Jean Croce massaged his bruised knuckles as he strolled down a hall of the Social Welfare Agency. A sense of dissatisfaction lingered from this morning's training session with Rico. While her physical capabilities remained in top condition, the girl's instincts were not quite up to par. He easily managed to get the drop on her in the maze, and it had been necessary to engage a little 'forceful persuasion' to ensure she did not forget the lesson. A split lip was the least she would have to worry about if that had been an actual combat situation. Some, like his brother Jose, might question his seemingly abusive training methods, but hardly any of them considered how much it actually hurt him to do it.
Not emotionally, of course. It's just punching a person with metal-reinforced bones could really leave your fist feeling sore.
"Maybe from now on she'll learn her lesson, eh, ladies?" He kissed his knuckles and proceeded towards the cafeteria for a bite to eat. Upon entering, the first thing Jean noticed was the distinct scent of sage in the air. Gnocchi again. Joy. Their chef was nothing if not a patriotic Italian.
The second point of interest proved to be the group of girls clustered at a table. He recognized Triela, Henrietta, and Claes. Normally there would have been no need to pay much attention to them. Jean considered these brainwashed orphans worthy of very little time outside of fieldwork, especially those under the care of his fellow fratello. However, it did not escape his notice that upon his entrance, all three of them fell silent on whatever topic they had been discussing and turned in their seats to look at him.
Then they smiled.
Eyes scrunched tight, rosy cheeks, neat little white teeth. Three sets of cherubic innocence beamed at him. They never did that before. Jean frowned as he went by.
As he passed, Triela spoke. "Hi, Jean."
She continued to smile. There was something just a little unnerving about that much cheer being directed his way. What the hell did they have to feel good about? Truthfully this shouldn't have bothered him. His own charge seemed to do nothing but smile. Still, he couldn't shake the impression that something felt out of joint.
All the same, he nodded his head in greeting before continuing on his way.
After loading his tray with pasta primavera, Tuscan bean soup, coffee and gelato, Jean turned and was just a bit discomfited to find that trio of wholesome grins still trained on him. He didn't let it show, however, simply made his way over to where his sibling and fellow handler Jose was seated. Settling down, he hesitated for a moment before bringing up the topic. "Have you noticed anything strange about the girls?"
"Hm?" Jose glanced up. "Oh, sorry Jean, I was just thinking." No need to ask about what. Before his elder brother could even think it, though, Jose glanced over his shoulder. Claes and Triela had gone back to their discussion, but Henrietta gave him an eager wave. He smiled sadly and returned the gesture, then turned back around. "No, actually. They seem fine. Why do you ask?"
"No reason." Perhaps he was just being paranoid.
Jose nodded before heaving a deep sigh. "I suppose you want to know what's troubling me."
Dammit, the other man thought as he added a dash of pepper to his soup. Here we go again.
"I was just thinking about our sister…"
Oh, yes, please, let's talk about that a little more.
"The tragedy of it all." The dark-haired secret agent laced his fingers together and leaned his forehead against them, giving an impression of suffering from a deep and abiding wound no amount of time or kindness could ever repair. It was a display honed by many years of practice, repetition, and woeful self-absorption. "All the promise her life held, all the vows we'll never get to fulfill… I miss her every day, Jean. Tell me, is it the same for you?"
Why should I miss my little sister? I've got another one sitting right in front of me. Honestly, Jose, man up! Stop with the 'woe-is-me' attitude already and find something else to think about. I might be obsessed with vengeance, but at least I'm moving forward.
Out loud, all he said was, "Yes. Every day."
Taking this as encouragement, Jose then launched into further litany on the trauma their family had suffered. His brother sipped his coffee and nodded, chiming in on occasion when his participation was necessary.
When he glanced around the room, the girls were gone.
Jean was down on the shooting range observing Nico at target practice when a familiar whistling sound caused him to instinctively duck. A moment later, a hatchet buried itself in the post by where his head had been.
