Friend of My Friend
Olena was almost home. The sun had been up for hours, and she’d had a long night. The nail from her middle finger was still imbedded in the face of a dead man across town, and she found it impossible to stop her tongue from exploring her newly broken molar.
The home she shared with Pashtana was located in the very center of the largest of her city’s cardboard villages. She was only a quarter-mile away, but, climbing through the rusted skeletons of abandoned warehouses and weaving between soiled army surplus tents and houses made from the cardboard boxes that once contained brand-new TVs and microwaves, it was slow going.
She felt her city come to life at once. Most of the panhandlers had already left for work, and the addicts usually slept in the daylight.
From the ordered purpose of the quiet footsteps padding through the muddy streets, it had to be her people, driven out of their tents and cardboard houses, taking formation as they charged toward some unknown target. It was the same target that turned Olena’s tired steps to a run and made her draw the carpet knife from her pocket and the .38 from her belt.
A girl appeared beside her, her face painted in the same shiny medieval hues as Olena’s. Wendy must have just returned from work as well.
“What is it?” Wendy asked in Russian. She’d grown up in Cincinnati, but Wendy had taken to Olena’s language like a cat to fresh cream.
Wendy’s question didn’t need answering. As they reached the end of the winding dirt alley, entering a small town square, they found a few dozen of their allies had arrived ahead of them. Their brothers and sisters were gathered, armed to a one. They held knives and pistols, hatchets and pipes. Olena noticed two long swords, the matte silver-gray of high-carbon steel. Ketevan was holding them like a pair of cattle-prods. Olena wondered where she’d found them.
They were staring at a man who stood in the center of the square. He had shiny black hair, pale skin like a goi cuon wrapper draped over his bones, and a smile on his lips a pretty girl might trust. Olena knew him well, but she wasn’t happy to see him.
“Who’s this?” a girl said. She was one of the new recruits. Wendy had found her bloodied and asleep in a dumpster. In the months since, she’d developed some skill with the hatchet she held in her hand.
“Dunno,” said a young man. Olena had hesitated at taking men into their group. The idea of raising the children that would inevitably result from a loosely regimented troop of mixed gender set Olena teeth on edge, but Pashtana had convinced her to allow in the occasional man who shared their cause.
“Who’re you?” the girl asked, flipping the hatchet in her hand and glaring her best glare at the man at the center of their group.
“Po-russki?” the man said. His name was Pyotr, and Olena knew he spoke more English than she did.
“Da,” Ketevan said. Her face was still painted like Olena’s and Wendy’s. The ridged black lines and plates of deep red, green, and blue, slid over her strong Cossack brow as she grimaced. “What is your business in our holy forest?”
“Don’ go killin’ folks in Tom’s house!” Maggy yelled, her wrinkled face appearing from the entrance of a news-paper tent. “Even Tom can get pissed now and then.”
“He is armed,” Wendy said, in perfect Central Russian.
Pyotr’s smile shifted. “Only for self-protection,” he said. He was probably curious where a black-girl from Cincinnati had picked up his dialect.
Ketevan knocked the blades of her swords together with a bell-clang. “Should we kill this man, Olena?”
“No,” Olena said.
Pyotr turned in place. He’d been focused on the threats nearest to him, but now his eyes locked onto Olena’s, and he seemed to recognize her beneath the face paint. He looked older than she remembered him.
“Lenya?” he said. He lunged forward, brushing aside a machete that lazily swung at his scalp.
Olena took a step back, but he’d always been quicker than her. Her spine cracked as he pulled her close.
Giving their hug the length of one breath, she pushed him back. Her people were staring at her.
“Come.” Olena gave Wendy a nod and started across the square with the eyes of her subordinates burning her skin.
She was very close to home now. The excitement had driven away her weariness for while, and the remaining alleyways drifted by.
“This is my home,” Olena said.
