Whatever I was to Maksim Koslov, the Spider of San Francisco’s Russian mob, it wasn’t his whore. As far as I knew whores were fawned over, well kept, either very private or flaunted as arm-candy. They were not told to walk in side doors of events with the bodyguard. They were not given pats-downs that bordered on sexual harassment. They were not left entirely to their own devices by their hosts. If I was a kept man, I was a poor one, left to wade through a sea of Russian on my own. Pasha, who had followed me at a distance that some could be called respect and some would have assumed cold, was no help. For all the response I’d gotten to questioning looks after being asked questions that I couldn’t answer over a gulf of language, he might as well have been window dressing. He didn’t pretend to look anything but bored. My silent, dour shadow.
“Him there, by the bar.”
From where I’d taken up a position at a fireplace bordered by a stone bench I had a view of the entire room and I’d seen Maksim coming.. The fireplace was lit but the heat was kept to a minimum by a thick glass screen. Maksim did not sit near me but only hovered nearby; a man enjoying the flicker of the fire. “Nice to see you too.” It was a mutter as I looked to the bar. “Sandy blond? Crooked nose.”
He hadn’t touched me all night: in fact, this was the first time in an hour that he’d even come within arm’s length of me. “Yes, that’s him,” he said to the fire.
I nodded to myself, though I had already marked the man as someone to watch. He had, on several occasions, woven his way through the room toward Maksim and then only hovered on the edges of conversation before surreptitiously moving away. There weren’t many other patterns in the room that centered so boldly around Maksim. In fact, most people seemed to stay at a particular arm’s length. I’d been able to easily keep track of Maksim by just looking for the most open ring of bodies. “I’ve noticed him,” was all I said for the moment. I doubted that anyone even realized that we were having a conversation-- Maksim had the air of a lounging tiger, his eyes glittering toward the dark-corners of the room, his attention on anything other than me. This entire night so far had felt like a weird reflection of a police bust, only I had no idea of my goal until now.
“If you tell me to fuck him I’m going to be deeply disrespected.”
The flash of Maksim’s eyes in my direction was enough to cut off my color commentary and give me half of an erection. Christ. I wasn’t sure anymore that this was a game I wanted to win if those eyes were to be my punishment. “Zolotse.” My full attention moved to Maksim for a single moment; it turned out that the name was as endearing as the tone with which he spoke it: it meant sweetheart in Russian.
As I said-- that I wasn’t being treated as a whore was obvious, but that left so many other questions in its wake. Maksim had caught me red-handed working against him and yet had taken me into service instead of just provoking a fight that I couldn’t have possibly won. If he’d wanted me dead, I would have been dead. Instead I was sitting at a mob party and being virtually ignored. Getting out was a problem for another day; today I had to figure out why the hell I was here.
Maksim’s fingertips glanced across my elbow and I blinked. He’d turned slightly, shifting his gaze elsewhere even as I refocused. The Spider. Always so disinterested; no wonder he’d earned the nickname. “I bring him up because he is a competitor.”
I looked down into the depths of my drink-- just coffee and sugar, in the most delicate china I’d ever seen. I’d drank to my new job, with my new employer, but my days and nights spent with Thomas in a haze of scotch were still too fresh to want to make alcohol a casual habit again. “A competitor? If he wins, does that mean that my ownership will transfer?”
“Zolotse.” Quiet, quick. An admonishment. “Not here.” I was chastised; I glanced at him and then away, shifting to rest my back against the cool stone apron. I crossed my legs and let my cup settle in my lap. Maksim nodded.
“So,” I said. And then, “what?”
“What is the question. He is a rash man, and has been biding his time. It gives me pause.” Maksim didn’t seem inclined to look at me again. I studied his posture for a clue to how he felt but was unsurprised to find nothing. I didn’t know if this was a test or not; the only thing I felt sure of was that Maksim was not sharing information for the hell of it. He wasn’t a man who believed in wasting time. “Have you picked up any Russian yet?” There was a slice of a wry smile that belonged to me even though it was directed to the fire. “You’ll be little use to me without it.”
