail.
Everyone else was running away, screaming, and she was not about to argue. She wasn't even armed for this mission, though her fingers were itching for something small, stylish, and ballistic to wield. Much good it would have done her, since according to the reports Pantagruel was unfortunately bullet-resistant.
Only Aurelien and his two fellow Musketeers were running toward the fray, in what she could only assume would be a terminal case of heroism. That was, until her beau pulled a small item from his cummerbund, and suddenly a hard-light sword shone pale blue in his hand. Albert was also drawing a side-arm of some sort, while Gregory...
Gregory Crumbley's arms shimmered and appeared to expand. If she were to guess, she thought it might be some sort of PK field, focused on those limbs to form larger and more powerful extensions. Certainly, they were strong enough to let the young man go head-to-head with Pantagruel, punching the mutant with a force fit to knock him down, if only for a moment.
The Three Musketeers were young, but they had a definite plan in mind. As she watched on, Albert peppered Pantagruel with shots from his weapon, while Aurelien worried him from the sides and behind, always stepping quickly out of the way. Only Gregory faced the thing directly, keeping its overly long arms occupied with a grappling move not unlike a rugby scrum. Greenish muscles bulged as they forced themselves against silvery PK, but Pantagruel's attention was too distracted to put its full effort in.
"Hah!" Her Aurelien had another device in hand, one that looked familiar. When rammed into the back of Pantagruel's thick neck, it extended metallic prongs and a heavy electric charge.
Ah, yes... she thought as she watched the mutant crash to the ground. Close contact neural disruptor, Mark II, straight off the Cuckoo Channel's hidden website. There was more to her young man than met the eye, it seemed.
One week later
Monsieur la Marque, academy docent, was an older gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair, a thin moustache, and a jovial, avuncular appearance that completely belied the fact that he was an utter bastard. In other words, he was a seasoned alumnus. Right now, his four students were wishing they could see more of the false persona and less of the real.
"Need I enumerate every one of the myriad things which you did wrong with this assignment?" he was asking. No one answered, nor did he expect them to. "Seeing as we had need to extract two of you from the local gendarmerie, it would seem that I do. Very well.
"One, Toglia. That break-in was sloppy and careless. Even when the way is cleared for you, never expect that there will be no obstacles. You did not bring your best to this job."
"Two, Aaron. Skimming a little extra is not a problem if done with circumspection and care for the overall state of the mission. You showed little of either, and the fact that you managed to pick up an anti-theft device in the process only jeopardized things more.
"Three, Elisabeth. Holding an ace in reserve is all well and good, but do not hide it from your teammates, and for heaven's sake show some better judgment about it!
"Four, Lieke..." Now the docent paused. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Like the gun in its holster under the docent's jacket, that question was loaded and dangerous. On the one hand, she had not done anything to openly jeopardize the mission, but she had little doubt that M. la Marque had his suspicions. If she were to apologize, she would look weak in front of others now desperate to recoup their injured pride. A defense of her actions would only bring more details to light.
"If I may open my bag?" she requested politely, not wanting to make any sudden moves in front of the docent.
At his nod, she retrieved her carry-bag from the shelf behind them, where all their gear from the mission had been stowed immediately upon arrival in preparation for their dressing-down. Quickly she retrieved her prizes.
"First, monsieur, a dossier on Aurelien des Acres d'Allouette, as well as his cousins, concerning abilities, equipment, and intent to train."
Her beau and his German relation were both prop-men, reliant on equipment gleaned from the Cuckoo Channel or some other grey market supplier. His cousin Gregory, however, was an active mutant, and she'd even finagled snapshots of his MID for the file as well as verbal confirmation that he'd be attending some American boarding school that September. M. la Marque's nod had turned to one of appreciation as he skimmed the file.
"As well," she added, "I happened upon this in the family library." The docent received a thin, leather-bound book with Cyrillic script across its face. "First edition, Russian, late 19th century. Anton Checkov's first collection, signed by him. I am not sure how much it would go for on the open market, but..."
But the docent surely would, as the man was known for his literary tastes. His mood was visibly mellowed by the time he dismissed them, and he did not even ask to see the rest of her bag's contents.
That made her happy, as she wouldn't have wanted to share the slender golden bracelet, studded with tiny diamonds and emeralds, that her Aurelien had gifted her with at their parting.
Back in the present
"So," Lillian asked her niece. "Why did you do it?"
"Sabotage the operation. Place that urn in such an unstable location. Alert the ballroom to your team-mate's pilfering, and then set off your anti-theft device. I am not going to judge, but I'd still like to know."
The girl presented her best non-face. "The docent graded on a curve. There was only one A to be had, plus perhaps a few Bs and Cs — if we didn't all fail in the first place. Moreover, I'd had a chance to see the safe we were supposed to be emptying; there was nothing in it. The whole affair was a setup by the academy to see how we would fare in a situation that could not achieve results, and I was out to get the top grade no matter what."
"Which you did." Lillian resisted the urge to shake her head. "And a year later, at least one of your teammates is out to kill you."
"C'est la vie, ma tante." Angelique wiped the last drops of coffee from her cup with a corner of her croissant. "So, are we going to hear any stories of your own presumably misspent youth?"
