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Belladonna Rose

Chapter 1

 

April 12, 2002; 6:50 am

 

     Perched within the cramped ventilation duct, Rose shifted her weight carefully.  She had only been in the duct for a few hours, but that was enough to make her muscles start to cramp, and she was more than ready for some action.  Fortunately, that opportunity was nearly upon her.  The target was nearby.  It would not be long.

     She had been in the bar since after midnight the evening before.  Entering as just another patron, no one in the crowded establishment had paid any attention when the Latina in the crimson dress had vanished.  The clean-up crew was just as neglectful, making only a cursory pass through the toilets, paying no heed to the loose cover on the duct.  Rose had emerged once they were gone and slept lightly curled into a corner of the men’s room.  Then, shortly before dawn, she had returned to the duct to await her moment of action.

            She glanced at her watch.  The glowing blue display told her it was just approaching seven o’clock.  She peered through the tiny scope aimed through the grate covering the vent below her position as the door opened once again.  The gangsters occupying the bar that morning had tiny bladders, evidently.  They’d been trooping in and out since they’d arrived.  Officially, the bar would not reopen until lunchtime, but the men who filled it now were special clientele.  They were a collection of the worst sort, but only one of those mattered to her.  She watched a short, wide-chested man through the scope as he inspected himself in the mirror.  Wearing light blue pants and a white knit shirt, all he needed was a pair of oxfords to complete the look of a semi-retired gangster looking forward to a day on the links.  Which was exactly what he was.  No, Sergei Romanoff was not much to look at.  In Rose’s experience, though, the way a person looked had little to do with why they had become her target.  At twenty-two, Rose was not the youngest assassin on the market, but she was regarded as one of the best.  The contracts that came her way were for people difficult to get to, people whose death mattered very much to someone.  Sergei looked harmless enough as he squeezed a few blackheads in the mirror, smoothed back his thinning gray hair, and picked something out of his teeth, but he’d pissed off someone.  He was going to die.

            And it hadn’t been that difficult to get close to him, she reflected.  All it usually took was patience and planning.  Sergei, she had learned, was a man of strict habits.  His routine was so predictable that she was surprised he hadn’t been killed long ago.

            Just as he did each morning, he went into the third stall from the door and sat on the toilet.  He liked being alone when he did his business, and he had enough rank in the organization to ensure that the other men wouldn’t disturb him.  No one would come to check on him for at least half an hour.  Plenty of time for Rose to do the job and make her escape.

            Carefully, she removed the grate and set it aside.  Matching her movements to Sergei’s straining grunts and other natural noises, Rose slid almost silently head-first through the opening.  She managed to avoid hitting the flush on the toilet, turned herself over in the tiny space and lowered herself to the tiled floor.  Her outfit was skin tight so as to avoid snags.  The material was almost non-porous, so there was no rasping as her limbs brushed her body.  She eased the stall door open and crept out, as quiet as a ghost.  She paused to draw her knife.  The contract was specific, Sergei was to die by the blade.  It was not something Rose enjoyed.  Her approval or enjoyment was never a factor.  She had learned long ago to compartmentalize her life, to segregate intellect from emotion, to keep the two halves of herself from intersecting.  Rose the merciless killer was never compromised by Rose the woman.

            The bathroom wasn’t spacious but there was ample room for the row of five stalls, the three sinks along the wall, a full length mirror in the corner.  The walls were a garish blue, uncomfortable on the eyes and clashing with the tacky linoleum floor.  Everything about this place screamed that it was made by men who believed women had no opinions and had no place here.  Rose smirked.  She moved stealthily along the row of doors, pressing each one with the palm of her hand as she reached it.  Sergei, she was certain, was in the second booth.  He grunted again, something plopped into the water beneath him, and he sighed.  It nearly turned Rose’s stomach.

            The door from the hallway opened suddenly, swinging outward.  Rose reacted instantly, ducking into an empty stall.  She leaped lightly onto the toilet seat, any noise she made masked by the sounds of voices and shuffling feet as several men entered the room.  The gun was in her hand in a flash, kept leveled on the door awaiting action.  She felt the familiar rush of adrenaline, the cold embrace of the fear that was not fear, of excitement that bordered on euphoria.  The feel of power.  The men spoke what sounded like Italian as they busied themselves at the sink, unaware of the slinking death that was nearly breathing down their necks.  Rose waited patiently.

            “Hey!” Sergei shouted, his accent thick.  “What are you doing in here?  This is my private time.  Get the fuck out!”

            “Cool your jets,” one of the men replied, laughing.  “The food’s arrived.  We just wanna wash our hands.”  The accent was unmistakable.  Brooklyn blended with Sicilian.  Maybe Sergei wasn’t such a little fish after all, not if he was making deals with real mobsters.

            “Yeah,” another man added in a deep bass voice, “unlike you Ruskies, we don’t like to eat with germs on our hands.”  The sound of a slap against clothed flesh followed.  The man complained, “What? What’d I say?”

            “Shut up, you idiots,” the third man spoke.  That one, he had ice in his voice.  Rose’s nerves tingled.  That one was a killer.

            “Get out!” Sergei nearly screamed, rattling the walls of the booth.  Rose didn’t expect that and momentarily lost her footing.  She balanced precariously on one foot, teetering, before bracing herself against the wall and steadying herself.  She snapped the gun back to the door.

            The men were quiet for a moment.  “Yeah, sure,” the icy voice said.  The others muttered curses under their breaths, but they left all the same.  “We’ll wash up at the bar.  Sorry to have disturbed you.”  The door opened.  The door closed.

