Nighttime shadows closed in on her from every angle and mysterious sounds urged her down a dark path that contrasted sharply with the fresh snow. There was something about that path that caught Alex’s eye and she strained to see it more clearly but the shadows were too thick and the noises were growing closer. A brief flare of light lit up the outline of a man leaning against the building. When he dropped the match, she watched it as it fell; its unnaturally slow descent illuminating the path she’d followed. It was red. The deep maroon, almost black, shade of coagulated blood.
“Why did you kill me?” The smoking man turned to face her and she could see the blood seeping from a jagged wound in his chest. “I just wanted a kiss…give me a kiss…you owe me a kiss!”
Alex tried to scramble backwards but was caught by a second person. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Agent Wallace whose skin was the same grey pallor of death as the guard’s. His head hung limply to the side now that his broken neck could no longer support it properly while blood oozed from the wound in his knee. In vain, Alex struggled to escape his cold grip. The guard continued to advance and she watched in horror as his deathly pale face came closer and closer…
Erik sat on her legs and held her wrists while trying to wake her. She’d started whimpering in her sleep ten minutes ago, rousing him from a most pleasant and erotic dream of the woman at his side. At first he thought she might be experiencing a similar fantasy; that was before the first bloodcurdling scream. When he’d attempted to wake her, Alex began fighting against his hold and so he’d had to fully restrain her. Even now she threatened to throw him to the floor as she bucked beneath him and struggled to free her hands. Transferring both wrists to one hand, he gently tapped her cheek while calling her name. When that didn’t work, he spied the pitcher of water by the bed.
Spluttering, Alex’s eyes shot open to see her beloved masked phantom above her, worry etched deeply on his maskless features. Looking around her frantically, she realized she was safe and out of the snow; away from the men whose deaths she’d caused. Catching Erik’s concerned gaze, she promptly burst into tears. He quickly rolled to her side and gathered her close, murmuring soothing words in her ear as he stroked her hair and back. He’d seen the dead man shoved under the shed and had wondered when it would hit. The first person you kill always haunts you the worst. He’d hoped she’d never have to learn that particular fact.
“You’re safe now, ma petite chère, I have you. You’re safe.” He whispered softly as he planted kisses in her hair. It broke his heart to feel her body shuddering from her sobs as she attempted to purge the terror of the nightmare from her mind. Her words were broken and disjointed as she told him about the guard she’d been forced to kill or risk recapture. “I know, petite, but you did what you had to in order to survive. There was no other option. Had you simply rendered him unconscious, he might have awakened too soon for either of us to escape.” He leaned back slightly to gently brush the tears from her cheeks and place a tender kiss to her brow before gathering her close to him once more. “It is alright to cry, mon amour. Know this; however, bringing death in order to survive doesn’t make you evil or a monster. That only occurs when death no longer bothers you as it should.”
Erik continued to hold her long after her tears dried and her sobs faded into irregular shudders of indrawn breath. He had thought to see her to safety before pursuing Zakharov but, after her nightmare, he knew he could delay it no longer. Easing gently from her arms, he covered her with the blankets and brushed his lips across her cheek. Turning, he dressed quickly, wrote a brief note of explanation, and left the room silently. As he entered the living room, Erik was unsurprised to find Vasili, his contact, waiting for him. Alex’s screams had wakened him abruptly as well. Once told of the nature of the nightmare, the Russian understood perfectly. No one ever forgets their first kill. Vasili prepared Erik a cup of the strong Russian tea and they sat by the fireplace to plan his attack on one of the most powerful crime bosses in Eastern Europe.
Sources had revealed that European Electronics had not authorized an additional attack on either Alexandra or Erik which meant that Zakharov had gone rogue. The organization generally didn’t allow that to happen and were certain to retaliate soon. Depending on who and how many supported the slave trafficker’s involvement, his actions could have had at least one positive effect: a shake up in the upper echelons of the company. Rumor had it that he was going into seclusion due to several attempts on his life in the past few days. Of his associates, most had already distanced themselves from the slaver not wanting to get caught on the wrong side of the inevitable battle. The only one who had vocally remained loyal was Nikolai Vlascenko and he was in the U.S. on business. When Erik mentioned that Zakharov hadn’t been at his compound in Kirov, Vasili searched the files and pulled out a folder containing the name of a bookshop/coffee shop just a few blocks from the CIA safehouse. Inside the folder were blueprints, employee names with pictures, and known agents on both sides who frequented the store. Though it was owned by Zakharov, it was considered neutral territory for all sides which made it the perfect hiding place. Glancing at the clock, Erik knew he still had at least three hours before the sun rose to do reconnaissance on the building.
Avoiding the roads, and their subsequent road blocks, the masked man instead rode cross-country on a beautiful snow-white colt. Spirited and feisty, César reminded him of Alexandra in many ways. Outside of Kirov, Erik skirted the town to a small farm owned by Vasili’s brother where he’d stable the horse out of the elements. Leonid met him at the stables and gave him updated information on Zakharov’s movements while they secured the horse.
* “I haven’t been to Kirov since last night but he was still there. A friend who works in the market across the alley says she saw him in an upstairs window. Very animated he was while talking on the telephone, very angry. Be careful, Фантом, for even the meekest creature will strike when cornered and he is most definitely not meek.”
“Спасибо, Leonid. I will return for the horse before noon at the latest.”
Shaking his hand, Erik then turned and walked the last few kilometers to the small town of Kirov. He kept to the trees as long as possible, thankful there were still clouds left to obscure the harsh light of the moon from revealing his position. The closer he came to the book shop, the thinner the cover of the trees and he darted into the shadows of the alley behind it. The building looked like all others in the area, built of sturdy brick to withstand the fierce winters; and like the others, it had seen its share of damage from the fighting that had torn the former USSR into pieces. The rubble strewn along the alley was mostly dislodged bricks from surrounding buildings, sheets of tin roofing that were no longer salvageable as a building material, and twisted metal beams of various sizes.
