Authors: Bella Rose
“Perhaps it was the supplier?” Viktor said silkily. He could not give himself away. Not now.
what was in the back of that van?” Sasha’s voice was rising higher each second. Soon he would be screeching like a woman.
“I told you,” Viktor said quietly. “I’ve learned not to ask.”
Sasha threw up his hands, practically stomping around the room in a tantrum. “Women! Slaves to be sent all over the country to my uncle’s brothels!”
It was only a confirmation of what Viktor had already suspected, but that didn’t make him less ill. He clenched his jaw tightly and tried to hang on to his temper as well. Then he glared at Sasha. “What part of ‘I’ve learned not to ask’ did you
Sasha curled his lip. “I think you should know how badly you screwed up! Those women are wandering around in a strange city with no money and no protection and it’s your fault.”
“And how is this my fault?” Viktor carefully took another swig of beer, glad that he had declined any hard liquor. He needed his wits now more than ever.
“You let them go!” Sasha shouted. “I know you did! It’s just the kind of thing some softhearted loser like you would do!”
“Is there a point to this interview?” Viktor said, forcing himself to project an air of calm he did not feel. “Because I’m tired and you’re really pissing me off more than usual.”
“Either you admit what you did or I’m going to make you.” Sasha slammed his shot glass down so hard that the bottom cracked.
“Hey!” Viktor said indignantly. “Not all of us are rolling in our uncle’s money. Some of us actually have to buy our own stuff, which—by the way—is why I would never betray your uncle. Why would I do that? What purpose would it serve? And if I didn’t know what the cargo was, why would I bother to do anything with it? I don’t get paid to mess with the cargo. I get paid to drive.” Viktor pointed back at Sasha. “It’s starting to sound like you’re the one who has a motive to mess with your uncle. Maybe you did something with this cargo.”
“Do not put this on me!” Sasha shrieked.
Viktor stared in fascination at the man he had known for years. It was becoming more and more apparent that Viktor had never really known Sasha at all. The mask that Sasha presented to the world at large was not this half-crazy, raving lunatic who was convinced everyone was out to get him. This version of Sasha was dangerous and Viktor knew it.
“Sasha,” Viktor said firmly. “Just go. Get out of my apartment and go. I don’t know what you want from me, but you’re not going to get it. And quite frankly, you’re just pissing me off.”
“No!” Sasha made a grab for Viktor’s arm.
Viktor hastily took a step back out of range.
“You don’t understand,” Sasha moaned. “My uncle is pissed at me! He thinks I had something to do with this. You have to help me find out what happened to those women!”
“I’ll ask around,” Viktor agreed. “Maybe someone has heard something that they wouldn’t be willing to tell a pledged member of the Karkoffs.”
“I have to find them,” Sasha insisted.
“If a bunch of women went missing, immigration or social services probably picked them up,” Viktor suggested. “At that point, they’ll be well out of reach. There’s nothing else for it.”
Sasha seemed to shake himself out of his low mood. “You need to find them! I’ll be back tomorrow to see what you know.”
“Great,” Viktor murmured as Sasha walked out the door.
* * *
Katie woke up the following morning with a monumental headache and a desire to do nothing but stay in bed all day. Unfortunately, that was not an option. She settled instead for refusing to think about Viktor, which was a task that took considerable effort on her part and only served to make her headache ten times worse.
“Girl, you look like
!” Anne told her not too long before three o’clock rolled around. “You’ve been sitting over there all day as if you were a zombie. What happened last night? Or did you just wake up on the wrong side of the bed?”
“I guess you could say I had a little disagreement with my friend.”
“Your friend whose name starts with a
?” Anne guessed. “I think that was bound to happen.”
“I’m starting to think you’re right,” Katie said glumly. “It’s like the world just wants to put up a bunch of roadblocks, you know?”
“So maybe you go home and take that adorable dog of yours to the park and just enjoy yourself and forget about him for tonight,” Anne suggested. “It’s all right to take a break from someone, you know?”
“I think you might be right.”
Anne glanced up at the clock. “Go right now. I’ll cover for you for ten minutes. You look like you could use a few extra minutes of R and R.”
