It all began with a spam mail. Cooper was sitting at his desk, it was eight o'clock in the morning and he was just going over his routine of checking his mails when he caught sight of the subject line declaring in capitals that here came the cure for erection problems. Cooper frowned and wondered how that had ended up in his mailbox. The fact alone that it was there told him it wasn't a simple spam mail. The filters of the CIA were quite good, and either the seller of this mystery cure was a hacker with nothing better to do than hack the CIA or there was more behind it. A bit reluctantly, Cooper clicked on it and found a flashy image with some text, a fancy pill bottle and several orange, rectangular pills in front of it. His frown deepened and he began to read the text, halfway expecting it to be the usual spam crap.
It was. Only that there was something about it that felt off. Cooper took a closer look at the picture and read the mail again.
Are you desperate? Do you need help? We can grant you the solution for your problem! Stand-Up is the result of the newest research of leading institutions all over the world. Our aim is to make your love life active again, to allow you to perform to her satisfaction and to make her see the stars! After the first time with Stand-Up, you will never want to go without again...
And on and on it went about this wonder cure and its amazing benefits. Cooper frowned and after ten minutes of fruitless staring, he closed the mail, but did not delete it. There was something to it, he was sure of that, he just didn't see it yet. But he was at work now and there were more important things to do than staring at a dubious commercial for a wonder pill against erection problems.
The next day, there was a flyer within his pile of letters. That alone was unusual, but that it was a flyer for a tattoo parlour was even more unusual. Especially since the parlour was situated in Cancún. Washington was not exactly its area to gain clients with flyers. The CIA even less. Cooper frowned at the offensively orange piece of paper with the elaborate tattoo designs and the man with the heavy beard holding a needle. He wondered what all this was about. He was sure there was a connection to the mail he'd gotten yesterday, but he most certainly didn't see it. Frustrated, but resolutely, he pushed the mysterious adds aside and concentrated on work. When he entered his apartment that evening, he found an invitation for Señor Juan Mendez's Costume Party of the Year in his mail. It didn't take him long to make the connection to the flyer of the tattoo parlour. The owner had been a certain Señor Mendez, too. So whoever was sending him these pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, they knew his e-mail address, his office post address and his home address and they were good enough to get through the security levels.
The next morning, Cooper began researching this mysterious Juan Mendez and found him to be the head of the Mendez Cartel in Mexico. The CIA kept tabs on him, nothing too close, though, because his influence wasn't of a high enough scale to be the matter of detailed surveillance. Cooper pulled all files available and when there wasn't anything else to find, he was still wondering what all of this had to do with him. This Mendez was a typical low life criminal who'd risen in the ranks by intrigues, violence and money. He was nothing special, just one of a whole bunch of small cartel bosses. He ran several plantations in the hinterlands and held a share in the drug business. Yet again, nothing large-scale. He was supposedly involved in human traffic on a low scale and had his share of murders under his belt, but he was about as untouchable as most of the other cartel bosses. Cooper frowned and still didn't have the faintest idea what that had to do with him. Why was he given all those random pieces of information that probably linked together, but he had no clue how?
A knock on his door interrupted his musings. “Come in.”
A young woman entered shyly, a pile of files in her arm. “Mister Cooper, I bring the file you ordered this morning.”
For a moment, Cooper wondered what file she was talking about. He'd already received all he had ordered, but in a surge of curiosity, he just nodded. She came over to his desk, handing over the yellow folder and quickly retreating back to the door. Cooper fought a grin. He knew the people from the archives tended to be timid and he knew he had a certain reputation that made him something between a threat and a hero to them, but it still amused him how they tried not to stare whenever one of them was in his office. It was famous as 'The Office of the Moses Battle' in the CIA rumour mill, and the title always made him cringe in memories.
“Thank you.” Cooper said to the woman who offered an uncertain half smile and hurriedly left his office. Cooper frowned at the file in his hands and determinedly opened it. He was surprised to find on top of the first page a photo of a man who bore a stunning resemblance to himself, even though his face was a little bit broader and wore his hair in a short military cut. Kirill, no further name known. A Russian assassin, Cooper found out when he skimmed over the page. Apparently deceased in 2004 in a car crash in Moscow. Well, Cooper didn't entirely trust such statements, in his experience, many dead still walked the earth and were pretty much alive. Whoever this guy had been – or was – it didn't explain why his file had been delivered to Cooper. He had the distinct impression it had something to do with these other mysterious pieces of information he'd received over the past two days. And his resemblance to the dead assassin was obviously part of the whole thing, because there was no other link between them. Cooper had never crossed path with the guy or any of the people that were listed as his connections.
Cooper read the file again and then decided that maybe it was time to pay Henry a visit. The old records' keeper was a source of knowledge, especially of things that hadn't made it into the final reports. And Cooper felt that this might be the key in this strange game his unknown opponent was playing with him. So he printed the spam mail and packed everything, from the files to the flyer, in a folder and made his way down to the back room. When he entered, Henry got up and greeted him with a friendly smile. Cooper had the distinct impression Henry and Frank were still in close contact and the records' keeper seemed to have become more friendly towards Cooper with every visit. Sometimes he wondered what Frank told people about them.
