The Executioner – Ep. XVI – Mad Conan

“See, what did I tell you? They found Mad Conan to blame it on. As for the old man, he’s a scapegoat,” Rux said as images of a sorry old doctor with Einstein hair, cuffed hands and fragile body in a tweed suit appeared on the screen, led to a police car by two men in black uniforms. According to the reporter, the car exploded only shortly later, the doctor and the policemen all dead. The connection to Dad fired in my head – first extraction, then death.

“Jesus, Rux, this is bad! This is real bad!”

She looked at me, startled by my reaction. In a few breaths and with no second thoughts I broke my oath and told her about the extraction, glancing at the door to make sure Mom didn’t catch me on it.

“Help me, Rux,” I pleaded. “I need to see him, make sure he’s not being held hostage and questioned like a heretic, then maybe even killed in some staged accident!”

“And who’s gonna tell you where Dr. Preda is? Apparently no one wants you to know.”

“We’ll go see Varlam at the station. I’ll find a way to get him talking.”

“You don’t have his number?”

I snorted. “How do you suppose I could talk to him about these things on the phone? Plus, if we call first it’ll give him time to think of ways to ditch us or fool us. The only solution is going to the station, and talk to him face to face.”

Rux studied me for a while. A deep-in-thought V formed between her eyebrows as she assessed my face, and the moment Mom walked back into the living room, she began talking without warning or turning her eyes from me.

“There’s no way I can spend days here without something proper to wear.”

She sounded so convincing, I fell for it myself. “You can have anything from my wardrobe,” I babbled.

“You’re petite, Alice, you don’t own anything I can actually take out on the street or to campus tomorrow.”

Her eyes danced on mine, maybe in expectation for me to kick the ball back at her. But, since I was too puzzled to produce a sound, she went on herself. “I need to buy a few things.”

I finally understood her game, but Mom intervened as if burnt with a red iron before I could say anything.

“You’re sure not going out, not with darkness knocking on the door.”

Rux’s face froze for a moment but, as she turned to Mom, it had already regained its elasticity and added a rakish smile.

“What if we ask one of the boys outside to accompany us to Marvimex?”

“They’re here as watchmen and not escorts,” Mom admonished.

“Then please, have a word with them,” Rux said.

Mom gave me a suspicion-filled look, which I blocked with an innocent smile and a shrug.

“I’d love to get out of the house for a bit,” I said. “It feels like prison, and I need a breath of freedom, Mom.”

It was the begging tone that unbalanced Mom’s resolve, no doubt. After little more insistence from our part she allowed us to get ready while she went out, looking for Officer Sorescu and his colleagues. I had no idea why Rux invited the escort, but I decided to trust her judgment in the end. She always knew what she was doing.

I parted the curtains with two fingers and spied – much like old Mrs. Teodorescu from across the street did each time a car pulled up in front of one of the neighboring houses. Mom crossed the street, keeping the long winter coat wrapped closely around her body.

To my gaping surprise, she entered the corner bar where loud drunkards burned away their time gambling cigarettes and bottles, sometimes their wives’ jewelry, sometimes their wives. With its barred windows and narrow entrance the place was perfectly designed to keep interest at bay. Yes, suited for undercover tailing operations, why not.

“What if the place hadn’t existed, I wonder,” Rux said. “Would they have extracted your neighbor Mrs. Teodorescu and had an agent disguise himself as her, with apron an’ all?”

She forced a laugh that made her look and sound mentally deranged rather than amused. The picture of Officer Sorescu’s round face framed by a colored kerchief did reach my mind’s eye, though.

Rux and I went to the antechamber, where challenge number two was up – getting around George. He lay on the sofa with eyes fixed on the small TV, watching no less than Bugs Bunny. Mom must’ve turned to the old tape to keep his mind off anything heavy.

Rux stared at him, holding a finger up in front of her pursed lips – keeping me quiet, I imagined. He seemed not to be aware of our presence, his mouth open, drooling, and brows high in the expression of a retard. Maybe the colored motion on screen simply put his mind off duty. Or maybe he was high on prescription medication.

Slowly, Rux opened the doors to the wardrobe. The slower she moved the more they creaked, and George stirred.

“For God’s sake, Rux, he’s not Alien or something,” I mumbled, refusing to accept that George wasn’t to be treated like a normal person anytime soon.

“Shhhhh! D’you want him screaming and wriggling?” she retorted through her teeth.

I knew she was right but it felt wrong anyway, treating George like an inconvenience.

Rux skimmed over the shelves with an all business frown, scanned the available items – not by far satisfactory, judging by the silent scoffs – and snatched a white wool sweater and a pair of tight jeans that reminded me too much of what Svetlana had been wearing in the mountains. But as soon as Rux closed the double doors to my room behind us, I shrugged off the memory as I did the nightgown and pulled them on without protest. Time was too precious.

The jeans were a couple of years old and had gone through repeated washing along with the other pairs, but I’d only worn them once on the day of acquisition. Tony had labeled this particular pair “slutty” ‘cause it molded on my thighs “like latex leggings on hookers’ legs.” What saved them from becoming a giveaway was my “modest” wardrobe, as Rux often put it, so I’d kept them to make me feel I owned at least a little more than I needed.

A change of clothes was already folded for Rux on the rocking chair by the window. I watched her sinewy shape dance into it and recognized Mom’s elegant red turtleneck sweater and a pair of white pants.

“How do I look?” she inquired.

“When did Mom give you the threads?” If Mom had offered Rux access to her wardrobe, what was the point of shopping, especially at five in the evening?

“She didn’t. I helped myself after the shower today.” She winked. “Your clothes are all too small, and I figured Jenna wouldn’t mind. She never did before.”

“But she’ll see you’re wearing her stuff when we go out. Marvimex won’t stand, she’ll know we’re going somewhere else. Plus, even if we manage to persuade her we’re going shopping, we might not even make it to Varlam with one of those watchmen on our heels,” I threw at her, sounding increasingly desperate as I realized the holes in our plot.

“Oh, we’re going to Marvimex, all right. I can’t wear Jenna’s clothes forever, she knows that. Once we’re there, I’ll talk the guy into accompanying us to see Hector. I’ll tell him you and I have confidential information, and that our seeing him needs cover.”

“He won’t buy it.” I shook my head. “It’s weak, it won’t work.”

“Wanna bet?” Rux retorted, a mischievous grin quirking up a corner of her mouth.

In the end Rux turned out to be right. Mom didn’t even ask how come my best friend wore her outfit. The explanation must’ve been obvious.

Embarrassing as it was, we had to accept Mom’s pushing cash in our hands with bent heads. All the money I’d managed to save from tutoring activities was at our apartment in the outskirts, as were Rux’s savings from all her baby-sitting.

In less than half an hour we stood under the large sign creaking askew above the entrance to Marvimex, the rain rapping on our umbrellas. The crooked plate read “Shopping Center,” yet the place wasn’t far from a bazaar. Engulfed by grey blocks of flats with walls damped by rain that testified half century of communism, it looked like a stable with dozens of barracks in the middle of a concrete fortress. Small, round men and women wearing thick golden chains around their necks populated them, offering contraband like circus performers did their tricks. Still, many shoppers preferred the place to the Tomis Mall for its cheap and often unique wares.