Pyotr’s head turned from side to side as he scanned their surroundings. Olena pointed ahead at a very-off-white tarp strung over the gap between the carcases of an Econoline and a Beetle. It was a slightly grander house than most in that neighborhood.
“That is Tom’s house,” she said, pointing at an old surplus-tent pitched next to hers. “Tom spends Mondays meditating on the wonder of creation, so we must speak quietly.”
“This is your place?” Pyotr asked.
“Yes,” Olena said, holding open the flap for him.
The interior glowed with the golden color of sunlight through off-white tarp, which was good, because Olena was pretty sure they were out of kerosene for the lantern.
As Pyotr took a seat on one side of the milk-crate dining table, Olena pulled a suitcase from under a pile of OD-green blankets. She dragged out a bottle of Block-Print Vodka, soaked a tattered piece of T-shirt, and started to clean the paint from her face.
“Can I ask about the face-paint?” Pyotr said.
“No,” she said, but, even if Pyotr was a prick, and she would have preferred for him to have at least called ahead, she realized she was being a poor host.
She put two fingers of the cheap American vodka in each of a pair of semi-clean jam-jars.
“Drink,” she said, “and explain why you are here.”
“You’re about as pleasant as I remember,” He said downing it in a gulp. “Did I do something you’re still mad about and I don’t remember?”
“Many things, I’m sure,” she said, draining her own glass before refilling them again. “How did you find me?”
“A girl named Jane,” Pyotr said.
“We met in Barcelona. Don’t you know her?” he asked.
“Barcelona, as in Barcelona, Spain?”
“Yes. I ran my business there for a few years.”
“And you met Jane, while in Barcelona? This is the Jane associated with the Masked Killer?”
“I never heard her call him that, and isn’t it more like a veil? They aren’t your friends.”
“I would not describe them as such,” Olena said. “We have a treaty of non-interference. How did you meet?”
“You seem curious.”
“Not particularly,” she said.
“…You want to hear how we met?” Pyotr asked.
Olena refilled their glasses.
. . .
Nearly a year before and almost 4000 miles away, Jane woke up with a breath caught in her throat. She coughed and blood came up, but rather than staining her pale skin red, it just added to the red-brown that was already coating her.
She tried hard to remember where she was. It felt like maybe she hadn’t been breathing for a while and the oxygen was only now finding its way to the back of her brain.
It looked like a motel room. The kind they had in little foreign places. She was in Spain, she remembered that much.
She shifted on the bed, and as she moved, placing a hand to support her weight, the mattress’s cotton wadding disgorged its crimson contents. She’d lost a lot of blood, and her boyfriend was missing.
She stood up from the bed, naked, except for the dried blood that coated her like a pair of dirty long-johns.
Moving made her very aware of the holes in her skin. A bullet hole in each arm and each leg, like it had been some kind of ritual. And they’d shot her in the throat, but maybe they’d used a .22, ’cause there was a little hole next to her larynx and another slightly larger one next to her spine. That’s why her boyfriend preferred a .45.
Her head cleared as she pressed the pain deep into the pit of her stomach.
There were corpses on the floor, and even more blood than she’d soaked into the mattress. The first was lying face up, not her boyfriend. The man had a hatchet embedded in his skull. It was her hatchet, and she wrenched it free. She flipped the next two. Neither were her boyfriend.
There was a scream. She realized the lights were out but she could still see. The blood was bright red under white sunlight. The motel room door was open, letting in the morning sun, and there was a man standing in the doorway with a dumb look on his face.
From the camera in his hands, bigger than it would have been in the States, and the oddly lime-green uniform he was wearing, he was a crime scene photographer.
“Shut it,” she said, stumbling past him and out the door.
. . .
Olena refilled their glasses but then held up a finger, interrupting Pyotr’s story. “Pyotr. Were you hiding in the closet?”
“Huh?” Pyotr said, the glass freezing on the way to his lips.
“You mentioned no closets, but– perhaps you were the crime scene photographer?”