“Thank you,” Katie said earnestly. “I promise I’ll be more myself tomorrow.”
“I know you will be.” Anne waved her off. “We all get caught up sometimes.”
Katie waved to Anne on her way out the door and hustled home to change clothes, get Max, and head to the park. She’d never been so eager for her daily walk before in her life. It felt so good to be outside in the late afternoon sunlight. She started to relax almost immediately.
Max was feeling good too. He fetched the ball so many times she thought his tongue was going to start dragging on the ground. She laughed as she watched him struggle with whether he wanted to take a little nap in the grass or have her throw the ball just one more time.
“Okay, enough!” she told him. “I’m making the call because you’ve completely worn yourself out and you need a break!”
The dog flopped into the grass and rolled onto his back. He waved his legs in the air and twisted his body to scratch his back. She was just laughing about his antics when someone walked up. She expected Viktor, and even had a little speech prepared. But it wasn’t him.
“Sasha.” Katie nodded with forced cordiality. “I hope your tooth is feeling better.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m fine now. Or I suppose I’m mostly fine.”
“Oh?” She fidgeted uncomfortably. “Then maybe you should call the office and make another appointment.”
“I don’t need another appointment.” Sasha was looking at her in a very odd way. “I need some insurance.”
“Dental insurance?” She couldn’t even be certain they were talking about the same thing.
Sasha muttered something in Russian that Katie couldn’t understand. Max was staring at him as though the dog couldn’t decide if the stupid human was a threat or not. Then Sasha held up his hand and two more men sprinted out of the trees a few yards away.
Max leaped to his feet, barking, but he was tuckered out and slow. One of the men slipped the loop of a dog-handling pole around Max’s neck. Katie screamed. Max fought the man, snarling and spinning at the end of the pole. It didn’t do any good.
“Leave him alone!” she shouted.
Some of the mothers over by the playground equipment were starting to take notice. Katie screamed again, trying to reach her dog. Sasha’s second companion grabbed her around the waist. These were not the same men who had come with him to her home the night before. She didn’t know these two.
Katie could see one of the mothers dialing her phone. She pointed to the Good Samaritan. “The cops will be here any second! You’d better leave me alone and go away before they arrest you.”
Sasha shrugged. “We’ll be long gone by then.”
Sending an arrogant wave to the mothers, Sasha motioned to his two accomplices. They fell into step behind him with Katie and Max in tow. Katie beat on her captor’s back, but the guy was like a block of wood. Her hands actually hurt from the contact.
“Igor isn’t going to be bothered by your squirming around,” Sasha informed Katie. “So you might as well stop.”
“At least he’s aptly named,” she snapped. “What is your problem?” she asked Sasha. “Your uncle told you to leave me alone.”
“My uncle also told me to take care of a little problem. And since my problem involves Viktor, you’re really the best insurance policy for that purpose.”
“So let my dog go, please?” she begged.
They were approaching yet another SUV. It was like a bad movie all over again. Sasha seemed to be considering her request. She was shoved unceremoniously into the back of the SUV. Then Sasha pointed to the dog.
“Kill him, I guess.”
“No!” Katie shrieked, feeling her eyes tearing up. “Don’t hurt him! Don’t! I’ll give you anything you want, just don’t hurt him!”
“That’s ridiculous,” Sasha said derisively. “It’s a fucking dog. Have some pride.”
“He’s a better man than you are.” She struggled valiantly, trying to get out.
Then the man holding the snarling, biting Max said something to Sasha in rapid Russian. Sasha answered back and they proceeded to have what sounded like an argument. Finally the man dropped the pole and got into the front passenger seat of the SUV. The vehicle spun gravel as it left the parking lot, but Max was still alive as they left him behind
Viktor cursed beneath his breath when he saw Sasha pull his SUV into a spot in the rear lot of the park. Viktor couldn’t think of someone he would like to see less than Sasha. The man was already getting out of his vehicle with a smug smile in place as if he hadn’t been half drunk and begging tearfully for Viktor to help him out just the night before.
“What do you want?” Viktor muttered as Sasha approached.