"Perhaps later," her aunt demurred. "Feel free to ask your uncles when you meet them. They're all incorrigible gossips."
"I might just do that. But for now... shall we look over some more shops? I thought I saw a bijouterie down the street."
"And here I thought you were set for nice jewelry, with that parting gift and all."
"Alas," said her niece, "that item was safely stowed in my dorm room. It probably survived the blaze, but I am in no situation to retrieve it, now am I?"
"Didn't you tell Mme. d'Eon that there was nothing of value in your room?"
"Nothing worth my life," said Angelique. "And since I've a new life now, shall we go fill it with equally unimportant clutter?"
"Of course..." Lillian let it be, but she was not convinced. Her niece was a blue-eyed conundrum wrapped in a blonde enigma, but she would figure the girl out eventually.
August 1st, 2:10 AM
Lillian von Groenwald
As much as she loved her family, it was rare that Lillian spent time with all of them at once. So it was something of an occasion to see almost all of them in one room. Her four remaining brothers were gathered around a table, amiably discussing the latest operations. The quartet was as odd a set as could be imagined, with Sandmann's flamboyant gesticulations opposite Glas's dour silence or Wahrheit's zen-like patience. Sänger, on the other hand, matched his half-brother word for word in the conversation, with jokes and stories to cover the nervousness he must be feeling.
In the corner, Herr Achziger was dozing in his chair. The old man's body was now mostly recovered, and the new skin substitute had given him a healthier color. His hair still looked like it had been shellacked and riveted to his head, but Kessel had never promised miracles.
Speaking of whom, her son was chatting with his father over some matter of business. Drew Richards had grown up with the Fourth Reich, his parents serving under one operative or another for years before they'd thrown in with her father. His natural skill with numbers and management had made him an asset, both for the public company and the organization which hid behind it, and when the time came to consider future generations, Drew had been an obvious choice.
That, and the fact that she'd been sleeping with him for almost five years at that point. The man was handsome and fit in every way that counted, and his mind was amenable to her empathic massaging. She sometimes regretted not having more children with him.
Now, at least, Lillian had a niece to manage. Angelique was perched on a chair, keeping a wary eye on everyone and everything. The girl had yet to internalize the concept that no one in the room was a threat to her, and her uncles gave her all the space she needed. She'd taken to wearing thin gloves, and was noticeably reluctant to touch anything directly in the days since her full induction into the family. None of the research staff was sure how well the second-stage protocols would work on the girl, assuming she'd inherited the proper markers from her late father, but they would see what came of it.
Lillian was about to go chat with her when a medical orderly bustled in. All heads went up to stare at the figure in white, and to her credit the woman did not balk at the attention. With the confident steps of a professional in her workplace, she strode over to Sänger. Her words were for him, but loud enough for all to hear: "Your wife is in good condition, and there were no problems with the delivery. They can have visitors soon, both your wife and daughter."
Sandmann crowed, slapping his half-brother's back while the others shook the new father's hand. Kessel and her husband were handing around drinks to celebrate, and even Herr Achziger managed to rouse himself enough to join in the toast.
"How do you find the family experience so far?" Lillian asked Angelique, sidling up to the girl on a projected wave of cautious acceptance.
"It's... different," her niece replied. "Everyone in this room is dangerous in some way. I can..." Her fists clenched on empty air. "I can feel it. Even your son, who otherwise seems so soft... ah, no offense."
"But yes, if this were the academy, everyone would be watching their backs while sharpening their knives. It would not matter the situation; weakness is weakness, and any sign of it was a target for stabbing. Here, however, everyone is so relaxed, even if they should be ready to defend themselves."
"Against each other?"
"Yes!" hissed Angelique.
Lillian would have patted the poor girl on the shoulder, only she didn't wish to have her hand removed at the wrist. Even with the best medical technology left from her father's time, plus Kessel's tinkering, that sort of damage was not so easily fixed. She settled instead for words, with the steady trickle of positive emotions flowing from her power to lift her message up.
"That is family," she said. "At least, family the way it is supposed to be. We have issues, we have arguments, but in the end we are together. The organization my father built is our family in the large, and it works because our goals and beliefs, even where they disagree, can still function together."
"I am not a team player," Angelique stated flatly.
"Of course not; you're a DeVille. But you are also a Groenwald by blood, so let us show you what that means." Lillian nodded towards the orderly, who had left and returned while the two of them talked. The woman was motioning for everyone to follow her. "Now, let's meet your newest cousin."
The woman she had the honor of calling sister-in-law had a large room all to herself, and the space was just enough to fit the entire family within. Lillian's sister-in-law was looking as good as could be expected, perhaps better than most after a long evening of labor, and her hair was muddled and matted with sweat. She was beaming at the tiny form in her arms, a wrinkly, red-face thing with hair so fine and light that it was nearly invisible. The little girl was sleeping comfortably, suckling at her mother's breast as she dreamed her first dreams.
"What name did you two decide on?" Lillian asked softly.
"We wanted to name the child for Father," Sänger said as his wife nodded happily. "Either Eugene for a boy, or Gina for a girl."