Trembling from the adrenaline, he whipped his head around to glare at Angelica. The tiny brunette was staring in that vapid doe-eyed way of hers with a pistol in one hand and a spare clip in the other. Before he could demand an explanation, her fratello Marco came jogging up.
"Angelica, what have I told you about mishandling your weapons like that?" the stout agent exclaimed crossly. "Drop one and then reach for the clip, don't try to juggle them or you'll wind up getting killed!"
"I'm sorry, Marco." The girl's shoulders slumped in dejection.
Seeing this, her overseer sighed. "Well, no one was hurt, so don't get too down about it, all right?" Jean was just about to point out how somebody nearly got beheaded when Marco looked over his way. "Sorry about that, sir. Angelica, tell Jean you're sorry."
The adolescent assassin bowed her head apologetically. "I'm sorry, Jean."
When she came up, there was a big happy smile on her face.
He had been prepared to brush off the incident rather than make a scene, but her expression made his spine clench. Without a word for either of them, Jean turned and strode away, fuming.
As he did, he passed Claes, who was sitting with her nose buried in a book as usual.
"Close call, huh, Jean."
The senior operative stopped and glared at the girl suspiciously. She did not acknowledge him in any other way, however. Only reached up and turned a page of her book. Jean opened his mouth, paused, and finally decided to just leave it at that.
As he left, Claes' eyes drifted up to linger on his departing back. She adjusted her spectacles before leisurely returning to her favorite pastime.
Jean slammed his hands down on the table. "Those girls are out to get me!"
Hilshire glanced up with a raised eyebrow. "Jean, don't you think that's being a little ridiculous?"
"No, I don't!" While the other man then busied himself typing out his report on their latest mission, Jean seated himself on the desk, crossing his arms and drumming his fingers while glancing anxiously around. "I'm telling you, it's a conspiracy! First there was the hatchet. Then Triela's gun accidentally misfires while she's cleaning it! And Henrietta claims her leg component was on the fritz when she tripped me coming down the stairs! I almost broke my neck, dammit! But does anybody else notice the pattern? No! I tell you, I've taken to watching my back every damn minute lately, it's turning me into a wreck!"
"Okay, look," Hilshire sighed, drawing away from his work and laying a soothing hand on his coworker's arm. He didn't fail to notice how Jean jumped slightly at the contact. Was the guy really so tightly wound? "Just think about this for a minute. Our job involves repeated interaction with some of the most violent elements of society. If the girls were conspiring to hurt you, wouldn't it make more sense that they do it out on the job rather than here? A few seconds' delay in responding to a situation or failure to notice one hidden terrorist and you might wind up dead with no suspicions raised. But that hasn't happened, has it?"
"No," Jean admitted grudgingly. "But maybe…!"
"No." Hilshire bulled right over him. "In fact, I saw Henrietta push you out of the way when you almost got shot today! And certainly Rico did everything in her power to keep you safe. So with that in mind, do you seriously think there's anything wrong?"
The normally unflappable agent squirmed in consternation while tugging at his collar. "I suppose that's…"
Right then a knock came at the door of the office. "Hilshire, you got a minute?"
"Of course, Triela. Come on in."
The door opened and the girl admitted herself. "I was just wondering…" She paused in the doorframe. "Oh, hello, Jean!"
And she flashed a sunny grin.
Jean tensed immediately in preparation for an attack. But wait, Hilshire was here, surely she wouldn't try anything with her fratello watching? This conviction seemed to be borne out when the dark-skinned girl strolled casually into the room. Her hands were empty, but with the Agency kids, that didn't preclude any threat. Those fingers could tear a man apart if they wanted to. Jean felt himself beginning to sweat as she drew closer.
"We don't see you around much anymore," Triela spoke in a teasing tone. She made her way towards him, and Jean couldn't tear his eyes off her. "You haven't got yourself a girlfriend, have you? That sort of thing can really take up a man's time."
