The last woman you ever want to be the last woman you ever see.
See, this is why I don't make promises. Dohohoho~
Next chapter is probably going to take even longer to get out. Don't wait on it. I've got a tidal wave of work coming on. I may release the chapter in parts, depending on how well I think it flows chopped into even smaller bits.
To the dude who asked about pdf: I shamelessly admit to complete ignorance in that field. If you're willing to drop me a line by email telling me how to do it, I may be willing to go about doing it, sometime in the future.
Color Pages, Dramatis Personae, and Prologue
Chapter 3 (1/2)
Chapter 3 (2/2)
Chapter 5, Epilogue, and Afterword
"...Well, the Zaltzman originally belonged to another organization in Amsterdam, but we had a bit of a falling out and the Triad ended up taking possession of it. It looks like a normal oil tanker from the outside but there's a fake floor under the tanks, and a hatch on the bottom of the ship that can open to let small submarines dock. It's supposed to let you smuggle things onto land without actually having to go into port. You could stock up from Roanapur while passing through the Malacca Strait and head straight for the Western Coast without anyone being the wiser."
Chang stopped for a moment, pausing to light up a cigarette with a Dupont Classic lighter.
"We kept the original captain and crew from Amsterdam, but we couldn't exactly throw them a welcoming party - the official route had them passing by Roanapur, you see. They couldn't stop, so I decided to drop in by chopper in the night and say hi. Unfortunately, I was taking a guided tour of the ship when everything went to hell. Rock, if I'd been on the bridge then, I would've been able to recognize your voice right away, and maybe then things wouldn't have had to come to this..."
The Black Lagoon's bridge was crowded to bursting, but Chang held himself easily, as though he was reclining on a sofa in a high-class club. Chang Wai-San could change the atmosphere through sheer force of character, no matter where he might find himself.
A long hour passed before Benny finally managed to fix up the Lagoon enough to start limping back home to Roanapur.
Stan's team had been smart enough to leave a saboteur on the Lagoon to keep them from pursuing; it was really no surprise that the assault team had destroyed the control gear on Chang's helicopter as well. The repairs on the chopper had shown no signs of being anywhere near finished when the Lagoon was judged seaworthy, and since Chang was a busy man, he'd politely asked them to give him a ride to Roanapur. That was how they ended up where they were now: transporting one of Roanapur's most prominent dons and his posse of bodyguards, the air in the bridge almost electrically charged.
"Did anyone know about your schedule tonight, Mr. Chang?" Dutch asked, but Chang only shrugged affably.
"My whereabouts at any given moment aren't exactly a secret. We're not going to be finding many clues looking around there, that's for certain."
"...Mr. Chang," Rock said, taking advantage of the lull in conversation to butt in, "I'm almost certain that the people behind this aren't from Roanapur. Everyone knows that we often deal with the Triad; you're one of our best customers. It's clear that whoever contacted us at Bangka didn't know the state of things around here."
"Maybe, and maybe not," Chang said neutrally, keeping his gaze fixed on Rock. "You see, Rock, there's one possibility that can turn your entire theory upside down... And that's if the Lagoon Company was out to kill me in the first place."
Chang held up one hand, stopping Revy cold.
"Naturally, we've known each other for quite a while, but we're not quite at the level where we can blindly trust in each other just like that, wouldn't you agree? There are four dead men on the Zaltzman who'd say yes."
That wasn't to say that Chang Wai-San himself suspected the Lagoon Company of foul play. If he'd been even the slightest bit suspicious, there was no way he'd have so carelessly put himself in their hands by asking them to give him a ride to Roanapur.
But such personal feelings of amicability had no place in this situation. Chang was the head of the Triad's Roanapur branch, and as such, he was obligated to make decisions which would be seen as fair even by those who had no idea of the relations between him and the crew of the Lagoon.
"...So what you're saying is that you want us to take responsibility for this mess, Mr. Chang?"
"Since you can't actually prove your innocence, I'm afraid that's the way it has to be... though it's not like you're completely out of luck in that respect. Isn't that right, Revy?"
Revy started as Chang suddenly called her name.
"Try and remember what those punks on the Zaltzman said right before they retreated. 'Fall back for now', if I recall correctly. They haven't given up. I'm sure they'll keep on trying to kill me even after we're back in Roanapur."
Chang's smile was so calm that nobody would ever have thought that he had been - was still- the target of an attempted assassination.
"I'm willing to bet that the getaway ship turned right around and headed for Roanapur. They'll hide like rats in the shadows, waiting for a chance to strike at me. So, my friends, all that remains is for you to find them first, and take care of them. Then everything will be settled."
Dutch let out a deep sigh, but Revy's smile was like a slash of darkness across her face.
"That's just what I was hoping for. Gotcha loud an' clear, sir. Next time I visit ya I'll bring a couple'a severed heads along with me."
"That's the spirit, Revy."
For Revy, this was more than just showing the Triad she was still trustworthy. Call it personal, but the thing that bothered her most was that she hadn't been able to kill Jake right then and there. The reality staring her in the face, that a worthless fucker like him had taunted her so blatantly and was still breathing somewhere out there, filled her with a rage that she didn't want to share with anyone else.
