|FROM A POISONED HEART by Paul Lubaczewski|
Vladimir watched his target carefully through the zoom of his phone, waiting for it to cover the distance that would set him in action. He mused to himself that technology was a wonderful thing. With the phone, he looked for all the world like just another chat obsessed idiot in a world that had become crammed with them. No-one notices someone glued to their phone or tablet, just another inane data zombie, the perfect cover for someone in his profession. It had given him ample opportunity to watch the habits of one Anatoly Sokolov, and to mark down his routine, his likes, his dislikes, his actions, his mistakes.
What was going to prove the costliest of those mistakes to Mr. Sokolov was something the man thought was intensely clever. Every week Sokolov went to pass information on to a member of a fact-finding group for an international human rights agency, helping them with a case that was of interest specifically to Vladimir’s employer. The man believed that by passing through an abandoned building some few city blocks from here and climbing the crumbling stone wall of the building’s overgrown garden in the rear, he was losing the interest of people like Vladimir. Throwing them off his tail as the Americans would say. The man was smart enough to know he was being watched, not so smart that he didn’t underestimate his watcher. So, Vladimir had rented a room in a building near the back of the one Sokolov scrambled through and placed a man there to pick up the surveillance on the other side. It had been simple enough, and Vladimir hadn’t even had to enter the rotting building following the man.
Since he’d first discovered the man’s pattern Vladimir had made himself go in once, just enough to confirm what he already knew about the place. It was a rotting former hotel, a forgotten place, existing only because no-one had thought to remove the rotten tooth from the jaw of the city. The insides of the building were in such poor repair that even the squatters had passed it up. Going above the second floor was an act of faith and desperation. But it suited Sokolov’s purposes, just as today it would suit Vladimir’s. He got to his feet, put his phone away and began to make haste towards his position. There were shortcuts to his destination that Sokolov didn’t know about. If he hurried, he could be waiting right along the man’s route.
Ten minutes later he found himself scrabbling up the rotten and crumbling back wall to the grounds behind the hotel. Reaching the top of the wall, Vladimir had to pause momentarily to consider the safest place to land in the jungle that the garden and lawn had become. After scanning the area below himself closely and realizing there wasn’t an especially clear area available, he decided anywhere was as good as anywhere else. Ripped clothes could be replaced, and the Premier had always been more than generous with his payments. Time lost couldn’t be replaced so easily.
Vladimir bulled his way through the overgrown plant life rather than looking for any specific way. His precise eyes noted that every time Sokolov had come through, he must have used a slightly different route. Despite the numerous times the man had been seen coming this way, he had left no real path, no real proof that anyone had been here at all if you didn’t know what you were looking for. Clever. But Sokolov was still not clever enough to realize that just leaving the homeland wasn’t enough to get the eyes of the homeland away from you. All this hard work by the old man and none of it had mattered, he had been observed the entire time, a shame really, people should be allowed to have their accomplishments. Loyal people were.
The door to the building hung partway open from the one hinge that wasn’t completely rusted through. It dangled there precariously, still attempting the job it was built for, but for how long? If this attempt at subterfuge had been allowed to continue, Vlad wondered, how many more trips would it have been before the thing fell off completely? Not that it mattered, this would be ending today, just a bit of professional curiosity. The door creaked softly on its lone hinge as he pulled it open just enough to slip inside.
Entering the building Vladimir was presented a choice of rooms off the main hall that led through the house to the front door. In theory, either room should serve the purpose, but he picked what must have been a laundry room at one point. The other room had been a kitchen, and there were still too many objects littering it, too many variables. Never give the victim even the slightest chance. He wanted to slit the man’s throat, to make it look like the kind of thing that happened to people who wandered around abandoned buildings in this part of the city. The odds of the struggle being anything but brief were small, but why give the man a chance to let a flailing, flapping arm struggling to survive find something it could use as a weapon?
