A man in a black coat crossed the street with a lengthened stride and quiet steps, his hands in his pockets and his ears tucked down into the faux fur lining of his coat.
Kiev was prospering now; it was busy with travelers, businessmen, tourists, mostly men hungry to partake of the plunder of a booming sex industry. He wasn’t tempted at all by the sight of such blatant openness, moving along the street with a detached single-mindedness. A topless woman, trying not to shiver against the chill, fearlessly leaned from her bordello window and called to him, to anyone, but the man in black did not appear to see her.
Many of his targets were known to take their money to places like this, where unregulated laws allowed men to buy a woman as property and do whatever he wanted with her. The man he was after tonight was an especially demanding consumer. He was the first name on the hit list given to him by the client, and to that end, Alek would travel to the country of his birth.
He didn’t recall much about where he had originally come from. He had simply stowed the recollections away, labeled them The Past, and tried very hard not to think about it. He remembered escaping, the fall of the USSR, the gas as it filled the rooms. How he had choked and coughed his way into the wintry cold from deep underground and walked miles to the nearest farmhouse to the shock of the residents that lived there.
No name, no clothes save the cheap cotton pullover and trousers, his feet nearly taken by frostbite. He only remembered his first name and the lethal skills that had been taught to him over the course of his life. He had been twenty-one - a pale and frightening young man with no idea where to go or where he had been. A stranger in a world with no marketable skills outside his ability to murder.
This trip was no walk down memory lane. Kiev was a far cry from the isolated hills and farmland abandoned by those who scratched a living from the stony hard and irradiated earth. He had a job to do, a target to eliminate.
His name was Zara Krane. He was director of a top technology field where many of his accomplishments were celebrated internationally. He also enjoyed selling stolen military technology to the black market, to terrorist cells, and participated in human trafficking. He complemented this lifestyle by sampling his wares personally.
The first hit was this man, who had connections to an individual with powerful connections to inconvenient people. Long-time friends, the pair had presumably not met in person for years. But the rumor was they kept in close touch, because Zara provided him with the exotic women that were in such high demand in America.
There were a dozen guards to make sure Mr. Krane’s experience remained undisturbed. The building was four floors, the windows nailed shut, and the shades more or less drawn. None of the women in those rooms were there by choice, and if they were, then no one had told them they had forfeited their freedom, dignity, and humanity.
Even if Zara didn’t give up the information he had about the mystery man, the world would be better once he was dead and gone. Alek wasn’t going to pretend he wouldn’t enjoy the confrontation, the slow death, the light of hope leaving their eyes.
This was nothing that the hitman of choice couldn’t handle. He, too, had a reputation to uphold. He was known for his perfection, his flawless technique, and his uncanny ability to disappear completely - leaving not a trace of his involvement. He was a killer, all right - the right hand of Death himself.
He flashed a billfold loaded with twenties to the guards out front, allowed himself to be patted down, and stepped into the humid darkness of the brothel. Zara had been said to visit this brothel on Saturdays in a timely, predictable manner.
An overly friendly anxious man apprehended him. This was not Zara. Alek spoke Ukrainian as naturally as his English; he asked for a woman - the best they had.
No one would dare argue with a man so desperate to spend cash, so he was taken - escorted - by armed men. The linoleum floor was filthy; the wallpaper was peeling off in corners, poster reproductions of old romantic images of nude posing women framed and added to the walls as an attempt to make the atmosphere have some class. It smelled like cigars, cheap soap, human suffering (sweat, tears, blood, stress). It was a feeling that had soaked into the very walls around them, an invisible stain that would never be exorcised.
He tried to ignore the sounds behind muffled doors; then they brought out three women. None of them would look him in the eyes. They were clad in simple clothes meant to accentuate their sellable assets.
Alek looked at them, made a show of deliberating over which one. He pointed to a girl.
“Yes! Very good! Good product here, all beautiful, nice and healthy girls.” Giddy, the man accepted the money. Alek took her by the arm - a frightened young woman who shrank at his touch, clutching the shirt around her for safety.
He hid his frown. It ached to see this. It broke his heart, and his unshakeable focus was momentarily distracted. As much as he longed to attempt to comfort her, he remained silent and even apprehensive as they were closed into the room alone together.
The lady balked.
Alek dropped his voice to a low whisper.
“Keep your clothes on.”
The girl tucked herself into the corner of the barren room. A filthy mattress and a pillow was all that was provided.
“What are you doing?” Her wide tired eyes stared at him, searching him for any trickery or cruelty. There was neither; in fact, there was nothing at all.
“Do you know who Zara Crane is?”
She blankly stared back.
“Dr. Krane. Rich man, comes here once a week. Have you ever been seen by him?” Alek produced a color photograph, turning it toward her. She blinked rapidly, trying to focus. He realized she must be drugged. Docile. “Look carefully. Come here.”