"...Sorry to interrupt the heartwarming bonding session here, but can I butt in for a second? I've found a clue already," Benny said as he made his way into the bridge, emerging from the communications room where he'd been busily typing away at his computer.
"Remember how we snapped a picture of the ship that came for Stan's team? It was dark, so the image is pretty crappy, but I managed to touch it up enough so that you can at least read the name."
"Awesome, Benny boy."
Everyone gathered around to look at the monochrome image Benny provided. The picture was severely pixelated, but they could still make out the letters on the side of the cruiser.
"This looks like... Cyrillic. Rock, can you read it?"
Language was Rock's specialty. He massaged his forehead as he concentrated, opening the dictionary in his mind.
"Nifrit... That's Russian for jade, if I remember right..."
The slight note of tension that entered Chang's voice was there and gone in an instant, but unfortunately none among those gathered in the bridge was so slow on the uptake as to let it pass.
"You recognize the name, Mr. Chang?"
"...I think I remember hearing it somewhere. I'm not quite sure, actually," Chang said, attempting to pass it off as nothing. But he soon realized there was nothing to be gained from hiding things now and sighed, cigarette smoke rushing out in a whirl as he muttered in a low voice, "If my memory serves me right... Bouganvillea Trading uses a ship with that name. It belongs to Balalaika."
The silence brought by that name was welcome to no one.
Bouganvillea Trading was located on a corner on Satanam Street, in an antiquated Western-style building that brought to mind the island's long-gone French settlers. It was an open secret in Roanapur that the building - and the company itself, for that matter - was just a front for the Thai branch of the Russian mafia, Hotel Moscow.
The Russian mafia's presence in Roanapur wasn't quite as large as the Triad's, but they were still feared like the devil's own due to their incredible cruelty and viciousness.
In other words, the doors to Bougenvillea Trading were actually an unassuming portal to Hell, and any poor soul who dared to step through them without permission would be forsaking all hope.
To Dutch, Hotel Moscow represented a fine customer, one that paid for his services even more often than the Triad... but it had been a long time since he'd paid them a visit uninvited. And considering the reason for his stop today, he found that his mood was even fouler than he could have imagined.
"...So that's why you chose to make a morning call today, hmm? What an annoying little story."
Her quiet start to the day already in shambles thanks to the unsolicited visit, the Russian mafia's female leader snorted, the still-beautiful left side of her face twisting with scorn. One didn't even need to look at the other half - after all, there was no way the horrendous burns scarring the skin from her right eye down to her right cheek could betray any emotion.
The woman who stood at the head of Hotel Moscow's Roanapur branch was known only as Balalaika. Those who thought lightly of life called her Fry Face, but only the extremely powerful or the extremely stupid would dare utter the name in her presence.
The hulking man standing behind her was Boris, her right hand. The sight of his expressionless visage and the wordless pressure he exerted at his master's side brought to mind a lean Doberman, bred and trained as a killing machine.
"All right, I understand. Babe was attacked by a ship we own and wet his pants with fear, did he? Hah, how surprised he must have been. I only regret that I couldn't see the look on his face with my own eyes."
The office where Balalaika had received Dutch was lit only by the sunlight filtering in from the windows, a heavy sort of peace - like a fresco painting - holding the room still. No matter how hot the South Asian sun beat down outside, in this office, the air was always as icy as the winter of the frozen north.
"This is no laughing matter, Balalaika."
Dutch pushed the matter onto the table, his expression betraying nothing.
"Even the hint of your presence lurking behind the bastards who attacked Chang Wai-San is a bad omen to the people in this city, worse than a shower of acid rain. You know that as well as I do."
"Of course. And it's true that there were events in the past that might lead one to hold such misgivings. If Chang and I were to fight once more, even Saint John wouldn't be able to foresee the bloodbath that would ensue."
Balalaika's tone was light and airy, but the laughter in her voice died long before it reached her eyes.
Dutch didn't know for sure what kind of living hell she'd endured in her past, though many whispered amongst themselves that she'd fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. But one thing was for sure about the former soldier: one only needed glance into her eyes to see the fires of purgatory there, burning eternally. Unlike the smile on her face, the look in her eyes - so cold it burned - wordlessly sent out a flat message.
If the world were to end tomorrow, this woman would be humming the polka as she watched it burn.
"...I jest, Dutch. I didn't expect you of all people to be so concerned. I place much weight on Hotel Moscow's friendly relations with the Triad. I haven't forgotten, either, the blood that was spilled to reach this point. Don't you remember, Dutch? You had a first class seat to the whole thing, after all."
"Yeah, how could I forget."
He'd intended it to be a light rejoinder, but the memory of the horrific bloodbath he'd experienced left Dutch's throat suddenly dry.
"I don't want to go through anything like that ever again if I can help it, and I'd like to believe that you think the same. That's why I decided I'd better come and see what you had to say first, instead of snooping around behind your back."
"Always a gentleman, Dutch."
The razor sharp smile Balalaika flashed belied her complement. She held up the monochrome photocopy that Dutch had given her once again... the picture of the Nifrit.