He doubted that Sokolov would take much effort, the man was old and some kind of academic, a bookworm, in other words a weakling. Some historical discipline, a hoarder of books. Vladimir was a well-trained man of action. The man would probably not even be in this mess if a student of his hadn’t said the wrong things, and then had made it worse by saying them far too loudly to be ignored. The student, of course, needed silencing before the West heard what he was saying, that was just the way things were, they had eradicated him because the fool had practically demanded it. It didn’t explain the old man’s reaction, fleeing to the West and letting loose a whole torrent, telling those who would listen the deeds of the government. Airing out what is your own country’s business, and no-one else is inherently unseemly. And, when you’re filling your tales with lurid details absolutely nobody was supposed to know about, it is worse than unseemly, it is invariably fatal.
Vladimir’s ears perked up when he heard the front door open with a loud creaking noise. In the silence of the rotting building, the sound erupted into being like an explosion filling up the vacuum of silence so much that it echoed through the empty halls. He tensed, waiting, knife in hand for the predictable end of this. He heard the door shut again, and the stomping of feet, the kind of sound made by an old man whose feet are always cold due to poor circulation, but who holds out hope that if he stomps them often enough, they might actually warm. Something for him to look forward to then, his feet were about to be no colder than the rest of him soon.
Vladimir tensed, waiting for the footsteps to approach him, body coiled and at the ready, just waiting for his moment to make this quick. To his consternation, the steps stopped a few paces into the building and veered off. What in the hell was the old fool doing? Knocking about a rotting hulk of a building? A moment later he heard another door open and bang shut in the distance. Muffled footsteps retreated down into the depths below him, the basement! He was headed towards the basement!
Vladimir found himself caught in a conundrum. He didn’t want to move around too much; he certainly didn’t want to alert his prey to his presence with a loose floorboard. There was far too much chance of an attention-attracting ruckus that way. On the other hand, what if the damned Professor was meeting someone? Or if there was some other way out of the building? He wouldn’t be able to explain his lack of action that easily back home if either was the case, this was need-to-know information.
Moments passed, and still, Vladimir could not hear the Professor returning to go out his normal exit. If the man had something hidden down there, Vladimir could just kill him where he stood and find out what it was after he checked for a pulse. If he was meeting someone, Vladimir had a silencer on his gun, he could just kill them both and let the dank stone walls of the basement do the rest. That would be regrettable since it would look less like a vagrant drug-addled homeless wretch had done the killing, but the press and the police might view it as some kind of drug deal gone south or something. If they found out at all that was, the building stank of its own decay, the rot of a body should be barely noticeable. If there was another exit, something going into the basement of one of the building’s run-down neighbours, Vlad needed to know about it. Damn the man for doing this!
Vladimir moved like a cat in the direction from where he had heard the second door open. His silence was the product of years of training and practice, but to him, every minutia of sound caused by his passage was like an echoing announcement of his presence in the building. Sweat began to form on his brow despite the coolness of the day as he inched his way down the hall. He had to remind himself, he was armed, he was trained, and it was still only an old man.
Towards the front of the house where the noise had come from there was only one possible door. Paint peeled off it in giant flakes, the knob itself had a thick coating of rust and grime, all symptoms of the moisture in the basement Vladimir was sure that it led to. With utmost care, he grasped the doorknob firmly and turned it slowly, ever so slowly. When the most minute of clicks told him it was open, he pulled it slowly towards himself, prepared to stop at any moment if it squealed even the slightest bit to announce his presence here.
To his surprise, it swung easily, like it had been oiled recently. This made Vladimir more curious as to what happened here in this place. Someone had clearly been coming this way recently. Maybe even to planning to get Sokolov away undetected, maybe his contacts realized the man was in danger. That must be it, they must have known the man was being watched and had devised this as a way to spirit him away unseen. Vladimir peered through the doorway and down the steps. It was pitch black; a moist stench hit him directly in the face cause a slight gag. He felt almost sure of it now, they must have carved out another way out of here through one of the neighbouring buildings. Maybe they hit a sewer pipe on the way, that might explain the smell wafting up from the place.
