Strobe lights bounce off every space, the flow of the dancers is broken from one motion to another. Bodies pulse and sweat out their sin. The playground of sin: Gail’s. The club has built up a reputation for just that. I move two women kissing aside, their faces blissfully stare up at me as I move past them. All around me reminds me why I love Gail’s. I come here when I need to forget who I am and what I do. But tonight, I’m not here for pleasure. I’m working. Pavel, he’s my next target, the one I must collect and deliver to the can. I always get twenty-four hours from the moment I receive the message, to have them placed in the can to be collected by someone else. I never wait around; it’s not my job to know what happens after I deliver them.
A woman, who appears possessed, jerks and falls to the ground. The crowd moves back but continues their dance around her. I glance around until I find who I seek. Dimitri. I nod and he moves away from the wall and clears a path towards me.
“A woman has collapsed.” I jut my chin behind me.
“Thank you, Nicholai.” Dimitri vanishes into the crowd. His body is clad in black leather, covering up all his tats that I know are painted onto his body. He once worked within the Bratva, but somehow he found a way out. I had no idea how many lives it cost for him to leave, but I’m sure he gave up someone he shouldn’t have, to get out. He was frowned upon, but he moved close to the circles that I moved in, so making an enemy of a man like Dimitri isn’t wise.
I break through the crowd and climb the five steps that are cushioned with red carpet. The chain that stops the clubbers from crossing, is removed for me before I even have to pause in my stride.
“Pavel?” I ask.
“Third room on your left.”
I nod as the chain is placed back on the hook. I take in a lungful of cleaner air. It’s tinged with a different kind of sin, but one that I’m accustomed to. The heavy hitters take up most of this part of the club. I reach the third door and pause. Taking out my gun, I make sure it’s loaded before stuffing the piece back into the band of my trousers. I glance left and right before knocking three times. The door opens slightly.
A bellboy is ready to dismiss me, but his eyes slowly widen. I place my finger over my lips before beckoning him forward with two fingers. He hesitates and I tilt my head, he wisely steps out of the room and races past me.
“Who’s at the door?” Pavel asks.
I step into the darkened room and gently close the door behind. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust to the lighting in the room. Pavel is seated with his back to me. A girl dances in a glass box. She’s naked, her head is thrown back as she runs her hand down her body and in-between her legs.
I look away from the blond beauty and walk to Pavel.
“I asked, who is it?” His irritation has him ready to turn in the chair.
I grip the chair, freezing it in place. “Enjoy the show a few more minutes, Pavel.”
He tries to turn, but I grip his shoulders, forcing him to stay in the chair.
I’m not sure if my title is said with fear or a plea, maybe both, but either way, I hold Pavel still and watch the blond touch herself. Her other hand runs up to her large breasts where she grips her nipples and squeezes.
“I can pay.” Pavel’s lame attempt at trying to bargain, has me dragging his fat ass out of the chair.
“Time to go.” I push him towards the door.
He stumbles before spinning around. His face grows gray as he runs a fat hand through his thinning dyed black hair. “I can pay.”
I crack my tattooed knuckles. “You know who I am?”
He nods. “The Collector.”
I’m easy to identify, and I like that. It gives the person around thirty seconds to come to terms with the knowledge that I’m here to collect and I always collect. My hair is tied up, both sides shaved; a black cross is tattooed into the side of my head. It's one of my markings, my identifier for who I am. Pavel’s gaze tightens.
“Have you ever heard of anyone not being collected?” I ask while taking a step towards him.
He shakes his head.
He turns towards the door and opens it, knowing his fate is sealed. The chain is removed for us as I keep my gun pressed into Pavel’s back. Within the crowd, I didn’t want him to get brave and try something stupid. He weaves through the crowd and I nod at Dimitri as I leave.
The moment we are outside, Pavel starts to plead again.
“Name your price.”
I remove the gun from his back and tuck it into the band of my trousers. Pavel glances at me over his shoulder with hope in his eyes, like I might have changed my mind. I reach out and grip the back of his neck, directing him to my car that’s parked down the next alleyway.
