Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Night Secrets by Shirley Martin

Night Secrets by Shirley Martin

A slight tug released Keriam’s soul from her body. She floated to the ceiling, amazed as always that she could look down at herself in bed. With a certainty born of past experience, she knew this was no dream. Ever since her mother’s death two years ago, preternatural powers had evolved within her, and she often wondered why. Was it her mother’s way of watching over her from the Otherworld? These night journeys were even more recent and something she must learn to control, if only she knew how.

She drifted through the bedchamber walls, then once outside, flew over the maples and oaks that bordered the royal domain of Emain Macha, approaching the open countryside. Heading north, she traveled over the many farmsteads nestled in small groupings with their wattle-and-daub houses, the herds of longhorn sheep dotting the open fields. Here and there a hillfort guarded the country. Although it was deepest night, everything looked clear and luminous.

Maintaining her leisurely flight, Keriam approached the capital city of Moytura, its shops and stores closed, its many taverns and inns dimly-lit but alive with noise and laughter.

A heavy mist swirled around her, the night air cool and damp. She headed westward to the Plain of Sorrows, a vast land preceded by a meadow and transected by the winding Nantosuelta River. Through the fog, she drifted down among the thick clusters of oak trees lining the riverbank and smiled at the fairies who slumbered in the branches. To her heightened hearing, the rippling water of the Nantosuelata echoed like a waterfall.

The sound of hoofbeats jolted her. As quickly as her spirit form would allow, she took refuge within an earthberry bush, afraid someone might see her, even in the dim light.

Two men gathered by the river, their voices audible as they secured their horses to tree branches. Focusing her gaze in the hazy light, she recognized them as officers in her father's army, although she didn't know their names. What were they doing here at this late night hour? One bald and the other blond, they wore simple tunics and short boots.

"Gamal just returned from a mission," the bald one said. "He should arrive shortly."

Was that Major Roric Gamal, her father's courier?

Aimless talk ensued for several minutes, army gossip and tales of female exploits.

They became silent when Roric Gamal rode up, an officer she'd seen at the palace many times. He dismounted and looped his horse's halter around a tree branch, then approached the others. Younger and taller than the other two, his gait was steady and confident, like one accustomed to authority.
"Where's General Balor?" Gamal asked. "He should be present." His clipped accent told her he came from one of the southern provinces, Mag Aurfolaig, perhaps.

"Couldn't come," the bald officer explained. "The general sent me to represent him."

"Very well," the newcomer said, his baritone voice clear and resonant. "Let's get this business over with, so we can return to our quarters before dawn." Gamal raised his booted foot onto a tree stump and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knee, and lowered his voice. "No dissension now! We have already agreed we must kill him."

Kill whom? Keriam’s spirit body turned cold. Merciful Goddess, these men are plotting
murder!

The bald man stepped forward, shaking his fist. "Do it and get it over with!"

"Think before you speak, Dothan! We must proceed with caution." Roric paused. "First, we must bribe a few government officials. Blackmail others. That will take time. The Lug Festival would be the best opportunity for killing him,” he said, looking at the other two. “Don’t you agree?” Receiving affirmative replies, he continued. “Gives us months to plan. And all the crowds there will make it easier for the assassin to disappear among the people and escape.”

The Lug Festival, only four moonphases away. Keriam drew back, pressing her hand to her mouth, then gasped when her hand passed through her face.

Roric Gamal recaptured her attention. "We know the king intends to invite King Barzad of Elegia to Avador soon to discuss forming an alliance between the two countries. Last thing we need. If we can keep Avador weak, we should have no trouble gaining control of the realm." He set his foot on the ground and drew himself up to his full height. "But if Avador forms an alliance with Elegia, there go our plans. We must kill the king!"

Keriam sank to the ground. Her father! They were talking about killing her father! Goddess, no! They must not get away with this evil.

"Agreed," the blonde man said. "But how do we accomplish this assassination? Remember, General Balor has the final word. Anything we decide must have his approval. Got to have the army behind us."

"Of course," Roric said. "Now, I've given the plan much thought. Here's how we'll proceed."

