Fjord took a deep breath. It wasn’t the first time he had jitters before a job, and he hoped it wouldn’t be the last.
The seven of them were crammed into the back of their dirty van in a dark parking lot. The only sources of light were the eerie glow of the streetlights and the soft glow of Caleb’s computer.
“So, what sickos are we targeting today?” Beau asked, running her fingers idly over her staff.
“Human trafficking. They have a front here, and if we play it smart, we could bring it down,” Fjord said.
“That’s no problem. We could just climb in a window and steal their stuff,” Nott said.
“They have guards. And dogs. And more money than we will ever see in our lifetime. If we’re caught, we’re dead.” Caleb interjected, not looking up from his computer, “As well as enough cameras to spy on every nation in the world.”
Molly sighed, running his fingers through his hair.
“Aren’t you the tech wizard? Do something about it!” Beau snapped. Yasha put a calming hand on her shoulder, and Beau backed down.
“Ja, ja, I’m on it. Molly?”
“I’m up for it if you are!” Molly grinned with all his teeth, pulling out his cell phone. “Who am I calling?”
“Their receptionist. You’re an employee.”
“Got it. Everyone shut up, I have a call to make.” Molly dialed, his eyes gleaming with mischief. He put the phone on speaker, propping his feet up on Yasha’s lap.
“Hello, my name is James. How can I help you?” A voice droned.
“Hey, James. I’m working on a pretty big deal, but this website won’t seem to work. Could I have some help?” Molly’s voice was friendly, lacking any of his normal accent.
“Sure, What website is it?” James said, almost monotone. It was about four in the morning, Fjord was sure he just wanted to go home. Molly gave a thumbs up.
“Ah, it’s…” He glanced over at Caleb’s screen, “survey-quick.com. I’m really sorry about this, I’m really terrible with computers.” Fjord held his breath.
“There’s a link here, I just clicked on it. What’s wrong?” James asked, and Fjord released the breath he had been holding. The rest of the Nein seemed equally relieved, Nott giving Beau a silent high five.
“I just tried again, and it works! I don’t know what you did, but you fixed it! Thank you!” Mollymauk said with mock sincerity.
“Okay, have a nice night,” James said, and hung up.
“I’m in,” Caleb said.
“How does that even work?” Jester asked, pulling a pastry from her bag.
“When he clicked that link, he gave full control of his computer to me,” Caleb explained. Fjord whistled.
“You terrify me sometimes, you know that?” He said, and Caleb smiled.
Nott took a deep breath, goosebumps standing up in the few places her skin was exposed. She adjusted her mask for what seemed like the hundredth time, running her fingers over her trusty lock picks.
“Is everyone in position?” Caleb said over her earpiece.
“I’m at the entrance. Ready when you are,” Fjord drawled.
“Totally ready! Just give the word!” Jester said.
“Yeah, I’m up to kick some butt,” Beau said.
“I’m always ready,” Mollymauk said.
“Yes,” Yasha said.
“I trust you, Caleb. Just give the word,” Nott finished. A low pool of tension built in her chest.
“Alright. Operation ‘let’s not die today’ beginning in three... two... one... go!”
Nott crouched down behind her tree. She had a part, and it would take place later. She trusted Caleb.
It didn’t make the waiting any easier.
Seconds ticked by in horrible anxiety, forming into blurred minutes. One alligator, two alligator. She took out her pocket knife, flicking the blade in and out. Sixty alligator. She cleaned her long, sharp fingernails with it. Leaves swirled in the wind, and she watched them intensely. One hundred twenty alligator, one hundred twenty one alligator. Once she was bored of watching, all there was left to do was wait.
Until she didn’t have to.
“We found an entrance!” Beau’s voice filtered over the comm, and Nott perked up. “But it’s like, really small.”
“Well, how small are we talking?” Caleb said.
“About the size of an air conditioning vent? It’s not looking good, man.”
“Nott, can you fit it that?” Nott saw it in her head. That? That was nothing.
