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Hitmage Alexi Sokolsky used to sling spells for the Russian Mafia. That was before the man he loved was murdered, before his boss tried to turn him into his vampire slave, and before he learned about the Organizatsiya’s dirty trade in supernatural children.
He’s still a hitman – but now he hunts monsters.
Join Alexi as he reveals the true nature of the FBI’s witch hunters, finds love, and finally discovers the true reason why the Gift Horse appeared in New York.
Zero Sum: Chapter One
Revenge is a filthy addiction, a drive as banal and compelling as the craving for sugar, or nicotine. I knew vengeance was bad for me, that it was unsatisfying, but every time I sat by Vassily’s ruined grave trying to think of an alternative, I always arrived at the same grim conclusion: that a bloody zero-zero draw was better than letting the motherfuckers sweep my chips off the table and walk away.
Part of it was that I knew now I’d never have the man I loved, even if there had never been a chance to begin with, and I wanted them to suffer as my family and I had suffered. Part of it was that no matter how far I ran from the Mafiya, it lived on in me. The ecstatic wisdom of a mage is always tempered by the selfish impulses of a wiseguy: the knowledge that I could squeeze a trigger, pull a blade, cast a spell, and find at least a fragmentary relief in the act of destruction.
This selfishness drove me to Wall Street on the morning of October the 25th, 1991. The dreary gunmetal sky was gravid with rain, looming over the four of us – myself, my cat, Jenner and Angkor – as we pulled up in a one-way alley not too far from the New York Stock Exchange. I clambered out onto the narrow sidewalk into a bitter wind that slapped at the vent of my suit jacket. The suit was slightly too large, loose over the padding I’d taped around my midriff. Angkor, seated in the back, held my agitated familiar away from the door and passed me a carry-on suitcase, then a black leather briefcase. I took them with a wan smile.
“All set, soldier?” Jenner had cleaned up a bit to better fit in with the Manhattan crowd, which meant she’d given herself a razorgirl haircut with a bowie knife, worn her best eyepatch, and shrugged on a denim jacket over her ‘Satan Loves Pussy’ t-shirt. She’d tried.
I set the carry-on on the ground and pulled out the telescoping handle, then nodded. “Give me an hour, including walking time. If I’m not at the Charging Bull by twelve thirty, cruise back to this alley and scope the entry to the building.”
Angkor checked his watch and set the timer, idly pushing Binah back from the window as my Siamese suppository tried to follow me onto the street. “It’s 11:35 now. I’m coming up to look for you if you’re not back within seventy minutes.”
“I’m sure I’ll handle it.” I leaned in and rubbed Binah’s sail-like ears, waggling them from side to side. She glowered at me. She did not like being left behind.
“I’m sure you will.” Angkor flicked his dark gray eyes up to meet mine, mouth sly. “Take care up there, and good hunting.”
Something about the look he gave me briefly drove all thoughts of revenge from my mind. Angkor was beautiful enough to stop traffic. I cleared my throat, and offered a quick, stiff smile. “Thank you. I mean it, both of you.”
“No worries. Go kick some pedo ass.” Jenner winked and clicked her tongue. With a final lingering look, Angkor wound the window, and the pair of them cruised off to rejoin the main road.
Stage one complete. Time to find my mark.
Yegor Gavrilyuk, CPA, worked out of a private suite at 44 Wall Street. In a neatly pressed suit and tie and a good-quality wig of fashionably blond, slicked-back hair, I looked like any other yuppie bustling between his office and the New York Stock Exchange, one of many nameless faces pushing through the canopy of black umbrellas bristling in expectation of rain. No one gave me or my carry-on bag so much as a second glance as I entered the atrium of Yegor’s building, stepped into the elevator, and pressed the button for the 28th floor.
Camouflaged in the forest of suits and several inches taller than usual, I read the front page of the Wall Street Journal and listened to the awkward throat clearing, clicking rustle of too many people crammed into a too-small metal box. My stomach gnawed at me, and I was queasy from the press of bodies around me by the time I reached my floor. When the doors opened, I gratefully pushed through and clacked my way across the checkered marble floor to the glass-fronted reception of Weiss & Co. Financial Services.