The warble of a bird alarmed Keriam, daybreak graying the trees.

A tug pulled her spirit back. No, not now! She must discover more of their plan.
Within a heartbeat, Keriam found herself falling into her body, as if from a great height. She lay stunned, unsure where she was. At last recognizing her surroundings, she wanted to weep, so afraid for her father, her mind awhirl with panic. Somehow, she must discover details of the plot and warn him.

No one knew of her spirit travels, but what if someone found out? She'd be accused of witchcraft, a practice forbidden in the kingdom. And no one was aware of her other mental powers, of her ability to discern a person's past or see into the future by touching that person. Unfortunately, this talent often didn't work when she needed it most. By the Goddess, why couldn't she see into her father's future?

As she heard her maid in the next room, a new fear crashed through her. What if Maudina found out about her nightly trips? Superstitious girl that she was, would her maid report her to the druids? Keriam prayed she wouldn't, hoping she could count on the maid's loyalty. Like all the servants at the palace, Maudina received a sufficient wage, and well-paid servants were more trustworthy than poorly-paid ones. Surely that fact would ensure the maid's faithfulness?

The druids held great power in the kingdom, and religion ruled the lives of all of the country's inhabitants. Keriam closed her eyes, imagining her punishment should she be reported to these wise men. If found guilty, she'd be burned at the stake as a witch. Not even her father could save her, assuming he was still alive to try. Keriam said a silent prayer to Talmora, the Earth-Mother Goddess, to keep her father safe. Shifting her position, she thought hard. She must warn her father of the plot against his life without revealing her means of discovery. Would he believe her? He had to. She pushed her woolen bedcovers aside and slid out of bed, tired and groggy but determined.

No one must ever learn how truly different she was.



* * *

Keriam joined her father for the midday meal in the vast dining room with its flagstone floor and high, majestic ceiling. As was the custom in Avador, they’d left an empty place for the Goddess. Keriam enjoyed this time with her father, and she knew he did too, when they could share thoughts and concerns, a time when she could learn more about the kingdom, its people, resources, and government.

"Since I have no other children,” King Tencien had once said, "you will inherit the throne. Best you learn about the country you will govern--its customs, languages, everything."

The plot against her father sent her heart pounding and drove every other thought from her mind. By Talmora, she would not permit those officers to get away with murder. She'd always found comfort in this room with its beautifully polished wooden walls, where each board was painted a different color from those above and below, so that the sides of the room presented a radiant variety of bright colors. But she found no solace this day.

"Father, you should have an official taster," she suggested as he sipped his white wine. Twisting her hands in her lap, she tried to look nonchalant, but fear for her father burned inside her. And hatred for the men who planned to kill him.

"Why, Kerry? You think someone would try to poison me?" He gave her a sharp look. "Why do you make this suggestion now?"

"It's a constant worry." Aware of her lame reply, she dipped her spoon into the spiced potato soup. Goddess, she prayed, help me save this man who means more than life to me. “You’re too trusting," she said, resolved to lead into warning him of the plot.

"Not trusting, just realistic." He pressed his fingers to his temples. "A headache coming on," he murmured, then straightened up. “If someone wants to assassinate me, they'll succeed. There's nothing I or anyone else can do to prevent it."

"But of course you can! Arrange bodyguards, and--"

"Won't matter. There have always been skilled assassins, paid well, I might add.. I flatter myself that I'm popular with my people, but remember, there are those who crave power. They’ll stop at nothing to get what they want.”

Yes, I know! Keriam wanted to say. Tell him of the plot now, her heart urged her. She licked her lips and swallowed hard. "But what if someone--"

“Enough!” He slashed his hand through the air. "No more talk about assassination. I have a splitting headache and King Barzad is expected any day now. I have enough on my mind about the treaty."
A cold lump settled in her stomach. What had she accomplished with her ineffective warning? For now, she'd let the matter drop, but she must face--and deal with--the danger to her father. She finished her buntata soup, resolved to conceal her fear. The dining table occupied a spot close to the large stone fireplace that dominated the wall, and although heat from the burning embers drew much of the chill from the room, fright tremors raced down her arms and legs.