            Rose allowed herself to sigh in relief.  “Fucking gangsters,” Sergei grumbled.  “Can’t even let a man take a shit in peace.”

            She waited a moment longer before putting her feet down, listening carefully.  The only sounds in the room came from Sergei.  Reholsering the gun, she opened the stall door slowly, peeked into the empty bathroom, then slipped out.  Sergei fell silent as though he’d heard or sensed something.  “Danny?” he called out.  “Are you still out there?”

            The scent of cheap aftershave floated to Rose’s nostrils a second before the door to the first stall was yanked open.  A smiling face and steel gray eyes beamed at her, the barrel of a nickel-plated automatic pistol aimed squarely at her chest.  “Well, well,” the icy voice said.  “Look what we got here.  Back up.”  He waved the gun, motioning for Rose to move.  She obeyed, keeping her eyes locked on the man’s.

            “What is it?” Sergei called out, fear edging into his voice.  “Danny?  What’s going on out there?”

            “Will you shut the fuck up, for once?” Danny snarled, pounding his fist on Sergei’s door.  The fury on his face evaporated in an instant.  The smile was back, joined by a smirking grin.  He lifted his chin, nodding toward the knife.  “Let me have it.  Carefully.”

            Rose made no attempt to resist as the man took the blade from her hand.  His movements were precise, practiced, the smooth control of a seasoned expert.  Still, he wasn’t perfect.  He was only a man.  Faced with a woman clad in black, bearing a knife and poised like the killer she was, he had only two possible conclusions.  She was dangerous, or she wasn’t.  But he was a man, and that narrowed his choices.  He relaxed, his grin spreading into a smile.  “Now,” he said, holding up the knife, “what did you plan to do with this?”

            “Who’s out there?” Sergei demanded.  There was a rustle of cloth as he pulled up his pants.  The door eased open and a wrinkled, chubby face peered out.  Rose tried to imagine what he saw, how she must have looked to these men.  A short, dark-skinned Hispanic girl, jet black hair squeezed into a tight bun at the back of her head, dressed head to toe in a form-hugging jumpsuit, she looked less dangerous than she was without a weapon in hand.  She resisted the urge to smile in satisfaction as Danny allowed his eyes to roam her body.  He even licked his lips in appreciation.  In his eyes, Rose was nothing more than a slender, lovely woman in the wrong place doing something naughty.  Not a threat.  Not dangerous.  It wasn’t the first time she’d used that to her advantage, and she screwed up her face in mock anguish, trying to force out a few tears as she took a fearful step backward. 

     “Please,” she began.  “Don’t hurt me.  I wasn’t gonna hurt nobody.  I swear.”

            “I know you weren’t,” Danny said.  He cocked his hips to the side letting the gun drop an inch, striking an arrogant pose.  He probably thought it made him look imposing.  Sergei pushed his way past Danny’s back and backed slowly toward the door.

            “It’s a woman,” Sergei stated uselessly.

            Danny rolled his eyes.  “Of course, it’s a woman, you idiot,” he growled.  “I got eyes, ain’t I?  The question is, what’s she doing here with a knife?”

            “He never called me,” Rose said, taking another step back.  Neither of them could see the gun holstered at the small of her back.  She just needed another two steps and she could draw and dodge at the same time.  “He slept with me and never called.  I just wanted to scare him is all.”  She added a sob, a roll of her shoulders that shook her five foot frame, and lifted her hands to her face.  “Please,” she added.

            Danny laughed at her.  “Damn,” he said.  “I don’t know how you got in here, but you must be really stupid to think you were going to get out of this without getting hurt.”  He took a step toward her, chasing her as she continued to retreat.  “Who was it, baby?  Who’d you give it up to?”

            This wasn’t good.  He wasn’t supposed to pursue her.  “Ivan,” she said.  There was always an Ivan.  “He promised he’d call.”

            “Ivan?” Sergei repeated, confused.  Danny halted his advance.  He tensed, but his smile remained fixed in place.

            “You don’t know an Ivan?” he asked.

            “Sure, I know Ivan,” Sergei replied, then burst into laughter.  “That fat pig!  I never thought he’d get laid.  You must have had some time finding his little prick, eh?”  He held his pudgy stomach and laughed as it jiggled.  Danny relaxed a notch.  Rose took another step back and felt the wall behind her.  Not good.

            Thinking she was cornered, Danny stepped up to her.  “Ivan,” he said.  “Did you really sleep with him?  Or are you yanking my chain?”

            “I swear,” Rose began.  Her hand crept toward her waist, toward the loop sewn into the fabric.  One tug would release a chokewire, but she wasn’t sure she could bring that  weapon to bear at such close range.  The pistol was silenced, but now she had two targets.  She’d been sloppy and things were going to get messy.  Behind Danny, Sergei had paused in his retreat and leaned to one side to peer over the other man’s shoulder.  Danny pressed the tip of her own knife to Rose’s throat.  Her every movement froze.  He couldn’t know how sharp that knife really was. 

            “What if I said I don’t believe you,” Danny said.  He leaned closer until his face nearly touched hers.  He inhaled slowly, smelling her, and then sighed.

            “Please,” she repeated.  “I’ll do anything you want.”

            Danny chuckled.  “I know you will,” he said.

            “Don’t kill her,” Sergei said.  Danny inclined his head, not quite turning to look at the Russian, his face deepening into a scowl.  “I mean,” Sergei added quickly, “don’t kill her here.  You shouldn’t kill a woman, no how.”

            “She’s not a woman,” Danny said.  “She’s a whore.  Besides, I’m not planing to kill her.  Not right away.”

