From Russia With Love
Mordecai Heller wasn't exactly sure when Asa Sweet's employer decided to thrust Marigold into artifact smuggling alongside bootlegging. He was the last to hear of the new venture.
"I don't like filling you in on mere speculation," Sweet said, picking the ice out of his drink and chewing it in a way that made Mordecai's skin crawl. "It only makes you anxious."
Statements like that always threw Mordecai for a loop. How could Sweet, or anyone for that matter, tell him what he felt before he himself knew? That crumbling in the chest that made him short of breath, was that anxiety? All the time his body felt things his mind could not analyze. He long ago understood that these sensations were emotions, but never quite grasped how someone could name something happening in his body before he could. It was, he supposed, part of the thing he was missing that most people had - empathy, they said.
That word was just a word.
Mordecai could look at a person, stare, study him, and have no more clue what was going on in that person's chest than he knew the contents of a sealed crate. It was a lack that served him well in his work, at least according to Atlas, who said as much one evening when Mordecai came to him seeking an answer to a riddle. Well, not a riddle so much as a statement around which Mordecai built a riddle. Something a job shrieked that stuck to Mordecai before Mordecai stuck an icepick to the job.
"You're a monster!" the job screamed. "You're a monster!"
"Am I a monster?" Mordecai later asked Atlas.
He wasn't so much offended as puzzled by the accusation. He didn't feel like a monster. He was merely able to do things that other people hadn't the will to do. He had no particular feeling about these deeds others deemed distasteful - they didn't plague him but he took no pleasure in them. Did that make him a monster?
Atlas considered this. Mordecai always appreciated this about Atlas. The man took his odd questions in stride in a way no one else did, not even Viktor. He learned long ago to stop inquiring to anyone about the incomprehensible oddities of human behavior save a very few people. Most people looked at him as if he'd grown two heads. These concepts Mordecai could not grasp were as obvious to them as water to a fish.
Atlas lit a cigar but didn't answer. Why hadn't he answered? Perhaps he'd forgotten the question?
"Am I a monster?" Mordecai repeated.
"I'm thinking," Atlas replied, puffing.
"Oh," Mordecai said softly. "Sorry."
Atlas nodded once and puffed on his pipe. After a moment he spoke.
"My boy, you're … you're a thing nature created to do a certain job in this world. You're here to thin the herd. And you do it well! You have a gift."
"A gift?" Mordecai replied. "I inferred it was a lack."
"The lack is the gift. The thing you lack … it's a burden. It's a burden most of us carry but you do not, and you are stronger for it. You see?"
"It gives you the power to do what others cannot bear. It makes you - have you read any Nietzsche?"
"There's a clever boy, an Ubermensch, exactly."
"I don't think I can be both an Ubermensch and a monster," Mordecai said carefully.
"Ubermensch, monster - same thing. It's a difficult truth most don't understand. Congratulations, Mordecai, you're the impartial blade on which nature cuts the wheat from the chaff. If nature made you a monster, well, it made you an elegant one."
Elegant- he liked that word. It was something he strove to be, elegant.
An elegant monster.
The new smuggling operation was stupid and he did not approve. It was a bad time to extend business - Marigold had enough heat without any new undertakings. Nevertheless Sweet's word was God's and the plan rolled out, regardless of Mordecai's feelings on the matter.
"You ready to meet the Russians?" Sweet asked, slipping his gun into a holster hidden under his jacket.
Mordecai gave a curt nod. The Russians were the mob doing the smuggling, piggybacking on the vodka trade. They would, at some point, put the artifacts on a boat headed for the Gulf of Mexico, from which they were destined for South America.
The operation was well funded. They were willing to pay what Mordecai could only assume was top dollar for Marigold's insight into St. Louis, a vulnerable transfer point. Marigold were to act as "fixers" - they were to arrange the meeting, arrange the transfer of goods, arrange for a boat that would pass customs, and help the Russians keep any rats off the cargo, in exchange for what Mordecai hoped was a sizable kickback. The Russians sent a few of their people ahead to ensure the operation went smoothly, and it was those people Mordecai, Sweet, and some heavies were off to meet.