"Tell me about this treaty between our country and Elegia,” she said, hoping to divert her mind. They both waited while the servants entered the room and served steaming plates of rice and chicken breast roasted with sage, thyme, and coriander.

"Pending treaty," he said after the servants left. "Since Avador is a land-locked country, we need a seaport to get our iron ore, lumber, and most important, our salt, safely to port and thus to markets. As it is now, brigands prey on our caravans, and we must pay Elegia for protection. A treaty to ally our two countries will benefit both."

"Can't our army provide protection for our goods?"

King Tencien shook his head. "Most of the robberies occur within Elegian territory, directly north of the border. King Barzad doesn't want our forces in his domain. He has a strong army, but often these brigands slip past his men. That situation will change if and when we sign this treaty."

"Tell me, what does Elegia get out of this treaty?"

He beamed at her. "Good thinking. The king needs a wife to provide him with an heir. My widowed sister should solve that problem. We know she can bear children."

"Father, using women as bargaining pieces between nations is an abomination of all the Earth-mother Goddess holds dear."

"I've discussed the matter with her." He reached for a bronze flagon and poured them more wine. "She has no objections."

A short period of silence followed. Desperate for distraction from her nagging worries and stymied by her father's obstinance, she let her mind flit from one subject to another.

Magic. The word crept into her thoughts like a snake slithering along the ground. Why did no one ever speak of it, as if it were a shameful secret to keep hidden away in the darkest recesses of the mind? She didn't practice the craft--the Goddess forbid! She couldn't practice magic if she wanted to. But was it wrong, and if so, why? With a cautious look at her father, she broached these questions.
"We don't speak of magic," he warned with a sidelong glance her way, "lest if, by our words, we bring the offense back to Avador."

"Why not? What's wrong with magic? Every time I've asked this question--and you know I have many times--you’ve put me off, told me I must never mention it. Why do we never talk about it?"
His gaze swept the spacious room, lingering in every corner. He lowered his voice, prompting Keriam to lean closer. "Wizards ruled Avador with their magic over one-thousand years ago, good magic, mind you, to heal the sick and promote peace and well-being." He sipped his wine and set the bronze goblet on the long wooden table.

"After a century or so, a few evil wizards gained power, and with their power, turned good magic to bad. They executed those who defied them, starting with the good wizards. Caused such havoc and wickedness in the country that life became unbearable for those who tried to live by the words of the Earth-mother Goddess. Even suspicion of treason would send the accused to the dungeon. Informants were rewarded, so neighbor told on neighbor. Children were tortured in front of their parents." He shuddered. "A terrible time. After hundreds of years of this evil and oppression, my great-great-great-grandfather--an army officer--led a revolt."

"Yes, yes," Keriam said, impatient to hear more. "I learned about this revolt in my studies years ago, but no one ever told me how our ancestor rebelled. No matter how many times I questioned my governess, she told me the manner of rebellion was not important. Of course, it's important!"
Tencien nodded. "Yes, you’re old enough to understand now. Our ancestor, Malachy, gathered a force of several thousand men, and in one final battle, defeated the evil sorcerers and their minions. The sorcerers’ rule ended, and the House of Moray was created. King Malachy united all the tribes and ended human sacrifice--"

"Human sacrifice!" She clutched her stomach.

"Beheading, garroting. Now you see what evil the wizards caused.." He dabbed his linen napkin across his forehead. "Since Malachy's victory, magic has been outlawed from the
kingdom, upon pain of death. Daughter, you know I am a merciful man, but anyone caught dabbling in witchcraft must be burned at the stake."

SHIRLEY'S LINKS
Where to Buy: Amazon

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Greco's Game by James Houston Turner


Greco's Game by James Houston Turner

Chapter One
Talanov slowly opened his eyes and felt them sting as he fumbled for the remote. With a groan, he switched off the TV, swung his feet down onto the floor and sat hunched over for a long moment. Finally he stood and looked for his clothes. In the wash of light coming in through the window, he could see them on the floor beneath a framed print hanging on the wall. He remembered kicking them in that direction when he and “Tash” had giggled their way into the hotel room earlier that night.