Valuable objects such as antique adornment artifacts and clay pots weren’t unusual here. There were actually even stories of vintage jewelry that had made it to the manors of lords and ladies in England or even tycoons in the States for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But to me, these were no more than myths until proven otherwise.

Officer Sorescu sheltered Rux under the umbrella he held for both of them. She’d been quicker to charm him than I’d thought possible.

I caught glimpses of her profile now and then as we slithered through strings of people towards the roofed hall that housed an anthill of booths. These glimpses read seduction off her smile, and I divined the batting of her thick lashes. They produced the effect of melting poor Sorescu on his feet, and I knew she’d soon be able to touch on the sensitive subject, namely ask him to accompany us to the station for a confidential meeting with Agent Hector Varlam. Then the even more sensitive core of the subject would follow – no one was to hear of this.

I lost them from sight as a young family in shopping rush squeezed me among them, and disappeared again suddenly in the roofed hall. I’d lost my umbrella in the process too. Persian rugs hung among lamps and chandeliers of different shapes, their glass icicles clinking whenever they trickled too low and touched my hair. They gave dim and pleasant light of warm and silent colors.

It was as if I’d been teleported by some tornado in another dimension, this part of the bazaar as good as empty of life except for a few passer-by shadows here and there. I spun among the hanging rugs, curtains and lamps that surrounded me the way circus gadgets would a child. Intertwined patterns engraved into the carpet fabric had a hypnotic effect. An effect that was all-surrounding. It gave me an unsettling feeling and a nagging presentiment of danger until a powerful voice called my name.

“Miss Preda.”

I turned on my heels and gasped.

The largest man that must’ve ever existed stood before me, his head much above mine. Big to the extreme, something most people don’t get to lay their eyes on in a lifetime. A black cloak that reminded me of the garment of a priest molded on his wavy, way-too-big shoulder muscles. Cold sweat trickled down my temples.

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII, Episode XIII, Episode XIV, Episode XV. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – for example, check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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The Executioner – Ep. XV – In Danger

“How can you be sure Dad is safe with the Intelligence Service?” Worry broke through my voice, no matter how hard I tried to keep it chained.

“Because there’s nothing safer than their protection in this country,” Mom said.

“The few words I exchanged with him back at the hospital, he didn’t seem anxious about his life. He wanted to stay here, with us.”

“Two of his colleagues and their families have been killed, Alice. Those men worked for the same organization as your father from Barcelona and Bristol, also in matters related to genetic research. The R.I.S. are certain BioDhrome were the moral author of these murders, and that back in the mountains they meant to finish you in the same horrendous way to teach your father the same kind of lesson. Therefore Tiberius is a risk factor in this house, for us and for himself. Without him we’re safer, but still. Officer Sorescu, the man you saw in here . . .” even more careful now, “he’s around with his colleagues, just in case. Melanie and George will be staying with us too.”

“Does this mean we’re confined to these walls?”

“No. The R.I.S. and the doctors, they all agree that the trauma will be slow to leave you, so a normal life is essential. Especially public places are benefic. Crowds are safe.”

She smiled as if this were supposed to thrill me like alcohol would a teen. And it did, to a certain extent. Crowds, places like the campus and even clubs were safe indeed in our town, people’s built-in curiosity would let no event unobserved. It worked better than CCTV, so there was strong reason to believe that BioDhrome wouldn’t risk taking action in open field. They’d try to get us alone, at night in lonely places or even in our homes. So surveillance and protection made sense.

But the feeling that Dad had been extracted against his will nagged. He’d been desperate like never before at the hospital, his tone had left no room for doubt. He’d been convinced that he could protect us, especially by being present.

“And if we want to talk to him? Is there some number we can call? Some place we can go, for example, I don’t know, a phone cabin downtown like in those detective movies or something?”

“We can contact Agent Varlam.”

“I see.” I proved unable to control an acid grin. So this is how Hector was forcing cooperation. By leaving us no way around him. On a second thought, what if extraction was no more than a cover? A gross lie? What if he’d thrown Dad in a nasty cell and punched and kicked information on Damian Novac out of him? I jumped to my feet, bumping into the table edge. My ears whistled in tune with the kettle on the stove.

“Well, I’d like a word with him right now,” I spat.

Mom stood up too, hand on my cheek to calm me down, blue eyes identical to mine wide and worried. Standing half a head taller though, she made me feel like a kid again.

“Alice, honey, the whole idea behind this was to keep out of touch. Why bother organizing an extraction, if family stops by at the hideout to say hello anytime they please?”

“And you accept this so easily?” I snapped and brushed her hand off. “Are you really not worried about him, not one bit? His absence doesn’t bother you in the least?”

Now it was Mom’s turn to frown and apply a hard edge to her voice. “It’s not much difference to the last years, is it?”

“But this is different, Mom! BioDhrome is serious shit, real trouble that not even the R.I.S. might be able to protect him from.”

“I am worried about your father, Alice, believe me, but yes, I admit, I’m more worried about you. And if his presence puts you in danger, then I don’t need or want to see him again until the afterlife.”

Her words sent a stab through my brain, but I kept protest and anger behind tightened lips. Mom’s honesty was sharp, like glass colliding with glass in her voice, leaving no trace of vulnerability. Moreover, Dad had been cheating on her for a long time, and she knew it. I happened to know even with whom. Indeed, why should she give a shit? I tried for a peace-making tone.

“But I wouldn’t be seeing him, Mom. I’ll just talk to Agent Varlam, make sure Dad’s all right. I need to convince myself.”

“I know you’re hard to assure of anything, sweetheart. You have a counterargument ready for anything, you’re able to question even the law of gravity, and I think you’re taking it too far sometimes. That’s why I’m telling you now: your father is safe and sound, take that for granted.”

Mom wasn’t the dictator Dad could often be, but when she stood for something there was no way past her will. Behind the mask of the kind, soft-spoken Madame Jenna everyone appreciated, she had ways of getting what she wanted, brains to bow to and the patience of a reptile. On days like this, I ate my heart out for not having inherited at least half of everything she was.

Still, I found the guts to try and make up a strategy around her in my head, but before it caught shape I heard the door from the antechamber to my room. Then light steps. Ruxandra’s steps. The knock on the doorframe to signal her presence was accompanied by a weak smile.

Her pretty face had lost much of its glow, her olive complexion now pale in its own way, her hair a washed-out black, rumpling down to her waist. Her jaw was locked despite the smile. The experience we’d been through had taken away what was left of her carefree self, I would say.

Mom smiled back and hurried to pour her a cup of coffee, eager to cover the subject of our conversation. Ruxandra relished Mom’s warm welcome like an orphan would a Christmas night with presents, and joined me at the table, huddled in my old pink bathrobe that came too short on her arms and legs.

