A young woman was walking along a street in a vast, gray, grim city.
Although it was spring already, it was still cold in this city. This woman was wearing a faux-fur long coat that reached halfway down to her shins and black boots.
Her hair was cut short in a pixie cut, and the color was intriguing. The street lights were not sufficient to illuminate her hair properly. But this woman had what some could call light bronze colored hair. Or dirty blonde. Or blonde with shades of brown and caramel. In good lighting, it would be quite clear that her hair color was difficult to pin down.
Most people would say the same for her hazel eyes. Sometimes they appeared green, sometimes brown, sometimes gold. This young woman’s eye color seemed to change depending on the environment that she found herself in.
The same also went for her features. Most of the time, in most lighting conditions, when seeing her at a distance most viewers would say that she was Caucasoid. But if you got closer or viewed her from different angles, you would see other racial features. Her ancestors had come from different parts of the Northern Eurasian landmass, and her features reflected that. Her face was fairly sharp, her cheekbones high, and her eyes were narrow.
Like many people in this part of the world, it was quite difficult to say what she was exactly. You would have to ask her what she thought she was.
“Nastya?” Someone called out.
Anastasia ignored the caller.
“Nastja?” The voice seemed to be slightly louder now.
Most people in these parts used Nastya as a dimunitive for her name. But Anastasia preferred to be called Stacy. This caller either didn’t know her, or he was addressing someone else.
“Nastyusha?” Even louder.
The caller had gotten closer.
Stacy was a common dimunitive for Anastasia where she was born but wasn’t truly a part of. But years after leaving New York, Stacy was still using this short form of her name. It differentiated herself from most other women in these parts.
Stacy looked up warily. Several menacing men approached her. Two, Three, Four.
Footsteps sounded from behind Stacy. No, Five.
Stacy looked at the men. They seemed to be from different ethnic backgrounds, which means it probably wasn’t that guy. Maybe it was…
One of the men took out a gun.
Pistol… pistol… what… Tokarev or Makarov?
These pistols didn’t look alike at all, even to Stacy who wasn’t a weapons specialist. She had been in conflict zones and situations enough that she could normally recognize a weapon.
But now it was pointed at her, and she wasn’t able to think fast enough.
“Come with us,” a man said.
Stacy stared blankly at the barrel of the gun pointed at her. A whole world of thoughts was whirling through her.
Is the gun real?
How far am I from the nearest building?
Can I run for it? Would these men really dare shoot in a public space?
But… the police… they don’t like me. And I don’t trust them…
Is this it? Am I looking at the end of my life?
“Bitch, come with us!” The man who had first said ‘come with us’ roared. This time Stacy looked at him. This man had a brutal, squat face with a broad jaw covered by a big red beard.
Stacy’s eyes ran quickly over the other men. Wait a moment, they seemed to be taking orders from Red Beard.
Stacy struggled to produce a few words, addressing the man. His eyes grew larger, then narrowed. Very few outsiders would know his language.
“You may have some of our blood,” Red Beard said with a sneer, “but I won’t hesitate to spill it anyway.”
“If she isn’t cooperative… do it here?” The man with the gun asked.
“Hmmm…” Red Beard put on a savage look that was midway between a rapist’s lustful grin and a grimace by a torturer straining to break his victim’s back.
Something told Stacy that Red Beard didn’t want to kill her on the spot. He really wanted to take Stacy out of public sight, so that he could do worse things.
Stacy could not help pulling her coat more tightly around herself. No, please…
What happened next seemed like a moment frozen in time, in grainy black and white photographs. As though it took place a long time ago or in another world.
A slim, very pale blonde woman approached from the side. This woman was dressed in a white top and a short black miniskirt, and her long hair was tied up and held in place by what appeared to be a claw hair clip. Seemingly ignoring the potential menace of a drawn firearm, this woman moved in a certain, focused manner. Before any of the men could react, the blonde swiftly pulled out an odd looking dark gun from a shoulder holster and fired one shot in a two-handed grip.
Something like a pellet or champagne grape flew out and struck the man who had the gun. Green liquid spread over the front of his shirt and the man started spasming.
The slim blonde woman did not hesitate, and shot another man who collapsed the same way.