Drinks were served. Mordecai abstained, of course. He needed to be able to pull his pistol in a split second. Meetings of this sort could go very badly very quickly. He kept his eyes on the Russians from his vantage point, standing directly behind Sweet - a subtle threat.
After a moment's tension Sweet and the head Russian were having what he knew from experience was a jovial, friendly conversation, and began to agreeably hammer out terms. Sensing no imminent danger Mordecai got a good look at the Russian heavies. They reminded him of Viktor, big and gruff, save one. Standing behind the main Russian - mirroring his own place behind Sweet - was a very sharply dressed, very serious woman.
Mordecai's eyes narrowed.
She wasn't very large, nowhere near large enough to be effective against an attack/ She might be a quick draw, he supposed, yet she stood in the position of head of security, acting as the boss's main bodyguard. It was unusual. A gimmick, maybe? Perhaps that was why she was there. A young woman could flummox men in a way Mordecai never grasped. He appreciated them the way he appreciated a well crafted table - nice, but he didn't need to ogle it or run his hands along its legs.
He looked away, scanning the room. Staring at her was probably what they wanted him to do, what she was there for, and he wasn't going to fall for it. Nevertheless, he found he still suffered a lack of information about her appearance. He ticked off the details as he looked slowly around the room. She was small, she had black hair, she wore a dark grey suit tailored to flatter her. He hadn't seen any indication of a holster but it was almost a certainty she was armed. Mordecai decided that searching for her firearm was a valid reason to look at her again. He clearly saw the hint of a holster below her suit jacket. Before he could stop himself his eyes rose and met hers, and whatever question he had about why she was there was answered.
Part of Mordecai's job was to intimidate people by manipulating them with his lack. Apparently they could look into his eyes and see it. His eyes were more of a threat to them than any weapon, Atlas used to say.
When their gaze met, he recognized the woman across from him the way he recognized himself in a mirror. Her eyes were sleepy and heavy lidded, but impeccably lined, and had nothing but iron behind them.
The corner of her mouth ticked upwards. Imperceptibly, something no one would see but him. She blinked slowly. He felt himself return the gesture, like a secret handshake.
So, he thought, you're a monster, too.
Negotiations done, the party transferred to the main ballroom where the night was just about in full swing - for a Wednesday. A jazz band played a sleepy sort of music and couples danced badly, hanging drunkenly on one another like cloth dolls. Marigold and the Russians arranged themselves around a table and lit up their obligatory stinking cigars. They laughed too loudly, save the woman, who didn't laugh at all.
On relaxed evenings like this Mordecai usually alphabetized the storerooms. He longed to ask Sweet to excuse him for a moment so he could escape down the back stairs to the organized, quiet, blessed temple, where beans were under B and flour was under F. He sighed. Sweet Jesus it was beautiful. Alas, he was stuck here until lord knew what hour, obligated to watch them get drunker and drunker, always prepared to step in should anyone get unreasonable. He doubted that was on the menu for tonight, however. Sweet was gregarious and so were these big Russians. They were having too fine a time for it to go sour this late in the game.
He felt a trickle of what he knew all too well was resentment. It was good thing they were whooping it up now, before dragging Marigold into waters it may not be able to tread. International artifacts smuggling, really? Marigold may be a moonshine empire but it wasn't the right size for those britches. He scowled.
"Even Mordecai's feeling celebratory, isn't that right, Mordecai?" Sweet said, chuckling.
"Nostrovia," Mordecai said smoothly, raising a glass from which he did not drink.
The Russians guffawed and toasted one another, except the woman, who turned and stared at Mordecai like he was an insect. He met her gaze with an equally intense one, one that usually made grown men flinch.
She didn't so much as blink.
Interesting. But was she really what she claimed to be? He stared her down over the table, searching her for any sign of weakness.
She returned his death stare.
This isn't a fight you'll win, he thought, and stared harder. She met his gaze with equal challenge. He'd never been provoked into this kind of game with someone who knew how to play. He squared off against her, determined to find the fissure in her will and exploit it, but her eyes revealed nothing. He felt a brief flutter of frustration. She was convincingly inscrutable but there had to be something in there for him to intimidate. It was just well hidden.
She didn't break the gaze, he did not waver.