"You're right, this is the Nifrit. And Bouganvillea Trading did own it. Until three days ago, that is."
"Three days ago?"
"It was stolen. There didn't seem to be an ulterior motive, so we only filed a theft notice. You can ask Watsap for the details."
One might question the purpose of filing for theft to the police in Roanapur of all cites, but it was more a matter of preventing unwanted confusion in case the stolen goods were misused, rather than an actual attempt to catch thieves.
"...Gotcha. If that's what happened, I guess all I can is that that's a pretty unfortunate coincidence. Do you have any idea who might've been behind it?"
"None whatsoever. I was about to ask you the same question. If you knew, I could hunt them down and grind them into chiburekki (1) filling."
"Well, if you wanted a clue... there's this."
Closely observing Balalaika's face, Dutch placed an object made of brass onto her desk.
A spent casing. Revy had picked it up from the deck of the Zaltzman. It was from the rifle the sniper had used the night before.
"...You recognize it, don't you?"
"Naturally. I see this morning is just getting worse."
A 7.62x54mmR cartridge, of Russian make. During the second World War, the cartridge had made exclusively for use with the Soviets' trusty Mosin-Nagant M1891/30. But in modern times, with the world poised to enter the 21st century, there was only one rifle in the world that still used these cartridges.
"The SVD (2). To us, it's a rifle as close to our hearts... No, even closer, than our own families."
"I hear that snipers are a pretty picky bunch when it comes to choosing their guns. Is that true?"
Balalaika's poker face didn't waver in the slightest in the face of Dutch's pointed question.
"Indeed. If I found myself in such a situation, I would choose the very same weapon."
Balalaika saw Dutch's bet, and he raised in response.
"The sniper shut down Chang and Revy cold, shooting through a sidewind at a distance of over a hundred and fifty meters. Then he paraglided off the mast onto the deck of a moving cruiser. Balalaika, what do you think of that?"
"The sniper in question is skilled with his Dragunov, and equally skilled in using a parachute. He must have been a paratrooper... Probably one who went through extreme training in a special forces unit."
Sergeant Boris's expression stiffened with anxiety as he stood to the side and watched the conversation continue, words flying deadly keen like a dance of blades.
"...So, does anyone with a skillset like that spring to mind?"
Dutch threw out his last bluff. But Balalaika, calm as ever, raised without turning a hair.
"Any one of my Vysotniki would be more than up to the task."
"...I give up. I can't take you on like this."
Dutch folded, holding both hands up in defeat as he sighed. He'd done all he could with what few cards he had in his hand.
"If you haven't eaten yet, would you care to join me for breakfast?" Balalaika offered amicably, as though she'd forgotten all about the razor-sharp exchange of words and intents that had supercharged the office just a second ago. But Dutch felt the need for a bracing smoke to calm his nerves even more than honey and tea.
"Sorry, but I'll have to refuse. I need to talk to Leroy too. You know how they say time is money... though lately it seems deflation's setting in with a vengeance."
"My. Then perhaps next time. Contact me if you pick up any clues; I might be able to help you."
"Sure thing. Until then."
Dutch stood up and opened the door to leave, but found himself confronted by a woman in the open doorway. It seemed she had just been poised to knock. Despite her unflattering attire, she was quite beautiful... though at any rate, a complete stranger.
"Ah, excuse me," Dutch said lightly, nodding as he passed by her into the hall.
His next destination was the office of the information broker, Oswald Leroy, though he had his doubts as to whether the visit would yield any results. Still, he had to keep an eye out for anything unusual happening in Roanapur, just in case the killers out for Chang's life decided to make their move.
By the time he exited the building, walking out into the blinding sunlight of Satanam Street, Dutch had forgotten all about the stranger he'd run into a few moments ago.
"I hope I'm not interrupting. Comrade Balalaika, may I have a moment of your time?"
If looks could kill, the glare Balalaika shot at the woman who'd run into Dutch would have struck her dead right then and there. Using the fact that Dutch had left without closing the door as an opportunity, the woman didn't even bother to knock as she strode languidly into the office. Telling her "no" would have been an exercise in futility even had Balalaika felt inclined to attempt it. After all, Tatiana Yakovleva's job was all about uninvited entry.
She was dressed in a generic grey business suit, one that brought to mind the cloudy skies of Moscow even in the sweltering heat of Southeast Asia. She wasn't ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but her short chopped brown hair - cut more for efficiency than elegance - and the thick, blocky glasses she wore, would have been more than enough to turn any playboy's sights elsewhere.
"Do I even want to know why you're sticking your nose into my business this morning?"
Balalaika's demeanor as she faced Tatiana made her recent unpleasant encounter with Dutch look like a joyous springtime celebration. Her light blue-grey eyes hardened, becoming the color of arctic glacial ice.
Balalaika disdained Tatiana, and didn't bother to hide said disdain even in her presence - no, she deliberately chose to show it exactly because Tatiana stood in front of her now. But for Tatiana's part, the humble smile on her features faltered not the slightest, as though she wasn't put out at all by Balalaika's open scorn - or, perhaps, as though Balalaika's feelings meant nothing to her at all. It was only natural that any conversation between two such individuals, be it held in the morning or at night, could not help but be a display of hostility.
