A Stack of Photos
For a moment, facing the door, she hesitated. The thug on her left put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a brief push forward. Caught by surprise, she stumbled, but in just a second she regained her balance and turned on her heels to face him. The guy smiled, showing teeth marred by opium.
“The boss is waiting. You don’t want to make him wait, right?”
She didn’t give a damn if the boss was waiting, so she kept staring at him until the other shrugged. He got the picture.
Don’t ever touch me again.
Then she turned back to the door and the other bully who was carrying a submachine gun, pushed it open.
The boss’ office was luxurious and well-organized. The surfaces shone with pure cleanliness and neatness. He was ostentatiously sitting behind a luxurious, hardwood carved table. Deng Hua Bin. He was one of the wealthiest businessmen in post-Maoist China.
He was also the leader of a new Chinese mafia, a syndicate as dark as it was dangerous.
Unofficially, of course.
Well dressed, courteous, polite, he seemed to her just a clone of his predecessors, yet another link in the long chain of mafia garbage she had to deal with. Not that he frightened her, he couldn’t even surprise her.
“Miss Croft, please.” He made an elegant gesture toward the comfortable padded chair before him. “Take a seat. I was expecting you.”
She didn’t wait and sat with firm back and high forehead, with that aristocratic elegance that made Hua Bin smile. And that challenging glance. Certainly she didn’t disappoint.
“I think you know why I summoned you.” He smiled, while he indicated with another vague gesture for the two thugs to place themselves on each side of her.
The woman made a charming smile.
“Summon me?” She raised her hands, showing her wrists, tied together with a tight clamp. They had begun to acquire a violet tone, indeed. “In my country we don’t summon people with these subtle additions. And I thought such wasn’t the case in China either, but I haven’t come around here for a while. Manners may have changed during my absence.”
No. Of course she didn’t disappoint.
“Sorry about the clamp... and sorry about the hood removed upon entering the building.” Hua Bin smiled, showing, unlike his henchman, flawless teeth. “But we’ve heard strange stories about you and, frankly, we didn’t want to try our chances. I hope my boys have treated you well.
“Wonderfully.” She answered and dropped her swollen hands. Hua Bin knew they must be beginning to give her twinges of pain from lack of blood circulation, but her charming smile wasn’t altered in the least. Well, well.
“I’ll get straight to the point, because those hands really don’t look good. You know what I want, I’ve been asking you for months. I think the bids have been more than generous. Perhaps you’re expecting them to be even more generous?”
She looked around as if that conversation bored her.
“They can be more or can be less generous, Deng.” She said with a tinkle of chutzpah that unnerved the mobster. “The answer remains the same. It’s not for sale.”
One of the thugs slowly stroked a huge knife he had holstered at his waist. Hua Bin imperceptibly shook his head. No, not yet.
“I hope you understand the deep sadness that invades us, the great Chinese people, being deprived of such a historic jewel, no doubt rightfully ours. You already did the world a big favor snatching it from the hands of that despicable Italian mafia. You could complete your merits by bequeathing it to the nation that created it.”
She smiled again.
“Italian Mafia, Chinese Mafia. What’s the difference? Are you going to tell me that you want to place it in the showcase of a museum?”
The thug stroked the knife again. Hua Bin was beginning to consider that option.
“I think we’ve exhausted all polite ways of doing this, Miss Croft. We must reach an agreement for good. I’d hate to do it the hard way.”
“We do agree, Deng. I’d also hate having to do it the hard way.” The woman’s smile widened.
He could just order Gao to break all the teeth in her mouth, to see if she’d keep smiling. But that brutality didn’t make sense, less with her. Fortunately, Deng Hua Bin had a better trick.
“Come on, Miss Croft...” Hua Bin leaned back in his chair and let out a long sigh. “You don’t want little Anna to have a hard time, do you?”
The British woman’s smile vanished instantly. It was the boss’ time to smile.
There you are, bitch. He who laughs last, laughs best.
“I’ll save you annoying and uncomfortable details.” He said quickly, waving his hand gracefully. “I give you a week to stand again here with the Dagger of Xian. For free, of course, since you haven’t shown much interest in my offers. What was that famous quote of yours... “I only play for sport”?”
She held his gaze in silence.
“Oh, why so serious now?” The gangster reached out, pretending to pat her, but she went back on the seat, standing outside his scope. “It’s okay. Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to the girl, not if you behave, for sure.”
She kept staring at him. She didn’t even blink.
Sighing, Hua Bin nodded to Gao and he pulled the knife, grabbed the clamp and raised her hands with a jerk. With a dry cut, he unleashed her.
He hadn’t been particularly careful. Her hands were already bruised and the clamp had left a reddish furrow around her wrists. In addition, he had cut her with the blade, so a trickle of blood slid down one of her hands. But she didn’t even shake them to regain their feeling. She just dropped them again.
Still defiant, huh?
“Very good. That will be all.” He nodded to his minions again. “Escort Miss Croft to the exit. With the hood on again, of course. Make sure she arrives safely to her hotel.”