Still, mustn’t rush. That was where mistakes happened, and in his line of work, mistakes were often fatal. Vladimir had a penlight in his pocket, but he didn’t take it out immediately. He also didn’t stand directly framed in the door. If someone was waiting down there, there was no point in framing himself in light to make an easy target. Instead, Vladimir stood to the side, waiting stock still. Waiting for any noise, any flash of light down below that would hint of someone waiting or alerted to his presence.
Nothing. The silence and inky darkness of the tomb, and nothing else. Hating having to do it, and sticking close to the side of the stairwell, Vladimir began moving cautiously downward. He was not in a line of work where he could say to his superiors he was “scared to continue”. The Premier was a man who understood the rigors of the field, but even he would not be understanding if that was Vladimir’s final report. He still hadn’t drawn out his little mag light yet, no need to announce himself if someone was down here when he could use the light from the doorway to light his way for the moment.
As he reached the bottom of the step, he was finally forced to pull out the light. He needed to enter the inky depths of the basement itself to see what was what, nothing had presented itself yet, most importantly there was no sign of his quarry. Vladimir had hoped for the corpse of an old fool with a broken neck, not for any logical reasons, just because it would make his life easier, but no corpse had greeted him at the bottom of the steps, unfortunately. He had just begun to move forward to investigate and was about to turn on the light when the door at the top of the stairs slammed shut! Startled he managed to fumble the little mag light, letting it fall with a clink to roll a little way away from him into the pitch black.
Cursing quietly, he got down on his hands and knees and began to methodically quest with his hand stretched forward looking for the damnable thing. A gust of wind in an empty house and he had gotten himself lost in a basement, some agent he was. He considered going for the lighter he had in his pocket when a voice came out of the Stygian depths in front of him, “Hello Vladimir, we’ve been expecting you.”
“Sokolov!” he hissed and began searching all the more frantically for the fallen light. He was only using one hand, as the other fumbled for the gun in his holster. He had to get this over with, this basement stank of something he couldn’t quite place and he wanted out. On top of that, he’d let the subject know he was there by accident, he needed to be done with this before anything else could go awry.
“I wonder if you know what it was I had my earliest degrees in,” Sokolov’s voice said merrily, appearing to be some distance from him. “What I studied before I became a Professor? How much do you know about the men you kill Vladimir? Or do you just follow orders?”
“Keep talking you old fool, the better for me to aim!” Vladimir hissed under his breath
There! The blasted light, he had it in his hand. Now to just turn it on and shoot the bastard! Appearances be damned, people got shot if they went into abandoned basements as much as they got their throats slit. He needed to get this over with quickly before any other variables were added. The mag light flared to life, but what it showed him was not the elderly Professor standing at the far end of a putrid-smelling basement as expected. The small light cut through the air, dust mites floating in the beam as it revealed to Vladimir the source of the stench. They crowded all around him. Human shapes to be sure, but no longer human at all! Nothing that far gone in rot could still be considered human!
“Do you recognize any of them, Vladimir? You are personally responsible for the state of quite a few of them, so I would hope that you do!” Sokolov chortled merrily. “Maybe not, you are a professional, after all, and does the butcher remember every pig? But that is something Necromancy is useful for, which is one of the reasons I studied it as a youth. I thought it would be a lark at first, something to add to my historical studies, but it led me so much further than that. Now that we have you with us, you can give the wrongfully dead a chance to set things right, so they can rest.”