“Нет.” No, I said, the one Russian word that I did know, returning the exact slice of a smile that I’d been given. “And all the Russian in the world won’t make me useful if I’m not told what I’m to be useful doing.”
I raised my eyebrows at the unknown word and Maksim shrugged. “Learn,” he said, as if it were the easiest thing imaginable, “It will be far more interesting when you can respond to my insults.” He winked as he pulled from his slouch and moved off, uncaring. I watched as people noticed him and then gave way. A tiger in my head, perhaps, but these people knew the Spider. It showed in the physical ripples he left in his wake. And I worked for that.
How official was I? Who knew-- anyone at all? I couldn’t decide which was the bigger threat, being a known member of the Odessa or being Maksim’s private employee. Until I knew the answer to those questions, I wasn’t planning on pushing any boundaries. I stayed quiet as the party drew on; with Pasha as my silent shadow three steps behind me, the next two hours of the event passed slowly. I flirted with a woman on the balcony over her vodka drink and San Francisco’s lights gleamed at us through halos of mist. She was a cousin of someone’s and liked ‘teacup dogs.’ She laughed when I told her that dogs like that were a criminal offense-- she was drunk and I had a good smile. The man that Maksim had pointed out did nothing out of the ordinary. There was a young man who was overly interested in me who remarked on the cut of my suit so that he could reach out and touch my chest with a thumb knuckle as he pretended to trace the cut of my lapel. He got me a drink even though I had declined and handed me a business card against the damp glass: Anatoly Alexeev, with a phone number. After the brash introduction he walked away and Pasha took the card from my hand, tucking it into the breast pocket out of his jacket. It was the first and last time that evening that Pasha interceded on my behalf.
People began to trickle out as the night wore on. As far as I could tell, nothing had happened. Had this been a Mob mixer? Some sort of general social event in which some rich Odessa prince could show off his bankroll to the ooo’s and ahh’s of his neighbors? I watched cheek kisses and handshakes. Ones and twos slipped out the door. The party was a little less than half empty when the attack happened.
The intention to harm was in every line of the man’s motion, his body. Sandy blond hair and a crooked nose; I was moving to follow before I’d even realized that it was the man that Maksim had talked to me about. More than a decade of police duty enforced a certain diligence even when not paying direct attention-- I knew trouble even when I wasn’t looking directly at it. I bumped past people without care and noticed, in passing, faces and expressions that Maksim would later recount to me in laughter. Shock, mostly.
Just steps ahead of me the man pulled a gun from somewhere and considering the pat-down that I’d received walking in the door I can only imagine how’d he’d gotten it through security. It told me that this attack wasn’t spur of the moment, then, it wasn’t emotional. This had been planned. A meticulous frame work with a questionable delivery.
As the gun raised, pushing through a crowd now stumbling to get away, I acted. I don’t think he expected a fight so quickly-- it took me no effort to send the gun spinning across the floor, well out of reach of either of us. I was only aware of it long enough to see it swallowed under a couch between a startled woman’s designer shoes and then an elbow smashed its way up into my chin, driving my attention home and snapping my teeth together with enough force to light stars up at the edges of my vision. I reacted through the pain, clamping fingers hard around his wrist and there was one moment, one faint pump of a pulse under my fingertips before I twisted his arm back behind him with a sharp jerk. I felt the meaty pop of his shoulder before the yell of pain left his lips. Standing behind him, his dislocated arm entirely in my possession, I wrapped my other arm around his neck and pulled him tight against me, closing his airway.
For one moment I happened to look up, to catch Maksim’s eyes on me. Then there was a sharp pain as I was kicked in the shin, a reminder to keep my attention on the matter at hand. Kicking the back of the man’s knee caused his entire leg to buckle and suddenly his weight was hanging on my arm at his neck. Sound was cut off by the pressure and his hands reached up for me, slapping against my arms and neck, for only a moment before he fell limp. Unconscious. I dropped him to the floor and it was only then that I was aware of the quick snap of my heart beating, how my breath was coming in close, quick pants.