            Rose faked a whimper of fear.  Danny laughed at her.  The pressure on her throat eased a fraction.  That was all the opening she needed.  With a fluid movement, Rose drew her pistol from behind her.  Danny was just turning his full attention back to her when she pressed the barrel to his forearm and pulled the trigger.  The silenced gun made a soft pop and Danny’s arm was flung away.  The knife dropped from his hand, Rose caught it deftly.  He had no time to even flinch before she slashed across his midsection.  The surgical-sharp carbon fiber blade met no resistance as it passed through the man’s flesh.  He staggered back, clutching at the wetness spilling out of him, looking down in utter amazement as redness flooded his clothing.  Rose shot him in the chest then stepped around him aiming for Sergei.

            The Russian was already sprinting for the door.  Rose fired almost too late.  Her first shot took him in the shoulder, barely slowing him.  The second bullet entered his back and stayed there.  He pitched forward against the sink, spun to the side and lurched for the door.  Rose went after him.  A bloody hand grasped her arm, spoiling her third shot.  Shattered bits of mirror rained onto Sergei as he tried to push the door open while leaning against the frame.

            Rose chopped the butt of her pistol onto Danny’s head.  He released her, but it was too late.  Sergei was out the door, shouting for help in Russian.  The door swung closed again, cutting off the sound of his voice.

            “Shit,” Rose said into the echoing silence.

            It couldn’t have gone much worse.  There would be the usual group of Russians out there, joined by however many Italians had come along for the meeting.  An unknown number of opponents, their strengths unknowable, and the target was not dead.  Not yet.  Danny stirred, gasping in pain, in shock.  Rose swung her gun around and put a mercy bullet into his head almost without aiming.  He toppled over into a puddle of his own fluids.  There was no sound yet from the bar, but it was coming.  And Rose was down to three choices.  Stand her ground here, which was certainly an advantage for her, or she could cut and run, something she’d never done before.

            Or she could go out there and kill anyone who stood between her and her target.

            Not the wisest or sanest option, she told herself, but that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t really a choice at all.  There was no time to plan.  She knew if she allowed herself to think about it, she might become afraid.  A frightened assassin was soon a dead assassin.  Using her foot, she rolled Danny’s corpse over and retrieved his gun.  It was one of those new models, the ones that could go full auto.  Good.  There were two extra clips in the shoulder holster under Danny’s jacket, and she took those two.

            She kicked the stall door open and hopped up on the toilet.  She almost wasn’t tall enough to reach the vent but she made it.  Her bag was light, reminding her she didn’t have many more resources.  She jerked out a gun belt and hastily strapped it on.  There.  One more pistol, six clips of ammunition, one stun grenade.  It would have to do.  Grimacing, she tossed the bag away and turned to face the door.

            “Okay,” she muttered, and strode forward.

            Just around the last stall there was a movie poster tacked to the wall.  Spartacus.  Rose stared at the heroic image of Kirk Douglas in his gladiator outfit and smiled.  “Today is a good day to die,” she murmured.  Then grinned and added, “Or maybe not.”

            She flung open the bathroom door and rushed out, guns ready.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

April 11, 2002; 5:31 pm

 

     “Your taxi’s here,” Maria called from the front room.  Rose was staring at her reflection in the mirror, trying unsuccessfully to decide if she even needed to leave.  She tore her gaze away, flushed the toilet, and stepped out.  Maria was there to meet her holding out Rose’s coat.

     She smiled at the girl.  “Thank you, Maria,” she said.  “What would I do without you?”

     Maria’s smile was like sunshine.  “I’ve put your bags by the door,” she said.  “Your cell phone’s charged, your PDA is updated, and there’s some honey graham crackers wrapped in tinfoil in a side pocket.  Philippe insisted.”

     “He did, did he?” Rose took the coat and slung it over one arm.  Lightweight, so Maria must have removed the liner.  The weatherproof shell was stylish, a gift to herself on her last birthday, but the fleece lining was too warm for the spring weather.  Maria was always thinking a step ahead of Rose when it came to things like that.  She patted the girl on the shoulder, getting another bright smile in return.  “Where is he?”

     “Watching cartoons,” Maria said.  She didn’t have to add, as usual.  Rose touched Maria’s cheek.  It had taken a long time for Maria to teach herself not to shy away from such a gesture.  Not that she feared Rose, not that at all.  But some behavioral patterns burned their way into a person’s soul, and to flinch had often been the only way for Maria to avoid pain.  Rose had put an end to that.

     She put that thought out of her head.  It wasn’t wise to ever mix business with personal life, but she’d done it so often that the line was often blurred.  After tomorrow, though…

     Philippe jumped up when he saw his mother enter the room.  He flung himself against her legs and threw his tiny arms around her.  “Mommy!” he shouted, looking up at her with his lopsided smile.  “Can I have a snack?”  Rose laughed and tousled his hair.

     “I told you,” Maria said from the side, “you can have a peanut butter sandwich after your bath.”

     “I don’t wanna take no bath,” Philippe insisted, hugging Rose’s legs even tighter.  “Tell her I don’t have to take no bath, Mommy.”

     “What do you want me to bring you back from the city?” Rose asked to distract him.  Philippe jumped back and clapped his hands.

     “I want a toy,” he cried.  “Watch me dance.”  He flung out his arms and kicked one leg in the air, shaking his head from side to side.  He tried to twirl and fell down, laughing.  Rose bent to his side to help him up before he could start to cry. 

     “Mommy will be back tomorrow,” she said, holding back her own tears.  “But I promise, this is the last time Mommy will have to go away.”