There was a thumping sound. Then a third man, the one behind Stacy, fell to the ground. Stacy could not help but turn to see what had happened. A black-haired woman in a pink outfit like a cheerleader stood behind him, her hands clasped together in a fist. Apparently she had hit him.
There was a tiny splat sound, as though a small rotten tomato had hit somebody. Then a fourth man fell face down onto the ground and began spasming. There was a spreading stain on the back of his shirt. But it didn’t look like blood – it seemed to be translucent or transparent, and actually looked like something else…
Red Beard was the only man left. He looked left and right in shock. Brutal as he had looked, apparently Red Beard was not expecting anybody to start a fight with his team. Suddenly a woman in a miniskirt appeared from behind his blind spot. This woman had hair redder than Red Beard’s beard, but a far more pleasant look on her face.
“Surprise,” the woman said and brought a fist up in an uppercut. Red Beard’s head snapped up and he stumbled back.
The first woman, the slim blonde, shot Red Beard and he collapsed on his back.
In the meantime several more tomato-sounding shots were heard, and more colorless stuff appeared on the bodies of the fallen men. There was no blood, but the men all trembled and winced and twitched like damaged puppets.
“Anastasia Shiluna?” The pink cheerleader asked.
“Yes,” Stacy said. “You can call me Stacy.”
The redhead had squatted down next to Red Beard. “Disarm these guys?”
The blonde didn’t look as though she wanted to do this. “I’ll keep watch,” she said and began reloading her gun. Her moves were calm, but not perfectly practiced.
The journalist in Stacy noticed that all three women were wearing gloves.
“Pistol, knife, pistol, knuckledusters, truncheon…” Pink Cheerleader voiced out as she hastily tossed everything into a cloth bag. Stacy could not help but note that this was more environmentally friendly.
“Clear here,” the redhead said. She now started searching Red Beard, removing a pistol, some ammunition, a knuckleduster and a couple of knives. Stacy recognized a shalta.
“… knuckleduster, Scout Knife, Khanjali.” the redhead finished inventorying Red Beard’s weapons and pulled her cloth bag shut.
Looking up at Stacy, the redhead said: “I’m Nazi, by the way.” Redhead went on to search another man.
“Clear here,” Pink Cheerleader said. “I’ve disarmed two.”
“Clear also,” Nazi said as she stood up after a few more seconds. She had searched three men, moving more efficiently than Pink Cheerleader. Glancing at Stacy, the redhead added: “do call me Naz.”
Stacy had not reacted to the redhead’s name earlier. It wasn’t a common name, but not out of the world for Stacy, who also had ancestors from the Kavkaz region. The hair color was a bit of a mismatch with the name, though. Someone from Sakartvelo – known to outsiders as the Republic of Georgia – normally did not have such red hair.
In the Kavkaz ethnic group that Stacy was partly descended from, red hair was more common than blonde hair. So Stacy’s natural hair color would also make her an outlier among the people she claimed descent from.
“Time to go,” the blonde said. “I’m Rugile. Riley for short.”
“Come with us,” Pink Cheerleader addressed Stacy. “Melek Altynbekova here. Just call me Angel.”
Some things happen without you knowing why. Stacy didn’t know why she decided to follow these three women. She had never seen them before, and it wasn’t even clear if they were friends or just a hastily assembled team of misfits on somebody else’s payroll. But they didn’t seem hostile, so Stacy followed them.
Then she stopped.
It was a hulking black car. Absolutely massive. Opulent and oozing wealth and power.
Cloaked in the shadows by the side of a tree-lined boulevard, somehow or other Stacy completely managed to miss the car. Until Naz, Riley and Angel came to a stop around it.
In some countries, people would be happy to get into a car like that. They would feel privileged that someone was inviting them to sit in a car as expensive as the Rolls Royce Phantom.
In this country things didn’t work the same way.
Stacy recoiled from the Rolls Royce.
“Hm?” Angel turned to look at Stacy.
“Don’t worry, I don’t drive like the people in this country,” Naz said without turning around as she opened the driver’s side.
Riley entered the passenger side, casually drawing her pistol as she did so.