Tash sure knew the routine. With legs like a sprinter and hair the color of honey, the twenty-something Ukrainian had moved up and down him like a pole dancer while slow-waltzing him into bed. Talanov knew it was a set-up long before his head began to spin from whatever it was someone had slipped him back in the nightclub. Even so, he didn’t care. He had quit caring long ago.
Shaking his head at the remnant of what would never be a memorable night of lovemaking, he picked up his underwear from the tangle of covers at the foot of the bed. He could still see Tash jumping from the bed in her hot pink g-string, contemptuous at his inability to “do it.” And yet it was always the same, whether with Tash or any of the other hookers he had picked up over the last few months in an effort to try and forget.

But try as he did, he simply could not get Andrea out of his mind.

Memories of that night were still embedded in him like shrapnel. On stage for the award. Waves of applause. Andrea’s impulsive urge to lean over and kiss him.

Suddenly a shot. An explosion of blood. The brilliant red spatter floating before him like a nightmarish special effect in a movie. And in that split second before his wife hit the stage, Talanov saw movement high on the catwalk. A fleeting shadow was making an escape.

Then came the shrieks. People scattering. Andrea’s fingers desperately reaching out for him while she lay quivering in a spreading pool of red. In all his years with the KGB, Talanov had never felt panic.
But he felt it then.

Diving to her side, he placed his hands over the gaping holes in her neck. He screamed for help as Andrea’s life continued to squirt through his fingers.

He looked down and saw Andrea’s eyes smiling up at him.

She tried to speak.

“Save your strength, help’s on the way,” he instructed, his eyes betraying the confidence he tried to portray.
 
“Love … you,” Andrea whispered as her eyelids sagged closed.

“Stay with me!” Talanov shouted as tears streaked down his cheeks.

He screamed again for help.

Sitting in the ambulance minutes later, Talanov strained to breathe. But the coils around his chest were crushing, relentless and cruel. The hope once visible in his eyes had melted into dark puddles of despair.

Suddenly, a high-pitched squeal sounded and the paramedics sprang into action. Readings were shouted, drugs were administered, heart massage was commenced.

Then came the paddles.

“Clear!” one of them shouted an instant before a jolt of electricity convulsed Andrea’s ghostly white body.

The high-pitched squeal did not waver.

The paddles were charged again.

Talanov did not know how many attempts were made to save his wife before she was finally pronounced dead. He did not remember the hospital waiting room, or the questions asked by police, or the young female officer who finally drove him home. Numbness was all that he felt as he lay curled up on the side of the bed where Andrea had fallen asleep on countless nights, wrapped in his arms.

And numbness was all that he felt now as he stood at the hotel room window buttoning his shirt.
After several minutes of staring absently at the lights of West Hollywood, he looked toward the nightstand for his watch, which was nowhere to be seen. With a snort, he picked up his keys and shook his head. Serves you right, you stupid bastard. He walked over, picked up his slacks and felt the hip pocket. He turned a full circle and looked all around before dropping down onto all fours and searching under the dresser.

His wallet was gone.

Jumping up, Talanov yanked on his slacks, pulled on his shoes and stormed out of the room. Flying down the stairs, he pushed open the fire door and charged past the front counter. The desk clerk stared but said nothing.

Outside, the night was balmy and warm as Talanov paused on the sidewalk and tried to remember which way he and Tash had come. He looked right and saw a darkened stretch of asphalt lined with parked cars and apartments. Half a block to his left was a traffic light.
\
He ran toward the light. Even at this late hour, the boulevard was active.

At the corner he saw it, on the other side of the street: the entrance of the nightclub where he had met Tash. He waited for a break in the traffic and crossed against the light. Cars rushed by. A steady stream of red tail lights going one way. A corresponding stream of headlights coming the other. It was a cacophony of noise. Exhaust fumes mixed with the greasy smells of fast food.

The nightclub where Talanov was headed had a covered awning and some flashing lights. Beneath the awning were two bouncers dressed in black slacks and t-shirts. Flirting with them were several girls in micro skirts. Everyone was laughing.