“Please, I can give you anything you desire.”
“I don't desire anything,” I answer him, as I keep a check around us, making sure no one is watching at this hour of the night. The streets are devoid of much life. In the next thirty minutes they will bustle with the clubbers, as the doors to Gail’s will close.
My car bleeps, the orange lights flash in the dark alleyway. I wave my hand close to the trunk and it opens. Pavel tries to talk, but I push him in and slam the trunk down on him. His thumps start, but the moment I get in and the engine purrs to life, the music drowns out the beating of his fists.
I drive through the city and out into a more barren landscape. Out here in the wilderness is an outhouse, or what we call the can. It’s where I leave each person I collect, and from there, at some point, they are picked up by someone and brought to Victor. I have no idea what happens to the people. All I know is that each time I deliver someone new, the can is empty, its previous occupant gone.
Each person I collect has done a wrong that has gotten the attention of Victor. So, that’s never good. I turn off onto a dirt road. I’m aware of the dust that dances and no doubt sticks to the sides of my black Audi that I just had cleaned.
The sun breaks across the sky, painting it in oranges and reds. I pull the car over and get out. Pavel isn’t banging anymore. I pop the trunk and he blinks a few times.
He climbs out. “Who sent you?”
I slam the trunk and jut my chin out towards the small building. “Walk.”
“Victor sent me.” I had never met Victor, but he’s my boss and you don’t disappoint him.
“Why?” he tries to glance at me over his shoulder and I push him on. “I don’t know. All I know is who I have to collect.”
I open the lock on the door and stand back for Pavel to enter, he leans in but doesn’t enter the concrete box. I push him in and he spins. “Please, I will give you anything.”
I close the door and lock it. His fists colliding with the steel door. Every person I place in the can does the same, like it might make me turn around and set them free. I climb into the car and the engine roars to life. If I let them go, my life would be taken instead. I slap on a pair of sunglasses and drive back to the city.
The large black structure catches the rays of the sun, making all the angles of my home sharper. The gates open and I drive slowly up the winding driveway until I pull into the garage. My phone dings in the dock and I remove the device before getting out of the car. Entering the house through the kitchen, I turn on the coffee pot and pull the tie off from around my neck.
I open the message that has been sent from an unknown number
Mila Ivanov. Detain within the next twenty-four hours and keep her until further notice.
I re-read the message twice. This was new. I had never kept someone I had collected before. An uneasy feeling skitters up my spine, but I would do my job. I always did.
“Good morning, Igor.” I hide a grin as he tries to tackle the weeds that have overtaken the flower bed.
“It is not a good morning, Mila.” He stands with hands on his hips and looks down at the mess. My brown satchel hits my hipbone and I push it towards my back.
“I think you should remove it all and don’t even bother trying to separate the weeds from the plants.” It was too hard to tell which was which.
“I think you're right, Mila,” Igor says. Soft blue eyes smile up at me. He’s been a resident of this apartment complex since before I moved in six years ago. He’s been a constant in my life that helps balance out my unpredictable past that I’ve buried. When I moved in here, it was a new start for me.
“I better get to work.” I touch his back gently and Igor waves me off as he tackles the overgrown mess. I live close to Teapots, that’s where I am a waitress. I pull my satchel back to the front as it hits my bum as I walk. I glance over my shoulder, momentarily blinded from my blond hair, that I tuck behind my ear. Tugging my wine colored coat tighter around me, I hate the sense that I’m being watched.
I am naturally a paranoid person, and I didn’t think anyone would blame me, if they knew my past. I quicken my steps and continue to peek over my shoulder, but each time I look behind me, I’m met with mocking emptiness. Strong hands grip my arms and I swing around, nearly walking into a man.
“Oh, sorry.” I apologize as I glance down at the tattooed hands and all the way up to a pair of dark eyes. Something deep inside me stirs and runs in fear. His hair is tied back, the sides shaved. The black cross tattooed onto his head has me stepping out of his large hands. He towers over me and I lock my knees to keep upright.
