A mission to stop a criminal syndicate whose color is black.
|A groan escapes my lips as I look at the building before me. Never in a million years did I think I'd be back here. I was so happy to leave this place five years ago, I actually took the time to flip it off as I left for the last time. Rather, what I thought would be the last time. By some demonic twist of fate, I wound up back at my old high school. That's not to say I don't have a diploma, it's hanging on the wall in my home in Virginia right next to my Bachelor's degree in Psychology. Unfortunately, my job has brought me back to my high school. No, strike that. Unbelievably, my job has brought me back here. I've seen unrealistic things as a result of my job, but even I couldn't believe what Hidemi found on her assignment. I actually went to the trouble of performing a second decoding of her report just to actually believe this assignment was real.
It was about six weeks ago when Director Fontaine called me to her office herself. Actually, "called" isn't even the right word. She didn't send an e-mail or letter, she didn't use word of mouth, and she didn't pick up the phone. And she did it herself. I even asked if she remembered she had a secretary to make the meetings for her. She came directly to my house on Saturday and told me to get in her office at 5:00 A.M. when I returned to work on Monday, that way, I'd be in before even the early bird she calls a secretary. It clicked in my head instantly. There was something so important she could only let people know on a need to know basis. Her secretary, my co-workers, maybe even her bosses were going to be kept in the dark on this one until we were done.
I slowly walked up to her office on Monday morning, slightly ahead of time. I was dog tired that morning: I would have been dragging my feet, but that would scuff my shoes. I spent the previous night ironing my best suit and polishing my best shoes, all to make a good impression for this important meeting. I even woke up early to give myself a loofah scrub that eventually felt more like a steel wool scrub. In the end, I looked and smelled great, even if my back still stung from the loofah. I got about four hours of sleep the night before this meeting. And after she talked to me on Saturday, I got too anxious to have a good sleep on that night as well. All I remember thinking is I hoped the job required a couple of days outside the office to get ready so I could sleep a bit.
When I finally got outside her office, I found Director Fontaine sitting in her secretary's chair solving a Sudoku. I knocked on the desk, bolting her upright as her eyes widened briefly in surprise. I just grinned and asked, "Jumpy?"
She smiled, "You know that's only when someone approaches me quietly." That was no lie. She had very sharp senses and made a great hall monitor back in Jr. High, or so she says. However, given her previous demonstrations of her senses, most people took her word for it.
I lowered my head a bit and mumbled, "Sorry."
"Sign of weakness, I know."
"Actually it's because today that stealthy behavior is why you're here. But let's continue this in my office."
She came out from behind the desk, and pulled out her keys. After unlocking her door and leading me in, my anxiety returned as I looked around. She kept all the windows locked and the blinds drawn. And to add to it, she locked the door behind us.
From behind her desk, she asked, "Before we begin, I need to check one thing. Based off everything that's happened so far, you understand this is to never be discussed outside this office right? No matter what I or anyone else may say?"
Instead of answering, I asked my own question, "Isn't that a general rule for everything we do in this part of the company?"
"Not exactly. When I said 'this office,' I actually meant this office. My office. Anywhere else in this building isn't secure, and neither are any other CIA buildings."
My legs started twitching as I realized the reason for her secrecy. Whatever this was about, the people behind it have made at least one attempt to infiltrate the CIA. I took a deep breath to regain my composure and answered, "Alright, I get it. But first, why are you even telling me?"
"Because of whom your mentor was. Ethan was working this case long before you rolled around. He would have never let you in if he thought you were connected, and would have ousted you the moment he learned you were a traitor. Ethan trusted you. That's enough for us."
She took a deep breath of her own and continued, "For a few years now, there's been a secret division of our NCS office. This division's existence isn't even known to the President yet. We've been secretly investigating a number of mysterious deaths: our investigations revealed they were all murders, executed almost perfectly. In all of these murders, you had to be consciously looking at it as a murder to even hope to find evidence of the fact. For the most part, the public chalks them up as accidents, suicides, or blames the crime families. We've seized all the files on these cases, but the bigger problem is we can't even make suspect lists for most of them. The ones we could led us to people who wound up dead and had their homes and work places catch fire, explode in a gas leak, or other such tragedies.
