There was no lock to pick (not that she would be skilled in that kind of thing), no other way to open the door. She tried knocking, but no one came out – possibly because there was no one in the briefing room. Yet. She could try the card, but maybe it would just be better to pretend she doesn't have it at all. Someone will come and let her in – eventually. In the meanwhile, she stood with her back to the wall, slightly leaning on it.
Before long the elevator door slid open and out came Tiger with a couple other men – in whom Risa recognized the bums from earlier.
“I could open it for you, if you gave me that card back, Kitten,” Tiger offered as they all passed, the three men mock-saluting Risa.
“It's Osprey, Tiger,” a gruff voice came from the direction of the staircase. “You better learn it.”
“Still looks more like a Kitten to me, Wolf, but I'll do my best,” the soldier gave a sloppy salute to the older man walking towards him, but he was almost completely ignored.
“I hope you realize he's just salty about the card, Osprey,” Wolf winked at Risa as the steps of the four men faded further down the corridor.
He opened the door with a card of his own and motioned her into what seemed like a top notch modern conference room: “Ladies first.”
“You have me at a disadvantage,” she said as she passed him and stopped behind one of the chairs.
“You can call me Wolf. I am sure you have noticed, we tend to use codenames here. And yours, unless you have any strong objections, will be Osprey,” he half-smiled sitting down at the head of the table and waving her into another seat.
Osprey, huh? What a coincidence… I wonder what they would do, if that was already taken.
Risa nodded, half-relieved that she won't be known as 'Kitten'.
“I am here to give you your first assignment,” Wolf continued, sliding a thin folder to her. Risa flipped it open and started reading, not that there would be too much. It was a description of a magical signature – she would refer to it as 'the glow' – of an object, and a blueprint map.
“This is Nuselský bridge!” she tapped the papers, looking up at the man.
“Yes. We lost a package down there, containing the object. We need you to help retrieve it,” he answered.
That sounded easy enough. Except…
“They closed it yesterday morning… some sort of… technical emergency. Some reports said there was a fire.”
What did you people do?
“That's how – and when – the package got lost,” Wolf confirmed and continued. “A courier carrying it had a rather close encounter with a dragon.”
“A dragon?” Risa couldn't quite hide her surprise.
I knew it. I always knew there was something in that bridge!
The jubilation of her suspicions being proved right soon gave way to less pleasant thoughts. A dragon would make the easy assignment… not easy at all. Do they really expect her to deal with it off the bat like this? Without training or preparation?
“Yes. But you don't have to worry about it. You just focus on locating the object. We're not sending you in alone. There will be a team, which will deal with the beast. And you will have a partner – an experienced agent, who will...”
The sensor beeped, interrupting the explanation, and the door opened.
“...ah, speak of the devil,” Wolf commented, motioning to the man who came in. “Osprey, meet Raven. Raven – this is Osprey, your new partner.”
Risa stood up to greet the man, but stopped before she extended her hand. Somehow his countenance gave her a pause. He was – she was quite certain – angry. Probably not at her, but still enough to raise her hackles (and, Galilhai would have noticed, her emotional shields).
“Nice to meet you, Raven,” she said, waiting for his reaction.
“I assume you briefed her already,” he spoke over her head to Wolf.
“The rough outline,” he responded.
“Good,” Raven nodded curtly and finally turned to her. “You will stay behind me at all times, give me information and obey my every order, no matter what. You're a glorified canary bird on this mission, so just sing … and stay alive.”
Stay alive? Okay.
It seemed that there was no end to surprises today.
“Do you understand?” Raven asked when she didn't answer him at once.
A bit too heavy on the big boss card, are we?
“I understand,” she nodded, briefly wondering if she was supposed to add 'Sir' to that.
“Good. Now, Osprey,” Wolf spoke before Raven could add something more, “…I assume you'd rather not go into the tunnels dressed like this, so I'll have Swallow escort you to get geared up. Any details about the mission you'd like cleared up, you can ask Raven on the way. You leave in twenty minutes.”
The door opened again and the same woman who conducted Risa's interview beckoned for her to follow her out. Risa would have loved to ask if Raven was always this pleasant, but it wouldn't do to start gossiping about co-workers the first day. Besides, she was too busy trying to process everything else.
Swallow took her just down the corridor – which was way longer that it had any business being, even in an Old Town block like this – and opened a door for her. The room looked like an American billionaire's walk-in closet on steroids.