They were all “Rux, dear,” and “Jenna” to each other, as always. They had a special relationship. Mom had made a life purpose of plunging deep into the troubles of the gypsy minority, she had dedicated them her time even though there was no trophy to be won. Rich wives of the Western World she came from did charity, Mom had told me, but she didn’t think much of it. “Raising funds for clerks. Trust me, half of the donated money ends up on their pay-checks,” she’d say.

But Mom was determined to be of use on a very personal, palpable level, and made a great “career” of social work. Many of the gypsy kids in our neighborhood, Ruxandra and her older sister Cora included, had listened to her winter stories and learned to read and write from her. Both Romanian and English. It had been Mom who’d helped Ruxandra’s mother leave her husband and find a job at the textile factory many years ago. She’d fought and achieved so much in those difficult times. A rush of admiration swept over me. My heroine.

Ruxandra took a long sip of coffee, fingers curled around the mug, then leaned her head back, savoring not only the aroma but also her surroundings. There was love in her gaze as it crossed over every detail of the room – the cluttered wooden cupboards nailed to the walls over the counter, the door to the back garden with its frosted glass pane, the pots, kettles and spoons dangling from a wooden stripe with hooks above the sink like bells waiting to be played.

“I’ve missed this place,” she said, her hand gently stroking the nylon table cover.

Mom gave her a warm smile. “It’s missed you, too.”

Despite the promising start, the conversation got stuck as soon as Mom uttered a “Did you sleep well?” Ruxandra lowered her head and pressed her lips, as if not wanting to remember. But, if she’d had nightmares, I hadn’t noticed. She’d been still and quiet. Only George’s low moaning and sighing had reached me once in a while through the veil of light sleep.

Mom tried to guide Ruxandra back on the conversational track, but all she got were attempted smiles from the trembling corner of Rux’s mouth. She wasn’t quite herself. But then again, neither was I.

Mom’s insistences on tea, cookies, coffee, chocolate, marmalade and another dozen sweets per minute were a clear sign I was a disturbing sight too. I wasn’t even sure to perceive and answer all her questions. I had this feeling they’d passed by my ears more than once, like “deja heards or something.

George woke up late in the afternoon. His sudden screams as if someone sliced him alive made us all jump, and Mom almost threw down the door to the antechamber to attend him. His pained groans sent chills down my back. Ruxandra slapped her palms over her face, her shoulders shaking in sobs.

Carefully, I took her in my arms. I threw a glance at the big, lazy clock on top of the bookcase – four in the afternoon. George had at least gotten a good chunk of sleep. Unlike Ruxandra and me, who hadn’t even found the energy of losing the pink bathrobes we still wore like overgrown babies, curled on the couch, TV on.

Without Mom to promptly switch channels as soon as the news came on, always packed with tragedies and subliminal, “This is the end of the world,” Ruxandra and I were now fully exposed to them. A report about a massacre at a remote cabin in the mountains of Bulgaria made both our eyes bulge.

The twin of our story, only that no one had been found, dead or alive. The perfectly groomed reporter’s words were like other “deja heards,” her voice matter-of-fact but disturbed in its depths. Censured images that played on the half of the screen next to her face accompanied her story.

“Blood on pieces of clothing and torn curtains. Broken windows and . . .” And this is where my ears began buzzing, muffling the sound of the TV. My blood pressure must’ve shot up.

So this one made it on the news.

“They’ll cover up in a few days max,” Ruxandra said, close enough to my ear to pierce through the buzz.

“How is that supposed to work? How could a footage like this be a mistake? They freaking filmed the mess. People are not stupid, Rux.”

“No, they aren’t. But there have been so many tragedies with so many explanations lately, that illegal experimentation won’t cross their minds. They’ll accept any animal attack, serial killer, drugs and orgies that ended up badly, you name it.”

Then the reporter said, “The police arrested Dr. Lazar Dobrev, a psychiatrist. He used to treat one of the missing persons. Dr. Dobrev set the man on the loose, even though he was known to have murderous impulses, which he shouldn’t have had trouble acting on at a height of two meters, and a hundred and seventy kilograms of muscle.”

 

***

 

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII, Episode XIII, Episode XIV. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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The Executioner – Ep. XIV – Discoveries

Where was Dad?

I threw the blanket aside, squirmed out of bed – squashing Rux in the process, provoking a sleepy grunt – and rushed to the master bedroom.

The curtains hung open, making way for the pale winter light through the overlarge window. The bed was made – of course, Mom must’ve been up for hours, if she’d slept at all, considering the circumstances. Having left the parental home a few years ago to live with Ruxandra in the suburbs, most of my parents’ habits had moved to the back of my brain, only to resurface when exposed to them again. As they did now. I remembered the smell of scrambled eggs that used to draw me to the kitchen when I was still a teenager. It hadn’t spoilt my olfactory senses in some years and it didn’t now either, but, as I said, old memories resurfaced.

I tiptoed to the kitchen to find Mom sitting at the table, her thin fingers slowly stroking a coffee mug smeared with souvenir photos of San Francisco – one of the few items that still bound her to her own home. Her stare was lost over the black liquid that didn’t give out steam, which meant she must’ve been staring blankly at it for some time now. Her hair, blond and crisscrossed by gray strands, fell rumpled to her slim shoulders. A fluffy white nightgown clad her thin body.

The sight was disconcerting, considering her usual innate urge of always looking flawless and making an impression of aristocracy on all eyes that fell on her, including the cleaning lady’s. Now the absence of an elegant and shiny chignon and the uncovered wrinkles on her meager face in the presence of a stranger were another definite sign something was wrong.

His sitting with her, the corner cupboard hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles, was even more disturbing. A heavy winter coat hung negligently on the rest of his chair, his chubby hands cupping a coffee mug of his own like pillows of flesh emerging from under thick sweater sleeves. His mien was grave as he set small brown eyes on me.

Round and unfriendly, that’s the impression his face made. Was he her lover? No way, my inner self spat. She would’ve gone for someone less . . . stiff. Plus, he didn’t seem to be feeling awkward, nor did he try to justify his presence.

Just a few moments of puzzling silence, then he stood up, gathered his coat and turned to the door that led directly to the back garden – something told me he’d come in through the same, but I was clueless as to the reason why he refused to use the front door. With a hand on the handle and the coat on the other arm, he turned once more to Mom.

“You know where to find me.”

She nodded, and he left.

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Still, my sixth sense activated again and sent me with slow steps to the table, then seated me in the man’s place.

Mom didn’t raise her head. On the contrary, she seemed to sink it even closer to the mug, a hunch forming on her slim back that was otherwise as straight as a wood plank. Hadn’t it been for the thick bathrobe, I would’ve seen the skin stretch over her ribs. The truth of the man’s visit must’ve been a burden not much different from an affair. Could it be?

“So?” I managed after a while.

Her fingers still stroked the mug with slow, even moves. “We’ll be under police surveillance. I don’t know for how long.”

Police surveillance?

“Why’s that?”