The more muscular bouncer — Gunner — was taller and bald, while the other one — Daz — had a ponytail to the middle of his back.

Talanov ignored them and headed for the door.

Gunner stopped him. “I need to see some ID,” he said.

“You’re kidding. I’m over fifty.”

“Over fifty?” blurted one of the girls named Tracy. “I thought you were, like, thirty-something.”
“Shut up!” snarled Gunner, glaring at Tracy. To Talanov: “Do I look like I’m kidding? Now, either show some ID or beat it.”

“Someone inside has my wallet.”

“Not my problem.”

Talanov took a calming breath. He was furious. Tash, or whatever the hell her name was, had stolen his wallet and he wanted it back. Assuming, of course, that Tash was inside, which was entirely doubtful.

“Ten minutes, that’s all I ask,” said Talanov. “I go in. I look around. I get my wallet and leave. If she’s not there, I leave, anyway. You never see me again.”

“And I’m telling you that’s not going to happen.”

Talanov took another calming breath. This one was not as effective. “I’m not looking for trouble,” he began.

“Then get the hell out of here or trouble is going to find you.”

According to Gunner, the choice was simple: leave voluntarily or leave forcibly. And it didn’t seem to matter to Gunner which choice Talanov made.

For Talanov the choice was likewise simple: was his wallet worth a fight? Logic told him to either forget the wallet or try and work things out peacefully. Gunner was a big guy. He was also twenty, maybe twenty-five years younger, an alpha male with a short fuse. Besides, what were the odds Tash was inside, anyway? His wallet had had nearly two thousand dollars in it. More than likely, Tash was partying someplace else.

Talanov looked at the other bouncer, who was staring at him with unfriendly eyes. The groupies were also watching. Everybody was waiting to see what the old guy was going to do.

“Don’t make this worse than it is,” said Talanov. “Ten minutes. Then I’m gone.”

There was a long moment of silence that was almost like a vacuum. Nobody seemed to breathe. Then Gunner’s arms shot forward. The heels of his hands were like battering rams aimed straight for Talanov’s chest. It was a preemptive two-handed blow designed to knock the wind out of Talanov, send him flying into the bushes and teach him a lesson.

But Gunner had made the mistake of broadcasting his intentions with a number of subliminal signals: flaring of the nostrils, tightening of the lips, setting of the jaw, the drawing in of a breath and holding it. So when Gunner’s hands shot out, Talanov stepped to the side, grabbed Gunner’s wrist and twisted it down and back. This forced Gunner to compensate by straightening his arm and bending left in an effort to pull away. That allowed Talanov to twist the outstretched arm behind Gunner. He then used Gunner’s momentum to drive him facedown to the sidewalk in one smooth motion. The whole maneuver took less than four seconds.

Kneeling on Gunner’s back, Talanov lifted the arm in a direction that could easily pop it from the socket.

Gunner cried out and Talanov eased back.

“I asked you not to make this worse than it is,” Talanov said, glancing at Gunner then up at Daz. “So what’s it going to be?”

Daz glared angrily down at Talanov but knew better than to try anything with Gunner’s arm bent backward like that.

Talanov raised an eyebrow expectantly.

“Ten minutes,” growled Daz. “But if you cause anyone any trouble — and I mean, anyone — I guarantee you won’t be leaving in one piece.”

Releasing Gunner’s arm, Talanov glanced over at Tracy and stood. With a hint of a smile, he disappeared inside.

“Did you see the way he took Gunner down?” Tracy whispered excitedly to her friends. “Man, he’s friggin McDangerous! C’mon! Let’s go and meet him.”

“What is wrong with you, Decker?” a friend responded, giving Tracy a slap on the arm. “You don’t even know that dude … know anything about him!”

“Yeah, but he’s, like, totally hot.”

“Tracy!”
Author James Houston Turner
The inside of the nightclub reminded Talanov of a refurbished warehouse. It had a high ceiling, exposed truss beams and flexible ductwork, all painted black. On the dance floor, a churning mass of young people gyrated wildly to a deafening blast of music played by a DJ with dreadlocks and sunglasses. Mounted above the dance floor were numerous tracks of colored stage lights that kept time to the music.