"Was there something you wanted to talk to me about, Triela?" Hilshire asked, leaning back in his chair.
"Hmm? Oh, that can wait. Actually, Jean, you won't catch any ladies' interest looking the way you do now. I mean honestly, your tie's all crooked! Here," and her smile got even bigger, "lemme fix that for you!"
Her hands reached towards his throat. For some reason Jean was unable to move. Hilshire's previous calm reasonable explanations were wrestling inside his mind with an instinctive sense of imminent threat. It hardly seemed possible such a thing could happen here in this warm sunlit office on the grounds of their securely held base. It was for this reason that he did not react when her fingers took hold of his tie, slowly but firmly adjusting it.
Triela grasped hold of the narrow end in back and tugged it down, tightening just a little. Right then their eyes met. It was like they were frozen in that moment together, with her strong grip still putting indirect pressure on his throat. Jean found it getting harder to breathe.
A vicious gleam twinkled briefly in the teenage cyborg's eye.
Suddenly there was a jerk on the fabric of his necktie, and Jean reacted without thinking. "DON'T TOUCH ME!" he shouted, and backhanded Triela right across the face.
The girl fell back with a hand pressed to her cheek. She seemed stunned, like she couldn't believe he had struck her. Actually, Jean could scarcely believe it himself.
"WHAT THE HELL!" Hilshire roared, springing to his feet.
"I expected better from you, Jean." Lorenzo, the chief of Special Ops Section 2 declared with a frown. The older man slumped back in his leather chair, looking more like a department store photographer than a spymaster, and regarded his top agent balefully. "What on earth possessed you to strike her like that?"
"Sir," the somewhat haggard-looking operative affirmed in an attempt to salvage his authority, "I know how bad this seems. But if you would please just listen to me, I think there is something seriously dangerous going on around here!"
His hopes died when Lorenzo raised a hand to cut him off. "I've heard quite enough. Whatever you consider to be appropriate training in regards to Rico, that in no way means you can behave in the same manner towards another fratello's cyborg! For your information, Hilshire is absolutely furious with you. He demanded you be relieved of duty, and it took a great deal of convincing for him to agree not to submit a formal charge of misconduct. The Agency mustn't give the other Sections any more reason to scrutinize us!"
He removed his glasses and leaned backwards to rub his eyes tiredly. Their division head had never looked his age more than he did right now. "Jean, I respect your capabilities greatly. We all know how hard it hit you and Jose to lose your younger sister…"
"Oh, hell, that's just Jose, for God's sake!" the younger man snarled. "HE'S the one who obsesses over that and takes every opportunity to whine about it, not me, not me! Dammit… I'm the STABLE ONE!"
The look Lorenzo directed at him clearly expressed his opinion in regards to that statement. Even Jean could tell he was not comporting himself in a very flattering light. He had to make them see! "Sir, I apologize, but if you would only…"
"Jean, I think you should take a vacation. Not for long," the chief interjected quickly when he seemed about to protest, "Just a week. Give everyone a chance to cool down. Take some time to relax, clear your head. I understand Sardinia's lovely this time of year. Why don't you go check it out? Come back rested and refreshed. Then we'll talk more."
It was clear that any further discussion would not prove helpful. Now resigned to his lot, Jean drew himself up with every bit of dignity he could muster and proclaimed, "I understand, sir. I'll get on that right away." A few more minutes were spent talking, but nothing of import was discussed. Eventually the disgraced handler excused himself and left the office. Closing the door behind him, he leaned back against it for a moment to try and get his bearings.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Claes disappearing around a corner.
The rain had started while he was packing his things. A modest lifestyle meant there was very little in his dormitory room he needed. After all, his job demanded he travel often, and a clandestine professional chose to forego everything but the necessities. Pack light, means less evidence you might leave behind. That was one of the first things they taught you in Special Ops. Another credo of the craft was not to overemphasize personal relations. With that in mind, Jean made his goodbyes brief. Only Jose received a personal farewell from him. For Rico, he simply affixed a note to her door letting the girl know he would be back in a week and to continue with her training. Any poor performance upon his return would not be tolerated.
