Contains depictions and themes not suitable for all readers
“Speak of the devil, and the soon-to-be young underboss-in-law appears!”
I waved a hand in casual greeting at the two burly men stationed on either side of a solid oak door straight ahead of me. Weiss and Igor—my once-mentors and future subordinates—were a rough pair of blue-inked souls whose unsavory pasts prevented them from ascending the ranks as I’d done.
“How’s the little birdie doing today, brothers? Hear any pretty songs?”
I stepped between them and leaned back, only slightly disturbing a thick padlock protruding from the stern door like a swollen tick. Holding out a hand, not two seconds passed before a lit cigarette burned between my fingers.
“None so pretty as what you hear warming Nastya’s bed, I’d wager,” Weiss snickered in that gap-toothed way of his.
Igor guffawed. “To think the little dice roller we scooped up outta the gutter a couple years back would become the new young underboss-in-law,” Igor sighed. Using two of the three fingers he still possessed on his right hand, Igor pulled a pair of freshly rolled cigarettes from the silver case he stowed in his pocket and exchanged one for a dry vodka-scented light from Weiss’s prized Spetsnaz. “Shoulda left you there to rot in the slums with the rest of the trash and maybe I’d be the next underboss—”
“The boss’d sooner have a three-toed goat marryin’ his daughter than you.” Weiss snorted.
I chuckled along with the two of them.
Igor slapped my shoulder with his unmarred hand. “Congrats on finally joining the family in full, Sergei.”
A trail of smoke curled between my lips. “About that—”
“Speak up, lad! You know I’m hard o’ hearin’ in that ear.” Weiss cupped a hand around his left ear. “If you’re havin’ pre-weddin’ jitters, I’ll be happy to take your place—”
“If the boss’d rather have a three-toed goat than me for a son-in-law, he’d rather see Nastya plant those fine lips of hers on a bloated fish three days past rotten over you!”
Weiss and Igor’s laughter echoed through the twisting halls of the underground complex, a compound originally taken over by the family when it was conveniently “forgotten” by the government's forces after the war. Not so much as a rat could nose around unnoticed in this den swarming with proven thieves.
I dropped the smoldering nub of my cigarette on the ground and snuffed it out under my heel. “The wedding’s canceled.”
“Hah?” Weiss cocked an eyebrow at me.
I shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my black canvas overcoat.
“Bad joke, Sergei,” Igor mumbled. He glanced toward the far end of the deserted hall. “Boss gave his permission to go ahead without him. He wants a smart young’un like you at the helm, considerin’ the terms of his sentencing n’ all, so hell’d sooner freeze over—”
The dull pop-pop of two bullets reported from the silenced chambers of my twin Makarovs.
Blood pooled beneath my boots in a growing red puddle while I searched Weiss and Igor’s limp bodies. I left Weiss’s lighter and Igor’s silver cigarette case on the scuffed concrete floor, taking only their guns, bullets, and wallets, as well as—
“There you are.” I snagged a ring of three keys from the inner breast pocket of Weiss’s bedraggled surplus coat.
Slipping the largest of the three keys into the heavy padlock securing the door, the tiny pins in the tumbler turned with a faint and eager click. Relieved of its duty, the shank popped free. I teased the chains free of the rungs embedded in the wall and door before lowering them along with the lock to the floor where they came to a rest beside Weiss's head .
I swung the door open and stepped inside.
My heavy boots moved like a black cat’s paws over the carpeted floor. Quick to adjust to the darkness, my eyes zeroed in on the hunched-over form of a young man—a Korean wearing loose-fitting, torn, dirty, yet still gaudy and bright pastel clothes that might’ve been fashionable in a world far from the black-and-red one I lived in—gagged, blindfolded, and cuffed to a rusted iron chair riveted to the floor with bloodstained railroad nails. Not even a man five times his size could've broken free from something like that.
I brushed my fingers over the small gunmetal cross dangling from the young man’s right earlobe and he startled, flinching away from the light touch.
“Good. You’re conscious.”
I crouched before him. Fear and uncertainty radiated unrestrained from his tensed body like light from the sun at noon in summer. His breath quickened through his nose as the young man obviously did his best with his last remaining senses to discern both my intentions and where I might be standing.
I placed a hand on his slender clavicle where his shirt was torn, barely touching a dark and ruddy welt coloring his soft, otherwise snowy pale skin.
He sucked in a shuddering breath and flinched away. The polished cross glinted below his right ear and tinkled like a small, hollow bell.
“Unless you want to spend the last of your days as a flightless bird in a sunless cage,” I growled, “you will be silent and do exactly as I say. If you understand, nod once.”
Seconds passed. The young man’s tense body relaxed slightly, curiosity momentarily overcoming his fear and uncertainty.
He gave a small, barely perceptible nod.
I reached into my jacket’s inner pocket and whipped out a switch knife, the subtle sound of the metal blade snicking open alarming the young man somewhat.
“You will stick to me. Your life depends on it. You will not cry out, and you will speak only in answer to my questions.”
I slipped the blade under the tight knot securing the gag in the young man’s mouth. His breath caught at the sudden caress of the cool steel against the back of his neck and he jerked forward, rattling the cuffs and chains securing him to the bolted-down chair.
“Hold still,” I hissed. I grabbed his head and held him steady before the young man cut himself on the knife. “Or you’ll get us both killed!”
“The only thing I want to hear from you is your name.”
The sharp blade slid through the knot like a fish through water.
The young man spit out the gag and gasped. I held my breath, half expecting him to scream like a fool, but all he did was calmly say:
“Dae Hyun… Lee Dae Hyun.”
Something like a stone lodged in my throat at the sound of his name.
Lee Dae Hyun.
So he really was Korean after all. It was difficult knowing for sure when most of his features were engulfed by his baggy clothes or obscured since his arrival, but it seemed the rumors were true enough.
“Who—” Dae Hyun spoke hoarsely after three days without food or water.
I pressed my thumb over his small, cracked lips.
Slipping the knife under the knot tying his blindfold, the blade made a second effortless cut through the thin black cloth.
The cloth fell away and fully revealed those eyes I’d only glimpsed three days ago, those bright, starry eyes that pierced the darkness everywhere I looked.
I pressed my lips against his. An impassioned fire erupted within me, a fire that no woman—not even the vivacious and lustrously charming ice-eyed Nastya, now asleep forever atop the crimson sheets of what was intended as our white nuptial bed—had ever drawn out of me. A deep moan worked its way up from my chest, a full-bodied sound I’d never heard before with myself as its source. Dae Hyun softly moaned in tandem, a sound that only stoked the fire burning within me all the more.
The distant noise of alarmed shouting woke me from the shared reverie. I pulled back, my eyes instantly drawn from Dae Hyun’s glowing red ears to the small press of an erection lifting the cloth of his loose slacks.
I gulped, and found myself wishing I’d worn something looser as well.
“No more questions,” I rasped.
I fumbled with the remaining two keys until Dae Hyun was released from the cuffs. He rubbed the bloody red welts circling his wrists.
I darted to the door with a pistol ready in each hand. I stuck my head out the door and glanced up and down the length of the shadowy hallway. We were deep within the compound, and our time before discovery was nearly out. . . if it wasn't already.
“Let’s go, Dae Hyun.”