He nods before stepping around me. I can’t breathe as I turn and watch his large frame clad in a dark suit walk down the sidewalk. He never looks back, but my throat grows taut. I know who he is. My vision wavers and I stumble forward, my mind won’t settle as I automatically arrive at work. Removing my bag and jacket, I wrap an apron around my small waist.
I had just met The Collector. He had to be here for me, but he’s gone, I try to tell my racing heart. He’s gone. You are fine. You’re here at work.
I grab my pad and pen and give my boss a tight smile as I make my way out onto the floor. I’m unsteady and my mind is frazzled. Was he here for me?
Of course he came for you, Mila. You knew he would.
I scold myself as I step up to a table and take the order from the couple. I scribble it down and walk away, giving the order to the cook. I start to clear off tables. I need to run. I need to go right now! What am I doing?
I fill a tray with dirty plates and try to tell myself that maybe he had someone else to collect. Fear clutches my throat and I press my palms onto the table like I might be able to stop the onslaught of emotions that threatens to pour out of me.
I straighten and walk over to my boss.
“I’m so sorry, Elena, I need to go.”
“You just got here.” She frowns. “Are you sick? You do look pale.”
“She always looks pale.” Kat laughs from the kitchen and I force a smile that doesn’t last.
“Yeah, I’m not feeling well at all.”
Elena nods. She’s a good boss and I’m a good waitress.
“Thanks, Elena.” As I get my bag and coat, I try not to glance around the space. I might never see it again. I can’t stop the tears that burn my eyes, but I refuse to let them spill. I leave out the side door. I don’t get far before I press my back against the stone wall and take in gulps of air.
I want to scream. Running isn’t an option. But you got six years. I remind myself. I knew I only got those six years because of Victor. I wasn’t hidden here. It was an illusion that he had sold to me and I had bought it without question.
I push off the wall and start the walk back to my apartment. I’m waiting for The Collector to appear and grab me, but no one does.
Igor’s gray eyebrows rise and I try to force a smile for him. “Forgot something.” I wave him off and his eyes narrow slightly, but he goes back to his job. I take out the keys to my apartment as I climb the steps.
I keep thinking of running, but I already know how silly the idea truly was. Yet, the survival part of me won’t give in.
I open the door and the smell of my vanilla candle is the first thing to greet me. My stomach tightens and I meet my blue eyes in the mirror. I drop my gaze as I pull off my jacket and hang it up. I close the door and enter the kitchen that is already a small room. Now it shrinks to nothing as The Collector sits at my table with his tattooed hands joined. My gaze jumps to the spiderweb that’s tattooed on his neck. He did time in prison. Being Bratva made his list of possible crimes long.
I untie the apron that I had forgotten to take off. My stomach tightens as the chair screeches along the floor as The Collector rises.
“You’ve come to collect,” I say without meeting his gaze. I fold the apron with the same care I would always give it.
Biting on the inside of my jaw stops the onslaught of tears that want to spill. I want to ask to take a final walk around my home. Maybe take some photos that I had kept from my childhood. I knew I would never return. What I might be going back to has me hunching my shoulders. Death looked like a better option, but I’m a coward. I never could end things, I didn’t have it in me. It would have been kinder to myself.
“Pack a few things.” I frown at him. I didn’t expect that courtesy, but I would take it. Pack a few things, like what? Pictures, clothes, toiletries? Would I be returning to the mill? My stomach coils. You made it through it once, you can do it again.
But could I? Tears spill and I wipe them away fast as I randomly grab clothes and toiletries. I finally grab the photo album before unplugging everything in each room. The Collector waits in the kitchen. His arrogance nearly makes me want to run, but I know he can kill if he wants.
My mouth waters and I swallow the saliva. I return to the kitchen with my bag and The Collector rises. His eyes don’t meet mine. “Lets go.”
