1965-01-04 - Court of Nevers: Story II - Natasha
Summary: Natasha goes looking for an asset in Russia in an important exfil, and learns the importance of being earnest /and/ heroic. So far.
Related: Court of Nevers
Theme Song: None
black-widow rogue 

The woman seated upon a timeworn marble bench skims a touch along the chic green scarf gathered around her throat. The deep copper sunlight romances and softening her features just so as she tilts her head. "Our second champion, Natalia Romanova. You are welcome, and tell your story."

1945 hours. Docks. Kapellskar, Sweden.

Nightfall comes early this far to the north. A curse for nature-loving Swedes flocking with their dogs for one last walk around the city parks, or those southern Europeans relocated to Scandinavia in search of better jobs and wages. A blessing given the mission. Snow glitters in icy dust, rather than fat flakes, and the grey waters of the Baltic form a choppy backdrop, thick with ice and anoxic putrefaction. How many centuries of rot are churned up off the deep?

Wintry conditions have delayed the ferry to Mariehamn in the Aland Islands and Helsinki, further beyond. Lights shine along the blocky brick floating offshore, lining up to nudge along the port. Three hundred souls wait to embark, cars kept on to keep the passengers and drivers warm. Others gather in the departure bay, sipping burnt coffee or chewing on cardboard pastries much too overpriced.

The mission, as relayed from a safehaven in the Netherlands, was quite simple. Rotterdam's station chief for SHIELD laid out plain facts. An important asset in ver appears compromised by intel provided by a mole, though the official story suggests an Iranian connection. Formidable spy agencies want the asset as leverage, whereas SHIELD wants them extracted. A driver is supposed to bring them to Tallinn where Agent Romanoff will meet up with the asset and remove them back to neutral Sweden. Naturally no trace of crossing the border can be found, no flags flown, and nothing by way of cavalry coming.

Twenty hours ago, the driver and asset checked in at Veliky Novgorod, more than halfway through their trip.

Sixteen hours ago, the car was found abandoned outside Luga, near the E-95 and R-39 interchanges. The driver floats in the Luga River and it will be another two days before SHIELD discovers his body.

Four hours ago, an encoded call received by Helsinki relayed back to the town of Narva on the border. Pursued. Injured. Seal to the sea.

An eleven hour trip should be completed by now. Promise to wait on the weather in gloomy Maardu, the next town over from the Estonian capital, goes nowhere. No one has answered the phone. The station chief says one of his people is reassigned that way and sees no signs of activity.

Game on.

If there's one thing Agent Romanoff did not like is having to work with others. Precious few people have earned her trust, which is why she prefers being sent on her own. This time there were too many variable, and sure as sunrise in the morning, something went amiss. Her assessment, based on past experience, in particular doing precisely such type of sabotage, it has to be a mole. Question being, is it someone paid a hefty sum to throw a wrench into set plans, or a real threat in the form of enemy agent. The decision she needs to make first and foremost as she gets the update, is whether she has strong faith in the assets' survival despite the death of the driver, and simply waits. If he made it, her not waiting means a death sentence to him, or worse, the loss of an asset to enemy hands.

On the other hand, the asset is on his own, in freezing conditions, and she has no means to verify how good his survival skills might be. So taking to an all white field uniform to better blend with snow and ice, she heads out to Narva to see if she can tilt the odds with an intervention of her own. Sure, this may well be a preset trap, but she figures on the off chance it's not, the asset might not have the time for her to check up on Maardu first. It's a risk, but she often lives from one risk to the next.

The Viking Line crosses the Baltic at a somewhat leisurely rate, cabin service available for a hefty fee unless she prefers a shared female dorm with four berths. Fifteen hours of braving the Baltic Sea may not seem ideal, but it beats any possibility of flight. Estonian airports have a slew of flight cancellations thanks to icy conditions and frigid temperatures. The journey seems to last forever and flick by, in the strange way time hangs suspended without any landmark to go by. Night passes, day rises, and night dips again by the time she disembarks into the capital. Commandeering a little car, Opel or Volvo, is hardly difficult from there.

