It was like being transported back to Moscow, back to the bad old days . . .
Pete Petrovski, rising star of the Columbus Jetz, had paused in his climb to the second floor of North Market, arrested by the shouts of two burly fans who were ascending the stairs toward him.
“Chyort,” he muttered. Damn. He drummed the fingers of one hand on the metal rail and clutched a bouquet in the other, tempted to evade the men by dashing upstairs where Natalie was waiting for him. Not that his unwitting admirers realized it, but they were delaying a proposal of marriage. Did he really have to talk to them?
But Pete knew his duty. Fans were the lifeblood of hockey, especially the longsuffering fans of the basement-dwelling Jetz. He would sign autographs and reassure his fans, in his flawed English, that the Jetz could yet make the playoffs. Then he could excuse himself with a clear conscience to join Natalie.
Strategy in place, he turned with a smile to acknowledge his public, and found himself toe to toe with a pair of leather-jacketed Neanderthals. Also smiling, but less pleasantly.
Pete had met a lot of hockey fans in his short American career. Worshipful little boys who wore his number on Jetz jerseys that reached below their knees. Beefy, corn-fed types who painted themselves orange and black and howled like coyotes whenever the Jetz stole the puck. Overeager groupies who tossed panties on the ice instead of baseball caps when he scored a hat trick.
But these lumbering goons looked less like fans than – his brain, distracted by Natalie, suddenly snapped into gear. They had shouted at him in Russian, and that could mean only one thing.
Now he took a careful step backward, up onto the landing, a hand on the railing for balance. The other hand clenched itself around Natalie’s bouquet.
The nearest goon grinned, showing crooked teeth.
“Flowers?” He joined Pete on the landing. “You shouldn’t have.”
Then the other goon was there too, crowding Pete into the corner until he could feel the metal railing at his back, and he cursed himself for not dashing up the stairs while he had the chance. The first goon’s hand buried itself in his hair and jerked his head painfully back, while the other man pawed at his jeans pocket and extracted the wallet.
“I hear you make a lotta money, Petrovski.” The goon’s coarse Russian marked him as a product of Moscow’s streets, and the small eyes glittered as they peered into Pete’s. “Maybe you wanna share the wealth. Give us a little cut every week. Just like back in the old country.”
Not here. Not in America.
“Go fuck yourself,” Pete said in Russian, through clenched teeth. A mats tvoyou.
From the corner of his eye Pete saw the goon’s companion smile and raise a fist.
He must have screamed it. The first goon’s entire body jerked back, startled, and Pete, his hair anchored in the man’s clutching fingers, had no choice but to move with him, too late for the second man to redirect his aim. There was the crack of knuckles breaking against concrete as the second goon drove his fist into the wall, followed by a howl of anguish.
A savage yank at his hair, then the first goon released him.
His fist landed like a brick on Pete’s cheekbone.
Pete staggered. The flowers jumped from his loosened grip and arced across the landing in a burst of blue and yellow, their colors an echo of the stars that danced for a moment in his head. Each of these men had thirty pounds on him, and the second man, the one with the broken hand, was charging him like a bull elephant, murder in his eyes.
But Pete was a hockey player, and these men were no bigger than the defensemen whose mission it was to smear him into the ice every time he played. He came back swinging, fueled by an adrenaline rush that wiped out the pain and the ringing in his head. He landed one punch before the injured goon simply ran over him. Pete thudded onto the concrete floor of the landing, the scent of the crushed flowers rising like incense around him, the salty tang of blood in his mouth. He tried to shield his head with his arms while his tormentors aimed their feet at his prone body. Tried to rise.
A customer’s startled shout echoed down the stairwell and the kicks ceased.
Pete felt the weight of the goons’ fleeing footsteps vibrate through the metal stairs, heard them fling open the exit door. There were shouts and screams. By the time the first of his rescuers had run up the stairs, Pete was kneeling in the midst of the ruined flowers, fighting down nausea and vertigo, intent only on regaining his feet so that he might somehow reach Natalie.
Natalie Stauffer ran an idle hand over her shaggy pink hair, then peered into her coffee cup. It was empty and Pete was late. On North Market’s second level, where she was seated, a wide balcony encircled the inside perimeter of the building. Here customers ate and people-watched after purchasing their meals from the United Nations of eateries on the ground level. Natalie scanned the crowd below in vain. No Pete.