The lady at the desk – financial executive receptionists were always women, weren’t they? – was a pencil-thin redhead with dark eyebrows and brown eyes. She wore an artfully fitted gray dress that was probably worth more than both my suits: the one in the carry-on, and the one I was wearing.
“Good morning, sir,” she chirped. “How can I help you?”
I didn’t bother smiling, and dialed up my Slavic accent from a three to a nine. “I am here for appointment with Mr. Gavrilyuk.”
The woman’s brow creased slightly. “Sir, I’m sorry, but… Mr. Gavrilyuk doesn’t have any appointments until twelve.”
“Yegor forwards his calendar to my boss in case we need to speak with him urgently,” I replied. “Please call his extension, and tell him that Mr. Chiernenko would like to discuss the AEROMOR accounts.”
The receptionist blinked at me, deer-like and indignant, but she slowly picked up the receiver and began to dial.
While she hung on the line, I nosed around the office, marking the fire escape, the location of cameras, and the orderly geometric patterns of magical energy in the room. Practically every building in the Financial District had wards – good wards, wards that I, a single mage working alone, could not hope to overcome in an emergency.
“It is just as well we will not need to.” An inner voice like the whispering of leaves over dry ground broke through my reverie. “They were not made with our kind of work in mind.”
Kutkha did not speak aloud. My soul’s voice was an intrusion into my thoughts – a welcome intrusion.
“Mm. They’re fire alarms, I think.” I thought back. The wards laid into the building were beautiful in the orderly way that cathedrals were beautiful, and playing my senses out along the elegantly formed web of magic woven through the stone and metal was a good way to stay relaxed before the job. By their persistence, pitch, color, and geometry, I knew these were enchantments laid down by the Adepts of the Inner School – one of the older occult fraternities who’d come to the East Coast with the Puritans. Back in the day, before mages had reason to fear the Vigiles Magicarum and the concept of ‘illegal arcana’, the Orders who were contracted to protect these buildings signed them with special patterns of magical energy, like maker’s marks. I now knew that this energy was called Phi, but those men – mostly men, back then – probably did not.
I tuned back into the material reality of the room when I heard the receptionist talking behind us. “Hello, Mr. Gavrilyuk? Yes, this is Lisa… I have a Mr. Chiernenko here who would like to see you regarding one of his accounts, if you have time? He says it’s urgent. No, he’s alone. Alright, thank you. I’ll let him know.”
I turned as she hung up, and she smiled with double rows of laser-white teeth. “Someone will be out to see you in in just a moment, Mr. Chiernenko. Please, take a seat.”
“Thank you, but I would rather stand.”
She smiled again, a little woodenly this time, and then turned back to her monitor and keyboard.
Five minutes passed before another woman strode around the corner from the same direction I’d first arrived and pushed through the glass door separating the reception from the lobby. She was also well-dressed and startlingly beautiful, her blonde hair pulled into a tight bun. When she saw me, her eyes narrowed slightly.
“Mister… Chiernenko?” She asked.
“Yes?” I turned, hands jammed in my pockets, shoulders hunched. It was how Nicolai usually stood.
“Oh… I’m sorry. Excuse me for saying so, but I remember someone who was… less well-built.” She spoke Russian. There was an uncertain lilt in her voice, green-yellow.
“I am Anatoly Chiernenko. Nicolai is my cousin. He is thin and tall, and I am fat and short.” I replied in the same language, forcing a small smile and trying to make the most of my temporarily blue eyes. “Like those video game characters, eh? Mario and Luigi.”
Her face suffused with hidden laughter. She gestured with hand and head toward the door. “Yes, well, please come this way, Mister Chiernenko.”
