kitten   December 27, 2004

She saw him alone at a table pretending to read a newspaper, his back to her and the doorway, with a nondescript black attache case in the seat across from him. She casually made a circuit of the restaurant, taking stock of the patrons, the environment. Only one person looked up, pretending to glance at the wall clock, a lone man sitting at a bar with a posture far too wired to be congruous with the role of the happy-hour businessman. That brief glance was all she needed; this was the lookout. Standard procedure, of course, and she had no intention of giving him a reason to earn his pay this evening, but she liked to have all contingencies accounted for.

Her tour of the perimeter complete, she pulled her dark hair back into a simple ponytail and secured it with a loop of elastic, before sliding into the booth opposite him, seating herself next to the attache case. The man put down his newspaper, revealing a face of craggy stubble beneath bright eyes.

"Ah, Xavy, " he said, heavily accented English. If she had to guess, she'd put his place of birth somewhere in the steppes of Kazakhstan, but it wasn't really her place to ask, or to know. Just a game she played with herself. "I did not see you come in," he added.

"If I'd let you see me come in, you wouldn't want me to," she told him. "Sitting with your back to the door made it easier, though."

"A calculated risk," he admitted, smoothly folding his newspaper and laying it on the table. "But you are unlikely to harm me, I think, yes?"

"Then why the muscle?" she asked, nodding in the direction of the bar, where the lookout continued to pretend to be absorbed in his drink.

"My organization insists," said the man, and Xavy thought she heard a bit of sadness in his voice. Almost definitely Kazakhstan, she decided. The bleak and fated attitude, maybe borne of long desolate train rides and decaying metropolises. "Such protections are wasted on an old man like me, but policy is policy. I sometimes suspect his task is for their assurance as much as my protection."

"Word is you have a job for me." A fly looped its way between them, and she tried to ignore it.

"Always straight to business, Xavy," he sighed. "Have you no time for enjoyment of the moment?" He allowed a beat to go by, waiting for a reaction, but there was no change in her impassive expression. "Very well," he sighed again. "You may take the case with you when you leave, and I will give you the combination when you have completed this job. And you know better," he added with significance, "than to tamper with the lock, yes?"

"I don't need your patronage, Aureus," she said sharply. "In fact, I'd rather be without it, so keep your damn booby-trapped briefcase. I'm only here because I owe you."

"Such venom from such a pretty face. Come, come, there is no need for that." He downed the last of his scotch and signaled a waiter, clinking the ice at the bottom of the glass. "Would you like me to get you something?" he asked.

"No, thank you." The fly alighted on the table, and without hesitation, she flattened it with one gloved hand. "Dulls the reflexes," she told him, helping herself to his napkin to wipe the fly's remnants off her glove. He stared at her a moment, until the waiter put another scotch in front of him and scurried off with the empty one.

"You impress me as always, Xavy," he said, bringing the scotch to his lips again. "Twenty five years old, single malt," he continued. "The finest there is. Are you sure I cannot persuade you?"

"I don't drink with people I'm not fond of," she informed him. "It's bad for the soul."

"I would not have suspected, somehow, that you believe in souls," said Aureus thoughtfully, brushing his stubbled chin with the back of his hand.

"Not in the same sense you do," she replied.

"Indeed," he nodded. "But given your views on theological matters, I find it interesting, the name you have chosen for yourself. Xavy. It is quite beautiful, I have told you this, hmm?"

"The job, Aureus."

"From the Spanish Xalvadora," he continued, undaunted. "Savior. I wonder if you chose it knowing this. Considering your affiliations, it seems somewhat ironic."

"The job, Aureus."

"I am done with this newspaper," he remarked. "Perhaps you would like to read it."

Xavy was always internally amused by these cloak-and-dagger contrivances, but restrained herself from showing it, instead opening the paper as instructed and finding there a single sheet of heavy stock printed with a dossier. A black-and-white face, grizzled and weatherbeaten, peered out from an attached photograph.

"Colonel Korolev," said Aureus, "ex-MVD and quite a problem for us. He is something of a linchpin for activities against us, using his connections with former spetsnaz to undermine our operations in Privolzhsky. This one is quite dangerous, Xavy."

"They're all dangerous." She removed the photograph from the dossier, slipped it into her coat pocket.

"He will be in New Orleans for the next week on business," continued Aureus. "We know he will be staying at the Hotel Monteleone, but given his level of security, I do not think that will be the best place to deal with him."