“Yes! I can do that!” Nott said, picking herself up. She ran towards the building, careful to avoid the crunchy leaves. Beau, Jester, and Yasha crouched in the bushes. Yasha stood watch, while Beau worked at the screws of a vent.
“Good timing, we almost have the screws off!” Jester said. Nott gulped. It looked even smaller in person than it did in her head. There wouldn’t be much wiggle room, that was for sure.
“Time?” Yasha asked.
“I’d say you have about, uh, an hour until people arrive? We’re definitely cutting it close,” Fjord said.
“We should hurry it up, then,” Molly said. Yasha nodded in agreement. The vent came undone in Beau’s hands, sliding smoothly onto the ground.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
Nott hated the vent.
The walls pressed sharply into her sides as she wormed her way through. It was pitch black, with a thick layer of dust covering just about everything. Her thin athletic clothes were not made to handle this kind of cold; it seeped into her skin, making her shiver.
“Take a right at the next fork.” Caleb instructed. “You’re doing great, schnatz.” Nott smiled a little, despite her discomfort.
“Are there going to be actual slaves in there?” Nott whispered.
“No, no. My patron said it’s just for records and all that,” Fjord reassured. Fjord’s patron was pretty weird. Fjord got text messages from him once in a while, tipping the group off to new locations and organizations to take down. Nott liked to think they had a working relationship, but whoever they were still made her a little nervous. After crawling for a little bit more, the ceiling suddenly opened up, and she could crouch instead of crawl. There was a grate blocking Nott’s exit, and behind that, a person. He was hunched over a desk, sipping a giant mug of coffee. This must be James.
“We have a problem. A dude who I think is James is blocking my way through.” Nott whispered as quietly as she could into her comm.
“Fjord and I could run distraction.” Molly suggested. “I’m always up for a little fun.”
“Ja, that would be wonderful,” Caleb said. Nott waited with held breath. Sixty alligator, sixty one... She heard a door open, along with soft footfalls. Fjord walked up to the desk, now dressed in a nice shirt and tie. James looked up expectantly.
“Hello, my name is David Smith. I have an appointment with Dr. Hensler,” Fjord said, straightening his tie. Nott began carefully undoing the screws, very slowly so they wouldn’t squeak. Once she left the vent, she would be in the direct line of sight of James for a few seconds.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Hensler isn’t in,” James yawned, taking another sip of coffee. He had deep purple crescents under his eyes, and his desk was a total mess. If he didn’t work for grumpy people, Nott would almost feel sorry for him.
“I was sure we made an appointment!” Fjord gave an exaggerated sigh. “Can you at least check the list?” James gave him a dead look and turned towards the computer. Nott finished with the last screw, now the only thing holding the grate up. All she needed was the right moment.
“You ditched me, David!” Molly’s voice echoed from the entrance. He strode in, dressed in a neon crop top with short shorts and impossibly high heels. His makeup was impeccable, with glittery eyeshadow and a faint smear of lipstick. Nott snorted. Typical Molly.
“Wha- Simon, this isn’t the time!”
“This isn’t the time? Well it’s the time now!” Molly slapped Fjord, the sound audible even from Nott’s hiding spot. She winced. From Fjord’s stunned reaction, it didn’t seem like he had been expecting it, either.
“We’re over. Get your stuff out of my house and leave.” To punctuate his remark, Molly leaned over and kissed James full on the lips. James went frog eyed. He tumbled backwards in his chair, crashing behind his desk with a loud clatter. Nott bolted out from her hiding place, crossing the short distance from the vent to the stairway in a matter of seconds. Molly winked at her as she slid past. The receptionist touched his lips gingerly, staring at Molly with a faint flush on his cheeks. Molly strutted out with all the confidence of a peacock, his heels clicking on the tiles. Caleb cleared his throat.
“Sorry darling, it had to be done,” Molly said once he was safely outside. Fjord laughed before chasing after Molly.
“Simon, wait!” He called as he ran out, but Nott didn’t see it. She was long gone.