I pull the bag up on my shoulder and take one final look at my small kitchen. Some part of me that knows what’s coming, shuts down, and I become numb as I follow the collector to his car. He pauses when he reaches it and opens the trunk. I sling my bag in and walk to the front of the car, opening the passenger door. I glance up to see The Collector staring at me. He closes the trunk before walking to the driver side. His eyes don’t release me until he disappears inside the car. I get in and focus on fastening my seatbelt, the tremble in my hands has me attempting to lock the belt in three times before I succeed. I watch the wall move past me in a blur. Liddi’s screams send waves down my spine and I try to curl my body in on itself. I can’t go back there. Panic claws up my throat and I silence it.
One, two, three, four, five…. I count. I count until I lose count and have to keep starting again. I count as tears stream down my face and my body is wracked with trembles that I can no longer control. It’s like my nerves were crackling and popping and I can’t stop the assault on my body.
The slick car under me barely allows the rough surface to affect its occupants. My stomach churns. Blood money, that’s what paid for a car like this. I glance at The Collector. His neck is coated with tattoos, there are more skulls and crosses tangling themselves in the web. A thick scar is woven with a gray snake. Being this close, I can see the ragged skin, otherwise it looks like two snakes intertwining.
The car slows and we pull up to the black marble structure. The gates slowly open and with each inch they part, I can sense my doom.
They normally fight, spit, and scream. They beg me and offer me everything and anything. I glance at Mila as I pull into the garage. Already so much about this situation is different. She hasn’t stopped this process once. Women are normally worse than men. I don’t get many, but when I do, they cry and dig in their heels. I’ve had sexual offers made in exchange for their freedom. The second odd thing about Mila, is that she is the first person that I didn’t have to bring to the can. She’s also the first person in my home.
Blue eyes that are heavy with despair glance at me. I open the car door and yank off my tie. “Get out.”
She does without hesitation. She was also the first person who I collected that rode up front. I pop the trunk and get out her bag. When I look up at her, she’s staring at her feet. I close the trunk and enter the house. She follows me. Now this is the part that I am unsure of. Steam rises from the full coffee pot. Throwing her bag and my tie on the counter, I get myself a cup. She’s standing in the doorway; her eyes are drawn to her bag.
She’s beautiful in such a natural way. She isn’t like the women that I usually find attractive, but I can still appreciate her natural beauty. Her breasts are small, maybe a handful, I normally like mine big and artificial. She crosses her arms over her chest like she knows my thoughts. I take another sip from my coffee and observe her from over the rim. What am I to do with her? I could get a message at any stage to drop her to the can. Maybe they hadn’t picked up Pavel yet and they didn’t want two of them together? The thoughts of Pavel near Mila turns the coffee sour on my tongue and I put it down.
“Do I have to give you a list of rules or do you understand you are mine for now?” My gaze roams across her and she pushes her shoulders back, but she can’t stop the fear that pools in her eyes or the tremble of her lip.
I nod and open the top two buttons of my black shirt. “Good.”
I leave the kitchen and check my phone as I climb the glass steps. My designer had said they gave the illusion of more space, I hadn’t disagreed, but each time I look down, my stomach flips slightly. I’m not afraid of heights, but I’m not a fan of them either.
My suit jacket drops on my bed before I pull off the shirt. Mirrors coat every wall in my room. This illusion I like, especially when entertaining. No one can hide.
Each mirror reflects my tattoo covered torso, I had no more space left for ink. Mila’s eyes had taken in the ink on my neck, her eyes had widened, like she had a notion of what they meant. Pushing down my trousers and boxers, I enter my bedroom, which is a complete wet-room. Pulling the tie out of my hair, I step in under the spray and like always, my cock grows hard as I think of the blond who had danced for Pavel in her glass box. She couldn’t see who watched her; it’s a one-way mirror. All she would see was herself doing very naughty things. The bleep of my phone has me knocking off the water, my cock still begs to be touched as I pick up my phone.
Another collection. This is a first. Three so close together.
Dimitri Smirnov–Detain within the next twenty-four hours and take to the collection point.
My hard cock dies very quickly as I drop the phone on the bed. This is why I have no friends. I don’t have anyone who I care about, because it took one message and if I have to deliver them, I would.
