Last Kiss

Last Kiss

Synopsis:

Naomi: When I was kidnapped I thought only of survival. I don’t thrive well in chaos. That’s why I gave my captors exactly what they wanted: my skill with computers. Making millions for a crime lord who kept me imprisoned in his basement compound kept my family safe. When he was taken out, I thought my ticket to freedom had arrived. Wrong. I traded one keeper for another. This time I’m in the hands of a scarred, dark, demanding Russian who happens to be the head of the Bratva, a Russian crime organization. He wants my brain and my body. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued, but I can’t be a prisoner forever…no matter how good he makes me feel.

Vasily: At a young age, I was taught that a man without power is a puppet for all. I’ve clawed—and killed—my way to the top so that it is my heel on their necks. But to unify the fractured organization into an undefeatable machine, I need a technological genius to help me steal one particular artifact. That she is breathtaking, determined, and vulnerable is making her more dangerous than all of my enemies combined. But only I can keep her safe from the world that she now inhabits. Soon, I must choose between Naomi and Bratva law. But with every day that passes, this becomes a more impossible choice.

Excerpt:

Chapter One
ONE MONTH AGO

Vasily
      “You think to lead the Petrovich Bratva?” Georgi Petrovich cries from far down the table. He is so far removed from the main branch of the Petrovich family tree he barely warrants a place here. “You aren’t even blood Petrovich!”
      “Am I not?” I ask. There’s no need to raise my voice. Any emotion indicates weakness. I am not a weak man. “What makes a Petrovich?” I stand then and begin to walk around the table. “Is it blood? Then half of you should be executed on the table for failing to have the requisite DNA. Who shall go first?”
      I point to Thomas Gregovorich, a loyal member of the Bratva for at least two generations. His father served in the KGB during the Cold War.
      He gives a small nod in deference acknowledging that the Bratva was a true brotherhood made up of allegiances rather than blood.
      “Or you, Kilment, when we took you and your brother in when you were left orphaned on the street, did you believe you became a true Petrovich when you made your first kill? Conducted your first job? When we speak of the Bratva, we speak as one voice. What is done to one, it is done to all. Or does that maxim no longer hold true, Georgi?”
      There are low murmurs of approval and Georgi sits back, folds his arms, and looks petulantly at the table. We are meeting today to discuss the future of the Bratva after the death of Sergei Petrovich. A death I helped orchestrate, and many suspect it, which makes it difficult for me to enact my next step—to kill Elena Petrovich. Two Petrovichs dead so close together smells of a coup. We are an unstable lot, and lopping off the head of this snake would result in chaos. In order to achieve my ends, the Bratva must be stabilized.
      However, in this den of iniquity, it is not love that holds the loyalty of each man. It is fear. The Petrovichs have held power over us all by setting us one against the other. To rise above, I have eliminated all weaknesses.
      What sets me apart is all that I am willing to do. Each of these men at the table has had limits. I have none.
      The men that sit at this table are divided. Some view me with awe and respect, and others with disgust. The latter are the ones I respect, because a man who would kill his own sister, a man such as I, deserves to be in a dungeon, locked away from all of humanity.
      Instead I stand here as the potential leader of this room of villains and thieves. And it is a position I seek, not because I lust after power, but because if I control the Bratva, then nothing is out of my reach. I have one goal now.
“Will you kill your mother to save the Bratva, Thomas? And you, Pietr, when your sister whispers to her lover Pavil Ionov, do you worry that she’s telling secrets? Or Stefan, your son, I saw him the other day holding hands with . . .” I stop behind Stefan’s chair and rest both hands on the back. I can almost feel him inhale the fear. “. . . a smart young thing. They looked to be enjoying themselves.”
      Pietr coughs. “So you are willing to kill us all to maintain hold of the Bratva? That is not a good reason to follow you.”
      “No, but you all know that I will sacrifice everything and everyone to protect the brotherhood.”
      They are all silent because unlike the others, my sister, Katya, is gone. Disposed of by my own hand at the order of Elena Petrovich.
      I end my stroll around the room behind my chair. “I am the one who led us away from munitions and dirt to telecom interests. In less than a decade, the Bratva’s primary businesses will be legitimate, which means that you no longer have to hide behind your armored vehicles. You no longer have to rely on bodyguards that could be bought off. You need not fear the KGB or the militsiya. You can invest in your futbol teams and mansions in Londongrad without fear of reprisal.”