“You and your friends. The . . .” she chewed on her lower lip, probably to keep back what looked like a nervous breakdown. Her cheek twitched. “Those people from the mountains. BioDhrome, they told me.”

Panic shot to the tips of my toes.“BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”

“Where’s Dad?”

Only now Mom looked me in the eyes, eyebrows up like a crying pet’s. She looked for the way to put it, there was no doubt.

“No, God, please no!”

Mom’s expression grew from wrecked to worried, more alert now, the way it had been at the hospital. She touched my wrist, voice soft and soothing, though it cost her some effort. “No, baby, no. He’s all right, safe and sound.”

“Where is he then?”

This was the news she’d been nervous about, I could tell by the pause and fixed gaze on my eyes. “He’s been extracted, they told me.”

Extracted? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Another nervous chew on her lip. “This BioDhrome thing.” Then reconsidering, “Alice, this must stay between us. Tell no one, not Ruxandra, not anyone.”

“Just tell me, Mom!”

“Give me your word first. For your own safety, not my comfort.”

“I’m your daughter, you really believe I’d betray your secrets?” A stab in the chest accompanied the words. As I don’t betray Dad’s. “All right, may I die in chains, if a word on this leaves my mouth,” I went for one of the gypsy oath formulations I’d learned in Ruxandra’s crowded home as a child.

Mom shuddered. “Not like that, please. Your word suffices. Keep this all to yourself, for your own good.”

“No need to elaborate on that. Elaborate on extracted.”

She took a deep breath, gathering her nerves. “I’ll have to start with the beginning so you understand.”

“Please do.”

“For many years, Tiberius has been working with an international organization whose name he never told me. He’s been analyzing blood samples they delivered him. The results were always classified, your father never spoke of them. They often surprised and baffled him, which filled him with enthusiasm in the beginning. But after we had you, he withdrew in his shell like a turtle. Soon his work started to take too heavy a toll. We had midnight fights more and more often.” Her voice trailed off, lost in painful memory.

“Tell me about it,” I whispered. All those late nights when Dad tiptoed to the master bedroom, the quiet quarrels they thought I didn’t hear played like a movie in my head. All those empty weekends, Mom sunken in her books and I in mine, Dad only a picture on a shelf, even though he was still of this world.

“I put him under pressure to quit what he was doing. I imagine that’s why his heart grew cold to me, and he began seeking comfort elsewhere. Oh, dear baby, I haven’t asked – some coffee? Tea?”

With the premiere of her confession on my shoulders I nodded, and Mom put a kettle on the stove. I let her decide on whether coffee or tea and moved a few inches in to let her sit by me and slide a loving arm around my back, as if to support me through what she’d say next.

“Your father is a BioDhrome target, they tell me, because he works with their direct enemy, an organization which calls itself ‘the good guy,’ but I don’t know. They’re so powerful that they could order the R.I.S. to take your father in while we were still at the hospital in Brasov, and that kind of power is dubious. To be completely honest, I’m no less afraid of them than I am of your attckers in the mountains.”

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII, Episode XIII. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

I love reading from you, so don’t be shy and share your thoughts and feelings in a comment.

 

The Executioner – Ep. XIII – Dirty Secrets

 

“My Dad is the mobster she danced for?”

“The mobster thing was just speculation, cheap gossip. But Novac . . . I’ll have to stop here, you’re in no condition to hear this . . .”

“My condition didn’t stop you until now. Go on.”

Hector gritted his teeth. “You know how I received this assignment? The Cezare Lupan file, archived with the R.I.S., disappeared six years ago. Disappeared, you understand? No one can make that happen unless they’re the K.G.B., F.B.I., fucking David Copperfield or a nasty monster with friends in high places, like BioDhrome. That’s how the Intelligence Service got me on the job.

“After six years of rubbing shoulders with him, I still don’t have evidence against Novac, I don’t. But I’m positive as hell he works for BioDhrome. Still, any chance of producing evidence by myself is gone with the wind. My cover is now history, blown when we got out of that frozen hell, blown when my R.I.S. superiors came forward too directly, overconfident I’d gotten all the proof and witnesses we needed to nail Novac after this.”

The room spun with me. This isn’t happening was back in the charts.

“So help me.” Hector lowered his voice even more, taking my hand in both of his. They pressed on my bandaged fingers, reminding me of how my nails had come off. The pain helped revive awareness that I was still in the real world.

“What did they talk about, your father and Novac?”

He put slightly too much emphasis on this last question. My thoughts suddenly fit together like puzzle pieces, leaving no room four doubt: he’d come to see me as an investigator, yet he’d done as good as all the talking, telling me horror stories about a Machiavellian agent and a father I refused to recognize. All this even though I lay on a hospital bed with IV lines snaking around my arms. “Everything hurts, no matter what.”

It dawned on me. The son of a bitch tried to manipulate me into betraying my own father, and Dad had known it. Maybe what he said was true, but he wielded the truth to get a fat bonus, trying to nail Dad along with Damian Novac, or Cezare Lupan, or whatever his name was. I turned my head to the narrow window, letting the gray daylight flood my eyes, as stinging as it was.

“I wouldn’t know, Agent Varlam. I wasn’t yet awake.”

“Yes, you were,” he insisted. “Your mother told me you were.”

“She was wrong.”

“As simple as that?”

“It’s the simple truth. Now if you don’t mind, I’m tired. Everything hurts.”

Hector tensed, I felt it in his grip on my hand and the intensifying pain in my fingers.

“I really hope you’re not covering anything, Miss Preda,” he stressed. “More shit will happen if I don’t lock up Damian Novac soon.”

“And who else would you have locked up, Agent Varlam?”

“Whoever aids him in his endeavors, directly or indirectly,” he spat.

Especially because of this covert threat I was relieved when he left the room, and anxious to see Dad at the same time. Soon I received another visit, but it wasn’t him. Mom rushed to my side and kissed my forehead, again and again, smothering me. I was so eager to talk to Dad that I didn’t wait for the right moment to ask about him, making Mom feel superfluous. She said he’d be back any minute now, but minutes and hours flowed slowly, the nerve-wrecking clock ticking them away.

No, Damian can’t be working with BioDhrome, I chewed on my thoughts. Of this one thing his conversation with Dad should have assured me. But then again, maybe he’d been playing Dad for whatever reason all the time they’d known each other. Maybe he did sleep with Svetlana Slavic, Dad’s slut, and maybe that wasn’t the only way he betrayed Dad. Maybe he was indeed a foe.

After two phone calls in hushed voice, with her hand covering the receiver and her mouth, Mom announced that Dad had urgent business back in Constanta and had been forced to return on a short notice – a surprise, considering his vehemence in staying by my side. But when Mom mentioned the business was related to “the case at hand”, assuring me that Dad was all right, I relaxed. Her voice usually had that effect on me. She also revealed we were at the General Hospital in Brasov.

