The Crimson Deathbringer
New York - December 23, 2047
The icy breeze stinging his face reminding him of Mother Russia, Sergei Molanov wondered which of his many shitty choices had led him to his present situation.
On the surface, everything was great. He was the head of security for Mike Palermo, the second most powerful man on the planet, right after General Zheng, aka the Great Dictator. It was a cushy job, with a fat paycheck and out-of-this-world benefits. Plus, Sergei was really good at his line of work. He and his team had thwarted three assassination attempts by the Resistance in the past two years, and during one of those he’d taken a bullet meant for Palermo. A bullet shot by Kurt von der Hagen, leader of the Resistance, no less. That had raised Sergei’s status to a level he’d never imagined possible.
What had gotten under his skin—despite all that success—was the bi-weekly visits to the luxurious mansion in the New York suburbs, where he was standing guard next to the main entrance on a gloomy winter evening.
The mansion was a “gentlemen’s club” called The Harem. It was run by the Russian mafia, and it was both expensive and exclusive. Rumor had it the girls who were forced into prostitution here were kept under the influence of drugs, and the clients were allowed to do whatever they desired. This was the place where Palermo, who had violent tastes to begin with, would let his sadistic imagination run free. Sergei, like everyone else on his team, believed the stories he’d heard about what was going on inside those walls, including the one about Palermo beating one of his “dates” to death.
Sergei’s younger sister, Katia—a lovely girl whom Sergei had adored—had been raped when she was only eighteen. She took her own life a few months later. Sergei hunted down the rapists, three young men from an influential family in Moscow, and killed them along with their bodyguards before fleeing to the US. Thinking about Katia made his knees wobble, and he had to lean against a marble column to steady himself.
After all these years.
Standing outside this door and imagining other young girls experiencing the horrors that had let Katia to suicide was a torture Sergei could no longer tolerate. But he didn’t have a choice. No one walked away from a man like Palermo and lived to tell the tale. If he quit his job, he was dead meat.
The door opened, and Palermo walked out, smirking, with a satisfied look on his jowly, high-colored face. His fleshy mouth always reminded Sergei of calves liver. There was a smear of blood on his right sleeve, next to his 24-karat gold cufflink. Thinking about that creature exercising his cruelty on a terrified girl made Sergei nauseous.
That was it. He couldn’t take it anymore. He’d pack a bag and run away tonight, and to hell with the consequences. But first, he’d come back here and shoot up this diabolical place. He was a dead man anyway, and he’d done more than his share of bad shit. He might as well go out doing something right.
The cracking sound of bullet’s impact reverberated in the air. A good chunk of Palermo’s brain and a hot gout of his blood splashed on Sergei’s face and neck. No gunshots though. The shooter had used a silencer.
Okay. This should solve my problem, Sergei thought.
* * *
Kurt von der Hagen, fifteen hundred meters away on top of a high-rise building, looked up from his M-28 Sniper Weapon System’s telescopic sight, punched the air and said, “Bull’s-eye!”
A fierce joy rippled through Kurt. Eliminating Palermo was the Resistance’s biggest victory. The thrill of the hunt was intoxicating. There was nothing he liked better than planning a meticulous operation, accounting for all the possibilities, and preparing the ground for a one-chance-only long-distance kill shot. At the same time, niggling remorse dogged him. The bright, idealistic politician dreaming of world peace that he’d once been was now an assassin. He wished he could go back and take a different path, one where his talents and skills would work toward something nobler than kill after kill, but he knew it was impossible. This work had to be done. Still, his heart ached. It was something he had to live with.
I’m glad Dad never saw me doing this.
Next to him, his spotter Allen chuckled. “Fourth time was the charm.”
Kurt took off his fingerless gloves. “I wish I’d shot him on his way in. I might’ve saved a couple of girls some pain,” he said while removing the suppressor. He put his sniper rifle in its case.
Allen scratched his gray beard and took a drag on his cigarette. “I still think you should’ve taken Molanov out too.”
