#Prettyboy Must Die – Kimberly Reid

The Middle of Nowhere, Eastern Ukraine | Spring Break When I arrive at the compound, it’s still early enough that the sun hasn’t burned off last night’s frost. There is no heat in this ancient beater of a delivery car, so I’m glad for the extra shirt under my hoodie, though I wish I’d remembered gloves. I stop under the bare branches of a huge maple tree just outside the gate and rub my hands together for warmth. There is more activity than usual for this time of morning. Women are piling large suitcases into the trunks of several cars. A repurposed, probably stolen, military cargo truck is being loaded with wooden crates so heavy they require a very large man on each corner. On my way here, two cars blew by me heading for town, probably the first wave of criminals trying to make their escape. We hadn’t anticipated they’d begin moving so soon, but I’m not worried about them. They won’t get very far. I just hope those escapees don’t include the person I’m after. I scan the compound for any sign of him, though I have no idea what he even looks like. The men nearly drop one of the crates they’re loading, and my heart almost stops. After the time I’ve spent getting to know this place and the people who own it, I know what’s inside those crates, even if I never learned where the cargo is headed. Since they’re using precious time to load it onto trucks and move it out of the compound, it must be some pretty valuable, and destructive, loot. I grab the box from the back seat and head for the compound’s entrance, the scent of garlicky sausages and oniony potato cakes making my empty stomach growl.

My job here was intelligencegathering—getting the layout of the compound, the number of people inside, number and position of civilians, maybe eavesdrop on a plan or two—while pretending to be a food runner from the lone restaurant in the nearest village, twenty minutes away. With the information I gathered by watching the compound, we could have raided the place days ago, but we were waiting for one major player in the operation to return. He’d decided to up and leave a few days after I arrived, which had us worried he was onto me. Taking the compound without him would mean he might pop up again in a few months, running his own business somewhere more difficult to find, like a cave in deepest Afghanistan or a yurt in remotest Mongolia. So we waited. But Pavlo Marchuk finally obliged us four hours ago, lured back to the compound by a job promotion, under the cover of darkness. Dude ought to know better than anyone that darkness hasn’t been an effective cover since World War II and the invention of night-vision technology. Being here makes him an easy target for my people. For a lot of people, really—every nation-state he ever sold illegal weapons to. He knows they’re coming for him.

I’m hoping that this knowledge and Pavlo’s arrival are the reasons for this sudden decision to move out, and not because they know who I really am. I still have important work to do. I’ve been delivering food every day for two weeks now, but instead of the usual drill—patting me down and checking my packages before I enter—the guard just waves me on through, too busy reading papers attached to a clipboard to bother with me. He doesn’t question my earlier-than-usual arrival, doesn’t even ask to hold my phone until my business in the compound is done, a requirement since day one. I take all of these things as a good sign. Distracted workers—and a camera—will make my work easier. Officially, my job ended a few hours ago with Marchuk’s return to the compound. When my boss finds out I’m here today, which she will because my people are watching—we’re always watching— I’ll tell her it would have tipped them off if I hadn’t shown up with breakfast, and that I did this for the team. That’s why I’m keeping my phone off, so she can’t make contact and demand I haul ass out of here. In truth, I’m here to handle some personal business.

Yesterday, just as I was leaving the compound for what should have been my final breakfast run, I saw a delivery truck from the local computer store—if you can call eighty kilometers away local. Back in the village my team has been calling home, I followed up on a hunch and found an increase in activity coming from one of the compound’s IP addresses. The user tried to mask it, hiding behind web proxies, but I’m better at his game than he is. Pavlo isn’t the only overnight arrival. He brought his hacker-for-hire with him. If I were Marchuk, the hacker would have been fired two weeks ago, the day he left open a back door I could exploit. I was able to access Marchuk’s database of arms suppliers, traders, and buyers —who they were, where they were located, what they bought—everything but who they were buying it for. We needed to flush out the buyers, so I planted rumors about the security breach on a couple of secret forums. We also needed feet-on-the-ground intelligence about his base of operations, so we could prepare for the arrival of agents from every militant separatist group Marchuk ever armed, who were coming to take him down. But news of my breach spread so quickly, we were forced to move faster than planned.