There were eyes on me, of course there were. I met the gazes of those who would look at me, those spectators who’d apparently enjoyed the show, before seeking out Maksim. He had a drink in his hand. The conversation that we had earlier had led me to believe that the man with the gun had been coming for Maksim… but as I looked at the room I realized that wasn’t the reality. There was an older man sitting much closer to where I was-- to where the man I had disarmed now lay-- who wore a narrow look that floated between harried and anger. Anger seemed the winner now but if I’d looked just a moment sooner, shock might have been the prevalent expression. He had been the target all along, not Maksim.
It had never been Maksim.
I didn’t know what to do, how to react to the narrowed eyes of the old man. Watching the people around him respond I was suddenly sure that he was far more important than most of the others in the room. Maybe all of them-- Maksim included. I took a knee where I stood and even though I’d learned the posture in regards to collars and cattails, it would translate across cultures to reflect the thing that I needed the most at that moment: deference. Next to me the man that I’d taken down didn’t stir though my knee was almost close enough to touch his slack arm; a quick assessment out of the corner of my eye told me two things: that he was still breathing and that all the guns that had been drawn in response to our altercation were no longer pointed at him-- they were pointed at me. I spread my empty hands flat on the floor and tucked my chin to my chest.
M had taught me this. Obedience was a currency more precious than gold; obedience in everything when necessary. There was silence in the room and then a dry, coughing laugh. I felt, more than heard, fingers relax from triggers.
“Видимо, придется кого-то уволить.”
I didn’t dare look at Maksim, or even Pasha, for a reaction but the chuckle that the words received from the crowd didn’t ease the tighteness in my throat. My heart hammered against my ears but I took the chance of answering for myself before knowing the rules or the players, shaking my head slightly and keeping my eyes down. “I’m still learning Russian,” I said into the void, hopelessly ignorant of what I was responding to any further than my own action. “Please forgive me.” I knew the things that people in positions of power wanted to hear, at least. “I only saw that you might be in danger and reacted to prevent it.”
“Я тебя не знаю.”
It was Maksim’s voice, low and smooth, that responded to the old man. I didn’t need to know the language to know the speaker, even without seeing him. “He’s with me.” I fought not to look up, fought to remember that there were at least five guns pointed in my direction and an unconscious man at my side and Maksim was the reason for it. I hoped to hell he was saying complimentary things about me; he didn’t move from his spot, didn’t physically stand up for me-- that much I could tell without looking up from the polished hardwood under my hands. “Его зовут David Krause.”Hearing my name made my chest constrict around the snap of my heart.
“Американец.” Americansky, Maksim answered, needing no translation. Branding me as new. As an outsider. I guessed I never would have passed anyway.
“Ты было уже ошибся, поставив на помощь американцев, Максим.”
Was I in trouble? I couldn’t even tell how serious the conversation was. There was a weird surety that I’d been set up-- no, I knew I’d been set up. The weird surety was that I felt no maliciousness in the fact. This was Maksim’s world, not mine. I didn’t know the rules that existed, the traditions or ways that anything worked; this was an on-the-ground sort of introduction. This was my introduction... and it was being spoken by others in a language I didn’t understand while I knelt with my head down, subservient. Everything inside me demanded activity: if this was to be my fate then I wouldn’t come to it like a lamb to the slaughter. I refused. So I raised my head and then stood slowly, watching as the attention in the room began to swing back in my direction.
Maksim was speaking as I straightened. “My past with Americans has no bearing. David is experienced. His instincts and talents have already spoken for themselves.” His tone was wry and made the hair on the back of my arms stand.
“Он не молод. Старой закалки, со своим понятием преданности.” The old man’s voice was as dry as paper; he was holding an unlit cigarette between two fingers.
“Excuse me.” Eyes snapped in my direction as I interrupted and I refused to let the moment pass now that I had it. “If you’re going to be deciding my fate, I’d like to be a part of the conversation.” The old man’s eyes were hard on mine, filmy or just a terrible light blue I couldn’t tell, but there was no room to look away from them regardless of reason. He was the boss here; he was the one.