"Don't tell me how to do my job, Aureus," she told him. "You let me handle the details."

"Xavy, Xavy. Even if you had not told me, your distaste for me would be evident from across the room."

"I don't have to like you," she said. "What matters are the results."

"It is still a pity. I understand it, though. If your hostility were not directed at me, I would even condone it."

"Nothing personal," she replied.

"Of course. Business," he said. "But no less. We want this done quickly. I will consider the job complete when Korolev is dead, but ideally, he should be so before he meets with his confederates in New Orleans. Do we have a deal?"

"Do I have a choice?" she asked mildly.

"No, Xavy, you do not." Aureus stood, taking his newspaper and smoothing out his long brown jacket with his free hand. "You will contact me when you are done, yes?"

"This is the last time I do this for you, Aureus," she said, voice icy. "The last time."

"Yes, Xavy, my little savior," he replied distantly. "I expect it will be."

Aureus breezed out into the night with the bodyguard in tow, leaving her alone with an attache case and a mostly-untouched Lagavulin. Twenty five years old, the finest there is.

* * * * *

They say the French Quarter begins in the lobby of Hotel Monteleone. Xavy wondered if the rooftop of the hotel counted too, as she calibrated the scope on her rifle. Getting up here through the maintenance hatch had not been difficult, at least, not after she'd secured a room near the top floor that cost her almost a month's pay. She considered invoicing Aureus for that, as she ran her electronic scope through its test program, but decided against it. It would mean having to negotiate with him again, and she wanted that chapter of her life over.

She'd been to New Orleans once before, years ago, and it hadn't changed much. A city built on a swamp with street-level neon far below saturating the night. The French Quarter in particular was total satisfaction in distraction, where the middle-class majority went to drink their workweeks away in smoke-filled clubs and tourist traps hawked kitschy Creole artwork. Normally Xavy wanted nothing to do with such excesses, but she harbored an inclination for the beignets of Cafe du Monde, and resolved to treat herself in the morning before leaving.

The scope beeped softly at her, having finished its calibration, and she mounted it atop her rifle, custom-built to her specifications and chambered for specialty Swedish rounds. It wasn't cheap, but she viewed it as an investment, and like any good craftsman, took a certain pride in the tool of her trade.

Xavy shed her backpack, carefully positioning it next to the access hatch. Precaution of the last-resort variety. A small loop of wire protruded from the left sleeve of her shirt, and she adjusted it as she slunk to the edge of the roof, flattening herself against the gravel. Korolev would be leaving any moment now, on his way to Bella Luna according to her notes, and Xavy peered at the driveway of the hotel through her scope, adjusting the zoom until she was satisfied. Almost a top-down shot -- not conventional at all, but then, that's the way she liked it.

Seventeen floors above the city, the only illumination was cloudy moonlight, and Xavy ran through a series of breathing exercises designed to slow her heartrate. She remembered the Brazilian yogi who had instructed her in these, how deliberate his movements were and how he never smiled, but only crinkled his forehead when he found something amusing, which was frequently at her expense.

It took a steady hand to do this right, and after a few moments, Xavy was ready. She placed the crosshairs just below the hotel's awning, chambered a round, and waited, watching the headlights of cars drift by on Rue Royale. Their halogen glow formed halos in the haze, and reminded Xavy of angels, ascending.

A black Mercedes with a mirror polish turned off the Royale and into the lot of Monteleone. Instinct told her this was it, and there would be only a second or two when Korolev would be visible between the awning and the car, which even now was circling round the driveway to park in front of the lobby doors. Her instinct served her well; Korolev's face rendered green in her scope, and Xavy led the shot by a fraction of a second as she touched the hair trigger, the suppressor effectively muting the crack of the rifle. Korolev toppled over, his face like a trainwreck; his bodyguards had drawn handguns almost instantly, but it was too late for them. Her job was done. She almost felt embarrassed for them, as professionals.

She stole away from the edge of the roof and stood, letting the night air wash over her a moment, and turned, into the ice blue eyes of Colonel Korolev.
She felt her heart lose its rhythm, and went down with the crack of a fist she never saw against her face.

"Get her up," she heard him say, and rough hands grabbed her hair, forcing her to a kneel. Korolev stood before her, flanked by his spetsnaz, and grinned in a wolfish rictus. Beyond him, she could see the roof access hatch, open, with another henchman standing guard in front of it like a slavic Cerberus.

