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. 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.

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. Check out all previous episodes of The Marquis here.

 

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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.