Monday, April 25, 2016

The Málaga Connection

Red Line Corporate Solutions is a company formed by a group of former intelligence operatives who now conduct covert missions for the highest bidder. Spies for hire, if you will. Current employees include:

Natasha Avram, former Russian government assassin. Wears a lot of leather. Driven by money. Possible sociopath.
Sten Brodrington, ace driver who is a bit vague about which specific branch of British intelligence he worked for. He's looking for direction and purpose in life, or at least that's what he says.
Max Fischer, German investigator with a mysterious past. A little twitchy. He's hoping for some sort of redemption.
Carmel Shaked, Israeli break-and-enter specialist with a bit of a nationalistic streak. Carmel has had enough of secrets and lies.

All of them have secrets, and all of them have seen or heard something that makes them think there's something strange going on in the criminal-slash-intelligence underworld of Europe.

These suspicions are confirmed on the 11th of May 2014 when Carmel receives an encrypted email from No one has heard of "Hopkins"; it's not a name any of their current or former contacts has used, but he or she seems to know both about the Red Line team and those strange events that the team have either witnessed or heard about. The email does just enough to grab their interest, then ends with:

If you want answers, find out what happened to Ibáñez Security Solutions.
- H

The Red Line team know of Ibáñez. They are in the same line of work and they have met at least three members of the ISS team at, er, "security consultant conferences" over the years. None of the Red Line team members can think of anything that strikes them as unusual about ISS, and a quick bit of online research turns up the names of the company's five registered employees, a business address in Málaga in Spain, and telephone numbers and social media contacts.

Carmel goes a bit further and hacks into the company's email server, and discovers that there is no activity at all for about the last two weeks. There is some discussion of a new job -- but no details on the job -- and then nothing. Carmel tries calling the ISS office and gets through to an answering machine.

The Red Line team decides to head to Málaga as soon as possible. While some of the team pack for the trip, the others sort out vehicles and lodging and make arrangements to land at a private airport just outside the Spanish city,. They leave their headquarters in Zurich and Sten has a bit of a wobble as he flies their plane south, but they arrive safe and sound in the late afternoon.

Malagueta panorámicaThe team settles in for the rest of the evening and plans their next move. As night falls, they head over to the ISS office, in an older residential area of the city, set back from the busy, tourist-filled coastal region. They stop a good distance away and Natasha sends in a small drone to sweep the building; through the video feed the Russian notes that there seems to be no activity, but all the windows are obscured by blinds or shutters, so there is no way to see within. The team decides to take a closer look, in person, and Natasha is sent in to scout around.

As she approaches, Natasha spots not one but two people watching the ISS building. One sits in a car with a good view of the building, while the other lurks in an alleyway towards the opposite end of the street. Natasha guesses that the person in the alleyway is a woman from their smallish build but the Russian cannot make out the figure in the car; she does note that it's not a new model and looks well-used.

Natasha reports back to the rest of the Red Line team, and a brief discussion follows as they work out the best approach. A number of options are discussed but in the end they go with Max's suggestion of ignoring the watchers for now, and finding a way into the ISS building from the back. Carmel and Natasha sneak through alleyways and scramble over garden walls and find their way to the back door; the Israeli notices that the building is fitted with a good quality alarm system, but that it has been deactivated. She muses over this as she picks the lock and Natasha signals to Max and Sten that they have gained entry.

Inside, all is dark and quiet. The team search the building and discover a couple of concealed safes; Carmel takes about an hour to crack the first, and the long, quiet wait makes the team more and more nervous. Soon after, Carmel stumbles into and smashes a couple of wine bottles and Max hears a car pulling away outside, so they abandon stealth in favour of speed, and the second safe is opened with a drill. Meanwhile, the rest of the team look for clues. A laptop is discovered that seems to be fresh from the shop and contains no useful data -- Carmel has a sinking feeling that it has been planted and that even turning it on has alerted someone to their presence -- and the office answering machine seems to have had all messages deleted, aside from one earlier that day -- from Carmel -- and one on the 9th, in which no message was left, but English and and Spanish voices can be heard in the background.

Grabbing the contents of both safes, the team hurry out the way they came and stop to check the street, confirming that the car they spotted earlier has gone, as has the figure in the alley. A quick look at the alley reveals that whoever stood there was wearing trainers, but nothing more. The Red Line team rush back to their rented accommodation and look over what they have found. They have a selection of car number plates, registered to different European nations, bundles of cash in a number of popular currencies, and a few passports of various different nationalities; they recognise three of the faces as belonging to members of Ibáñez Security Solutions, but two are unknown to the Red Line team. None of the names are familiar, and the team conclude that the passports are for cover identities

Carmel hacks into the local police database and turns up an accident report from the 7th mentioning one of the ISS employees, Theodore Britton, being involved in a serious car crash near the border with Gibraltar. According to the report, Britton was taken to the nearest hospital, St Bernard's, just across the border. Sten poses as Theodore's brother and calls the hospital, and although the receptionist is surprised -- and a little disgusted -- that it has taken him five days to check on his brother, he tells Sten that Theodore is out of danger and is in a recovery ward. The Red Line team decide not to wait and to head straight to Gibraltar.