“This has Mister Moses' handwriting all over it.” Henry stated the moment Cooper handed him the file, the printed out spam mail, the flyer and the costume party letter, before Cooper could even say one word.
“Why is that?” Cooper asked and frowned half in surprise, half in annoyance because he certainly hadn't expected that.
“Well, he has used this way of communicating before.” the records' keeper said and studied the evidence before him on the table. “It means that he cannot make contact over the normal channels, due to whatever reason. So he gives pieces of information that seem to be totally random, unconnected and nondescript without the right angle of looking at them. Absolutely untraceable for everybody but the person they're aimed at.”
Cooper nodded slowly. That made sense and seemed like exactly the thing Frank would do if he found himself in a situation where he couldn't just call or send a mail. What surprised Cooper, however, was that it was him Frank contacted. What had happened to the rest of the Gang? Why couldn't they be of any help? The only explanation he had was that they were equally cut off any means of communication or would endanger the mission and themselves if they tried to get to Frank. Whatever it was, it must have been messy enough that Frank required outside help.
“So I have to piece together what he wants to tell me out of these indices?” Cooper asked and glared down at the table. That would be fun.
“I would say that should be the right course of action.” Henry nodded and stared at the assortment on the table as well. “Can you put the items in chronological order of reception, please?”
Cooper reached out and ordered the items without a moment of hesitation, pulling the file he had researched on Mendez away from the pile. He watched Henry take up the items piece by piece, reading over them and looking closely. Then he took up the file of the Russian assassin that Cooper had received last, and skimmed through it.
“The resemblance of this man to you is astonishing.” Henry stated, then he scrutinised the photo of the dead assassin and looked up at Cooper again. “You could pass for him without too much trouble.”
“Maybe that's the point.” Cooper mused and looked at the file. “Maybe Frank wants me to pass for him.”
“An alias in form of a person who moves easily in the circles of the Mendez Cartel and has a reputation that opens doors.” Henry nodded and smiled. “This is brilliant!”
“What is brilliant?” Cooper wondered what had the old man so agitated all of the sudden.
“Mister Moses managed to get you into the operation without you ever having been involved before.” Henry explained with a huge grin. “Because this alias was a real person with a position and a reputation that speaks for itself and you resemble him so much that nobody will doubt your cover. And you have all the abilities necessary to fill out his role. The perfect combination.”
“Ah.” Cooper replied with a sceptically raised eyebrow. He could see the idea behind Frank's actions, but that still didn't tell him anything about what all this was about.
Then Henry frowned. “You do speak Russian, don't you?”
Cooper nodded. “I do.”
“Good. Because a Russian assassin who doesn't speak or understand Russian will be not make it very far.” Henry looked at him expectantly.
Henry made an impatient gesture with his hand as if he thought the question was stupid. “Speak with a Russian accent in English. You're a Russian assassin now!”
“Am I?” Cooper asked and wondered when Henry had taken over the command of Mission: Finding Frank.
“Yes, you are, Agent Cooper.” he retorted with a chiding expression on his face. “You want to find Mister Moses, don't you?”
Cooper suppressed a sigh and replied with a perfect Russian accent, “Of course I want to find him.”
Henry smiled, satisfied with what he had heard. “You will fill this role perfectly.”
“And what do you think it is that Frank wants me to do? I'm not certain I fully comprehend his message.” he replied and stuck to the accent. He had the distinct feeling he would be chided again if he didn't and he couldn't help wondering why he actually cared. Well, there was no harm in pleasing the old man a bit. Cooper had come down here for his help, after all.
“Well, the first message you got, this mail, held the information that Frank is in trouble and needs help. The second message was the flyer, so I guess he wants you to go to that tattoo parlour, since the only real information on it is where the parlour is. The third message was an invitation for a costume party with the fourth being the file on a man who looks like you. I take that means you're supposed to go to Cancún as Kirill and visit the tattoo parlour.” Henry concluded and Cooper was impressed. The man had definitely been more than a records' keeper in his younger years. He knew the business just too well. Cooper himself hadn't even made the connection to Frank and it kind of embarrassed him that he hadn't been able to see that.
“In my experience, there will be more information waiting for you there.” Henry added and closed the file in his hands.
“Well, then I will have to travel to Cancún, it seems.” Cooper said, still using the accent, and glared at the file. Great, now he was on a wild goose chase after his lover who'd gotten so deep in trouble somewhere that he had to communicate through spam mails. How did Frank always manage to get into such messed up situations?
Henry grinned. “They have this really nice tequila in Cancún. Would you mind bringing me a bottle, Agent Cooper?”
It was hot in Cancún. Unpleasantly so, but Cooper figured it only added to his alias that he was sweating. He was supposed to come from Russia, after all. His shirt stuck to his back and he wished to just rip it off, but that would attract too much unwanted attention. So he gritted his teeth and walked through the streets to the address of the tattoo parlour. It was in an area of the city that wasn't exactly the best and Cooper was glad his alias included without saying that he'd carry multiple weapons on his body. It took him a while to arrive at the little parlour which was easily recognisable by the huge sign with several tattoo designs above the shop front.