I take out another black suit. I know where Dimitri will be tonight, so his capture will be simple. Getting dressed, I re-tie my hair before going back down stairs. Mila is still in the kitchen, standing right where I left her.
Throwing my cold coffee down the sink, I turn to Mila. I can’t just leave her here. I need to tie her up. Rummaging through the drawer, I withdraw a roll of heavy black duct tape. When my gaze meets hers, her eyes widen and she takes a step away from me.
The house is new, so some of the rooms haven’t been finished yet. Pulling a chair from the table, I leave the kitchen. “Come on.” I tell Mila and carry the chair and duct tape to the first empty room. The walls have been painted and blinds cover the windows. I drop the chair and draw the blinds. Mila hovers in the doorway, her eyes scanning the room.
“Sit down on the chair.” I open the duct tape and she hesitates, but walks over to the chair and sits down. I’ve never had someone do exactly what I say. Normally they would lash out, try to run, but Mila sits down and focuses on her hands. I want to ask why Victor wants her. I want to know what she did to get herself in such a situation. But it’s a rule of mine, I don’t ask questions. Tearing off a lump of duct tape, I cover her mouth and she whimpers but doesn’t pull away as I continue to tie her to the chair. The duct tape circles her small waist and for extra measure, I tie her legs to the chair. When I stand back, I’m satisfied that she won’t be going anywhere.
I turn off the light and pull the door closed behind me. Turning the key, I pocket it, before making my way to Gail’s.
“Nicholai, what can I do for you?” Gail, the owner of the club greets me. The tight green wrap around dress sits perfectly on her toned body. She’s in her early forties, she says late twenties, but she keeps herself well. Her short hair is spiked and she wears an open and friendly smile. She’s ruthless behind it all.
“Has Dimitri started his shift?”
Gail glances at the Rolex on her slim wrist. “He’s late. He’s never late.”
He knew they would send me after him.
“Pavel was a good customer of mine. He spent a lot of money here.”
“If you want him back, talk to Victor.”
Gail nods, but that snippet of information serves her purpose for this conversation. What was she searching for?
“Victor?” She raises one arched eyebrow.
“It’s not a secret, Gail. But right now, I’m starting to feel like you’re wasting my time.” I brush past her but start to run when I hear her curse. Removing the gun from the band of my trousers, I point it at the sliver of light that appears and then disappears as Dimitri escapes out the exit door.
“You’ll be hearing from me,” I shout over my shoulder at Gail before I leave through the door that Dimitri had left through.
“Stop running!” I shout after him and I aim my gun. I can take a shot if I want to. I’m allowed to wound, and if it’s the only way to bring them in, I can kill. I lower the gun as he disappears around the corner and out of sight.
I’m breathing steadily through my nose, but each time I think of it, I’m sobbing into the duct tape before I calm myself down. The fear is growing and I need to control it. I’m exhausted as tears soak my face. The walls around me start to close in and no matter what I do, I can’t stop the memories pouring in. I scream into the tape and push all my weight to the left before swinging to the right, the chair tilts, but lands back correctly, and it’s all I need. I keep rocking until I finally get what I want. I land on the ground hard, my head taking the brunt of the fall. Pain explodes behind my eyelids. Warm liquid pools beneath me, and for the first time I welcome the loss of time. I welcome the sanctuary that the darkness offers me.
The room is tinged with red. Wasn’t it white before? I blow out a painful breath through my nose and the pool of blood ripples as the air races across it.
I groan and try to roll, the pull on my body has me groaning again. I wiggle my legs and pain explodes in my head. The creak from the leg of the chair has me keeping my eyes closed as the leg of the chair breaks free, freeing my leg.
I’d laugh… only the pain increases behind my eyes. I wasn’t even trying to escape. This time a laugh bubbles against the duct tape. My cheek is cold, the liquid is alarming, but I close my eyes and try to find the darkness again.