The E-20 slices through the length of Estonia, an old Soviet highway repurposed for modern times, passing through cold pine forests and snowy escarpments falling away into the sea. Hugging the coast, she leaves a string of vowel-heavy towns sacked and founded by the Livonian and Teutonic orders in their heyday. Places with incomprehensible names and hotbeds of rebellious activity — home to spies and belligerents against the Soviet Union to time out of mind — blur past. Everything is grey, black, and white. Rules to live by. Narva takes two and a half hours of cautious driving to reach, and the city on the eponymous river marks the permeable border with the Motherland. Exactly one bridge crosses that river.

On the other side is an ancient fortress in brick, Ivangordskaya Krepost', stubbornly guarding the eastern marches. If it's a city to linger in, half the Narvan population virulently hates their neighbours and half probably sympathize.

Natasha saves on her expense allowance by taking the shared female dorm, she can handle herself and the likelihood of trouble in there isn't very high to begin with. She keeps mostly to herself for the duration of the trip, and is only too eager to get a move one was the seafaring finally ends.

Once she finally makes it to Narva. The city isn't one to visit for a weekend's getaway to be sure, and she might be less comfortable with the proximity to the motherland. For all she knows, she herself is a target much sought after.

But she's no time to worry about herself, as she heads into the city, keeping to low speed, as she tries to pick up any odd details to draw her attention. If all else fails, she may well have to send an errant message, a decoy to be sure, but one that would draw attention to her nevertheless.

Narva is famous as a place of greyness. Grey stone buildings, grey mist from the lake and river, grimness all around. Sulphur lights burn dimly to call home any looking for sanctuary. It's well beyond late enough the usual businesses catering to locals shut down, supermarkets and banks dormant. Burning neon signs call out the cheap hostels and rooms for rent, popular among stag and hen parties from the UK and Ireland. Bars cater to the same. A host of them litter the old city streets. A single bridge that leads into the Motherland is guarded, police present on both sides, traffic lights flashing.

Most businesses catering to tourists line Aleksander Puskini, a road right near the central park. Soviet era buildings slicked in a bit of graffiti don't feel upscale. Signs in Latin, not Cyrillic, call out the Kebab House or the Viva Cafe in a many times patched orange stucco tenement. The tourist info center is right around the corner from the Old Trafford Pub.

Nothing seems to stand out, leaving two options, either Natasha made the wrong gamble and the asset is nowhere near. Or the asset is near, and smart enough not to stick out. While the bridge seems to be the most immediate point of interest, she figures as mundane as possible might actually work. Leading her to park outside the tourist info center, where she casually strolls inside, looking about on the off chance one of the potentially lingering tourist could be her asset.

Failing that, she might engage in conversation, asking what are the popular spots for newcomers to Narva, naturally, she's there for one of those regularly accuring hen parties, because who would question that?

|ROLL| Black Widow +rolls 1d20 for: 3

In this particular era, no one merely moseys over the Narva River without getting pumped full of lead. It may not be a Checkpoint Charlie flashpoint area, but close. Stony-eyed guards in khaki or grey patrol the route. Barbed wire may be hidden, but sidearms and cameras aren't. Ice and snow slick the deepened slopes of the sluggish river.

The tourist info center consists of an open lobby that never locks, full of pamphlets and brochures in Swedish, Finnish, English, German. An ATM dispenses cash when needed. A bank of payphones are smeared in every kind of sticker imaginable, advertising clubs, discotheques, and cheap rooms for let. Anything behind the locked doors won't open until the morning. Twenty-four hours off meeting.

Always a few people willing to hang about, taxis lined up along the road. There are crowds of stag-and-hens, roaming drunkenly to take advantage of the strength of the pound. She has her pick; cabbies, drunken kids.