      Leadership means effective utilization of the carrot and the stick. I lead with the stick. Always. The Petrovichs believe in only the stick. For them the carrot does not exist or is viewed with suspicion.
      The boyeviks—the young muscle our old warlord Alexsandr groomed from urchins on the street to protect the brotherhood—grow tired of the constant threat to their homes and family. They sleep with one eye open, their hand over their heart, wondering if the brother next to them will be killing their mother or raping their sister in retribution for some Bratva infraction.
      The older generation such as Thomas and Kilment and those who sit on the Petrovich Bratva council are loath to hand over the power of this organization to me, a mere foot soldier sold by his father to repay debts. With Sergei dead and the vicious Elena the only real Petrovich remaining, I am left with a choice. Attempt to wrest control of the brotherhood from the old guard or walk away.
      And I would walk away. I have some money stored but I’ve been a Petrovich for a long time and there are many enemies that would crow over my death. No, in order to survive, the Petrovich Bratva must remain strong.
      If I have learned anything, it is that people with nothing are victims. It is those with power and money and might who have the ability to protect others.
      Thomas rubs a hand across his jaw. “There is one thing you could do.”
      “That is a legend, Thomas,” Kilment groans.
      “I will do it.” Legends persist because people believe, and if belief means I can bring down Elena Petrovich and secure a peaceful future, then I will pursue this foolishness until the painting is mine. Their desire to recapture the past is absurd and yet another reason the old guard should be replaced. “You wish me to procure the Caravaggio.”
      Cries of wonder and confusion fill the room.
      “So you know,” Kilment says flatly.
I pretend no ignorance, for it is a story that Alexsandr shared with me long ago. “I know that a famous triptych painted by Caravaggio once hung in the palaces of the Medicis in Florence, perhaps the Careggi Villa. It was commissioned as an altarpiece but considered to be too profane, as many of his pieces were judged. It was gifted by the Medicis to Feodor the First, who then lost it, and Russia entered the Time of Troubles. When the Boyars rose to power in the seventeen hundreds, it is rumored the painting was recovered by Peter the Great. Citizen Petrovich’s grandfather was gifted this set of three paintings and it hung in the great hall of the Petrovichs until it was lost, sold, stolen during Sergei’s time. Many say that he who holds it, holds the world.”
      Thomas nods at this recitation, but Kilment looks unconvinced.
      “It is known as the Madonna and the Volk,” I conclude. The Petrovichs loved the painting because the woman who sat for Caravaggio was purportedly a true Mary Magdalene—a whore. And the Volk? It is a man wolf who is eating Mary, and despite the gruesomeness of the depiction, there is an expression of ecstasy on her face. Volk, too, was seen as a play on the old Russian criminal rank of vory. Thieves, wolves at the door. We were the predators. Everyone else is prey. I saw it only once, when I was given to Elena Petrovich like some birthday treat. It seemed fitting that Sergei sold it to fund some sordid perversion of his own. “But why is it that it is of any importance? It is a mere painting.”
      Thomas stares at me. “It is a symbol of our wealth and power, and we have lost it. And no Caravaggio, one of the greatest painters of all time, can be dubbed a mere painting. It belonged to Peter the Great. It is priceless, one of a kind. Why would we not want it? That it is in the hands of someone else is shameful, a blot against the Petrovich name. Now more than ever, we must show our enemies we are strong.”
      “So you want it, but why is this your loyalty test? Have I not proven myself again and again? Have I not shed the blood of my own family for the brotherhood?” I spread my scarred hands out as if they hold the proof of my allegiance.
      “The Caravaggio has been lost to us for years. Many of us have tried to find it but have failed,” Thomas admits. “If you find it, you will show yourself to be a man of resource and cunning, a man who is unafraid. You will restore the pride to the brotherhood and prove your worth as a leader.”
      I hold back a lip curl of disgust at this. Leadership is not running around the world seeking one painting. Leadership is moving our assets out of dangerous and risky ventures and into more stable enterprises. Leadership is generating loyalty by providing a way for the members to feed their families and protect their loved ones.
      This is a snipe hunt, an impossible task designed to make me fail and appear weak amongst those who would support me. Or worse, in my absence they will eliminate those they deem a threat. To kill me here would generate a revolt.