"Comrade Balalaika, have you broken your fast this morning? Perhaps we could-"
"Perhaps we could not. Just the sight of you shoveling kasha (3) into your gaping maw would be enough to kill my appetite."
"My, how fierce we are today," Tatiana said, smiling brightly as though she'd been complimented.
"If you have the time to invite me to your idea of an elegant breakfast, then you have time to get to work, even if you have to live on a diet of salt. I've lost track of how long it's been since you sauntered in here to play at auditing."
"I'm terribly sorry to say this, but hasn't it occurred to you that it is perhaps your hostile behavior which is the greatest impediment to my work, comrade Balalaika?"
The shadows deepened in Tatiana's smile, and somehow, a poisonous sort of seductiveness began to appear about her, though she was dressed in clothes that were a far cry from those designed to accentuate feminine beauty. Perhaps this was her true self - perhaps her allure was like a fluorescent insect, shining brightly only in the cold, damp depths of darkness.
"I cannot help but mention that I happened to hear that one of your ships was stolen recently. May I inquire as to why this was not brought to my attention? You know as well as I do, surely, that it was undeniably a great loss."
"...So you were eavesdropping as well. Just how deep into the mud are you Cheka (4) willing to sink?"
"All part of a day's work, I'm afraid."
Most probably, Tatiana had merely pretended to run into Dutch, and in reality had been listening in on them since their conversation began. Balalaika's expression became, if such a thing was possible, even colder.
"Weren't you only supposed to look at last year's accounts? I don't recall you being tasked with snooping about regarding this month's affairs."
"Oh, no... Oh, no, no, no, comrade. You must realize that your own stubbornness is forcing me to become even more careful and scrupulous than before."
Tatiana waltzed over to Balalaika's side and then, as though she was sitting in her own office, hoisted herself up easily onto the corner of Balalaika's desk. Boris's expression froze solid at the sheer audacity.
Removing her unappealing glasses, Tatiana looked over her shoulder at Balalaika, her eyes almost seductively half-lidded. Her movements brought to mind a carnivorous plant spreading its sticky leaves in search of prey.
"Bougenvillea Trading's management of its finances and goods is far too shady and incoherent, by any standard I can think of. In other words, too many elements of this branch are decided solely by a single individual... namely, you, comrade. Surely you know as well as I do that such a system goes against the standards of Hotel Moscow - against the very beliefs of our people."
"Beliefs, you say... Hnn."
"What do you believe in, Cheka? Tell me. Will you sing to me the glorious anthem of the bygone Bolshevik Party, perhaps?"
Caught completely off guard and unaware by the sudden display of violence, Tatiana was unable to hide her fear. Face to face with Tatiana, their noses almost touching, Balalaika slowly breathed in the faint smell of that terror, savoring it. She was like a hunting hound that had pinned down its prey with one paw.
"...I'll tell you just one thing. The shadow that sprang forth from the foolishness that you call belief... That is us: Hotel Moscow. Don't forget this. You might try to curry our favor by selling us your fake smiles, but we are simply biding our time, waiting for the right moment to strike at your throats. Run about until that day comes. Run, to where you won't offend me with the sight of your face."
Tatiana gathered up the last remnants of her pride, keeping the stiff smile on her face. Trying her best to hold onto her authority as an auditor, fighting not to struggle, she asked Balalaika another question.
"...Why... did you hide the Nifrit's theft from me...? Was there something... you wanted to hide?"
"It was because just talking to you brings curses to my lips. Unless I absolutely have no other choice, I'm not going to tell you a single thing from now on. That's how things are done here in Roanapur."
Her ultimatum delivered with a ringing finality, like a nail being driven home, Balalaika let go, pushing Tatiana away.
"It would be better for you to finish your work and get out of my sight as fast as you can. Spending too much time in a foreign place like this won't be good for your health. I can guarantee that."
"...How crude you're being, comrade," Tatiana blustered, fastidiously setting about fixing her rumpled clothes in a futile attempt to save face.
"Even if you are innocent, you should have made sure that the negro would keep his mouth shut. Maybe you could have warned him more directly, or taken care of the matter in a... cleaner way. Think, what will happen if he begins gossiping about what happened here?"
Tatiana smiled a dark and dusky smile, as though she was savoring the thought.
"A man using an antique sniper rifle from eastern Europe, and showing off his parachuting skills as well... could he be anything else but Spetsnaz? Such a man attacked Chang Wai-San and then made his escape on a boat owned by Hotel Moscow. Anyone with a sound head on their shoulders would conclude for certain that Fry Face was behind it all. They would think that she had finally decided to settle her old grudge."
Tatiana had hoped that Balalaika would show some sign of anxiety or nervousness, but unfortunately for her, Balalaika was well aware that Dutch was a tight-lipped man who knew the meaning of honor.
"Flee from this city, then, if you think things will get dangerous. I can't say for certain that the bullets will only fly at you from the front if things go beyond the point of no return... and one more thing. The SVD is a fine rifle, built for durability and rapid fire over accuracy. But if you insist on slandering it by calling it antique, I can prove you wrong, at a distance of 600 meters."
