The smell of a Russian bunker isn’t one you can describe, not off the top of your head. But it’s a familiar one, I’ll give you that much. It’s an uncomfortable smell. A smell that sits between other smells. Indistinctive. Impossible to tell apart from other smells; think telling the difference between parmesan cheese and vomit. The difference between tobacco smoke, and charred remains of your possessions.
The smell is masked in darkness and, as I look past it, my intense stare hits where I believe my captor’s gaze sits. You can hear the smugness of a General-Major in his three-burst breaths; a steam engine of a man. He actually dragged me here himself, abducting me from where I sat the moment my kill was confirmed.
More than eight people have come and gone, additional foot soldiers will be on their way. He’ll keep sending for people to come torture me until he gets the answer he needs, which he won’t because - and honestly, he just doesn’t seem to understand this - I don’t speak Russian. God, I’ve had rifles thrust in my face, knives against my throat and yet, I’ve spent days in complete blindness before this. A single tick has produced worse days than the Russian Government could conjure in years. On those days, when Lyme disease robs me of my senses and time slows to a crawl, I know the true meaning of agony. A fist can do nothing to me now.
I have killed a man. I put a bullet in his head and I watched him die. That deed has robbed me of all my character; it has taken my kindness, my resolve, and my patience. I cannot wait on this old Russian man to understand English. I’ve had enough of what do you want from me’s and when are you going to let me go’s. It seems the feeling is mutual and, as the chair beneath my Russian friend slips backward to make way for him to stand, I bash my forehead forwards in hopes of meeting his. We don’t connect, in fact, I miss entirely.
The General-Major flicks on two desk lamps that flicker and emit a disgusting yellow aura like a dirtied sun. Unsettlingly, had our faces met a white porceline mask would’ve greeted my cranium. A charming visage; a pair of rosy cheeks like a nesting doll and an open mouth. He’s smiling. In Russian, he mimes an obscenity and three men skulk out from the shadows behind. One of them - with breath like a hippopotamus - whispers in my ear. His sour scented words are in my native tongue by my mind refuses to acknowledge them and, instead, focuses on the angry Slavic shouting as my chair is pulled hard to the ground. I feel each and every reverberation through the wooden frame and the upper bindings loosen.
The English-speaker, he presses his boot against my larynx. “Open your mouth,” he orders.
I just smile, I couldn’t be happier. “Finally,” I struggle to force words past the tread, “somebody I can talk to.” The Russian General-Major shouts again, this time louder. The other two strangers lean in; the right-hand man is gloved, the left holds a pair of plyers.
The English-speaker’s words come back to me; “brace yourself.” Huffing, I make these words my mantra and strengthen my core. My bones become rigid and my mouth stretches wide to welcome the plyers like an old friend. Righty pulls my lips, hard and my mind ticks back to my gap year, my diagnosis, they day I met Gareth Zumthor, my initiation, my first hit. I live these memories in a slow motion state, they waltz past me hastelessly and calm my screaming nerves. All of my training comes back in rapid flashes like lightning strikes and I see the shape of my enigmatic educator in the light, the sneaky bastard.
Briskly, I’m slapped back into reality; the common man’s ice bath. I curl my toes and open my eyes as wide as my mouth to see an enormous canine tooth suspended above. Blood slinks stickily down from the root and plants a red streak across my face, then Left and Right pull me back up. The Russians have gotten a hold of my baby; disassembled and lying across the table is my customized sniper rifle, extended barrel and all. On the right hand side, beneath the ammunition clip, is my handgun. Both items were gifts, and I miss them dearly. Masked in chaos, the English-speaker has made his way behind his commanding officer. He too wears one of those unusual masks. A less traditional design, more demonic with ceramic horns.
His words are sickly sweet to me; his voice almost reminds me of home. Well, there’s almost a tinge of South London in the sharpness of his tone but the content is like honey. “Is this yours? Don’t bother lying, just answer the questions for the machine.”
On the other hand, my voice is now fuffy and obstructed; a mouth full of mashed potatoes. “I doubt it.” I can’t speak very much, there’s a distinct soreness in my mouth. I can only block out so much pain, but I still smile. Never let them think they’ve won.
“It was found on your person…”
“Oh, it’s much too big for me,” I interrupt.
“…at the scene of the crime. Alexis Walker, you have shot and killed somebody who was very important to Russia. Do you understand what you have done? You've set our country back eight years.” I can see the fury in his eyes. Behind the expressionless mask, his teeth grind and his nostrils flare. I am in control.
“He stood me up.” I say, and immediately begin to countdown from ten in my head.
