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Robert McCall stopped at the mouth of a narrow alleyway behind a row of stores on Broome Street on the edge of Greenwich Village. It was an alleyway he'd passed a thousand times without bothering to look into it. He knew what was in it: Dumpsters overflowing with garbage, a thin carpet of debris, crushed cans and water bottles, used condoms, cigarette butts, newspapers, crumpled flyers, discarded confetti as if someone had tried to bring some color to the drab grayness. Doorways on the left led to the backs of the stores, a print shop, a greengrocers, a Chinese restaurant, a mom-and-pop grocery store. There were two iron doors on the right, warped on rusted hinges. There was a landscape of big cardboard boxes at the other end of the alleyway, jumbled up: people's homes.
The black pimp wore black, so he was just a fragment of the shadows, moving erratically as his fist came down again to hit the girl's face. It looked as if he was going to cave in her left cheekbone. Both of her eyes were blackened. Blood was running out of her nose. The prior blow had just missed breaking it. McCall could see the raw channels around her nostrils where they were being eaten away by coke. The pimp was lean, bald, probably mid-twenties, his cutoff tight T-shirt showing tattoos up and down his arms. Serpents and mermaids. He was big, probably six-four. He shook his white hooker as if she wasn't listening to the tirade in his head. His jewelled hands were the only moving points of light in the dimness, his many rings and bracelets catching the pale morning sunlight that barely penetrated the alley. The girl was probably seventeen or eighteen, McCall thought. She was thin and limp, dressed in torn jeans and a halter top that the pimp had almost dragged off. A safety pin dangled from her navel. Her jeans were torn in places that revealed track marks on her legs. She was wearing sandals. Her toenails were a frosted pink. Her hair was a straggle of dirty blond seaweed over her face, but McCall could see flashes of her eyes, wide and fearful before they shut tight in anticipation of the next blow. She'd been beaten before. He'd seen her in the neighborhood, makeup expertly applied to cover the bruises.
But this time it was different. She knew it and McCall knew it. Her pimp was in a blind rage over something. Maybe she'd been holding out on him. Maybe she'd pocketed some money from a john to go and have a glass of wine and a sandwich in an uptown bistro, just to pretend, for an hour, that her life wasn't a nightmare. McCall thought of her, irrationally, as a kid, running around a playground, laughing, having a tenth birthday party, a teenager Facebooking her friends, the images all coming to him in split seconds. Clichés, he knew, but that's what went through his head. Then of her being older and someone putting out lines of coke, handing her a rolled-up dollar bill, go ahead, it's a rush, all that talk about addiction is bullshit, you control your actions. She'd liked it. She'd done it again. Then she'd started shooting up. Heroin was the drug of choice again. She'd starting turning tricks, no big deal, she liked sex. But then she realized it was not about sex, it was about need and agony and being controlled.
None of that mattered now. It didn't matter to McCall. This was none of his business. He'd been off the radar for nine months. Keeping a very low profile. She wasn't the first hooker he'd seen in these streets getting a beating. And he didn't want to be late. He was on his way to see his son Scott. He'd catch the 1 line at the Twenty-third Street subway station, take it to Columbus Circle. It was a short walk from there to West Sixty-second Street. He might even get off at Forty-second Street and walk. He liked walking in New York City. But this time the pimp was going to take care of business. One more blow should do it. He'd dragged the girl up with one hand, clutching her halter top, up around her throat now, exposing her large, pendulous breasts. He was going to hit her from below. A vicious uppercut. It would drive her nose up into her brain and kill her.
McCall stepped into the alleyway. He felt like eyes were watching him from the large cartons, but nothing moved in them. Just a light breeze rustling through the cardboard living rooms and bedrooms.
The pimp had his fist balled up.
Swung it back.
McCall grabbed his wrist, yanking him away from the girl. She stumbled to her knees, trying to stem the flow of blood from her nose with the back of her hand. The pimp was in such a rage he just looked at McCall like he was a crazy man. It was a bad mistake. You're grabbed in an alley on your own turf, when you're teaching one of your whores a lesson, you don't let anyone stop you. Certainly not some white-ass, old dude in a suit and tie and a dark overcoat. Looked like he'd just strolled up from Wall Street. McCall took advantage of the second's hesitation to kick the pimp's legs out from under him. He fell to his knees. McCall gripped both of his hands, twisting them back, holding him in an iron grip. The girl scrambled away, but couldn't get to her feet yet. Didn't have enough oxygen in her lungs.
The pimp looked up at McCall, seeing Mr. Average, Mr. Nobody, maybe around forty-five, medium height, probably 180, a handsome face, soulful eyes, dark hair shot through with splinter streaks of gray. McCall held on to him as if he was stopping him from falling over.
"Whatever she did to you, she's sorry and it won't happen again."
"I swear," the girl gasped, choking as some of the blood pooled in her mouth. She spit it out and, as if suddenly self-conscious, pulled her halter top down over her breasts.