Stepping carefully around the rubble, Erik located the market Leonid spoke of and, turning, found the window. It was dark indicating either absence of its occupant or sleep; the masked man hoped for the latter. He removed his bulky winter parka and hid it beneath a twisted sheet of metal. Shivering slightly from the cold, he spun the thin rope weighted by a rubber-tipped grappling hook before flinging it onto the roof where it wrapped around an iron bar with the barest of sounds. Quietly, he began his ascent up the side of the building. As rough as the brick wall was, gaining traction with his feet proved easier than he’d thought it’d be and he was perched on the window sill within minutes. He pushed gently but the window was locked which was expected. Wrapping the rope around his arm to ensure a firm hold, Erik pulled a small tool with a suction cup on one end and a small wheel on the other. Pressing the cup to the center of the pane of glass, he took a small bottle of oil and lubricated the wheel completely before rotating the arm around suction cup in a circle. A sharp push while holding the bar between the cup and the wheel and the circle of glass broke free of the pane with only the faintest of pops. Erik laid the glass on a nearby shelf inside the room, unlocked the window, and raised the sash to allow him entry.
Outside the door, he could hear the muttering of guards who were watching the wrong entry point and smile evilly. If all went as planned, they’d never know what happened to their employer when the body was found. Silently padding over to the bed, Erik stared down at the man who’d caused so much trouble to those he loved. Quickly gagging him before he could alert the guards by the door, Erik reached into a thin, narrow pocket on his sleeve and removed a hypodermic. Not caring if his bedside manner was less than gentle, he plunged the needle into Zakharov’s upper arm and emptied the small chamber. The sharp pain woke the slave trader whose eyes widened at the sight of the masked man hovering over his bed. Kneeling, Erik leaned over to whisper softly in his ear.
“Do you feel it, Zakharov? Do you feel the serum slowly working through your system, robbing you of movement, of speech? I couldn’t have you calling in your watchdogs and spoiling our fun; and it will be fun, comrade. At least for me.” Erik’s smile was a terrible thing to behold and, along with his muscle control, Zakharov’s control of his bladder had also been affected. Humiliation only fueled the hatred in his eyes as he tried to fight against the drug that had immobilized him. A razor sharp pair of scissors divested the prone man of his night shirt which Erik used to strap his hands to the bed frame. No use taking any chances.
“You have caused me and mine a considerable amount of trouble, old friend.” He pulled a thin, sharp knife from his boot and pressed it slowly into the blond man’s shoulder; the pain reflected only in his eyes. Once it had pierced the mattress beneath, Erik withdrew it to contemplate a small glass bottle. “I would have allowed the Agency to handle things had you not come for us again but you wouldn’t leave us alone. It was bad enough that you placed even more scars upon my hideous self but you dared to hurt my Alexandra and that I will not tolerate.” Uncapping it, he let several small drops fall into the bloody wound and watched as the acid began eating its way through the already damaged flesh.
“You once called me a monster because of my face, monsieur, but you were more accurate than you knew. I will show you what truly makes me a monster but, in order to do so, you have to become one as well.” The widening of Zakharov’s eyes as the bottle moved over his face was the only way the fear and pain could be expressed. As the acid fell in hot, sizzling drops across his cheeks, his body twitched as it fought the drug that had rendered him helpless. Erik chuckled soundlessly and held a mirror in front of his captive so he could see exactly what was happening to him.
The acid had already burned away much of the flesh of his cheeks, leaving bloody bones and teeth exposed to the air. And still it voraciously ate through the man’s face. Erik folded the pillow and placed it beneath his head to elevate it somewhat. No sense in halting the fun prematurely just because the acid had reached Zakharov’s brain. Leaning close so that he was looking into the pain filled eyes in the mirror, Erik whispered softly in his ear.
“You see monsieur? Even the most handsome of men have a monster buried inside and yours wasn’t even hidden away all that deep. I heard of your plans for my fiancée, by the way. Really, Stanislav… Vlascenko? I thought you’d gotten rid of that disgustingly perverse creature ages ago.” Shaking the bottle, both men could hear the faint splash of liquid inside. There was a small amount left and, in lieu of his recent statements and Erik’s malicious smile, Zakharov knew where it would be used and braced himself for the pain. Jerking the blankets onto the floor, the sharp scissors made swift work of the gaudy boxer shorts the man wore. The masked man smirked when he saw that his victim was definitely not at his best in the frigid air. Slowly, knowing the anticipation was very nearly as bad as the pain itself, Erik allowed a single drop to fall onto the head of Zakharov’s shriveled manhood. The pain was excruciating and Erik had to hold him to the bed as his body thrashed. He didn’t have much longer before the pain and adrenaline shook off the effects of the drug. Damn, he’d have to hurry.
The thin blade sank into the meaty flesh of his thigh where Erik turned it before removing it to watch the blood bubble up from the wound. Several more times the blade descended into the body of his victim; every place painful but not fatal. When harsh grunts were coming from Zakharov’s throat and he’d gained enough control of his arms to tug at his bonds, Erik knew his time was up. With a final swipe of the blade across his victim’s throat, he watched the life fade from the man who’d tried to take what was his. Cleaning the blade with the bed sheet, he slipped it back into its sheath and exited through the window. Gripping the rope, he slid silently to the ground, retrieved his parka, and slipped from the alley into the welcoming shadows of the trees. Erik retrieved César without incident and rode quickly back to Vasili’s house and his beloved Alexandra.