“They call me Sergei,” he said in rolling English like a baritone auditioning for the Mariinsky. “But I am not Russian.”
He grunted as she sank her elbow into the thin, flat muscle beneath his shoulder blade, sliding in deep with the greasy stink of Tiger Balm.
How did she know how to drill down on that one spot? The left that always gave him trouble. His shooting arm. Also his stabbing arm and punching arm. Though, he was pretty good with both limbs. Ambidexterity being an advantage for basketball players and killers alike. Not that he had a chance of being a basketball player. Too short. But he could have been an Olympic wrestler before the knee thing. That little problem of the money and the cracked knee cap. Still, who was left alive after that encounter? And it put him on his career path earlier than expected. Nothing like a little military dedovshchina to brutalise you into becoming a man.
“No?” She said and released her elbow, sending ripples of relief down his back. “But the newspapers say Russia.”
He grimaced. The muscle on his neck flared with plumes of pain.
Get a massage, Ximo said, make the muscles malleable again before getting in that tin-can of a boat to Algeria. The old Filipina cleaner down at the factory can do magic with her fingers, he said. She doesn’t care about Italian police warrants and Interpol Red Notices. Just money. Ximo had been right about the farmyard vet, discreetly rooting out the gunshot and stitching him up after Italy. So why not the massage?
But the old Filipina did read the morning papers, apparently.
“Newspapers lie,” he growled. “They sell stories to make money.”
“Berry true, sir,” she said in an accent thick as arnibal syrup.
Until this morning, nobody even knew he was here. Then the carabinieri got desperate. They put out a cash reward and sold the local papers a preposterous story about him being a murderous Russian agent. Front page news! An escapee from a Croatian prison. His old cellmates paid by the lie. 1000 push-ups and sit-ups every morning? Spetsnatz training, the papers said, as if they knew what that was. Russian special forces had given him an ‘almost inhuman discipline’ wrote one reporter, salivating over the details. He never ate red meat, another paper said, only vegetables like some kind of zealot. Still, he managed to put 5 guards into hospital when they tried to muscle him into solitary.
Okay, it wasn’t all lies. He did filch some old magazines from the library and pack them under his clothes. Worked pretty good as body armor against their batons. Until an electric current was jammed into his throat.
“Try to relax, sir,” she said. A ridiculous request. As if he could manually unwind the coiled spring deep inside him. She returned to kneading his neck.
Ximo was right. She was a good masseuse: Tender on the old injuries. Brutal on the gnarled knots of muscle.
Who was this monster the papers described in such lurid detail? That wasn’t him. He was no unkillable villain from a Hollywood movie. No psychotic murderer. He didn’t eat them like some ogre. He was no crazy serial killer in America preying on young boys. Certainly, he was not spying for Russia. If he had a patriotic bone in his body, he’d broken them all and left them behind in a stinking heap in Chechnya.
He was just doing his job. Albeit one with a highly specialised skill set in demand with certain oligarchs who supplied him with the necessary tools of the trade: weapons and passports.
“No, I am from Bulgaria,” he said. Did she know he was lying? Did it even matter? It was getting harder to keep track of which identity he was supposed to be using. Serbian, Hungarian, Moldovan and, of course, Russian. He shuffled through passports the way a croupier riffles through cards, always the same pallid and vacant face staring out.
“And I am not a killer like Russian spy idiots in England,” he added vehemently. “The poison. Novichok. ¿Sabes? So messy.”
He’d fallen into the habit of dropping Spanish into his sentences. A sure sign he’d been hiding out here too long. He turned his head to look back at her.
“Si,” she echoed in agreement, “So messy.”
She was focused on his lower back so all he could see was the top of her head. Just as well. She was not one of the pretty ones. Short and squat of some indeterminable age — but certainly not young — with fleshy hands that pummelled his muscles like meat mallets. She had a typically Asiatic face with a flat nose and wide nostrils as if she’d slipped out of the womb and landed on her face. Utterly unfuckable. But this was good. You can never trust the ones you want to fuck. Like Natalia.