While approaching the drunken kids seem to have less of a down side, seeing how they wouldn't likely be agents at all, and very likely to speak the truth with little coaxing. There is the possbility they haven't seen anything, a cabbie on the other hand, may have provided a drive for safety for someone on the run with little option but to pay up for their well being.

Natasha elects the cabbie, and as she approaches, seeing how it is the tourist info center, she asks in English, "would you happen to have given a ride to someone hapless today…?" The question is asked with an incidental flashing of a wallet, good thing she saved on the ferry, if the cabbie happens to know something or by sheer luck be the one who helped hide the asset, it could be worthwhile. If not, she might just hate her life today.

The cabbies of Narva look like the same in Moscow or New York or Chicago. Shared breed characteristics: five-o-clock shadows peppered and salted, face sagging at the jowls, flinty stare. Collared polos and zip-up hoodies, creased trousers apply. They're all variously interchangeable, Pavel or Maksim or Oliver or Kaspar, the company not so different between them. Pick orange or yellow or green for a company.

"Hi, sweetheart." The cab driver smiles, after a long night of harmless fun. Bored, he stretches his spine up a bit. "Someone you're looking for?" He gives a chuckle. "What kind of person is that?"

Natasha slips into role without batting an eyelash, although she does bat her eyelashes at the cabbie, putting on a rather alluring smile as she draws nearer to him. "Oh, just a friend…someone who might have been in a rush, so much so he left me behind all alone…you've seen anyone like that? Or even better, given a ride to someone like that…?" To help him think of her question, she moves even closer, brushing a hand along his shoulder, "it would be tremendous help if you so much as know someone who might have a clue, I'm really desperate…"

He buys into the honey trap. A smile and a bit of kindness goes a longer way. "Friend?" His English has a definite Scandinavian slant, muddied up by Cyrillic shades. "Parties tonight but no men by themselves. A woman, yes." That hand on his shoulder is a little too good to be true and he backs away to his car slightly. A bit of distance and breathing room are necessary right now. "She goes to Sushi King. Hostel up stadium and shopping mall."

"That'll do…" Natasha says to the man who clearly lived long enough this close to the border to know better about pretty women being too affectionate. But that timid reaction should ensure the information provided was legit, or at least as legit as it gets, she still takes out 3,000 rubles which she offers the man, "just in case someone asks the same about me…" regardless of whether he takes her offering or not, Natasha proceeds to her car.

Investigating the Sushi King seems to be the next best option.

Pretty women wouldn't be that interested in a cabbie. Men at least know flattery and they understand when a weird boundary wanders by. He uneasily files away the interest and still preens a little all the same. Three thousand rubles is a heady amount, something he can convert to better currency — Finnish, Swedish kroner, something. Taking the cash, he tucks it away into a billfold. "I know. She was…" He wobbles his hand into miming drinking a bottle. "I saw her go to the hostel, yes? Sparta." How appropriate a name. "Watch she got in. But maybe some drink be too strong for her."

Sushi King is a fair hike. He gives directions. A kilometer isn't too hard a walk, something she can manage in fifteen minutes. The restaurant is easy to miss, ground floor of a two-storey building. A bus stop in front goes ignored; public transit stopped an hour ago. Sushi King stays open til midnight, allowing her to slip inside. However boring the exterior, the interior is swanky, neon lit with Scandinavian modern furniture: all edges and hard lines, except the black pleather chairs. Another ten minute walk from there to the hostel if she's going slow.

Natasha's pace is rather quick, however, she's eager to come out of this ordeal with something. While the initial fuck up is no fault of her own, she dearly desires to salvage this op. After all, a failure is a team failure.

She is rather surprised by the interior of the Sushi King, and after a quick scouring of the place, if there's no sign of the aforementioned woman, she will just ask about her to have a better descriptor once she gets to the hostel next.

One thing is clear, she needs to find that woman as the next piece of the puzzle. She hates playing easter egg hunts.

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