The man picked strange places to meet. Viktor suspected these choices allowed his boss to claim the expenses of his travels to the more pleasant places in America, something not permitted to him. This ferry ride across Lake Champlain, from Vermont to the Adirondack Mountains, was no different. Novikov had reservations at a mountain resort. Viktor would take the next ferry back, find his car, and begin the long journey to a Japanese beach.
“Is he still with us?” asked Novikov. They leaned on the railing, watching the mountains grow larger against a blue sky.
“I hear hesitation in your voice.”
“I do not know how long I can hold his interest. He is finding other ways to amuse himself. I must replace her as soon as possible.”
“You should not have let Charlemagne kill Sally in the first place. Have you found the boy?”
Viktor turned his head to hide the fury in his eyes — at his boss, at his enemies, at his circumstances. “No. I have not found the boy. I am sure they have him. By the time I return, I will have the place pinpointed. I have already determined the general area.”
“We knew more than the general area a year ago when Pavlenko was still KGB. Then he betrayed us and we lost him and his work. He betrayed you as well, you know. Personally.”
“I know. He will pay. They will pay.”
“We must not lose this asset. Find the boy before he leads that team of killers to your prize. You cannot afford another failure. You have twenty years remaining, well into the next century. I doubt you would live to complete your sentence.”
Novikov’s smooth tone conveyed more threat than did his words. Viktor had no trouble understanding it.
The pain had spread from his shoulder, up his neck and down his ribcage by the time he found a parking spot at Logan International Airport. It was worse than usual but still nothing compared to what it would be if he found himself back in prison.
The asset, an unpleasant man who competed with Sally in stupidity, required constant placating. She was now dead, and Viktor faced more than pain if he did not soon find a replacement. How hard could that be? The candidate need only be pretty, a bit dim, and capable of satisfying a man with increasingly perverse tastes.
As the wheels came up and the ground dropped away, Viktor assured himself he would resume his search through the brothels of New York City when he returned from the beach in a few days.
Then he would find and kill Sally’s boy.
On each leg of his forty-hour flight, Viktor’s arm throbbed when the man next to him moved, which was at least once in each quarter hour. The woman in front of him flung her seat into his lap, while the child behind kicked his back. He had an aisle seat, allowing him to walk around and avoid these annoyances when flight attendants, meal carts, and duty free carts permitted. The easy access to the toilets was another advantage until they became inoperable three hours before landing at Narita Airport. He became sick frequently on a good day. Sloshing through an inch of filthy water in the WC did not make for a good day.
During a six-hour layover, he rested on a bench near a duty free shop in the long concourse of Narita Airport’s international bubble and concentrated on keeping the arm absolutely still until the pain became more bearable. He rented a car in Naha and drove to the Okuma beach resort, one handed. The arm refused to move even to flick a turn signal. He arrived weary but glad he’d had the foresight to send Mick and Stain ahead of him. They had swept the conference room for listening devices three times that day, handed him the key to his room and a bottle of vodka and said good night.
“Hey Boss,” said Mick as he handed Viktor a mug of coffee next morning, “I need to tell you something.”
A perfect end to a night of pain. Viktor knew that careful tone. The man was afraid to tell him and afraid not to.
“Night before last, real late, more like yesterday morning, one of the two guys we hired to watch the conference room took off. The other one, the inside guy, swears nothing happened in the building and he was there the whole night.”
Viktor handed over his empty mug.
Mick stood holding it working his throat to make more news come forth. Viktor waited, glaring. “So I swept the room again anyway, just in case.”
For the first time ever, Mick had done the right thing, independently. Maybe this was a good omen.
Viktor smiled. “Good.”
Mick’s relief washed over his face. He grinned, “And Novokov sent us some muscle. A big guy named Anatoly. He don’t speak no English.”
Viktor always found it harder to accept grim reality after such a brief hope was quashed by another blow. He kept this truth in mind again later that day when he saw the two pretty young women in bikinis and beach jackets walk up to the bar from the water’s edge as he and Kyaku-sama finalized the conference deal over some vodka tonics. No doubt they would disappoint.
He invited the American women to join their table under the pavilion and to his surprise, they agreed. They were thirsty and he was buying. In just the briefest of encounters, he was able to lay the groundwork for the approach he would take with Emily, the redhead, a perfect match for his asset. He treated himself to another drink in celebration. She had agreed to come to dinner.
Then Kyaku-sama said, “We must have the blonde one in partial payment.”
“She is married.”
Kyaku-sama blinked giving him a slow smile, the meaning clear.
“Just wait until after the conference and we’ll help you, “ Viktor said. He was not sure what the answering shrug meant.