A white-lit place it was, but depressing as hell. I got to explore its corridors while searching for Ruxandra as soon as I could walk, which didn’t happen until the following day. Considering the great blood values I was supposed to have according to Dad, the weakness and vertigo that made me throw up were unexplainable. Didn’t dare talk to Mom about it, though. It was hard to even look her in the face, knowing what I knew now – that Dad had been sleeping with a girl my age, a girl I knew. But I couldn’t walk without help, so I had to live with the crushing guilt as we strolled through the hospital. To top the whole thing, I had this ever-present sensation that I saw Damian everywhere, unyielding and unnerving that I almost choked on it.

“Is it just me, or you’re hoping to see this boy?” Mom said with a patient, experienced smile.

“I do.” The truth tumbled like a rock off my chest.

“He must be very fond of you, too. He spent hours by your bed.”

My heart jumped. “He did?”

Nod. “Didn’t take his eyes off your face. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was hypnotized, standing there like a statue.”

I don’t think a bungee leap could’ve been more exhilarating than the feeling that coursed through me at those words.

“When your father and I arrived, he was already with you. God, sweetheart, never put me through this again . . .” She paused, swallowing the panic down her thin, dry-skinned throat as she skipped to a part that seemed to comfort her. “That boy was always there as doctors swarmed around you, and he stayed after they stabilized you, too. I didn’t have the heart to ask him for privacy.”

“Really?”

“He’s remarkably handsome, if I may say,” Mom continued with another conspirator smile. If only she knew how innocent she actually was, despite her long years of wisdom.

“That he is,” I whispered.

Only as we finally found Ruxandra’s room in the east wing – as dark and humid as any old building that rarely saw an investment – did the bitterness succumb, replaced by a flood of sadness at the sight of my friend lying on that piece of metal with a flimsy mattress, her chocolate eyes drooping and lips drawn downward from crying.

We exchanged no words. Just that locking of the eyes. I dropped by her side and squeezed her in my arms as hard as my tired muscles allowed. She was softer than usual too, her flesh felt like warm polenta. And tears flowed, wordless, both of us shaking with them, our fingers hooking like claws in each other’s hair, tugging as memories drained from us. We cried and leaned on each other like exhausted boxers until there was no drop of rage left, just sighs and lunatic laughs.

Although Ruxandra was perfectly healthy too, as her blood tests showed, the hospital wasn’t cleared to let her go. The police had ordered that none of the survivors leave the premises until specifically permitted to do so, which left no big difference between the hospital and prison. Hector prolonged this situation by as much as his badge allowed, so clearance came in about twenty-four hours. Every survivor was then ready to leave, no one with serious injuries or needing medical attention for an extended period of time, but mentally we were all wrecks.

Mom drove all the four-hour way to Constanta in silence. George had great need of it. He was sensitive to all sound, he’d cover his ears, his face would twist in a grotesque mask and he’d squeeze his lids shut at every word he heard. He’d killed a man with his own hands, the trauma was most severe for him, the doctor had explained. He remembered every detail of it vividly, which tormented him with violent headaches.

“Don’t leave him alone, for whatever reason,” the doctor had warned.

The street up to my parents’ house revealed itself on a last turn, cobbled and ghostly in our headlights. Barking from neighboring yards and the crisp sea air were the first to greet us, lonely and timeless, like the screech of our old iron gate and the warm darkness of our living room. I think that was my first real experience of synesthesia, I could almost feel the massive oak bookcase through my skin, the homely upholstered couch, Dad’s favorite armchair.

George didn’t wait for an invitation to throw himself face-down on the sofa in the small antechamber that opened into my room, which I used to call my “boudoir” back in high school. Ruxandra and I shared my bed.

Mom turned on the lamp outside, the thick skeleton of our old apple tree bathing in its mild light. We kept the curtains open so we could face it from the bed, my old guardian from childhood days. It felt safe, but I still couldn’t close my eyes until the early morning hours. Something was missing, something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t home. It only hit me when my eyes snapped open at midday, my brain refreshed:

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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The Executioner – Ep. X – When Men become Beasts

In a fraction of a second my brain spat out thoughts that fell into place like dollar signs on slot machines. Out, we had to get out, but my mouth didn’t bother to open. Not a soul would listen to me, a flimsy creature with a little voice, it didn’t take a genius to know that. I didn’t even present enough interest for anybody to attack me.

Damian was my best hope of making myself heard, but he wasn’t easily reachable. He’d placed himself between two of his friends, whose fists already balled by their thighs, ready to jump at each other’s throats. He’d taken the posture of a bouncer, his gaze sharp as he tried to talk sense into them. The men turned red with violent impulse against him. Months or even years as adulating Betas and Omegas had accumulated bitter envy that now fought its way out. Still, even under the influence of whatever substance floated unperceivable in the air and put them into fight mode, they didn’t dare move against him. They knew better.

Before I could reach them a mass of hysteria poured my way. The noise turned deafening. I lost Damian from sight and hurried to move out of the congestion before people’s eyes fell on me along with their wrath. My heart pounded with fear, my eyes wide and my mind alert. There wasn’t a friendly face left, every single person everywhere I looked had turned into an animal. By this time maybe even Damian and Hector.

As I found refuge by the wall, I realized my hand was cramped, clutching hard to a thick handle – the screwdriver. Air, I had to let air in, aware that soon the screaming and kicking all around would either freeze me in panic, and some unseen blow would knock me out, or that I’d end up hurting someone with the screwdriver myself, maybe even causing irreparable damage in a desperate attempt to stay in one piece.

I reached the window, the one closest to the stove, gripping to the handles and trying to jerk the frame open when my eyes struck against the black pane. I let out a startled cry.

There they were again, those eyes, now clear and perfectly defined. Like the glare of an animal caught by camera flash, they glowed bright, only that the color was clear as light – Blue. The pane broke instantly with a splintering sound, followed by a sharp pain in my knuckles. Without realizing, I’d punched the window. Then the fog of shock dissipated, stripping the truth.

Mine. Those were my own eyes. I squeezed my hand above the cuts to numb not only the pain, but also the dizzying swirl of automatic connections in my head. Luminous eyes – was it an effect of the gas?

The next thing I knew, a furious groan cracked in my ears. In the blink of an eye George gripped the pointy shard that hung from the frame like a lonely fang, and stabbed his opponent in the throat with it. I screamed as thick, dark red blood poured from under the hand the Wretch took to his wound, between his fingers and down his wrist. He opened his mouth in distorted awareness that life drained out of him, the nerves in his eyeballs exploding like red lightning while he rattled. Dying.

Maybe there was still time. I flung the coat off me and jolted to him, intent to press it on his wound and stop the bleeding, but bumped into George’s arm that punched into my stomach like a barrier of bone. Struggling for breath, I managed to pull myself up. It was too late. The Wretch crouched on the floor like a squirming pretzel, coughing out blood. The sound drilled through my brain.

Time lost meaning. I stood there, watching transfixed how this young man died. I didn’t want to see, nor could I look away. Every second of his suffering imprinted in my adrenaline-fueled heart as everywhere around fists punched, windows broke, men and women growled like beasts.