“Oh, you must be Señor Mendez's guy.” the middle aged man with the heavy beard greeted him when he entered and Cooper immediately recognised him as the guy form the flyer. A look around proved more flyers of the same style lying on the counter. The man waved him through into the back of the little shop. Obviously, Henry's theory about the alias had been correct, this man certainly had been expecting him. He hadn't even taken more than a look at Cooper. “The design he ordered has arrived just yesterday.”
Cooper was once again glad for all the money the CIA had put in his education. The man, who seemed to take it for granted the Cooper understood Spanish, spoke with a strong accent, but Cooper understood him without a problem. He followed the guy into a back room which was empty apart from several chairs and tattoo equipment. The walls were covered in pictures and drawing of designs, from the floor to the ceiling.
“So, what did you do to earn this?” the man asked while he put a piece of paper on the nearby table and readied his needles. Cooper had the distinct idea he knew where this was going and he wasn't sure he was fine with it. “Getting a tattoo ordered by the boss is a rare thing and a high honour. You must've done something big.”
The man motioned for Cooper to sit on the chair and take off his shirt. In his mind, Cooper's thoughts were running at lightning's speed while he followed the order without showing any outside sign of his turmoil. He opened the buttons of his shirt and pulled it off, then he sat down and rested his arms on his legs, keeping up a military posture on purpose. “Loyalty.”
“Ah.” The man nodded heavily. “I understand. Loyalty is rare today. Worth the tattoo, that's for sure.”
He took up a pen and pulled the chair to Cooper's left side, then he began drawing on the skin. Cooper didn't spare a glance because according to what he'd read about Kirill, the Russian wouldn't show any interest or pain and he had to keep up his cover. Cooper felt the pen first on his shoulder, then it wandered slowly down to the middle of his left upper arm. When the man was satisfied with his work, he took the paper up for another look and took up drawing from Cooper's shoulder towards his neck, only stopping right below his collarbone. Cooper forced himself to stay calm. This was a rather huge tattoo.
The man prepared the ink and the needles and then he began his work. Cooper sat unflinchingly on the chair and felt the needle pierce his skin, again and again and again. It was so quick that he didn't feel the single piercings anymore, and his whole shoulder began to flare with a constant pain. Time lost its meaning and Cooper occupied his mind with pondering on all the ways he would make Frank pay for this. At some point, his arm joined his shoulder in pain and the part below the collarbone was the worst. When the man was finished, had washed away the blood and put a bandage over the injured skin, it was long since dark outside.
Cooper felt exhausted when he left the tattoo parlour, even though he hadn't been physically active. He'd been sitting unmoving on the same chair for several long hours and he hadn't even seen the pattern the man had tattooed on his skin. Now it was hidden under the white bandages beneath his shirt and he would have to wait until tomorrow to see what Frank had decided to have perpetuated on his skin. On the way to the hotel, Cooper got himself something to eat and when he reached the room he had rented, he just went straight to bed.
It was after the shower the next morning that Cooper first risked a glance in the mirror. He peeled the wet bandages away and carelessly let them fall into the sink. There was still some reddish swelling around the black lines that ran over his skin. There were thick lines and thin lines, some going through from his collarbone to his arm, others interrupted, broken, renewed. It was a complicated pattern, leaving spaces, forming them, retreating again. It was strangely beautiful – not that he would ever admit that to Frank – and Cooper couldn't help raising his right hand, tracing the delicate lines carefully. The skin under his fingers was warm and slightly elevated, it felt strange and new. Cooper frowned at his own reflection. He couldn't for the life of him make out what the message behind this tattoo might possibly be. He didn't see anything he recognised, nothing that could be a code, nor anything that could be a lead. It was just a huge amount of black ink under his skin.
Cooper looked in the mirror one last time and sighed. It would be a huge pain in the ass to get this removed.
“Henry.” Cooper greeted the old man when he entered the back room. “I brought you this tequila you mentioned.”
“Ah, this is a fine tequila, let me tell you.” Henry smiled and took the bottle with an appreciative look. “So, what did you learn, Agent Cooper?”
“I didn't learn anything.” Cooper replied with a snort. “I just got a huge tattoo on my left shoulder.”
Henry gave him a surprised look, then he laughed. He actually laughed out loud, and Cooper wasn't sure if he should be pissed or proud about it. “What is so funny about that?”
“I told you Mister Moses could probably not communicate through the normal channels.” Henry explained, still smirking. “Well, communicating via tattoos doesn't count as 'normal channels'.”
“Well, whatever he wanted to say, he didn't use words.” Cooper replied with a frown. He was only too aware of how sensible his skin still was under the thin fabric of his dress shirt. When he'd woken up this morning with his whole shoulder feeling raw, he'd spent the entire breakfast thinking about ways to torture Frank for ever having this idea. There were other unusual ways to make contact, it most likely didn't have to be a tattoo.
“May I see the tattoo, Agent Cooper?” Henry asked and did his best to sound serious. Still, Cooper heard the amused tone in his voice, though.
“Excuse me?” Cooper replied and wondered if Henry had really just asked him to undress in the back room of the archive.
“If he had you get a tattoo, then his message will be in it.” Henry said in a voice as if he was talking to a slow child. “I want to have a look, maybe we can figure out what Mister Moses wants to tell you.”
Cooper just sighed and removed his jacket. He hung it over the nearby chair and unbuttoned his shirt. “I don't believe I'm doing this.”