Vladimir tried to get back to his feet, his only thought at all was flight back up the stairs and out of here now. He was well past caring about finishing his mission, he wanted to escape the nightmare it had become. If the Premier complained, he could come here and handle it himself. His way was halted as he began to rise, blows immediately landed heavily on his back sending him almost flat on his face. He tried to get up again, but hands were clawing at him, clasping at him, holding him firmly in place. His rotting assailants groaned softly as they clutched at him, their eyes ghosted over white, but somehow still portraying malicious intent. Vladimir’s light waved wildly as it flashed from rotting visage to rotting visage as he struggled to free himself from the grave.
“Oh, don’t fret so my dear boy, they just want to give you something. Something for you to take with you. It’ll all be over soon,” Sokolov’s voice soothed in the distance
The scream that Vladimir tried to release became a weird and strangled thing as rotting hands clawed at his face and nose forcing his mouth wide open. One of the monsters, barely more than a skeleton now, leaned in towards him, black ichor drooling around the thing’s drawn back lips.
Vladimir’s finger instinctively tightened on the trigger of his gun. One round went off to ricochet in the darkness as the thing clamped its lips down over Vladimir’s open mouth!
He woke with a start, letting out a gasp of fear. Looking around, relief filled him to see that he was lying in his hotel bed. No mistake, that had been a nightmare and then some. Vladimir couldn’t believe this job was getting to him so badly that he was having nightmares now. That had never happened once in a long career of making problems go away. It felt like, after this was concluded, one way or the other, it was time for a long vacation. Now that he thought of it, after reporting back to the Premier, they both had numerous friends on the Riviera Vladimir could stay with. Enjoy the nightlife, enjoy the ocean, but put some distance between himself and this mission, possibly all missions for a while. Clearly, there was still some part of his conscience that still functioned, he could go there and get it so drunk it stopped caring.
But first, he needed to complete the actual mission.
It took no time at all to shower and dress. He got his breakfast from a deli; it gave him all the more reason to be in his accustomed place looking at his phone. It was tedious, but then again, he had his phone, so not as bad as the old days when you had to read the same four newspaper stories twenty times in the course of a day. From time to time he amused himself by pretending to be an American on social media. Always he kept half an eye up, looking for Sokolov. After his dreams last night, he was more determined than ever to get this assignment over with, like he blamed Sokolov personally for what his doppelganger had done to him in his dream.
It took ten hours before Vladimir was willing to admit the man was a no-show today.
It took ten days before he would consider that the man wasn’t coming again.
They had lost him, some way or another the man had vanished. Someone must have tipped him off, or the man had developed enough common sense to go underground. Which meant going back home and reporting that the man had escaped the noose. He wasn’t looking forward to it, but the sooner he explained it personally, the sooner he could be done with it. The Premier did not encourage failure, but he also remembered his time in training, time he had spent with Vladimir when they had both been recruits. Sometimes you lost them. All you could do was wait for the next lead on the target. The target had to get lucky over and over to get away forever, Vladimir only had to get lucky once.
He left it to the rest of the crew in the country to try and get clues as to the how. Vladimir got on a plane and went home to explain the what.
The Premier came out to greet him personally at his private mansion, which was normal, they were old friends. They never discussed anything at a government building, the press might be cowardly and beaten down, but it did no-one any good whatsoever to go out of one’s way to openly mock them, or to dangle things in front of potential spies. The house was ostentatious, it was extravagant, it was completely the opposite of the image the Premier wanted to present to the state press, and that he, in turn, demanded they present to the people. They, of course, were told that he didn’t own it, that it was actually owned by a wealthy friend who let him use it if repairs were ongoing on the Premier’s cabin in the woods. The Premier’s cabin must be a ramshackle thing indeed since it always needed repairs.
Patent hogwash, of course, it was Kazimir’s. The press knew that but decided that it wasn’t the hill they wanted to die on by reporting it. Kazimir stood by the open door as Vladimir pulled up. “Welcome home, old friend. I know the news is not to my liking, but we will get him next time. In the meantime, please, come in, give me the particulars.”