"Gina Winifred Greenwood," said Miene.
"Your mother's name." Lillian nodded. That was good; that was right. The blood of das Eisenmädel lived on through her true granddaughter, and thus the family line was continued. She could only hope that one day old Hans and Winifred would join with their daughter Danielle, Agent Miene, to see the light.
Lillian left her family to coo and compliment the couple on their bundle of joy. A new day had already begun, and with it more plans to bring to full operancy. The true future, the true destiny of her family and race, would not come about on its own. For little Gina's sake, not to mention her son's or niece's, she would make it happen.
Lillian von Groenwald
The convention center had a name, but Lillian hadn't bothered to remember it. A handy location in a town that was large by state standards, but deflated and abandoned by anyone else's, the spacious building hadn't seen so many people within its walls in years, if not decades. Lillian blended with the crowds, using her public persona of Lily Richards-Greenwood to best effect. She chatted and joked, answered some questions and deflected others, and did all the things one might expect of an attendee to a non-party nominating convention.
Though she'd never let it out, on the inside her smile was as broad as Sandmann's at his most manic. Operation Candidate had run its full course, building up the frontrunner in the election for Iowa's 5th Congressional District. The primaries had happened in June, and in this state, where one particular party nearly always won out, that was as good as deciding the November elections early. The opposition hadn't even tried to field someone who could defeat the man. Her agents had done well, luring her chosen candidate into the most tawdry affairs and enabling the man's self-destructive behavior, all the while keeping it safely under wraps until Lillian herself said the word.
While she'd been in Europe, that candidate was having the worst days of his life. Lillian didn't dwell on the details — in fact, she was ignorant of most of them. She trusted the agents she'd set to the task, and they had delivered on that trust. Currently the local news agencies were flush with reports on the candidate's proclivities, his deviations, and his impending divorce.
It was unfortunate, many people had commented, shameful even that such a man now had a lock on the 5th District's congressional seat. Of those many, quite a few worked for her, stoking the flames that had led her to this spot now.
There were provisions in the state constitution, lines of legal diction that spelled out what options the people had for choosing who would represent them. The primaries may have been in June, but that did not mean the race was over. Filing for a spot in the general election was still possible, if one could show support from enough people. All it required was fifty delegates from half of the counties in the district. Today, all but three out of thirty-two counties were represented, and while the headcount wasn't finished, it was well into the triple digits. While only a few of the delegates actually worked for her, either covertly or openly through Greenwood Industrial Mfg., her family's company had deep roots throughout this half of the state.
Up on the stage, her half-brother Sänger was working the crowd in his persona of Brian Greenwood. His voice had the sing-song quality to it that meant he was exercising his own operative abilities, and the crowd was responding more and more as she watched. Before long, he'd gotten the delegates to join him in singing the national anthem, and what power that piece of music had with his voice behind it! Even Lillian felt moved by the fervor of patriotism that hung over the hall.
Now it was her turn to walk up those steps, and the roar of the crowd at her appearance shook the ground. She waited a moment for it to die down, checking the teleprompters as she did. Wahrheit was manning that station, using proximity to help his receptive empathy gauge the reaction of the crowd. Lillian didn't actually need the prompter, only the cues her half-brothers provided.
"My fellow citizens of Iowa!" she declamed in her natural Midwest accent. "There comes a time in the life of any man or woman when they feel called to give back to the world which bore them, to find a way or a means to leave things better than they were before. My father knew this well, and spent much of his life and fortune investing in our great state, providing jobs and industry which to this day continues to support our people!" Another moment passed where the cheers blotted out all noise. "I have worked long and hard to extend his legacy, to make our land and people ever more prosperous, while connecting us to the larger world and its benefits. I felt that this was enough, that others could shoulder responsibilities in other arenas. I, like you all, have felt the breach of that trust. Who are we to turn to, when our elected officials are revealed as corrupt and rotten? Who may we depend on, when outsiders and strangers sidle in to tell us what we must do? In the end, who can we trust to put the things which matter most to us in the forefront of their agenda? No one but ourselves!"
Again, the crowd raised its voice, cheering at the values she assigned them and jeering at the enemies she provided. Now she smiled, wide and perfect for the cameras, and truly was her heart soaring as she looked over that gathered chorus of people — her people, honest and humble — who were all the best traits of their powerful race gathered together in one place. They were tied together by the common bonds of blood and culture, as strongly as she was to her own family, and for the sake of them all she would create a future where they could live without fear, without danger or corruption. Now to take the next step towards that future.
"So I ask of you, my fellow citizens, to ignore what differences may lie between us, to recognize those virtues which define us, and to send to Washington someone who will work for you and for our state before all else. My name is Lily Richards-Greenwood, and I declare my candidacy for the Iowa 5th Congressional District's seat in the House of Representatives!"
The noise did not die down for a long time after, instead crashing in waves of sound against the stage. She felt her spirits ride the surge, could imagine it blowing her all the way to the halls of government. There she could take steps to ensure that her people, her nation, would flourish, and her people would have everything they needed. She could do that; she could lead them.
The future would be glorious.