Jean finished stowing his modest luggage in the trunk. Throwing his umbrella in the passenger seat, he drove his company car over to the gate. One quick verification of his ID later and he was wheeling away from the only thing that mattered in his whole life. He didn't even bother turning on the radio.
After a while the rain picked up, and he was forced to turn on his wipers at full speed. Even then Jean only got a split-second glimpse of the road ahead before it was subsumed in the deluge. Always a careful driver, he kept his lights on and chose to drive a few miles below the speed limit. It was dark outside. Sunset was less than half an hour past, but all the same, it seemed like pitch blackness all around him. No other cars passed by on this isolated strip of road. That suited his mood just fine.
Now removed from everything, he began to wonder if perhaps it had all been in his head. A few close calls, some unsatisfying explanations, and he automatically assumed his life was being targeted? Who could blame them for doubting his sanity? An island vacation might be just the thing he needed.
After a few more minutes of driving, the shadows had deepened all around. His headlights illuminated a cone of safe passage, objects resolving themselves briefly before fading back to either side. Jean's progress continued uninterrupted along the rolling forested hills. Another turn of the road and he would no longer be able to see the Agency grounds. With that in mind, the exile glanced in his rearview mirror for a last look back.
Instead all Jean Croce saw were a pair of wide blue eyes staring at him, right before the garroting wire wrapped around his throat.
He gagged, legs spasming to slam against the brake pedal. An involuntary attempt to fling himself away was restrained by the seatbelt he had been careful to put on earlier. The car skidded over wet pavement before sliding off the road to go bouncing down a hill. Narrowly avoiding several trees, the careening vehicle finally collided with a particularly stout Mulberry. Its back wheels lifted off the wet ground, so abrupt was the halt, before settling back to earth.
Rain continued to fall. One headlamp miraculously remained intact, casting a pool of light amidst the darkness. There came a flash of lightning overhead, and had anyone happened to pass at that time, they would have seen the blonde man's futile efforts as he fought against a little girl with hair of similar hue.
After a while, the struggle diminished. A few seconds later all movement in the car ceased.
The rear door then came open. Emerging into the downpour, the girl opened the driver's side and dragged Jean's body out. She picked up his corpse with ease, looking carefully around before stealing away into the dark stormy night.
"How are you today, Claes?"
The girl in question left off watering her herb garden to glance over. Approaching across the lawn came Jose, wearing that same perpetually downtrodden expression he always had. "I'm doing well," she responded before returning her attention to the flourishing green shoots.
Jose took up place beside her to inspect the garden's progress. He heaved a sigh and looked up into the clear blue sky, then glanced down at the girl beside him. "I'm not disturbing you, am I?"
"Not at all." Claes continued to employ her water bucket wherever it would do the most good.
"I've just been a bit on edge lately. It's been nearly two weeks since Jean went on vacation, and we haven't heard anything from him. Even the chief's starting to appear worried now. " He passed a tired hand before his eyes. "I worry about Jean. It might be a surprise to hear me say so, considering how very reliable he is. That just makes this all the more unsettling. You may not know it, but I lost my sister several years ago…"
"Do tell." There was no trace of either enthusiasm or annoyance in the bookish adolescent's voice.
"Yes, it's true. And because of that I am especially concerned about the family I have left. Oh, what I wouldn't give to have Jean call!"
"That would be something, all right."
"Yes, it would." Jose gave another emo-sigh worthy of a fifteen-year-old goth poet. He then turned his attention downwards. "Speaking of something, this garden of yours is turning out really amazing, Claes."
"You don't say." She continued watering.
"I do. Especially that big rectangular patch in the middle. They seem especially healthy!"
