St. Louis, Missouri
The briefing room was a pleasantly lit office with an oval table and chairs chosen for function over form. It looked like any other conference, as if at any moment a low-level manager would walk in and start wowing his audience with PowerPoint. The three women in the room didn’t fit the mould. One, red hair flaming against the red of her scarf, adjusted her glasses as she lectured, her lapel shining with a collection of misshapen brooches. Of the other two, one was dressed in a deep blue suit that left little to the imagination and the other, a perky blonde, wore a paint-spotted t-shirt and jeans.
The redhead slapped the table in front of the blonde so hard that her glasses slipped. "Pay attention, Cinderella!"
"Why? We don't need a culture expert for Paris. It's not like we're going to freaking Alabama," Cinderella answered.
"I find it hilarious that you're more comfortable in Paris than in Alabama," the third woman said with a smirk. Her long hair was coal-black and her skin was as white as snow.
“I can’t believe you have fond memories of the Alabama mission, Snow. Never again.” Cinder shuddered.
"My southern belle is excellent. Lots of charming men thought so,” Snow said, dropping into a drawl. “You remember, don’t you, Ariel?” Snow asked the redhead.
Ariel snapped her fingers to get her agents’ attention. "Briefings are an important part of C.R.O.W.N. culture. They could save your life in the field. And as the two agents who are going undercover for this mission it would behoove you to listen."
"Ariel, you made us watch March of the Penguins before we went to Antarctica, because you said it was vital cultural information,” Cinderella said.
"Penguins are cute!" Ariel protested.
"We know Ariel, everyone thinks so," Snow said sweetly, patting Ariel on the hand.
"Yeah, I didn't need to watch a long-ass movie to figure that out. Penguins are everywhere these days,” Cinder put in.
"Someone needs to wash your mouth out with soap,” Ariel informed Cinder, looking over the top of her black-rimmed glasses. “And I was into penguins before they were cool. Now, what is the difference between the word for bookstore and the word for library in French?"
Cinder rolled her eyes. "This is so boring. I wonder what Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Aurora are up to."
"Your mission, should you chose to accept it, and let's face it, you're all harebrained enough that you will," Belle began.
Aurora and Jasmine high-fived behind Mulan's back. She turned and raised an eyebrow at them and they settled back into their seats.
They were in an underground conference room that hummed with technology, a laptop at Belle’s fingertips and she was surrounded by three screens, each swimming with information about the mission. "Your mission is to take down the triad of criminals previously known only as the Villains. The group has been implicated in everything from drug and human trafficking to blackmailing high level politicians. An undercover C.R.O.W.N. agent, codename Esmeralda, infiltrated the Villains’ organization and got eyes on all three head-honchos. Mulan, your team was selected to take them out because you’re the best and we need more than three assassinations, we need ingenuity,” Belle told them.
Mulan inclined her head and motioned for Belle to continue.
“First up, we have Maleficent.” A picture of a tall, dark haired woman with dusky skin appeared on the screen behind Belle. She wore a tightly cut, black suit with a purple blouse and jade accessories. “She’s a titan in the business world with a fondness for racing and bad hats, and rumoured to be a real dragon lady. She’s the leader of the Villains and we want her taken out of the picture permanently. She’s been marked for assassination.” Belle, a gentle soul, winced at the thought of killing someone, but she dropped the official authorization for assassination in front of Mulan without hesitation.
Mulan wordlessly slid the authorization along the table to Aurora, who took on most of the team’s straightforward assassination jobs.
Belle continued. “Then we have Cruella de Vil. An eccentric former model and fashion designer, she’s active philanthropically in animal rights causes.” The image on the screen changed to a white-haired woman bundled in layers that should have overwhelmed her thin frame, but only seemed to accentuate it. “She’s adopted hundreds of dogs and has a shelter on her estate with two full-time petsitters. She’s well loved in the Paris community by everyone except her army of employees who have an average job expectancy of five months. We don’t want her taken out; we want her to believe that their third co-conspirator is responsible for Maleficent's death and have them engage in a costly power struggle. Once the smoke has cleared, C.R.O.W.N. will clear up the pieces.”
Jasmine was following the briefing intently, her striking brown eyes tracking the details that flashed on the screen next to the pictures of the Villain leaders.