The P.A. – I assumed she was the P.A. – led me back to the elevators. Yegor Gavrilyuk was one of the silent engines of the Yaroschenko Organizatsiya, New York’s largest ‘Russian’ Mafia. He was a man few could name, but many relied on. As Sergei’s American stockbroker and financial manager, he couldn’t be expected to work in the boiler room with lesser brokers and market analysts. No, he had his own private suite: a well-insulated suite, in a building as old and solid as this one. Twenty years of near-anonymous success within and outside of the Organizatsiya had made him king of the castle. He was well-liked, and he had become complacent.
I was led to a solid oaken door in a gold-and-cream corridor. The P.A. swiped her card, knocked, and then opened it a crack, but before she got too far, I gently touched her wrist with one gloved hand.
“Excuse us, please,” I said in Russian, meeting her eyes. “This is a sensitive matter.”
“Oh… of course.” The lady blinked and withdrew from the momentary contact, smiling nervously as she glanced at my hand. I didn’t have any of the distinctive Vory hand tattoos: but I was in the business of letting people think I did.
After she was a good way down the hall, I opened the door myself and then closed it behind me with a sharp click. Yegor looked up from his ledger, then stood in alarm. The blood drained from his face.
“YOU! What are YOU doing here?” He pushed back from the edge of the desk, putting distance between us. “I’ll call security, I’ll-!”
“Kaph.” I spoke the single-letter word calmly, forcefully, and made a sign with my fingers.
Magic thrilled through my body and out into the room. The lights blew; the door behind me made a grinding sound as the lock short-circuited. Every other electronic device in the room simply died. We were left in the confines of a strange, humming silence.
Yegor stared at me in desperate shock. He was a soft, paunchy man with a fleshy face, small eyes, and a fluff of brown hair. He’d turned the same color as his yellow linen shirt.
“Please, Yegor Vladimirovich. It does not become an Authority of the Organization to stand. Take a seat.” I motioned to his chair. “And put your hands on the desk where I can see them, or I will speak another word of power and boil your brains in your skull.”
“You can’t.” Shaking, sweating, Yegor dropped back into his chair. He thumped both his hands down on his desk pad, almost petulantly. “You don’t know how. You’re not that good.”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re just a thug with a couple of magic tricks.”
“And I’m well on the way to filling my new spellbook with the names of the dead.” I arched an eyebrow. “Grigori. Kir. Lev. Demyon. All gone. Are you feeling froggy, Yegor?”
His nostrils trembled. He did not reply.
“Let me tell you a story,” I said, setting the briefcase down on the edge of the desk. “After years spent knowing that you piece-of-shit muzhiki called me and Vassily faggots behind our backs, it turns out that all of you were fucking children together.”
His eyes narrowed. “Don’t be disgusting. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I opened the case, staring at him. Inside was an ordinary ball peen hammer.
“Of course you do. You’re a smart man, aren’t you? Vanya’s Advokat.” I took the hammer out and set the briefcase aside. “His direct adviser and confidant.”
Yegor’s eyes widened, fixated on the weapon in my hand. “All I do is the money for him, Molotchik. Just the money.”
I blinked slowly, and glanced at the far wall of his office. Photos of Yegor, trimmer and with slightly longer hair, standing with a fair woman and two small children, both boys. “You do, in fact, handle the money. And it occurred to me, while I was recovering in hospital, that Vassily was your direct competition.”
He glowered petulantly, like a child. “I didn’t have anything to do with that business. I liked Vassily, and his family.”
“Perhaps. But you had everything to gain by putting him out of the picture,” I said. “So I admit that I’m not sure what disgusts me more: that you accepted whatever Nicolai offered you to support his bid for power at Vassily’s expense, or that you’re a man who fucks little boys on camera while doting on his own sons at home.”
My proclamation was met with resounding silence.
“I have two issues. Firstly, Vanya arranged for someone to rape Vassily in prison,” I continued, walking a serpentine trail away from and around the desk. “Someone who got him sick. Then Vanya and Nicolai got him hooked on drugs. Drugs are expensive, Yegor. Smuggling them in takes money. And what do you do?”