10. The English-speaker takes a deep breath through gritted teeth, he clenches his fist and the knuckles pop. The General-Major says something to him in Russian, something along the lines of ‘calm down’. 9. The words, however, have no effect on the hearty English-man and the tooth-grinding continues to get louder. 8. 7. 6. 5. It’s almost like the English-speaker is counting down too, making the entire exercise a waste of time. 4. We’ve been silent now for what feels like too long, so I speak up after 3., “he wasn’t even that nice a man.”
“This isn’t a joke!” His raised voice makes my heart skip a beat and a thrown fist dents the metal surface of the table. 2. Everything jumps. The scattered pieces of my rifle move closer by a centimetre and knock my handgun closer. 1. The numbers stop coming, my mantra replaces them and I squirm and struggle to release my aching body from my restraints and lunge. As the cold steel freezes to my sweaty palm, I can feel that oh so delectable feeling of unadulterated rage. Adrenaline ecstasy shoots up and down my body and before I know it, the General-Major lies dead across my weaponry.
My body contorts and corkscrews, unable to free my legs from the vice-like constriction. I now face Left and Right who stand statuesque and unable to reach the safety feature of their twin Kalashnikov’s. Two shots: a hole in the temple for both victims. Never believe the bollocks that is ‘right between the eyes’. You can survive that. You really want a nice, clean bullet wound on the pterion, the weakest part of the skull.
As the Russians collapse I unwind and hunt for the English-speaker, but he’s gone. Disappeared down a hallway, or back into the shadows. I don’t have the time to look for him. Instead, I untie myself and use my precious remaining seconds to loot the pockets of the General-Major. Immediately, I find what I’m looking for in the innermost breast pocket, against his heart. A photo of the man I murdered. Handsome, I must admit. A shame the General-Major crossed out his face in red ink. A second is taken to admire his face; I once believed I knew the guy well. Recent events seem to discourage once romantic thoughts, and now I see him only in red.
“Alexis Walker?” I didn’t hear the door move but it appears somebody has entered the interrogation room. A gun cocks to solidify the damning feeling of eventual death. There are no friends in this part of the world, not for me. Hell, there are no friends in this business. Anybody pointing a gun my way is after the money I’m worth. The voice, unusually, is a female’s. “Stand up, nice and slow.” It’s a rather young voice, not the voice of a murderer. There’s an Asian accent in there, I detect, well hidden by a sophisticated pronounciation of the English language. In this room, I could never tire of my native tongue. “That’s a good girl.”
“Might I ask your name?”
“Not at the moment, if you’re careful you’ll get it. If you’re not, I’ll shoot you down here.” I shake my head, my back still turned to her. I don’t believe that for a second, I’d already be dead if that were true. “Our CEO left you a very interesting note on the system Alexis, it took me a while to find it and it’s rather vague, but it’s definitely meant for your eyes.” Her words spark a little something in the back of my mind.
“Ours, Alexis.” She replies, “don’t start thinking you’re clever now, little girl.” I can hear the snarkiness like a crackle on her forked tongue, “you might think you got the ‘big hit’ but he’s been around for a long time. You’re just the new girl. Well, just wait until you see it for yourself, I think he knew you were coming.”
"You hardly sound old enough to use that terminology,” I comment, and reject the claims of beginner’s luck she forces upon my success with a whispered insult.
“Your whip-tongue will do you no good here,” she replies, “but we should be leaving. This is no place for chit-chat, is it Alexis? An armed response team will be on their way soon and there’s no way either of us could defeat them, not with two pistols and a jigsaw puzzle. Might you come with me?”
“Might I?” I ask, “is there a real reason for your being here? Other than to relay news to me I would’ve inevitably found myself?”
“Why, of course.”
“Might you explain it?” My ever-shrinking mask of mild manners grows thinner with each phrase lacking subtlty and I turn around to see a much younger face, “and you called me ‘little girl?’ Did your mother borrow you that suit for this trip, or did the CEO outfit you before his unexpected departure?”
“Our CEO, Alexis,” she mocks.
“You talk about him like he’s still around.”
“Oh, well I like to think that he is,” she says with a smile. A troupe of clapping footsteps seem to erupt from behind her as the armed forces draw nearer, soon we’ll both be dead and none of this will matter. “You did well for a new girl, I suppose I can give you this victory.” And with that she turned around. The succubus smile must’ve remained on her face as she fled the awful place because I could feel it in the air like the unfamiliar presence of a ghost. I follow her without hesitation, without quite understanding why. I can only just justify my decision in my head: she knows the way out, or I need to find the English-speaker. But that girl has an air of charisma, an unusual girl.
She’s definitely one of us.
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