Still, when the old Filipina had arrived, he frisked her down and emptied out her bag. Made a show of placing his gun on the bedside table. A Zastava CZ999. She watched him politely then laid out a Barca beach towel and connected a little speaker to her mobile phone. Tinkling piano music wafted out.
While she got the place ready, he sifted through the contents of her bag. A frayed wallet containing 20 Euros, a bus pass, and a photo of two brown smiling children. A zippered purse with tampons tucked inside. A jar of Tiger Balm and a glass dropper bottle decorated with lacy pink flowers. He checked the seals. Still intact.
She rinsed a yellow wash cloth in the kitchen sink before rolling it neatly and placing it in the fridge. Then she cracked open the jar of Tiger Balm and scooped the jelly out with her fingers. She wiped the stinking balm in one palm and rubbed her hands together.
“Okay, pace down please,” she had gestured to the towel laid out on the bed. He hesitated, just for a moment, before easing his bulk down onto his belly.
“You know Bulgaria?” He said now, drowsy, her hands extruding the words out of his mouth.
“It is …” She was moving with care along his legs. “… near Italia?”
He laughed at her.
“No, it is near Russia! On the Black Sea.”
“Sorry,” She giggled, “I was not so good at school.”
“Bulgaria is a small country,” he said, “and poor. Not like Philippines. But still poor.”
“Yes, not much money,” she said, “but we work hard.”
He’d been defaulting to his Bulgarian identity recently. It was easier to keep straight. His father had lived in Bulgaria toward the end and he really did know the country. At least the beach in Burgas where his mother took him once to meet him and eat Eskimo ice cream bars, chocolate and cream dribbling over his pudgy fingers.
He’d told Natalia about this: the simple heaven of cracking a bite into the chocolate shell, the cold delicious shock of the ice cream, walking hand in hand with the silent, grizzled man he was apparently related to, this old Soviet soldier with ghosts in his eyes. Tora Bora, his mother said in explanation, as if he would somehow know Soviet military history. He hadn’t truly understood until he was older and the Americans chased Osama Bin Laden into those limestone tunnels and he saw pictures of the rusting hulk of Soviet tanks. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires.
He told all this to Natalia because it was the closest he could come to telling her the full truth of who he was. But she didn’t really understand. She was too young even to remember the American invasion, much less why his father came back hollowed out and broken. And still, she betrayed him.
“You are not afraid of me, yes?” He said to the old Filipina with his eyes closed.
Why had he asked her that? Maybe because he remembered Natalia’s pleas before he lowered the gun to her head. Beautiful Natalia. Her black mascara running down her pale face. Where had she wanted to go? Fiji or Tahiti? The Maldives or Bora Bora? He didn’t even know where those places were but it meant flying and that was too dangerous. Too many questions at airports. Too many people wanted them dead or behind bars.
“No,” the old Filipina said, thumbing the soles of his feet. “I am not afraid, sir.”
Sardinia was supposed to be their retirement. A short hop from Split to Ancona, then the Civitavechia ferry like ordinary honeymooners with two crisp new passports in hand. Natalia in her gold bikini. He in a straw hat. But she wanted more. She wanted a yacht with a walk-in wardrobe of Prada and Chanel and he couldn’t afford that. Especially if he wasn’t working anymore. He’d stashed a hefty amount of cash, but not that much.
He tried to explain this to her. They needed to live quietly. They couldn’t just sail off into the sunset with an iceberg-sized yacht, leaving a trail of Louis Vuitton bobbing in their wake. They needed to disappear. Especially as a hitman running off with one of the boss’s girls.
But she didn’t listen. They argued. He lost his temper. Put a gun to her head, yes, but only to make her listen. He didn’t pull the trigger. He would never do that. But it was only a matter of time until they found them.