“If you want to be part of the conversation,” he responded slowly, “perhaps you should know the language in which it is being spoken.” His speech was as heavily accented as Pasha’s, as if every English vowel was a personal insult. “But tonight we will overlook it. Tonight.” The repeated word was thick and heavy and said that there wasn’t going to be another tonight, another chance like this one. “You are old. Old men have old loyalities. Do you, David Krause, have old loyalities?”
My New York poker buddies would have been jealous of my straight face. The saddest part was that it wasn’t all that hard. Maybe it wasn’t all that much a lie. “I’ve started my life over. I’m alone.”
“Him,” the old man said, gesturing to my unconscious friend with the sandy hair, “he was alone, too. Lonliness drives men to desperation.” There was a moment and paper-thin lids dropped to consider some internal thought before opening again. “But none of my own security moved as fast as you did, Одиночка. It is not something to be overlooked.” He smiled. “I am in no habits of handing away a sharpened knife.” The weight of his attention moved from me to Maksim. Maksim dipped his chin; across the room Pasha shuffled. Other men moved to reholster guns and two came forward to drag the prone figure elsewhere as the conversation went on. I had to force myself not to watch the casual procession knowing almost certainly that the man was going to his death. It would have happened anyway but I’d become the instrument of his destruction-- whatever his name even was.
I am in no habits of handing away a sharpened knife. The words crawled up my spine.
“I wouldn’t be handed away,” I said. The old man laughed his dry laugh, his eyes honestly amused, I thought, as he looked at me. I didn’t feel amusing but I figured it was better than he thought so.
“Нет, of course not. Though a tool aware of his own usefulness…” he trailed out and shifted his focus back to Maksim. “You claim responsibility?”
Maksim responded without hesitation: “as ever.” He made it sound route but I wondered. The way the old man inflected the words made them sound like a binding contract, ritualistic. It felt like my fate being sealed. Maksim was too canny to throw himself into anything that was a commitment without knowing all the angles. I looked at him, the scar down the side of his face pale in the seep of low lighting in the room. He looked back at me. It felt strange, in a way half remembered and yet half disliked. Ownership. I knew how that went; I’d learned at the knee of the Master so that I’d know how every inch of ownership felt.
Chin down, David; you’ll never fool anyone that way. The memory of M’s voice stung my ears. Maksim was nothing like M and yet there were connected, undeniably; Maksim had confirmed it himself. Offered me details, dangling a carrot on a stick. It made a small, dark part of me feel angry, panicked-- as if this was all some elaborate joke that I was trapped in. That I was a construct of their small world and that I’d never be free of all the connections between the Master and the Spider.
I tamped the feeling down. Hard. Now was not the time.
Your time, M had told me, your wants, needs-- your very life. When you are on your knees in front of me, those things are no longer your own. They are not yours in any moment in which you are owned.
This wouldn’t be the same; I refused.
As ever, Maksim had answered.
“No one is responsible for me,” I blurted out. The old man pulled his eyes to me, the faded blue and rheumy orbs watching me as my words hung in the room between us. If I thought I saw the twitch of a smile at one corner of Maksim’s mouth, it wasn’t there when I turned my head to him. His attention was flat and unreadable. “No one,” I repeated. Lower. Maksim’s gaze on me did not change.
“Стреляный воробей.” The old man’s smile was grim as he repeated what he’d said before-- too old. It didn’t phase Maksim, who gave a shrug. “Мне нравится,” was all that was offered in return. It sounded uncaring. There was a dismissive hand waved by the old man in response and then-- it seemed to be over. The crowd still left in the large room began to talk and the old man turned to his neighbor who offered a match to lit his cigarette. I’d expected something climatic but perhaps I should have just considered myself lucky to walk out with my head on my shoulders… it was more than could be said for the man that had been carried out of the room from my feet. I looked at Maksim and he smiled, as if I’d achieved something. How could I tell?
I hadn’t drank all night, but I walked over to Pasha as people began to move again and took the drink out of his hand. If anyone was watching me now I buried the weight of their attention in glorying over the smooth burn of the vodka as it coated my throat.