Tatiana would have dearly loved to offer a stinging retort of her own, but though light taunting and verbal fencing could be dismissed unofficially as part of her job, choosing to confront Balalaika directly would be a clear violation of her professionalism. Things would be a different matter if she had some sort of undeniably damning evidence, but as things stood, the caution driven into her by the nature of her job kept her from making a move.
Wordlessly shooting Balalaika a dark glare that promised revenge, Tatiana left the office.
"I'm sorry you had to bear witness to such a farce, comrade sergeant. (5)"
Boris, freed from his stint as a silent statue, praised his commanding officer's restraint in his own brusque way.
"Not at all. The tantrums of the politruk (6) are nothing new. We should be thankful that she's not staying, if anything."
With the fall of the Soviet Union, many criminal organizations had expanded their power bases by taking in members of the USSR's public institutions, and Hotel Moscow had been no exception. Former members of the disbanded KGB, in particular, often brought their hard-won espionage networks along with them when they joined, proving especially useful to the illegal interests of their new masters.
But the effect brought by these refugees wasn't entirely positive. The strange and irrational bureaucracy which had been the greatest shortcoming of the Soviet Union followed the new recruits as well, eating away from within at the organizations that received them like cancerous tumors. After all, the USSR's public institutions had squandered more of their energies on petty power struggles than on actually combating the encroaching shadow of capitalism. Those who hailed from the KGB often kept true to their natures even after switching masters, and, still thinking that the fastest road to success lay in ratting out their peers, took every opportunity they could to stab their allies in the back. Granted, the sinister and tenacious internal audits introduced recently by Hotel Moscow's burgeoning faction of former KGB had served to flush out those foolish, corrupt souls who dared to let their greed get the better of them. But to efficient individuals like Balalaika who preferred working on the front lines, all the audits represented were unnecessary headaches.
Tatiana Yakovleva, the auditor who'd been staying in Roanapur since last week, was also a Chekist - a former member of the KGB. There was little chance that Balalaika, who made no secret of her hatred for the Cheka, would look kindly on such a woman, but then to have that same woman intrude on her turf, snooping around like she owned the place and jeering openly at Balalika's authority... It was like having a snake crawling about in her bedding.
"But... she does have a point. The Nifrit's involvement in the attack on Chang is indeed cause for alarm."
Balalaika nodded, accepting her right hand's opinion.
"Kapitan, wouldn't it be wise to contact the Lagoon Company and tell them to be more discrete? We can't ignore the possibility that their search for clues will cause unsavory rumors to spread."
"We don't need to worry about that when it comes to Dutch. Have you forgotten, Sergeant? He's the man who negotiated peace between us and the Triad. His worries about a resuming of hostilities aren't for show."
Balalaika peered at the picture Dutch had brought as she spoke, recalling what he'd told her.
Using a stolen ship as an escape vehicle was nothing out of the ordinary. But it bothered her that said ship had just happened to be one that belonged to Bougenvillea Trading. There were plenty of ships docked in the harbor that would have been easier to take.
Perhaps it had been a calculated decision, an attempt to cover up the attack on Chang as the Russian mafia attempting to settle an old grudge. In that case, Balalaika couldn't afford to treat it like someone else's business.
"...Unless it's not just an attempt to make it look like we did it..." Balalaika muttered, her face twisting as though the dire words left an unpleasant taste in her mouth. Realizing the meaning behind them, the sergeant's fearsome features showed uncustomary anxiety.
"To cover almost an entire oil tanker with a Dragunov, at night, through a sidewind strong enough to make paragliding off a boat mast possible... Sergeant, how would a member of the Vysotniki go about such a mission?"
"If there was no other option, I would do everything in my power to make sure the mission succeeded."
Boris's textbook answer had a twofold meaning.
For the former Spetsnaz under Balalaika's command, such a task was far from impossible. However, before undertaking such an assignment, they would study the situation for an easier way to go about it. And if there was such a way, they would choose it without hesitation. Such was the difficulty of the stated operation.
They knew everything there was to know about rifles and parachutes, and that was how they could accurately assess the skills of the sniper who'd been on the Zaltzman that night.
"From what Dutch told us, there were plenty of other ways that an individual so skilled could have chosen to assault the tanker. But the sniper deliberately chose to take a spot on the mast. In other words... to him, the task wasn't so difficult as to require searching for alternatives."
Balalaika's eyes focused on something that wasn't there, wasn't then, but instead someplace far away in the distant past. Boris swallowed hard, his throat suddenly parched and dry.
"You can think of someone like that, can't you, Sergeant? There was a genius, once, who could understand the harshest winds and turn them into his closest ally. He was Russian; he was Spetsnaz; he was one of us."
The same image came to the forefront of their minds. A land of boulders and sand, bereft of anything but dry winds and burning sunlight, a place that, simply by existing, refused all life.
His voice cracked and dry like the land in their minds, Boris finally found it in himself to name one man.
"Junior Sergeant Stanislav Kandinsky... But he's been dead for years..."
"Indeed. It's true that his name is one that should be decorating a gravestone and not coming from our lips. But..."
Balalaika's voice as she remembered, as she recalled that faraway land of death, was somehow like a prayer for the dead.