A strange feeling came over him. A … stirring. She had real lead in her. He resisted the urge to initiate the secret handshake from earlier, but he would give her nothing. That was then, this was now - and right now he was prepared to stare holes into her all night if that's what it took to win.
Sweet loudly cleared his throat.
They both turned to Asa. The table was silent. Mordecai was taken aback to realize he'd been so immersed that he hadn't heard the table of fat guffawing Russians go quiet as they watched the little contest.
"Well now! Perhaps we ought to formally introduce these two?" Sweet asked.
"Innochka, Mordecai. Mordecai, Innochka. The two of you have similar talents. Our friends in the east would like you to work together for the duration of our business relationship," Sweet said. As he spoke one of the Russians turned to Innochka and repeated Sweet's words in her language.
"Does she speak English?" Mordecai asked.
Sweet asked the translator, but before he could relay the message Innochka turned to Mordecai and said, "Little," with her thumb and index finger held close.
"You mean to send me on potentially dangerous work with a woman who barely knows English?" Mordecai hissed quietly at Sweet. "That is far from ideal."
"I think you'll find her quite competent. And eye candy besides," Sweet whispered back, winking at her. She looked disdainfully away.
"I don't need eye candy," Mordecai said.
Sweet chuckled. "You don't? You certainly had your hand in the jar a minute ago. That was some of the weirdest flirting I've ever seen."
"That wasn't flirting."
"Then what was it?"
"I don't know - it doesn't matter!" Mordecai replied, growing angry with Sweet's flippancy. "I need personnel I can depend on in order to perform my work. I cannot depend on someone I can't communicate with."
"She knows enough," Sweet said. "They wouldn't have brought her along if they didn't think she was up to the job."
"What job?" Mordecai asked. "What will we be doing?"
"What you do best, of course," Sweet replied. "Go on then. Chat her up. If you don't I will."
It appeared her superiors had issued her a similar directive. That was the first any of them had spoken to her save the translator. For all their bawdiness they did not flirt with her, did not include her in their conversations. She regarded them coldly and they avoided her eyes.
The party shifted chairs to allow Mordecai and Innochka to sit together. The two of them exchanged awkward nods, very aware that the entire table was staring at them. They sat.
"Do you mind?" Mordecai asked his people. They chuckled softly and looked away. The groups got back to chatting, pouring another round of shots for the table. Mordecai refused but Innochka threw hers back hard and in one go, then regarded him coldly. She crossed her arms.
He got a better look at her. Her hair was pulled back into a complicated series of braids, and was likely quite long but pinned up in a pleasingly symmetrical pattern. She wore a slate gray suit, fitted and impeccably pressed, with a white collared shirt underneath a red vest, and a tie. Her eyelashes were quite long and full, which played unnervingly against her cold eyes.
"Innochka," he said, extending his hand.
She took it, looking directly into his eyes.
"Mort - i - kai," she said.
"Mort - ?"
"Mor*D*. There's a D. Mor - DUH – cai."
"… MorDUHcai. Yes?"
"Mordecai," she repeated. She tapped her empty shot glass. "You?"
"No. I don't drink."
"Ah." She tapped her head. He wasn't sure what that indicated. She pointed her middle and index finger at her eyes. "You stay - with eyes."
"Stay alert? Yes. I prefer to." He pointed to the shot glass and then to her. "You don't?"
She gave him a haughty look. "I russkaya."
"You have a point. Your veins probably transport more vodka than blood."
They were interrupted by a great explosion of laughter. The men had opened another bottle of vodka and were celebrating by pounding on the table.
Innochka made a disdainful sound and muttered something.
"I agree," Mordecai said.
"These," she said, gesturing to them.
They watched them a few more moments. She jerked her head towards the door. "We go?" she asked.
Mordecai blinked. "Go where?"
She nodded. "We go."
She stood and headed for the door. Mordecai followed, unsure.
"Hey now, where are you takin' my man, darlin'?" Sweet sang.
She spun on her heel and spat some flaming invective at the translator, who received it with wide eyes. "Then go!" he cried, interrupting her. She muttered one last thing and stalked toward the door, gesturing for Mordecai to follow.
"What the hell was that?" Sweet asked the translator.