     The boy’s face had already screwed up in anguish.  “Promise?” he said.  Then, in a wail, “Aw! I don’t want you to go.”

     “I know,” Rose said.  She hugged him.  “Just one last job.  This one’s for Uncle Tony.  Do you remember him?”

     Philippe made a face.  “He smells funny,” he said.  “What’cha gotta do for him?”

     Rose couldn’t answer.  She thought of the bags by the door, only one with clothing and personal effects.  The other…

     Guns, knives, grenades.  Her slick fightsuit and boots.  Spyware, goggles, radio, six types of poison in tiny vials, three antidotes, a folded down dart gun, four packs of explosives.  Everything she might need to get the job done.  There was more in the city, hidden in caches all over the place.  Some set up by herself, others by Sean.  Her PDA had a list of them all along with safehouses, special contacts, emergency bank account numbers.  After six years of being an assassin, it was quite an accumulation.  More than any of her peers bothered with.  But then, many of them were dead now.

     “Just some errands,” she told her son, keeping the smile carefully in place on her face.  Maria, ever sensitive to Rose’s mercurial moods, put a hand lightly on the woman’s shoulder.  “I want you to be good for Maria,” she added, kissing Philippe’s forehead.

     “He always is,” Maria said.  She gave Rose’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.  “We’re going to order out for pizza later.  How does that sound?”

     “Pizza?” Philippe said, sucking in a deep breath before shouting.  “Yay!  That’s my favorite.”

     “Well you can’t eat until you’ve had your bath,” Rose said.  She stood and cast a wink at Maria.

     “Yeah,” the girl chimed in.  “Bath first, then pizza.”

     “Okay!” Philippe agreed, jumping up and down.  “Can we go get my bath now?”

     Swing, swing, back and forth, it was nearly impossible to predict the boy’s behavior.  Outwardly he was perfect.  Same golden brown skin as his mother, no blemishes, all his fingers and toes intact, not even the seasonal allergies his biological father suffered.  Yet deep in his brain, something was definitely awry.  As he ran around excitedly he bumped into things, eventually fell.  The shock couldn’t displace the excitement.  He jumped up and ran back to his mother, crashing into her legs.

     “I love you,” he shouted.  “Bye!  Give me a kiss.”

     Rose bent obediently so her son could plant a wet smack on her cheek.  She hugged him again, tightly.  “I love you so much,” she said.  I’ll love him no matter what, she had once said to someone, maybe Tito.  Even if he comes out with missing toes or a swollen head.  I’ll love him just the same.  Fate had decided to test her honesty.

     “I do,” affirmed aloud.  “I love you, Philippe.”

     If the boy sensed any difference in his mother’s emotions he didn’t show it.  “I love you too, Mommy,” he said, returning her hug.  Rose pried herself away from him at last.  Maria’s cheeks were wet.

     “Be careful,” the girl said.  “I don’t want your last job to be your last job.  You know what I mean.”

     Rose laughed.  “I know,” she said.  “It’s a cakewalk, really.  I’ve done my homework.  Easy in, easy out.  I have to see Tito, too.  Clear that up once and for all.  Then it’s home.  I should be back by lunch time.”

     “Can’t you just get him from a rooftop?” Maria asked.  Philippe, bored, turned back to the television, sitting on his little stool right in front of the screen so that he could see the action.

     “He’s an old Russian who loves his privacy,” Rose said, shaking her head.  “Believe me, I wish it would be that simple.  This is the only way.  The best way.”

    “I meant Tito,” Maria said, but she smiled to show she was only half-joking.

     Rose chuckled.  “He’s Philippe’s father,” she chided.  “Even he deserves more than a bullet from a distance.”

     “If you say so.”  The tone of Maria’s voice implied her belief in Rose’s skill and judgment, but also an edge of disappointment.  The girl understood all too well that Rose was more than capable of divorcing herself from emotion when it came to killing, so much so that even her lingering doubt about how to handle her ex-boyfriend and the custody of the son she prized so much might evaporate and end in bloodshed if she decided the twin hands of destiny and fate dictated such an outcome.

     Rose shifted her weight, feeling suddenly uncomfortable.  Farewells were never her strong suite.  “Well,” she said.  “I have to go.”

     “Yeah,” Maria said.  She lifted her arms, hesitated, then hugged Rose briefly.  She crossed her arms over her chest, looking down.  “Do you need more cash?”

     “I’ve got plenty,” Rose said.  “Stop being such a mother hen.  Do you remember how to use the panic room?”  She glanced toward the bedrooms, to the false bookshelf at the end of the hall concealing the six inch thick steel door.

     “Now who’s being motherly?” Maria accused, grinning.  “Yeah, I remember it all.  Why do you think we need it anyway?  Nobody knows you’re Belladonna.”

     Belladonna.  Rose let the name roll around in her mind, tasting it.  All these years, and it still felt like a heavy weight on her tongue.  I’m not Belladonna, she wanted to protest, as usual, but she couldn’t.  She was Rosita: mother, neighbor, member of the PTA, a respected homemaker.  She wasn’t the merciless assassin known to the criminal underworld simply as Belladonna.

     And, yet, she was.

     She heaved a sigh, forcing a smile back to her lips.  “I don’t know what people know,” she said.  “But it’s always better to prepare for what you can’t expect.”

     “And improvise the rest,” Maria finished, reciting the mantra Rose lived by.  “Okay, fine.  Trust me, it’ll all be here when you get back tomorrow.”