"...But can't the same be said for the rest of us as well, Sergeant?"
Stan's team had hidden themselves in Roanapur, just as Chang Wai-San had predicted... though perhaps "hidden" wasn't quite the right word for it.
In the corner of the lobby in one of the city's finest hotels, the Sankan Palace Hotel - granted, "finest" still didn't amount to much in a port town on the outskirts of Thailand - four men were seated in the uncrowded dining bar. They were the four members of the assault team who'd made it off the Zaltzman with their lives.
There had been a few guests who'd come down to have breakfast up until just a while ago, but now it was past time that any rightfully employed person would have left to work, and the suspicious gathering of men sitting at the table, doing nothing, drew the eye more than it should have.
The only other people in the room were three beautiful women, most likely pricey prostitutes, who seemed to be enjoying a few drinks after a hard night's work. There were also two men who looked to be their bodyguards sitting at the next table, but both seemed disinclined to pay much attention to Stan's team, who were seated halfway across the room.
In actuality, Stan and Jake had been staying at the hotel in Roanapur before the specifics of the assassination had even been laid out. There had been no plans to attack a tanker on the open sea back then, and only once the mission was decided had the two traveled to Bangka Island, to meet up with Caroline's crew and the Lagoon Company.
The two pirates who had chosen to follow Jake after Caroline's death, Pedro and Alonzo, had done away with their comical costumes and now looked somewhat like civilized men, dressed in clothes they'd bought in the hotel's clothing store. The dangerous air of a hardened criminal hovered about Alonzo, marking him unmistakably as an outlaw. But Pedro, now clean-shaven and sporting a pair of shades, seemed almost delicate and intellectual; one could even be forgiven for mistaking him for a tourist.
"...Hey, how long is that redhead gonna make us wait?" Alonzo asked. He'd been shaking his leg nervously ever since they'd walked in, providing an annoying distraction. But it was more than understandable. After all, they were loitering out in the open the very day after they'd attempted a hit on the leader of one of the city's most powerful organizations.
Pedro was silent, as though he'd half given up already, Stan's drugged-up gaze still wandered aimlessly over the room, and Jake seemed completely absorbed by whatever he was typing into his laptop, a set of headphones blaring loud music into his ears.
"Didn't she say she'd come get us by car by 10 at the latest? You think there's been some kinda problem? Huh?"
"Beats me, man... Maybe she's try'na get a car that ain't gonna get traced or something, maybe..." Jake muttered absently.
Having failed his mission, Jake didn't want to tarry in such a noticeable position, either. In fact, he had already prepared a hideout in case something like this happened. The only problem was, it was a bit hard to reach on foot, so they'd decided to wait until the redheaded woman who'd saved them with the timely arrival of the cruiser last night came with a car to meet them.
But the promised time had come and gone, and Alonzo and Pedro, who hadn't been filled in on the exact details of the operation, were unable to keep their anxiety at bay.
"...What're you doing with that thing, anyway?" Pedro asked Jake, breaking his long silence as he watched the other man tap away at the keys.
"Eh? Ah, well... I guess you could call it my life's work, bro. Done for fun and profit, know what I mean? An' I'm just about, done, with this post..."
Perhaps deciding to wrap things up for the moment, Jake connected his cellphone to the laptop with a cable, transferring files over to the computer.
"Phew. Guess I'll have to post some more updates at night... Hmm. Man, you're right. The car really ain't showin' up."
Pedro and Alonzo stared at Jake, taking in his utter calm. They knew that Stan was the team leader, but seeing as how he was nearly always drugged to the gills unless they were in a combat situation, they had jointly decided that Jake was the actual mover and shaker of their team.
But Jake, though his ruthlessness in a fight and his skills with a gun certainly made him nothing to laugh at, was also far from what anyone would call professional, and his ever flippant, teasing attitude made it hard for them to trust him, as well. They'd somehow ended up coming this far, but inside, both Pedro and Alonzo were furiously calculating just how long they were willing to stay on this particular bandwagon.
"...Разрешите обратиться (Excuse me, may I have a moment)?"
Everyone at the table tensed at the sudden voice approaching them - surprisingly for the other three, Stan had reacted the fastest. They hadn't expected a simple voice to snap him out of his drug-induced stupor.
The owner of the hesitant voice was one of the two men who'd been sitting with the whores on the other side of the diner. Seen up close, their broad shoulders and the hard set of their jaws made it even more obvious that they were bodyguards. For some reason, they'd decided to walk over to the table and now stood staring at Stan with decidedly disconcerted looks on their faces.
Jake, Pedro and Alonzo didn't even know what the language had been. Only Stan immediately recognized it as Russian.
Seeing Stan's reaction, the two men smiled broadly... though those joyous expressions were clouded with confusion as well.
The ensuing torrent of Russian pushed Jake and the other two completely out of the conversation.
"Junior Sergeant? Junior Sergeant Kandinsky, is that you? Do you remember us? I'm Kosloff. I served with you in Jalalabad. I was in the 11th task force."
"I'm David. Don't you remember me, Junior Sergeant?"