Windows break. My fault. This boy’s death was on my hands. Trying to stop the mayhem, I’d only fulfilled the prophecy. This time too, some peasant would find the place torn apart, windows broken, blood smeared on walls and rags that parents would clutch to their chests as they’d fall to their knees and cry out to heaven in despair.

Exposure. Exposure was the only chance to get the angry beasts everybody had become out into the open, out into the cold winter air that would slap their wits back into their heads. It was a long shot. But it was the only shot. Enough planning.

I turned on my heels and sprinted to the main door, grabbing coats, jackets and arms in my way, pulling hair, bumping into brawling bodies, as many of them as I could in order to draw attention. I don’t know by what miracle fists hit only the air behind me, by what newly surfaced instinct I ducked down before anybody could grab me. Maybe fear had really kicked my adrenaline level so high that my feet moved like propellers and my reflexes sharpened of their own accord.

I threw the main door open and cast myself into the raging blizzard that felt like needles against my skin. Sight instantly blurred, visibility reduced to inches, but my legs kept running as if a whole murderous army chased me.

I hoped it did. I hoped they’d gotten out of that slaughterhouse disguised as a lonely cottage, a wooden ghost in the Carpathians. I hoped I’d angered them enough to have them rush after me, screeching their teeth, thirsty to see blood drain from my body like it had from the poor Wretch. Thirsty to see me squirm in dying pain. But I also hoped that, by the time they caught me, they’d be themselves again. This wasn’t supposed to be a suicide mission, but a wake-up action.

The snow was quicksand to my legs, sucking me down, but despair fueled my otherwise lazy muscles and propelled me forward. Every glance I threw behind revealed nothing, the storm a wall both in front as well as behind me. It roared loud, swallowing all other sound. There might have been wolves just meters away, I wouldn’t have known, I wouldn’t have heard them howl or growl.

Suddenly, something thick, heavy and metallic closed around my ankle like an iron fist and jerked my leg from my hip, causing such pain that my heart stuttered out of rhythm. I fell flat on my face. Before I could spit out the snow in my mouth, a force yanked me in a pull. I snaked backwards, dead trees, roots and stones rushing by, while I desperately tried to hook my fingers in the ground.

Snow was scraping glass to my palms, and I knew exactly when a couple of fingernails sprang off. The pain was there, but just so severely unimportant that it didn’t stop me from grabbing on to every dead branch, from hooking my fingers into the frozen ground again and again. Still, I let go fast of anything stable, or the pull would’ve ripped the leg from the rest of my body. The ride was dizzying and my screaming automatic. I didn’t hope for help, nor was I scared, I just did things out of instinct. My reason shut down, and autopilot kicked in.

Only when I came to a brusque stop I began to realize the burn all over my skin. Not the face, since I’d kept it up to detect any means of saving myself, but the arms and belly. I waited a few moments for the pull to start again and, when it didn’t, I rolled on my back. My flesh was stiff. I couldn’t flex my muscles to get up, I only managed to lift my head. Torn clothes, the skin on my stomach and breasts looking like beaten meat. I cried before I touched myself, expecting pain. But there was nothing, nothing except the burn, as if everything under skin level was completely numb.

Whimpering, I put snow on the reddest places with a stiff hand, but even that small amount of wit fled off when a pair of legs in earth-gray pants and rubber boots emerged from the white storm. The face cleared from the curtain of snow only when it was really close above mine. A face withered by many winters, with ashen stubble and a rotten grin. A face that might once have been peasant’s, but belonged now to a blood-thirsty animal. Not for a second did I have hope. I knew he was there to hurt me, I saw it in his eyes.

He said something, but I didn’t hear it. The storm’s roar covered the sound. He pressed his fingers on my stomach, grinning with expectation, hungry for the pain. But, when nothing came, he tightened his lips in anger and threw himself over me. With sadistic appetite, he crushed his fist into my face.

The blow felt like lightning in the most literal sense. Then it all went black for moments, until the next one came. Then the next one, until I tasted blood in my mouth. He wasn’t going to stop. He’d beat me to death, leaving my corpse disfigured.

In a surge of despair sight resurfaced, bringing the madman’s face in sharp focus. That ugly face with a bad, stinking grin. The face of an evil maggot who didn’t deserve to live. Who thrust himself at a helpless woman, taking her for an easy prey, for a chunk of meat on which to unleash his killer instincts.

Anger fueled my blood, pumping like frantic petrol in my veins, making me feel as strong as a machine gun. I let out a cry of rage and sank my fingers in his eye sockets, pushing my thumbs hard in the jelly of his eyeballs and wishing for the rusty screwdriver I’d dropped at the cottage. He grabbed my wrists and tried to pull away, but I didn’t let him. I wound my legs around his waist, sticking to him as a leech.

“Oh, no, we’re going all the way, asshole!” I could only hope he heard me. I wanted him to feel the fear. To be in the victim’s shoes. To become the victim to the very marrow of his bones. I could not let him live. I would not let him live.

“I’ll fucking suck the life out of you!” I screamed.

He fell to the ground with me, wriggling like a stabbed snake, but went smart enough to move his hands from my wrists and grab my shoulders. He rolled over me. Applying more strength, I felt the fingernails I had left pierce his eyeballs, but just a moment later something made of fur knocked him hard from my hands. He flew to the side, followed by more stripes of fur that leaped after him. I got up on my buttocks and squinted through the blizzard. Though I didn’t see anything, I did hear his cries and faint animal growling. Wolves, those strings of fur were wolves.

For some reason fangs felt more threatening than the rusty chain that still coiled around my ankle, more threatening than the man’s sadistic glare, than his blows. I got up to my feet, slowly walking backwards, my eyes darting left and right, careful for the rest of my body not to make a sudden move. They could still have been very close. I bled, which placed me far down the food chain and would make them put up a fight for my flesh.

I dragged my leg with the heavy chain until one wrong step sent me stumbling backwards. My body smashed against rocks. I fell for long moments down some endless slope, blow after blow hard in my ribs and crack after crack loud in my ears. I didn’t even get to feel any pain. It all stopped with a knock in the back of my head, and light began to close in on a small moon. That face again. Those eyes. The brightness fizzed in them like flickering neon and I was sure this was it. My muscles relaxed and my lungs gave out one last, resigned breath.

***

Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.

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The Executioner – Ep. VI – Watched

“Dragged, man!” the guy rattled. “Those shits, they fucking dragged me!” He convulsed again, the foul smell of his vomit reaching my nose. It didn’t seem to bother Hector though, who grabbed his shoulders, straightening him up.

“Who? Talk!”

Damian intervened, his arm mowing Hector’s hands off the Wretch. “Just gather all sharp objects you can find in this place.”

“Don’t be scarce of words now,” Hector urged.

“There’s no time for this,” Damian said with a serious frown. He looked tense, terribly tense.

“Those fuckin’ animals,” the Wretch babbled. Then another spasm and another violent throw-up – the only sound in the room.

I forgot to breathe.

For quite a few moments I was convinced this was some sick joke, not feeling anything, not reacting, not moving, but seeing every line on the guy’ bent profile, every fold on his leather-patched coat, as if my senses had sharpened in a split second.

