January 1st 1968
M16 Safehouse, Norrland, Sweden
Janet van Dyne looked down at the corpse of Grigor Ivanovich Pchelintsov. An almost comical expression of surprise was frozen on the dead Ukrainian’s face, his slightly parted lips making a deflated O-shape. He was wearing a thick winter robe of traditional Norrland-make, the quilted fabric stained red with blood from where a bullet had entered underneath his chin. In his right hand, he still clutched the Tokarev semi-automatic pistol that Janet could only assume he used to commit the deed.
“Don’t recognize you,” a voice called out to Janet in a thick Geordie accent. “A new hire on the photography unit?”
Janet sighed and turned around.
The voice belonged to a stocky middle-aged man dressed in a heavy winter coat. The thick curls of his blonde beard caked with snow from the flurries that had started this morning. Janet had worked long enough to know when someone was analyzing her, and she could feel the man’s emotionless grey eyes take all of her in. His left hand was clenched around what Janet could reasonably guess was his service weapon, and those grey eyes were just waiting for her to give him an excuse to shoot. Slow and deliberate, Janet pulled her SHIELD credentials from her own jacket pocket and handed them over.
“SHIELD,” the man snorted. “I didn’t know they were hiring girlies with legs.”
“My people should have told you I was coming.” Janet replied curtly as she ignored the urge to kick her new conversation mate in the balls.
“Mike Selwyn, MI6 Station Chief. Apologies that we didn’t meet you with the red-carpet Princess, but as you can see, we have our hands full.” Selwyn explained dismissively gesturing to Pchelintsov’s corpse.
Janet had worked with men like Mike Selwyn her entire life. The hyper-masculine thunderer whose entire way of life was intimately threatened by women like Janet entering the workforce. The SHIELD training camp was full of them, but Janet was the one on special assignment and not toiling away at some no-name post somewhere. The secret Janet had found was to handle things like two bucks, you had to smash your antlers together as soon as possible.
“All I see Selwyn,” countered Janet making sure that every syllable dripped with venom. “Is that the asset I was supposed to interrogate is dead, and that you let it happen.”
Janet watched as the muscles in Selwyn’s face twitched behind his beard. The barb was cruel, Selwyn was undoubtedly already feeling the heat from his superiors over this fuckup. You let a recently flipped asset like Pchelintsov die, and sooner then you could blink there would already be a committee looking to get you demoted to bathroom attendant. Janet in turn could lean on that fear to remind Selwyn that he needed more friends than enemies right now.
“And what,” Selwyn asked as he straightened his posture and took on a much more professional tone. “Would you have me do to remedy this inconvenience.”
“Let me help you find out what happened to Pchelintsov.”
Selwyn looked between Pchelintsov’s body and Janet three times before nodding his head in agreement.
“How much do you know?” He asked.
“Only as much as your people have told us.”
Janet went on to explain how SHIELD had received notification from their MI6 contacts about a recently flipped Pchelintsov. The Ukrainian had been tucked away in a safehouse in Norrland awaiting debriefing and further transportation, and that due to prior services rendered that SHIELD, through Janet, would have the first pass at extraction of any information.
“You privileged to tell what you SHIELD folks wanted him for?” Selwyn asked as he slipped on a pair of gloves and crouched down next to the corpse.
“Agent went AWOL. He was our only lead,” replied Janet as she crouched down next to Selwyn.
She chose not to tell Selwyn that the Agent in question was Doctor Hank Pym, one of the world’s smartest men and her sometimes lover. SHIELD had managed to keep the fact that the “Ant-Man” was currently missing from almost everyone including most of their own organization. As the war pulled ahead in Vietnam, keeping morale up was the priority and vanishing superheroes did the opposite. It only took a few whispers in the wrong place for the rumor mill to start, and soon after something ridiculous like “Government superhero joins the Vietcong” would be on the front page of every tabloid in the West.
If Selwyn noticed Janet’s reservations, he did not comment on them. The MI6 agent gingerly took the dead Ukrainian’s head in his massive pawlike hands and tilted it forward so that he could get a better look at the entrance wound. He squinted down and gestured with a thumb towards a patch of pinkish skin near the wound.
“Burn marks,” Selwyn observed. “Either from the muzzle flash or from touching the barrel right after firing, either way that only happens with intimate contact.”
Janet nodded as she looked further down at Pchelintsov’s hands.
“No obvious bruising around the wrists either,” Janet added as she gestured with her head. “And no broken fingers. Nothing to suggest that somebody forced him to pull the trigger.”
“So,” Selwyn shook his head. “the perpetrator either shoved the barrel right up against his throat and fired, or the son of a bitch really did shoot himself.”
“You don’t think he could’ve done it?”
“I’ve seen Pchelinstov’s type. The Poor bastard made a lot of bad decisions in life. He did not just want out, but he wanted a way to redeem himself. Men like that do not just shoot themselves before they have a chance to repent.”
“Maybe he already did.”
“Not like we sent a priest his way. Besides, we sure as hell didn’t leave a Torkarev with him.”