Stan remembered. He remembered the familiar sound of spoken Russian, the faces of the comrades with whom he'd gone through thick and thin. But he couldn't understand was why they were here, in a backwater city in Thailand.
Kosloff and David were glad to see their comrade-in-arms, but they were unable to hide their dismay at their former superior's pitiful transformation. They had approached him because they remembered the Stanislav of back then, but now they were surely regretting their decision in the face of this gaunt shade of a man.
"Ah, I can't believe it... Junior Sergeant, we thought you were dead...! What brings you to Roanapur? Are these people your friends?"
"...And what has brought you here?"
Kosloff and David exchanged a meaningful glance at Stan's pointed question, nodded together, and answered.
"Actually, we've set up a trading company here with many other ex-Spetsnaz comrades. And can you guess who our boss is? It's Kapitan Pavlovena. Surprising, isn't it?"
The moment the name reached his ears, Stan's face contorted even more, a rictus of astonishment and troubled confusion.
"Uh... Junior Sergeant?"
Perhaps to hide the turmoil inside him, Stan lowered his pale face as though embarrassed.
"...No, you've got the wrong person. I don't know anyone who goes by that name."
"What? What are you talking abo-" Kosloff began, but Stan cut him off with an upraised hand, turned up as though in supplication.
"I... I'm sorry. I must have said something to mislead you... It doesn't matter. Please, go away."
Kosloff and David stared at each other once more, this time in consternation at Stan's sudden change in behavior. And just then, from behind them, came the voices of the whores they'd been looking after.
"Hey, how long are you boys going to be chatting there, anyway? We want to go home, so get the car ready!"
The two men hadn't been in the dining bar on personal business. They were very concerned about their comrade's discomforting behavior, but their top priority at the moment was to ensure the safe return of the women.
"...If something happens, please contact us here," David said, his voice tinged with worry as he drew a business card from within his suit.
"Junior Sergeant... Even now, we would never leave a comrade in trouble. If you feel the need, we will not hesitate to be your strength. May we meet again."
So said, the two men left, glancing regretfully over their shoulders as they walked away.
"...The hell were they, Stan? You know them or somethin'?"
Jake, who had been left bewildered by the conversation held in Russian, picked up the business card that had been left on the table and eyed it suspiciously.
"Lessee here... Huh. Bougenvillea Trading, eh? Ho lee shit."
"...Do you know them?" asked Stan, still unable to completely hide his surprise at the unexpected reunion.
"Yeah, I did my homework before I came over here... This is a cover for the Russian mafia. I hear they're real badass motherfuckers. You got some scary friends, bro."
"Mafia, you say?"
Instead of calming him down, Jake's answer only served to further Stan's distress.
"Yeah. They say the leader, Balalaika, is the cruelest, most hardcore bitch in town. They call her Fry Face sometimes... Hey, what's with the weird face?"
"It, it's nothing..."
Stan tried his hardest to portray an image of calm, but it was obvious he was deeply shaken.
"Didn't you see those hookers just now? Why would guys working for a trading company be lookin' after girls like that, huh?"
Disbelief still stamped on his face, Stan could only stare at the hotel hallway where his old comrades had disappeared.
"It can't be... Kapitan? But... but, no... why?"
Late in the afternoon, the heat came together with the humidity to form a steam pot. Inside the Lagoon's engine room, where no breath of air conditioned wind had ever blown, Benny slaved away at the ship's machinery, his clothes and skin covered with sweat and oil.
He didn't really believe in the concept of work ethic, and he wasn't masochistic either. The only reason he'd decided to forsake the blessedly cool indoors to come and work in a hellish environment like this was because he found himself assailed by the maddening feeling of having his life hanging by a thread, with nothing he could do about it.
The members of the Lagoon Company had been charged with finding the team that'd assaulted the Zaltzman, and the Triad lurked in the shadows, waiting to mete out a grisly end should they fail. Dutch, Revy and Rock had set forth as soon as the ship docked to find information. Dutch, the ideal combination of brain and brawn, would have no problem looking for clues on foot, and though Revy had probably never heard of the word "negotiate," she had Rock to do the talking for her. Since Rock's conversational skills and other talents were excellent but he often lacked the nerve to make good use of them, and Revy's talents lay in intimidation, they made an unexpectedly good team.
The point was, that once all was said and done... Benny found himself alone, with nowhere to go.
In Benny's opinion, it was madness to go out and face Roanapur's citizens, who were serious contenders for the title of "world's most unhinged people." Far better, he thought, to work with machines. Even the most delicate gear or spring would always act as expected, as long as one was careful to follow the right steps when dealing with it. His companions knew him well, of course, which was why it had been decided that Benny would stay behind to repair the Lagoon while they went out and took care of the human aspect.
He'd finished the major repairs and replacements in the morning; the stuff he had left wasn't that pressing. Still, though it would have been nice to take a little rest during the infernal afternoon... Benny wasn't so shameless as to slump in front of the computer with a cold beer and surf the web while the others ran their asses off outside.
"Heeey, Benny! You in there?"
Revy's voice drifted down from the deck; it seemed she'd returned while he was busy. Benny turned his attention away from the nuts and bolts before him.