"I live in the neighborhood," McCall said, conversationally, as if he and the pimp were arranging to meet for coffee. "I know the cops at the precinct. I like to chat with the guy who runs the morgue. Very erudite. Quotes Blake and Harry Potter. If I find out this girl's been beaten again, I'll come looking for you. And I'll find you. If you kill her, I'll personally deliver you onto one of the morgue's autopsy tables. Are we cool?"
The pimp nodded. Just nodded. McCall let go of his hands. Turned toward the girl, who stumbled away even more.
It was not a mistake McCall would have made a year ago.
He'd read defeat in the pimp's eyes. But he'd read it wrong. The guy was street-smart. Slump back, dejected, he'll let it go this time.
He grabbed McCall from behind, standing in one fluid movement, a massive muscular arm crushing McCall's throat. He tried to plunge his thumb into McCall's left eye. A street move, but a stupid one. McCall grabbed the pimp's left hand, breaking his middle and ring fingers in two sharp movements. The strangling hold on his throat went slack. McCall grabbed the pimp's right hand, broke the middle and ring fingers, turned him and kicked him in the balls. He crashed to the ground, closing up into a fetal position, his legs protecting his testicles, his hands trembling as he looked down at his broken fingers.
"It's going to be tough to beat up your bitches for a few weeks," McCall said. "Your fingers will be in splints. But they'll heal."
"You're a dead man," the pimp managed to croak, his voice filled with pain.
"If I had a nickel…" McCall sighed.
He pulled the girl up to her full height, which was about five-nine. She grabbed her maroon jacket that had fallen onto one of the trash cans behind her. McCall hustled her down the alleyway, past the cardboard boxes, until they were out on Broome Street. There was a sudden rush of traffic; a bus and a couple of yellow cabs went by. The usual cacophony of impatient horns. McCall noted a uniformed cop at the corner of Broadway. He was looking their way, but he wasn't coming over. He continued talking to the owner of a computer store on the corner, which, judging from the stock in the windows, looked like the only merchandise it handled fell off the backs of various trucks.
The girl took some tissues from the pocket of her jacket and pushed them up both nostrils to stop the bleeding. SOP.
"Thanks," she said. Her voice was clearer. "I think he would have killed me this time."
"He would have."
Closer to her, McCall saw her eyes were actually very beautiful, a hazel green. There was gratitude in them, but it was so pushed down by need it barely registered.
"I owe you," she said. "I'm Lucy. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
"That's your street name. What's your real name?"
"Who cares? I never use it."
"It's Margaret. Lame, huh? What's yours?"
"Mine doesn't matter."
She moved right up to him, her voice taking on the husky quality she knew worked. "Sure, I get it. I don't need to know your name. Come with me. No charge. I don't want to be alone. Please." She took his hand. "I'll do anything you want."
She moved his hand under her halter top until it was on her left breast, then looked over at the uniformed cop on the corner. He was taking a little more notice.
"Can we go somewhere?" she asked urgently. "Your place?"
"I don't want to be late for my son." McCall said it gently and removed his hand from beneath her halter top. "Your pimp will get his fingers strapped up. He won't come looking for you this afternoon. But maybe tonight. If you have friends in the city he doesn't know about, stay with them."
"You don't know him. He'll track me down. You don't fuck with him like that. Can I stay with you?"
"No. Right now you need to go to a hospital. I'll flag down a cab and come with you. Make sure you get fixed up."
"Screw you, asshole," she said, tears burning in her eyes. "You did your hero thing. I hope it made you feel real warm and runny inside."
She walked away from him, down Broome Street, putting on her jacket and pulling it closed as if she was suddenly very cold.
McCall thought briefly about going after her, forcing her into a cab with him, taking her to the nearest hospital, which was Beth Israel. But that would make him late for Scott. He could just put her into a cab, give her the money to go to the ER, but he knew she'd jump out at the first traffic light. That money was too precious to waste on fixing up her face. She could do that herself.
McCall looked into the alleyway, checking his back. The pimp was gone. There hadn't been time for him to stagger down to the other end. He must've used one of the doorways now on McCall's left. McCall was angry with himself. He'd broken his cardinal rule of the last nine months and stepped into a situation that had absolutely nothing to do with him. He hoped his actions wouldn't come back to haunt him.
Even the cop on the corner looked at him like he was an idiot. McCall gave him a tired smile. Yeah, well, some habits are hard to break.
At least the girl was still alive.
McCall turned up his collar against the bitter wind that was now blowing down Broome Street, walked past the cop, and headed up Broadway toward the subway station.
* * *
At that exact same moment, in the bedroom of a sixth-floor Club Level suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Tverskaya Street in Moscow, Elena Petrov stood naked in front of a full-length mirror. She was a brunette, in her late thirties, tall, athletic, Russian born, but an American citizen since the age of nine. She looked at the knife scar that started under her left breast and stretched down to just above the pubic area. There was also the ragged skin tear on her right side where she'd been shot. The bullet had only grazed her, but the reminder was still there. She had an angelic face, big brown laughing eyes, just the girl next door with a slight Russian accent, so she was always amused when an ardent lover finally got "the gear off," as her British girlfriends would say, and reacted to her battle scars. She would say she'd been mugged in New York—the knife scar—and shot by a boyfriend who was showing off his new Smith & Wesson SD40 pistol while they were taking a romantic stroll in Le Bois de Boulogne Park in Paris.