"Ethan's work on one of these cases unearthed the discovery that it's a global crime syndicate. After that discovery, he looked into it more and found a branch here in the United States. He managed to infiltrate their ranks for a while, and learned that their boss has a Japanese phone number. Since he's Japanese, we sent Ethan and a few of our other Japanese agents to further investigate in Japan, but there was an error that got him and one of the others killed. Ethan's work is honored for both its depth and the fact that he managed to keep his CIA position a secret even when he screwed up. Thanks to that, they have no idea how far in we actually are. Thanks to that, we can keep moving forward."
My head was spinning by this point. It's quite a bit of information to take in, especially without visuals or taking notes. It was easier than one might expect since I had experience doing that, but still no picnic. I skipped over some details, hoping I could get a slight refresher if I needed it. Or, better yet, keep my mind clear of them for when I'm sent to infiltrate. I may not be Japanese or have any clue how the language works, but it's a global syndicate. There's bound to be places in the United States and Europe where I could aid this investigation. However, all the experience in the world couldn't make it any easier to keep my poker face after what she said next.
"Naturally, our primary objective is to find their leader, but unfortunately the phone number lead is a dead end without cooperation from Japan, something we can't risk right now. However, one of our agents in Japan sent us a report that's even further discouraging. As a global syndicate, they naturally have agents looking into recruitment all over the place. Hidemi, our agent on the inside, only had a moment to look into this lead, and was able to discover one location. It's a high school. We're assuming they're looking for students interested in military life to recruit them to their side instead, but this isn't confirmed. Hidemi only says that a large number of their U.S. agents are based out of that school. And you know it all too well. It was your high school."
My eyes went as wide as saucers. A moment after the shock set in, my mouth finished her speech. "So, you want to insert an agent who looks rather young, so he or she can pose as the type of student they're looking for. And you also want someone who has some knowledge of the school, so that the investigation can be accelerated and we can aid Hidemi sooner. Ergo, you want me to return to my old high school."
"Precisely. You'll be infiltrating with a friend from Japan who Hidemi recommends and another agent from here in the United States. Since student-teacher meetings outside of the school are viewed suspiciously and the school's too dangerous a location to hold meetings, we won't be telling you who the teacher is."
"Won't I be able to figure it out anyway? It'll be a new teacher who appeared at roughly the same time I did. That should narrow the suspect list down considerably."
"For starters, you won't be entering for another six weeks or so as a transfer student. Second, the teacher infiltrated at the start of the school year. And third, your school hired a number of new teachers for this year. Our agent is hidden with all the new teachers."
"But the agent'll still know it's me when I enter the school."
"We told our agent you and your partner would be an African American male and a female of French decent. We also mentioned you two infiltrated back at the start of the school year. There's at least twenty students who fit each description. You two will be hidden for a long while."
"All right. So now the more pressing problem: I've been in the school! There's bound to be at least one person there who still recognizes me."
"Well, that's also why we want you to use those talents your mother gave you."
I'm snapped out of the memory by my own snarling. I don't think anyone can blame me for snarling a bit. I hate it when people bring up that woman: even more so when they call her my mother. She didn't give birth to me, and she didn't adopt me. Hell, she didn't even marry my dad! Just remembering that woman gets me so mad I just lash out at anything. I kick a rock on the ground to take out my ferocity. I watch it briefly as it takes off over the fence, and quickly begins to escape Earth's orbit. Looking back, perhaps if I had learned what a bitch that woman was years ago, I could have gone out for girls soccer or placekicker for powder-puff football. I could never kick a ball very well back then, but now that I always envision her face both on whatever I kick and on my target, I always kick it perfectly. I guess all I ever lacked was the right motivation.
Now that I'm a little calmer, I continue my walk up to the school doors, hoping to expedite the process that awaits all new students. However, I stayed true to my cover. Instead of going directly up to the guidance office, I looked over at the wall and pretended to read the little arrows. I always thought they became sort of stupid to keep up into October, when most students have committed to memory the location of their classes, but I suppose no one can tell when a public school is getting a new student. And fortunately, these thoughts help to distract me as I climb the stairs to the second floor. Neither the prospect of being surrounded by the hormonally driven teenagers that seem to be drawn to this school like moths to a flame, nor the fact that I'm going to be relearning what I already learned five years ago are motivating me up these stairs. They're actually motivating me to jump out the window and hope a two story fall might somehow kill me. It's a good thing I like my job.