After a little coaxing, she looked up and nodded feebly. “Yeah... I’ve seen him before. He... he sometimes brings his rich friends.” She rubbed at her face and sniffled.
“Did you see him today? Not with you but perhaps the other girls?”
“Yeah... he’s upstairs. They say he’s got the whole floor to himself.” Dolefully she regarded him. “What are you-- what’re you gonna do?”
“Go ahead and hide there a second. Keep quiet.” Alek was satisfied when she nodded, sinking back and watching the man as he knocked on the door to gain the attention of the guard. He complained about the girl. He hung by the door, stooped slightly, before he invited him in to help manage her. Once the door closed, Alek slid behind him, two hands reached for his chin and throat, and the guard dropped into the room, struggling and gasping and then - nothing. He went dreadfully still and Alek dragged him slowly into the other corner.
He took the pistol out of his jacket, put on his hat and overcoat, and did not spare the girl a second look. The disguise would not hold up under close scrutiny, but it would get him through quickly.
Zara was just one floor up. He preferred to avoid detection, get in, do his business, and get out. It was simply a matter of exquisite patience and experience.
He had years of practice.
Regina wept against unfamiliar, filth-stained sheets. Again she felt the echo of the stings against her body, the cut of the whip, her lower body throbbing and burning between her legs to the steady, frantic beating of her heart. The world had become a dead haze hours ago, until slowly, it became alive again - the colors blinding, the noises hurting, her pain a living thing that pinched at her sex whenever she moved.
She felt like she would vomit, but nothing came out. She was drenched in sweat, her clothing ripped. At least she was alone.
She thought about her family at home. How her mother would have been so hateful. Her father would look at her with scorn. They would spit on her, as if this had all been her choice, as if she had deliberately sought after a man to destroy her. That the suffering she endured now was only fitting for a whore. No longer a woman, no longer welcome in their home - a stranger with a curse. Untouchable and unwanted.
She felt hot tears prickle her aching eyes anew, but she was too tired to sob.
She felt all of her physical pain and tried not to look, thinking only how bloody and ruined her sister had looked after her second child. How much it had pained her to move, to sit, to urinate, to do anything at all. But she had taken painkillers, slept until she was well. There was no relief for Regina.
Zara said he would come back to play with her more; it had been at least an hour. She slowly lifted her head, agony twisting through her pounding temples. She was alone still, and the silence was frightening and overwhelming, but at least no one was beating her or fucking her or hurting her.
But she was thirsty, disoriented, and she couldn’t lie in that filthy bed a moment longer. She followed the wall, sobbing softly as she leaned against it. Where was the bathroom…?
She found it. As she pushed open the door, she didn’t expect to see a man. He was leaning over the bathtub; she couldn’t believe what she thought she saw but there he was. She pulled back, half-swallowing a cry. Even her throat burned. Her eyes watered as she saw him tense, notice her, straighten.
Zara’s dead eyes gazed at the ceiling, his limp and lifeless body shoved into the bath tub, limbs akimbo. She realized later why his eyes had been so wide. He had no eyelids.
The man before her was not familiar to her. She didn’t recognize his face from the many blurred leering expressions from the last many hours as they passed her around, but she knew that jacket–
“Get out.” His Ukrainian was harsh, biting.
She tripped as she fell backward, closing her legs and clutching her hands to her mouth to keep quiet. The fall had jolted her; pain lanced sharp and fresh through her abdomen.
He cranked on the water, closed the shower curtain, and left Zara’s corpse to get wet. He stepped out of the bathroom, and Regina felt for a horrifying moment that he was like them after all - that he would pick her up and continue where Zara and his men had left off–
Instead, he moved past her. His foot brushed her thigh and he was moving to the door without a singular look behind his shoulder. It was as if she did not exist. As if she were less than nothing. She gaped at him, at his coldness.
“Wait–” A nameless fury gripped her. She’d come from inside this country. For once the man knew her language, which fed her a dry bite of hope. She crawled after him, forced herself to regain her feet. She grabbed a jacket from the floor and fumbled after him, clutching it over her chest. “Wait! Goddammit–“
The man had scared her. Regina saw him with Zara’s corpse - he was dead, she was sure he was dead, and damned sure he had killed him - but why was he leaving her?
“Look at me, you son of a bitch!”
She fell against the wall at the door, and he finally stopped in the hallway. His hard gaze finally fixed on her. He truly looked at her - she felt her skin crawl, because these were not the eyes of a man gripped by that frightening animal lust, but something older, something unfeeling and unknowable. From her bruised face, disheveled wild black hair, to her ruined clothes, the blood between her legs, those cold green eyes pored over every detail.
