This story is based (in parts) on my previous stories and 'Dunn and Dusted' by ThiessenClocks. I recommend reading those first.
The Whale Trap
"Hey there!" The cheerful greeting cut through the backdrop of conversations in the moderately full cafeteria. The man with the British accent didn't ask if he was welcome, but the woman sitting alone at the corner table didn't tell him off either, so he set down his tray and took a seat. "I haven't seen you since Russia. Where have you been?"
"Hi, Benji," Elaine Bray said and the other agent thought he could hear a silent sigh behind the words. She shrugged and looked back onto her plate, listlessly poking the smoked salmon omelette, while Agent Dunn dug into his own food with great appetite.
The cafeteria at IMF's D.C. headquarters served all kinds of meals at any hour to accommodate analysts working with different time-zones and agents arriving with a jet-lag, as well as the occasional R&D scientist with eccentric working hours and the round-the-clock staff of the hospital wing. And their cooking was excellent.
"Debriefing, psych-evaluation, rehab, physical fitness test, drug screening. Not necessarily in that order," she muttered. "You?"
Benji decided to omit that he had completed another mission since they had last met. Although they had passed their field exam together roughly two and a half years ago, while he had quickly become a top agent, her mission count, by no fault of her own, was still one. And even that only unofficially.
"For almost eight weeks?" he asked incredulously.
Elaine nodded silently, chewing on a bite of her omelette. "They kept me in isolation ever since we came back," she snorted. "I thought they'd have me go through field training again. Actually I think they would have, if I hadn't been busted out this morning."
Benji almost choked on his food. "Why on earth would they do that?"
"Because I've been out there on my own for over two years," she shrugged. "You know what happened in that time better than I do, and they can't prove what I've been up to in the meantime. So naturally they don't trust me."
"But you're still a field agent. And they've got to give you at least a little credit for St. Petersburg," Benji protested. "Granted, some people are a bit more paranoid since the CIA affair, but what you just told me still sounds insane. I've never heard that happen to anyone."
The other agent regarded him levelly. "There's people out there who think I should never have passed my field exam. And they know I'd never manage it a second time."
"Oh, that's bullshit!" Benji blurted out, then realised he was almost shouting. He took a deep breath and attempted to change the topic. "Well, you did get out of there. So what are you up to now?"
"Someone drafted me for a mission."
"That sounds great!" Benji cheered, but earned a frown in return.
"I don't know who got me out, but that order must have come from very high up," she said. "Like secretary-level high."
"So?" Benji asked.
Elaine gave him a dry chuckle. "I guess I'm just no comfortable with that kind of favouritism," she grumbled. "Then again you know what they say about gift horses."
Benji nodded and decided to drop the topic. "That mission," he asked instead. "Are you going to Scotland, by any chance?"
"For now I'm going to room 207," Elaine said. "And then I guess I'll see where it's going from there on.
"Well, what a coincidence," Benji said with a full on grin.
Skye was tired and hungry, but mostly happy as she walked into IMF headquarters. It had been almost a month since she had set out from here on a supposedly short routine observation mission which had stretched into over four weeks, turning up more and more leads that lead to more and more nothing.
It had been almost twice as long since she had last seen Benji, except for one night in between missions they had spent together, but mostly asleep from jet-lag. Probably it was this which had driven her into the doubtful decision to accept another mission right away and leave Jane Carter to watch their target until she'd be relieved by some more junior agents.
With a smile Skye stepped into the cafeteria. If Benji was already in the building, she would likely find him here. Also she was ravenously hungry. After she had gotten the call, she had taken the next flight back and therefore missed both dinner and breakfast. And the food on the commercial airliner had not made up for either.
She yawned as she got in line. Turbulence and little children hadn't left much chance for sleep. But as much as she generally preferred to fly herself, she was glad she had had at least a little nap time. Still, she picked up a large cup of coffee with her scrambled eggs, before she set out to look for Benji.
And she found him, sitting at a corner table, talking to someone. It took Skye a moment to realise that the someone was a woman. And whatever she had just said, Benji was grinning widely. He was obviously having fun. Without her.
Skye knew it shouldn't be a problem. It probably wasn't anything. But right now she didn't want to have to talk to someone she didn't know. And Benji hadn't spotted her yet, so she turned around and looked for an empty table, to eat her breakfast alone.
"Hey, man. Good to see you back on your feet."
Before Ethan could resist, Luther had caught the smaller man in a teddy-bear hug. "It's good to be back," he replied once Luther let him go again. "Although things could have started off a bit easier."
"I'm sure it's gonna be a breeze," Luther replied and gave him a light slap on the shoulder before he took a seat.
The conference room was relatively small with a half-round table standing in the middle. Four chairs lined the rounded side facing the door and Luther had chosen the one by the wall on Ethan's right. Benji already occupied one of the middle chairs, vividly talking to Agent Bray who sat on his right, effectively facing Luther.
Ethan noted that her hair was shorter than when he had last seen her, standing up in a dark blond hedgehog. She was wearing a dark hooded sweater that left a lot to imagination. Although the line of chairs formed a circle, it seemed as if she was sitting in a corner. Ethan had the distinct impression that she was trying to blend in with the wall and she was watching him warily.