She got up slowly, still looking at him, then she turned away. The last thing he saw was her elegant figure, with the braid on her back, disappearing behind the door. Then he relaxed and said:
“Already gone, you can come out.”
An imperceptible panel opened in the wall and an identical man appeared to him manipulating a cell phone.
“It’s done.” He said, and then looked at him. “Are you sure about this, Brother?”
“Of course.” Deng told his twin, with blatant disregard. “That threat will suffice. I can’t understand how a woman like her, with those enemies she has built up over the years, had the nerve to have a child. Best for me: easy way to handle her.”
But Xiao wasn’t done yet.
“That woman erased the whole Fiam...”
“I’m sick of hearing about the Fiamma Nera.” Deng muttered, rummaging in a drawer of his desk for the flask of liquor. “Everyone, everywhere, keeps telling me about the bloody Fiamma Nera. And about bloody Daniele Monteleone and his clan, too.”
“You shouldn’t have released her.” Xiao insisted. “She’s dangerous.”
“Really?” Deng had found the flask. He opened it and took a swig. “Yes, she’s a lioness. Tell me something new, Brother.”
“You didn’t scare her”. Xiao said, leaning over him. “And I’ll tell you something else you might not know about lionesses, Brother. What does a lioness do when you threaten her cub?”
Not even Xiao’s sinister omens could ruin that night. His night.
He sat comfortably on the suite bed, looking around. It was just two seconds ago the madam of the brothel had put him through, with her imperial courtesan smile, and had withdrawn without uttering a word. She knew what he liked. And she also knew no questions were asked or complaints interposed.
Nor did he have his men around him. He didn’t want them around when doing that. They were busy in other rooms, with other girls. They must not see, much less know.
He began to loosen his tie, shuddering impatiently in anticipation of the delight that awaited him. He was so absorbed in his own reverie he didn’t realize there was someone else in the room, until the figure emerged from the darkness in front of him.
The words “it’s you, sweetie?” died on his lips before he actually uttered them. It wasn’t one of his girls. It was a tall, well-built man, dressed all in black, his face covered with a ski mask.
He groped for his little gun. Then he remembered he had left it in his jacket, lying on a couch apart. Out of reach.
That didn’t look good. He wanted to open his mouth to yell, but then the individual raised a huge and heavy gun and pointed it directly at his face.
He closed his mouth. The following words came out in a whisper:
“Who the fuck are you?”
The man raised his hand and slowly pulled the ski mask, but the face who appeared behind it meant nothing to Deng Hua Bin. He was a man in his forties, a Western pale stubbly face, dark hair and blue eyes, and a decidedly unpleasant expression on his face.
“I’ll be damned if I know you.” Hua Bin muttered, annoyed.
“If you knew me”, answered the other with deep, quiet voice, “I’d be really bad at my job.”
Still pointing him with the gun, he grabbed a briefcase and raised it to the mobster’s eye level. Then there was a click and the suitcase opened, scattering a lot of pictures at Hua Bin’s feet.
The Chinese gangster quivered. He knew those pictures. Very well.
“It’s ok”. He sputtered, suddenly feeling his mouth dry. “Say an amount”.
But that man was in no hurry. Calmly, he sat on a stool and began to move the pictures, distracted, with the toe. Deng threw a nervous glance at the door.
“No, she won’t come.” The man said, without looking up. “Not her or any other one. Not anymore.”
“I’ll yell. My men will come.”
“No one comes when screams are heard from this room.” The man stabbed him with his cold blue eyes. “You have some pretty nasty hobbies. And I’ve seen a lot of nasty things in this world, I can tell.”
He leaned slowly and took a stack of photos. He wore black gloves, but still took one of the pictures by its tip, as if it burnt, and showed it to him:
“How old was this one? Seven, eight?”
“Please...” He muttered nervously.
“I think seven.” He threw down the picture with the others. He pulled another from the pile with the tips of his fingers. He looked like a player choosing from their deck. “And this one? I would say ten or twelve, but it’s hard to guess. I can’t see her face. It’s a bloody mess.”
“Lis... listen” Hua Bin worked hard to prevent his voice from shaking. “I’m rich. Awfully rich.”
“I wouldn’t touch your money, not even with a ten-foot pole.”
Suddenly, there was light in the mind of the gangster.
“You... you ...” he swallowed. “Lara Croft sent you. You’re here for the Dagger, right?”
“No.” Replied the other, dryly. “This is much more personal.”
He threw the photos to the floor - a grotesque mosaic of little innocent ones, defiled and destroyed - and arose. Realizing his time was up, Hua Bin abandoned all dignity.
“Tell her... tell her I withdraw the threat. I don’t want the Dagger. She no longer has to worry about it.”
“It’s too late.” He replied, and holstered the gun.
Seeing him put away the gun gave Hua Bin a final boost of bravery. An absurd bravery.
“If you kill me, I’ll be avenged”. He dared to threaten. “I’m found dead, and that vixen Lara Croft dies too. I hope you were paid in advance...”
“You’re found dead, you say?” The man smiled as he approached. A twisted, terrifying smile. “You won’t be “found dead.” They won’t even find your corpse.”
The gangster licked his lips, dry and cracked.