“Don’t leave me. You can’t just leave me like this.” She hiccuped, looking back at him. “I can’t go out there. What they did to me--” She closed her eyes and covered her mouth with her hands again. She felt immense pain now, hot slick agony tickling and pinching between her thighs and she didn’t know what they’d done to her there. “I’m worthless now. I-I-I’m not worth anything–”
Tears burned her eyes, nausea clawing at her esophagus. He must have gone, she thought, because she didn’t hear him any more. She didn’t hear his footsteps or breathing.
He hadn’t spoken a word since he left the bathroom.
She was praying, she realized. She was praying for merciful God to kill her, because she would surely die, and she could not even support herself in the sex trade any more even if she wanted to. No man would protect her and look after her nor even want her. Her family would disown her. Her shoulders shook, her great gulping sobs muffled into her hands.
Exhaustion swiftly followed. The hallway was so quiet, she would have thought she was the only creature on this floor. In the whole world. She looked up slowly, and gasped. He was still there. She met his gaze; he still studied her, the hardness of his face unmoved, but there was a peculiar expression that escaped her understanding that touched the very edges of his chill emerald greens.
“You have a gun,” she said, deadened by her outburst but ultimately deadset in her conviction. “You can shoot me. It won’t matter. Just shoot me and go, and it will be all right.“
He turned to her fully. His hands flexed, the leather gloves creaking. “If I kill you - what then?”
She hiccuped. “You’re a killer, aren’t you? So just kill me.”
“I can’t do that.”
Weak fury returned to her. She moved closer to him, and he didn’t step back. She reached for him, eyes wet and red. “Why not?“
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Regina reached for the inside of his coat. She could see the gun. He grabbed her wrist and tugged her away, his eyes hard again.
“God dammit– Just give it to me, I’ll do it myself!”
“You won’t. Be quiet.”
“Like hell! You bastard!” She fought again, but he was unbelievably strong. He lifted her to her feet and she tasted leather and gunpowder as his hand closed over her mouth to silence her. A world of panic overcame her, but the strength went out of her legs and she wept messily against his glove, watching her bare feet skid along the carpet as he dragged her.
They were moving. Wherever he was taking her, she could only imagine it was to someplace comparably worse than where she just had been - for he was a killer. She could see it in his eyes, smell the blood in his clothes. She held onto his arm. He felt like solid steel.
She whimpered against his woolen coat, lost consciousness as he pulled her out into the cold world, and collapsed atop a frozen leather seat, seamlessly removed from the dark den of sin and iniquity to someplace she could not hope to imagine.
She swore like no woman Alek had ever personally met before. And that wasn’t a huge number. Still - she cussed like any good sailor and fought hard for someone so traumatized. Then as soon as she was in the car, she fell silent. He put his coat over her.
The trip had been a success. He had the information he needed. With a quick photograph snapped of Zara’s unseeing lifeless face onto his burner phone, he sent it to the client.
He would know in the morning whether the transaction was completed.
The Sedan’s dark tinted windows hid her from curious pedestrians; she was crumpled in his back seat, and from his glimpses of her, she was shaking and breathing quickly.
She needed to go to a hospital. Alek hissed under his breath, weighing the pros and cons of doing so. He was eager to move on to the next hit in the contract, but the girl--
“Stay awake,” he said loudly. “Tell me your name.”
“Fuck you,” she said, but her words were half-heartedly slurred as if speaking through a mouthful of pudding.
So much for kindness.
The car wove into traffic. He followed the signs to a local hospital, adhering to the rules of the road.
“Why are you doing this?” the girl whimpered from the back seat.
“Just rest. I’m taking you to the hospital.”
She didn’t answer. He half-carried, half-dragged her through the doors into the emergency room. She didn’t fight. He paid with the same cash he had waved at the pimp, demanded her to be treated. Told the concerned doctors and staff that he found her abandoned in the street: a victim of rape. Anything else and they would refuse to treat her.
No one would save the life of a prostitute.
Regina woke up in a numb, warm haze. Heavy with sleepiness, with only the vaguest sense of a headache. She closed her hands on the soft cotton sheet. She floated; it was the end, the quiet dark place she had yearned for. God had finally listened. Death wrapped her in his musty robes and taken her to her final peace.
In spite of that, her thoughts still made attempts to race. Sluggishly wading through heaviness, fog, and exhaustion. Who was that man? Where had he taken her?
Had he killed her? or was there something far more nefarious on his mind?
The questions dissolved into the unknown. She slept for decades.
Waking up was something she didn’t anticipate. As the warm blanket of drowsiness fell away, she noticed a headache. It was far away, but she was aware that her whole skull felt full of cotton.
She opened her heavy eyes. Her elbow tickled. Her opposite hand hurt. And what she thought she saw, sitting in the dimmed room with her, ws the last man she had ever wanted to see again.
