Authors: Talea Botha
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Natasha sighed and tried to swallow the nerves that started to feel like they were choking her. This was the second time this week she was standing outside Cara's office. She shivered despite the heat of the day, but when Cara's voice on the other side of the stained glass door called her in she straightened her shoulders and pushed the door open with an air of confidence.
"Take a seat, Tash," Cara was scribbling something at her desk and pointed toward the chairs on the other side without looking up.
Natasha picked the chair closest to the window, sat on the edge with her back straight and folded her hands in her lap.
Cara put down her pen and looked at her in silence for a while.
"I had a meeting with Frank this morning. He was here to do the final reports on the Cullinan case. Do you remember the full extent of the reports you did on that?"
"Of course I remember. I worked on that case for months."
"The reason why I'm asking is that your reports don't add up. You have several large pieces of information missing."
She shook her head, "that's not possible."
'I reviewed the reports myself, and Tactics ran them twice before they sent them back to me. Do you want to tell me what's going on?"
"I don't know what you're talking about! I don't understand how this could have happened. Could some pages have gone missing along the way? Maybe Tactics was careless."
"The mistake doesn't lie with Tactics, Tash, your pages are all there, they're numbered, I checked. Nothing's missing except the actual information that I am forced to assume you omitted."
Natasha started to shiver. This was serious. She didn't know what would happen if Upstairs found out but she didn't like to imagine the possibilities. It must have been Frank; she would have to talk to him as soon as she could.
"Tash!" Cara's voice was sharp, "I'm talking to you!"
Natasha blinked hard and shook her head. She didn't realize Cara had asked her a question.
'I'm sorry, what?"
"Do you want to tell me what's going on?"
"Nothing's going on; I honestly don't know how it happened. I've never had any of my reports brought into question."
"I'm worried about you Tash, and I'm saying this as your friend, not your boss. We've worked together for years and you've never been this absent minded. The things that Frank reported on are serious. I don't understand why you didn't say anything, even on the night, Frank could have pulled you from the field! That's what he's there for."
"What do you mean pull me from the field? I don't understand."
Cara squinted at her, "If anything upsets you, or gets to a point where you can't deal with it, you signal Frank and he pulls you out. That's the rule, that's why we send back up."
"I know how this works! I've been doing it for years. There wasn't a reason for Frank to get involved, why would he pull me out?"
Cara looked at her silently until she felt uncomfortable. She resisted the urge to fiddle and squirm and turned her gaze out the window. She suddenly felt so tired she could just fall asleep right there.
Cara wanted to say something but she changed her mind. She wouldn't force the issue. Tash looked like she was about to faint despite how hard she was trying to act natural and in all the years they worked together she'd never seen her friend this way. She would run the reports again, speak to Frank, do everything she could before she notified Upstairs.
"You can go, Tash, I'll see what I can find and we'll talk about it again once I've revised everything."
Natasha got up and left the office.
Cara sat back in her chair, deep in thought, and after a few minutes she picked up her phone and asked that Frank be sent to her office again. She needed to get to the bottom of what was going on.
It didn't take long before Frank arrived. He was tall and muscular but he wore glasses, an ironic cliché.
"What did she say?" he asked straight away, not waiting for an invitation to sit down.
"She's defensive but she claims she doesn't know how it happened. According to her she's done everything expected of her without fail."
"But surely there's got to be more to it than that?"
"I don't know, she doesn't look okay Frank, she's despondent and when I pushed it she shut off. I left it, this isn't how I know her. Tell me again what happened at the restaurant, how did she react? I need to get to the bottom of this before have to notify Upstairs."
"She seemed alright, I was sitting at the bar keeping an eye on her and there wasn't any reason for me to get involved without her asking me to. When he grabbed her wrist she looked startled and she writhed a bit but she was calm and quite emotionless."
"And the reports? What do you make of that?"
