For the Bratva, retribution is the law.
An eye for an eye.
A tooth for a tooth.
A life for a life.
But the man who killed my beloved deserves a fate worse than death.
He’ll live knowing his only daughter was captured by a monster…
That he’s utterly powerless to stop me.
Olena Baranov will be my prisoner.
Vengeance will be mine.
The cold, unyielding floor of the cell where I lay offers no comfort in my distress. They’ve covered my eyes with a blindfold, but it’s no matter. They’re swollen shut even without a covering. My breathing is slow and labored, and I’m confident I have broken ribs from the beatings I’ve taken. They like to take turns at night when they’re high and drunk, tying me up and using fists and weapons. Even a trained fighter like me doesn’t stand a chance against half a dozen armed men.
Yuri’s oily voice makes my skin crawl when he whispers in my ear, “They keep you as their lackey, don’t they?”
The sound of his voice reminds me of a time long ago when I was bitten by a snake. The way the hideously green, slithering creature glided up to me before it struck, baring its teeth.
I don’t respond to his question. I learned quickly any response brings more violence. He likes to taunt me.
“The big, powerful one. Sent to spy on me. Sent to do detail.”
It’s taken years to master the art of detachment from physical pain, to will my mind not to fear bruises and blood, throbs and stings, but most of all, the fear of inevitable death. The key is to accept that you might die. Once you cease fearing death, pain is but an aspect of the human condition. Unpleasant but bearable. And with this knowledge, I’m able to keep my mouth closed. I’m able to withhold what he wants. I’ve accepted my death, so no amount of beatings will draw truth from my mouth.
I scream, the small cell echoing with the sound of my tortured yells when something strikes me across the soles of my feet. I imagine it’s the truncheon feared by Russian prisoners. A Russian guard’s ready weapon, the solid, stout stick supposedly only for self-defense, is used far more frequently than one might think.
They don’t stop there, mercilessly beating me about the thighs and body, demanding information I won’t give. I’m panting, but I can’t move with restraints on my wrists and ankles. It’s dark. So dark, I feel I’m being pulled down into quicksand the color of pitch. The walls close in around me and I find it difficult to breathe.
They stripped me and dragged me to this cell, but not before I broke the nose of one and knocked a second out before they overpowered me. And now they punish me for raising my hands to them. For my failure to speak. Because I represent their most loathed rivals.
I writhe, sweat breaking out over my body. Unable to stop the pain. Waiting for the blow to my head that will kill me.
My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to Taya. My Taya.
The questions come hard and fast, but I don’t respond.
Tell me how you made alliances with Amaranov.
What have you done with Sergie?
What do you know about the funds from Sarajevo?
From money laundering to kidnapping, they seem to think our brotherhood is responsible for everything illegal that’s happened in Russia in the past decade.
Some things I know for sure we are guilty of. We intentionally plotted to overtake the illicit fund transfers orchestrated by former prime minister Amaranov and did so by making him an offer that countered theirs. But rival Bratva bids aren’t licit deals and their only claim on us is revenge. Still, they are dissatisfied we’ve essentially stolen from them.
I don’t know the details about Sergie, but I do know his blood was on the hands of Dimitri, our former pakhan. Sometimes, not knowing details proves useful. I knew Sergie did something that personally offended Dimitri. I knew Dimitri didn’t take kindly to offense. And though he never told us what he did, it became clear The Thieves suspected we were the ones responsible for his going missing. I wasn’t, but my brotherhood was, and now I bear the consequences.
Any of us would. It’s one of the major tenets of the brotherhood: we stand as one.
I know nothing about Sarajevo.
And even if I did, they would extract nothing from me.
I wouldn’t even tell them my name.
While they abuse me, inflicting pain the likes of which I’ve never known, I force my mind to escape to a place of quiet.
The little cabin in Istra, bordered by violet crocuses, the first flowers of early spring. The smell of orchids by the creek when I fish, amidst the quiet and calm running water.
The soft hands and gentle touch that come to me when I’m bound, bruised, and barely conscious. So quiet, so gentle, I’m convinced it’s my imagination. An angel come to minister to me in my distress.
The smell of roses.
I am not here.
This is my body, being beaten and abused, but my body is only a part of who I am.
I am somewhere else, far away from here, where no one can touch me. And in that place, I mentally plan how I would take them down if given the chance.
I hear the sound of approaching feet and for a brief moment, when I’m half-conscious and delusional, I imagine it’s the footsteps of my brothers, come to rescue me.
But it isn’t.
Reinforcements have come for another round of entertainment. I shake, knowing what’s coming, knowing I can’t stop it, when I hear a voice.
“Maksym? Maksym…” Her voice breaks into sobs when she sees me helpless and beaten.
The motherfuckers brought Taya here to watch. If there’s anything that could break me…
I struggle against my chains, rattling them, writhing with the effort of getting free. They cut into my flesh, but I don’t budge. I scream in helpless fury. I don’t want her to see me like this.
And that’s when I wake from the nightmare.
Every fucking night.