He gave her an encouraging smile when the door opened. Skye entered, carrying a cup of coffee and an exhausted expression. She exchanged a half-hearted looking hug with Benji, before she sat down on the last empty chair between him and Luther.
Ethan greeted her with a nod, which she promptly returned. "I think you haven't met Agent Bray yet," he introduced the other woman. "Elaine Bray, Skye Holt."
The women exchanged a brisk nod, while Ethan switched on the display. The picture of a golden whale inlaid with intricate silver patterns and glittering stones appeared on the screen behind him. "This is the Virtanen Whale, named after Esa Virtanen, the Finnish artist who made it in 1952," he explained. "It's currently on display in the Inverdun Castle Museum. During the Cold War the Whale was used as a Letterbox for spies, they would drop messages through the blow-hole into the hollow interior of the Whale, which would later be retrieved by an operative. Afterwards left on display in the museum, since there was no reason to suspect anyone knew about it. However its most recent owner, Alan Baird, died two months ago and his heirs have decided to auction off his collection. Several private collectors have declared interest in the whale, among them Felix van Hauenstein, who said he's willing to pay a large sum for it."
The picture on the screen switched to a slender, red-haired man with the very professional smile mostly used by journalists. "Hold on," Benji asked. "Isn't that the guy who bought the NOC-list in Seattle?"
"Yes," Ethan confirmed. "Hauenstein started out as a reporter in the late 80s, but since then has moved on to buying and selling information. We don't know what, if any, intel might still be contained in the whale. But any material that might still be there could not only prove dangerous, but also contradict the information from the Seattle list, which would effectively put him on our trail. Our mission is to make sure that whatever information is still stored in the Virtanen Whale will not fall into Hauenstein's, or anyone else's hands."
"I've always wanted to do a museum heist," Luther grinned.
"Not quite a heist though," Ethan answered. "It's imperative that Hauenstein does not know we were involved. We cannot let him get on our track. Our advantage is that Virtanen made two exactly identical copies of the whale, so it could easily be exchanged by operatives. And we currently have that second whale."
"Well, that sounds easy," Benji put in cheerfully and earned a slightly pained look from Ethan in return. "What's the catch?"
"This." The image switched to a three-dimensional schematic of a square room with a high vaulted ceiling and a tall square showcase in the middle. "This is the room where the whale is on display. It's the only sculpture in the room, but the walls are lined with pictures. There are motion sensors along the full length of the wall at 50, 100, 150 and 200 centimetres height, and around the pedestal of the showcase at 50 and 100 centimetres height. Also there is a thin metal grid inlaid in the wall and the glass of the showcase, conducting a weak electrical current, not strong enough to cause harm to a person, but sufficient to be altered by a human's inherent electromagnetic field. If anyone comes with in 10centimetres of the sensors or touches the wall or the side-panels of the showcase, metal poles are lowered from the ceiling, 30 centimetres from the walls, spaced 5 cm apart."
In the schematic, thin cylinders shot downwards, forming two squares within the room.
"These bars can only be disengaged by using two key-cards and the matching security pass-codes. The only exception are the ones at the doors, for those only one key-card has to be swiped outside of the room. The whole system is on a very straight-forward stand-alone circuit and virtually impervious to hacking," Ethan continued. "The bigger problem however will be time. The auction is going to be in two days, and until then we will have to have made the switch. However a gala is going to be held tomorrow, in honour of Baird, who also was a major benefactor of the museum, and that's when we're going in. It's going to start in roughly 24 hours."
"Stupid question," Benji interjected, raising his hand like a school kid. "Why don't we just go in at night?"
"Because until the auction there will likely be more night-guards posted. We cannot do anything that might point to a possible break-in, and we won't get past them without knocking them out. Also over night all of this will be in place permanently," Ethan explained, pointing at the cage-like structure in the schematic. "However we have a few advantages. For one the room with the whale can only be accessed by two corridors connecting it to the main hall. Both of those will be blocked during the party, one by the buffet, the other by a stage. However there is a network of tunnels underneath the castle. All of the outside access-points have been blocked, but there is one maintenance access in the court yard and several old exits within the castle, including one in the room with the whale. This will be our point of entry, and we can also store our gear there. Also Zhen Lei and William Brandt are already in place. Zhen will be disguised as waiting staff. She will be responsible for getting our whale in and the other whale out. Brandt will be teaming up with Skye to impersonate Mr. and Mrs. Olden, Count and Countess of Tor."
The screen switched to a grainy, slightly blurry picture of a blond woman with unremarkable features, the face enhanced in its plainness by cleverly applied make-up. Behind her stood a man in a suit, one arm around her shoulders. His hair was not quite short and might have been blond or brown, his face casting sharp shadows onto itself, giving it a slightly distorted appearance.
"Harriette Olden's family is old British nobility, but she is the last heir of the family title and small family fortune. David Olden used to be an American ambassador, but he left the diplomatic service after marrying Harriette. They are both long-time benefactors of the museum and good friends with Alan Baird and George Rowland, the museum director. They are both rather shy of the public and they know of our operations, and IMF has used them before," he explained.