"I understand it’s a problem that our reports don’t correspond, but I don’t understand her intentions. The things she failed to mention aren’t really that important, but then why leave them out in the first place? She of all people should know the consequences."
Cara looked down at the reports on her desk. Tash had been at Blackwell long enough to be completely comfortable with procedures.
"What do we do about Upstairs?" she asked.
"Don't they know yet?"
"No, I didn't notify them when Tactics sent the reports back to me."
"I know, but this isn't like Tash at all, and I'm worried about her. I wanted to see if I could rectify it first before I put the Hounds on her."
"Be careful you don't end up with the Hounds yourself, Cara, I know she's your friend but its dog eat dog up there."
Cara nodded. She knew it was dangerous keeping Tash under the radar, but she looked so vulnerable. Frank got up and left the office, leaving her to her thoughts.
Blackwell was a simple institute. It was a dark office building looming in the heart of the city, and legally it was known as an accounting firm. Underground it was a weave of agents and dead ends; paper trails that lead nowhere and question that remained unanswered. And in the middle of the carefully woven web was the Dr Mitchell, founder of Blackwell, the poisonous spider ruling it all.
The layout was uncomplicated, and everyone knew exactly what they needed to know and nothing else. Research sent files to Agents who went into the field to work with targets that possessed information or locations of information. Tactics sent teams to extract information after the agents finished up, and Upstairs was the board that pulled the ends together of whatever it was that Tactics found, and ruled with an iron fist. The Hounds were there to ensure that everything ran smoothly and to keep everyone in place, they ran tests and enforced the rules, and Dr Mitchell was the king pin, holding everything together.
That was as much as anyone knew about the overview of what Blackwell was. They were sworn to secrecy, and their silence was rewarded with large sums of money, but in truth, Blackwell didn't have a single soul who was brave enough to break the oath. The Hounds and Dr Mitchell himself fuelled the company with fear and it was effective.
Cara feared the Hounds just as much as anyone else did, but she didn't want to see Tash crumble. Even though she was her boss now, they'd worked together for a very long time, and Tash didn't know it, but Cara had seen that things hadn't been right for a while. Tash had faces and acts, she could convince anyone of anything, but Cara knew her better than that.
She called Frank in one last time.
"I'm going to cook the reports."
He raised his eyebrows, "are you crazy? Do you know what they'll do to you if they find out?"
"It's not big information, they won't ask questions. Tactics will be relieved that the hold-up is sorted out and I'll just send the reports to someone else on the team."
"Ok, it's your decision, but don't look at me if the Hounds are chewing at your neck."
"They won't if you keep this between us."
"I have nothing to say about it to anyone. But if it comes out, and they question me, I can't lie for you."
"That's fine; just don't say anything about it now. Chances are that won't happen anyway."
Frank said nothing; he just held his hands up in defence and shrugged.
In the ladies room Natasha looked at herself in the mirror. She saw a pale woman staring back, the dark hollows under her eyes starting to show through the make-up she'd put on that morning. The more she looked at herself the more unfamiliar the woman staring back became, until she felt so unsure of herself that she turned her back to the mirror and sighed.
She was worried about the reports. She didn't know what was going on, but lately she hadn't been herself and it was scaring her. She was always so on top of things, and she'd never made mistakes on reports. Ever. She wondered if Cara had notified Upstairs about the mix up. She was petrified of the Hounds.
She'd been with Blackwell for little over 5 years. In that time the Hounds had tested her twice. She couldn't remember anything about the tests themselves, but she knew how she couldn't sleep for months after, and she knew that she didn't want them near her again.
Her mind ran feverishly over the report she'd written. She linked every page back to the events at the restaurant. She knew she added everything. She'd thought the Cullinan case was one of her best cases yet, it was easy to move in and it didn't take long before Dale, the target, opened up to her. He was a little short tempered, but he was like a child. If he didn't get what he wanted he threw his toys out of the cot. It wasn't hard to contain him; the only thing that got to her about him was that he'd sometimes said things that cut her deep.