Pasha didn’t give me shit for it, or say anything at all-- only took a full drink from closest person at-hand and gave them a look that kept them quiet. I thought it was for him but he passed it to me in return for the empty I was holding. I looked at the large man for a moment, thinking about what Maksim had said; Pasha had been with Maksim since he was seventeen. I nodded and sipped at the second drink, wondering if he’d been through something like this himself.
+ + +
I laid on his bed, spread out with my arms tucked behind my head. Relaxed. There was a half a smile on my face; I wasn’t very ticklish but the light brush of lips against my hips had me twitching. Unlike me, Maksim was nearly fully-dressed, and I liked the way his loosened tie brushed my thighs as he moved up my body. Of the suit I’d been wearing earlier, only my underwear and the unbuttoned dress-shirt remained.
“I assumed,” I murmured, “that maybe I’d get a beating after what happened tonight.” I’d actually been given an option: go home, or go home with Maksim. I’d made my decision.
“Do you want a beating?” There was amusement in the words, though his lips barely left the skin of my inner thigh. Maksim brushed a rough chin against my leg, smiling as he looked up at me. He was happy. I didn’t reach for him simply because I did want to; my fingers curled into fists in my hair behind my head, keeping them there.
“No.” I told the truth.
“No.” His lips brushed high, ghosting over the shape of my balls through my underwear, and my hips gave a slow flex. “No, I thought not.” Maksim sucked gently at the bottom of my cock through the fabric. “Besides. I should be commending you tonight. Why do you think I am on my knees? You were magnificent.”
My arms slid down from behind my head. “Was I.” There was no question. I wanted to know the intention behind what he’d done.
“Of course.” Maksim moved upward, climbing my body slowly with roving hands and interested lips. His nose followed the line of my hip. “I told you about a problem, and you solved it.”
“I thought that it was your problem,” I muttered, the tone mostly for the way that my nipples stiffened and not the petulence that a small part of me felt. “I don’t want to be tested.” Callused fingers grabbed at my elbows with sudden force, pushing them down into the soft bed. Maksim loomed above me, the lighter hair at his temples stark against the shadows drawn across his face.
“Zolotse, first of all.” His tone was flat. “You will want anything that I need you to want. Понимаешь?” I nodded, not needing Russian to understand the question, breath held just so for the sudden aggression. “Say it,” Maksim hissed.
I took a breath through my nose pushed the echo of the word through my teeth. “Понимаешь.”
The edge slipped from his face and Maksim leaned in, brushing his lips against mine. The fingers digging into the soft flesh of my inner elbows relaxed and stroked over my biceps. “Понимаешь is asking,” he murmured, his voice as soft as his fingers now. “To say that you understand is: Понимаю.”
This time I offered it unprompted: “Понимаю.” Maksim’s answering smile was brief but broad. I thought of Quentin, who thanks to me no longer had any ties to the Odessa, but could speak fluent Russian. Maybe he’d forget it. Maybe he’d forget that the mafia had made him participate in fighting rings in order to earn money back toward his debts. That they would have let him die there.
“Second,” Maksim murmured. I raised my chin so that he could kiss my throat. “The man you stopped tonight had no issue with me, but he had issue with my captain-- which made the problem mine as well. He knew that I could stop any move he made; which was why I let you do it for me. It was unexpected and it worked. If you are to be Odessa, you need to understand that we are all reflections of each other.”
“And I made you look good.”
Maksim’s laugh was low, almost a growl. It made my half-hard cock throb against my groin, and me impatient with foreplay as he went on. “A happy side-effect. You made me look both impetuous and potentially dangerous, neither of which are bad things.”
I ran fingers down the scar on his left check, the thick skin frozen forever in a trench, a testament to how deep the wound had been. Maksim hadn’t told me the story of the mark and I hadn’t asked. His five o’clock shadow scraped like sandpaper under my touch. “Maintaining your normal image, then.” Maksim smiled and bit at my fingertips. “Good thing I’m also stellar in bed or I might prove boring.”
“I dislike tools that only serve one purpose,” he said.
“I dislike being called a tool.”