The Wretch didn’t reply to the low, puzzled “Who?” and “What?” coming from a few people with some presence of spirit, and it wasn’t until Hector asked Damian a direct, “What the hell is he talking about?” that an intelligible, however reluctant answer came.

“We found a village in the valley, not far from here. There were people, but they didn’t answer our knocks. They watched us from behind curtains.”

“Fucking animals!” the Wretch shrieked, while Damian settled him on a rickety chair in the corner, assisted by Ruxandra.

“The police station, the church, everything looked deserted,” Damian continued, his jaw rippling. “We found a house with the front door ajar and we went in. For food. There were old provisions in the basement, and old food is better than no food, so we took what looked safe. We started back.”

“We were almost here when something lashed around my leg, man!” the Wretch intervened again, neurotic. “They would’ve dragged me off the cliff!”

“We had to leave behind everything that burdened us, so we could move faster,” Damian cut him off. “We brought back very little.”

“We’re fuckin’ dead.” The Wretch breathed slower now, his lids falling heavy. Warmth made exhaustion show in his face, his whole body mellow in the chair, his chest stained with greenish vomit. It was painful only to look at him. I couldn’t keep this isn’t happening from starting another solo in my head as it slowly dawned on me – someone had tried to kill them.

It took a while until everybody processed what was said and reality kicked in. Some came to their senses with headshakes, some with rapid blinking, and a few with hysteria. As for me, I felt rooted in the ground. An avalanche of questions started, ranging from, “What’s this all about?” to painfully insensitive, “What’s that got to do with the booze?”, since Damian had everybody gather all bottles in a pile.

“Broken bottles can be used as weapons,” I heard Damian’s bass voice reply, his forehead now higher above all others across the room. “Like screwdrivers, cutlery and pens.”

“Why this mobilization?” That was George.

“They followed us back here, man,” the Wretch said, his voice shaky. “They wheezed and growled in the dark, always hidden but always close. Those shits, they’re lurking out there.”

“Maybe they were wolves!” George retorted, his pitch high with panic.

“Those were no wolves,” Damian retorted with a grave certainty that made my skin crease.

I slowly walked backwards, out of everybody’s way, until I bumped into something. By the wide, hard edge I knew it was the windowsill, which is why I didn’t turn. I pressed against it, keeping my arms across my chest and my fingers hooked in the fat coat sleeves. Damian’s explanations to panicked questions flew by me. I heard the sound of his voice but not the meaning of his words.

Despite my weakness for him, I had no doubt all this was his fault. It was either his shady background, as Ruxandra called it, or his affair with a mobster’s woman that had brought this upon us. Defending his honor or whatever, the cheated mobster must’ve sent his thugs to settle accounts with Damian, while the rest of us were just collateral damage – and Svetlana had known this. She’d expected it. “None of us will make it ‘till morning.”

But then again, would even a mobster go to such lengths for an unfaithful lover? Would even a mobster go as far as to derail a train full of neutral people in snowy mountains, forcing them to take refuge in a remote cottage, emptying a whole village and populating it with his thugs only to get back at a rival? Why, when he could’ve staged anything in Constanta? This theory hung by a thread. But the other one . . . Whatever villains the R.I.S. hunted might just have that kind of power, which they would use for the right stake. But the stake had to be pretty damn high.

Only one detail stayed the same in both cases – Svetlana had known. “This is not the work of god or devil.” “None of us will make it till morning.” Unfortunately I couldn’t get to her now to press for more info – chaotic movement and shrieking voices blocked the way out of the main room.

My eyes rested on the Wretch, who still sat in the corner chair and in my field of vision. Ruxandra bent over his chest and rubbed it with a cloth, but he didn’t seem aware of her. He had the sickening pallor and lost stare of a dead man.

I hoped he’d react somehow and come out of his shell at least a little bit, but not a muscle moved on his face. He stared as if through me. Maybe he didn’t even acknowledge my presence there, and I misinterpreted the direction of his gaze. I followed it and turned to look behind me, expecting four small windowpanes separated by wooden lines in the shape of a cross.

But suddenly two glowing circles like eyes in a black picture flashed into mine and made me give out a sharp scream.

***

Previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V.

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The Executioner – Ep. V – Menace

I couldn’t identify the object until he fit it in Svetlana’s mouth – a wooden spoon, maybe to ensure she didn’t swallow her tongue. My skin creased and my mind locked on this isn’t happening like a scratched record, while the sight of her limbs slowly gumming in twisted positions burned into my memory. It never really left me.

Things Dad had taught me about breakdowns stormed to the front of my mind as Svetlana began moving her head from side to side, giving out feeble sighs.

“Let’s take her to bed, I’ll look after her,” I addressed Hector.

Without further questions, he scooped her up and followed me to the bunkroom. The others trailed like a flock of curious chickens, but Ruxandra’s confident voice stopped them at the door. “This ain’t the Big Brother house, the woman needs to rest.”

Hector laid Svetlana on the bed and shuffled the blanket over her.

“See if anyone has vitamins with them. Or any kind of medication, we’ll see if there’s anything we can use.” My tone was more assertive and matter-of-fact than I’d ever thought myself capable of, which made Hector stare at me puzzled.

“What exactly are we looking for?”

“I’m not sure, I’ll get an idea when I see what you get, but basically calcium and magnesium,” I offered a brief explanation, taking a seat by Svetlana’s side. “Better yet, talk to Ruxandra. She’ll know what to pick.”

“How will that bimbo know what to pick?” Svetlana said in a faint but resentful tone after Hector left the room.

“She’s a smart-ass bimbo.”

Few people knew, but Ruxandra had been labeled a genius four years ago, when she’d applied for university. People of her heritage required previous examining and testing before they went to the “higher” circles such as universities, which were reserved for those of nobler – “fairer” – descent. She should’ve been admitted to anything from law to med school, but her origin was nothing short of a scarlet letter even after she’d passed all tests. She only made it in English, where Mom managed to pull some strings.

“All I need is to get out of here,” Svetlana whispered as I lit the leftovers of two candles.

She looked aside, the small flames casting eerie light on her face and sending a strange sensation up my throat. Black and deep circles around her eyes made them look sunken in her skull, but what really drew my attention were her cheeks. They were sucked in, as if the person who’d laughed at me just yesterday had fallen heavily ill. I stroked the sweaty tendrils off her face with an automatic impulse. They felt like mine when I had nightmares.

“We all do. Just hang in there, the others will find help. We’ll sure be out of here in the morning.”

“In the morning . . .” A tired smile curled her mouth. “None of us will make it till morning.” She trembled, her lips white and her eyes foggy. She looked delirious.

“Try to get some rest. Fatigue and paranoia go hand in hand,” I insisted and stood up, intent to ask someone to bring water, so I could lower her fever. Otherwise I feared she’d be beyond repair before help came. But, before I could turn, she clasped my hand.

“Don’t take me for a lunatic, Alice. We won’t survive this, not unless we break them, all of us.”