Viktor stood at the portable coffee bar they had installed in the conference room, greeting his conference guests. His arm throbbed as he shook hands with hoodlums who thought it important to prove their manhood by crushing their opponent’s grip. He despised them, conquered the pain, gave crush for crush, and offered coffee or something stronger. They invariably chose something stronger.
“I am sent to help you,” said Anatoly, walking up to him. Viktor ignored the offered hand. Such niceties were not in the repertoire of this lifelong criminal. The handshake would have been deliberately painful. Novikov’s true purpose in sending the giant thief under the code was two-fold: to spy and enforce.
“I want you out of sight, “ he told the man. “You can tell Novikov that I may have a line on a replacement for Sally. If you blow this job by not listening to me, I will make sure he learns of it.”
Even from the grave, he thought. Probably from the grave.
The afternoon progressed as he and his assistants enforced the rules and kept the peace. Mick and Stain forestalled serious incidents by removing the drunks to their rooms, knowing better than to try removing their guns.
Viktor’s heart could be described as light, therefore, or at least lighter than usual, when he pulled out chairs for the two young women who joined him in the restaurant for dinner. He had to admit that Kristin, the blonde, was stunning in black palazzo pants and a gauzy green shawl over a black tank top. Emily turned heads as well but drove him mad with incessant talking. She prattled like Anoushka, went on about his eyes like Anoushka, never shut up like Anoushka. These thoughts made him drink too much wine as he baited the hook he would use to secure her with an exciting job offer. Despite Kristin’s caustic observations, Emily remained bubbling, enthusiastic and irritating. Everything remained on this painful track until Kyaku-sama joined them uninvited, sitting down next to Kristin. The women left for the toilets.
“I told you to have patience,” he said through tight jaws.
Kyaku-sama gave him a secret smile, keeping his hand in a pocket where Viktor had no doubt he held a syringe. What did the man think he was going to do in a busy restaurant? Pretend she fainted? Call his cronies to carry her out?
When the women returned, they switched places so that Kristin was out of Kyaku-sama’s reach. As usual, while Viktor’s past, present and future balanced precariously on the tip of that needle in the man’s pocket, disaster struck. A young, loud American man with too much confidence, like all Americans, arrived at their table saying he and Kristin’s husband had driven up from the base and suggested that they leave with him.
Viktor might have been able to think of some way of keeping them, but all such thinking became impossible under the punishing handshake he received from this destroyer of his plans. Kyaku-sama was no happier as they walked outside behind the Americans and watched them climb into a small rusted car. Kristin’s husband kissed her before driving off with her. He thought of sending his men after them, but couldn’t be sure.
Then he saw the Mercedes drive through the military resort gate after them and he knew.
The conference was a brilliant success. The seeds of the destruction of western liberalism firmly planted, Viktor tried to take comfort in the thought that his work would live on after him but found it difficult to reconcile himself to the fact that he would not. He did not tell Kyaku-sama that he was meeting Emily at the beach pavilion that afternoon. There was a slim chance she was not connected to his enemies and would make a perfect play toy for the asset. The last thing he needed was the Japanese gangster and his syringe complicating the extraction.
For that was now his plan. He brought Anatoly with him to the meeting. Persuasion would give way to force, quickly, neatly applied, followed by a fast extraction to North Carolina and the asset’s bed. As Emily walked up from the water’s edge with Kristin, Viktor fought down dismay, tried to convince himself she was no more than the quiet, bitchy friend of his target, a slight woman with an unnaturally still manner but no match for Anatoly.
The two women asked for white wine. He and Anatoly drank vodka tonics. Anatoly scowled into his glass and grimaced at the taste of the tonic water. Viktor translated as his accomplice tried to engage Kristin in conversation. She was cool to the setting, a late afternoon on the beach under the freshening winds of a growing typhoon over the Pacific, cool to Anatoly’s clumsy questions, cool to Viktor’s artful rephrasing as he translated.
“So John,” said Emily. “When do I start the job you mentioned? I can’t wait to work for Uncle Sam. What should I know about the agent you want me to control? What does he like and not like? Are there topics I should avoid?”
Perversity made him say it. He wanted her to suffer for her thousand questions, for her verbal resemblance to Anoushka. He would let the asset destroy her. No, not just allow it; he would make sure of it.
“He loves it when people tease him about his stutter, Emily.”
Even before the words were fully past his lips, Viktor understood. Sally’s boy did not know who the asset was, but he himself had just told them. No doubt the women were wired. The still one, Kristin, was one of his deadly enemies. He had heard rumors about her.