I was ignored. “When I told you that you were interesting, someone worth getting to know, I was not only referring to your connections to the FBI.” His fingers pushed my hair back from my temples and his knees pushed between mine, settling his weight flush against me. The soft, expensive fabric of his pants rubbed against the inside of my thighs. “I am established here and need people to know that I am not growing soft. You-- you are clever. You are dangerous. You are new and unquantifiable… and you are with me.” A particularly strong gust of midnight wind knocked the drapes away from the bedroom window and my skin pebbled with the chill. I was clever, dangerous, and Maksim considered me his.
Maksim smiled. “I needed Konstanin to know what I already do: I needed him to know why I made the decision I did in regards to you. Because they will dig into your past and they will see that you were a cop, as I did. But now they will know too that you are clever, and dangerous--”
“And things will get harder.”
He nodded. “Yes. But then they will get easier.” A thumb traced my lower lip with a slow intention that made my skin crawl for more than the chill of the night pressing in from outside. “Because every man finds himself at a place in his life when he needs a change, zolotse.” Maksim’s mouth nearly closed with mine, hung a breath away. “What happens to make a good, clean cop walk away from his life?” I closed my eyes and breathed Maksim’s breath, felt the drum of his heart in the chest against mine. He was a force of nature; I was constantly reminded. “I ask myself this when I see you, but the answer is more simple.” Maksim’s lips brushed mine, his fingers squeezed my hips. “I do not need to know what broke you to know how to fix you. I can give you a purpose again, David. I can make you useful.”
The words sank into my chest like razorblades. This was the reason I couldn’t let down my guard around Maksim-- as Katsuya had been in his own way, and as M before him, they’d all seen through me in degrees and they’d all been able to leave their scars. Maksim would be no different; I couldn’t let him under my skin. To be sure I’d never intended it but the man I’d found behind the name of the Spider was unexpected and as exciting as the game was, it was also dangerous. Forgetting that would be costly. I was already raw, still-healing, and smart enough to understand the damage that he was capable of inflicting with even a single misstep from me.
I pushed away, forcing him to roll to his hip and let me go. As I swung my legs over the side of the bed I scrubbed at my face with my hand, pressed fingers into the corners of my eyes. “It’s late.”
“You could stay.”
I wish there had been any duplicity when I opened my mouth next. “No.” I turned to look over my shoulder at him there, the sprawled tiger in his loosened tie and diamond-chip cufflinks. “I like Pasha too much to give him an aneurysm.” The joke was a deflection to cover the fact that I was off-balance and Maksim laughed, small lines forming at the corners of his eyes. He was a handsome man; I was never allowed to forget that.
“Pasha has been at my side since he was seventeen,” Maksim murmured. “My will is his own.” He moved his fingers toward my flank but I stood away from his touch, looking for my pants. I felt that after tonight and the party I had earned the right to say whether I came or went. Behind me as I stepped into my pants, Maksim moved deftly around my deflection altogether. “You haven’t given Winston the passports yet, have you?”
Outside the traffic hummed past regardless of the hour. Headlights threw washed-out stripes across the bookshelf before disappearing into the corner of the ceiling. I buttoned my shirt . “No.” Maksim had offered me three passports in return for my service; it hadn’t really been a deal, since he’d caught me trying to take them. For the last few days they’d been sitting on my kitchen counter, burning a hole in my waking days. Maksim had “hired” me to be a double-agent. To feed my contact at the FBI false leads in order to throw suspicion from whatever it was that the Odessa was really up to. I looked over my shoulder at Maksim, who was still on his side, head propped on his palm, watching me.
“Tomorrow,” he said. It didn’t sound like a question because it wasn’t. “Понимаешь?”
Yes, I understood. I was being ordered to hand over the identities of three people whose lives had been indentured to turn an illegal profit in order to buy the Odessa more time and credibility. Winston was a smart man but he was doomed to failure; Maksim was two steps ahead. Personally I didn’t have any desire to see Winston succeed, considering how much I disliked him, but the people on those passports… I was the one with the connections, now. I was the one who could do something to help them. I looked at Maksim. “Понимаю.”
He laughed, the sound low and rich. “You are a fast learner.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I am.”