"She said, uh … she said we are making too much noise."
"Charming gal," Sweet replied. "Have fun, you two!"
Mordecai glanced back at Sweet on his way out the door. Fun? What the hell was he talking about? Sweet was laughing. It was a joke? What was funny about fun? Why were they always laughing?
"Where do you wish to go?" he asked Innochka.
She pointed to the ceiling. "Up."
"Up. To see. Yes?" She pressed the button to summon the elevator.
"To see what?"
"To … to see." She hooded her eyes with her hands, as though looking into the distance.
The elevator arrived and they stepped in. She hit the highest button.
"To see the city?" he asked.
She gave a curt nod.
He hit the button for the basement.
"No!" she protested.
"They keys to the roof are in the basement office," he replied.
She looked at him blankly.
He sighed. "Keys. To unlock the door." He made an unlocking motion with his wrist.
She didn't understand.
"We go up, to see," she demanded.
She stepped out when the elevator opened at the top floor. He reached out and grabbed her by the shoulder. She spun, knocking his arm aside. His instincts kicked in. Before she could swing her right arm around he blocked it and twisted, securing it in his. He blocked her left swing by digging the heel of his hand into her shoulder, and with the full force of his body behind his locked arm pinned her to the wall.
The elevator door closed and they started to descend.
"I can see we're well on our way to a successful partnership," Mordecai said flatly.
She smiled at him. It caught him off guard. She planted her hand in the crook of his right elbow, gently pulling his arm down. Her knee moved up between them and she nudged him off of her, while letting her right arm go limp to disentangle it from his. It wasn't aggressive - she could have planted her knee firmly in his balls - she was merely disengaging. She stepped smoothly into balance and straightened her suit jacket.
The door opened to the basement and she stepped out, ahead of him, then politely waited for him to lead her.
"You walk in front of me," he said. "No more ambushes."
She tilted her head.
"Go!" he said, pushing her.
She raised an eyebrow and walked. He let her glide past the office door before he opened it. She turned at the sound. He reached in and took the key from the hook just inside the door, never taking her eyes off her. He closed the door and gestured back to the elevator.
"Go," he ordered.
She gave him a skeptical look.
"Oh, for crying out loud," he said. "Elevator. We go up!" He jabbed his finger at the ceiling.
"Ah, up!" she said happily, and strolled ahead.
Mordecai sighed and rolled his eyes.
They stepped out onto the roof of the Marigold Hotel and looked out over St. Louis. The night was windy and cool. Innochka regarded the vista approvingly, her hands clasped behind her back. Mordecai stood beside her, his hands in his pockets.
"Happy now?" he asked.
"Is nice," she said.
Her eyebrows raised and she looked past him as though something interesting had appeared in the skies behind him. Puzzled, he followed her gaze. The second his head turned he heard a sound, a familiar click that sprung him into reflexive action. He drew his gun as he spun to face her, only to be greeted by the barrel of hers.
They stood on the roof at arms length, at the business ends of each other's pistols.
She smiled and lowered her gun. Mordecai's heart began to beat again.
"WHY are you so INSANE?" he yelled, his gun still pointed at her.
"No no," she said, lowering to put her gun on the ground. She stood, made a V with her fingers and pointed them at her eyes, as she had earlier. "You stay with eyes. You stay lert. Yes?"
He gingerly lowered his weapon, just a bit.
"Lert?" he asked.
She tapped her temple, smiling. "Lert."
"Alert? I stay alert?"
She nodded. "HA-lert, yes! Is true. You bystro, ah … fast. Is good."
Looking satisfied she gazed out over the city lights and clasped her hands behind her back, seemingly unconcerned with the gun still half pointed at her.
"What are you - what? I already told you I like to stay alert, why all this?"
"We job together."
He just stared. Lowered his gun.
"This was - were you - you were testing me? Is that what this was? A test? Well excuse me, madam, I should hope that you'd be satisfied with my credentials as your people presented them to you. The least you could have done was INFORM me I was being taken for a … a test drive!"
He was met with a blank look.
"You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?"
She patted him on the back consolingly. "Is good. You fast. We job together. Yes? Yes."
His shoulders slumped.
"Glad I made it off the lot," he said.