Stacy tensed. But Riley wasn’t looking at Stacy. Instead Riley sat down and placed the pistol into the glove compartment where there seemed to be some kind of electrical charging function.
Now that the lighting was better, Stacy relaxed as she could see the pistol more clearly. Stacy had seen many pistols in her line of work, and this was clearly a very unusual pistol. It vaguely resembled an adult toy, and did not seem to have visible metal parts.
Angel made a gesture. “Do I have to open the door for you?”
“Hey, don’t waste time,” Naz said as she belted herself in.
“Oh, maybe it’s because of this,” Angel stepped forward and opened the rear door. A Rolls Royce Phantom employed coach doors, so they opened differently from the average car. An average person might be taken by surprise at the location of the door handles. But Stacy still didn’t move.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a ZAZ with such doors?” Naz commented mildly. “The ZAZ-965…”
What shall I do?
Stacy was completely at a loss.
In this country, there were plenty of rich people who owned Rolls Royces. But unlike in many countries, the Rolls Royce owners here were rarely handsome young tech entrepreneurs or dignified old aristocrats. Instead they were often derided as gangsters, criminals, corrupt government officials or political thugs who got rich by having connections to exploit natural resources or take exclusive regional or sector monopolies. People who were summed up as Oligarchs. There was hardly any chance that such a car might be owned by a nice benefactor.
Angel tilted her head. “Hey?”
Stacy’s mind was racing.
All right, so she had been saved today. But what next? No doubt someone had sent a team of killers after her, and it was probably that mini-dictator in that perverse version of a mini-Caliphate. But she wasn’t all that safe getting into an oligarch’s car.
Best case scenario, Stacy figured some oligarch who didn’t like the mini-dictator wanted to save Stacy so she would be indebted to him and give him good press henceforth.
Worse case scenario, Stacy imagined a very unpleasant man called Beria…
Naz rolled her window down.
“I know this looks like some powerful and well connected guy’s car. It’s not. It’s our car. And it can be yours too.”
Stacy’s face changed even more.
So these women were the oligarchs? Or was it some oligarch’s daughter doing some strange things on a whim…
Angel had gotten inside and was sitting at the far end of the bench seat. Now she leaned forward to look Stacy in the eye.
“Look, I know you’re wary of getting into a car after you just nearly got killed. But we need to go. Can we bring you to our safe place and talk?”
Angel’s voice and eyes convinced Stacy that she could be trusted. There was a straightforwardness to them. Or maybe it was the way Angel sat. She didn’t close her legs, so pink panties showed up under the short pink skirt. Angel really didn’t seem to have anything to hide.
So Stacy nodded and entered the car.
As Naz pulled the Rolls Royce away from the kerb, Stacy heard a voice sound over the radio. It was bright and cheerful, reminiscent of a field of sunflowers in Ukraine.
Oh, but nope. That accent was definitely not Ukrainian. More like a field of white gold in Uzbekistan…
Now this was not coming out right either. Uzbekistan’s cotton was tainted by the use of forced child labor. This voice sounded a lot happier than that.
“Hey, extraction done? I’m out already!”
Riley picked up the radio. “Marilyn, our rescuee Stacy is safely with us.”
“All right,” the voice said brightly. “Then I’m on my way too. Tell Naz she’s sooo lucky!”
“What luck?” Naz asked as Riley placed the radio back on its hook.
“Luck to be driving a Rolls Royce instead of a Lada, I guess,” Riley replied.
Stacy was not extremely familiar with Moscow streets, because she spent so much time away from the city on assignments. But Naz didn’t drive too fast, so Stacy could catch glimpses of the street signs along the way.
At length the Rolls Royce turned into Kirovskaya Ulitsa, an area of abandoned Soviet-era facilities. Then it turned into an ageing compound of modest buildings.
Naz must have hit a remote control button somewhere, because the metal doors to a garage were rising as the car approached. Naz drove the Rolls Royce inside, and the metal doors descended silently.
As Stacy emerged from the Rolls Royce, she noticed there was another car in the garage. It was a beige Lada car. She also noticed that although the garage was currently lit by a single incandescent light bulb hanging down by a cord, there were newer light fixtures present, set flush against the ceiling. She suspected the light bulb was only present for show. An outsider looking in casually would just see the light bulb.