There’s got to be three or four hundred people out there, thought Talanov, squinting through the noise at the waves of arms bending back and forth. But he had to start somewhere and the dance floor was the logical place.

Finding Tash, however, was not his only problem. She also had a partner — the person who spiked his drink. He’d been in enough nightclubs to know one should never leave a drink unattended. And he had not. So who had slipped him the Liquid X? Their waitress? One of the bartenders? Someone watching from the service area? Whoever it was, it was imperative that he spotted Tash before she or her partner spotted him. Which meant he had to work fast.

Threading his way through the crowd, Talanov was grabbed by several laughing girls. Lost in the rhythm of the music, they whirled and swayed enticingly around him while motioning for him to join in. Talanov pushed past them and made his way to the end of the bar, where he stationed himself unobtrusively in the slashes of spinning lights. There, he allowed his eyes to systematically comb the dance floor.

There were lots of blondes, but none of them was Tash.

Suddenly, on the far side of the nightclub, Talanov saw Daz and Gunner enter the club. Daz spoke into a filament mike positioned near his mouth. Within seconds a large man in a suit approached. Standing a full head taller than either of them, the man looked like a Sumo wrestler, with a buzz cut and folds of flesh creasing the back of his neck. The two bouncers spoke to him briefly then fanned out and began sifting their way through the crowd.

So much for getting ten minutes, Talanov thought.

To his left was a short flight of steps that led to a mezzanine full of cafĂ© tables and booths. Talanov waited for a group of young people to climb the stairs and fell in behind them. At the top he stepped to one side and surveyed the room. People were everywhere: at tables, in booths and standing in the aisles. Most were laughing and drinking. Many were sending text messages or talking on their cell phones. Again — lots of blondes but none of them was Tash.

Talanov started back down the stairs and then abruptly reversed direction and excused his way to the top. You’re angry. You’re in a hurry, he thought. This time, do it right.

Thus, calling on skills learned more than thirty years ago at the Balashikha training center near Moscow, former KGB colonel Aleksandr Talanov, stood in a darkened corner and methodically double-checked each face in the room.

In less than a minute he saw her, seated with a businessman in a darkened booth.

“We go to quieter place now, yes?” Tash told the businessman in broken English while loosening his tie. “Get comfortable. Have some fun.” With a seductive smile, she began stroking his thigh.

“I don’t normally do this,” the businessman replied. He was a florid-faced man with fleshy jowls and thinning hair.

“Me, too,” Tash replied, scooting closer.

“Where are you from, anyway?” the businessman asked, noticing her accent.

“Wherever you want,” Tash said.

Her hand suddenly went higher and the businessman’s eyes widened.

“Hurry. Finish drink,” she cooed.

The businessman was gulping the remainder of his mojito when Talanov slid into the booth.
Zdravstvuy̆te, Tash,” he said in Ukrainian.

Tash’s mouth fell open.

“Who are you?” the businessman asked, blinking several times.

“Came for my wallet. Won’t be long,” answered Talanov.

The businessman looked at Tash, who shrugged nervously.

“I think you’ve got the wrong table,” the businessman said.

“Oh, I’ve got the correct table, all right,” answered Talanov. “Tash here slipped something into my drink a few hours back and ran off with my wallet. And by the look on her face, I can tell she wasn’t expecting me to wake up anytime soon.”

“He is lying, Tom!” cried Tash. “I don’t know who this man is. Or what he is talking about.”
“It’s Todd,” muttered the businessman, glancing at his empty glass.

“Let me out,” demanded Tash.

“Not until you hand over my wallet,” said Talanov.

“She said she doesn’t know you,” said Todd.

“Then how did I know her name?”

Todd started to respond then looked at Tash with a wrinkle of doubt. “How did he know your name?”
Tash replied with a disdainful huff. “I told you, I am model! He see me somewhere.”
Todd gave Tash a dubious scowl.

“Whatever,” said Tash. “Let me out.”

“Soon as I get my wallet,” said Talanov.