     “Right.”  There was no more reason to delay.  She cast a last look at her son, squatting in front of the television with his eyes inches from the screen, giggling at Scooby Doo.  She turned away quickly and opened the door.  Cool evening air wafted through, chilling her.  Winter was reluctant to give up its hold on the world despite the flurry of early blossoms and sprouting leaves.  Rose paused on the top step surveying her neatly manicured lawn, the quiet suburban street lined with lampposts just beginning to glow as the sun’s last radiance faded from the cloudless sky, and the taxi waiting patiently at the curb.  Maria closed the door behind her, leaving only her face exposed.

     “’Bye,” she whispered.  Rose gave her a reassuring smile over her shoulder then walked away.  The door closed behind her then rattled with the sound of multiple locks being engaged.  After all these years, Maria still had trouble feeling safe, not quite ready to believe her father would never find her, could not kill her.

     “Not on my watch,” Rose muttered to herself.

     “Rose!” a woman’s soft voice called.  She turned to see her neighbor, Caroline hurrying toward her, lightly jumping the planting bed that separated their yards.  Rose waited for her, watching her approach with a mixed feeling of dread and…desire.

     Yet it wasn’t a sexual desire.  Not anymore.  It was a yearning that gnawed at the roots of her soul, a need she wanted fervently to deny, to restrain, to control.  She didn’t want to need anyone, didn’t want to be needed.  Not like this, anyway.  And yet that hollow space inside her cried out constantly for just such a connection, and Caroline was the closest thing she’d known since…

     She halted her thoughts, and watched her friend approach.

     Caroline stopped just out of arm’s reach, panting, smiling, here eyes glowing.  “You’re leaving,” she said needlessly.

     “Just some business.  I’ll be back tomorrow.”  Rose shifted her weight uneasily.  The breeze was carrying Caroline’s scent to her.  Peach blossoms.  “You look nice,” she added.

     Caroline looked down at herself, smoothing wrinkles from her dress self-consciously.  It was a simple garment, the kind of thing a housewife might be expected to wear around the house, and despite herself Rose found herself thinking that Caroline looked very pretty in it.  Her golden hair was swept back behind her ears framing her rounded face.  Her skin was like porcelain, thanks in part to the Mary Kay she sold behind her husband’s back.  She certainly didn’t look like she was in her early thirties, even managing to make the bruises and worry lines her husband gave her so frequently disappear.  Rose let her inspection flow down her friend’s slightly plump form.  “I saw you leaving,” Caroline explained, “I didn’t want to miss you.”

     This was going to be awkward.  “I’ll be back tomorrow,” Rose said.

     “I know,” the other woman replied, shifting her weight uneasily from side to side.  “But I won’t be.”

     “Oh?”  Surprise, barely concealed relief.

     Caroline chewed the corner of her mouth, then blurted, “I’m leaving George.”

     “Because of me?”

     “Partly.”

     “Listen, Caroline…”

     “You don’t have to say it,” Caroline said, stepping forward to put a finger on Rose’s lips, silencing whatever she’d been about to say.  “You know I’ll always love you.  But I know you’re not gay.  What happened…was wonderful.  I’ll never forget it.  And I’m not going to say I wouldn’t like if it happened again.  But I want…I need to be with someone who wants to be with me just as badly as I want to be with him…or her.”

     Rose could not help but smile.  “I understand,” she said.  “You know how I feel about you, Caroline.  You’ll always be special to me.”

     “Don’t say you love me,” the other woman said.  “I know you don’t.  Not in the way I want you to.  You opened my eyes, Rosita.  What we had together…I didn’t know I was capable of that.  You set me free.”

     “That’s a pretty heavy statement,” Rose protested.

     “I know, but it’s true.”  Caroline looked down, cheeks flushing a bit.  The air around them was thick with the sounds of late afternoon suburbia, heavier still with awkward emotion.  Rose let her eyes drift over Caroline’s body once more, searching for a feeling that would not come.  She was a lovely woman, beautiful despite the approach of middle age and years of marital abuse, and yet Rose felt no attraction whatsoever.  Not anymore.

     “Are you leaving your husband for another woman?” Rose asked.  

      And Caroline blushed.  That told Rose all she needed to know.  “It’s not about you,” Caroline said.  “I mean, I’d like to be with you, only…”

     “Only I’m not gay,” Rose finished for her.  “Honestly, it’s cool.  I’ve got a boyfriend in the city, anyway.  I’m on my way there now to see him.”  The lie came easily.

     Caroline eyed the bags.  “And you need all that?” she asked.

     “It’s just some clothes to change into,” Rose said lamely, hefting the heavier bag.  The one filled with weapons.  “Just stuff that I…need.”

     The older woman fixed her with a hard stare, a knowing stare.  “You don’t have to lie, Rose,” she said.  “I know what you do for a living.”

     Ice clenched Rose’s spine.  “I’m a stock analyst,” she recited the fiction reflexively.  “Nothing more.”

     “Don’t be mad.  Maria let it slip.”  Caroline took a step forward, ignoring the cold look on Rose’s face, the obvious warning.  Rose held herself in check.  “I have to admit, I was shocked at first.  I didn’t believe her.  But I’ve watched you.  I’ve seen the way you handle yourself.  You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever met, Rose.  You’re the reason I found the strength to leave my husband finally.  To stand up for myself.  I’m not afraid anymore.”

     Rose was silent.  Words simply would not form.  A tremble threatened to take hold of her stomach and spread through her body.  Not fear, not anger, not anything she wanted to name.  “I’ve got to go,” she said finally.

     Caroline nodded.  “I’ve never told anyone,” she said.  “About anything.”