I make my way into the guidance office and see the four individual guidance counselors' rooms. Three doors are open, and one of them happens to have Ms. Coburn waving at me from behind her desk. I hurry in, hoping I didn't keep her waiting too long. I like Ms. Coburn, she's a nice woman and she was my counselor back when I was here as a real student. I really hope in my heart she isn't connected to this syndicate, but lately my heart's desires haven't been fulfilled.
It's time for things to get interesting. No, I'm not excited about talking to an old friend, and certainly not about school and what she's going to say to about it. What is going to be interesting is whether or not she recognizes me. If the ever observant Ms. Coburn can't recognize me, it's as good as saying my mother wouldn't recognize me. Actually, if we think of her the way the Director thinks of her, that woman probably would recognize me. However, if it were anyone else, no way. There's no way they would believe the blemish free Marleen Fortuyn who loved her straight, blonde hair that reached to her elbows was now the freckled and tanned Mirabella Fiore with shoulder length raven colored curls.
"You know, this is good timing," Ms. Coburn says before I can take a seat. "We got another transfer student, and he arrived just before you did. I'll be with you in a sec, Mirabella, but I'm just going to pop in and ask him and Mr. Habich to hold on when they finish so we can just make one big trip around the school instead of two." Ms. Coburn walks out the door and I can hear her knocking on the closed door of the office. It may have just been the rush, but it seems she didn't recognize me. It's rather miraculous, considering I was just thinking about that woman. I used to hate knowing that woman and letting her into my life so much that I would get physically ill and look it for a good hour or so. Now, though, after my past couple of years with the CIA, both as a field agent and as an intern, I can't help but feel somewhat grateful for all the time I had with her.
Looking back, I realize I haven't even mentioned who "that woman" is or anything about her. Just call it habit. Now that I know what she really is, I hate Sharon Vineyard more than a guy hates a hit to the crotch. I'd rather not even mention her unless I have no choice. I think hatred with more abundance than there are knock-offs in Hollywood qualifies as a good motive for my silence.
I was born and raised in California, before all the bat shit hit the fan out there. My father, Jesse, was a semi-popular actor, though I'm certain almost no one knows who he is now. He didn't make it big, but he had a decent fan base within Hollywood. As for the woman who gave birth to me, well, I'm not really sure. She was never around at the least, and Dad never talked about her. I don't know if she left us or died, and to be honest, I'm in no hurry to learn. Sharon pretty much spoiled the entire concept of mothers for me.
When I was about six, Dad got the male lead in a romance movie, his biggest role yet. We were expecting him to finally make it big across the world, but he was only remembered as, "the man who played opposite Sharon Vineyard." As such, it eventually became known as his biggest role ever. Since it was only PG-13 and only so because of the reality of the situation, Dad didn't mind taking me to the set or the premiere. Throughout the whole process, I witnessed their interactions and, being only six, I asked him on premiere night, "Is Sharon going to be my new mom?" They both chuckled at the notion, though Dad grew a little red. When she was done, Sharon crouched down to look me in the eyes and said, "Sure. If you want me to be your mom, I'd love to be one for you. I could use a real daughter." When I was a teenager and learned about her daughter, Chris, and all the horrible rumors surrounding her, I thought Sharon was confirming those rumors and disowning Chris. Now that I know there really is no Chris Vineyard, that it was just a guise Sharon wore, I know Sharon's words were really about looking at me as her daughter. So much so, she even taught me the art of disguise that she learned from some magician she never talked too much about.
Back when I was a kid, I really loved Sharon like a mother, mostly because she was really motherly. It was everything I had ever wanted in my life. I hate looking back on those days now. I wanted a real mother, and now I can never be sure Sharon was one for me. Now that I know she has a connection to the same syndicate that killed Ethan, I feel certain Sharon just used my father and me, certain she just fed me lines to help her cover. We were just a couple of people to make her life seem normal and a stark contrast to her daughter's lawless adventures. That woman betrayed us. I hate using her name, and I envision her face every time I pull a trigger or perform some act of violence. Picturing that deceitful bitch makes it easier for me to do it.
"So, any questions?" Ms. Coburn asks, breaking me from my recollection. It's no big deal if I auto-pilot myself through her welcome speech. Five years isn't very long. How much could things have changed? As I shake my head, she stands, "Alright, let's see if the other two are done."