That managed to put Vladimir at ease. If Kazimir had not mentioned it and had acted this happy to see him, that would be a worry. Kazimir already knew, of course, he did, Vladimir wasn’t the only asset in the field. For him to be standing by the door to greet him, but mentioning Sokolov’s escape showed he understood. Vladimir was the end game on killing Sokolov, if he got away, it could have been anyone who lost track of him. As smart as they were, there was another team out there working against them, and they weren’t total idiots. Sometimes the opposition won.
“Do you prefer to speak inside?” Vladimir replied looking around to suggest that you never knew when someone could read lips. It paid to be paranoid.
“Certainly, let’s go get some scotch and talk as we walk.”
Once they were inside and walking to Kazimir’s bar, Vladimir came right out with it, “He changed patterns.”
“He had the same pattern every day, I was going to pick him up on the day he vanished. It was perfect, right up until when he didn’t show up!”
Kazimir’s step paused for a moment, “Do you think he was tipped off?”
“Can’t say, whoever wanted him to vanish might have already been planning an extraction. It could have been bad timing,” Vladimir shrugged.
“If you were me, would you leave it to chance?”
“If I were you,” Vladimir grinned, “during the questioning of the team that was supposedly my support on this, I would be suggesting to them how many members of their families could suddenly have unfortunate accidents.”
A knowing smile flashed across the Kazimir’s face before he asked, “So what is next for Vladimir eh?”
“Unless you need me, I predict loose women, sand, and any drink that isn’t vodka,” he replied. It was a private joke. When they had trained together in advance of their time in the field, they had both taught themselves how to like western drinks. All these years later it was all either of them drank, except in public.
They entered Kazimir’s den. A well-appointed room with subdued lighting, Kazimir’s private abode. There were men all over the premises, along with “guests”, men and women who would do anything the Premier wanted instantly. So many watchful eyes created a feeling of claustrophobia for the man. Everywhere he went in this giant monstrosity of a house, there was yet another sycophantic employee. Except for here. Here they were forbidden, and the punishment for being caught in the room would be an ugly death. Even the cleaning crew was observed by Kazimir personally when they came in here.
The door shut behind them. Vladimir turned Kazimir towards himself. He had never been really afraid for his own safety. He and Kazimir had known each other too long for that. In fact, at this moment Vladimir felt closer to his old friend than ever before. Kazimir looked up at the much taller man with a smile, “Oh, and are we more than Comrades today that you lay hands on me?”
In response, Vladimir suddenly lunged forward and pressed his lips down hard on Kazimir’s. The Premier’s eyes bulged with shock at this sudden intrusion, he struggled to break free of the man’s powerful embrace. A moment later, Vladimir’s whole body shook with spasms. His throat made choking and heaving noises as his friend continued to struggle to be free from his rock-solid grasp. A trickle of black liquid leaked down Kazimir’s chin where the seal between their mouths had broken a little. In mere seconds Kazimir’s eyes rolled back up in his head while his body began to shake in violent painful twitches and convulsions of his own. Vladimir pulled away at last, letting a gasp escape from Kazimir’s blackened lips and tongue before his body collapsed on to the rug. Black bile drooled out of his mouth to create a spreading stain. A final choked exhalation, the Premier was dead!
Vladimir looked down at the corpse of his oldest friend, and it all came back to him. He could hear Sokolov’s exulting in the basement! “These are your victims, Vladimir! And they want to give you back all you gave them! All the poisons, all the times they received personal attention. They kept it all safe for you! But we know you don’t act alone. So, you will carry it back, and share one final kiss with the man you have loved like a brother!”
Vladimir sunk to his knees, landing next to his cooling friend as he did. A month he had carried the vile poisons that had killed dozens over the years. The effects forestalled, in no way injurious to him this entire time. A month where the magic of the madman Sokolov had kept it from hurting him. And now, just like that, all the magic was gone, his body convulsed, racked in pain for just a moment, before Vladimir Petrov collapsed on top of his oldest friend, embracing for the final time.