“The choice is yours, Osprey,” Swallow smiled at her. “Try to pick sensible shoes, though, if you'd rather stay on Raven's good side…”
So he has a bad side that is worse?
There was no time to dwell on it, she had things to do. She looked through the clothes, her hand briefly stopping on a camo jacket, but then she shook her head.
I'd look like a fourteen year old boy in that.
Instead, she picked a pair of black cargo pants, simple black long-sleeved shirt, military jumper and a softshell jacket. She added a scarf – surprisingly also black – and a pair of black boots and then looked at the waiting Swallow. She smiled again and indicated a door to Risa's left.
“You can change in there. You can leave your things there too, for now.”
Risa expected a changing cubicle, when she opened the door, but instead she stepped into a full-blown bedroom. There seemed to be more to the apartment beyond it, too, and she was just itching to go exploring.
Well… maybe later.
She came back to the waiting Swallow two minutes later, carrying the jacket over her arm and her small backpack in her hand. She was right in thinking the black clothes will make her look older than camo – she didn't look like a fourteen year old boy, she looked about sixteen. She expected Swallow to take her back to the briefing room – even contemplated telling her she could have found her own way – but the woman led her to the elevator.
Boar and the clean-up team were going through the last check of their equipment, all geared up in what looked like hazmat suits, currently minus the helmets, which were already safely stowed away in the van.
Raven looked at his watch impatiently. It was almost 9AM. Soon the city will start waking up. They needed to get this done. It wasn't full twenty minutes since Osprey walked out of the briefing room – in fact it was barely fifteen – before Swallow brought the newbie down to the garage.
“Alright everyone, load up, let's get moving,” Raven shouted and Boar barked a few orders to his men, who piled into the back of the van. Raven opened the passenger door and motioned for Risa to get in. Three seats up front. Risa would have preferred to sit by the door, unfortunately Raven didn't ask – and didn't give her any choice, but to take the middle seat. Fortunately, the ride was relatively short – and fastest Risa ever experienced in downtown Prague – so there wasn't much time to dwell on it.
“We go in through one of the vent shafts on Legerova. The clean-up will take point, get rid of the beast… then and only then do we move in on the package. Understood?”
It took Risa a moment to realize Raven was actually talking to her, but when he paused, she nodded her understanding.
“Stay behind me. Listen. Obey. If I say get out, get out – don't hesitate, don't look back. Stay safe. Don't die.”
You said that already. That probably means it's really important. Also – what the heck? Risa's mind tried to keep up. There was something exhilarating about the whole thing. She nodded choppily, barely suppressing a grin.
It's not funny.
In fact, the whole situation was the opposite of funny – as it turned out a moment later, as their van screeched to a halt in the middle of the completely empty street which normally was Prague's main artery. It got even less funny, as the guys in hazmat suits opened a service door and one by one disappeared into the near-darkness. Raven followed, pressing a head lamp into Risa's hand last minute. She turned it on to make sure she doesn't fumble with it later in case it is needed.
“Keep it off for now,” Raven told her, just as she turned it off again.
“Wait until I tell you to turn it on. Don't disturb anything. If you do, people will die,” he warned her, before he slid down the ladder with the practice of someone who spent years on a submarine.
Not fair, Risa thought, as she took a gulp of fresh air and started climbing down as fast as she could. She made a mental note to find out how in everything that's holy did the guys from the hazmat squad not end up splattered all over the floor – it must have been hard to get a grasp on the bars in the gloves… By the time she got down the team was almost out of sight. They moved much quicker and quieter than they had any business to.
Raven was waiting for her and didn't seem irritated by her being a bit slower. He was crouching down and motioned for her to do the same once she got her feet on the ground. He took her left hand and brought it to his right shoulder, whispering:
“Keep it on my back, that way I know I haven't lost you. If you need something, give me a tap. Let me know when you see the package, but stay as quiet as you can.”
She nodded and he turned and started moving, still half crouching and leaning forward. The squad ahead of them slowed down, but Risa didn't really notice, because her attention was drawn to the shine way in front of them.
Unfortunately, the path to it was currently blocked by a glowing mountain… growing in the tunnel. She was intrigued, trying to make sense of everything and keeping close to Raven at the same time… but then the team got closer and the mountain moved.
Risa almost forgot to breathe. Raven stopped and crouched lower, pulling her with him. They were perhaps fifty meters from the squad. It seemed too far. In Raven's opinion it was too close, but it was better to just stay put at this point. Let Boar do his thing and hope for the best.