      No, this is not about a painting. This is punishment, revenge, retribution. But I am one step ahead of them. I guessed that this is the task they would set before me. They think I will be gone long, chasing my tail for months. I will be happy to prove how wrong they are.
Thomas sits back and looks around the table. He has been a member of the Bratva for a long time. They respect his voice. “Bring us the Madonna, and the Bratva will be yours.”
      I smile and raise my palms in a gesture that says fait accompli. “Then it is done.”
      I am not so sanguine two hours later as I sit across the table from Ivan the Terrible. Ivan Dostonev is the leader of the Dostonev Bratva, an organization whose base is in St. Petersburg. The Dostonevs posture that they are descendants of confidents of the tsars. Perhaps they are, but we are all criminals. We bathe in the blood of our enemies and eat our own young.
      “I hear the Petrovich Bratva is troubled, my friend,” he says with studied casualness. Ivan has held power not because he is particularly clever but because he is a man of his word—a rarity in these parts. People trust him—and fear him. He trades in favors and you do not know when your favor will be called in, only that when the time comes you must heed his call or reap terrible consequences.
      I owe this man a favor, and I knew from the moment I saw his name on the screen of my phone that my reckoning had arrived.
      “When there is a change in leadership, some are disconcerted. That will change,” I reply.
      “My people tell me that the council has set a challenge for you. Meet it and the Petrovich brotherhood is yours.”
      I meet his boast that he has infiltrated our organization with my own. “And my people tell me that your son has no interest in following in your footsteps. What will happen to the Dostonevs then?”
      “Bah! Vladimir is young. He wants to drink and fuck. Let him have his fun.” He swallows his vodka and gestures for me to drink. I do, tipping the glass and allowing the clear liquid to coat my tongue and glide down my throat. “Enough of the niceties. Fifteen years ago, you asked a favor of me. I granted it. Now it is time for you to repay your debt.”
      “Of course.” There is relief in finally discharging my debt. For so long I’ve wondered, not what I would be asked to do, but when. The uncertainty will soon be behind me. “What is it?”
      “I want you to bring me the Caravaggio.”
      His request astonishes me.
      “Why does everyone love this painting?” I’m truly bewildered.
      He holds out his arms; heavy jewels adorn nearly every finger. Put him on a throne and one would easily mistake him for a prince of old. “I’ve always wanted it. It hung in the palace of Peter the Great. It was commissioned by the great Cosimo de’ Medici.”
      “And you thumb your nose at the Petrovichs.”
      He grins. “That too.”
      “No.” I refuse tersely. “Ask something else.”
      “I want nothing else.” He waves his hand. “You know they are setting you up. This painting means nothing to them. They want you out of Moscow so that they can weed out those amongst your young soldiers who look up to you. The old guard will not give up power so easily.”
      I stare impassively. The old guard is senile. Their plays are so obvious they are read by outsiders. “I did not know you had interest in the Petrovich holdings. You’ve always said Moscow is full of peasants.”
He flicks his fingers in disgust. “I do not want your precious Bratva. I have no interest in your businesses. And frankly, Vasya, neither should you. Let the Petrovich Bratva burn. Find me the painting and you can bring her home. Fifteen years is a very long time to have not laid eyes on your precious sister. What would you do to have your family restored to you?”
      I fight not to bare my teeth at him, to not jump over the table and strangle him until pain replaces his smug smile.
      “I know they expect me to fail and be distracted for months, but when I return with the Caravaggio, they will not be able to deny me. They have prepared their own shallow graves.”
      “So you have found it?” He quirks his eyebrow.
      I shrug but do not answer.
      “Well, well. I am impressed, Vasya. It is a shame I did not find you all those years ago. You would have made a marvelous part of the Dostonevs. Still, I want the painting. You will have to find a way to bring me the painting and still gain power within the Bratva. For you see Vasya, if you do not bring the painting to me, I will summon your sister home and she will become exactly what you do not wish—a target for all your enemies. I helped save your sister once. It is easy enough to help kill her, too. Choose your course wisely.”
      “They are setting you on a fool’s errand,” Igorek announces as I enter my office. He is standing next to the single window that overlooks a dirty alley and the brick wall of the building next door. Igorek is a young warrior with a brother and a mother to protect. He worries, for good reason, that he and his loved ones would be imperiled if I am gone for a long period of time. He is not the only one who has invaded my sanctum. Aleksei, an enforcer whom I trained with as a boy, is also present.
