Part I:French Riviera
Down the Rabbit Hole
"But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'
'How do you know I'm mad?' said Alice.
'You must be,' said the Cat, 'or you wouldn't have come here.'"
-- Lewis Carroll
Tresser watched Vertigo do a line of cocaine off the glass coffee table. They were in the opulent cabin on Vertigo’s yacht somewhere near Saint-Tropez. Vertigo snorted and rubbed his nose before shaking his head and collapsing back on the wall white leather couch.
“Careful,” said Tresser. “Too much and you won’t be able to get hard.”
Vertigo chuckled and grabbed his crotch.
“No need to worry, Tresser. For me, getting hard is so easy.”
Tresser resisted the urge to roll his eyes. With his accent and gaudy jewelry, Vertigo was the perfect picture of Eurotrash. He was from some small Eastern European country, a deposed noble who clung to his title of count like a drowning man clings to a life raft. Regardless of his boorishness, the title at least granted him some partial entrée into the European upperclass.
“How are our friends in New York, Tresser?”
Tresser shrugged. “The Campisis send their love, boss.”
“I can’t spend fucking love. What about their money?”
“I took care of it,” Tresser said with a slight sigh. “It wasn’t easy, but I think Angelo learned the hard way not to fuck with people with enough weapons to supply a standing army.”
Vertigo laughed and started to chop together another line with his black credit card.
“This is good shit,” Vertigo said after doing another line. “I need you back to America, Tresser. A potential business client will need wooing. You know of this Hub City?”
“Vaguely. It’s a real shit-hole.”
“Who cares?” Vertigo asked with a shrug. “Money spends regardless of where it comes from.”
Vertigo stood while Tresser started for the deck of the yacht. Two beautiful women in slinky dresses came from the cabin downstairs and wrapped their arms around Vertigo’s waist. He chuckled and said something to them in French, something that made them laugh, but not too hard do that they sounded disingenuous. That was the difference between top dollar call girls and the cheap ones.
“Call me when you are in Hub City and have made contact,” Vertigo said as he pulled his eyes away from the two hookers. “We’ll go from there.”
Tresser started to walk away as the two women began to undress.
Tresser swiped his credit card and bought twenty-four hours worth of time on the airport locker. He placed a simple smartphone inside the locker and closed it up. Tradecraft dictated that someone would be by within the next day to collect the phone. The phone was only capable of data storage. On it was Tresser’s report on his movements over the last month.
Per the op guidelines, he never wrote anything down or left any evidence of his true identity where Vertigo could find them. He always bought a brand new laptop before boarding a plane. While in the air and cut off from almost all digital signals he would write up a report, put it on the dummy phone, and destroy the laptop's hard drive soon after landing.
The report chronicled Tresser’s activities in New York City, along with the meeting Vertigo and Tresser in Turin with some real-life Italian mobsters. It seemed Vertigo was eager to get in bed with 'Ndrangheta, one Europe’s oldest and most powerful criminal organization. If he could do that, then he’d really be playing in the big leagues. Maybe that would get him and Tresser in the room with the real people behind LEVIATHAN.
Tresser used his false passport and credit card to rent a car. Vertigo, for whatever reason, never wanted him to directly fly in to whatever city he was doing business in. He’d always fly into the next closest city and drive the distance. That worked fine in Europe, but in parts of the Americas and Eastern Europe it could eat up a whole day just driving.
The little red compact car was his chosen vehicle and he hit the interstate, a sign announcing that Hub City was a few hundred miles away.
The lobby of the office building wasn’t much to look at. But then again, Hub City itself wasn’t much to look at. If you could imagine all the worse parts of Detroit and Chicago without any of those redeeming qualities, you got Hub. Treser had only been here once or twice, and only then he was just passing through to a bigger and better city.
When the man he was here to see finally let him into his office, it was as dumpy as Tresser was expecting. A few bookshelves half filled, cheap desk and cheaper computer. It looked like a CPA’s office. The man who occupied this office would never been expected to work with international arms dealers.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said with a smile. “The surroundings are the point. No flash, no cash, no suspicions.’
He was middle aged, white with greying hair, and his suit was off the rack. A pair of reading glasses resting on the bridge of his nose helped with the CPA illusion. Tresser sat down across the desk from the man.
“You’re awfully trusting,” said Tresser. “To just invite me in to your office like this.”
“You’ve been vetted,” he said. “You and your boss are the real deal. Plus, if you are something like a cop I’m not too concerned. This office and the company who leases it are all registered in fake names. Shell companies within shell companies. I have many names, but nobody knows my real one. If you want to call me anything, you can call me Broker.”
“Okay, Broker. So why are you in need of my services?”
“Guns are my business. The past twenty years I’ve been selling weapons to the gangs in Chicago. Do you watch the news, Mr…”
“Thomas,” said Tresser. “Call me Thomas. And, no, I don’t want the news a lot. I prefer things with happy endings.”
“Right,” Broker said with a chuckle. “If you watched the news you’d see about Chicago. Politicians love to talk about the violence in the city, despite the strict gun laws. It’s a conservative talking point at this point. The problem with that talking point is that as strict as Chicago is with their laws, it doesn’t make a bit of fucking difference. It’s surrounded by Indiana and Michigan, places you can get a gun with no problem. So I buy guns in both states with straw purchasers, completely legal people who always pass background checks. Then I file the numbers off the guns and sell them to people in Chicago at double the amount I paid for them.”
Tresser tried his best to looked impressed. Broker was just another one of a long list of motherfuckers he wished he could put through a wall. The ops objective wasn’t to stop the influx of guns and violence in America. As fucked up as Vertigo’s business was, Tresser’s handler just saw it as a means to an end. They had no intention of shutting it down until Tresser could get intel on LEVIATHAN.
“It sounds like a pretty solid business,” said Tresser. “So why change it up?”
“I want to expand,” said Broker. “Into the other big cities in the midwest. Detroit, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Kansas City. I can’t do that with simple straw purchases. I need to up my supply to meet the incoming demand.”
“That’s where we come in, right?”
“I’ll have to touch base with my boss,” said Tresser. “But I think we can do business, Mr. Broker. Tell me what your needs are, and we’ll do our best to fulfill them.”
Tresser pulled his gun from the shoulder holster the second he walked into his motel room. There was supposed to be a splinter wedged in the doorjamb. He’d left it there after he went out to meet Broker.
He saw the figure sitting in the dark beside the lamp. It snapped on and he breathed a sigh of relief. His handler, Sarge Steel, had a jovial grin on his face. Even with the cool weather outside, Steel still wore shorts and flip flops.
“Read your report this morning,” he said with no preamble. “Forwarded the information about the mobsters over to Justice. Hopefully the FBI will be up on them in no time.”
“Why the fuck are you in my room?” Tresser asked as he holstered his gun.
“We needed to talk, ASAP. Can’t do it over the phone. Stopping you in the street would look suspicious as hell.”
Tresser sat down on the lumpy bed and faced Steel. The bed groaned slightly and sagged under his weight.
“What’s so important?”
“Your friend, Broker,” said Steel. “I assume your meeting with him went well.”
“It did,” said Tresser. “And how do you know about him already?”
Steel pulled a smartphone from his pocket and started to scroll through it in silence. When he found what he wanted, he passed it to Tresser. A mugshot of Broker was on the screen. A SHIELD logo in the corner of the photo.
“He’s on the government’s radar already. And I think you’re being led into a trap.”