Despite Selwyn’s confidence, Janet still was not sure she was not looking at a suicide. She took a breath and looked away from Pchelintsov’s body at the entirety of the crime scene.
The cabin looked like a mess: a wooden table flipped over, a toppled bookshelf with its various contents scattered across the place, the blankets had been ripped off Pchelintsov’s bed, and ashes from the central fireplace were scattered across the floor. The wooden wall directly behind Pchelintsov splintered, the final resting place of the killing bullet after it left the Ukrainian’s skull. The chaos around the cabin looked like a convincing simulacrum of a struggle. However, the lack of obvious non-fatal wounds on Pchelintsov made Janet doubt that any of it happened until after he died, but why would somebody want to make it look like they had killed a man? None of it made sense.
“Did you have eyes on the cabin? When it happened?” Janet asked Selwyn who was still looking over the body.
“Two officers in an overwatch position on the hill. They would have had eyes on all entrances and exits.”
“They were unresponsive at the time,” Selwyn explained sighing. “Both were injected with a nerve agent. Non-lethal thankfully, but there still at the local hospital getting back their faculties.”
Non-lethal? That was another question to add to the growing list. If an enemy agent had eyes on potentially dangerous targets, why did they not just take them out instead of risking a non-lethal approach. Nerve agents were effective, but there was no guarantee that the person you just dosed was not going to get up earlier than expected.
“Care to show me the way up there?”
“Don’t want to spend more time in the snow than I need to… but sure.”
You picked a wrong place to be station chief then, Janet thought but did not say out loud. Since their initial truce Selwyn had been nothing but cooperative and she wanted to keep him that way. No need to potentially bruise any fragile egos.
Selwyn trudged out the backdoor of the cabin and into the January chill. The snowfall was getting thicker now, and Janet could not see much further than the wide frame of Selwyn’s back. The snow did a good job covering up any tracks that the intruder may have left, but Janet still wanted to look at the overwatch point.
Selwyn’s labored breathing was visible on the air and only grew with the hill’s incline. The fact that Selwyn could have been involved somehow had not escaped Janet’s mind. Anyone working out of MI6’s Sweden Station could be involved, and the Soviets were infamous for their usage of double and even triple agents. For all she knew, Selwyn could be leading her out into the woods to shoot her.
However, watching Selwyn pant his way up the hill, Janet was not particularly scared, Selwyn was a bureaucrat, a spy’s spy, not an assassin, and that much was obvious.
Eventually, Selwyn stopped at a large Norwegian spruce about halfway up the incline. Her eyes followed Selwyn’s hand his finger directing her gaze towards the edge of a platform expertly hidden amongst the branches.
“Branches probably can’t hold my weight,” Selwyn said grabbing at his generous midsection. “So, I’ll wait here at the bottom until you are done.”
“Just get ready to catch me if I fall...”
The only way up was the old fashion way, as there were no handholds or ropes that Janet could make out. It was slow going, the snow made getting any traction hard and the extra weight made the branches sag dangerously. After she finally managed to hoist herself up to the platform, she stayed on her knees, grateful for a surface that did not move beneath her.
“You okay up there?” Selwyn called up; his voice distant.
“Yeah!” Janet yelled back.
Still on all fours, Janet looked out on the forest below her. She could easily see why Selwyn’s people had chosen this vantage point. It provided a clear view of Pchelintsov’s cabin and the surrounding clearing, and therefore someone would have a hard time breaking the tree line without an observer spotting them. In turn, the surrounding forest made it highly unlikely that anyone could spot the platform except up close like she and Selwyn had.
This told Janet two things about their would-be intruder. The first was that they most likely came from behind the observers from up and over the hill. This either meant that they had guessed well or that they already knew where the platform was, and that made it more likely that Sweden Station had a mole, or at least someone with loose lips.
The second fact was the one that Janet found more personally interesting. She was in exceptionally good shape and even she found scaling the tree difficult. She figured that was by design, any person like her would be grunting their way up the climb and thus alert whomever was on duty that someone was trying to sneak up on them. The position of the platform and the tree cover also made it near impossible to get a clear shot that would be needed for a tranquilizer dart. Combine those factors together and that meant that their intruder had to have silently scaled the spruce to personally inject the MI6 agents. A feat which would have required elite level gymnastic ability.
Their intruder was not just some bumbling would-be hitman it seemed. At least the ascent was not for nothing.
“Alright I’m coming back down!”
Janet slowly rose to her feet, her right fist clenched with a pocket full of snow from fear of slipping. She needed to be able to feel her hands for the ascent down, so she shook the powder free from her gloved hand. As the snow fell away something caught her eye, and she froze. A wisp of a thing wrapped and flattened around her index finger: a strand of red hair that bled through the monochrome black and whites of the Swedish winter.
“Selwyn,” Janet called down trying to contain her excitement. “Do any of your people have red-hair?”
“No!” Selwyn called back clearly noticing the change in her voice.
“Then I might have just found something.”