"So this is Xalvadora," said Korolev in a deep tenor, "whom I have heard so very much about. Quite a price on your head these days -- you've managed to annoy all the wrong people, haven't you?"

Xavy shook her head, tried to stand, and was held down by Korolev's guards. Behind her, the sound of a submachine gun bolt being pulled back gave new focus to her thoughts.

"Not feeling talkative, are we?" prodded Korolev.

"Chelyabinsk," said Xavy, and this gave Korolev pause.

"I beg your pardon." Eyebrow raising a few millimeters.

"Southern Urals. Where you grew up," she finished, and spat blood from her mouth, metallic and dark.

"I can see you are a woman of many talents," grated Korolev without a hint of humor. "Not enough, though -- after all I have heard about you, I must admit that this was disappointingly easy." He stepped fractionally closer to her, and reached out to stroke her chin. Xavy jerked her head away from him, producing a laugh from him which only infuriated her more.

"So much anger," observed Korolev. "I don't see why. You did, after all, try to kill me."

"Nothing personal," she muttered. "Business."

"Of course, Xalvadora," he said, "and I am a businessman myself, you understand? You're worth quite a bit; my conundrum now comes from deciding whose bounty to sell you to. So many people want a piece, I have trouble making up my mind."

"Go to Hell," spat Xavy.

"I am most assuredly on my way there," said Korolev, over the Dopplering sirens screaming past on the street far below. Kneeled beside her, face close, and whispered to her conspiratorily: "But perhaps I can delay it by confessing something to you. I told you this was easy, but the truth is, I cheated."


"I had help," replied Korolev, and stepped aside to reveal Aureus emerging from the access hatch, his long brown jacket flaring in the gusting wind.

"Good evening, Colonel," said Aureus, "and to you as well, Xavy."

A low growl ripped from her throat and she reached for her sleeve, the wire, her failsafe, restrained by the guards again and was rewarded with a knife edge palm to the side of her head.

"That's enough!" barked Korolev, as Xavy coughed and sputtered, her vision blurring. "You must forgive my accessories," he told her. "They can be somewhat overenthused at times. But, he continued as the guard neatly slipped a knife between her skin and the wire, severing it, we can't have you making irrational decisions, now can we? Nasty piece of work, he finished, indicating her backpack, lying now inert and useless near the exit. Take out more than just us with that.

"You set me up," she managed, ignoring Korolev and glaring at Aureus. "You set me up!"

"Ah, Xavy," soothed Aureus. "So I did. Can you honestly say that you are surprised?"


"Because you have no loyalties, Xavy, yet you have a potential that even you have not yet realised. You work for the highest bidder only because you have yet to understand who you are, and to tell the truth, some of our enemies are more well-funded than we are. It is my great shame to have to admit such a thing, but then, it will be our little secret, yes?" Aureus sighed his wistful sigh again before continuing. "It was really only a matter of time before someone turned your considerable skill upon us."

"And who is 'us'?"

"We," said Aureus, "who represent the best interests of our organization, fringe though we may be. Myself, and Colonel Korolev. Yes, Xavy," he nodded, off her dazed expression, "we work together. I realise that you cannot understand this, but our orthodoxy has been looking for you for a long time. A very long time. But to find you would undermine the entire point of their existence as it has been for centuries. Korolov and I decided, long ago, that we cannot allow that to happen. You have served us well, though your service has always carried a price, but now I am afraid your usefulness has come to an end." Korolev grinned again, baring too-sharp canines.

Xavy felt her stomach twist, and gave up her struggle against the guards' arms.
"It is too bad," noted Aureus, "that you do not believe in souls, Xavy. I am afraid that you are worth more dead than alive, although not many people realise this, and we cannot risk turning you over to someone else, for then, what control would we have? It would seem to defeat the very purpose of our ruse if we were to allow another to dictate your fate."

"I don't believe in fate either," she told him.

"I know you do not," said Aureus, "but no less, yours is sealed. Here is something else you will not believe: I am truly sorry."

"You're right," she said. "I don't."

"Nothing personal, little savior," he said.

"Business," she finished for him.

Aureus turned away, his figure silhouetted in the moonlight. Korolev stepped forward and raised his chin at the guard behind her. The click of a safety filled her ears.

Xavy thought of angels.