The smell of cotton candy and popcorn tickled the girl’s nose as she made her way through the crowd. She smiled, and added a slight bounce to her step as she took in the sights, knowing that anyone watching her would expect it.
But it wasn’t entirely an act.
She had never seen a circus in person…at least, not that she remembered, and though her mission hadn’t included the show itself, the carnival was enough to satisfy her curiosity. Brightly colored tents and booths formed a thoroughfare of reds, yellows, blues, greens, purples, and oranges, all shining in the glow of countless lights. The notes of a calliope filled the air, mingling with laughter and conversation and the lower hum of electric generators.
It was so different…not at all like the compound in Russia which was quiet and solemn, the surrounding tundra rugged and barren, a mix of browns, whites, and grays.
She stopped to watch a contortionist on a nearby platform. The woman lay down on her stomach, then arched her back so that her legs eventually came to rest far over her shoulders, her feet flat on the floor in front of her; the crowd surrounding the small stage watched with amazement, and the girl could not help but stare with them. Her trainers demanded flexibility, but did not expect that, and she was glad, because she was not certain she could do it even if they ordered her to.
“Excuse me, dear,” a voice said.
The girl turned to see a woman standing behind her, clearly hoping to walk by. The girl ducked her head in apology, assessing the woman quickly. She was elderly, dressed in a long black robe that was decorated with an intricate floral pattern, and her face was framed by curly brown hair that was obviously dyed. She wore a hat that matched her robes, a silk rose adorning one side. Several strings of beads hung around her neck, complimented by long earrings that dangled almost to her shoulders.
She looked like one of the Roma.
But, whether that was a reflection of the woman’s heritage, or simply the costume she chose to wear, it was impossible to tell. Hopefully, it would not become mission-relevant.
“Sorry,” the girl offered aloud, conscious of the way her lips and tongue formed the consonants. General American, spoken in the Western and Midwestern regions of the United States. Less distinctive than the dialects common in the South and North-East. “I didn’t realize I was in anyone’s way.”
She stepped aside to let the woman pass.
The woman smiled. “Not a problem, dear. What’s your name?”
“Natalie Rushman,” she answered, giving the name she’d been told to if she were questioned.
“Well, Natalie, I’m Anna. Are you enjoying yourself?”
She nodded, and looked down again, tucking a strand of red hair behind her ear in feigned shyness.
“Glad to hear it.” The woman smiled again, studying her. “You know, dear, I’m good at reading people - it’s a gift you could say. And there’s something special about you…I have a feeling you’ll do something great one day. Come to my booth later if you want to hear more.” The old woman winked and started on her way again, beads rattling softly as she moved.
The girl waited until she was certain that the woman wouldn’t return, then continued forward, careful this time not to become distracted.
She reached the outskirts of the carnival a few minutes later. The parking lot was little more than the remains of the open field the circus had laid claim to, and it was dark, beyond the reach of the lights from the carnival behind her.
She walked past several cars until she reached a large, windowless gray van, parked in a distant corner. She strode to the back of the vehicle, knocked three times, then paused and knocked again, and the door slid open to admit her.
She stepped inside, the van dipping faintly as she did so. She wasn’t surprised to see the Polkovnik waiting for her, sitting on the bench facing the door; his glasses were in one hand, his handkerchief in the other as he polished the lenses.
“Это сделано?” Is it done?
“Отлично. Пойдемте отсюда прежде чем его тело найдут.” Excellent. Then let us leave before the body is found.
The girl simply nodded, made her way past the unconscious figure on the floor, and took her seat near the Polkovnik. One of the guards slid the door closed behind her, blocking the circus from view, and the engine came to life a moment later, rocks hitting the bottom of the vehicle as they started for the road.
As a few, quiet minutes passed, the girl let her eyes wander around the interior of the van.
Two of the guards were seated in the back, one across from her, and the other next to the Polkovnik. They occupied themselves with cleaning the closest weapon at hand, occasionally exchanging a few words with the driver. She knew that their presence was due at least in part to hers - she was trusted, but that trust extended only so far. Still, the guards paid little attention to her now…perhaps following the Polkovnik’s example. He had put away his handkerchief, replaced his glasses, and retrieved a pad of paper and a pen which he used to write his notes. But, every few minutes, he would pause in his work, and glance thoughtfully at the floor of the van, where his latest acquisition lay.
Curious, she followed his gaze.
The boy rested a few feet away, on his side, facing her. He was perhaps a few years older than she was, and he was dressed oddly, in black pants and a black and purple vest, decorated with sequins; from this angle, she could see that the sequins on his back were sewn into the shape of some type of bird, its wings stretching over his shoulders. He had short, unruly dark-blond hair, and a lean but muscular frame, one that promised it would only improve with age. Procedure dictated that he be sedated, and that had clearly been done, but ropes still bound his wrists and ankles, and a gag still covered his mouth.
She frowned imperceptibly.
News of him had come through the Bratva…apparently, they had a local contact who had first-hand knowledge of the boy’s skill. She did not like the Bratva - they were rowdy and undisciplined, but the Polkovnik seemed to find them useful enough, and he’d agreed to meet the American who’d answered their “advertisement.” She had not been allowed to attend that meeting, but the Polkovnik had seemed intrigued when he’d returned, and his interest had only grown when he’d gone to observe the boy himself.
She wondered just what the Polkovnik saw in him…what he’d seen in her, once.
After all, she had not always belonged to the program, though what she recalled of her life outside of it was hazy, jumbled, and brief. A woman’s voice, a scream, and smoke. She did not know what it all meant…still, somehow she knew that those were memories from before.
She guarded those memories, fragmented as they were, relegating them to a distant corner of her mind, and examining them only on those rare occasions when she was free from scrutiny. Had her life been anything like this boy’s? She wished, suddenly, that he were awake, so she could speak to him…but she clamped down on that desire as quickly as it came. Thoughts like those were dangerous, and she had allowed her mind to wander too freely already. Her superiors would not have been pleased, had they been aware of it.
She looked away from the boy deliberately, choosing to focus on the wall across from her instead, studying the pattern of the shadows the metal grating cast in the limited light. Her body swayed slightly with the movement of the van as the driver slowed and turned. It was only the first of many turns in a long, winding route that would eventually lead them to the private airfield the Polkovnik had rented, and the plane that would carry them back to Russian soil.
A little over a half an hour had passed when a soft groan caught her attention, barely audible over the sound of the engine, and she tensed. No one else seemed to have heard it - the Polkovnik was once again absorbed in his notes, and the guards were laughing quietly, sharing a joke she did not understand and could not appreciate.
The sound came again, louder by the barest margin, and she was certain this time that it was the boy. She opened her mouth to alert the guards, but before she could, the boy’s eyes opened.
She couldn’t explain why, but the warning died on her tongue, and she found herself staring instead.
His eyes were a striking blue-gray, with small flecks of teal, green, and gold. For a long moment, he gazed up at the van’s ceiling, unseeing, and then his eyes slipped closed once more. She waited, but his eyes did not open again, and his breathing continued its slow rhythm under the sedative’s influence.
It was harder, this time, to turn her gaze away, but she did so nonetheless. As interested as she was in the boy, it was not her place to ask questions. She existed only to further the goals of the Red Room, and soon, this boy would do the same.
In the end, that was all she needed to know.