Henry just chuckled.
“Interesting pattern.” He remarked once Cooper had removed his shirt and the black lines on his skin were visible. Henry crossed the room to a utility closet and came back with a digital camera which he raised in question. “We'll take a picture, if that's all right with you. Then you don't have to stand around half naked for the rest of our conversation.”
“Sure. Go ahead.” Cooper couldn't help feeling a bit like a stripper with only his dress pants on, standing in the room like a object and Henry creeping around him and taking pictures. Had it been Frank, Cooper knew where this would have ended.
While he dressed, Henry went over to his computer and came back a minute later with several printouts of the tattoo. He placed them on the steel table and stared at them.
“I think it might be a map.” Henry murmured after a while, a frown of concentration on his face.
“A map?” Cooper stared at the photo on the table and tried to see the lines under the angle of them forming a map.
“Yes.” Henry traced the tick lines on the picture where the shoulder was in the focus. “The style seems like an abstraction of a medieval city map. I have no idea which city this could be, though.”
And there, Cooper could see it, too. The way some lines were set parallel, as if they were meant to be rows of houses. The streets were not the lines but the free space in between. He grinned. “I will pass this through the computer. We have this program which checks for matching imagery, maybe it can find an analogy to some city.”
“That is a good idea, Agent Cooper.” Henry nodded approvingly. “We still need to find out where in this mysterious city Mister Moses is, though.”
“I know where.” Cooper replied and pointed to the part of the picture where a mole was right in between two lines. It was high on his shoulder and Cooper couldn't say how many times Frank had given him a hickey right over it. He always said its position was perfect to kiss when he stood behind Cooper, so every time they took a shower together, Cooper ended up with a new lovebite on his shoulder. Because Frank loved to wash his hair, and that always put him behind Cooper and gave him the perfect angle. And Cooper couldn't even complain about the embarrassment of walking around with a hickey because it was well hidden under his shirt.
“Why do you think that's his location?” Henry asked with a puzzled frown. Cooper felt himself blush and forced it down. He couldn't possibly explain to the old records' keeper how he knew and why he was so utterly certain. Frank knew the exact spot of the mole and he had defined where and how this tattoo was done, so there couldn't be any other explanation. This was never a coincidence.
“I know.” Cooper just said and Henry looked at him for a moment. Cooper could see the precise moment when realisation hit the old man, his eyes growing wide for a moment, then a smile spread over his face.
“I understand.” he said with a knowing glow in his eyes and Cooper cleared his throat in unease. At least he was absolutely certain that his secret was safe with the records' keeper. Not only because of his obvious loyalty to Frank, but also because keeping secrets was what Henry did for living.
It was about five hours later that the computer pinged and announced that it had found a possible match. Cooper checked the result and found his tattoo and the map of a part of Cancún, superimposed on one another. The accuracy was astonishing. He wondered for a moment if Frank had really drawn this himself, he'd never seen him draw before. But then, he was certain that there were many sides of Frank that he didn't know yet.
Once he knew what the map portrayed, a little bit of research brought up that two American tourists, a woman and her daughter, had been involved in a car crash six days ago. There wasn't a picture, but with the timing and the mention of two woman of a different generation, Cooper was relatively sure it were Sarah and Victoria. Oh, how Cooper hated car crashes.
A little bit of further digging showed a picture of a man who held a stuffed pig in front of his face, and it looked suspiciously like Marvin's. The accompanying article said he was supposedly an American paedophile who'd been found with a spying glass and a plush animal near a school. It sounded a lot like a set-up to Cooper, because he knew very well how paranoid Marvin was. He'd never get caught spying, he was way to good for that. And he didn't exactly like children, so that accusation was complete nonsense. Still, according to the article, the man was kept in the local police station until his case would be forwarded to court. That explained why the rest of the Gang was of no help to Frank at the moment.
Within the next three hours, Cooper had organised yet again a flight to Cancún International, had had his hair cut according to Kirill's picture, had changed his style of clothes to what the Russian assassin seemed likely to wear in these circumstances and had organised all necessary papers to go undercover. Then he was headed to the airport for his plane and arrived in Cancún about four hours later. He hadn't expected to fly here twice within a few days, or he would have made different arrangements, he thought while he got a rental car and drove to the hospital where the mother and the daughter who'd been involved in the car crash were reported to have been brought. It was far easier than he'd anticipated to get into the hospital at night. There was a minimum manning level of guards and the nurses weren't too active, most of them sitting together at the front desk or in their common room. A look in the computer had provided him with all the information he needed about Mary Johnston and her daughter Jenny who'd been hospitalised a week ago after a car accident. He scanned the report on their injuries and remembered the room number, then he returned the computer to the state he had found it in and left the desk.
Slowly, Cooper opened the door and peeked into the room. It was a multi-bed room, he counted six beds, and four of them were occupied. Cooper quietly made his way through the room and looked into the beds, finding first a very old woman, then second one, then Sarah's pale face and next to her Victoria. So he had been right about them being the two victims of the car crash. They both looked a little bit ruffled and Sarah had a cast on her right leg, several bandages on her face and was obviously fast asleep. Victoria had a cast on her left arm, there was a white bandage around her head and her eyes were closed, but Cooper was certain she was aware of his presence and was ready to jump to action should it be necessary.