She guides me out the door to the main room, where a man wearing a rug and a Japanese boy are sitting. Their heads pick up as we walk in, and I'm instantly drawn to his messy hair. It's okay in the back, but he paid almost no mind to the front. And the cow lick was ridiculous. Some people say I'm just picky about hair, but seriously, it looks like he just ran his fingers through it. At least his attire was all right. My partner's hair is going to get on my nerves, but he's got the, "public schools in the United States have no uniform and the students dress very casually within the confines of the dress code" thing down. Now let's just hope his English is all right. According to Ms. Fontaine, he was supposed to be posing as a Japanese boy born in the United States. "Engrish" was not what we needed.
"Mirabella Fiore, this is Stephen Kimura. Stephen, Mirabella." As we shake hands, she continues, "Since you're both new, perhaps you two can help each other out a little and make the transition go smoothly. It's always easier adapting to a new school once you make a friend." That's the only thing I don't like about Ms. Coburn, she's too cheery and a bit of a fool when it comes to society's darkest secrets and the fear it creates in all of us. "We've met, therefore, we're friends" doesn't exist in this distrustful world that employs people like myself to deceive, steal, and murder for the sake of one side. He and I shouldn't even be interacting as much as she has us interacting right now. We're not supposed to get close until we get the upcoming group project for Mysteries, our only class together, and "reluctantly" pair up to do this assignment.
I tune out Ms. Coburn and begin to contemplate more on the mission. While my partner has to take this all in, I'll be fine until we get to our lockers. The important things to consider are: How are they getting all these students to become members? Why this school? How far does it extend? Who's in on it and who's a bystander? Where's the proof? Our tour may just be for the sake of convincing them, but it is helping me get a few ideas. The faculty areas and the back of the lunch room are the best locations to start looking for anything I need. I just have to find the locations the students aren't allowed in. Four years here should have taught me those well enough, I just need to jump start my memory.
As I continue thinking about it all, Stephen interrupts us all and asks, "What's up there?" Turning to face him, Stephen was pointing towards the locked gates around the stairs that lead up to the fourth floor. His English is actually pretty good. A hint of an accent, but it's just enough to pass as a U.S. born. It's one of those accents a Japanese kid would get if his parents grew up in Japan, but he was born in an English speaking country and his parents had him speak Japanese around them. An accent that says he picked up English through immersion in school, but the Japanese has been around just as long. Which he learned first is impossible to tell off speech alone: very passable. Infiltrating the student body shouldn't be hard for either of us.
"If you ask the students, a swimming pool," Ms. Coburn answers grinning. "But the truth is just a small area of the school that used to be used for classes. From down here, you'll tell it's small when you notice not every stair case has a fourth floor option."
"Why's it no longer in use?" Stephen continues.
"It's mostly because of its size and the elevator. When we needed to install the elevator for our students who can't use the stairs, we needed to find a location that worked for design, budget constraints, and convenience. The only location that worked was outside the area of the fourth floor, so the elevator won't reach. We could expand the fourth floor, but we don't have the money to do it. So, to be fair and make it easier for us, the school board decided to no longer use the fourth floor and erected the gates on the stairs."
I can't help but think they would have the money if the school board didn't skim so much money off the top of the budget, and if they didn't take a little more off the bottom afterwards. Regardless, it'll be useless to look up there. It's been closed off for so long it's probably not too safe to put weight on. Not to mention all the rats and cockroaches that are probably running around up there and leaving "items" on the floor. God forbid the janitors would clean the school once in a while. I just want to put that floor behind me and walk on, but I can't help but notice Stephen. His gaze keeps jumping back to the gate. It's fun to dream and all that, but seriously, this is his meet and greet of a good...not bad...new school...to him. There should be other things to stimulate the imagination.
"Well, any questions about the school?" Ms. Coburn asks as she leads us down the stairs and to the front doors, the tour now over. Stephen and I both shake our heads. Like I would have a question. She continues, "Well, you two aren't scheduled to pop in until tomorrow, so you're free to go now. Hope you two have fun here."
As Ms. Coburn walks back up to the first floor, I make a fast walk for the door, trying my hardest not to look stupid while doing it. I hate this assignment. If not for the very secrecy of our division and the other details surrounding me even getting the assignment, I wouldn't be here. I would have handed this job off to someone else, with the Director's permission of course.
Stephen, I notice as I pass him, is moving rather slowly, and his face says he's deep in thought. I guess it can't hurt. We have spent the whole tour together already. There's always some sort of bond when that happens. "What'cha thinking about?"
He picks his head up, probably surprised to be snapped back to the physical world. He smiles and says, "Quite a bit."