The only play we had with such little notice was to send in the least suspicious operative on our team—a high-school junior who spoke the right languages and already understood the full scope of the mission. That’s how I became the compound’s food runner and earned my chance to show everyone I was more than a kid with a laptop. We came here for both Pavlo and his father, the head of the operation. The Marchuks are seriously dangerous people, but my boss considers the target I’m after—Pavlo’s hired-gun hacker—a smalltime mercenary. She shut me down when I took the information to her. Most people would have stopped there, because most people hate their jobs and their bosses. Not me. I love my job and like my boss. Underestimating this hacker will be her one regret in this whole mission, the loose thread that comes back to haunt us all one day. I’m not going to let that happen.

I check the cheap watch I bought in the market yesterday, having anticipated not being able to use my phone. I have an hour before the raid begins, forty-five minutes more than I need. But as I approach the house, my stomach sinks a little. This is my first field mission, and right now I would trade in all my classroom training for a little real-world field experience. All of this activity around the compound—the distracted guard, the change in my schedule—maybe I’m reading it all wrong. Maybe all of this is bad. Maybe they know today’s the day. My people will know that they know, which means I may not have as much time as I think. The smell of potatoes and sausage that made my mouth water a minute ago now makes my stomach turn, and I have to fight the urge to dry heave. Or run.

But it’s too late for second thoughts. Marchuk Sr. is standing in the front door like he’s been waiting for me, even though I changed my schedule. “Pierre, you are here early today.” That’s two more unusual things. One of the armed guards usually opens the door, and Marchuk Sr. doesn’t call me Pierre. On my first delivery day, he asked my name, converted it to Ukrainian, and announced that that was what I’d be called as long as I was in his home. He looks tired. Another sinking feeling in my stomach.

Was he up all night because he got word about us? The weight of the phone still in my pocket assures me a little. My lifeline. “Sorry, sir. I found extra work planting spring barley. I start today. I hope delivering breakfast early is not too much inconvenience.” “Food deliverer, and now farmhand. A recent arrival to our village, and already you have two jobs, yes?” “Yes, sir. We must take jobs when they are presented, since they are difficult to come by in my country.” “In Tunisia, yes? And yet your Ukrainian is near perfect.

” I can’t help but wonder if that’s an observation or an indictment. “Of course,” Marchuk Sr. continues, “you speak your native Arabic and French, but you also speak excellent Russian.” “Russian and Ukrainian are so similar. And I have an affinity for languages, sir.” I bet he’s thinking I don’t resemble most of the Tunisians who have made Ukraine, with its Swisscheese borders, part of their migration route into the European Union. He’d be right, since I’m a black guy from Georgia—the one in the United States, not the one just 1,500 kilometers from my current location—but until now, I never worried that Marchuk Sr. knew the difference. He puts his hand on my back as I step into the house, and I stiffen before realizing it isn’t an act of aggression, but the total opposite—very unlike the man. I’m still glad for the four inches of height and thirty pounds of muscle I have on him.

“I admire you, Pierre.” The morning is full of surprises for both of us, though Marchuk Sr. doesn’t yet know about his. At least I hope he doesn’t. “You are an industrious young man. My layabout son takes nothing seriously, is only concerned about spending my money on women and drink. He could learn something from you.” All the curtains are drawn. As my eyes adjust to the darkness of the house, I look around the room for the lazy son, glad to find he isn’t here. Pavlo Marchuk Jr.

doesn’t like me—or anyone else, as far as I can tell. He was only here for three days before he left, but that was all I needed to figure out he lived in a constant state of being pissed-off because his father made another man, not his only son and namesake, his second-in-command. Then, just this week, Marchuk Sr. changed his mind and gave Pavlo the job. That hasn’t changed Junior’s disposition one iota. Hearing his father praise even a lowly food deliverer as his better is just the kind of thing to set Pavlo off. I don’t need that today. I must stay focused on finding the hacker and getting the hell out while I still can. The clock is ticking. I want to ask him what changed his mind about making his son second-in-command, considering his low view of Pavlo, but I’m not even supposed to know, or care, about his business.