It was the killer. Leaning forward to watch her sleep like some kind of wacko. His eyes pierced her as surely as a needle, as if to get within her veins, spoil in her blood. They were the color of fresh mown grass; she wondered why she had never noticed that before.
His fingers steepled together, elbows on his knees, craning forward as though coiled to spring.
She opened her mouth as if to cry out. Thought better of it when he raised his index finger to his lips to shush her.
Regina whimpered in spite of the warning. He dropped his hand again and sighed.
“I’m in a hospital?”
The killer nodded.
“I need to ask you some questions.”
Regina looked around slowly, tensing again. Her lower body felt distant aches and pains. She wondered what they had been done to her - who touched her while she hadn’t even been awake. The thought made her feel all the more violated. She had no means to escape, but if this asshole thought she could be cowed by threats of death, he was mistaken.
“Fuck you,” she spat with all the venom she could muster. “I don’t have to answer you.”
“No,” he said softly. “You don’t. But maybe if i told you that your hospital bill is paid for, that you have been asleep for two days, is a monumental waste of my time and resources, if you don’t start cooperating.”
“Why should I?”
“Because you owe me.”
She grew quiet. Tears scalded her eyes blind once again. “Just kill me. You saw what they did to me. They used me. Over and over. Do you know what? While I cried and cried, they smoked cigarettes and hit me... I was nothing to them. And no one will ever want me... no one will marry a broken woman.”
She couldn’t see his face then; with her blurred, tearful eyes, she saw glimpses of the horror that she had survived. Like it was only moments ago.
“You shouldn’t have--I didn’t want to be saved!”
The hitman hadn’t said a word. She had to wonder why all of the effort, if it was so expensive. Why bother saving some nameless poor whore like her?
She quickly grew exhausted from crying, wiping feebly at her face. I must look so hopeless, she thought, staring blankly at the ceiling.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, slowly - as if the words were strange on his lips. “I was after Zara Krane for another reason. But he can’t hurt you any more now.”
“No shit.” She laughed bitterly. She was already damaged beyond repair anyway. Krane’s work was already done. He would have thrown her out on the street if no one showed any interest in her.
“But you can help me now, can’t you?”
She sniffled, looking at him again. The drugs dulled her resolve, kept her from becoming angry again. But there was a fearful awe for the man who sat across from her. Ageless and patient, sharp-nosed, high cheekbones and a mouth that hadn’t seen a smile in a lifetime.
He saw her looking back at him now and he nodded slowly. “Krane had a friend. But he wouldn’t give me his name. It was as if he was scared beyond reckoning to tell me.”
Regina recalled that lidless gaze, the wide open bloodshot eyes of Zara Krane in the bathtub. Dead. And swallowed. What was the greater force now? Her resistance to go on living, or her fear of this man?
“And you think I know this man? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No. But I’m sure you’ve heard him mention other friends of his. I need to see them, too.” He saw her hesitation, and his voice grew hard and flat. “These are all bad men. You know as well as I do.”
“Do you think I spent my free time eavesdropping on my rapists?”
“No. All I’m asking is that you try to remember anything you’ve heard. Anything at all.”
It was no use. She was in no shape for deep recollections. All she could remember was the men that hurt her - no words murmured in idle conversations in between. She was usually either unconscious or in a state of panic.
“I-I’m sorry.” She watched him consider her, and she realized how useless she felt again. “What’re you... gonna do?”
“I’m going to take you with me.” He stood up at last. He was well approaching six feet tall, broad shouldered, and beneath that wool coat he must have been muscular to have carried her to the car like that.
She blinked rapidly. Did he just say she was going with him? A sense of panic stabbed through the drugs, her eyes widening. He’s just like them. I knew it. He saved my life and now he thinks he owns me. Nothing’s really changed at all.
“I’m not going anywhere with you! You haven’t told me your name, nothing!” She was shouting now.
The killer growled, storming over to her as if to muffle her, but he did not touch her. He hissed at her. “Keep your voice down, will you? Jesus Christ.”
“Go to hell.”
He backed off, scoffing. His hands shoved into their pockets, mouth thinning into a stern straight line. “Alek. It’s Alek.”
“I wish I could say it was nice to meet you, Alek,” Regina replied, black with anger. “Maybe under other circumstances.”
Alek ignored it. “You’re being discharged. I suggest you just come with me. You really don’t want Zara’s men to think you were the one who cut off his eyelids and left him in the bathroom, do you?”
It was so blatantly calm and surreal to hear him say that. Regina’s bravado deflated a little. She kept forgetting. She didn’t know this man, didn’t know the extent of his patience. It was all she could do to keep from crying again. For all her bluster, she was resigned to her new fate.
The bastard knew it, too.
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