PART ONE: BIG BANG THEORY
THIAGO idly mulled over his most recent assignment as he fiddled restlessly with his napkin. It had all the makings of a disaster waiting to happen, and Thiago could barely keep himself from cringing when he thought over the details.
The Organization ordered him to leave Argentina and meet with five other operatives in America. They were to form a team in order to track down a rogue covert called, simply, the Archer.
What kind of pelotudo name was that, anyway?
Thiago drew in a deep breath and chastised himself almost immediately for thinking that way. If the Organization thought this was a big enough threat to warrant a joint effort of this sort, then Thiago knew he should take it more seriously. He and the men he was supposed to meet were trained to be self-sufficient. They were trained to be loners; solitary warriors with no fallback and no safety net. If their handlers thought the only road to success was a rare joint effort between not two or three, but six highly trained agents, then this was a serious matter indeed.
His blue eyes moved slowly over the other patrons of the café, observing them carefully. He had no idea who he was meeting. He knew they were all male, but he had no other information save for the names of the town and the greasy spoon in which he was to wait. It was standard procedure, but Thiago was far out of his comfort zone here in the heartland of America. It was all he could do to hide his accent, much less blend in to the unfamiliar territory. He would much rather have been on the streets of Catamarca in the north of Argentina. Killing something, preferably. He would rather be doing anything but counter-intelligence. Thiago despised counter-intelligence. He preferred the action-oriented aspects of his job.
He shifted in his seat and glanced around the room for perhaps the hundredth time. Normally he would have been sitting in the corner like a good little spy, protecting his back and watching the room discreetly. But today Thiago sat in the middle of the little dining area with his back to the door, tearing his napkin into strips and sipping at a mug of coffee every so often. Today he didn’t want to be spotted first by his fellow spooks, and behaving like a trained agent was the surest way of making that happen.
Thiago didn’t like working with others, and he consoled himself with the fact that he’d already spotted two of his soon-to-be associates– they had each chosen to sit at tables in or near the corners– and Thiago could observe them freely.
One of them was a younger man with round spectacles and longish brown hair, streaked with blond highlights. Even sitting down, Thiago could tell he was short, probably a little over five and half feet. He looked harmless enough. There was nothing particularly outstanding about him, except perhaps for his crooked nose that had obviously been broken once upon a time and his rather outlandish way of dressing. He wore ripped jeans and a vintage punk rock T-shirt, complete with wristbands at his forearms and simple silver rings on almost every finger. His fingernails, Thiago noticed, were painted black. Thiago examined him with interest. He didn’t look like the type to be in this business. Perhaps that was the point.
Thiago gave the man one last discreet look and then turned his attention to the man in the other corner. He was much larger, probably an inch or three over six feet, and well built. His muscles were clearly defined under the long-sleeved dress shirt he wore. He was handsome too, with short-cropped brown hair and perhaps a day’s growth of facial hair. Even though he sat calmly reading a newspaper, one foot resting on his knee and bouncing to some internal tune, he looked entirely unapproachable. There was an air about him that screamed trained killer; dangerous and capable and ice cold.
Thiago thought briefly that if he looked like that, he’d sit with his back to the wall everywhere he went too.
He turned his attention to his own reflection and examined himself critically. He wondered what impressions these other men were forming about him. Pale blue eyes stared back at him appraisingly. For a 40 year-old spook he didn’t look so bad. A myriad of scars covered his left arm all the way up to his neck, faded reminders of the time he’d lost a fight with a storefront window in his youth, but his body had remained remarkably unmarred otherwise. His hair had turned blond from all his time in the sun, and his skin was tanned and slightly weathered. The goatee he sported was blond as well, with hints of red and gold amidst the touches of gray. Most of his fellow South Americans thought him a yanqui because of his light coloring. Sometimes it helped with his missions south of the equator. Other times it found him hanging upside down in a warehouse on a dock in Cartagena.
“Anybody know another word for ‘bellicose’?” someone asked suddenly, breaking the silence and actually making Thiago jerk slightly. “Ten letters,” the kid at the far wall added, looking around the café with his pen held in the air expectantly. “Starts with a P? No? I think this thing is in Russian or something,” he muttered as he turned his attention back to his crossword puzzle without receiving any aid.