“And I still think not,” answered Kurt, dusting freshly fallen snow off his black trench coat. “He’s just a soldier doing his job. In another life, we’d be good friends. Let’s go. Things are about to get really interesting around here.”
The older man followed him, complaining, “You won’t be so forgiving when we try to kill another one of Zheng’s goons and Molanov stops us again.”
Kurt opened the door leading to the stairs, thinking it’d been a good day at the office.
Behind him, Allen called out, “Wait up, boy! You know damn well my old knees play up in cold weather.”
* * *
I’d finally mustered up the courage to propose to my girlfriend, Elizabeth, after living with her for almost a year.
Liz was a firecracker, a woman as soft-hearted as she was hot-blooded, equally at ease sipping champagne at a fancy restaurant and playing a monster-killing VR game with me. She was a glorious contradiction. She made some people uneasy with her volatile personality, but I didn’t mind. I liked to kid her that I’d never have to cheat because I felt like I had two girlfriends. She’d roll her eyes at that.
I’d briefly thought about doing something romantic and classy. I could propose kneeling on one knee on a beach while a band was playing her favorite romantic song—2045’s Best Song of the Year, “My heart, Your Heart.” But it wasn’t my style, so I decided to pull a Deadpool and propose in bed, only with an expensive ring, and I’d hide it under a pillow, not where Wade Wilson hid his Ring Pop.
I also decided to do it on Christmas Eve.
When I picked her up from her beauty parlor, Liz was dazzling in an emerald-green velvet bodysuit with strategic cutouts, crystal snowflake earrings and thigh-high boots. I was in a smart tux with the color modifying to complement my date’s ensemble. The tux seemed to think a satiny black was the right accompaniment. I disagreed, but my suit had already proved it had a better fashion sense than I did, so I went with it.
On our way to the nightclub we used to frequent a lot—a small, cozy place called Cubano Lito—my BMW chimed its notice tone. “I’m sorry, Jim, but we’ll need to take a detour. STCU has blocked Fifth Avenue between Washington and Lincoln streets.”
“No problem, Max. We’ve got time,” I told my car.
“Something’s up. Way too many SCTU soldiers around,” said Liz.
“No surprise there,” I said. “They’re everywhere these days.”
She was right though. Tonight, there were too many of them in the streets. Liz grabbed my arm when Max reached a road-block guarded by Security and Counter-Terrorism Unit soldiers, all in full tactical gear and carrying assault rifles. An officer scanned my BMW and with a hand motion signaled us to continue. My car didn’t need to be told twice.
Liz raised her middle finger toward the officer. Max anticipated her move and blackened her side’s window. Liz reacted by kicking the car’s door like a petulant child.
Max and I protested at the same time, “Hey!”
Max sent a text to my PDD. “Can I please throw her out?”
I thought about it for a second; then I shook my head.
“I sometimes feel we live under Sauron’s rule and there are bloody Orcs everywhere,” said Liz.
I laughed. “Nice one. I’d gone with the Galactic Empire and Stormtroopers.”
“You guys really have to come up with more recent references,” said Max.
“Nothing beats the classics,” answered Liz. “Where do you think your name has come from?”
“I know you aren’t the hold-your-tongue type, but make sure you don’t say things like that in front of others,” I told Liz. “Zheng’s spies are everywhere, and comparing him to Sauron will get you a date with an SCTU officer”—I narrowed my eyes—”Unless you want a date with one of them. Rumor has it Zheng has them genetically enhanced, which includes things like, eh, stamina.”
Liz giggled. “Only if they are using your genes, Mr. Five-Times-A-Night.”
“Am I blushing?”
“Nope. And by the way, didn’t you say Zheng was like Hitler during the air force cadets’ graduation ceremony, so loudly that half of the people in the room heard it?”
I feigned horror. “I’d never say such a thing about our supreme leader. I didn’t say he was like Hitler; I said he was the reincarnation of Hitler. Huge difference.”
Liz laughed and looked out of the car’s window. “I respect what the Resistance is doing, but I honestly hope von der Hagen doesn’t pull something tonight and ruin our Christmas Eve.”