Something about Sasha’s smile was off. “Looking for your girlfriend?”
“Because you’re not going to find her here.” Sasha glanced around. “At least not right now. She was here earlier with that rabid pet of hers.”
“What did you do?” Viktor asked through clenched teeth.
“I took out an insurance policy.” Sasha pulled out a pack of cigarettes and removed one from the package. He put it in his mouth and lit it. “I wanted to be sure that you would be properly motivated to find my missing cargo.”
“So you kidnapped Katie in order to gain my cooperation?” Viktor balled his hands into fists. “Are you insane? I’m more likely to beat your face in until you squeal and tell me where she is.”
“That’s not going to work.”
“Oh? And why not?”
Sasha took a long drag of his cigarette and blew the smoke into Viktor’s face. “Because if you do anything to me”—Sasha waved to another man on the far side of the park—“my associate there will make one phone call and your bitch of a girlfriend will die.”
“What do you think this gets you?” Viktor asked. “I told you already that I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I even agreed to look for your missing cargo. But I told you if they’d been picked up by social services, then that was it. What am I supposed to do? Magically make a bunch of women appear out of thin air?”
“No. But I guess I’ll at least have one.”
“Excuse me?” Viktor felt icy rage taking over his body. “What are you saying?”
“Only that if you don’t get me what I want, I’m going to have to substitute your girlfriend for the rest of those women. She’s not exactly pliable, but there are men who like a little fight in a girl that they buy.”
Viktor started toward Sasha, but he held up his hand, waving his finger in front of Viktor’s face. “Ah, ah, ah! No touching or she dies!”
“You’re not doing yourself any favors,” Viktor told him. “I was already going to help you.”
“Now you’ll be more motivated.”
Viktor snorted. “Or I’ll just be motivated to murder you.”
“And have fun finding that mutt of hers too.”
Sasha’s lips curved into a cruel smile. “Well we had to do something with him, so we put a pole on him to keep him from ripping us apart while we put Katie in the truck. Then we just sort of left him here. So who knows? Maybe he got run over by a car, or maybe he got taken to the pound. There’s not really a way to know, is there?”
Sasha turned around and stalked back toward his SUV.
“You said you want those women back,” Viktor called. “When?”
“You have twenty-four hours. Meet me right here or I’ll send you a postcard from wherever she goes.”
“Fuck you, Sasha,” Viktor growled. “You’re going to regret this. In fact, you’re going to
to regret this.”
There was a brief shadow that passed over Sasha’s face as though he might have had enough sense to realize he’d just made a really bad choice. Then it was gone and the arrogant mask was firmly back in place.
Viktor watched Sasha drive away. He glanced around, wondering if there was any way to find out what had happened to Max. Would the dog have hidden when the cops inevitably showed up? Would he have run away?
A yip caught Viktor’s attention, making him turn toward the forested area of the park. He wanted to find Katie. Yet he knew that she would also want him to at least look around for Max. She loved that dog. Her first worry would have been for the animal and not herself. It was silly and softhearted, but it was one of the reasons why he loved her so much.
Viktor trotted toward the woods, skipping the path and taking the most direct route. If the dog had been running, he would have done the same. The shadows were getting longer as the evening wore on.
Then Viktor heard another high-pitched yip. This one ended in a whine. Viktor ducked beneath a few low-hanging branches and went deeper into the forest. Finally he saw that the ground here was all churned up as though something had been struggling.
“Max?” Viktor called softly.
The dog gave one sharp bark. It was enough for Viktor to locate him.
“Wow, you’re really in a mess, aren’t you?”
Viktor stood back and tried to figure out the best way to extract the long-haired dog from the mess of thorns, thickets, brush, and tree branches that he had apparently dragged along until he could go no farther. And in the center of the mess, Max lay with his side heaving as though he’d been fighting every second since the loop had first touched his neck.
Viktor knelt, slow and easy, afraid the dog would be surprised and try to bite him. But when Viktor reached out, Max licked his hand. Apparently they were friends. Viktor smoothed his hand over the dog’s tangled fur. “Now we just have to find your owner.”