False Flag: Azores (Part 2 of 3)
Painting by Demar Douglas
Inside the Vivenda de Saudade, Martial, Black Fury, Rock & Soul and Jack Attack walked into the main room -- a spacious affair with lots of wood furniture mixed in with more modernist metal accents -- to see a suited man identical to the one at the front gate standing near a long table set out with fruits, cookies, juice and sandwiches. Snakebird stood on the far end of the room, looking out the window at the large crates on the lawn while Prophecy sat in a comfortable looking chair, nodding at their approach, and Gladiator stood, arms crossed, in a more confrontational pose.
Black Fury instinctively reached for his sidearm and the suited man said, "May I politely remind you that there are ... countermeasures on site courtesy of the Hierarchy, ready to quell any conflicts. Should things escalate beyond that, Iron Rain will have the last word."
Martial glared over at Black Fury, who sucked his teeth and stood down, letting his hands fall to his sides.
The suited man stepped forward and swept a hand past the food. "I'll be on hand to take notes and address any logistical needs any of you have. You can call me Al."
Prophecy chortled at that. "Does that make one of us Betty?" She glanced around with a grin, finding no response and muttered to herself, "tough room ..."
"Per the agreements set forth," Al said, ignoring the joke, "there are places for everyone at the large dining room table," he said, gesturing over by where Snakebird was standing, her attention now turned on the people in the room with her. She already had a plate of grapes and an opened bottle of water at a place set with her codename, "ANHINGA THE TRUSTEE."
People amiably made their way towards the table.
"Prophecy, is it?" Rock & Soul said with a raised eyebrow. "I thought the terms of these meetings specifically prohibited anyone with mental or psychometric powers."
Al offered, "Prophecy is enormously well read and very observant, but does not have any actual precognitive powers."
The heads of Gladiator and Snakebird snapped towards Prophecy who chuckled, and responded, "As far as you know."
Al said, "Our files are comprehensive, but yes, as far as we know you have no precognitive nor clairvoyant powers, you're merely immortal."
Everyone stopped and looked at Prophecy then.
"What the ..." Martial muttered.
Gladiator interjected, "Iron Rain sent you here to assist, not to participate in these proceedings, isn't that right, Al? Let's not tell tales we are not willing to test."
Al pursed his lips, an uncharacteristic show of consideration and possibly embarrassment. "You're right, I apologize."
Uneasily, everyone sat in their assigned seats, except for Black Fury and Jack Attack, who had no table settings.
Gladiator glanced over at the two men and said, "Security elements can wait outside ... or I suppose there are chairs over there by the door."
Fury rolled his eyes and Attack grabbed his arm. "Sure, we'll verify the perimeter." To Martial, he said, "We'll be right outside, boss."
As they walked out, Black Fury shook Attack's hand loose from his arm. Once the door closed behind them, Al stepped to stand behind the door on the opposite side of the room, crossed his hands in front of himself, and let his head drop as if he was taking a nap.
Prophecy took her napkin off the table and set down a plate with two tuna salad sandwiches. Spreading the napkin across her lap, she said, "These fine ... people? Anyway, Iron Rain served us such a thoughtful spread, we may as well enjoy it ..."
Rock & Soul scoffed and said, "Five years ago, in Paraguay, Iron Rain implanted a subcutaneous nano-tracker in me in a bottle of water that we didn't find for three months." Glaring at Al, she pulled a bottle of water out of her bag and said, "I'll pass."
Gladiator pulled an iPad pro from her Coach backpack and said, "Sounds fun. All right, people can eat or not based on their opinions, let's get down to business. Are we agreed on the agenda for today?"
Snakebird pulled an iPad Pro from her large Fendi tote on the side of the table, as Rock & Soul -- her eyes locked on Prophecy, who just smiled amiably back -- handed an iPad to the Martial from her bag before pulling out an iPad Mini for herself.
"We have some concerns about the budgetary section," Rock & Soul said, finally turning to look at Gladiator. "We'd like to move that up, if possible."
Snakebird shrugged. "Fine by me. Where would you like to begin?"