I’m in a cold sweat, panting, and sit up quickly in bed. I blink in the dark room and stare at my wrists, half expecting them to be bound in cuffs, but they’re free. There are no more bruises, no more broken ribs. Gingerly, I touch my body, feeling for blood, but I’m whole. The pain in my lower back and leg remind me that I’m still recovering, but I’m no longer injured.
I brush a hand across my sweaty brow.
I was dreaming. Remembering.
The worst of a prisoner’s punishment is that even after he’s free, his subconscious holds him prisoner.
My heart still hammers in my chest as I try to get my bearings. I may not be bound anymore, but I don’t remember where I am or why I’m here, and for a few brief seconds, panic sweeps over me.
Where am I?
I will the pounding of my heart to steady as I slowly remember.
I’m in the guest room in my friend Kazimir’s house.
I close my eyes and breathe in deeply through my nose again, then exhale through my mouth.
I’m in America for now. Our pakhan Demyan made me see a therapist, who told me I needed a change of scenery. So here I am. A year ago, I wouldn’t have left Taya. But she insisted.
“We need a break,” she said, not meeting my eyes. “We need some time to figure things out.”
I couldn’t give her what she needed. The relief she felt when I came back quickly evaporated when she realized I was no longer the man she knew. She couldn’t love me like this. Spending night after night with the angry, brooding man I am now undid her. She fell in love with the man who worshipped her. The man of her youth, who overcame adversity by strengthening his mind and body. The man who loved her back.
Not the man I am now, who sees ghosts in the shadows. Not someone whose life work involves murder and deception.
While I was in prison I said nothing, the only sound I made were the screams I couldn’t hold back. Not a word. Not when they talked to me. Not when they demanded answers under promise of further torture.
Not even when my brothers rescued me and brought me home with them. For weeks, even after the open lacerations had healed, even after my bones had been set in casts and my wounds doctored, even when I had night after night of quiet rest.
I tried with Taya, but the words were broken. I was not the man they’d taken prisoner. The only sounds I made when freed were the screams that came unbidden in my sleep.
And now, as I lay mute in bed, remembering how she shook her head while tears fell down her cheeks, the memory revives the ache in my chest.
I’m trying to make peace with it all when the soft sound of a baby’s laugh captures my attention. I look to the window overlooking the bay, lift the shade, and see Kazimir, holding his daughter Yolanda to his chest. I watch them in silence, the peaceful scene soothing my pounding heart. He sits on the deck and kisses her little cheek. She giggles and coos, helplessly trying to wriggle away, but he holds her fast.
It’s early, the sun just coming up over the water in waves of pink and blue.
I slowly swing my legs over the side of the bed, pull a t-shirt and shorts on, and set my feet on the ground. I ignore the pain that radiates up my leg when I touch the floor. Though my broken leg was set immediately upon my rescue, the break was severe, warranting weeks of bedrest followed by physical therapy. Both my lower back and femur suffered major trauma. The doctor says it could take up to six months for a full recovery, but the combination of both injuries and my interrupted sleep have made recovery longer. Part of the reason I wear a perpetual frown is because every time I move, the memory of how my body was broken and how long it will take to recover makes my blood thrum in my veins.
I walk out to the porch to meet them. The rest of the house still sleeps.
When I step outside, Kazimir looks up at me in surprise.
Family life has been kind to him. Though he has some more gray around his temples and in his beard, his eyes have gentled. He no longer wears a perpetual frown, and he smiles more readily than he ever did. The former brigadier of our brotherhood, he retired from the Bratva and came to live in America with his wife, Sadie. They now have two small children and are every bit in love as the day they came here. Karol, who calls me “Uncle Maks,” is three years old, and little Yolanda under a year. It’s a busy life, but beautiful, and makes me long for the same.
I wanted babies with my Taya.
Though Kazimir and Sadie want nothing at all to do with Bratva life anymore after Kazimir’s resignation, when Demyan asked them if we could visit, they welcomed us here. Demyan came with his new wife Larissa, and the three of us have been here a few days. Sadie and Larissa became instant friends. Demyan, Kazimir, and I are like brothers. We’re family, though none of us are related by blood.
“Maksym,” Kazimir says. He doesn’t say anything else. He knows I don’t want to talk. I’m surprised I even came out here but being around the children makes me smile.
I sit across from him on a worn wooden deck chair, when little Yolanda reaches her chubby arms for me. I hesitate, but Kazimir chuckles.
“She wants a hug from the big teddy bear, Uncle Maks.” I smile and open my arms, taking her and settling her on my lap. She lays against my chest, playing with my beard and giggling.
“Such a sweet little girl,” I whisper. The first words I’ve spoken in so long, my voice is husky and rough from disuse. It feels good to talk to her. Healing, even. Kazimir tenses when he hears my voice. He knows I don’t want to speak of what happened, but I know he’s been worried about me.
“She is very sweet,” Kazimir says, as if my talking isn’t out of the ordinary at all. “Intelligent, like her mother.”
