They met in the secure briefing room at 0800 hours. Alpha team, was made up of the three best covert insertion agents in the world. Ariel LaBrou, aka “Banshee,” was the leader of the team and a tactical genius. Bronson Brudall was the technical backup; he had survived six years in Botswana’s famous “Torture Palace” and had escaped to become the most ruthless man alive. Hansen Lockwood had an uncanny sense for danger and had pulled more soldiers from the jaws than an entire rescue battalion.
This team of dark giants sat around the conference table as the director, Joe Williams, entered. He pressed a button on the table and images flickered to life on the screen behind his back. The flickering images stopped on a cruel face.
“This is Johann Rasani,” Williams said, “The leader of The Splinter, a powerful terrorist group dedicated to the violent death of every man, woman, and child on Earth. We’d love to put him in jail, but a new leader would take his place. So we came up with a plan to use him to destroy his own organization.”
The images changed and a picture of an ordinary, blue house appeared.
“He lives in a simple, split-level ranch home in the suburbs of Los Angeles where has numerous meetings with his operatives. They come to his house, stay the night, and leave with orders to kill. If we could track their movements after they left the house, it would save uncountable lives, but they’ve managed to slip between our fingers every time.”
Williams put a 80s-style digital clock on the desk.
“The guys down in tech built an exact replica of the clock radio in the guest room. The only difference is that this one can heat-tag anyone within 10 feet for satellite surveillance. Once tagged, we can follow them anywhere on Earth without them knowing.”
The images flickered again behind Williams and stopped on a blueprint of the house with the infiltration plan shown as red arrows. The plan looked pretty straightforward: in through the rear door, across the living room, up the stairs, enter the second door on the left, switch clocks, and back out the same way.
“The real problem is that either Rasani or one of his family members is always in the house; they never leave it together. It’s going to have to be a full-stealth, night insertion mission while the family is sleeping in the house. I can not stress this point enough: if the family hears a sound or suspects anything, Rasani will disappear and we’ll lose our chance to stop this group.”
“What’s the catch?” Banshee said, looking confused. “This is a milk run. You could have a rookie team pull this off.”
“Rasani has children,” Williams said.
The rest of Alpha Team gasped.
* * * * *
It was 2100 hours on a moonless night in a small suburb of Los Angeles when the streetlights went out in the whole town. Three people, barely noticeable in the darkness, moved silently through the night to a nondescript house. They paused for a moment at the back door -- working at it with small, silver tools – before disappearing inside.
They were halfway to the stairs when Lockwood yelped with pain and crashed to the floor. Banshee shoved her fist into his mouth, blocking the sound while Brudall held his flailing limbs.
“What?” Banshee said in a barely audible whisper. “What is it?”
Lockwood gestured feebly at his foot where a hard, wooden spike was protruding from his shoe. Banshee yanked it out.
“It’s an axel,” Brudal whispered. “It’s an axel from a toy car.”
“Lights” Banshee ordered.
They turned on the miniflashes, playing the small lights over the carpet. Surrounding them like a school of hungry piranhas, was an entire shopping mall worth of toys: jacks and wooden pyramids, plastic models of shark teeth and metal balls, broken army men and costume jewelry. There were fragile toy cars that would shatter into fragments at the slightest touch, a complete set of Lego knives, and an unidentifiable toy labeled “Made in China.” The sharp edges of the toys stuck up from the carpet, the hardwood floor, and the couch. They were surrounded by a minefield of vinyl spikes and toy blades.
“Leave me,” whispered Lockwood, clutching his now-useless foot.
* * * * *
They were almost to the top of the stairs when they hit the gate. Too tall to climb over quietly, they struggled to open it. It was smooth and featureless and didn’t respond to any movements, up, down or sideways. Brudall linked in to Ops.
“Can you read any name or insignia?” came the voice over the comm.
They played their lights over it and found none.