I crane my neck back as the door opens. His polished shoes move towards me and I look up at him. Dark eyes that have seen too much blink once and then twice. He steps away from me, and peels off his suit jacket—he folds it and lays it on the floor. His tie is next. Fear jackhammers in my throat and I’m trying to raise my head from the floor. Bile claws up my throat and I have no choice but to swallow. He unbuttons the sleeves of his shirt as he assesses me. What is he going to do?
He cracks his knuckles and walks towards me, I’m waiting for the blow that will finish me. My body buzzes with shivers, but nothing happens. Opening my eyes, I’m faced with an empty room. A sob pushes against the tape on my mouth.
He arrives back in with a basin of water. I close my eyes as he straightens the chair up. I’m ready to spew everywhere but force it down.
He leans over me and separates my hair without a word. Returning with a cloth, he’s gentle as he cleans my head. I recoil from his touch, and he holds me still with one hand pressed firmly on my shoulder. The basin of water soon turns red and he gives up.
The knife in his hand could be a blessing. Is he going to make it quick? Did Victor order him to keep me here and kill me? I know this isn’t the job of The Collector. He didn’t take people home.
The duct tape falls away from my waist and legs.
“You broke my chair.” It’s the first time he’s spoken since arriving back in the room. Dark eyes that hold nothing, focus on my face. His long fingers clutch the duct tape. “This is going to hurt.” He gives me a warning before he tears the tape off my face along with a layer of skin.
I wince in pain. The burn continues long after the duct tape is gone. I lick my lips. They feel raw.
“Can you stand?”
I force myself out of the chair and the world tilts sideways. I’m falling, but strong arms and the smell of cologne wraps around me. I turn my head away from his chest as my stomach finally rebels and I empty the contents onto the floor. Once my stomach settles, he exhales loudly and carries me from the room. I keep my head away from him as he carries me upstairs. It’s like we are walking on air. I blink and my stomach shifts again. The steps are made of glass. Who has glass steps? I squeeze my eyes shut.
“Don't sleep.” His warning has me opening my eyes, but I realize the worst that could happen has happened, they’ve found me. I close my eyes and don’t open them again until my back is cushioned by a bed.
I’m in a double bed, the sheets a deep gray under my hand. A door to a bathroom is open and The Collector returns with a washcloth. Blood stains the end of his rolled-up sleeve. I roll my head so I face the window as his huge frame makes the bed dip and he starts cleaning my head. Hitting my head doesn’t seem very wise now, the ache is growing, but at that moment, I had wanted the memories to stop.
His hand parts my hair gently and a part of me wants to see his face. It’s a dangerous part of me that has recognized how gorgeous he is. The devil always wears the mask of an angel. The Collector works for Bratva bosses who are ruthless. He is no better than them.
He gets up with no explanation. His footsteps are light for such a huge guy. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to focus. I know the rules, I know how this works, so why am I here in The Collector’s house? Based on the fact that things are different, I need to try to escape. I don’t have to be a sitting duck. But no one outruns The Collector. Yet, I never heard of The Collector taking his jobs home. Does he know who I am? Does he know what Victor did to me?
I swallow more saliva and keep my eyes tightly closed as he re-enters the room. “Don’t fall asleep.” His warning this time has me opening my eyes and glancing at him. A dangerous shiver rattles my bones and the idea of escape breaks apart and turns into a mist that dissolves completely.
He sits back down, and my gaze roams over the tattoos that coat both his arms, fingers, his neck and as far as the shirt will allow me to see. There isn’t a blank space on his tanned skin.
“Face the window.” His accent is a mingle of Russian but toned down to something Irish. I want to ask him, but I turn away. Getting friendly with The Collector isn’t wise. Not that he would answer my questions. My thoughts cease as a sharp needle enters my flesh. My stomach heaves with the tug on my head. I try not to picture a needle and thread in his hands.
I open my eyes and focus on the sky, clouds move past and reshape but I can’t make a picture out of them like I could when I was a kid. Spending hours lying in the lush green grass with my brother would be how I’d pass the time. I squeeze my eyes tightly as a final sharp pain erupts at the back of my neck. I automatically go to rub it.
“Don’t touch it.”