“Hey.” Cooper said with a low voice to identify himself to her. He didn't appreciate to get stabbed while passing by for a sick bed visit. When she opened her eyes in sudden realisation, he offered her a gentle smile. “How are you?”
“What are you doing here?” she asked and ignored his question, obviously surprised by his presence, but he could also see in the dark that she was smiling. He noticed she spoke very quietly and refrained from using names, just as he did. They couldn't be sure that nobody was listening, and since they were both undercover, they couldn't take the risk to blow it.
“I was contacted by my other half.” Cooper explained and grinned. “In the most unusual ways, but it got me here.”
“So he is all right?” she asked and he could hear the worry in her voice.
“I don't know.” Cooper shrugged. “I have no idea what all this is about. I pieced some things together, but I'm not in the picture.”
Victoria nodded. “I'll explain. But first, what happened to the pig?”
“Got caught.” Cooper replied and had to keep from snorting at the name. He wondered if Marvin would appreciate it. “Local police station.”
“Most certainly.” Cooper jerked his head towards Sarah's bed. “And her? Is she all right?”
Victoria sighed and her gaze was worried when she looked over to where Sarah slept peacefully. “She was hit worse than I was. A car crashed into the passenger side of our rental, and that was Sarah's side.”
Cooper nodded, that explained the broken right leg and why none of the two women showed any sign of impact with the front airbag like he had done after his car crash about a year ago.
“The worst is, it really was an accident.” Victoria huffed. “At least I wasn't the one to cause it. The other driver was a mother with her two children in the back seat and she'd turned to them because they were fighting. She overlooked the red light and hit us full speed.” She growled. “I was taken out by a stupid coincidence.”
“That happens to the best.” Cooper said seriously. “That's the risk. We can't plan everything, and that mother interfering wasn't planned.”
Victoria suddenly smiled.“Listen to you. You're the one giving me advice, now.”
Cooper chuckled. “Well, wisdom also exists in the young.”
For that, she hit him on the arm. It wasn't very hard, but he thought he might have deserved that. “Smart-arse.”
Cooper only grinned.
“So, how did you come to know where we were?” Victoria asked and Cooper sighed.
“Long story short, my other half used quite unusual and untraceable means to contact me, get me an alias and let me know where to come.”
“Unusual means?” Victoria repeated and raised an eyebrow in question. Cooper sighed again and pulled the collar of his shirt down far enough that she could see the beginning of the tattoo. She snorted and tried to suppress a grin. “Oh. Unusual means. I see.”
Cooper rearranged his shirt. “Don't you dare laughing.”
“I wouldn't dream of it.” she replied and sounded sincere, but there was still a smirk on her lips. “So, who are you?”
Cooper bend forwards so he could whisper in her ear. “Kirill. Russian assassin.”
She nodded. “Now that you mention it, I can see the resemblance. Hence the haircut, correct?”
Cooper frowned. “You knew him?”
She shrugged casually. “Not that well. We may have crossed path once or twice.”
“I probably don't want to know, do I?”
She chuckled. “Probably not.”
“So, what happened here? Enlighten me.” Cooper asked and turned his head so that now she could whisper in his ear. This weren't thing you wanted to discuss aloud.
“We got a contract which requested us to take down a low cartel boss named Juan Mendez. We weren't supposed to kill him, but to provide the necessary evidence that he could be taken down by the police. It was meant to be a statement against the cartels to show that they don't have free reign.”
“So, basically, it's a pissing contest.” Cooper offered and Victoria chuckled.
“That is one way to put it, yes. Anyway, we decided we needed an inside man to arrange for evidence and coordinate with the police strike. Your other half was supposed to take on the role of Mikhail Morev, a very wealthy industrial magnate from Russia who is interested in permanent arrangements to enter the drug market. Smuggling from Mexico to Russia on a higher scale than anything the Señor has done until now.” she went on. “To prove his trustworthiness and his power, your other half asked the Señor for a person he wanted to get rid of and told him he had a loyal and untraceable man who'd be able to solve the problem. Obviously, it was me who made the hit. All the while, the pig was keeping tabs on the Señor's operations.”
“Let me guess, his house is close to a school.”
Victoria frowned in confusion. “Yes. Why do you ask?”
“It figures.” Cooper chuckled and shook his head. Maybe it hadn't been a set-up after all, maybe the Gang was just suffering from an incredibly bad case of bad luck. Marvin was creepy enough that Cooper wouldn't have wanted him handing around the school had he been a parent or a teacher. And even here in Cancún, an old white guy with a spyglass and a stuffed animal who lurked close to a school was bound to attract some attention. ”Go on.”
“Well, the Señor wasn't entirely convinced and demanded a second hit within the next twenty-four hours. We had just completed the task and were on our way back when the mother crashed our car. ”
“That is why I ended up with this.” Cooper said and indicated his attire. The choice of Kirill as his alias had proved convenient in more than one way, it wasn't only the physical resemblance. “But why the fuss about the communication. Why couldn't he just have sent me a mail?”