“Caleb, which door?” Nott asked. She stalked through the dark hallways, sticking close to the edges.
“226. I just unlocked it for you,” Nott nodded, squinting to try and make out the shadowed signs. It took a little longer than she would have liked, but eventually she found it. The door was open, just as Caleb promised. Caleb never broke a promise.
Nott slipped inside. It was surprisingly mundane for a criminal’s den. A large wooden desk took up most of the space, with a tag that read: “Ms. Salvade.” Nott filed that information away for later. There was a closet with an overly cheery cat poster, and the carpet was hideous. Orange and green stripes with purple polka dots? Molly would have a heart attack if he saw it! A file cabinet stood in the corner, next to a tacky fake plant. Nott made a beeline for the file cabinet. She pulled on the drawer.
“Locked,” she muttered, pulling out her lock picks. It didn’t take too long; the tumblers were nice and soft. Soon she was carefully rummaging through files, taking pictures of everything.
Thump. A sound came from the closet. Nott jumped three feet back, sliding her knife into her hand. Thump. Thump.
“There’s something in the closet, Caleb!” Nott hissed.
“Like Fjord?” Molly teased. Fjord huffed.
“Now is not the time,” Yasha interjected.
“Yasha’s right. Did you find the documents?” Beau asked. Nott glanced down at the papers in her hand.
“No,” she said, her stomach sinking, “no, these are all just... normal.” Jester gave an exaggerated groan.
“Balls!” Beau shouted, and Jester frantically shushed her.
“I mean, the papers could be in the closet. We can’t give up!” Jester said.
“I agree with Jester. We’ve come too far to give up now,” Fjord said. Nott nodded.
“Okay. Let’s see what’s in that closet.”
Nott took a deep swig from her flask. It burned like a wildfire in her throat, settling away into a pleasant numbness. Anything could be in that closet. The sheer possibility terrified her. She took a deep breath and reached up for the lock. It was of much better make than the file cabinet lock, its tumblers sticky and tough. It took her a couple of minutes, as well as her favorite set of lock picks, but the lock released with a soft click. She carefully swung it open.
Nothing could prepare her for what was inside.
A child pressed against the wall, her eyes wide like a deer in headlights. She trembled, curled up into a ball. A ratty t shirt and shorts were her only protection, and Nott felt for her because it was cold. Worst of all, bruises ran up the side of her face, and her wrists were a raw, angry band of welts. Several small cuts littered her arms and face, some healed, some disturbingly fresh. She definitely had missed more than one meal from the way her already small shirt hung off her delicate frame. Matted black hair hung over her shoulders, reaching almost to her waist. Her eyes caught Nott’s with a feral intensity.
“There’s - there’s a kid here. Oh gods, there’s a kid here,” Nott gasped.
“So what? Their parents will be there soon.” Beau said.
“Nott, you need to get out. There’s people coming up the front steps - it’s almost sunrise,” Fjord cautioned. Nott gulped.
“Jester, get the med kit ready. We’re going out hot,” she ordered. Nott crouched down to the kid’s level, holding out her hand. The kid hesitated. Her fingernails were bloody, shavings of wood underneath them. Nott felt a pulse of admiration for the kid. She was a fighter, just like her.
“Come on. We’re getting you out of here,” she said softly.
“We’re getting you out of here?” The kid echoed, eerily accurate.
“Nott, leave, you need to get-“ Nott turned off her earpiece. She looked the kid in the eyes.
“Trust me,” She said. The kid hesitated, hesitation flickering across her features. She reached for Nott’s hand.
“Trust me,” she echoed. Nott smiled, pulling the kid up.
Nott hurried down the stairs, the kid in tow. She was out of breath and limping, but they would be safer out of the building than in. Nott made sure to flip off the security cameras on the way down. She was almost at the door to the lobby-
Oh no. People.
The lobby was filled with them, about four or five. What was she going to do, there was no other exits, and she couldn’t climb down a wall with the kid- an idea hit her. Nott took a big swig from her flask. She needed to be really drunk.