     The sounds of the neighborhood seemed strangely muted.  Rose nodded.  “I appreciate that,” she said.  She glanced at the house where a curtain moved, dropping back into place as though someone had been looking out.  Rose grinned.  “I think you’re making two very good choices.”

     “Leaving my husband, and…” Caroline prompted.

     “And in not choosing me.”

     “Ah.”

     “You don’t know me, Caroline,” Rose said, shaking her head.  “You think you do.  You don’t.  I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of.”

     “You mean,” and Caroline’s voice dropped to a whisper, “that you’ve killed people?”

     Rose swallowed hard.  There was no doubt about just what Caroline knew now.  “Yes,” she said tersely.  “Among other things.”

     “You’re wrong, Rose,” Caroline said.  “I do know you.  I think the problem is that you don’t know yourself.  You’re a good person.  Very good.  You don’t know how good, really.  How tempting you are.  I’ve always known that you had something to hide.  You’ve got that aura about you.  It’s alluring.  An air of mystery.  It’s what drew me to you in the first place.  But not what kept me coming back.  I just wish we’d made love at least once.  That would be a nice memory.”

     Rose edged toward the taxi.  She just didn’t think she could deal with this now.  Maybe not ever.  Caroline wasn’t ready to allow her to escape so easily.  She swept forward and wrapped her arms around Rose, drawing her tightly to her own body.  At first, Rose didn’t react.  It felt too much like a betrayal of all she’d worked toward.  Keeping her other life a secret had been such a priority for so long that it would difficult, if not impossible, for her to ever integrate it with what she considered to be her real existence.  An existence that included friends like Caroline.  Then the barrier burst, and Rose let her bags fall to the ground so that she could embrace the other woman.  Her body was warm, soft, yielding.  It had been far too long since she’d allowed herself to be comfortable in another person’s arms.

     “You don’t know me,” she repeated.

     “Yes I do, Rose,” Caroline said, whispering into her ear.  “You’re my best friend.  The best friend I’ve ever had.  The only person I’ve ever been absolutely certain I was in love with.  I don’t think I could fall in love with a bad person.”

     I did, once, Rose thought, but didn’t say.  She had lived too long, through too much strife and pain to care much about what people thought of her.  Then why was it so important now that Caroline accepted her as she was?  Why did it feel like a kind of closure?  Of course, she knew.  Tomorrow was her last day in that other life.  The last day she would be the assassin Belladonna.  She would no longer be that person, not ever again, and yet she wasn’t entire Rosita Sanchez, either.  This house, this tame life, that was a façade erected to conceal from herself the true nature of her soul.  Just as the cold, efficient killer that was Belladonna was just something she did for lack of a better talent.  That was a truth she had realized before, and it was why this was going to be her last job.

     One last job.  A cakewalk.  She’d kill the target, then she’d go see Tito and close the last lingering chapter of her old life.  One thing was certain, she couldn’t stay here in this neighborhood any more.  This, too, must be put behind her.  But not Caroline.  Not Maria or her son.  It was time once again to move on, to leave behind the husk of the person she could no longer be.

     Just as she’d left behind the girl of her youth, and the burgeoning woman Sean had inspired her to become after that.  It was time to leave Belladonna behind now. 

     But who would she be then?

     “Rose,” Caroline whispered, as if reading her mind.  “You’ll be back.  Right?”

     “Of course,” she answered.  Caroline pulled herself away, and Rose let her go.  There was no need to speak of her plans to reinvent her life.  No need at all.  Because maybe she wouldn’t have to.

     For now, the taxi was waiting.  “I have to go,” she said.  Caroline stepped back, and Rose picked up her bags.  They seemed so much heavier now.

     “’Bye,” Caroline said as Rose swung herself into the cab’s backseat.

     Rose hesitated before closing the door.  “See you tomorrow,” she said.  And smiled.

     She was still smiling as the cab rolled away from the curb, leaving the quiet neighborhood behind.  She felt calm.  Determined.  For the first time, she felt like there was a real future ahead of her.  So long as everything went well.  And why wouldn’t it?

     “Why not?” she said aloud.

     “Huh?” the cabby said over his shoulder.

     “Nothing,” Rose said, smiling.  “Just get me to the train station before seven o’clock.”  Her future was waiting.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

April 12, 2002; 7:05 am

 

     Rose emerged from the restroom into a short hallway lined with framed photos, images of mother Russia and the by-gone Soviet era.  Comforting.  The entrance to the bar was a few paces away, and through that doorless opening she could see the mahogany bar with its brass-foot rest, the shelves behind it laden with liquor bottles, but no people.  The other end of the hallway had the entrance to the ladies room and a half-closed door that she knew led into the storage room at the back of the building.  That was supposed to have been her exit.  She grimaced and edged forward.  She heard the chilling sound of guns being cocked. 

     It was mostly open space filled with tables and chairs with a row of booths lining the wall on the left while the actual bar occupied the full length of the right.  The front of the place was comprised of two large windows and a double-door with shiny brass fixtures.  She could see the street beyond the windows, mostly devoid of traffic thick with parked vehicles. 

     There was a trail of blood across the hardwood floor leading into a crowd of men gathered around someone else laying on his back.  They all looked up at her at the same time with surprised expressions.  “Shit,” Rose said.  She began shooting as she walked toward them, not giving them time to respond.  There were too many of them.  Far too many.  And not all of them were Russians.  Curses in Italian hurled her way mixed with the thunder of gunfire.  Men fell like wheat, reflexively firing their guns into the floor or the ceiling as they died.   They fell over each other scrambling for cover.