Thiago stared at the man and found himself smiling slightly as he examined him.
He was a possibility. He was younger, possibly in his early twenties, and his hair and eyes were the same exotic brown that seemed to change from nearly auburn when the right light hit, to raven black in the shadows. The chameleon-like quality of it struck Thiago as something that must be useful to an agent. His most striking feature, though, was his high cheekbones, like his face had been chiseled from marble. They gave him an exotic quality that Thiago found hard to pinpoint. He wore faded jeans and a plain black T-shirt with scuffed cowboy boots and a drab green military surplus jacket that hung loosely from his wiry shoulders.
That made a probable third man, even though this one didn’t appear to be observing anything but his crossword, but Thiago wasn’t prepared to approach any of them just yet.
As he returned to his cup of coffee, Thiago watched in the mirror along the back wall as a man entered the café. He was old and stooped, and his long gray hair fell well past his shoulders, as did his ridiculous-looking, scraggly beard. As he hobbled up to the counter, Thiago couldn’t help but groan inwardly.
It would appear they had a master of disguise in the group. That was all they needed. Thiago pondered the consequences ruefully as he chalked up a fourth man to his list. In his experience, the ones that disguised themselves did so out of vanity. They liked to show off their talent. Show off how clever they were. They were usually dumb as bricks, in the long run. This one was going to be a pain in the ass, Thiago decided. Oh well. You could choose your enemies but not your allies, he reminded himself.
One more ally to go.
He watched the old man order a cup of coffee and point to the wall behind the counter with a long, arthritic finger. Thiago had to give the guy credit; he was good. He looked every bit the fragile old man, and Thiago started trying to picture what the man beneath the disguise must look like. He was probably of average height even though he was stooped over, but he had to be slight of build to pull off that slightly decrepit look. That was as far as Thiago’s guesses could go.
The blond man working behind the counter reached up to pull down a pack of cigarettes and Thiago sighed and looked away, observing the entirety of the café in the mirror once more.
The entryway to the café darkened yet again as Thiago pondered the scene, and Thiago’s body tensed as he saw another man enter.
“Jesus,” Thiago breathed before he could stop himself. He could see his own shocked expression in the mirror just as well as he could see the looks of concern and surprise coming from the two men he’d already positively identified as his future compatriots.
This guy was huge. He was at least six foot five with impressive musculature and a steady, graceful way of moving that belied his size. He reminded Thiago of a large cat, right down to his wavy black hair and full growth of beard. The fact that he was extremely good-looking, as well as a veritable behemoth, didn’t help him blend in very well, either. Thiago caught himself gaping at the imposing figure and he looked down quickly, staring at the wiry muscles in his forearms and feeling inexplicably inadequate all of a sudden.
The giant strode easily up to the counter and spoke to the man behind the counter with a friendly grin that seemed out of place attached to such a large person. The blond nodded and went about fixing the order as the big man turned and leaned against the counter, blatantly scanning the room before turning his attention back to his fresh cup of coffee.
Thiago was pretty certain this guy was supposed to be their brawn. Not much finesse, but still effective just because of his size. Thiago pondered the big man for a moment longer before returning his attention to the back wall.
“Anyone know what the hell a ‘nebbish’ is?” the chameleon with the crossword asked, and Thiago found himself biting his lower lip so as not to smile.
Aside from dreading working with the master of disguise, Thiago felt very good about himself just then. He had all of the five other men pegged, and now all there was to do was decide how best to approach them. Although he was certain of his compatriots now, and apparently helping one of them with a crossword puzzle, it went against all of his training to simply approach another suspected agent and introduce himself.
‘Hi, I’m Thiago; I’ll be your trained killer for the day.’ It didn’t sit right.
Finally, Thiago decided on approaching the man with the crossword since he seemed to be trying to make contact, but even as he put his hands on the table to push himself to his feet, the old man stood with difficulty and began to make his way toward the side wall. Thiago eased back into his seat with a curl of his lip and watched. He already disliked this guy and they hadn’t even begun to work together yet.