“Oh, no, Jane told me all this later. Now don’t interrupt.”
. . .
There were more screams. The average Barcelonan wasn’t used to a naked blood-caked girl stumbling down the street.
She found a T-shirt hanging on a line, long enough to cover her girl-parts. That was enough.
She was starting to remember. They’d rented a room the previous night, rather than returning to their usual squat. It had been their anniversary, and they’d planned to celebrate. They’d partied a bit too hard and hadn’t heard the men outside before they’d kicked in the door.
The corpses in her motel room were Desiderio’s men. Members of a gang that worked the docks. Desiderio was a scum-bag, but Jane and her boyfriend had started it. Who might have had the moral high-ground didn’t matter anymore. They’d taken a shot at her and missed. They’d taken her boyfriend. They’d regret not taking her head.
Veterinario was a very important word in Jane’s limited Spanish vocab. She saw it painted on the side of a run down steel-shuttered shop in a dusty strip-mall. The shutter was down, but she banged on it until she heard movement inside.
The shutter raised with a clatter. She grabbed the small and wrinkled veterinarian by the collar as she drew back her hatchet.
“Antibiotics and morphine,” she said.
The man looked at the holes in her and the blood soaking through her borrowed T-shirt and nodded his head.
She hadn’t worked out a plan yet. She needed a gun at least.
They hadn’t been in Barcelona long, just long enough to start trouble, but she’d heard stories. Tales of a fair business man, a man who could get a girl what she needed, especially if this girl needed high-caliber automatic weapons.
. . .
Olena interrupted again. “You are this merchant king?” she asked. A rasping laugh crept out of her mouth as a line of clear liquor dribbled down her chin.
“Stop it,” Pyotr said as Olena wiped at her mouth with her sleeve.
. . .
Jane knocked at a tall red door with the back of her hatchet.
The door opened. “Qué coño!?” a man said, as the back of Jane’s hatchet clonked his skull. She took his pistol and started down a long dark hall.
“Martín?” a voice called from the dark.
Jane let her new pistol lead her through the door the voice had come from.
“He ain’t dead,” she said first, hoping somebody spoke English. “Anybody speak inglés.”
Her eyes were slow to adjust, but she was starting to take in the room. There was a man sitting behind a desk, he looked like the business type, and then there were two heavies with pistols pointed at her. One stood next to the desk, and the other was right next to her with the nose of his 9-mil teasing at her bangs.
“Back off,” she said, and she figured that was fair warning.
She crouched as she put a bullet in the first man’s shoulder. The second man’s pistol was still aiming where her head had been. She swung her hatchet at his ankle, and when he toppled like a felled tree she hacked again at his gun hand.
“I speak English,” the business man said from behind his desk.
“Great,” she said.
“Pyotr is my name. How can I help you?”
His skin was deathly pale, not unlike Jane’s, but, while Jane worked at night, she got the impression this man rarely stepped out of his office.
“Weapons,” Jane said.
“I have many of those– Wait!” he said, holding up a hand. Jane noticed men creeping up from three entrances. She should have seen them coming. She blamed her low blood pressure.
“I don’t have much money,” she said.
“Are there men hunting you, girl?”
“No,” Jane said. “It’s fuckhead season, and I plan to bag a few…. Jane.”
“That is your name?”
“Yeah,” she said.
He stared at her for a minute. His dark eyes probing her blood-soaked T-shirt as his thin-lipped smile revealed yellow teeth. “I usually prefer dealing in Israeli arms,” he said. “But I sell Chinese knockoffs of Russian designs to those who cannot afford quality.”
“Sweet-n-sour’s fine by me,” she said.
“Unless you carry your money in unmentionable places, I don’t believe you have have enough to buy a Chinese pistol.”
The hatchet shifted in Jane’s hand. She caught the end of the handle and let it swing, feeling the weight.