Now Natalia was at the bottom of the sea with her bikini and passport packed into her suitcase, helped along by a jagged block of concrete. Fish and crabs nibbling at her milky white body while he waited it out in dusty Teruel, eating greasy jamon and peppers with Ximo. His aging body pocked with gunshot wounds that were taking longer and longer to heal. He might be difficult to kill but it was not impossible, whatever the newspapers said.
“You are berry tense here.” The old Filipina knuckled a fist into his right buttock. “Your sciatic nerve.”
“Yes, stress from my work,” he said because it was true.
“Bad for your health,” she said. “You must take care.”
He smiled at her concern. He was starting to like her accent. No, Italy was not possible anymore. Nor Spain. But he wasn’t staying in godforsaken Algeria either.
“What is like, the Philippines?”
“Hot,” she said, “but cheap. Many many islands with beautiful beaches. Palawan. Boracay. Many coconut trees.”
“Boracay,” he repeated after her dreamily. “Sounds like a nice place.”
She tapped him on his shoulder. “Sir? Please turn, face-up.” Then she disappeared into the kitchen.
He rolled over to one side, feeling thick and sluggish. Despite all the spetsnaz discipline, he’d gotten fat. She came back holding the yellow washcloth.
“I put this on, yes?” Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her waggle the glass vial in her hand, “Lavender oil, okay?”
But also invigorating. The cold nubs of the terrycloth alive on his skin as a sweetish scent tickled his nose. The old Filipina had managed to unpick the knotted mess inside him. He inhaled and then let out a deep velvety sigh.
She was stretching his neck out like yeasty bread dough, working his body elastic and yielding. His memories of Natalia fading like the ice in her sweet umbrella drinks, drifting away like blooms of blood in seawater.
“Boracay … is like … Bora Bora …,” he murmured through the intoxicating scent of the washcloth. “… is like …Tora Bora … ¿Sabes?”
He frowned at the wrongness of the words. Bora Bora was palm trees and bikinis. Tora Bora was the emptiness in the eyes of an old Soviet soldier.
His eyes fluttered with belated realisation. He tried to tug the cloth away but his fingers had grown fat and fumbling. He only managed to pull the damp cloth off of one eye before his hand fell away.
“You are … not … from Philippines,” he said with great effort.
“No.” Her pleasant accent was gone now, fading like the contours of the room, his face sliding in disbelief.
He made a feeble reach for the gun but his hand just flapped by his side, like a fish flopping its life away. She had slid it away somewhere. He felt his leg kick but it seemed unconnected to him now. A thick tree trunk with a foot jerking uncontrollably beneath him. His body still fighting. Then the leg went limp and he felt a sharp sting on his neck.
“Do not make this messy, Sergei” she said, “I hate cleaning.”
A razor blade at his carotid. An old trick but a good one. Clever lady. Maybe she’d snuck it in the purse lining with the tampons. Idiot. He should have checked that more closely. And the sweet little bottle too.
But what wars did the Philippines have to make assassins like this? Women with pummelling fists and cold hearts. After all the things he’d seen, he marvelled at how little he knew.
“They … Ximo … he, they …Natalia…” His tongue was filling his mouth now as he stumbled over questions. Whatever he wanted to say, it was vitally important, critical, for him to know.
“I don’t know anything,” she said to him, “Just doing a job.”
Then she shushed him, like his mother on the long drive home, lying to him that there would be Eskimo ice creams with his father every summer. Lying like Natalia that it would all be okay, that no one would find them even though she’d left a trail of shiny breadcrumbs that lead straight to their bullet-ridden boat. Lying like that greedy puto Ximo.
“For … money,” he said finally.
Maybe this was retirement for people like him. The pension plan of paid assassins. This retreat into memory where he could, at least, respect this ugly woman with the flat nose. She did good work. Like him.
“Okay,” he said finally. He sounded heavy, slurred, and distant as if he was hearing himself underwater, sinking down to Natalia’s depths, at last. “this … this is… Bora Bora.”
“Bora Bora,” she said and shushed him one last time.