As they get ready to leave, they notice that they are again being surveilled and this time catch the watcher, hitting them with a taser and bundling them into the car before heading south. Their captive is a woman, familiar from some of the fake passports, and they conclude that she is the fifth member of ISS. They bind her hands and feet with gaffer tape and wake her up; after a bit of panic and distrust, she is convinced to talk and confirms that she is Katarina Bloch, a member of the Ibáñez team.

Katarina tells them that her team was also contacted by "Hopkins" and that three of them -- the three the Red Line team know; Bernard Lonsdale, Jan de Witt, and Rachel Perkins -- went to London to meet with the new contact. They brought a package back with them and Bernard and Theodore locked themselves away to study it. After a couple of days, Bernard left the package with Theodore and took Jan and Rachel back to London; Theodore and Katarina were to provide support from the office. Nothing was heard from the London team until the 7th, when a pre-arranged panic signal -- "There's a 'things have gone wrong' signal and a 'things have gone really wrong' signal, and this was the latter." -- was sent. Katarina and Theodore cleared out; Katarina went into hiding with some local contacts, while Theodore decided Gibraltar would be safer as he is a British citizen, so went south.

Katarina knows Theodore is in hospital in Gibraltar but thinks that if someone is after their team, he is safer if she doesn't go there. She records a video message for her colleague and gives it to the Red Line team; they drop her off at the next town before rushing off into the night.

Gibraltar aerial view looking northwestThere is some trouble at the border as the Red Line car is stopped by the Spanish police. They are held up for about half an hour by the search but have left their weapons back in Málaga so there is nothing of interest to find; the police do discover a set of combat knives but Max is able to convince the officer that they are used for hunting. Soon enough they are at St Bernard's Hospital and Carmel steals a couple of white coats and some medical paraphernalia while Sten whips up some quick fake identification cards; the disguise isn't perfect, but it gets the team into the building outside visiting hours, and they go looking for Theodore.

They find him up on the seventh floor and convince him that they are friendly, but as he points to the two bulky plaster casts on his legs, they realise it won't be as easy as they thought to get him out. Carmel goes to fetch a wheelchair and then the lights go out.

Oh dear.

The Red Line team switch into high gear, bundle Theodore into the chair and head for the lifts. So flustered are they that they don't pay attention and are surprised when they stumble into a tactical combat unit.

A tense standoff turns into a brawl as the Red Line team attempt to disarm their opponents and force them to surrender. Things don't go so well, and Sten is downed in a spray of bullets. Max looks around for some way to escape and sees the hallway behind them filling with mist. Out of the mist steps a man with fierce red eyes.

Oh dear.

One of the combat squad members panics and fires a burst from his sub-machine gun. The bullets hit but don't faze the newcomer. With the unidentified special operations squad distracted by the new arrival the Red Line team make a break for the lifts, even though it brings them closer to the horror advancing down the corridor. They are lucky and the lift is there, so they clamber in and as the doors close with agonising slowness Max catches a glimpse of the man glancing their way, those burning red eyes tinged with curiosity.

The lift descends and the Red Line team hear the terrible sound of the combat unit upstairs being torn into pieces. As they flee the building and head to their car, there is a crash of glass from above and Natasha is lucky not to be hit by the shredded remains of one of the operatives. Max looks up and is certain he sees a large black bat flutter out of the broken seventh floor window.

They head to the nearby marina and Carmel helps them break in unnoticed. They steal the fastest boat they can find and speed back to Málaga as the sun rises. Theodore takes them to where he hid the package from London, and they dig up a box containing a large bundle of annotated pages. They can't quite believe their eyes as they look at the first page:

by Bram Stoker

Next: to London!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Everything is broken. Everything is wrong. Except it isn't, and I know it isn't, but cold logic doesn't mean much when whatever this is, is happening. I feel a bit silly, because I know it's just chemicals, or worry, or something like that, and it shouldn't knock me down the way it has, but it has knocked me down, so I sort of have to accept it.

Is that defeatist? I don't know. It feels like it is, but at the same time, I know I'm at the mercy of forces beyond my immediate control.

I am rambling. I don't know what to say, but I needed to get some of this out of my head, and it's what blogs are for, after all. I don't like to write these personal posts, because it feels like self-promotion -- and how absurd is that feeling? -- and I'm so terrified of appearing arrogant or conceited that I always try to avoid talking about myself, but I do think that talking -- or at least writing, or typing, or whatever -- will help.

I'm not fishing for sympathy, and I am sincere when I say that I am sorry if what I'm writing here makes you uncomfortable, or isn't what you expect or want to see from me; as soon as this thing passes, then you'll see more of the content you're used to, I promise.

This will pass. It always does. Sometimes it goes away on its own, and sometimes I have to give it a kick and a shove, but it will pass.