First, she took off her mask, shoving it into her bag. She took off her coat, wrapping it around the kid. It dwarfed her, but that was good. It hung past her hands, going past her knees and completely covering her eyes.
“Keep your head down, okay? Don’t say a word,” Nott instructed the kid.
“Don’t say a word,” she whispered back, nodding. Nott took her hand. With a deep breath, she stepped into the lobby.
Every instinct told her to run, but she didn’t. Nott strode through the lobby like she belonged there, like she had no where better to be. She acted like it didn’t matter that she was covered in dust, like the kid next to her wasn’t limping and wearing a coat at least ten sizes too big, like she actually had purpose. The liquor buzzed in her head, numbing out some of the cold and fear, but not all. Eyes glanced them over, but no one ran to intercept them, no alarms sounded.
“Ma’am?” Someone asked. Nott felt her stomach drop. This was it. She slowly reached for her knife, turning around.
“Ma’am, you hand’s bleeding,” a woman said, concerned. Nott glanced down. She must have cut her hand somewhere crawling through the vent; the adrenaline had masked her pain.
“Thanks,” Nott mumbled. She turned away, leading the kid out the door.
Halfway through the parking lot, the kid fell. Yasha was there in an instant, her strong arms catching her before she hit the ground.
“This is the kid you mentioned?” Yasha asked, and Nott nodded. Yasha scanned the kid over. She seethed in silent fury, cradling the broken child. Even so, she was as gentle as a mother.
“Make them pay?” Yasha asked. Nott grinned, showing her shark like teeth.
“They’re going to wish they were dead once I’m done with them.”
“Nott I was so worried about you I thought you were dead when the link went dark you-“ Jester cut off as she saw the wounded kid in Yasha’s arms.
“I couldn’t leave her there,” Nott said, looking down at the ground. Jester recoiled in shock.
“Who would do that to a child!” she exclaimed, frantically pulling Yasha inside the van. She yanked out her med kit, sending bandages spilling across the seats. Yasha carefully laid the kid
across the seats.
“What’s going on?” Molly twisted around from his seat.
“Someone hurt this kid!” Jester said. Beau and Fjord looked over. Fjord seemed to take a blow to the stomach, while Beau looked grim. Molly seemed venomous, his eyes overflowing with something dark.
“It looks like she needs a doctor,” Caleb said, his expression unreadable.
“I can keep her stable, but I’m not a miracle worker!” Jester called from the back where she was already laying blankets across the kid. Her hands shook, and she tried to hide it behind her back.
“We need to go. Hit it!” Beau ordered. The van chugged to life, pulling out of the lot far faster than they usually went.
Jester carefully scanned the kid over, panic building in her chest. Her breaths became ragged, her fingernails digging into her arm. What if she messed up? What if she splinted the wrong way? What if the kid ended in pain, or wounded, or dead, all because of her?
“Jester,” Fjord said, “Jester, deep breaths.” Jester complied. The spike of panic faded nearly as quickly as it came, leaving her with a vague hum of uneasiness.
As she inventoried the various wounds, she noticed a small glint around the kid’s neck. Curious, she reached down, picking up a small pendant. On it was a single crow feather, as well a word in scribbled black sharpie.
Kiri. What could that be? Jester let herself wonder for a single second. Then, she returned to her work.
“Good work, Nott,” Caleb said, finally looking up from his computer. The thing was old and falling apart, but it was a hidden treasure. It could run five times faster than a normal computer after his modifications.
“We didn’t even find anything! I just- rrgh!” Nott kicked the seat in front of her.
“Hey, hey,” Caleb laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder, “it’s not that bad.” Nott looked up at him, confused. Caleb gave a pained smile.
“We can still question her, ja? Find out what we need to know?” Nott nodded slowly.
“Yes. Yes, we can do that,” Nott said, schemes blooming in her mind.
They were going to find those sick freaks.
And when they were finished, the world would fear the Mighty Nein.