But the old man hobbled past the man in the glasses toward the trash receptacles. He deposited his napkins there, then made his way slowly to the counter to place his used mug on the scratched Formica surface. Thiago observed that everyone in the café now watched him, and he snorted aloud at the uselessness of the ridiculous costume. They’d all pegged the guy. What had been the point?
The big man stood to the side, still leaning on the counter and flicking a silver cigarette lighter open and closed repeatedly as he studied the old guy. The sound was almost deafening in the silence of the café.
“Can I get you anything else?” the blond behind the counter asked the old man politely, his voice suddenly audible and practically echoing in the tense silence. Thiago was slightly shocked to hear a British accent coming from him. It fit him somehow, he had the rough look and stubborn bearing of someone from the north of England, but they were in Bumfuck, U.S.A., and what Thiago thought might have been a Yorkshire accent was a little strange to hear.
The old man shook his head and pulled out a wad of dollar bills to pay for his coffee and cigarettes, then turned around and hobbled toward the exit on precarious legs. Thiago frowned, unsettled by the unexpected departure of a man he’d thought he had pegged. He turned to finally make eye contact with each of the other men. The two in the corners and the big guy at the counter looked just as baffled as Thiago, but the guy with the crossword seemed not to care and the blond behind the counter strode toward the door purposefully.
He reached to lock it with a resounding clink of metal and flipped the ‘Open’ sign over to read ‘Closed.’
“There, now. Thought he’d never leave,” he said cheerfully as he turned to look at them all with a large grin. Thiago couldn’t help but be slightly flummoxed. The man behind the counter was their sixth man? And the old man was apparently nothing more than an old man after all. How had Thiago misjudged that?
“My name is Shawn Bennett,” the blond said to them, “and I’ll be your tour guide for the evening.” He grinned, either oblivious to their shock or indifferent to it.
The young chameleon on the far side of the café flopped his crossword onto the table disinterestedly and ran his hand over his face.
“I swear, Beignet, if you didn’t have your theatrics you’d turn motier foux,” he said in a low, surprisingly deep voice that he hadn’t used when he’d asked his questions. The accent was different as well, and Thiago couldn’t place it. It sounded like slightly mangled French and deep American South that went about a hundred miles a minute. “Half-crazy,” the man continued as if translating his own words for himself with a shake of his head.
“Oh, you’re one to talk about half-crazy,” the man called Bennett retorted with amusement.
The young man responded with a two-fingered salute and winked at Thiago conspiratorially. He had a fluid, graceful way of moving that seemed somehow compact, like he didn’t use any more energy in moving than what was absolutely necessary. He reminded Thiago even more of a chameleon, moving in a manner similar to a small lizard.
“You two obviously know each other then,” the big man said in a thick Australian accent.
“We’ve had a few encounters,” the chameleon said as his dark eyes slid toward the blond. “I am Remy Bergeron. Class One. And that British salaud is Shawn Bennett, also Class One,” he said with a nod toward the blond. Thiago finally placed the accent as being Cajun. He realized he’d only ever heard it in movies.
“Field operatives, eh?” the big Aussie said in response. “The real deal. Nice. Brandt Everett,” he introduced himself, “Class Seven.”
“Explosives?” Thiago asked in surprise when the man told them his classification. It was the first word he’d uttered to them.
“That’s right. Love to blow shit up,” Everett responded with a cheeky grin. “And you?”
“Thiago. Class One.”
“You got a last name, Thiago?” the Cajun asked him with a drawl that was slightly unsettling.
“No,” Thiago answered curtly.
A short silence followed, but Thiago refused to shift under the scrutiny of his new companions.
“Three Class Ones,” the intimidating brunette in the corner finally observed neutrally. “They’ve loaded us down with you bastards, huh?” All eyes turned to him as he stood and walked over to sit back down at Thiago’s table. He spoke with an accent similar to that of an Australian, but there were slight differences. New Zealand, if Thiago had to make a guess of it. The way he moved was just as frightening as the way he looked, smooth and alarmingly agile. “Must be one fuck of a snake we’re after,” he said as he sat down and offered his hand. “Carl Travers. Class Four.”