“How does a pair of Kalashnikovs sound to you?” Pyotr asked.
“Of course. Now, I must explain. These rifles are gently used. They made a very long trip from Tula to Afghanistan and then through a long chain of trades in the black-market. The fact they still fire is a sign of their quality.”
“Sounds fine,” she said.
“…Is that a bullet hole in your throat?”
“You got a problem with that?”
“No. And I will give you the rifles I spoke of, I would only have traded them again anyway, but… have you considered getting out of town?”
“No,” Jane said. “You heard of Desiderio?”
“Yes,” Pyotr said.
“He’s the fuck I’m gonna kill.”
. . .
Olena’s stomach was already sour. She usually drank the quantity she’d just swallowed over an evening, and with more pleasant company. “Where in that exchange did Jane tell you where to find me?” she asked.
Pyotr held out his glass for her and waited until she topped it up. “My story isn’t over yet,” he said.
. . .
Pyotr had pointed her to the Gothic Quarter. Jane’s boyfriend had wanted to see it before they left town. He had an odd interest in old things, and a stranger interest in old things with layers of new plastered over them.
Wandering those streets now, the alleys winding, the tall medieval walls hanging over her, she wished he was there with her. He would have told her the names of different kinds of arches and pillars, and explained the religious significance of fig leaves hammered out of wrought iron, but he wasn’t there with her, and she felt eyes staring at her from the dark gaps in the shutters of tall windows.
She aimed one of her rifles at a suspicious window and the itch faded from the back of her neck.
Pyotr had given her a pair of camo pants along with the rifles. And he’d given her directions that she’d written in ball-point on the palm of her hand.
There was supposed to be a dark winding alley leading from somewhere on the Plain of Mars to about the middle of the Mound of Venus. She’d started to worry she was in the wrong winding alley when she saw bright sunlight ahead, and the alley opened up.
Pyotr hadn’t told her the courtyard was this big. Even just standing at the entrance she was exposed, in sight of at least thirty open windows.
There was a big cross at the center of the dirt yard. Not the white-plaster gold-accent Catholic shit that was everywhere in that city, but the wooden kind like Christ was nailed to. And a man was nailed to this one too.
Jane’s mouth started to sweat as her vision twinged black. Her heart was beating too fast for her breathing.
It was her boyfriend. They’d nailed him to a cross. He would have hated the imagery. His pants were soaked shiny red with blood draining from dark holes in his stomach.
They’d shot him in the belly and left him to bleed.
“Is this the American girl?” a man yelled, English and volume for her benefit she assumed. He walked out of a door on the opposite side of the courtyard with a dozen men at his back. Desiderio, she guessed, but she’d never seen his face before.
“Yes, sir,” a man said. Jane vaguely remembered him from the previous night.
Jane raised her rifle, and she would have taken Desiderio first, but she noticed something odd. Desiderio’s guys should have been aiming at her like a firing squad, but they were lined up and aiming straight ahead.
Jane looked back over her shoulder.
Pyotr had crept up behind her with a dozen men of his own. He flashed yellow teeth at her. “You have brass balls, girl, but mine are tungsten-carbide.”
. . .
Olena felt the vodka creeping up her throat like an extracted feeding tube. “Yes, that was a marvelous line, which I’m sure you didn’t think of in that moment.”
“Did so,” Pyotr said, “You can ask Jane.”
“…Are you going to continue?”
“That is basically it. We fought it out. Jane killed Desiderio with her hatchet. And her boyfriend turned out to be not dead– The first thing he said was, fucking nails hurt.” Pyotr chuckled while Olena unrolled a sleeping bag and lay back.
“Then you all drank together, and it was during these commiserations Jane told you where to find me?” Olena asked.
“Yeah,” Pyotr said. “She told me you’re the only Russian she knows to talk to.”
“Tom says that we should accept coincidence as the will of God,” Olena said.
“…So you’re not just living here, you’re part of this cult?”