Instead I say, “Thank you, sir. I will just take this to the kitchen.” I hold out the box of food, as though my reason might be different than it has been the last two weeks, but I shouldn’t have. The movement draws up my sleeves, exposing my wrists, along with the watch I don’t usually wear. A small thing to most, but probably not Marchuk. Before he went to the dark side, he spent twenty years in my line of work. That’s about twenty years longer than I have. Experience trumps youth and size nearly every time. “No, not in the kitchen today,” he says, keeping his attention on the activity in front of the house. “They are busy in there … packing our things.

” More like whipping up a few Molotov cocktails for the road, but I play dumb. “You’re leaving?” “I have business abroad and must leave immediately.” “Immediately, sir?” Marchuk looks at me for a second, and I wonder if I seem a little too eager about his departure. He reaches into his pocket, and again I prepare for the worst. And again he surprises me, pulling out a wad of money—American dollars—and handing it to me. “Yes, you will have to find a new second job, but don’t worry. It won’t be difficult for a hard worker like you, Petro,” he says, this time calling me by my Ukrainian name. “As soon as everything is ready, we must leave.” I bet they must, now that Junior is back and the black ops teams of several pissed-off clients are right behind him. “I will stay out of the way in the kitchen,” I say, hoping I don’t sound pushy.

“No. Leave it. The men can take breakfast there, in the dining room, if they want. They are too busy, anyway.” I put the box of food where he directs me to, but this isn’t good. I need access to the kitchen. Marchuk’s office is on the other side of it, and I’m certain that’s where the hacker is. Marchuk is standing in the door, just as he was when I arrived, as though he’s still expecting someone who clearly isn’t the food runner. He’s distracted, but not so much that I can sneak into the kitchen without him noticing. I begin taking the food out of the box and placing it on the coffee table, but accidentallyon-purpose drop a large container of dumpling soup.

“Oh no, the rug! I will get a towel,” I say, running for the kitchen before Marchuk Sr. can stop me. I make it to the swinging kitchen door, surprised he hasn’t followed. I’m even more surprised to find no one there. No bomb-making materials on the table, either. Just free-and-clear access to the office. But when I reach it, I’m disappointed to find the office doesn’t yield any clues, either. In fact, the room is completely empty. It has been stripped bare of computers, file cabinets, desks, everything. Not a single sticky note on the wall over the place where the computer monitor used to be.

No impression left behind on a notepad that I could run a pencil over to reveal a clue. The hacker is gone. Coming to the compound might have risked our operation—I’m definitely risking my life—and all for nothing. But I don’t have time to feel fear or regret. Only thing left for me to do is get the hell out of here before it’s too late. As I pass through the kitchen, I grab a towel so I can at least make a show of cleaning up the soup. I push open the swinging door at the very moment Marchuk Sr. yells out, “They are here!” It takes my brain a second to wonder if “they” are friend or foe, and then another second to realize it doesn’t really matter. Marchuk has drawn his sidearm and pointed it into the yard, but my entry must throw him, because he turns to look at me. “Petro, get down!” Another second passes and the house is under attack, the staccato of AR-15 gunfire outside drowning out every sound except for the pinging of ammo ricocheting off every surface inside.

Marchuk Sr. is now on the floor three feet inside the house, knocked that far back by the shot that has to have killed him instantly. I dive behind the concrete wall that separates the living and dining areas and speed-dial my boss. I can hear a volley of gunfire outside, most likely between the men loading the truck and whoever “they” are, but I suspect one of the Marchuk family’s clients has arrived before my team began our own incursion. “The Marchuk compound is under fire,” I say the moment I hear her voice on the other end. “I don’t know who it is but—” “Peter, where the hell are you?” I’m afraid to tell her, but I’m also afraid of dying today, and the bullets have not stopped flying. “At the compound, in the dining room. I know I shouldn’t be, but I couldn’t leave without—hold on. They stopped firing for some reason.” “The reason is because that’s us out there.

Marchuk’s people began moving out early. We had to stop him. He drew on us first.” She’s silent for a minute before she adds, “After all our work, I could kill you for ruining this operation, Peter.” “You almost did, boss.” It’s a smartass thing to say, but that’s my defense mechanism when I’m in trouble, and I am currently in some serious shit. Now, in the silence that almost seems as deafening as the shooting that came before it, I hear the crunching of boots on bits of pulverized concrete. I jam the phone into my pocket, leaving it on, and search the room for a weapon. There isn’t one, which is ironic considering the family’s line of work. Not that I could reach it in time anyway.