“Ooh, munitions,” Remy Bergeron cooed with apparent relish as he also stood up and joined them at the table in the middle of the floor. The others drifted over and crowded around, and Bennett nodded at the shorter man with the blond highlights encouragingly when he strolled up.
“Nikolaus Faust,” the shorter man said softly, his accent laced heavily with German, “Class Ten.” This brought a low whistle from Thiago and the others looked at Faust apprehensively. Class Tens, given only the most basic of training, were relatively harmless when in the field. Physically speaking. They were communications specialists, usually relegated to the O.R.G. hubs scattered across the globe. His presence here with them was slightly more frightening than he himself was.
Bergeron was the first to offer his hand to the man. “They brought you out of one of the Cellars for this?” he asked in disbelief, referring to the communications hubs that none of them had ever actually seen.
“That’s right,” Nikolaus responded curtly in the efficient manner all Germans seemed to possess. “You have been given your own comm officer. We are completely off the radar now. Not even Black Ops, yes?”
“Invisible Ops,” Brandt Everett suggested, attempting humor as Thiago’s mind reeled at the implications of having their own communications specialist on board. They reported to no one now and they had no one to call in for back up or support. They were completely and utterly on their own. Invisible Ops, indeed. As far as Thiago knew, this was unprecedented.
“How did you get behind the counter?” Carl Travers asked Bennett curiously as Thiago stared at the tabletop morosely. Bergeron snickered and the sound drew Thiago’s attention to him once more.
“He got the owner tied up in the back office,” the Cajun said with a laugh.
“Aye,” Bennett said gleefully. “Crabby old bugger. I’ve half a mind to leave him there.”
“He bite like a gator, than one. Shoulda shot him like I told you,” Bergeron scolded.
“How do you two know each other?” Thiago asked. Their seemingly friendly relationship bothered Thiago to no end. He didn’t like being out of a loop. And he didn’t like Class One operatives who knew each other. They weren’t supposed to have any contact with their peers.
“We’ve had a few dealings,” Bennett answered cryptically. Bergeron responded with a ‘pffft’ noise.
“Dealings?” he echoed in a perfect imitation of Bennett’s accent, barking a laugh at the end. “We’re all on the same side now, Shawn. No harm letting ’em know our dirty little secrets, non?” Bergeron winked at Travers and Thiago found himself growing even more concerned. “We were given the same assignment a few years back, during that whole purging mess, you remember?” the younger man explained, waiting until everyone nodded before continuing.
The purging mess Bergeron referred to had indeed been chaotic, with agents assigned the same targets and some agents targeted by mistake. Eventually, O.R.G., affectionately called the Organization by its agents, discovered it was a computer virus, but not before nine O.R.G. agents lost their lives to friendly fire. Thiago was almost one of them. It was now referred to as the Purge, capitalization implied with the hushed way agents murmured the word.
“Mais, we started catching wind of each other as we tailed our mark, who it turned out was another covert, and finally we both decide that the other, he must be either a rival or a bodyguard.”
“In a shocking example of how our training has brainwashed us,” Bennett said, taking up the narrative with a smile. “We both hatched the same plan and ended up attempting to kill one another in frighteningly similar ways. Thankfully the virus was uncovered and put right before we could follow through, but barely.”
“I had him in my sights when I got the message.”
“Bollocks,” Bennett responded grumpily. “You were dead to rights.”
“How many times have I told you– ”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” Bergeron said with a dismissive wave. “Anyways,” he went on pointedly, “when I came in here to feel the place out last week who do I find but Shawn, sitting in the corner there, looking all canaille and out of place. We had us une petite mêlée. Anyway! We got the safe house all set up already, thanks to that. Nikolaus, you got everything you need?”
“In my car,” Faust answered readily.
“Let’s get going then, shall we?” Everett suggested as he stood and towered over the rest of them.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler,” Bergeron drawled with a grin.
Thiago still wasn’t very satisfied with the apparent history of two of his new companions as they gathered their few belongings and headed for their various modes of transportation, but he decided the information they had offered would have to do for now.