Opening a document on her iPad Mini, Rock & Soul said, "We'd like to discuss merchandising revenues ..."
Gladiator yelped a laugh and said, "I knew it! I knew this would come up! You owe me twenty euros, Condesa! This is about that new Pantheon record, isn't it? We did not license that ..."
Martial interjected, "... But you're more than happy to use their lyrics as customization elements on merchandise. Shirts, hats, stickers, buttons ... The Myth even wore the prestige Adidas sneakers with Union iconography in the 'Wrap Star' video!"
Snakebird squinted at Martial. "I don't understand your concern. Our licensing contribution to the common endowment matches the terms we all agreed to."
Rock & Soul pointed her index finger and said, "The Union of the Snake made three dollars for every dollar DangerWatch made in merchandising last year. All of that did not end up in the endowment!"
Snakebird and Gladiator looked at each other and shrugged as Prophecy took a bite of pineapple between them.
"For the first nine years of the toy line," Snakebird countered, "the income from DangerWatch toys, action figures and licensed character pieces outsold ours by a factor of fifteen dollars to one. The original Trustee didn't even get an action figure until the toy line had been out two years, and the line started out with thirteen DangerWatch figures to three from the Union. That kind of ratio didn't start to change until the introduction of the first Onyx Dragon in 1985, but to this day is better than two to one!"
Gladiator nodded. "She's right, we still don't have product parity, which we note on page thirty eight of the annual financial report, it's attached to the meeting invite. The Union of the Snake wasn't even able to have input for the merchandising design process for five years after the 'conflict' started. The Union never questioned any of that, did we? It's not like there wasn't an entire album dedicated to your team before!"
Rock & Soul sighed and said, "Yes, the Wordburglar album is a timeless classic, we all admit that. That's apples and oragnes -- he's an independent artist who didn't even pay for the samples. The Pantheon is the biggest rap group in the world. Once you adjust for inflation, the early merchandising disparity doesn't hold up ..."
"If I may interject," Prophecy said calmly and the entire table fell to silence.
"Even though the Martial spent a lot of time with his father," she began, "I'm the only one who was actually actively involved during the events you're discussing. There has always been a quiet agreement to ignore the income generated by DangerWatch merchandise on military bases, as well as ignoring the very heavy faith based marketing rewards, like the co-branded shirts from the DC Talk reunion tour. Page 138 of the annual report appendix notes assessments by our forensic accountants of off-book income DangerWatch made that we do not dispute. Despite deep participation from the Union in the DangerWatch television show -- writers, animators, service industry members, et cetera -- we ask for none of that syndication revenue and it does not go to the endowment."
She glanced around at everyone, including Snakebird and Gladiator and continued, "This meeting is about looking forward to what we're going to do for the next year. Do we really need to get bogged down with quibbling over pennies from the past?"
The table was silent for a moment before Gladiator leaned back and regarded Prophecy.
"I can't believe I wasn't sure if we should bring you, auntie!" Gladiator said with a laugh. "That's good enough for me. Back to the agenda then?"
Rock & Soul and the Martial grumbled assent, scrolling back to the top of the page on their screens.
The Kids' Table
Jack Attack and Black Fury walked out to see Wrecking Ball, still on the hood of the Mercedes, still flipping the dagger in her hand.
Attack said, "I guess they put all of us out at the kids' table, huh?"
Wrecking Ball shot him a look like a dagger, filled with ice and rancor.
Black Fury, helmet in hands, stepped up and said, "Listen, Patricia ..."
"No," she said with calm clarity. "I'm not 'Patricia' to you anymore, Johnny. I'm not 'Patty' to you either, old man. I'm Wrecking Ball. The girl you two knew, the girl desperate to be accepted like that stuffed shirt brother of mine in there, died in Armenia, where her 'Uncle Jack' left her in the Tavush province. She was shot down after she made one mistake, ignoring all the missed dates and forgotten anniversaries she endured, and the love of her life couldn't look at her the same way. You two killed her, as sure as double tapping me with your sidearm. So 'Patricia' doesn't have to listen to anything that either of you say, because Wrecking Ball doesn't know you at all."