From the outside, this compound looked like one of so many nondescript, crumbling facilities that had been abandoned by their state owners in the years since the USSR dissolved.
But inside, it was surprisingly clean, modern, well appointed and well maintained. All furnishings and fittings were new or in clearly very good condition.
Stacy had not been an academic and journalist for nothing. She noted everything right away. In this country there was a lot of deception. It all looked like a hidden base of some sort, with the exterior intentionally set to look abandoned or neglected to outsiders.
She also noted what was being done to the guns and weapons collected. They were carefully sorted out and placed in clear plastic bags, and without being touched directly by any hands. This seemed to be some kind of effort to collect evidence as well.
“What are you? Are you some kind of law enforcement agency?” Stacy asked.
Riley was doing something with categorizing and organizing. She looked up and smiled thinly at Stacy.
“Would you feel comfortable if we told you we were a law enforcement agency?”
“Definitely not,” Stacy replied. “The legal system of this country just provides the authorities with excuses to bully and oppress ordinary citizens. Bigshots and their cronies are not subject to the same law enforcement as ordinary citizens. So I don’t trust law enforcement here at all.”
Stacy had come up with such a definitive reply because she strongly suspected that her rescuers were not associated with the government or any of its many cronies at different levels. Now she watched the reactions of the four women who had rescued her.
“Hear, hear,” Naz said happily.
“One of us,” Angel agreed.
“Humph!” Riley grunted as though she really couldn’t care less about anything in the country.
Marilyn didn’t say anything, but Stacy noticed Marilyn was looking at her with a dimpled smile. Marilyn was really the cutest girl ever, Stacy thought. Marilyn made people want to pick her up and hug her like a bunny or guinea pig.
Wait, Marilyn is petite but actually no smaller than Stacy. Maybe a better comparison would be a capybara or panda…
Ah, but Stacy is an intellectual. And she wanted information. Something about Marilyn…
“You agree but do not agree?” Stacy looked into Marilyn’s eyes.
“I agree with your assessment of the legal system here,” Marilyn said. “But it still isn’t the worst there is.”
“Ah, you know worse,” Stacy smiled.
“I do know worse,” Marilyn’s green eyes were laughing.
Uzbek or Turkmen, Stacy thought to herself.
On the way here Stacy had been trying to figure out more about her rescuers.
The name Rugile was a huge hint. Riley was undoubtedly Baltic.
Riley could still be a foreigner from across the Baltic sea, but her attitude had been both disdainful and familiar at the same time. So Stacy guessed that Riley might have been born in the USSR. Or maybe Riley was a Finnish agent. Stacy imagined that Finland might take an interest in promoting democracy and human rights in these parts, since it was the best way to make the neighborhood safer for Finland.
Angel’s name and face had been clearly Central Asian, probably Kazakh. Kazakhs had a wider range of looks than most other Central Asians. Angel did not look Mongolian enough to be a Kyrgyz, and her Turkic-sounding name ruled out Kalmyk or Buryat.
Naz had red hair and blue eyes; unusual for Kartvelian people. But lots of people in the USSR had mixed ethnic origins; the government back then had encouraged racial and ethnic mixing to create their Soviet People. Stacy was one such product; probably Naz was another.
Marilyn was the most interesting. She appeared cheery and happy in a way that contrasted with the dourness that Russians are famous for, but seemed to be from a country where the quality of life was considerably worse. Stacy guessed Marilyn was the eternal optimist; someone who could always find the best in any situation.
This was a slightly mismatched crowd that came across as some kind of non governmental organization. Or maybe human rights activists of some sort. Or some university student group.
This could also be a criminal group, of course. Stacy had to remain skeptical.
Stacy’s journalistic eye made one final observation.
Three of the women were wearing very short skirts. Naz and Riley had tops that showed cleavage, while Angel’s top showed most of her back and plenty of her belly. In contrast, Marilyn was wearing a military coat that she did not take off indoors. Was Moscow too cold for someone used to Uzbek or Turkmen temperatures?
Stacy had yet to remove her coat also.