"Yeah, I'm in the engine room. What's up?"
"Lunchtime. Dutch says to meet up at Khao Han."
So it's already time for lunch, huh... Benny checked his wristwatch as he mopped the sweat from his brow, and only then realized how hungry he was.
He'd be able to ask the others about how their investigation had gone. He wondered if he should dare get his hopes up.
Gathering up his tools and rising to exit the room, Benny was suddenly struck by an odd feeling and turned to peer back at the machines behind him.
He couldn't say why, but for some reason... All day, he'd been assailed intermittently by a strange feeling while he made his repairs, and now that feeling made itself known once again. Of course, there was nothing amiss in the room. He could vouch for that, having had to work in it for over an hour straight.
"Benny? Yo, something wrong down there?"
"Huh? Oh... Sorry, I'll be right out."
He must have been more stressed than he'd realized. Benny nodded, trying to convince himself, and headed up to join Revy and the others.
Just a few minutes after Benny left...
A black silhouette, shaped vaguely like a man, slowly gained form inside the silent, deserted engine room.
Verily, it seemed as though one of the room's many shadows had suddenly acquired mass and form, coalescing into the shape of a human being. This figure had been hiding in the shadows just a few scant meters away from Benny while he worked, and yet he had avoided detection.
The matte black Japanese style clothes looked wildly out of place on the man, whose hulking form seemed to be made purely of hard, trained muscle. He was the ninja who should by all rights have been torn to shreds by Dutch's grenades.
It went without saying that there were no objects in the engine room big enough for such a man to hide behind. In fact, Benny had caught sight of him countless times. But he had, through harsh, intense training, unlocked the secrets of ongyou no jutsu (7), allowing him to become one with the great flow of ki running through the universe, erasing his presence from all perception. Those untrained in the ninja arts would be unable to detect him even if they did glance at him... No, even if they were to stare directly at him for prolonged periods of time, the poor foolish souls would be unable to register the shape as something meaningful.
The crew of this ship surely believed that they had killed him with explosives last night. But the thing that flew into the sea back then had been a dutch wife weighted down with barbells and fake blood packets, wrapped in black cloth. He had only needed to conceal himself behind the torpedo tubes and then throw out the doll at the proper timing, to make it look like he had jumped himself.
Such was the cunning secret of the ninja art, utsusemi no jutsu (8). Having heard from Stan that he might be required to stay behind and prevent the Lagoon from pursuing the rest of the team, he had decided to fake his own death after finishing his mission by pretending to jump into the sea. In fact, he had prepared the doll that would stand in for him well in advance, hiding it behind the torpedo tubes immediately after he made his way back to the Lagoon using his suiton no jutsu(9).
He had gone to such lengths, knowing that the Black Lagoon would be his true escape route. He had been planning to smuggle himself on board until they docked at a port, and then disappear into the shadows when the opportunity presented itself.
But from what he overheard the crew members discussing, it seemed that Stan's team had ultimately failed in assassinating Chang Wai-San. What was more, the Lagoon itself had been charged with ferrying Chang back to Roanapur. Even he, with all his training in the myriad arts of the Orient, had been unable to foresee such an event. If he had known, he would have been able to prepare deadly traps in advance. But alas, as it was, he had been unable to strike even when he felt Chang's presence close by, forced to wait and bide his time.
Even had he attempted a suicide attack, the chances of him successfully taking Chang's life were slim. He had been able to sense the presence of those gathered on the bridge, and realized that they were all extremely skilled.
But that didn't mean the battle was lost.
The boat had docked in Roanapur. He, like Jake and Stan, had been hired from the beginning to assassinate Chang, and so he had already been briefed about the fall-back plan should the first assassination fail, and about the hideout that had been prepared for them to regroup at as well. He carefully spread forth his senses, and, detecting that there was nobody on the dock outside, transformed into a formless shadow that slid noiselessly out of the engine room.
And lo, so was the last descendant of all the Orient's darkness and wonder set loose upon the city of Roanapur.
(1):: A sort of fried dumpling popular in eastern Europe, typically filled with minced meat and onions.
(2):: Снайперская винтовка Драгунова (Snayperskaya Vintovka Dragunova), the Dragunov sniper rifle.
(3): : A sort of porridge made of rice or barley, often eaten at home in Russia and the rest of eastern Europe.
(4): : Soviet intelligence organization which eventually became the KGB.
(5): : I think this should be товарища сержанта (tovarisch serzhant), though the katakana used for it don't match any pronunciation of "comrade" I can find. The transliteration given by Urobuchi here is "sutarumushi serujyanto" (スタルムシ・セルジャント) while the one used by Hiroe was "sutamurushi" (スタムルシ). Hell if I know. My knowledge of Russian ends at "vodka."
(6): : политрук (political commissar), officers responsible for disseminating political ideology and overseeing loyalty to the government and the military.
(7): : 隱形の術. Ninja art of moving/hiding unseen in the shadows.
(8): : 空蝉の術. Ninja art of replacing oneself with a dummy, allowing one to survive otherwise fatal attacks unharmed.
(9): : 水遁の術. Ninja art of moving swiftly and silently through water, as though one were walking on land.
Chapter 2 End