The knee doesn’t bother much. I thank Anna for that. Not that it leaves me alone, but that the damned thing got butchered in the first place.
Red hair was the first you’d see of Anna. Long, beautiful copper hair. Everything after that was nothing short of old-days movie star. I’m sorry, the new crop doesn’t do it for me.
Anna did. We could have been a thing. Something deep inside, not my heart, and not my head told me that was not something I should allow or try for. It was a good move, but purely visceral. Everything was in place for my brain and testosterone to take over. Once in a while, thinking of her makes a little tattoo of my heartbeat. Not as bad as when I resolved to walk away from the woman. Not anymore.
Some women seduce without trying. When Anna walked into a room, before seeing her face or mistaking her for Venus, every male heart suffered arrhythmia, blood pressure irreparably distending blood vessels. Anna was good at her job; smart, resourceful, quick, and ruthless; veneered with looks, grace, mystery, and sexuality.
She was every bit of that and a ticket to hell.
She put me behind the desk. The incident just off Ave de Castilla in Torrejon de Ardoz. Anna left me to be picked up, sweated, and fed to a trash-compactor. At the end of an ugly exchange gone south, some stupid bastard only managed to shoot me in the right knee. I took him out. With my heartbeat soaking my pantleg, I dragged myself to the street only to see Anna speeding away in the rental.
Two more men came at me, no better shots than the first. One sent a hornet an inch from my ear before I dropped them both. Then I turned my attention to a leg I knew I’d lose. It would have been less painful if they’d given me a hacksaw and let me take it off myself right then. ‘Recovery’ took more than a year. Rehab pain made me sick to my stomach, sweat like a three-time loser, and cry like a damned baby. I never forgave Anna. She didn’t shoot me, but a doctor’s attention in something less than three days might have made it easier.
Now I have a bionic limp and a desk.
Anna got Diablo to the lab. Diablo wasn’t microfilm. It wasn’t computer circuitry. It was a whole damned computer in a package smaller than a raisin. Secrets. Names. Plans. Our people couldn’t crack it. Moscow said for a share, they’d put their boys on it. We sent it. They gave up. They sent it back.
Somewhere outside Moscow, Diablo went missing.
Anna chased it to Moscow, then Warsaw. I was sent after her because I knew Warsaw. More, I’d discovered something else. I pointed it out. Intel agreed. They gave me a very thin, very sturdy knee brace and a pocket full of good luck.
“Get it,” they demanded, “or destroy it.”
Warsaw backstreets are silent in black morning cold. Like Michigan’s north woods. As a boy in the Upper Peninsula, I learned to hear snow fall. Not cascading through pine branches; falling through unobstructed sky. It was a Michigan pre-dawn in Warsaw when I caught up to Anna.
Snow was arguing with itself over how serious it felt.
“You found it,” I said. Snow peppered her hair.
“Koslov had it.” Her smirk was nasty.
“Now you have it.”
“Of course, I do. Killed him. Took it.”
“He’d have turned it over in a heartbeat. Didn’t have to kill him.”
“And he’d have told someone. Back home.”
“So you’ve turned?”
“You knew that.”
“Always hoped I was wrong.”
Anna had a pistol poised to empty my lungs of breath or wormhole my forehead. Maybe in some cruel joke, first she’d ruin my other knee. I couldn’t see it, the pistol, but I knew it was there. I heard something out of place. Not snow. I thought I smelled something. Anna didn’t flinch. Stupidly, I knew better, I started to pivot at my waist.
The damned brace ruptured, my knee buckled, hauling me down like a sack of potatoes. A muffled crackle pushed an iron finger into a sandbag – Anna – she took it in the base of her neck. It was meant for my heart. Had the brace held up, the shot would have backdoored past my spine through my thumper.
You get one chance to see a professional mistake. Still down, my knee really complaining, it took forever for the Mała Żmija to clear my pocket. The fool had a cigarette. I pointed the Żmija to where I thought there might be a face. Pfft! Anna’s contact crumpled the same way I did when I took it in the knee, because his brain no longer talked sense.
In the distant cold, a car, probably a Russian Gorkovsky, begged for a mechanic.
Anna didn’t fall flat, ended up half-crouched, propped-up by her arms and naked hate, refusing to concede, a rag doll dropped from the crib. She’d have a death grip on the tiny Stukkoi I knew she meant to show me, looking to take my other knee or my heart. As I struggled to my good knee, Anna folded into a heap on her side. She was mean enough I expected her eyes to find me through the mist of slow death and take me out, to be done with it. She didn’t.
When I rolled her onto her back, snow made a sickly pink pudding of the blood on her blouse. Her ribcage moved. I knew where she’d carry Diablo; lifted her blouse and one lacy black cup. She was gorgeous. But there it was, Diablo, right where her vanity put it in some warped statement. I placed it in my inside pocket, pulled her blouse back down. She moaned. Pain, probably. It would take a while for life to bleed out, before there wasn’t blood for a heartbeat.
Her eyes were closed. That made it easier. Beautiful woman, even near death. The Żmija pointed to where a heart would be if she had one. The trigger squeezed my finger and the Żmija hissed. Pfft! No more evil heartbeat. No more compromised ops and people. I limped down a deserted street for the nearest subway.
Snow decided to fall in earnest.
Originally on Prose 6/2/2020
© 2020 S P Wilcenski