Claes shrugged. "Well, I've been trying a new type of fertilizer."
"Oh?" The government officer sounded interested. "What's in it?"
Her arm snapped straight upward. A tiny derringer slid out of her sleeve, and Claes fired two shots up into the air.
Moments later a seagull dropped in front of them with its wings outspread and legs sticking up.
"Dead things," she droned without so much as blinking an eye.
Jose stared in astonishment at the plunked bird. He shivered violently, casting an uncertain look at the child still calmly watering beside him. "Ah… yes, well… I guess I'll leave you to it then."
Claes did not make a response, and he wasn't about to wait for one. Instead the anxious adult beat a somewhat hasty retreat away from there. On his way, he passed Triela coming towards them. The beautiful teen flashed him a toothy smile as he went by. "Hey, Jose."
He grunted in response, clearly preoccupied. She turned around and began walking backwards to keep him in sight, never losing that happy grin. Once he was gone Triela made her way over to where Claes continued tending her vegetable patch. Only then did she let the mask drop. Crossing her arms, the older girl frowned moodily while grinding the grass beneath her polished black shoes. Her counterpart seemed to pay her arrival no mind.
At last Triela spoke. "Okay, the easy part's over. I don't see Angelica putting up much of a fight over Marco. She forgets his name as soon as they break eye contact! And I'm certainly not about to object in respect to Hilshire."
"Of course not."
"The problem is Henrietta." Triela toyed with one of her long ponytails. "I mean, she positively dotes on Jose. Her life's goal is to hold his hand, if you can believe that. She's got it bad, Claes. There's no way she's going to let us do anything to him."
"True," the resident horticulturist mused. She directed a steady stream of liquid over her thirsty plants. Drink up, now. Need some water to wash down all that rich dirtbag. "We can't do anything to Jose so long as Henrietta's guarding him. But I think she might not prove to be quite so protective once she learns about Marie Tzu."
Her fellow assassin glanced over uncomprehendingly. "Who the heck is 'Marie Tzu'?"
"The beautiful, brilliant, and exotic assassin-girl Jose's been working with behind Henrietta's back." Claes' face remained perfectly deadpan as she turned to regard her accomplice. "The one whose picture our dear friend's going to find the next time she rifles through his coat pockets looking for strands of his hair."
"What? That's not…" Triela paused, and a look of wide-eyed wonder crossed her face. "Ooooh… I get it!" She then turned to regard Claes with utmost admiration. "Wow, girl! You are really something! We're talking full-blown evil genius standing right here!"
The soft-spoken gardener held out her hand. "Evil genius high-five."
Triela eagerly slapped their palms together with a whoop. She then placed her hands on her hips and stood there grinning, studying the herbs while every now and then emitting a devious chuckle. " 'Marie Tzu!' Of all the ridiculous… and she'll believe it, too! HAH! What a laugh!"
Claes shrugged. "People believe in all sorts of things. Especially young girls. My fratello explained that much, before he got his neck broken."
This earned her a funny look from Triela. "Thought your guy died in a 'car accident' the Agency set up."
For once, a tiny smile worked its way up the normally impassive girl's lips. "That's what the Agency thought too."
"… so ever since then I've lived with the burden of my family's loss, most especially my talented and loving sister," Jose confessed into the phone. "Each night I go to bed hoping I'll wake up to find it was all just a horrible dream. But alas, it never comes to pass."
"Honey," the sultry woman's voice on the other end spoke up, "I know I'm a professional, and I've heard everything under the sun by now. But I swear, I cannot take listening to you for one more second. So I'm hanging up."
"Wait, don't you want to hear about…?"
"No. Don't call our number again. You've been blacklisted. There'll be a discount on your credit card, but that's it. Just… get a girlfriend, okay? Ciao." With that she hung up.