      “Only if I cannot return with the Madonna. When I present the painting to them, they will be forced to back me. I will remove Elena to some dacha in northern Russia, and we will jettison any who would hew to the old ways.”
      “Merely remove her?” Igorek raises an eyebrow.
      “What else would I do with her?” I meet his inquiry coolly, for speaking out loud of the murder of Elena Petrovich would not be met in all quarters with approval. She needs to die, but I cannot kill her until the Bratva is firmly under my control.
      “Mne pofig.” He shrugs. I don’t care.
      Of course he cares or he would not suggest it. I, too, care, but it is not the time or place. “Once the Bratva is mine, then we will talk about protecting our own.”
      “Fine, so you look for a painting that has been lost for decades?” Igorek is skeptical.
      Aleksei, whom I’ve known longer, is much less circumspect. “The Madonna? Holy Mother of Mary, are you crazy? Did killing Sergei cause you to lose your motherfucking mind?” Aleksei kicks at a chair and stomps around the room, looking for more things to break. I pull down a Meissen vase that is part of a set we’d recently discovered being transported inside a large set of ornamental—but very cheap—concrete dogs imported from China. Peddling antiques is more lucrative than I had anticipated. We started just a few years ago, as part of my goal to supplant income from the sale of krokodil and humans.
      Sergei had been lured to the easy money, but trafficking in drugs and people is not only dangerous but also short lived. The problem with Sergei was that he lacked vision. Now he’s dead, his body dumped in a hog lot so that the only thing he’s possibly seeing now is the inside of a pig’s belly. An ignominious end to the crime boss of one of the largest brotherhoods in Russia, but a fitting one.
      “It’s out there.” I sit at my desk and check my emails. I’ve been searching for the Caravaggio for months now and while I have not found it, I believe I have discovered a person who can.
      “You should shoot yourself now and save yourself the misery.” Aleksei exhales grumpily and seats himself in one of the two low-backed leather chairs in front of the desk. I suppose it is my desk now. Once Sergei sat here and before him Roman Petrovich.
      I hate the Petrovichs, all of them, both dead and alive. They had promised me safety but delivered only fear and torture. But my revenge will be to rule over this entire Bratva until the Petrovich name will be only known in connection with me, Vasily.
      “What is your plan?” Igorek asks.
      “There are rumors on the deep web of a collector who has not only the Madonna but the Golden Candelabra as well as a few other holy relics.”
      “Wonderful,” Aleksei scoffs. “You know not of but rumors. Even if these rumors are true, one would have to assume that these artifacts are owned by a capitalist and are held in a safe that is virtually impenetrable. Just shoot Elena Petrovich and be done with it.”
      “If I kill her, who else will I have to kill? Thomas? Kilment? All of them? How about you, Aleksei? Or Igorek? And do I just kill the male members or every issue to the fifth cousin?” Aleksei pales at his name, at the mention of his family. “While it is better to be feared than loved, each act of ill will toward one’s own people must be done only when there is no other action. If bringing this painting back means new leadership without bloodshed, it is worth the risk.”
      He is unconvinced by my speech, but he has a new wife and a child coming. Either of those could be used as bargaining chips against him.
      “Igorek, you talk to the others, prepare them for my absence and be on watch.”
      He nods. “How long will you be gone?”
      “Not long.” My inbox dings and I read the email swiftly. Finally. I give the two a ghost of a smile. “There is one person who can find the source of the postings on the dark web. One person who can lead us to the Madonna. And one person, I suspect, no modern security system can withstand. The Emperor.” I lean back in my chair and point to the computer. “The Emperor appeared out of nowhere eighteen months ago and built an untraceable trading network for drugs, guns, flesh. And each of these transactions were paid in digital currency that flowed back to the Emperor in the form of tribute. He has made a fortune. A man who can create that? There is no bit or byte that can hold secrets from him.”
“And you think you’ve found him?” Igorek asks.
      “I know I have. He is in Brazil. He is in the employ of the Hudson gang or perhaps another local. But Brazil is the base according to the information we have been able to glean. I have paid for information that should be delivered to an associate of mine. With that, we should be able to locate and extract the Emperor.”
      “And how will you get the Emperor to work for you?” Aleksei is still dubious.
      “By giving him whatever it is that he wants.”

© 2015 Jen Frederick



Last Kiss

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