He swallowed. “I didn’t-”
“You handle the money,” I said. “Now. Vanya and Nicolai arranged to kidnap twenty-one kids from a group home last month. Boys and girls, eight to fourteen years old. He and his men fucked them, filmed themselves doing it, sold the videos and photos, then cut up some of them for their organs on the black market. And that’s the other reason I’m here. We only managed to rescue twelve of them. Where are the others?”
“How the fuck am I supposed to know?” Yegor’s face flushed dark. “What is this? Alexi Sokolsky to the fucking rescue? What, you think you’re fucking Superman, now?”
“I’m more of a Rorschach, actually,” I replied.
“Like you have clean hands.” He was sweating profusely now. I’d brought zipties with me in case I had to bind him, but he was paralyzed in his fury and fear. “Don’t pretend to be some kind of saint, Alexi. You were part of this.”
“It wasn’t my flabby ass pumping away in a few of the photos of those kids,” I kept my voice low and steady. “Why do you think I came to you, Yegor? Of all the good old boys in the Organization?”
He sneered. “You didn’t see any photos.”
“We pulled them off Moris Falkovich’s computer.”
I smiled. Pleasantly. “You never were a brave man, Yegor. So now, you’re going to answer my questions, or I’m going to break all of your joints, sit on you, and choke you on my fist. Who was buying the tapes?”
“I-I don’t know,” Yegor stammered, but I caught the flicker of desperation in his voice. Reading faces was hit or miss, but sounds had a color and texture that were hard to conceal. His voice had shifted to orange, sharp and tangy. He had what I wanted, but he wasn’t quite ready to give it up.
“You do the money, Yegor. Everything Vanya buys and sells goes through you. Who. Was. Buying?” I grasped the hammer around its rubber haft and leaned across the desk until there was only a foot of space between our noses.
Yegor was breathing quickly. I saw his leg jerk as he hit a panic button with his knee, but it was as dead as everything else in the room.
“They’ll kill me, Molotchik.” His face went from yellow to green. I could smell him now, the acrid pungency of terror in his sweat.
I fixed him with a reptile’s glare. “I’ll kill you, right here in front of GOD and everyone. Answer my question. Who was buying the skin flicks and organs?”
“MinTex Oil and Gas,” he blurted. “Or I mean, that was the shell company. V-Vanya knows more than I do. They-they nearly all used shells, b-but there were some individual clients from Israel for the organs. It was handled by a couple of rabbis. All the money for the porn came from offshore. Now, please just-”
“Do you have a list of names?”
“Ps-pseudonyms.” He pointed at his filing cabinet. “That’s it. Now let me-”
“No. That was the first question” I could see the artificial blue reflection of my eyes in his glasses. “I want to know where Vanya keeps his cash. Physical cash. I don’t care about the Organization’s accounts.”
His jaw trembled, then tensed as he gathered his willpower and his resolve to refuse. I slammed the hammer down on his desktop with a sharp bang, and he jumped in his own skin.
His eyes welled up with tears. “Alexi, please-”
This time, I slammed the hammer down onto the back of his hand. The wet crunch I felt through the handle was drowned out by his piercing cry of agony. Yegor clutched his shattered hand and pushed himself up to stumble away, but he knocked his chair so hard that it tumbled over and spilled him to the floor instead. I stalked around the desk, put my hard-soled shoe down on his broken hand, and twisted.
He squealed, voice raw with pain. “Help me! Anya! Security!”
I glanced back at the door, then down to Yegor. The door was probably armored, thick enough that I didn’t have to worry just yet. “Where is the stash, Yegor?”
“Won’t tell you anything! Fucking suka!” He spat at me, and then squealed as I hauled up on his hair, my foot still pushing down on his hand. “Grrr-AAARGH-I’ll tell Sergei about this-”
I backhanded him with the flat side of the hammer and let go of his hair. He went to the floor, shielding his face as I beat him over the arms and head, but he couldn’t hold his guard up forever. When his arms faltered, I grabbed him by the front of his shirt and pulled him back up to his knees.