“The Señor is very paranoid. And I mean extremely paranoid. The pig is relaxed compared to him.” Victoria pressed her lips into a tight line. “Of course he expected his guest to live at his villa, and there were no ways to refuse without blowing up the whole deal before it had even started. Ever since, your other half has been under unobtrusive, but tight surveillance and there hasn't been a way to communicate on the usual channels.”
“How did you communicate, then?” Cooper wondered. The hits and the timing must have been arranged somehow.
“I can read lips.” Victoria told him with a shrug. “It was easy for me to get in position in a remarkable distance and he only needed to form the words without actually saying them and I could read his messages through my scope. On top of that, it confused the Señor even more that his demands were met but he couldn't trace how the order was given.”
“Convenient.” Cooper admitted and was impressed. The Gang was amazing him again and again, they never seemed to run out of abilities, action and achievements that made him feel small, young and ignorant. “So how did it go on from there? Were you in the hospital all the time?”
She nodded with a worried frown. “I haven't had contact ever since the accident.”
“How should I proceed from now on?” Cooper wondered if it was wise to just approach Frank or if he should take up Victoria's position and wait for orders. “Take your spot? He must know by now that something went wrong.”
“He gets the newspaper, he will know what happened to us. That's probably why he contacted you.” She was silent for a moment, obviously thinking. “I will give you the address of our hideout, you will find everything you need there. I think it is best to try to establish contact. The Señor knows of your alias' existence and achievements. If he ordered the tattoo in accordance with your other half, that means he approved of your usefulness for their business, and now that you're here for real, you can enter his villa. The tattoo will open every door.”
“So basically, I was marked as a shared possession?” Cooper asked and was slightly offended.
“No, not shared. The Señor knows your loyalty lies with Morev, but he ordered the tattoo as a sign of appreciativeness as well as an attempt to dominate. Since he obviously wasn't the one to design it and needed Morev's approval, though, it's only a futile attempt. But it will be understood by his henchmen.”
Cooper nodded, but her explanation didn't make him feel any better. At least it meant he could make contact without to much of trouble. “I will pay him a visit, then.”
Cooper saw basically two possibilities of proceeding. While he he passed at the Gang's hideout on the outskirts of the city, he wondered which one was better. He could either enter the villa clandestinely, making a point of his abilities to be a ghost if he had to be, and show the threat he could pose to Mendez if things didn't go according to plan. The other option was to go straight through the front door and prove his power by understating it, show his confidence and his loyalty to Morev and leave Mendez to wonder how dangerous he could be.
He packed several guns and three knives out of the bag that he knew was Frank's and decided that the unknown was still the most frightening. He would take the front door and put his tattoo to use. Then at least it was worth that he had his skin pierced for several hours. So he returned to his rental and drove straight to the main entrance portal of the Mendez villa. It was shortly past nine o'clock when he pressed the bell button and looked into the camera with his grumpiest expression.
“Who are you and what do you want?” a cold and professional voice asked through the intercom. Cooper didn't bother to reply, he just pulled his shirt collar back and the gate buzzed open only seconds later. He was slightly amazed this worked so well, he hadn't been sure it would, and explaining himself at the gate to a stubborn guard would certainly have ruined his entrance. But as it was, he could drive through to the front door of the villa where he parked the rental next to a black Mercedes. On his way over the premises, Cooper noticed the multitude of guards posted all around the perimeter, heavily armed and standing in this straight posture that betrayed them as former soldiers. The door to the villa was opened by a maid before he had even reached the porch and Cooper pretended to ignore her like a man of Kirill's profession would. There were more guards in the entrance hall and the cameras in the corners were displayed openly. This guy was really paranoid, Cooper thought. This wasn't a villa, this was a fortress. Or a prison, depending on your position within these walls.
“Ah, you are Señor Morev's man, I presume.” He heard a male voice remark and turned his head towards the source of the sound. A man walked down the elaborate stairway, he was tall and lean and sported a neatly trimmed black beard. His clothes were obviously expensive, but modest and simple in a way that was meant to impose respect. It worked well on him, and his face with its sharp angles and intense eyes only added to the effect. Mendez fitted his picture in the files perfectly.
Cooper watched him cautiously, his face expressionless and his stance self-confident. He knew that showing a weakness to this man was a deadly mistake. “Da.”
“You do speak Spanish, I take it?” Mendez asked pleasantly when he had reached the bottom landing. Cooper only nodded but didn't speak. “You are not a very talkative guy, are you?”
Cooper just looked at him without reacting in any way. He knew this unnerved most people and it was a tool he used often when he was undercover. It seemed to work with Mendez as well.
“He doesn't speak much.” Cooper heard Frank's familiar voice, speaking Spanish tinged with a Russian accent, and he saw the man enter the room from the side with a lazy, casual aura that made it seem as if the house belonged to him and not as if he was the imprisoned guest. “He never has, not even in Russian.”
“I see.” Mendez nodded smiled this fake smile again. “Follow me in the patio, my friends.”
“Are you all right, boss?” Cooper asked quietly in the most heavy Russian dialect he could imitate, one that he knew non-native speakers could hardly understand. He had heard Frank speak it while they'd been in St. Petersburg, though, which told him that his words would be understood.
“Perfectly fine.” Frank switched to the same Russian dialect and preceded Cooper to the patio. “The situation became a bit tense, but your timing was perfect, my dear Kirill.”