“And fierce, like her father,” Sadie says from the doorway, walking out onto the deck wearing a robe and carrying a cup of coffee. She looks with concern to me. “Coffee, Maksym?”
I shake my head and force myself to respond. “Thank you, no.” Her pretty face breaks out into a smile and her eyes dampen when I talk to her. She says nothing, but reaches a hand out and gives my arm a gentle squeeze.
“And what about your husband?” Kazimir asks with mock offense.
“My husband can have whatever he wants,” Sadie responds with a smile. She turns to go inside, when Demyan meets her at the door, clad in shorts and a t-shirt. His eyes are sober, his face drawn and stern.
Something is wrong.
“Sadie, would you take the baby?” Demyan asks calmly. “I need to talk to Kazimir and Maksym alone.”
I sit up straighter and inhale. I know this feeling. I know his look. He’s about to deliver news we won’t want to hear. The hairs on the back of my arms stand on end. Sadie’s eyes quickly go to Kazimir, who gives her a serious, reassuring nod. She takes the baby from me, who clings and wails, while Demyan and Kazimir watch in sober silence. Sadie shuts the door behind her.
“What is it?” I ask him. He turns to me with a sorrowful expression, his lips turned down in a frown. His eyes are bloodshot, and I wonder if he hasn’t adjusted to the time difference, or perhaps he never slept at all the night before.
“Demyan.” Kazimir says. “Out with it.”
But it’s me Demyan’s looking at.
“It’s Taya, Maksym.” Something slides between my rib cage, making it difficult to breathe. The air in my lungs constricts, my hands fisting by my sides.
“What about her?” I grit out.
His concern morphs to fury. “Taya’s been killed.”
It’s a sixteen-hour flight from Washington to home. Larissa and Demyan sleep for much of the trip, but I don’t. It’s hard enough waking in a cold sweat to my own tortured screams when I’m in bed. I have no interest in doing so on a plane. The sun is barely rising when we touch down on the runway. My eyes burn from lack of sleep, my bones suffused with a heavy, leaden feeling.
They killed Taya.
Who? The only enemies we have are The Thieves.
How did they find her? How did they know she was mine?
This is my punishment. My consequence for escaping them.
“Maksym, did you sleep at all?” Larissa looks at me with concern, frowning.
I shake my head. “No, but I’m fine,” I tell her. We both know it’s a lie.
For sixteen hours, I’ve thought about Taya. The happy memories I’ve held onto. For years, I kept her safe in a remote cabin in Istra. She went to work as a nurse’s aide, but no one knew where we lived except Demyan. We had no visitors, even my brothers. It was for the safety of both of us.
She wasn’t found in the cabin, though. She was found dead just outside the hospital where she worked, stabbed to death and left to bleed out on the pavement.
The pain of her loss makes a gnawing, aching pain grow in my belly at the initial shock.
An innocent woman. Murdered.
For hours, I think about who could have done this, and how I’ll exact revenge. I imagine being back in that cell, only I’m the one wielding the weapons on those who hurt her. I imagine screams, but instead they belong to my enemies. I imagine their blood staining the concrete floor as I avenge her death.
And I will fucking avenge her death.
By the time we land, I’m ready to hunt. I’m ready to kill.
A ride is waiting for us. Demyan and I load our luggage and take our seats in the back of the car.
“You need your rest, brother,” Demyan says with concern. “You’re no good to anyone if you’re a walking zombie. And I know you don’t want to hear this, but if you’re thinking what I think you are, you need to heal first.”
“Fuck off, Demyan.”
He clenches his jaw but gives me space to vent my anger. I don’t want to talk to him about my weaknesses. I want to talk to him about fucking finding the people who killed my woman.
They killed her. My Taya.
My eyes burn with unshed tears, venom coursing through my veins with vicious heat. My fingers clench into fists, and for one moment, I see nothing but the faces of my enemies. Bloody. Broken. Howling in torment and begging for forgiveness.
I look out the window as we drive away from the airport and don’t say anything else to him. I want to sleep, but I don’t want to revisit that cell.
“Just sleep, brother.”
“I will,” I tell him. “Eventually.”
“Maybe you should get something from Rothsky to help you?” he suggests with a shrug.
I give him a withering look. “Would you take something to help you sleep?” Demyan’s only a year older than I am. With his blond hair and blue eyes, he looks nothing like me, and yet, this is the man I consider my brother. He will give me honesty. Finally, he shakes his head.
“No,” he admits. “Probably not.”
Neither of us would willingly choose the loss of control a sleeping aid would give us. I want to be alert. I need to be.
“Fine,” he says. “At the very least, I want you to promise me you will do everything in your power to heal before you seek revenge. During that time, we will do everything we can to find out who did this, so your justice can be swift.” He lets the words sink in for a moment. “Agreed?”
“Agreed,” I say with a frown. “Make an appointment with Rothsky.”
I say nothing else.
I’ll bide my time.
I’ll strengthen my body.
I’ll heal from my injuries and train my body to fight to the death.
For certain, violent death will come to those who killed my Taya.