These reflections, speeding through his mind in the time it took for a single blink of his eyes, prepared him for the sight of Kristin kicking and demolishing Kyaku-sama and two of his goons as they appeared from out of nowhere. A man, too short and round to be a member of the team known as Charlemagne ran out of the weeds and shot the gangster as he lay on the pieces of a demolished table. Kristin was firing into a man she had kicked into the mirror behind the bar when Viktor and Anatoly ran toward the hotel, dragging Emily with them. Kristin’s next bullet embedded itself in Viktor’s right kidney as he ran.
“We should kill her now.” Anatoly reached between Emily’s breasts and pulled out the microphone attached to her bra. He found the transmitter clipped under her arm. She sat between them on the back seat of Viktor’s rental car.
“You idiot,” said Viktor, also in Russian, “we are dead men without her. We can use her to bargain.”
“If it is Charlemagne as you say, they will not care. They sacrifice their dangles. Always.”
“Not always. They will want this one.” Viktor switched to English and addressed the girl. “Whoever the fuck you are, little girl, you better hope I live long enough to keep Anatoly off you. You can start talking right now. He does not speak English. Does he, boys?”
Their driver, Mick, replied, “That’s right, boss. Anatoly don’t speak no English. Make it good girlie. Now’s your chance.”
“I don’t know what you mean, John.”
“Yes, you do. You can stop the pretense. The name is Viktor. You are our ticket out of here, but I can’t convince Anatoly you are worth preserving unless you start talking. Start with the name of the team who will want you back badly enough to let us out of here.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about. The name starts with C and ends with e. Say it out loud. That will help me convince him I’m getting you to talk and it’s a good idea to keep you alive a while longer. Say the name. I already know it. You won’t betray anything or anybody. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, girlie,” Viktor continued through his teeth, “but we’re the ones in trouble here, not your friends. Saying the name out loud will not affect them. It only helps me keep the gorilla next to you from tearing you to pieces.”
“You’re so weak you need me to help you control your own goon?”
He pointed to the front seat. “They’re my guys, aren’t you, fellas?”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
“The man next to you — I will not name him — was sent by Moscow to ‘assist’ me. We have a few common objectives, but I do not control him. Say the name.”
“Give me the wire she was wearing,” he said to Anatoly. Then, in English,“He has pulled the fucking wire out of the box. I have no way to contact them to arrange a trade.”
“Maybe I can hook it up again, Boss,” said Stain in the front passenger seat.
But it was no good.
Viktor let loose a series of choice Russian words for Anatoly, whose jaw tightened.
“What’s that noise?” The driver downshifted around a bend in the road as the car began to shake. “I think it’s a flat.”
“Just keep going,” said Viktor.
“I can’t. I think we’re on the rim. I can’t keep it straight.” He pulled over to the left.
“We’re fucking sitting ducks,” said Stain.
Viktor grunted. “Get out. I see a trail. Let’s go.”
He pulled the girl out with him after a brief tug of war with Anatoly. He felt his life leaking in a thin trickle from his kidney as he stumbled over tree roots and squeezed through bamboo thickets. Anatoly stayed behind briefly and came running back exultant.
“I got the man who shot Kyaku-sama,” he crowed, as if this were somehow a blow to Charlemagne.
Viktor rolled his eyes and instructed Mick and Stain to set up an ambush. When the girl asked why they were leaving, he told her his plan. “I hope none of Charlemagne’s guys means anything to you, little girl. My guys are nasty fighters.” He did not mention that Charlemagne’s fighters were nastier. This was a sacrifice of his best and oldest employees. He was sorry, but he needed time.
They made slow progress until the girl saw it in the tree above her and tried to step aside, but it was too late. The snake landed on her thigh and struck the calf just below the knee.
“Fuck,” said Viktor.
“Blya,” said Anatoly.
Now two of them struggled through underbrush and pain, Anatoly pushing them from behind. After a few more steps, Viktor felt rather than heard a dynamic change, turned and saw Anatoly slump to the ground, half his head gone. He hauled the girl after him at a crashing speed, not sure he was following any path, pushing up a rocky ledge until the side of a waterfall stopped him cold. She had stopped a few feet behind. He stared at the water falling in front of him into a pool thirty feet below their ledge, put his back to the rock and slid to a seat, his legs straight in front, feet dangling over the edge. He felt the gaze and looked up into the blue eyes of a legend.
“I heard you were badly injured in North Carolina,” Viktor said to him.
“Not so badly that I will fail to destroy your asset as well as you.”
“You know I had no choice.”
“And you know my knowledge of your plight will not help you.”
Viktor initially closed his eyes when he saw the knife but opened them again when he felt its bite on the side of his neck. He momentarily watched his blood mingle with the descending water until all sight and all pain left him forever.
This story resulted from a contest prompt by Reedsy.com. The prompt was: "Write about someone who goes to extreme lengths to get themselves to a tropical island." The prompt may be seen at this link: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/