Cooper suppressed a snort at the name. “At your service, boss.”
“Oh, how I like to hear that.” Frank replied and Cooper was reassured by the teasing tone in his voice that things hadn't become too bad during the past days. Frank turned to Mendez and switched back to Spanish. “I have not promised you too much, Señor Mendez, have I?”
“Indeed, you were true to your word.” Mendez replied, looked at Cooper and pointed at his own collarbone. “And I see your man has received his honour.”
“Of course he has.” Frank said while he sat down on a wide wooden chair opposite to Mendez. “It was an order, so he complied.”
“A good man, I see.” Mendez agreed and nodded. “And very highly qualified for the job.”
“I wouldn't have suggested him if he wasn't.” Frank replied and gave his voice a slightly offended edge. Cooper just stood obediently next to Frank and wondered what job they were talking about.
“Of course, Señor Morev, I know that.” Mendez accorded with a slow nod. “We will start our cooperation once this annoying matter is resolved.”
“Your problem will be solved by the end of the week.” Frank inclined his head in agreement and then gave Mandez a hard look. “When can I expect the first shipment, then?”
“Fifty kilogram of cocaine.” Mendez said thoughtfully and leaned back in the chair, an image of the relaxed businessman. “Taking into account the transportation time and the harbour transactions, I'd say in about three weeks.”
“Great.” Frank said with a content grin and motioned towards Cooper. “We will take care of your little problem, then, so that everything can proceed according to plan.”
“What should I do?” Cooper asked and looked at Frank, who made a gesture towards Mendez, inviting him to explain.
“The chief of the state police.” Mendez informed Cooper and stared at him with hard eyes. “He needs to be out of the picture before the first shipment can even reach the harbour. He has much too close an eye on my transactions and has to be eliminated.”
Cooper just nodded in acknowledgement. “Da.”
Mendez gave him a lazy, satisfied smile. “A really good man you have there, Señor Morev.”
Frank inclined his head in modest acknowledgement of the compliment, then he took up the shot glass the servant maiden had brought once they'd sat down. He raise it to Mendez. “To fruitful relations, Señor Mendez.”
Mendez followed Franks example and clunk his glass to Frank's. “To successful business.”
“I drink to that!” Frank laughed before he downed the alcohol. He had just put down the glass when there was the sound of sirens, of men shouting and then of machine guns rattling.
“What is that sound?” Frank jumped up and pretended the be in equal parts agitated and angry. “That are guns! I demand an explanation, Señor Mendez!”
Cooper loomed protectively next to Frank in the best portrayal of the loyal soldier. He had a gun out, and even though it was still lowered, there was no doubt he would use it the moment it became necessary. His face was as expressionless as before, but his body spoke of attentive tension.
“My guards are taking care of whatever the problem is, Señor Morev.” Mendez reassured them in a calm voice and his whole posture radiated confidence. “I will find out what the problem is. Remain here and have another drink, there is no reason to worry.”
Mendez got up from his chair and Cooper had to give him credit for the calm and measured strides with which he crossed the patio. Nothing in his whole posture spoke of worry or concern. Either he was a very good actor or he really believed he was untouchable.
“So, what is going on out there?” Frank switched back to the heavy Russian dialect due to the three guards that were positioned around the patio and seemed to become nervous with every minute the shooting sounds continued.
“Oh, that would be the police.” Cooper replied casually and checked his watch. “They're even on time.”
“On time?” Frank asked with a raised eyebrow. “Care to explain?”
“Oh, I had a little chat with Victoria – she and Sarah are mostly fine, by the way – and then I planted an anonymous tip to the state police chief who was very eager to listen. I explained him when he had to join the party and that he would receive a recording of all the evidence he needed to take Mendez down for good.” Cooper explained and tapped his pocket. Then he gazed at his watch again. “In return I wanted the west wall to be unprotected for two minutes at quarter to ten. Which will be in three minutes. We have to get moving.”
Frank nodded and got up. The eyes of the guards followed them attentively. “Do you have a radio or something?” Frank asked the closest guard in Spanish, his tone demanding. “I want to know what is going on!”
The guard, obviously used to follow commands instantly, grabbed his mic. ”Of course, Señor! Perez, come in! What is happening out there?”
There was only static for a moment which Cooper used to get into a better position to shoot the two remaining guards. “Perez here. We have a massive force of police in front of the gates and they're attacking!”
“A police attack?” Frank sounded scandalised. “I will not stay here to wait for them! Get out of my way!”
The guard shook his head. “We have orders to keep you in the house, Señor.”
Frank glared at him and growled, “I said: Get out of my way!”
Before the guard could reply, Frank hit him square in the face and Cooper simultaneously shot the two other guards so they couldn't come after them. Then he threw Frank a spare gun and they left the patio towards the west side. The sound of guns came closer and sounded more heated. It was time to leave the Mendez villa. They headed along the rooms towards the west exit and reached the door without anybody trying to stop them. The servants were running towards the next best hiding places and the guards were heading towards the main entrance, not away from it.
“One minute.” Cooper informed Frank and glanced over to the wall segment that should be clear. He just hoped the police chief had kept his words, because Cooper was not eager to shoot a cop, but he would if he had to. Behind them, in the building, there was the sound of the door being smashed in.