As he breaks out his cell phone, I ask, "Do you want to share your thoughts?"
"Yeah, I thought we'd be here until school let out. Now I have to call my mom and have her pick me up." Well, at least he's sticking to the persona we gave him. Proves he can roll with the punches.
"Oh, no car? No worries. I'll cover you if you want. You're just going to have to hoof it to the main road." Certainly a little bold for this stage of the mission, but who's going to notice? We're outside the school and there are no security cameras. They'd have to actually be watching us to see something. And, more importantly, I parked over on the main road. Getting into the same car is unusual, but exitting the same way isn't. Who the hell would follow us over a street? Especially since we've done nothing to stick out.
Stephen just smiles. His face says it all. His smile says, "Thanks," while his eyes say, "I hope you know what you're doing." The predetermined act, though flexible, is certainly stretched to its limits with this move of mine. I just have to trust my instincts and do this as I see fit.
We drive off in silence. There was nothing to say. Our phone numbers, our home addresses, our aliases, our faces, and our real names were given to each other at the start of the mission. There is no one to fool with our act at this point. So, dropping all pretenses, I break the silence. "My Japanese isn't so good. How do pronounce your name again?"
"Shinichi Kudo," he says before repeating it slowly, enunciating the syllables for me. "Do you have a breath mint?"
"No idea," I answer honestly as I stop at a red. "Check the glove. I'll check the ash tray and my purse."
Keeping my eye on the light, we start a small search of my car, looking for breath mints. As I begin carefully emptying my purse, he breaks the silence and halts the search. "You keep Maurice Leblanc in your glove compartment?" I look up at him, and see held in his hand is my copy of The Hollow Needle.
I fall back in my seat blushing a bit. I quietly say, "I love Lupin: especially the first collection of short stories. No matter how many times I read them, my jaw hangs down in awe. Lupin's the best. Leblanc out did himself."
"Ba-ro!" he yells into my ear, snapping me out of my fangirl moment. All I know right now is I seriously need to look up "Ba-ro." I have no idea what it means and what kind of insult to hurl at him in another language. He continues, "If Lupin was the best, how come the masses only know his grandson?"
"Would you rather he be like Sherlock Holmes and be remembered by the masses for only a hat he generally let collect dust and a catch phrase his creator never wrote for him? The people who've heard of Lupin know everything about him, even Sherlock's involvement and why he became Sholmes in the Lupin universe."
"So because he isn't remembered for some cliché, and is instead remembered only by his fans, Lupin's better?" We're getting heated. Steam is fogging up the windows and his face has lost all its charm. Clenched teeth, furrowed eyebrows, and fire in the eyes have a tendency to do that.
"You're the one who brought fandom into this, not me! Don't put words in my mouth!" My face isn't much better. I can feel my face contorting into a demon's and my head feels ready to split and paint the inside of my car. "Lupin's better because there was always something to amaze the hell out of me. Holmes lost the ability to do that after A Study in Scarlet. Add to it, any half wit can solve the mysteries. It takes talent to create them. Just look back to your home of Japan: there are five high school students, an inventor, and a bunch of elementary school kids who solve police cases over there. And there's a private detective and a police inspector who solve them just like one of the students: half asleep. You really intend to tell me it takes real talent to solve a mystery?"
I don't know what his obsession with detectives is, but that definitely hit him in the ego. He turns red as blood and starts yelling at me in Japanese. I have no idea what he's saying, but I start yelling at him in German all the same. I'm not wrong in yelling at him in a language I don't think he understands, right? If he can do it to me, I can do it to him, right?
Well, I won't be able to think about that for a while. Before I can, a novelty car horn playing "La Cucaracha" snaps us out of our fight and draws my attention to the light switching to Yellow. I speed out and quickly head off for Shinichi's temporary housing out here. All I can hope is we were only sitting through one green light.
Mirabella's supposed to be a bit of a girl with a pretty face. Socializing and looking pretty are the time killers in her life: my temporary life. I'm expecting to spend all my time getting a handle on the syndicate through socializing and school searches. I have fashion magazines instead of books, a computer is about social networking instead of information gathering, and my life is supposed to be about crappy comedy movies. And now, add to it, my partner and I got off to a bad start and are fighting over which of two amazing authors is better, whether or not detectives are all they're hyped to be, and words neither of us understand. This is going to be a long, tiresome mission.