“Last, but not least, is Hades. An underground kingpin, he is known to the Paris Police Department, but they haven’t been able to make anything stick. I’ve forwarded you the relevant files but it’s up to you to figure out a plan. It has to be seamless and coordinated. You’re off-book for this one, so as far as anyone else at C.R.O.W.N. is concerned, you don’t exist.” Belle finished.
Mulan could feel her blood rise at the challenge the situation presented. She could already feel the pieces of a workable plan come together in her mind.
Most of the world saw Aurora as a timid woman floating through life from daydream to daydream. Most of the world had never seen her on a mission. Aurora, grim determination on her face, ran lightly up the stairwell, until she paused at the second floor from the top. She dropped a small matchbook with the name Elysium into a corner with just a touch of the green cover showing. Adjusting the weight of the case at her side, she continued to run up the stairs until she reached the roof, legs tingling with the exertion.
The roof was empty and the glorious skyline of Paris was spread out in front of her. The Eiffel Tower was blocked by a series of taller buildings to her left, but the Tower was superfluous in a city filled with wonders and the heavy weight of history. The Seine glittered below her and she could see Parisians and tourists cross the white bridges under the watchful eyes of statues, avoiding each other as if out of embarrassment. None of them looked up. No one ever looked up, Aurora had found.
The sniper took one last look at the beautiful city before she set down the case and started to assemble her rifle. She vowed she’d come back one day for fun, but first she had to shoot a woman in the face. From the sounds of it, Maleficent had it coming. She wouldn’t lose any sleep over this hit.
She could hear bells toll in the distance as she finished assembling her rifle, each movement clinical and precise. Maleficent would be getting into her limo at around midnight which meant Aurora had half an hour to spare. All that was left was the waiting. She let herself go into her mental palace of stillness and waited, every sense attuned but not strained. She relaxed into her pose, still as the rooftop around her.
Finally, at 12:03, Maleficent walked out of her expensive apartment building, purse in one hand, cell phone in the other. She strolled between two bodyguards, beefy men in suits who were blithely unaware of their future unemployment status and the world that existed above their eye-level.
“Sword, this is Spindle. Permission to fire?”
“Permission granted,” Mulan said, her voice calm and soothing on the other end of the line.
Aurora squeezed the trigger once. The leader of the Villains went down, a neat red hole in the center of her forehead and a red spray on the sidewalk beneath her. Aurora ducked out of sight from the street, disassembled her rifle as neatly as she had put it together, set the components back in their case and disappeared back into the stairwell. A pigeon swooped down to the rooftop she had just vacated. It was like she’d never been there at all.
Snow twirled under the flickering lights of Hades’ nightclub, moving her hips smoothly. She had just had a heated argument with her “girlfriend” Jasmine, who had stormed out of the club in a rage. Snow acted like any other young woman angry at a lover, dancing aggressively with one partner after the next. Her dark hair had been let loose and she wore a shimmery blue top and a pale yellow miniskirt. According to their files, she was exactly one of Hades’ henchman’s types. Sure enough, the henchman in question descended from the top floor of the club and joined her on the dance floor. Less than thirty minutes later, they were having a drunken heart to heart in a late-night pizza place.
“And my boss is the worst. The worst. He’s all Jean Normal one minute, and raging hellfire the next.” The henchman had already downed two drinks, supplemented by the extra servings of alcohol Snow had added when he wasn’t looking. Had he had critical information, he would be telling her everything. Unfortunately, he was not the focus of this mission.
“I know exactly what you mean. I have a demanding boss as well,” Snow said sympathetically, her words being caught by the mike she wore inside her bra.
Jasmine, manning the van, had to laugh in agreement. Mulan ignored the jibe.
Snow continued, head tilted to the side as she looked into the henchman’s eyes with every appearance of sincerity. “I’m a model and I got booked for Cruella de Vil’s show. At first I thought it was a dream come true, but now? Let’s just say this is the first real food I’ve eaten in weeks. Thank you.” Snow smiled widely at the dazzled man, then leaned forward and took a bite of pizza with relish.
The henchman had sobered up abruptly at the mention of Cruella de Vil. “You work for her, huh? What brought you to the club?”
“My ex-girlfriend wanted to go clubbing,” Snow started. “And I overheard de Vil talking about this place and the man who runs it. She hates it and him. She even has a plan to run him out of business!” Snow laughed. “So I came to spite her.”
The henchman paled. “I’m sorry, but I need to go. There’s something I remembered to do.” He put enough Euros on the table to buy the pizza several times over and sped to the door without looking back.