Olena had no interest in explaining her religious beliefs. “The way you speak about Jane, it sounds like you have some interest in her.”
“No…. Well, interest, yes,” Pyotr said. “But, seeing the two of them together, it takes only one look to know there’s no place for me.”
“So you have actual interest,” Olena said, smiling more for effect than to portray any real mirth.
“Just because you’ve never seen a need for companionship, you shouldn’t poke fun at normal, well-adjusted people.”
“I have no intention of poking fun. Have you met Jane since you arrived in this city?”
“She’s here?” Pyotr asked. The jam-jars clinked as he leaned forward and bumped the milk-crate between them.
“Yes. And she is now single,” Olena said.
“The Masked Killer died?” Pyotr asked.
Feeling slightly better, she filled their glasses again. “It is now my turn to tell a story.”
. . .
Jane and her boyfriend had repatriated a month before. Their European vacation had been long, if not relaxing. Their city seemed to have changed while they were away.
Jane had yet to visit her mother, and she didn’t have any real friends to say hi to. Abernathy, the only person she could maybe call a friend, was in prison. She’d killed some guy and pled guilty.
Jane thought of acquiring a decent fake-ID and visiting Abi upstate, but she had a pair of more pressing concerns. There was a man Jane and her boyfriend were hunting. They’d been stalking his neighborhood for weeks.
This man killed women. He slit their throats before doing things to their bodies. That order of operations might have made his crimes slightly less egregious, while at the same time more disgusting.
“Coffee?” her boyfriend said.
Jane looked up from the asphalt and saw a glowing neon sign advertizing coffee and waffles.
A hooker in a bright blue dress, presumably to accentuate her varicose veins, stepped out of the diner. A man stepped out after her.
As the hooker started down the street, the man paused at the door. He unzipped his NY-windbreaker and checked something in the back of his pants while his eyes followed the hooker who was wobbling on her ice-pick heels.
“Ya think?” Jane’s boyfriend said. His face was always flat, empty, not relaxed exactly, more like his expression was held firmly in place. But Jane could tell there was something bothering him, and that was the second of Jane’s pressing concerns.
As they began stalking the man who was stalking the hooker, Jane wondered if this would make things right.
They’d thought they’d had their guy a week before. A leak in the PD had passed out his criminal record to a writer on the crime beat. The journalist had lent the papers to a buddy, and that buddy, through a few more steps of underworld abstraction, had given a copy to Jane. This asshole had done a couple of years for aggravated assault, but that sentence had been bumped down from multiple-rape, and the aggravated assault in this case had involved slitting a girl’s throat.
He’d lived in a trailer on the outskirts, but he’d worked in the back of a meat shop in the same neighborhood they were currently patrolling.
A week earlier they’d knocked on the door of his trailer. The guy had come to the door shotgun-in-hand, and Jane’s boyfriend had put him down with a .45 to the skull.
There’d been another slit-throat girl front-page in the morning paper, and another to later that week. Not only had they missed the mark, but whoever was actually doing the dirt had upped his time-table.
The hooker turned down an alley, maybe taking a shortcut to her designated corner, and the guy in the wind breaker turned after her.
“I’m feelin’ pretty good about this one,” her boyfriend said.
“He might just keep his wallet in his back pocket,” Jane said.
They turned down the alley after him. The hooker was a half-block ahead, and the man’s pace was quickening.
“Let’s toss him and find out,” Jane said.
As Jane quickened her steps, the man turned back, just in time for the butt of her Browning to meet with the bridge of his nose.
He fell to the greasy asphalt as the hooker, still twenty yards off, spun on her heels, shrieked, and tumbled around a corner and out of sight.
Jane straddled him and pressed the nose of her 1911 to the middle of his forehead. “Whatchu got in the back of your pants?”
“…What?” the man said. “I’ll give you my money!”
“Not what I’m asking. It’s real simple. You tell me the truth, and I won’t shoot you.”