Even before I see him, I can smell him from the other side of the wall: B.O. mixed with beets, onions, and pickled cabbage. Since I arrived, I’ve come to love the scent of borscht, but not when it oozes secondhand from Marchuk Jr.’s already-rank pores. He doesn’t know I’m here, so even if he’s armed, I may be able to take him. Or maybe not. My head is spinning and I have to lean against the wall just to keep my balance. “I saw an old car parked outside the gate. I don’t recognize it.

” And I don’t recognize that voice, which means Pavlo is not alone. No way can I take on two armed men, especially since I’m currently sliding down the wall into a sitting position, as though my body has a will of its own. I’m losing feeling in my right leg. What the hell is happening to me? “I saw it arrive each morning before I left for Kiev. Belongs to the delivery boy. He must still be here,” Pavlo says. “They stopped shooting for some reason. We should go while we can. They have our vehicles surrounded. We can go out back, make an end around, maybe reach the boy’s car.

” “Father liked him. That may be why he drew his weapon and then hesitated in firing—because he was worried about the boy. It is his fault my father is dead.” Pavlo is right. I was the last thing his father ever saw. I startled him, but I still think he would have taken the shot at my team, whether I’d come through the kitchen door at just that moment or not. But I won’t ever forget the way he looked at me in that moment. He knew I’d be the last thing he’d ever see. Even if he was a very bad guy, I won’t ever forget that. “Then find him, kill him, and let’s go.

” “Kill him?” Pavlo says, sounding incredulous. Yeah, I’m with Pavlo. Thank God my boss knows I’m in here. I just need to stay alive long enough for the team to get me. “I thought you want revenge?” “This is why Father would not want you in charge, Koval. As the Americans say, you are a onetrick pony. A gun is your answer to everything.” “If a gun was not the answer to everything, you would not be a wealthy man.” “We find the boy, use him as a hostage, as a human shield, to get out,” Pavlo explains. “ Then we kill him.

” Oh no. He’s made me. He knows who I am and who just invaded his compound and killed his dad, and now he’s going to … wait, what was I just saying? I feel so light-headed. “There is no army in the world that would sacrifice killing you to save a simple delivery boy. I was a rebel soldier before I could drive a car. No one cared that I was a boy,” says the other guy, making his case too convincingly for my comfort, but at least they have no idea who I am. “They will kill him, then you. You will die like your father. Forget the boy. We should go while we still can.

” They’ll have to come around the wall and pass through the dining room to reach the back of the house, the escape route they’re planning to take to get outside the compound to my car. Their boots crunch on concrete as they come closer. I want to run, but every bit of strength has drained from me. All I can do is play dead. But I won’t have to play. Marchuk comes around the wall and, despite what he just told the other guy, draws his gun the second our eyes meet. Next thing I know, the whole world goes black. * * * When I wake up, I expect to be tied up in an abandoned farmhouse in the wilds of Ukraine, so I’m surprised to find myself in a hospital bed. We must be near the Luhansk front line because the building is shaking as though the area is under heavy artillery fire. I try to focus on the things closest to the bed: a vitals-monitoring machine, a bag of saline slowly dripping into a vein in my arm.

Everything is written in English. Everything is modern and shiny. I look over at the dim left side of the room, and make out a person sitting in the chair two feet away. Instinctively I search for a weapon, but then a voice comes from the dark. I recognize it immediately. “You’re alive, then. Are you more than that?” I am now, thanks to the burst of sunlight I’m assaulted with as she slides open a window at the foot of my bed. Weird place for a window. Oh, wait. I’m slowly getting it.

That isn’t heavy artillery shaking the building, but heavy turbulence. I’m not in a hospital. I’m in a jet. I look past the woman and see two more patients in hospital beds. I don’t know who they are, but they must be in worse shape than I am because they’re hooked up to way more machines. “Do you know who I am?” When I first saw her in the dim light, I thought she was my mother. They look something alike. Similar coloring, anyway. But a few more seconds of consciousness reminds me how impossible that is. “Of course.

Who are they?” I ask, pointing at my fellow patients. “The men who saved your life.” “Saved my life? Last thing I remember—” “You lost a lot of blood, but the doctor says you’ll be fine.”

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