“How many times do I have to tell you? I don’t have your stupid wallet.”

“Let’s just see about that,” said Talanov. He grabbed Tash’s tiny, pink leather purse.
“Hey! Give that back!” said Tash, lunging for it.

Blocking her hand, Talanov opened the purse and turned it upside down. A tube of lipstick, mascara, two condoms, and a folded wad of cash landed on the table.

Talanov stared at what was not there.

“See, I don’t have wallet!” said Tash, snatching back her purse. “Now, get out of here. Leave me alone.”

A petite Asian waitress named Jade came up the stairs with a tray of drinks. She had blue streaks in her hair and wore bright red lipstick. When she saw Talanov, she slid the drinks onto a table, ran back down and pushed her way through the crowd. She found Gunner and grabbed him by the arm. “Gunner, I need your help!”

“Not now,” he said, shaking her off while continuing to scan faces in the crowd.

“Upstairs. A Russian guy. Good looking. He was here earlier with Tash and he’s back. I think he may cause trouble.”

Gunner stared at Jade for a moment then touched the microphone near his mouth. “Upstairs, on the mezzanine. We’ve got him.”

Sliding out of the booth, Todd stood. “I’m calling the police,” he said, fumbling clumsily with his cell phone.

“Go for it,” said Talanov. “While you’re at it, tell them to run a drug test on your glass. Provided you’re still conscious by then.”

Tash grabbed her belongings and tried to leave.

Talanov grabbed her by the wrist.

“Hey, wut’re you doing?” said Todd, fumbling his words as much as his phone. “I thingk you’d bether leave.”
 
“You’ve got ten, maybe fifteen minutes before you pass out,” said Talanov while Todd wobbled in front of him. “If I were you, I’d get some help.”

Todd blinked several times but did not move.

“Go!” commanded Talanov.

Todd nodded and hurried off.

“Okay, where is it?” asked Talanov.

Tash folded her arms and looked defiantly away.

Talanov grabbed her by the chin and forced her to look at him. “For the last time, where’s my wallet?

“Out back. In dumpster,” she said.

Talanov let go and settled back in the booth. A long moment of silence passed while Tash rubbed her chin.

“I want to go now,” said Tash.

“No driver’s license. No credit cards. No keys.”

“What are you talking about?”

“What gives? You’re carrying no driver’s license, no credit card, no keys,” said Talanov.
“What do you care?”

Greco's Game by James Houston Turner
“That tells me you’re part of something you probably don’t want to be a part of. That maybe someone’s holding you against your will. Making you do things against your will.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I think you do.”

Tash stared at Talanov for a long moment then looked away.

Talanov watched her for a moment. Tash — or whatever her name was — was a pretty girl. A pretty girl with a look of fear in her eyes.

“Sorry for getting so rough,” he said.

Tash gathered her lipstick and mascara and slid them into her purse. She placed her hand on the cash but paused when she saw Talanov watching her. “Here,” she said, sliding the money toward him. “It is all there. Count, if you wish.”

“It was never about the money,” Talanov replied, ignoring the cash and getting out of the booth.
Tash stared up at him with open disbelief. “Then what is this about?”

“Her photo. It’s all I’ve got left.”

“You do this for a picture?

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

The next few seconds were one of those rare moments when time seemed to linger. And in that moment, Tash saw Talanov’s anguish.

She remembered the photo — a wedding shot — in a plastic window where a driver’s license should have been. The picture was of Talanov and his bride, happy and smiling, holding flutes of champagne on a beach.

Tash studied him more closely and saw desperation and a certain “lostness” in his eyes, in spite of his self-destructive tendencies and aggression. Plus one thing he cared desperately about.

Her photo. It’s all I’ve got left.

No divorced man thinks that way.

My God, she’s dead; you’re in mourning, thought Tash. No wonder you couldn’t do it.

By now, Talanov’s thoughts had drifted back to happier times, what few there had been, mainly because he had been unable to love his wife the way she deserved. Transparency and love — qualities that defined a good marriage — were contrary to what had been hammered into him at Balashikha. Love was a vulnerability that would get you killed.



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