The man started sniveling. The snot ran from his nose and down his cheeks. His eyes darted around the dark alley, looking for anybody to take his side, but the hooker was gone, and neither Jane nor her boyfriend were of a friendly disposition. He started to squirm, but Jane pushed his head back down with her pistol.
“You like fucking dead girls?” she asked.
His eyes snapped to her face. “…I’m sorry,” he said.
Jane stood up and gave her boyfriend a nod. He drew the pistol from his belt, and put a bullet in the man’s skull.
As they started out of the alley, Jane took her boyfriend’s hand. “You feeling better?”
His eyes shot to her quick, and there was something like fear in his face, something that shouldn’t have been there at all.
“…I thought,” Jane said, “Maybe, you were feeling bad about getting the wrong guy.”
“The guy in that trailer?” he asked.
“Yeah. I thought maybe you were feeling guilty.”
“No,” he said. “He pointed a gun at you and I killed him. It’ll always be as simple as that.”
“Oh,” she said. “Have I done something? ‘Cuz you’re acting kinda weird–”
“I can’t keep doing this,” he said.
“What?” she said, squeezing his hand tighter until he pulled it free.
“I’m going to leave you,” he said.
“What?” she said, glancing around the shitty neighborhood they now had no reason to stay in. “Where are you going?”
“I wanna break up,” he said.
Her lip started to quiver, and tears filled her eyes. “Fuck you,” she said.
. . .
“So,” Pyotr said, “You stalk them, as a hobby?”
“…What?” Olena said.
“Maybe you have a thing for the Masked Killer?” Pyotr asked and wasn’t quick enough raising his hands as Olena spat at him.
“No,” Olena said.
“Point taken,” he said, wiping his face with his sleeve. “But still, you weren’t anywhere in that story.”
“Jane came to me after, looking for a shoulder on which to cry.” Olena said. “She was already intoxicated, and explained her troubles to me in great and repetitive detail.”
“What kind of intoxicated?” Pyotr asked.
“Is that a regular habit?”
“Are you becoming disillusioned?” Olena sneered again.
“No. Everyone has a vice.”
“It seems she only indulges when she is distressed.”
It was starting to get warm. The sun was high overhead. Olena wondered when Tanya would arrive to save her from this banter.
“Pyotr,” she said, “why have you come to my city?”
“I was hoping to set up business here,” Pyotr said, nudging his glass in her direction. What had started as most of a liter of cheap vodka was now a few shots.
“My sisters and I are not strictly opposed to the dealing of arms, but you will find no helping hand extended from my people.”
The tarp rustled, and the tent flap opened. Pyotr drew his pistol, aiming at the sunlit gap, while Olena drew her pistol aiming at Pyotr’s face.
“Am I interrupting something, Olena?” Tanya asked.
Pyotr noticed the pistol aiming at his face and lowered his own.
“I got the groceries,” Tanya said, dropping a dozen bags in the corner before taking a seat next to Olena and resting a hand on her knee.
“That explains a lot,” Pyotr said.
“This is Pashtana,” Olena said. “My beloved. If you speak a word of insult I will kill you where you stand.”
“I don’t think I could stand up if I tried,” Pyotr said, chuckling as he emptied his glass again. “And she’s kind of cute, if you go in for female Mujaheddin.”
“…Why did you seek me out, Pyotr?” Olena asked, hoping to finally get to the point.
“A lot of people here could use my wares,” Pyotr said, “but Mother has this market cornered.”
“What?” Olena said.
“Mother. She has her fingers in every arms deal in the city.”
“This city?” Olena asked.
“Yeah. You didn’t know?”
“Olena… who is this?” Tanya asked.
“Pyotr. My brother.”
“I was hoping you might speak with Mother,” Pyotr said.
“…If it would not be too awkward for you, I would like to meet your mother,” Tanya said.
Olena briefly considered both requests. “No,” she said.