Above her, great windows in the roof’s cupola framed the snowflakes that swarmed like gnats against the pale February sky. Beneath her stretched the vendors’ floor, occupied by mom and pop businesses related mostly to food: butchers, bakers, delis, cafés, and a smattering of gift shops. North Market had been a Columbus landmark for more than a century and a quarter. A fire in the 1940’s had pushed it into a ramshackle Quonset hut, but in the nineties, with the help of the city, it resurrected itself in a rehabbed brick warehouse on the edge of the downtown Arena District, where it now flourished.
Natalie was twenty and a third year student at CCAD, the Columbus College of Art and Design, which the locals called Cee-Cad. Meeting Pete here, where she often came to sketch for her art classes, had been her suggestion. Natalie was a regular. Once a month on Saturday morning, she set up an easel and produced caricatures of anyone who cared to pay her for them. Bob the Fish Guy had mounted and framed his, and it stood on the store counter above the serried ranks of iced and gleaming fish.
Had Pete’s practice run late? Natalie studied the Columbus Jetz poster on the wall near her table. “Hockey for Sure!” was emblazoned across the top, the season schedule across the bottom, and a galaxy of gold stars sprinkled the background. Dominating the poster was the full-length photo of a young Jetz player in full hockey regalia.
Pete’s photo, as it happened.
In the close-fitting helmet, Pete reminded Natalie of a Roman centurion, bound for battle. She was a portrait artist, and she had a weakness for Pete’s sort of classical physiognomy: the wavy hair, the strong chin, the noble brow, the fine eyes, the straight nose. The sensuous mouth. The thought of the sensuous mouth made Natalie feel rather warmer than could be explained by just the cup of coffee she had drunk.
Their relationship surprised people, but Natalie didn’t care. Three months ago, she and Pete had met by chance at a bookstore where Natalie was browsing the art section and Pete was searching for a book to expand his English vocabulary. The attraction was immediate. Covert, mutually interested glances became tentative smiles. Casual remarks segued into exploratory banter. Conversation over coffee led to a dinner date that evening. Since that dinner, their relationship had progressed at warp speed, and now Pete wanted to marry her. Natalie was equally smitten, but more cautious.
There was a buzz of voices behind her, and Natalie turned to see a crowd gathering around the stairwell exit. A figure emerged, limping slightly and holding a towel against his eye; then the crowd closed around him, blocking her view. But Natalie was already rising, her chair overturning with a clatter behind her as she sprinted toward the crowd. The injured man was Pete.
The BMW sped on silent tires through the snowy streets of downtown Columbus, past the airport, and beyond, and as always, entrepreneur and philanthropist Grigorii Grigorivitch Oxanov was surprised at how quickly the urban gave way to the bucolic. Nothing like Moscow, with its clusters of high-rise apartment buildings that went on for miles outside the city center.
The bodyguard sharing the back seat with Oxanov sent him a flickering glance, then turned his eyes back to the snowy countryside. Neither he, nor his partner in the front seat, nor the driver had ventured a word on the twenty-five minute drive.
Since Petrovski’s call thirty minutes ago, Oxanov had worked out what must have happened. His goons’ encounter with the hockey player was likely accidental, but finding him alone, they had seen an opportunity and tried to capitalize on it, driven equally by greed and by jealousy at Petrovski’s new and exalted place in Oxanov’s affections. And now, like dogs who strained against their collars to snap at passersby, they must be brought to heel.
After a series of turns off the main road, the BMW rolled to a stop just inside a small wood. The bodyguards, ex-KGB or FSB – the acronym might change with glasnost, but the function was the same – preferred outdoor meetings, where listening devices were more difficult to employ.
“I’m getting out,” Oxanov said, and the bodyguard in the front seat was out of the car so quickly that the door opened under Oxanov’s hand even as he reached for it. He emerged into the cold, turned up the collar of his cashmere overcoat against the snow, then reached into a pocket for a gold cigarette case, the cigarette lit by the second bodyguard the moment it appeared in his fingers. The cigarette case was an affectation that he cherished. How many forty-year-old Russians of his humble background could boast of cashmere overcoats and gold cigarette cases?
He was stamping the second cigarette into the snow at his feet – both would be retrieved by his vigilant bodyguards, who hated to leave evidence behind – when the two goons appeared, their silver sedan dark amid the whiteness. They left the car and approached the clearing on foot, then halted, eyes darting nervously, as the bodyguards frisked them and removed two guns and a knife.