     Bullets began to cut the air as they zipped by Rose’s head.  She broke into a zigzagging run, darting from table to table until she reached the row of booths and ducked into one.  The men were shouting in confusion and fear, reacting like a disorganized mob.  She rose above the seat back and picked off a few more.  She should have been afraid, but she wasn’t.  Belladonna never was.  There were three times as many men here as there should have been.  She ducked down to reload.  The wall above the booth exploded in splinters as the men returned fire during the lull in her attack. 

     Rose leaned out sideways and shot two more men, the last two who had not sought cover.  Heads popped up and down from behind the bar, booths, and a few overturned tables.  She counted seven survivors and twice that many corpses on the floor.

     “You are so dead,” one of the men taunted her, his voice nearly free of accent.  “You got balls, I give you that.  But you gotta be the dumbest man alive to try hittin’ us without backup.”

     “It’s a chick, Yorgi,” another man hissed.  “You guys behind the bar.  Work your way down and we’ll pin her in.”

     “A woman?” the first man said in disbelief.  “No way.”

     Rose studied the bar.  Thick dark wood, a relic too thick to shoot through with any hope of accuracy.  The booth, she realized, wasn't the best place to be in this fight, but it was too late to retreat now.  She made and tossed aside plans as she listened to the men arguing.

     “We got to rush her,” the authoritative voice said.  Rose squeezed a shot toward it, making the men duck again.  Sergei, alive or dead, had been dragged into one of the booths near the door.  That was where she had to go.

     “It’s your idea Mishka.  You do it.”

     “I’m the one in charge now,” the one called Mishka retorted.  “She killed Vladimir already, and the Italians have no authority here.”

     Rose pushed a fresh clip into her gun and paused.  Italians?  She groaned to herself.  Today of all days, the Russians were meeting with real mobsters, one of the home-grown crime families.  This could end up being more trouble than she’d signed on for.

     “Give it up, honey,” Mishka yelled out.  “Once we get behind you, you got no way out.”

     “Hey, why don’t we get out of here ourselves?” another man suggested.

     “Shut up,” Yorgi snarled.  “You’re such a coward.  Just what I’d expect from a Georgian.”

     “Fuck you, you oily pizda,” Mishka shouted back.

     Yob tvoyu mat.”   

     Kooshite govno ee oomeeite!”

     “Enough!” someone else shouted.  “Are we fighting each other or this Sooka who has come here to kills us?”

     Rose heard the scuffle of feet behind the bar as men obediently moved down to flank her.  She flicked both pistols to full auto and opened up on the heavily laden shelves.  The guns kicked wildly, spitting blooms of flame as bullets shredded everything they reached.  A hail of broken glass and liquor rained down on the men below.  Quickly, Rose ejected the spent clips and slammed in fresh ones as the mobsters, soaked and glittering with glass, staggered to their feet and aimed their weapons at Rose.  Three men, only one got a chance to pull his trigger, but all went down with lead in their hearts.

     There was a flurry of cursing from near the doorway in both Russian and Italian.  Rose swung over the edge of the booth and looked below.  With no obstructions beneath, Rose was able to see all the way to the end.  Two pairs of legs dangled in sight.  Rose put bullets into them, eliciting cries of pain.  Swinging out into the open, she caught the men as they fell forward, killing them.  More followed, taking the chance to shoot back at her, and she killed two of those before being forced back into hiding.

     An eerie silence fell over the bar.  She could hear the panting of her opponents, the drip of liquid from the destroyed shelves, the pounding of her own heart, the shuffle of feet.  She held her breath, listening carefully.  Two, no three men left.  The rasping was Sergei, dying.  But not dead yet. 

     “Fuck it,” she muttered and stood.  She made it five paces toward the door before someone thought to try stopping her.  A wide shouldered man rose up from where he had been kneeling inside one of the booths.  His hand shook as he aimed at Rose and fired.  She let him, knowing he would miss.  The bullet whistled as it raced by her ear.  The man’s gun clicked, empty.  Rose shot him in his forehead.  It was the look in his eyes, cruelty and hatred, that had compelled her to kill him.  That was not the sort of man she could safely leave behind her.

     Two others crouched over Sergei in the last booth.  They looked up as Rose loomed over them.  One had fear in his eyes, a terror that almost overwhelmed him.  The other looked at Rose with hot eyes, smoldering with his anger.  A righteous anger that made his face flush red and made his knuckles white where he gripped the handle of his gun.  Neither of them moved anything more than their eyes, flicking their gazes from the barrels of Rose’s guns to her ice cold eyes.

     “Do you want to live?” she asked calmly.  Sergei, she could see, was as good as dead.  One bullet had passed completely through his chest.  Red foam covered his lips, signaling a punctured lung.  He stared at his killer with faraway eyes, fading.

     The angry man moved, trying to jerk his gun up to bear on Rose thinking she was distracted by her inspection of the dying Sergei.  Rose moved the barrel of her weapon a fraction of an inch and put a shot into the man’s throat before his brain could send the impulse to his fingers to pull his trigger.  He slumped, gurgling a moment, then laying still. 

     “Bad choice,” Rose said softly.  She turned her attention to the last man.  “You?”

     He swallowed loudly.  “I wish to live,” he said weakly.  He looked down the length of his arm to the weapon he still held, and seemed surprised to see it in his hand.  Slowly, he loosened his grip and let the weapon fall to the floor.  Then he began to weep and covered his face with shaking hands, curling into a ball.  “Please don’t kill me,” he begged.  “Please.”

     Rose felt a swell of emotion.  Pity for the man’s fear, disgust for his cowardice.  She pushed both feelings aside roughly.  Segei’s eyes tracked her as she leaned over him.  “Why?” he asked, voice failing.  “Why me?  I’m nobody.”