"Skye, your main job as Harriette Olden will be to relieve George Rowland of his key-card," Ethan continued and the screen switched to an elderly man with slightly dishevelled grey hair framing a largely bald head, a warm smile, and round, gold-rimmed glasses, wearing a chequered tweed jacked over a blue shirt, and a bow-tie with pineapples on it. "As museum director he has full security access, and we will need his card to get into the tunnels. Once you have the card you will pass it to Brandt, who will meet up with the rest of us in the underground network."
Skye nodded, and Hunt switched the picture back to the schematic.
"The room is roughly six by six meters wide, so our effective safe space to work in will be just over two meters on the sides," he explained. "We can't get into the showcase from the sides, so we'll have to come from above. There are no vent-shafts or other access-points in the ceiling, so we will be using a three-point rope-rig, which will be anchored in the ceiling here, here and here."
Ethan pointed at three of the round spots in the ceiling where the metal bars were concealed and they lit up red, forming a roughly equilateral triangle. "In the lowest of these spots the ceiling is four meters high, the showcase has a height of two and a half meters, that means we have just under one and a half meters of vertical working space above it," he continued, while in the schematic three humanoid figures appeared underneath the marked spots. Lines grew from them to the ceiling, meeting in the middle of the triangle, where another figure appeared. "Benji, you, me and Brandt will be taking the ground stations. Agent Bray will take the trapeze part."
Bray nodded, but next to her Dunn raised his hand again. "Hold on," he said. "With the ropes anchored in there, if we accidentally set of the security system, we're really screwed."
"Yes," Ethan admitted. "But we don't know how secure the stone ceiling is. We know the holes for the security bars have been reinforced and we can't risk accidentally damaging any supporting structures. This is the only way."
"So just don't touch anything," Luther smirked. "Where do I come in?"
"You'll be working communications. We'll need to loop the security cameras in and around the target room and someone to watch our backs in case anyone comes in," Ethan elaborated. He knew that even with a heads-up anyone walking in on them would probably shoot their plans to hell, but so did everyone sitting around the table, so he decided not to mention it.
"That's the plan in rough terms," Ethan continued and started distributing folders. "You'll find the details in here. Any questions?"
There was a pause while Hunt looked at each of the other agents in turn, but no one raised an objection. "Alright, our plane leaves in two hours," he concluded the meeting. When everyone got up to leave, he motioned at Benji to stay.
"You know Agent Bray?" Ethan asked.
The Brit shrugged. "We've been in field training together."
Hunt nodded and took a seat. "What can you tell me about her?"
"Well, I know she's been working in the labs before field training, chemistry department. That's where we first met," Benji replied with a frown, suddenly realizing that knowing someone could be very relative. He smiled apologetically. "She doesn't exactly talk much."
"And neither does her file," Ethan murmured, then sighed. "I thought maybe you could give me a picture of what she's like to work with."
Benji thought for a moment. "Passable language skills, as far as I know. Not so good with computers. It's not that she's bad, she's got the intuitive thinking, more like she's lacking the knowledge," he started to explain. "Tough fighter. Creative approaches to problem-solving. Her methods can be a bit brute-force, but she makes it work. Good medical training. But not very, well, social."
Hunt nodded thoughtfully, then smiled. "Alright," he said. "Thanks."
Benji returned the nod and was about to get up, then he decided against it. "You requested her for this mission, right?" he asked, and when the other agent answered in the affirmative, he added: "Why?"
"She's a good fit for this mission. And I want to see what she can do."
Benji bit his lip, then asked the question that had been bugging him the whole time: "Is it true they kept her in solitary?"
"Yes," Ethan answered thoughtfully. There was a tiny edge in his voice that made it sound troubled, when he suddenly looked up. "What do you know?"
It could have been an accusation, but Benji decided Hunt was only gathering information. And he did sound troubled. Like he was missing something, a potentially important piece of a bigger picture. Dunn found he was starting to worry, too.
"Elaine told me earlier. She said there's people in the IMF who don't want her in the field," he said and shrugged, indicating that was all he knew. "And of course there's the rumours."
"I've never paid much attention to them. To be honest, I think they're all ridiculous," Benji admitted. "But there's been stories going around for years. That she's some sort of criminal, or an assassin, or spying on us. That she's murdered people. That that's why they wouldn't let her in the field." He shrugged. "People come up with a lot of shit when they're bored and I always thought they're just picking on her because she doesn't fight back."
Ethan nodded again, and sat in silence for a moment. Then he suddenly asked: "Do you trust her?"
Benji realised that this was not the rhetoric question it had first felt like. Although Ethan was quite capable of forming his own opinion, and had probably already come to at least a preliminary conclusion, he was asking Dunn for his view, ready to put at least some trust on his judgement. And for a moment he wondered if the answer to this question was as clear as it had seemed at first.
But then he pushed the doubt away. Elaine Bray was a field agent like him. Disregarding the rumours he had no reason to not trust her, and the rumours were just that, lacking any substantial proof. Benji put as much confidence into his voice as he could, when he answered: "Yes."