One of the goons cradled an injured hand against his chest, and neither could meet Oxanov’s eye when he finished his cigarette and strode across the snow to confront them.
Morons. Look at them. Was there a goddamn dress code requiring Mafiya muscle to wear leather?
Martina had given him a leather overcoat one year for Christmas. She knew never to do that again.
Oxanov drew a deep breath of the frigid air and regarded the sweating hulk on his right.
“Andrei,” he said mildly in Russian, “what were you thinking?”
Andrei’s words tumbled over each other.
“We were only gonna push him around a little, but the fucker hurt my hand. . .” At Oxanov’s look, his voice trailed off into a nervous giggle.
Oxanov spoke again, quietly.
“I told you not to touch the hockey player.”
Both men flinched.
Oxanov’s hand buried itself in his coat pocket and reemerged, no longer empty.
“Misha,” he said to the dark-haired one.
The goon raised a hand and took a step back, his eyes locked on the knife that had appeared in Oxanov’s fingers.
“Put your hand on that tree trunk,” Oxanov said, pointing to a pine six feet in front of him.
Misha hesitated, half-turned as if he might flee, then surveyed the circle of impassive faces barring his escape. Slowly, he crossed to the tree and laid a trembling left hand against the trunk, his eyes pleading, but resigned.
Oxanov nodded, balanced the knife delicately in his fingers, and flung it. The goon shrieked, the sound quickly muffled by the falling snow, but instead of jerking his hand away, he clung to the pine as if embracing it, his cheek flat against the bark, his eyes squeezed shut, the knife protruding, quivering, from the fleshy web between his thumb and index finger. Andrei, watching, sucked in his breath with an audible hiss.
Satisfied that he had not lost his touch, Oxanov retrieved the knife from his employee’s hand, working it back and forth before yanking it free. The wounded goon still clung to his tree, opening dazed eyes when Oxanov spoke.
“Smarter to do as you’re fucking told.”
Oxanov’s voice was without inflection. The goon grimaced and slid slowly to his knees, his wounded hand dripping scarlet on the white ground. Andrei had not moved an eyelash, but his mouth slackened in relief when he saw Oxanov wipe the blade with a handful of snow and slip it back into his pocket. Oxanov was breathing hard. After fully a minute’s silence, he spoke to the fallen goon.
“You, have that taken care of.”
Misha staggered to his feet, nearly losing his balance as he bowed to Oxanov. He removed the wool scarf from his neck and began to wind it awkwardly around his bleeding hand.
“You have your flight information,” Oxanov said. “I’ll contact you when I need you.”
Both men bowed this time, and were turning away when Oxanov spoke again.
The goon turned slowly back to Oxanov, his reluctance palpable.
“You should shake my hand good-bye.”
Andrei blanched, but extended his right hand, the one he must have damaged in his encounter with the hockey player. Oxanov considered, then shook his head.
“One of you has to be able to drive.”
Andrei muttered a fervent “Spassibo.” Thank you.
Oxanov speared the two goons with his gaze. “Petrovski doesn’t know that I own him,” he said. “He will not find out from you. Or –” He removed the knife from his pocket and flicked open the blade. “Do you understand?”
Eyes riveted on the knife, the goons nodded.
Oxanov could almost laugh at the spectacle the two of them made, bowing their way out of the woods with their fucked-up hands clutched tenderly to their hearts. Extorting Petrovski, as those two morons had tried to do, would have been routine. The other Russian on the hockey team already paid a kickback. But Petrovski was a special case, an athlete so outstanding in his sport that he could scale the dizzy heights of celebrity occupied by Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky. How much better to make Petrovski his friend and ally, a tactic that seemed to be succeeding. Good that the boy had called him so quickly, unaware that it was Oxanov’s own goons who had attacked him. Misha and Andrei had been impressed by the speed of their punishment, and would be disinclined to test him again.
The snow sifted down and Oxanov turned back to the BMW. After this episode, best to keep the outside muscle away from Columbus altogether, somewhere they could do no harm that could be traced back to him. When he needed their special talents again, he would call.
© 2012. Nancy McKibben. All Rights Reserved. Blood on Ice logo, logotype and manuscript are the exclusive properties of Nancy McKibben.