     “You’re somebody to someone,” she said.  “Or else they wouldn’t have sent me.”

     “Belladonna,” Sergei whispered.  The corners of his mouth curled up in the barest hint of a smile.  The fool was actually honored.  “Who…sent…you?”  His breath became gasps, ending in a long rattle.

     “I can’t tell you that,” she said.  “Do you want me to finish it?”

     Sergei’s body spasmed as he tried to cough, to clear his lungs of the blood filling them.  He began to choke, sputtering, eyes wide.  Jerkily, he nodded.  Rose shoved one gun into her waistband and put her hand over Sergei’s eyes gently.

     “Sleep,” she whispered.  The gunshot was almost muted, as if it too felt the grim solemnity of the moment.  Rose stood stiffly, trying to put her emotions back into the shadows of her mind.  The cowering man had never looked up.  Rose put her other gun away and turned away.  It was over.  All of it.  No matter what, she would never kill on someone’s orders again.  This was the end of that life, and it felt better than she’d expected. 

     She knew of killers who always left a token at the scene of a hit.  A glove, a coin, some mark on the wall.  Signatures, they called them.  Rose never did that.  Belladonna was too good for that.  Those who needed to know would know who had done this.  The chance of retribution was always there.  But they would want to kill Belladonna, and after today she was no more.  They would never think to come for Rose.  That was the way it should be.  To Hell with notoriety.

     The crack of glass made her whirl, which was good since it made the dart fired at her miss.  She felt it glance off her shoulder, but the fabric held and left her unharmed.  A hole had appeared in the front window and spiderwebs of cracks radiated from it.  Outside, a group of men were approaching the door, moving quickly.  One of them raised a strange looking rifle to his shoulders.  White  of condensation puff from the barrel just before another dart smashed through the window.  Rose was already dodging.  The guns were in her hands, blazing, making the men scatter for cover.  They wore uniforms of some kind, khaki pants in a military cut with matching shirts and tan trenchcoats reaching down to the tops of mud-colored boots.  And sunglasses.  It would have made Rose laugh if they weren’t so obviously intent on killing her.

     No, not killing her.  Capturing.  She sprinted for the rear of the bar, not waiting for another dart to come her way.  As she dashed toward the storage room door she heard the sound of splintering wood and glass from behind her.  The men were hot on her trail.  She yanked a flash grenade from its place on her belt, dropped it without breaking stride, and raced for the rear of the building.  The Russians had a roulette wheel set up between metal shelves thick with electronics.  VCRs, televisions, radios, DVD players, everything a growing black market needed.  The back door was locked with a double-key deadbolt.  Easy enough to pick if she had the time, and she didn’t.  The grenade went off behind her as she shot at the door.  The deadbolt was tough.  The hinges weren’t.

     Wood splintered beneath Rose’s weight as she flung herself against the door.  Someone was shooting at her from behind, from the cloud of smoke the grenade had created.  Rose tumbled into a trash-strewn alley and rolled to her feet nimbly.  She’d planned her escape route a little differently, but there were still things she could use.  Running flat out, she covered the length of the alley in a moment, rounding the corner as khaki soldiers spilled out of the bar in pursuit.  They were lost to sight for a few precious seconds.  She ducked down the side alley toward the street.  The passage was almost too narrow.  Perfect.  She leaped onto a pile of wood and up to the ledge overhead.  Bracing her feet, one against either building, she rocked her way upward until she could grab onto the broken metal rim of a fire escape.  Bullets ricocheted around her as she threw herself through the open window.

     Safety here was an illusion.  The men were professionals.  Even if they couldn’t come up the way she had, they’d still come.  She kicked aside piles of debris to retrieve the satchel she’d planted here the night before.  First things first.  She yanked a remote activator from it’s pouch and flicked it on.  It was back in the bag even as the sound of a distant explosion reached her ears, obliterating her presence in the bar completely.  Leaving the room, she kicked over a can and stepped on the glass vial beneath.  Noxious fumes billowed up from the floor.  She closed the door firmly behind her.  Anyone who followed her through that window were in for a long nap.

     She raced down the hall and up a stairwell.  Footsteps pounded on the steps below as the men followed her.  They’d hear her running and trace her easily, but that was exactly what she wanted.  Better to know where an enemy was than to guess.  She burst through the door at the top onto the roof.  The sun was bright as it rose above the edge of the far roofs, an elevated horizon that made the day seem earlier than it was.  Smoke curled into the sky from the bar, and sirens were approaching.  That was fast, she thought.  She stooped beside the door and pulled a thin tripwire from the box mounted against the outside frame.  It stretched across the opening and secured to the opposite side.  She flipped a switch on the box then backed away carefully.

     The street was fifty feet below.  Too far to jump down.  The next roof was closer, just a short ten foot jump across the alley.  She cleared the distance easily and made it to the next access door before the mine went off.  The explosion was impressive, ripping a crater into the roof of the building behind her.  Rose laughed as she ran down the stairs.  Let the bastards chase me now, she thought.  There’s plenty more where that came from.

     There were dozens of stashes all over the city, weapons caches, safehouses, equipment, even cars.  That was the legacy Sean left for her.  Thinking of him put a pang in her heart as it always did, but heavier still lay the thought that this was supposed to have been easy.  Her last job.  A cakewalk, she’d called it.  Now she was making a mental list of all her resources.  She was planning a war.

     Well, it never hurts to be prepared, she told herself.  But, behind her thoughts lay something darker.  Something Belladonna wasn’t used to.  Fear. 

     Something told her it was going to be a long day.