“You don’t get it. I want Sergei to know I was here.” I pressed the ball of the hammer against his temple. “So let us reason together, Yegor. Do you really want to die like this?”
His nostrils flared as sweat from his nose and blood from his ears dripped from his face to the floor. He sagged in my hands.
“Where does Vanya keep his cash?” I repeated, calmly.
Yegor squeezed his eyes closed, pushing out a wave of fresh tears. I saw and felt him break, watched the armor shrink and fold away as he went limp.
“We don’t keep cash any more. Not since Rodion died. There’s… there’s guns, drugs. That’s it,” he said, his voice thick with mucus and pain. “I swear, Alexi.”
I wrinkled my nose, disappointed. He seemed to recognize the sign of my displeasure, because he kept babbling.
“It’s all at Kozlowski and Sons, you know, the scrapyard. T-There’s a locked yard where they keep all these old school buses. Vanya u-used it as a switch point. He stores things in the buses… in the floors of the buses.”
“And what kind of security do they keep around these buses?” I knew K&S well enough. Biggest scrapyard in New York. We took our stolen cars there.
“I don’t know! B-barbed wire. Dogs. V-Vanya might have men there, I don’t know. Let me go, Molotchik, I didn’t have anything to do with Vassily–”
Before he could continue – before I had time to get angry – I smashed the ball of the hammer into the side of his head several times, hard and fast. When I felt the steel catch, I tugged it free of his skull, pushed him away and stepped back, letting him fall like jelly to the floor. For several long minutes, Yegor gasped and convulsed his way through death, a process not nearly as sudden and final as movies were wont to portray. Eventually, he fell still.
When word got back to Sergei that Yegor was dead, he’d know exactly who had taken his piece off the board. My klichka, the nickname I earned in the Organizatsiya, was Molotchik, ‘The Hammer’. I’d earned that name – half-honorific, half-stigma – after I put down my father like a rabid dog with his own prison sledge, continuing a tradition of patricide that had begun when my grandfather killed his father for joining the Bolsheviks in Ukraine. Sergei was good to be reminded how Sokolsky men dealt with their patriarchs.
I went back around to the suitcase, set it on the desk, and opened it up. It held a roll of thick paper bags, a grooming kit, a small squirt bottle of bleach and one of isopropyl, and a complete change of clothes. Black leather gloves, shoes, socks, an identical blue tie, trousers, shirt, and a jacket, all neatly rolled. The suit was of a different material than the linen I’d worn into the office, a heavier wool suit in a similar, but not identical color.
The aftermath of a hit was a ritual performed in very specific steps. From smallest to largest; from dirtiest to cleanest. I wrapped up the messiest things, the hammer, my jacket, and tie, and then stepped around to squirt Yegor’s exposed skin with the bleach. Face, hands, neck. The odor of chlorine burned my nostrils, a clinging, lurid pink smell.
After that, I stripped and packed the dirty clothes into the suitcase along with everything else. I checked myself for blood, dabbing at my face – carefully, so I didn’t take off all the makeup I’d used to subtly change my features – then swabbed my hands and forearms with dilute bleach. Alcohol-soaked cotton got rid of the chlorine smell, and then I was able to investigate the filing cabinet.
Yegor was right. A saint would know better than to think revenge was going to fill in the void Vassily had left behind. But it wasn’t just for me: it was for Jenner, who had lost her partner and friends; for Angkor, who was still trying to heal the brain damage done to him by the Deacon and his men. It was for Josie, the little girl I’d pulled out of a mad surgeon’s dungeon. That kid was going to need therapy for the rest of her life. Some of the others were still missing, being used to breed monsters. Others were dead, or locked in their own minds. Forever.
“May your sons grow up to be better men than you and I, Yegor.” I set the carry-on down on the soft carpet, the best that money could buy, and locked the door on my way out into the relative cleanness of the city.