"Goodbye," Jose said. He flicked off his phone, heaved yet another world-weary sigh that held all the deepest depths of remorse a man could experience, then turned his sad soulful gaze out the window. After a few minutes of quiet reflection, the agent of the state stood up and went to retrieve his coat. He flicked off the light, checked to make sure he had his keys and exited the office.
After locking up, Jose turned down the corridor, only to find Henrietta standing a few yards off. About to greet her, he suddenly noticed the way she was biting her lip hard enough to draw blood. The young girl's face was red and streaked with tears, and her shoulders wouldn't stop trembling.
In her hands rested a handgun bigger than she was.
"Henrietta?" her handler began uncertainly. "Are you all right?"
In response his little angel sniffed. "What does…?" She hiccupped, coughed, then closed her eyes, drew a deep breath and screamed, "WHAT DOES SHE HAVE THAT I DON'T?"
"Henrietta, please listen," Jose began, walking carefully towards her with his hands help up to show he meant no harm. "I don't know what's going on, but if we just sit down and talk about it, I'm sure everything will be…"
She gave a sob, brought up the tremendous firearm, and pulled the trigger. The .60 caliber bullet plowed into his forehead and exited out the back of his head, taking half his brains and the entire rear of his skull with it. The force of the impact was so great it actually lifted Jose off his feet and sent him tumbling down the hall. Amazingly, his body rolled upright before coming to a halt, swaying slightly on his feet. Still conscious, Jose tried to manage one last gasp to show his undying devotion to his beloved sister by speaking her name right before he died.
To his dismay, all that came out was, "Zat's a spicy meatball!" at which point he collapsed dead on the ground.
Still breathing heavily, Henrietta continued to stare at her fratello's body. A second later, Triela's head popped around the stairwell behind her. "Wow," the taller girl drawled as she strolled up alongside the miniature assassin, hands clasped behind her head. She examined their latest kill with bored disinterest. "Guess that'll teach him not to two-time you, huh?"
The shivering waif nodded absently.
Triela then reached behind her back and produced a short saber from its sheathe. Tapping the blade meaningfully against her shoulder, she took Henrietta by the wrist and proceeded to lead her forward. "C'mon, kid. Let's get you a little something to remember him by, huh? You'd like that, right?"
"Y… yes," the shell-shocked girl responded. "Something… to remember… Jose." And she smiled dreamily.
"Good thing I wore my least favorite outfit," Triela declared cheerfully, and got to work sawing.
When his door opened in the morning, Chief Lorenzo was surprised to find it was Claes of all people bringing him his breakfast. The sight of the somber child rolling in a tray replete with meats, cheeses and breads was notably unusual.
"To what do I owe this pleasure, Claes?" he asked as she drew closer.
"I'm trying out a new blend of herbal tea from my garden," she replied without a hint of emotion to betray her interest. "I'd like to known your opinion. This seemed like a good enough time to ask."
"Well, I normally enjoy coffee in the morning, but why not try something new?" Lorenzo stood and leaned over his desk while she brought up the teapot. Steam wafted out as his new waitress poured him a cup and handed it over. He took the dish in both hands, pausing to inhale the aroma. "Mmmm, that smells divine!"
The next thing he knew, Chief Lorenzo had a derringer shoved up his left nostril. From behind two pairs of glasses, their eyes met.
"Try a whiff of this, boss."
Claes did not wait for a reply before she unloaded a shot into his head. Lorenzo gave a revolting shudder and flopped down on the heavy oaken tabletop. The teacup fell from his hands, only to be caught by Claes. Not so much as a drop was spilled.
Springing lightly atop the desk, the murderess casually scooted his bleeding remains off onto the floor with one foot. She then flopped in his big comfy leather chair, spinning round and around, enjoying the view of her new office.
Coming to a halt, Claes took a sip of tea. Giving a contented sigh, she leaned back in her seat and gazed up at the ceiling philosophically.
"Who run this mother?" the new section chief asked aloud. And smiled.