Neither was true.
She picked up what looked like a long needle from a thin, plastic case on a table. She slid it into her hair and attached it with a small, dark barrette. You'd never know the needle was there unless you were looking for it.
She glanced out of the big picture window overlooking Red Square. Twilight was gathering fast. A light snow was falling. She could see the towers and spires of the Kremlin. Like something out of a dark fairy tale. She looked back into the mirror and noted the intruder's shadow darken at the ajar bedroom door. Behind it was the sitting room and the front door to the suite. She could have made a grab for her jewelled black bag on the ornate table, where her gun was. But she didn't. She pulled on sheer black panties and picked up a short black cocktail dress from the arm of a chair. Dropped the dress over her head, let it fall down her body, open at the back halfway down her shapely ass, clearly seen through the panties. It made her grin.
"You can zip me up," she said, "if you'd like."
A tall, elegant man in his fifties stepped into the bedroom. He was impeccably dressed in a Savile Row dark blue suit, a pink-striped shirt, gold crossed golf club cuff links, a red tie with small chess pieces on it, shoes polished until they gleamed. There was a whiff of pungent cologne as he stepped up behind Elena. She looked at his face in the mirror: handsome, a little chiseled, bright blue eyes. Usually those eyes were unreadable, the face a mask, but right now he looked distinctly embarrassed. He was actually blushing. Elena knew him only as Control. Everyone at The Company called him Control. She didn't know his real name. She didn't think any of the other agents did either. He was her Control on this mission, unusual for him to actually be in the field, but then he'd always been a man of surprises. It was rumored he had a wife and two teenage daughters, lived in a quiet suburb of Washington, D.C., played golf with a four handicap, and drank only very aged whiskey. But that might just be the cover story.
I guess you didn't hear me come in," Control murmured, reaching down for the zip at the bottom of her black dress.
"I heard you. Next time you could clear your throat."
"I could have been an enemy agent sneaking up on you."
"Not wearing that cologne. It's very distinctive. You buy it from a tiny shop in Mayfair in London, the only place it's sold. If you're done looking at my cute ass, you can zip me up now."
Her eyes were twinkling. He zipped her up.
"Where'd you get the knife scar? The gunshot wound I know about."
"I was mugged in Central Park. Not every single incident in my life is in my file. So, you've had the grand tour of my body." She turned to face him. "How will I look to everyone else?"
"Very beautiful," Control said. "And you'd never let a mugger get close enough to attack you in Central Park."
She smiled and picked up the small jewelled bag that matched the dress. Took out her Beretta 21 Bobcat, checked again that it was loaded, put it back, and snapped the bag shut. Control fitted a tiny receiver in her left ear, completely undetectable.
"I'll be able to hear every word."
"That's a scary thought."
He took out a pair of slim, black-framed glasses from a metal case and handed them to her. She put them on.
"Are you going to escort me to the party?"
"Only to near the gallery. I won't be going inside. But I won't be far away."
"Who's got my back?"
"Masters. He's a bona fide art collector and speaks fluent Russian. Got into Moscow this afternoon. There wasn't time to brief you."
She stepped into elegant Dolce Gabbana black lace pumps.
"Masters is good. I'm ready. Let's go."
Control took her hand.
"Be aware, don't take risks, get what I came for, get out. And try not to drop this dress on the floor of one of Alexei Berezovsky's private conference rooms." The lightness left her voice, replaced by a quiet toughness. "I know what to do, Control. That's why you brought me to Moscow."
"Yes, it is."
They walked to the door of the bedroom. Elena's eyes flicked to a small framed photograph on the bedside table. It was of Elena, who looked just the same, with a younger Robert McCall, on the deck of a sailboat with the backdrop of an old city glistening in the dying sun behind them. They were holding glasses of wine, laughing about something. On the photo was written in a neat hand: To my darling Elena—All My Love—Robert.
Control had noted the photograph. "Where was that taken?"
"Croatia. Off the coast of Split on the Adriatic Sea. A four-day vacation also not in my file. And before you ask, no I haven't heard from him. Not in over three years."
"But you still carry his picture everywhere you go."
"He doesn't need to know that."
Control opened the bedroom door wider. "It's better he's out of your life, Elena."
"What happened? Why did he go into hiding? No one at The Company will talk about it."
"Need to know."
"But you know where he is. You know where all of us are, at all times."
"I don't know where Robert McCall is."
"But you don't believe he's dead."
It was a statement. Control shook his head.
"He's a tough man to kill," he said. "I should take that photo. We don't have many pictures at all of Robert McCall."
"Not even in his file?"
"They were removed. Probably by him."
"Well, you can't have that one." She moved out into the sitting room of the suite. "Let's not be late for our Chechen host."
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Sloan