There was a sound… a series of sounds, almost like music. Then lights. Very muted and moving away to the side somewhere. The glowing creature followed. It shouldn't have been possible – the tunnel was spacious enough, but not as large as that… and even narrower as it went into the bridge. But yet the dragon slithered on.
Or does it have legs to walk on? What do real life dragons look like? And is the package all the way in the bridge?
With the lights disappearing and darkness falling again, Risa couldn't help herself. She tapped Raven's shoulder, and in a very low whisper said: “Could you move a bit further? If it's safe?”
He nodded, but waited for a while more. There was a thud of something big lying down. The soft musical sounds continued, coming a bit closer to them once again. The lights were gone.
Raven moved. He was pretty sure he knew where the package is – but he knew better than rely on his senses and memories clouded by emotions.
“Do you see it?” he asked.
“You don't?” she responded in genuine surprise.
The shine must be strong enough to see from the ISS...
He stopped abruptly and turned to her. He didn't need to say anything.
“Umm, sorry… it's right there. About hundred meters down.”
They got to the level of the squad. The men stood in the middle of the tunnel. Raven led Risa by the wall, behind their backs. Creeping was probably a better word for what they did. She almost held her breath, to avoid making a sound. A moment later she regretted not doing that, as a horrible stench hit her nostrils. It must have been in the air for quite some time, but here it suddenly became more intense. Raven was almost on top of the shine now. Ten more paces, by most. Risa tapped him again. He stopped and turned. She did her best to indicate what she wanted without speaking. He nodded sharply, stepping aside and motioning her through. He activated his headlamp and she took it as a signal to light up hers. She took five steps with eyes pinned down, and froze. Then almost lost her breakfast, as her brain realized what it was she was looking at. She gasped for breath, prompting Raven to catch her shoulder to pull her back. She coughed and shook her head. Then she stepped gingerly over a crisp-fried cadaver and tried not to look as she reached for the shining thing.
Fortunately, Raven's hand stopped hers. He grabbed something, and there was quiet cracking sound, followed by the sound of falling ash, as the arm holding it disintegrated. Risa focused even more intently on the shine. Now she could see it was in a suitcase, which miraculously held together, as Raven picked it up.
Raven motioned her to go on, instead of back. His hand landed on her shoulder. Apparently she was now to go in front of him. And move a little bit faster than before, as he practically pushed her. Not that she wanted to go back past the – now sleeping – beast. But the thought of going through the whole Nuselský bridge the underground way didn't exactly fill Risa with warm and fuzzy feelings. She looked ahead and made as much haste as she could without risking tripping over something.
Soon Vyšehrad's windows came into view and Risa let out the breath she didn't realize she was holding. Her stomach was still roiling mildly, and she doubled over as soon as she felt Raven's hand breaking contact, to catch her breath and let the stomach settle the rest of the way.
“Let's get you… and *this* back to the headquarters,” Raven's gravelly voice told her and she shot up. She looked back into the tunnel, half expecting the squad to be right behind her – but they were still busy at the other end.
“They have the whole clean-up to take care of,” Raven explained. “We're not waiting.”
Risa nodded and followed him, her mind whirring with a million questions.
An unmarked black sedan was waiting for them at the parking lot by the Traffic Police offices. Raven slid into the front seat, leaving Risa in the back. The suitcase – and quite possibly the fabrics of their clothes – stunk the little space up during the short drive back, despite the driver's best efforts.
“You don't see the glow,” Risa said to take her mind off the unpleasant odour. “Is that why you needed me? ...and the guys from the squad… don't they… see it?”
“Some of them do. But they were a little… pre-occupied. So yes, Osprey, that's why you were there. Congratulations on your first assignment finished.”
At least you survived.
There was a hint of sarcasm… or something… in his voice. As if he still didn't want her there.
But at least I survived, I guess.
She responded with a sarcastic thought of her own. She shuddered a moment later as she remembered the body of someone who wasn't so lucky.
Nothing else was said during the ride and Risa was never happier getting out of a car in an underground garage than she was that day.
“They are waiting for you, Raven, Osprey,” Swallow greeted them, motioning to the elevator and then leading them to the Briefing room.
Swan greeted them while Wolf took the suitcase from Raven.
“Raven, we'll debrief in ten, go get freshened up,” the older man said. The agent nodded and left, sparing Risa one brief nod. She was waiting for her own dismissal (God knew she needed a shower), but it seemed Swan wanted to talk to her first.
“What do you think of the job now, Osprey? Do you think you could handle another assignment… with Raven?”