I felt a lump in my throat when she mentioned Kurt’s name. I took my PDD out of my pocket and checked the news. No assassination attempts. No bombing. No Resistance-related reports. Just another day in paradise. I tried to stop thinking about Kurt and focus on my proposal plans. Priorities.
A few minutes later Max pulled over in front of Cubana Lito and announced, “We’ve arrived.”
I got out first and offered my hand to Liz. When I turned towards the club’s entrance, I noticed two STCU agents handcuffing a homeless man. The man wore a torn air force flight jacket. A cardboard sign hanging on his neck read “Disabled Air Force Veteran Says Fuck General Zheng!”
I chuckled. “Short, eloquent and straight to the point. We fighter pilots have a way with words.”
The man wasn’t struggling. He just stood there, shoulders slumped, looking like he’d accepted his fate. There was a small crowd of bystanders.
Lis put her hand on my arm. “I’m not normally the voice of reason, but maybe you don’t do anything that ends with us spending the night in jail?”
“Didn’t you just try to flip an officer off?”
“He wouldn’t have noticed. We were inside a moving car.”
I winked at her. “Don’t worry. It takes only a minute.”
I walked towards the two agents. “Hi. My name’s Major Jim Harrison, and I’m an air force officer.”
One of them gave me a dry look. “I know who you are, Major,” he said. “How can I be of assistance?”
I smiled and extended my right hand. “I just wanted to say thank you for your hard work, protecting us day and night, especially on Christmas Eve.”
He shook my hand, but his expression didn’t change. I added, “Let me buy you a drink inside.”
“There’s no way we can get into the club without a reservation.”
“Let me worry about that,” I said.
The two agents exchanged a look and hesitated.
Liz joined us. “Come on, guys. It’s Christmas.”
“That it is,” said the second agent. “We’re on duty, but we can take a few minutes off and get a drink.” He uncuffed the homeless guy, tore the sign off of his neck and said, “Keep this up, and you’ll end up in the Coffin.”
“Max, take this gentleman to wherever he wishes to go,” I called out.
The homeless man didn’t even bother to thank me. He limped to the BMW without saying a word. His lack of gratitude made me wonder if he deserved to rot in jail.
I offered my arm to Liz. “Nicely done,” she said.
“I should’ve gone into politics,” I answered.
“How about a selfie?” one of the STCU men asked me. “It’s not every day we meet a war hero.”
We left the two agents at the bar and went to the table I’d reserved in the club’s second-floor balcony. Liz, who was a vegetarian, ordered a salad. I ordered a steak with fries, but I was so excited I’d lost my appetite. I barely touched my food. Liz noticed I wasn’t eating and with concern in her eyes asked me, “Are you all right? Do you want to go back home?”
I didn’t want her to suspect anything out of the ordinary was going on. I answered with the first excuse I could think of. “My New Year resolution’s losing some weight, and I’ve decided to start tonight.”
She tilted her head. “What are you planning to lose, muscle? You look like you’re at zero percent body fat already.”
I wasn’t a very good liar.
After dinner, we went to Cubana Lito’s dance floor. It was packed wall to wall with people dancing to booming Latino music. I wasn’t much of a dancer (real men don’t dance), but Liz, who was Afro-Hispanic and born in Cuba, was a natural. The two of us met some old friends, drank pina coladas, danced, and said Merry Christmas to a million people. We talked, playfully bantered, and made fun of other people mercilessly. She laughed at my jokes and often came up with comebacks that in her British accent somehow sounded funnier.
“You know, being out with such a beautiful woman’s good for my self-image,” I told Liz. “All the other guys look jealous.”
“You aren’t too bad yourself,” she said. “A lot of women keep checking you out.”
I kissed her on the dance floor, her body pressed against mine, ignored our friends’ get-a-room comments and told her, “The past few months have been the happiest time of my life.”
Toying with a lock of her curly hair, she gave me a coy glance and whispered in my ear, “For me too, honey.” Her breath was warm and reminded me of what we’d be doing later.
Life was good.