Fury and Attack glanced at each other in the awkward silence before Attack found the courage to speak.
"I know the recruit I met from Fort Benning who wouldn't let them put her father's name on her uniform," he said softly, "who impressed everyone and regularly took down men twice her size, sparring. I know the woman who sat across from me at Thanksgiving all those years, always having some funny story to tell. You're right, I don't know this angry, punk rock version that can change her face and drove a bulldozer into Arlington National Cemetery. I do know I made a mistake in Armenia, just like you did with John here. I'd like a chance to be Uncle Jack again."
Wrecking Ball laughed -- a mirthless, hard sound like a bark. "What should someone do to deserve a second chance, 'Black Fury?' What's enough for the old man to do? Should he let me burn down that safe house of his in Big Bear? Call it even Stevens? Oh, wait, I know."
She stood up and walked over, glaring into Jack Attack's eyes. "I had to run six missions as a regular Snake before they let me have a codename," she said, shifting her head around to stay in front of his gaze, "even with my experience. There was a mission in Smyrna, Tennessee. I was in a Snake's uniform when you, old man, almost ran me over with that ridiculous 1970s wet dream you've been driving around my whole life. You killed two guys who started the same day I did. As you ripped past, I could see you, grinning through the windshield as you rolled over them."
Attack went pale with surprise. "Patty Cake. I ... I had no idea ..."
She turned to Black Fury and said, "A month after I was left in Armenia, two months after you left me crying in the grass at the Presidio, do you know what your good ol' pal Jack Attack did? He went on the Tonight Show and introduced the world to 'Throwdown.' Practically gave her my callsign! He'll try to say," and she affected her voice to imitate Jack Attack's tone, "'well, well, well, Nuance was workin' on the ding dang paperwork with me on that for a year, that's nothin' personal, lil' darlin!' Meanwhile, metrics show I have ten times more fans as Wrecking Ball than I had as Shakedown. My performance bonus for that thing in Abuja was as much as two months of my DangerWatch pay. I let the two of you, and my brother, and my father, and that whole pointless team hold me back way too long. You weren't a boyfriend and you, old man, you weren't a mentor. You were anchors!
"I had a hard time with what happened," Black Fury said softly. "I'd never had anything like that happen before and ..."
"I was young and scared and I cheated on you," she said with a smile. "I know that was wrong. It was my first real relationship, and I wasn't mature enough to appreciate what we had, and I fell into bed with the first couple of idiots who were convenient. I'm not trying to hide from it any more than I was when I told you. The difference is that I don't love you any more, Johnny. You didn't come looking for me in Armenia, you didn't accept my apology, I wasn't good enough then and I'm a lot worse now. I'll be the bad guy. I don't mind. The pay is a lot better."
"Please, if you'll just listen," Black Fury said, "I made a mistake, too and it took me a long time ... and a lot of loss, to realize that ..."
"Don't care," Wrecking Ball said. "Unless you two idiots are gonna walk in there and shoot Dan and Cheryl in the head, nothing you have to say is important to me. Do that, I'll download a checkers app so we can play like when I was a kid and we can both hear whatever John needed to tell me before he blew up my house. Any takers?"
They both looked down at the ground. Black Fury cleared his throat.
"Thought not," she said. "Stay away from me, and stay away from the car. It's one of a kind."
She walked down the driveway towards the front gate.
Attack took off his gloves and rubbed the bridge of his nose and Black Fury put his hands over his face ... neither noticing a grinning Anansi peeking from behind the building, just past the Mercedes, before his appearance shifted ... into that of Wrecking Ball.
Inside, the meeting continued.
"... we can agree that," Gladiator said, reading from her tablet, "after Pearl Harbor and the Power Summit, we'll allow five quarters of solid, clear DangerWatch wins until what we're calling the October Surprise, with a splashy, shocking attack in a country unfriendly to the United States with no chance of a speedy DangerWatch response? Is that right?"
Martial raised a finger and said, "I would like to renew our request for a Russian target ..."