“Let's go.” Frank said and they left the protection of the house wall behind to run over the free stretch of grass. And while the police roamed the building, Frank and Cooper disappeared over the high wall surrounding the premises. True to his word, the police chief had made sure the opening was clear for exactly the time they needed to leave. When they turned the corner of the back alley, black-clad police men swarmed the area in front of the wall. That had been close, Cooper thought and grinned. But hey, they were out.
They made their way back to the main street where they found a cab that brought them to the area of the city where their hideout was located. They dismounted several streets away from the small house and walked the rest with some detours – just in case – and it was way past noon when they entered the little holiday home. The first thing Frank did once the door had fallen close was pressing Cooper into the wall and kissing him long and thoroughly, his hands roaming over his body and finally finding their way into Cooper's hair. Then he pulled back with a frown.
“I was wondering, what happened to your hair?” Frank asked with a tone in his voice that Cooper was tempted to call pouting. Frank's hands passed pointedly through the short strands Cooper had had trimmed according to Kirill's military cut.
“Do you really have to ask that?” Cooper replied with a quizzically raised eyebrow, nevertheless enjoying Frank's hands on his skin. “When you gave me Kirill as alias, you must have known I'd have to style according to his appearance. And that included cutting my hair.”
“A real pity.” Frank murmured and he frowned while he tried to comb with his fingers through the strands that were too short to get a hold on. “I like your cute messy hair.”
“I know.” Cooper grinned and wondered if maybe this was part of his revenge for the tattoo. “It'll grow back.”
“I hope so. How am I supposed to bury my fingers in it when I can't even grab it?” Frank complained and Cooper couldn't help laughing.
“It was your own fault.” he pointed out mercilessly.
“How should I have known that Victoria and Sarah would get rammed by an inattentive housewife and Marvin would end up being arrested as a supposed paedophile?” Frank asked indignantly. “This mission was really cursed to begin with.”
“I can only agree.” Cooper nodded. “And we still have to get Marvin out of the holding cell at the local police station.”
Frank grumbled. “How did he end up in there, anyway? He's a trained agent!”
“Don't ask me, ask him once we've got him out.” Cooper replied and leaned back against the wall. Frank's body followed his instantly and they were pressed together from head to toe. “So, tell me how and when you decided to get me involved in this cursed mission.”
“I declared to have a personal long-time assassin, highly trained and deadly effective, and of course loyal beyond death to me. To me alone. That was what kept me in the business.” Frank replied, tone serious. “I needed leverage, and you were the only option I had after Victoria was out.”
“What made you give me Kirill as an alias?” Cooper asked and let his hands caress Frank's sides. “Please don't tell me you know him, too.”
“Ah, no, I don't. It was only Victoria's fortune to meet and survive him.” Frank answered and smirked. “Personally, I think he had a great deal of respect for her and he wouldn't have wanted to cross her as an enemy.”
Cooper raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain?”
Frank just chuckled. “Better not, Will, you're still CIA. Maybe when you're retired.”
That earned Frank a slap to the back of his head. “You haven't answered my question.”
“Well, I had seen a picture of Kirill once and he was just the perfect personal assassin for Mikahil Morev. And I knew of his resemblance to you, so I figured I could as well provide you with a credible alias if I tugged you into this.” Frank made a short break, then he sighed. “To be honest, it became pretty uncomfortable in Mendez's villa. I was unable to communicate and he made it very clear that he was more than willing to make me disappear if I didn't prove real. You were my only way to convince him.”
“But did it have to be a tattoo?” Cooper asked, one eyebrow raised sceptically.
Frank shrugged, raised a hand and traced the black ink under Cooper's skin with his fingers where the collar of his short rode low.“It was the only thing I could do to get you a map without anybody noticing it. Hell, Mendez even gave the order and came up with the idea, the only thing I had to do was persist on a design and back it up with Russian tradition. He practically provided me with the perfect means to hand you the information right under his nose.”
“Perfect means?” Cooper asked incredulously, pushed Frank back and ripped his shirt over his head. “Look, Frank! I have a map tattooed on my shoulder! That's not perfect means!”
Frank only stared at his naked torso. It was the first time he saw the tattoo on Cooper's skin. Cooper noticed the slight widening of his eyes, saw his tongue wet his lips and remarked how he swallowed heavily. Frank was turned on by the sight, Cooper suddenly understood, and the realisation sent a flash of heat through his entire body. Frank slowly raised his hand and his fingers hovered over the black lines on Cooper's arm, then they settled down on his skin, a touch light as a feather. The fingers traced along every thick and every thin line, over the arm to the shoulder, to his collarbone. Cooper felt goosebumps spread all over his body, felt his nipples harden, felt his blood gathering in his nether regions.
“Gosh, Will, you're so beautiful.” Frank murmured, his voice rough and husky, his eyes dark with desire. Then he took a step forwards and bend his head, his lips finding the mole that was now part of the tattoo and Cooper's head fell to the side with a low groan when he felt the lazy suction of Franks mouth. His hands found Frank's neck, the back of his head, and held on to keep him right where he was.
Well, maybe he wouldn't have the tattoo removed, after all.