“Break what?” I grimaced to keep her calm. It failed.

She took her hands to her face, her polished fingernails scratching down the skin of her throat, blood trickling in their wake. “The confinements of our flesh . . .”

She’s mad! I jolted to her, pushing her hands down in panic. “Svetlana, for Christ’s sake!”

Her grin stretched to her ears like the sneer of a skull. The blizzard now whistled beyond the walls as if aligning to her growing intensity, making the window chatter from its hinges. Chills coursed down my spine.

Her voice caught guttural, low stress. “What miracle do you expect by invoking him, that usurper? This isn’t the work of god or devil.”

“What are you, a philosophy major?” I tried for a joke to ease the ill temper that seemed to build up in her. But, before I could blink, her hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing so tightly that I panicked, sure I’d swallow my throat bones. My tongue pushed out of my mouth, I choked on every attempt to pull in air and this isn’t happening turned on fast forward.

***

 

Only when my ears stopped buzzing, making way for the voices around me, I became again aware of where I was and what had just happened. After a severe fit of coughing that abused my still sensitive ribcage, anger slowly replaced shock. Still, I didn’t get up from the floor. An ugly truth hit me – I was so darn weak, Barbie could’ve easily disposed of me. I raised my eyes to her.

Ruxandra – probably my savior this time – restrained Svetlana, whose sweat-damp hair whipped around her head as she struggled.

“You’re lab mice for the strong!” She cried over and over again. “Lab mice” was especially frequent and accompanied by spittle as Ruxandra and George tied her to the bed with wound sheets and some rope Hector brought in.

I scrambled up and dragged myself to the main room, stumbling over drunkard sleepers – people too wasted to realize anything of what happened around them – and boiling in my own juice. Tripping over bottles on the floor I fell by the terracotta stove, feeling miserable and breaking out in tears. My brain refused to think until a cluster of people walked in, led by Hector. With weak hands but strong pride I wiped the tears and blew my nose in a dirty glove I’d found around.

“I’ve seen this before,” one of them said, his voice too loud. “A cousin of mine, last year. They took her to a hospice, branded her nuts.”

“Did your cousin mention lab mice?” George laughed and slapped the guy’s back.

“I wonder whether you’d still talk shit, if it were your mamma in her place,” the first one countered.

“My mamma doesn’t strip for mobsters who fuck her into madness,” George reacted with a scowl.

“Hey, I hear neither did Svetlana,” another one chimed in, although he also sounded amused. “She used to go to the club as a client, and her dances were meant for the delivery boy, namely Novac.”

“I guess it caught the wrong guy’s attention.” That was George again. “By the way, Hector, is it true that Temptress and Muscle Tank are having an affair behind the mobster’s back?”

Now that’s direct. I perked up my ears.

“You ask dangerous questions, George,” Hector replied.

Great. Just what I needed to glaze over my wrecked self-esteem – Damian and Svetlana as protagonists in a forbidden love story. My heart ached. I’d go for someone bald and fat like Svetlana’s sugar daddy next time, but broke.

Hector’s thick fingers slid over the cords in a lilt melody, as if to block further inquiries. But his tactics had its downside. The group changed the subject but kept on opening one too many bottles – impressive how much they’d saved from the train and carried through the snowstorm like veritable addicts.

Soon the talking turned loud and chaotic. I could only make out isolated words but no sentences, while the sharp smell of alcohol gave me a headache. Just as the party went wild again, Ruxandra dropped by my side with a groan. Judging by the tucked up sleeves she must’ve gone hard on Svetlana. I didn’t pity the girl, honestly.

“No amount of calcium or magnesium could’ve stilled her, and we don’t have any anyway, so I put a bag over her head. Let her inhale her own CO2 until she turned into a vegetable. I know, it sounds horrible, but it was for a noble cause. Now she’s asleep.”

Genius.

“How’re you feeling?”

“Fine,” I lied. “Thanks for getting her off me.”

“George helped.” She dismissed the subject, but urgency was obvious in her face as she tried to touch on another. She looked tense as hell. “Alice, we need to talk.”

I couldn’t care less right now about what she had to say, sinking in the pain Damian’s affair with Svetlana caused me. My cheeks burned with jealousy.

“You were wrong,” I said, unable to contain myself. “Damian and Svetlana do have something going. Either her blackmailing strategy worked, or she’s just irresistible.”

“Alice, we have more pressing matters to discuss now,” Ruxandra insisted, growing exasperated.

“What’s pressing is that you weren’t straight forward.”

“Now hold on.” She put up her palm. “I honestly don’t believe he’s interested in her. What I really think is that he’s being halfway nice to keep her from spreading what she knows. Or . . . at the most . . . he’s been sleeping with her to ensure she keeps her mouth shut.”

These words shot a stinging image into my head, an image of Damian’s muscled, honey-skinned body undulating between Svetlana’s long legs. I couldn’t hold back a pained sigh.

“You shouldn’t have let me get my hopes high.”

“I honestly thought you had a chance there.”

“Just look at me, Ruxandra! I’m a bad joke! Do you think me so dumb as to really compare myself to Svetlana, or you, or others in your league? Are you dumb enough to do that?”

Ruxandra pulled me to my feet, keeping a tight grip on my shoulders.

“It’s that bastard Tony you have to thank for this arsenal of complexes,” she grunted through her teeth. “I can’t wait to get back home so I can seek him out and make him suffer.”

“I’m just looking truth in the face.”

“You’re a very, very pretty girl, Alice.”

“That’s right, girl. Not woman.”

“Oh, stop, please.”

“Maybe that’s why Damian rejected me when I tried to turn him on in the bunkroom. I must’ve made him feel like a pedophile.” My face caught fire as I confessed.

“Or maybe he respects you too much to do you in a filthy bunk. That’s what my gut tells me.”

“Oh, drop it, Rux, that’s just sugar coating. He simply doesn’t want me. I might as well strive to plant a flag on the moon.”

“Alice, your ruined self-esteem really has to wait,” she pressed, now shaking with urgency.

A huge frame passing the threshold drew my attention, and my resolve to quit the chase for the unattainable barbarian threatened to tumble. Damian stopped in place, his tresses and eyebrows adorned with snow, a heavy sheepskin cladding his broad shoulders. Another guy limped and hung on him like a cloth on a huge tree, seemingly ravaged not only by the blizzard but also shock, while their other companion stared at Damian as if he were Batman.

Before anybody got to utter a word, the wretched guy hanging on Damian crouched from his waist in spasms, throwing up as if all his organs constricted. Hector dropped the guitar and jumped to his feet, hollow wood and cords resounding against the floor.

“What happened?”

***

Previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV.

Hope you enjoyed this:) If you did, I’d love to read from you in a comment. If the story of The Executioner now happens not to let you sleep, it’s available in whole here. Enjoy!

Also, stay tuned for a new episode of The Marquis on Friday, it’ll be a special one! The title of the episode is “Why Wild Roses Kill,” and it will contain shocking revelations. Check out all previous episodes of The Marquis here.