Snakebird raised an eyebrow and said, "Both of us would have some problems with the Kulak Group, who opened two new factories in Bahkta and Vangurey. That's a non-starter, Martial."
He sat back, deflated and Rock & Soul said, "Maybe that's a good place for our break?"
"Wonderful idea, dear," Prophecy beamed. "I'd like to stretch these old legs a little."
As they all got up from the table, Martial walked over to regard Al, head still down and silent.
"Iron Rain has the best robots ..." he muttered to himself.
From right behind him, Gladiator spoke, making him jump with surprise. "They have the best looking robots, because technically they're androids. They also don't have to sell replicas of them to nine year old boys."
He looked back at her with eyebrows raised as she smiled back. "If you'll excuse me," she said, stepping past him to join Snakebird and Prophecy at the back door. Unseen, a green web-like glow flashed across Al's face for a moment and was just as quickly gone.
Before they could open it, Al raised his head and said, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I have an update. I am being told that the Organizer from the Union of the Snake is en route."
Everyone in the room stopped and looked at each other.
Prophecy stood up straighter, tapping a gold bracelet on her left wrist, a yellowish stone inlay catching the light. "Is that right?" she asked.
Martial frowned, looking concerned. "He hasn't been to one of these since the Fukushima mishap ..."
"Way to minimize, Captain Exploitia," Snakebird scoffed.
"... how does this affect our discussion?" Rock & Soul wondered.
"Let's wait until he gets here and find out," Gladiator said, reaching for her phone. "Now I have two calls to make, excuse me." Tapping the screen, she walked out the back door on to the lawn.
Martial pursed his lips and absently reached for some cherry tomatoes, slowly eating them from his hand.
Prophecy rocked back on her heels, still tapping her bracelet, and said to Snakebird, "Today just got very interesting!"
The edge of the Vivenda de Saudade property was a well-crafted rock wall protecting the relentlessly manicured lawn from the harshness of the Atlantic, ten feet above the sea level. Black Fury clanked along, helmet back on his head, his heavy metal footsteps leaving deep impressions in the inch long blades of grass as he followed the rock wall.
From behind him, he heard a voice. "I got your message."
Black Fury turned to see Wrecking Ball, hands clasped behind her back smiling at him.
He took off his helmet and sighed. "I don't know if I can handle another case of you reading me the riot act."
Looking down, she put her hands in her pockets, shrugged and walked closer, saying, "I got the message you left at Hart and Associates. I'm sorry that Old John died. He was a truly sweet old man, and he was always so kind to me."
Black Fury squinted at her, sizing her up.
"That's ... that's a surprise," he said unsurely. "You haven't been this nice to me in years"
"Your dad died," Wrecking Ball said, running a finger along the eagle on his chest. "A man who was very nice to me, a man who loved you quite a bit, a man who to my knowledge was loved by pretty much everybody who ever met him, near as I can tell. I think this is a fair enough time to call a truce."
She pulled a piece of paper from her vest and offered it to him. "No trace on the line, you can call me and talk about it. Not today, we're both on assignment, but this weekend. Maybe."
Very confused, Fury gingerly took the piece of paper from her and opened it, looking at the ten digits written there in a handwriting he knew very well.
"Thank you," he said quietly, looking at the paper. "He ... he wouldn't stop talking about you. When he was ... when he was going, you know?"
Wrecking Ball nodded, listening intently, her expression thoughtful as she regarded him.
Fury stopped and looked at her. "You're acting weird. We were ready to dance when we got here, now you're ... well, being nice. Even nicer than you were when you were on the team. What's your deal?"
Wrecking Ball made a "pshaw" gesture with her hand and said, "You know the old man gets under my skin after Armenia. I don't really have much of a legitimate cause for a beef with you, specifically. Not now, I mean, I get this has to be hard for you."
He frowned and nodded. "Okay. Thanks. Surprising, but appreciated. Maybe I'll look the other way next time I see you out there."
Chuckling, she started to walk away and flipped her middle finger at him. "I won't return the favor," she said in a sing-song fashion and he chuckled. As he returned to looking at the paper, the four red opaque eyes appeared on her forehead."