“It’s bolted into the wall on one side and a wooden board on the other. The board is zip-tied to the railing.”
Several painful minutes passed as the Ops team computer scanned hundreds of baby gate manuals.
“Color?” was the next question.
It was hard to tell in the harsh glare of the lights.
“Beige or brown, I think.”
“Is there a plastic handle covering the top like a latch?” the voice said.
“Found it,” the voice said, “Try lifting the handle”
Banshee pulled on the handle and it refused to budge.
“It’s not moving; we already tried that.”
“Did you lift on the side away from the opening?”
They tried again.
“Hm. Maybe they have the Hunny Luv model. Is there a button on the side of the handle?”
Brudal ran his fingers over the side and found a small, circular button.
They pushed the button and then tried the gate. It wouldn’t move.
“Still nothing? Are you sure it’s not white?”
“Yes. It’s a sort of medium brown to go with the painted bannister.”
“Right. Was there a click when you pushed the button? Maybe you didn’t push it all the way.”
They pushed the button again. Still the gate won’t move.
“Wait a second,” said the voice from Ops. “Did you try lifting the handle while pushing the button?”
“At the same time?”
Suddenly, miraculously, the handle moved, lifting until it was perfectly vertical.
“It works,” Brudall said, his eyes misting over with emotion as he severed the connection to Ops. He pulled the gate toward him, and it stopped, refusing to open.
* * * * *
One hour later, Alpha team entered the bedroom. It was hard going with the sound filters covering their faces and feet, with only hand lights and the vaguest of maps. They stumbled around until they realized the furniture had been moved. There was no bed, no end tables, and most of all, no clock. Instead they could only find tiny furniture and white dressers. It was no longer a guest bedroom.
A strange noise came from behind them and they slowly turned their lights on the source. It was a crib and inside it was a baby. They froze as the small child pulled itself up to the crib’s railing and smiled at them. They had ended up in the nursery.
“Don’t move,” Banshee whispered. “Maybe he’ll go back to sleep.”
But the baby continued to stare at them and smile. It smiled harder and harder until it looked like its head was going to split open. It smiled until its face reddened and tears formed in the corners of its eyes.
“What’s it doing?” Brudal asked, panic creeping into his voice.
The baby, still making that strained smile, squatted and made a long, grunting noise.
“Masks!” Banshee screamed. “Get your gas mask on!”
* * * * *
The members of Alpha Team reassembled in conference room three months later. Lockwood was using a cane, thankful the doctors had saved most of his foot, Brudal had been off the respirator for a week, and Banshee had completed her stint in the suicide-watch room of the psychiatric ward. In spite of their ordeal, they were eager to prove themselves again. They wanted a rematch.
Williams placed a small, white teddy bear on the conference room table.
“The boys in Ops put this bear together. It’s an exact replica of the one Banshee destroyed.”
Banshee flushed but held her composure. She had grabbed the toy in the house by accident and found, in her shattered state, she couldn’t let it go. After three months, they injected her arm with six hundred milligrams of morphine and her muscles finally relaxed.
“Ops put the tagging hardware from the clock into the bear. We just need to get it into the house.”
“We’re not going back in,” Lockwood said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“No, you’re not,” Williams said. “We can’t risk a failure like the last time. However, our contacts have reported that the Rasani family plans to buy a replacement bear to present to their baby. All we have to do is get you to pose as workers at the toy store and put this bear on the shelf when they walk in."
The members of Alpha team visibly relaxed. Perhaps it would be a milk run after all.
Williams clicked a secret control and maps of the store appeared on the screen behind him. The pictures showed towering shelves piled with breakable toys shoved together creating claustrophobic aisles. Videos played of rabid parents careening through the store with shopping carts and fighting over popular toys. Images appeared one after another of toys you could only buy if you purchased the proprietary “starter kit,” which locked you into only buying compatible products from the same manufacturer.
It was a Toys R Us. Within one hour, every member of Alpha team resigned.