“Everyone will know it was her. The conversation we had is recorded. My people know that I threatened her. And when she’s dead, the kid dies too.”
The man sighed and turned around.
“How I hate when people don’t know how to shut the fuck up.”
And then, at the last moment of his life, Deng Hua Bin definitely heard a bell go off in his brain. He gasped, because suddenly he’d recognized those blue eyes. The brat. The fucking brat.
He was interrupted by a kick in the face. He fell back, stunned. Before he could react, he was caught and stamped on the floor.
He never even saw the punch coming against his temple. Seconds later, he was dead.
He threw away everything: clothing, gloves, and Hua Bin’s shattered cell phone, at the huge port channel of Shanghai. Then he walked absently along near the brown waters, until he saw the woman sitting on one of the pylons, silently watching the silhouette of the bright and gloomy megalopolis.
“M’lady.” He muttered.
She looked at him and smiled. So lovely.
“How was it?” He asked.
“Fixed.” The woman opened her denim jacket and showed him the hidden pistol. “He was hiding behind the wall while talking to Deng and had recorded everything. He actually believed I hadn’t heard him.” She took Xiao’s phone, dropped it on the floor and methodically destroyed it with her heels. Then, she kicked it and threw it into the channel. “You?”
He instinctively groped his belt in search of cigarettes, a die-hard habit, but then he remembered he only smoked occasionally now and dropped his hand.
“It’s done” he replied simply.
“Same as yours. Sleeping with the fishes. More like with garbage.” He said, casting a look of disgust at the dirty channel. “No one will look in this dump.”
“What if they find him?”
“They won’t. But if they did, they won’t recognize him.” He grimaced in a way she knew well. “He was lucky to be already dead when I did that to him. Those kids weren’t.”
“And his personal bodyguards?”
“Unaware. He liked to keep his shit private. They didn’t see me come in or go out. Xiao?”
“No escort. He was hidden for years, like you said. Only Deng knew he was alive.”
Then he saw the woman pulling out a bundle of photographs, and frowned.
“You were supposed to leave that there.”
“Not these.” Then she went through one after another. “These are the worst ones.”
“Precisely the ones that should be left, more than any other. Make his family rage when finding them. The more commotion there, the less attention towards you.”
“Cut the gibberish”. The British muttered, glaring at him. “I left more than enough so that no one will miss that...” She took a deep breath. “How did you find this? I knew he was disgusting, but not like that.”
The man shrugged.
“Everyone has secrets. You just need to know where to look for them.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“And,” he concluded, “I remind you this was my job for years, before we met.”
There was no need to explain to him what was that. The Agency. Gunderson’s cutthroats.
“Give me your lighter.” She suddenly said, stretching her hand. When he didn’t move, she frowned. “Come on, do it. I know you still smoke on the sly.”
He sighed and handed the lighter. Slowly, methodically, the woman burned, one by one, those dreadful pictures, dropping the remains to the ground. When she finished, she got up and returned the lighter.
Then he saw the marks around her wrists. He took her hand and drew her wrist slowly to his lips. She smiled.
“You know I’ve had worse...”
But she stopped when she noticed his lips gently feeling the wound. She closed her eyes to enjoy the sensation.
“By the way” She said, without opening them. “Just to make it clear, this does not set any precedent. I fight my battles. I solve my problems.”
“She’s my daughter too.”
She opened her eyes. He was looking at her seriously, still holding her hand.
“Deng was mine.” Still she felt like protesting.
“Absurdly reckless. You’re too famous, and so was he. Instead, nobody had seen his brother for a while. You’ve dealt with him, right?”
She twisted her mouth, but relaxed her expression when he started to kiss her other wrist. She closed her eyes again.
“I really hate when she’s used as a threat...”
“Welcome to my world.” He smiled.
Worse for them.
She wouldn’t let Anna become her weakness. She would keep killing them, as soon as they gave her the creeps, as Deng had done. She would kill them all before they could even dream of approaching her.
And when the time came, she’d teach her how to fight her own battles as well.
That, he knew very well. Hua Bin had found her weak point. But they had also found his.
She withdrew his hand to kiss him. For a moment, the victims’ faces, or what was left of them, assaulted her again. But she quickly banished them from her mind.
It was over. No one would miss Hua Bin, and all of them would get the message. All over the world little girls were hurt, it was nothing special. However, discovering a mogul of his reputation had something to do with it was another matter. His own people would disown him immediately as soon as they found out. There would be no vendetta. And nobody would relate her to it. An avalanche of anger and disgust would wipe out everything.
“Any hotel nearby?” She whispered, her lips still brushing his mouth. “I’m afraid mine is no longer safe.”
“Phew.” He gently stroked her lower lip with the tip of the thumb. “Mine is pretty unsavory. Nothing suitable for a British lady.”
“An unsavory place for unsavory stuff. Perfect.” She turned, grabbed his wrist and pulled him. “Come on. We still have a few hours before the flight.”
He smiled and followed her with the comforting thought that, after all, they wouldn’t be paying too much attention to the decor. Not as long as they kept busy with most crucial things.
Which had never been a problem, and wouldn’t be now.