Snow sat back and ate the rest of her pizza slice. Damn, she was good at her job.
Cinderella pushed her cleaning cart along the thinly carpeted office corridor. Some undercover agents liked to befriend marks to get information, and while Cinder could do that, she preferred to mix with the custodial staff. Cities ran on the janitors, cleaning ladies and garbage men. Thankfully most of her marks had forgotten that fact, if they had ever learnt it. Put on a uniform and mask of deference and she was suddenly invisible to the wealthy of the world. Her current name tag said Ilene, but it could read I Am Here To Steal Your Secrets and de Vil, had she been in the building this late, would probably just walk on by.
This mission was strictly non-violent; she had been tasked with hacking de Vil’s network for any information on the Villains and leaving a few bugs behind for Jasmine. Nevertheless, she had a blade hidden in her mop and one of her cleaning bottles contained an acid that was effective against steel, wood and flesh. Cinder liked to be prepared.
She moved quickly through the cubicles, seeing her colleagues put her quickness down to youthful enthusiasm with wry shakes of their heads when they thought she couldn’t see. They moved at a slower pace, conserving their energy for the next day and the next. Cinder had no such constraints, and made it to de Vil’s office with time to spare before she was due on the next floor. She left her cleaning cart next to the nearest bathroom and slipped into the dark office. It was minimalist, appointed with black and white furnishings, including the ugliest sculpture Cinder had ever seen. Made of shiny black plastic, it looked like a cross between a towel rack and a squid. It also made an excellent place to hide her first bug. The bug, a dark circle against the pale skin of her thumb, went on quickly and smoothly, impossible to spot unless you knew it was there.
Cinder padded across the floor until she was at de Vil’s desk, and slipped the USB Jasmine had given her into the computer, which the Villain had left carelessly at the office. Ears pricked for anyone approaching, she put one bug in Cruella’s desk lamp and another inside the cover of a book that looked like it had never been opened. Just as she finished placing the last bug, she could see movement from the corner of her eye. Outside the office two men were moving, blurry shapes through the glass door of de Vil’s office. The flashlights and dark clothing screamed security. Cinder moved slowly, so as not to draw their eyes, until she was under the table. The door opened, and Cinder blessed Jasmine for making gadgets that neither blinked nor beeped. The USB nestled in de Vil’s laptop was dull and unremarkable.
One man walked around the room, his heavy treads sending small vibrations through the floor. Cinder held her breath, afraid even the smallest movement would give her away. The man kept walking and shut the door to the office behind him. She could hear him tell the start of a dirty joke to his colleague. She exhaled in relief as their footsteps got fainter and fainter, but waited two minutes before she slipped out of the office and returned to her cleaning cart. Job done, she took out her mop and went back to work. Her temporary co-workers only had thirty more minutes to clean the place, after all.
The surveillance van was a tight fit for Mulan and her team, the smell of coffee warring with the aroma of pastry from a local bakery. Jasmine shushed the women around her as she listened to the bugs that Cinder had planted in de Vil’s office. She pulled her headphones out of their jack, and the argument between de Vil and Hades could be heard from the speakers of Jasmine’s computer as clearly as if the team were in the room with them.
“Who did you hire to kill Maleficent? Must have dug deep into your pocketbooks to have it done by someone other than your usual thugs, you backstabbing son of a bitch.” De Vil talked over Hades’ spluttering. “Not to mention your poor taste in clothing screams untrustworthy, darling.” There was an audible sniff from de Vil. “You need to resign from the board immediately. Keep your grubby criminal empire but you are finished with the Villains. I knew we could never trust a criminal like you.”
“As opposed to a criminal like you?” Hades asked, finding his voice, heavy sarcasm overwhelming the oiliness in his voice. “It was a clumsy frame job. Your accusations tell me that you’re either too stupid to see that or it was you all along. Either way the Villains will be better in my hands. You want a fight? I’ll give you one.”
“Mission accomplished,” Cinder said smugly, unperturbed by her position wedged between Snow and the van door.
Mulan watched her team exchange high fives in the cramped van. A small red icon flickered on Mulan’s phone. She dialed voicemail and put her phone to her ear. As she listened she grew paler and paler.
"Code Purple, repeat Code Purple. This call is being monitored by hostile forces. It's C.R.O.W.N, we're being overrun," Belle said. It sounded like she was whispering into her headset. "Flipper and I are destroying the files before we get out. If we make it, meet you at The Castle at time Happily Ever After.”