The Hardest Part
Back out front, Martial and Rock & Soul climbed into the W.A.R. Fare to find Jack Attack reading a copy of Stars & Stripes with a pair of reading glasses hanging loosely on his nose.
"Oh, hey," he said, taking off the glasses and stuffing them inside his jacket. "All quiet here, well, now. Both John and Patty are wandering the grounds ..."
"It's fine, Jack," Martial said. "Something's up. We were taking a break and heard from Iron Rain that the Organizer is on his way here."
Shocked, Attack set the newspaper down on the dashboard and shook his head. "That's ... wow," he said. "Other than that thing in Los Angeles, in all my years on the job, I don't know if I've ever been within a hundred feet of this guy. He's supposed to be a total mystery."
"I don't like it," Rock & Soul said, arms crossed. "This feels like a power play, with War Dog not here. Have we heard anything from him?"
Martial shook his head. "He's radio silent. Said he had a thing at NORAD Command in Colorado that couldn't be avoided."
"This is so weird," Rock & Soul said, leaning her elbows on her knees. "It used to just be War Dog and the Organizer out in a desert somewhere, planning what they'd do next, but they've left it to us for more than a decade. Why change that now?"
Martial sat up, his eyes wide. "Wait! The Organizer ... maybe he doesn't trust them! That's why he's coming. I knew there was something weird with that Los Angeles job!"
Rock & Soul nodded to herself. "That ... may be right. I thought that we had a lot more time before the fighting was supposed to begin, so more civilians would have been at the Elon Musk keynote speech. If the Organizer came all the way here because he doesn't trust them ... maybe it's time to push the envelope, throw them under the bus and get some concessions on staging and preproduction costs?"
A Long Walk
Along the rock wall where Black Fury walked earlier -- he was a few hundred yards away now, visible along the perimeter -- Prophecy, Snakebird and Gladiator walked arm linked in arm, chatting amiably.
"I really do think we should push for a better slice of the general merchandising," Snakebird said, looking out at the sea. "The market research showed really deep adoption of our messaging against the excesses of the American government."
"Mm-hmm," Prophecy said, just tapping at her bracelet.
Gladiator squinted at the older woman. "What do you know that we don't know, auntie?"
Prophecy to look at Gladiator with a smile laced with equal parts affection and pity. "That answer would be 'quite a bit,' but the question you should be asking is, 'what happens next?' Why would the Organizer spend weeks going over the goals and talking points with us over Zooms and emails to just show up now?"
Snakebird bit her lip. "It can't be that ... that he doesn't trust us, does it?"
Gladiator rolled her eyes and said, "He'd let you give him a shave with a straight razor, girl. I'm embedded in a six multi-year PR campaigns and Prophecy knows what he really looks like. I don't think he has any shortage of trust for the three of us."
"There you go, ladies," Prophecy said nodding with a smile. "Work it out ..."
Snakebird stopped and turned to regard one of the gigantic crates on the lawn before spinning back and saying, "There's an X factor. Something changed, something he couldn't say over even encrypted channels. We may even be in danger!"
Prophecy took Snakebird's hands in her own and said, "The Organizer's right. You are smart!"
Gladiator pulled out her phone, muttering, "Thanks for the vote of confidence. Don't think we're not gonna talk about that 'immortal' stuff too, auntie ..." She tapped at the screen before pulling it up to her ear. "I need to talk to the Doctor, I need assurances, now!"
Snakebird scanned the horizon and asked, "Should we call for the Constrictor?"
Prophecy pondered and replied, "A specific choice. Would Sun Tzu offer any alternatives?"
Gladiator walked off, muttering into her phone, as Snakebird considered the question. "Oh, I know ... 'Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate!'"
"Very good, Isabella," Prophecy smiled, taking the younger woman's left hand in her own. "Gladiator is a tactical mastermind, but we have a strategic opportunity. Whoever draws first loses."
Snakebird, surprisingly welcoming the gesture and hearing her first name from someone other than Maraud, nodded at the taller Prophecy with a smile.
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