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The children shuffled across the warehouse floor in shackles and chains. There were a dozen of themnine girls and three boys. They ranged in age from five to twelve and wore ragged, filthy clothes. I watched them through the mesh floor of a catwalk, feeling like a mother bear separated from her cubs, even though the kids weren't mine.
One of the thugs riding herd on the little group gave a girl a shove to make her move faster. She stumbled and nearly fell. I started to growl, then shut myself up. No way I could take on six guys unless I had serious surprise on my side, and most crooks get over their surprise real fast when they hear snarling noises from the shadows above them.
A sixth man was with the kids and the guards: Stanislav Yerin, the Pakhan himself. Yerin reminded me of a pile of alphabet blockssturdy, square and cornered. A knife scar split his right eyebrow which, like his hair, was the medium brown of a wooden horse. I'd learned a lot about the Russian Mafia in the last few days, and knew the Pakhanbossesdon't usually get involved in day-to-day doings on the street. Yerin's presence meant something special was going down.
The corner of my eye twitched. Special always meant complicated, and complicated always meant injury or pain probably mine. Blood tanged my mouth with copper, and I realized I was biting the inside of my cheek. I wondered if Batgirl ever felt this way.
My catwalk was a full story above the main floor. The guards were herding the kids toward a set of loading doors. Some of the kids shuffled along in a stupor, but most looked terrified. Their chains made them clink like baby ghosts. I felt sick to my stomach, and angry. I wanted to break those damned chains with my bare hands and rip the hearts out of those gorillas with my bare teeth. Mama Bear tried to growl again and I had to clamp my lips hard to keep her quiet.
One of the boys had straw-blond hair, brown eyes and a little Matt Damon nose that would get the girls' blood racing when he got older. If he got older. He was chained in the exact center of the line, and while the others stared straight ahead, he darted frightened glances around the warehouse. I recognized him from the picture his mother had given Ms. Hawk. His name was Andy Maine. The Maines had been visiting Russia on vacation and were shopping in a street market when Andy had disappeared. The St. Petersburg police hadn't had any luck in finding him, which was how Ms. Hawk and I got involved.
Four days with almost no sleep and a hell of a lot of footwork had produced a trail that led us to this warehouse. We eventually decided Andy had been taken by mistakemost of the children kidnapped into underground slavery are orphans and street kids. But, hey, once you've got the kid, you may as well finish the job and sell him, right? He'd be worth the same to a pimp, no matter what language he spoke.
Mama Bear bared her teeth, and I fingered the stun gun holstered at my waist. I wished hard for my Glock, but smuggling a pistol from Michigan to Mother Russia wouldn't be worth the risk. I don't relish a strip-search unless it's done by a cabana boy named Rico. Handguns are illegal in Russia anyway, though someone might want to tell that to the Mafiathe thugs below me were armed to the teeth. I kept a wary eye on them as I set my little MP3 player on the catwalk and clipped the remote to my belt. The player's tiny green light said everything was a go.
The thugs had the kids almost to the door. Outside was a launch that would take them to a tramp steamer bound for who-knew-where. France. The Netherlands. Maybe even the
United States. Hell, the child traffic industry has tentacles everywhere. Once those children got outside, we'd lose them forever.
My earpiece crackled softly. "We have to move, Terry" came Ms. Hawk's voice. "The police won't get here in time."
"Right," I whispered into the button mike clipped to my collar. "I'm moving closer."
I eased across the catwalk and down a set of metal stairs to the main floor, my crepe-soled shoes making a whisper of sound. I wore a black jumpsuit that made me feel like Cat-woman and made it easier to slip from shadow to shadow. Stacks of wooden crates created convenient places to hide, though the same crates also blocked easy viewing of the thugs. The place smelled of salt water, and the air was damp and cold as a used washcloth. Male voices ahead of me spoke in Russian, which is Greek to me.
I crept around a crate, my heart thundering in my ears. The thugs and kids were only about ten feet ahead, and their backs were to me.
Yerin said something to one of the thugs, and they all laughed. A little girl flinched at the sound, and I wondered what had happened to make her fear adult laughter. I quickly scanned the area but didn't see Ms. Hawk. Most of the warehouse lay in shadowthe traffickers were only planning to stop here for a couple hours before moving the kids again, and they hadn't bothered to turn on all the lights. Thank God for that.
"I'm in position," I whispered. Tension threatened to tighten my muscles like bungee cord, and I forced myself to relax. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins. Part of it was fear and part of it was anticipation. My fingers itched.
"On my mark," Ms. Hawk replied. "Three ."
I drew my stun gun, a flat, plastic box with two electrodes poking out of one end like a pair of cat ears. Foreign-made stun guns are illegal in Russia, too, but you can buy all the locally made ones you like. Unfortunately, Russian stun guns are about as shocking as a Disney movie. Ms. Hawk and I had gotten around this by dismantling our American models and spreading the innards around our checked luggage, which we hoped would fool a casual inspection. A small risk, but necessary. It had also worked. Our luggage had sailed through security without a hitch, and we'd reassembled the weapons in our hotel room with no one the wiser. Too bad this little trick wouldn't work with a pistol.
I powered up my little kitty-cat, and a spark snapped softly between the electrodes. I smelled ozone.
I tensed again, then took another relaxing breath and tried to make my muscles fluid as water. It was hardMama Bear was snarling again.
A coppery taste flooded my mouth, as always happens when I get excited. Anger boiled a pot of bile inside me. These men were going to pay for their scaring and their scarring.
"Mark!" I moved.
Common wisdom says that women don't like to fight. We're supposed to shy away from physical conflict, use words and careful prodding to get what we want. That's bullshit. We're just told to shy away from physical conflict. I did just that for most of my life. I was quiet and retiring for years until I got into my first real fight, and you know what? I liked it. Hell, I loved it. And not only that, I realized I was damned good at it. Yeah, there are plenty of guys out there who are stronger than I am. So what? You fight smart, and the bigger guys don't even get a chance to use those muscles they put so much stock in.
A frisson of adrenaline thrilled through me as I rushed the closest guard. Time slowed and stretched like a spandex jumpsuit. I love it when that happens. Not only does it give my own little combat computer time to figure out what I'm doing, it lets me enjoy what's going on. I jabbed my stun gun into the small of the thug's back and heard the sweet zzzzzap of muffled electricity. The thug stiffened, then dropped to the floor in slow motion, gasping and twitching like a landed salmon. No more chained children for him. Before he had finished collapsing, I was swinging at a second thugthe stun gun needed time to recharge, time I didn't have.
My mark had good reflexes, I'll give him that. He was already turning, arms at the defensive, his face an animal snarl. I dropped to the floor and lashed out with a sweep kick that would have knocked him off his feet if he hadn't jumped over it. He tried to land on my shin, but I yanked myself out of the way and flashed to my feet. Missed me, you bastard, I thought.
Then the thug's left fist flicked at me, quick as a snake, and clipped the side of my head. A flashbulb popped behind my eyes, but I felt no painnot yet. Without pausing, I grabbed his outstretched wrist and used his own momentum to flip him over my thigh. He landed flat on his back with a satisfying crash.
I was vaguely aware of Ms. Hawk. She flickered out of the shadows to my right, swift and silent as black silk, and rammed her own stun gun into the kidneys of thug number three. He dropped, and she delivered a midriff kick to thug number four before he could react. Thug four folded neatly in half, but managed to grab her knee and take her down with him. She grunted when she hit the cement floor.
My hand dipped down to my belt and came up with a small black canister. I aimed it at my own thug and flicked the spray button. He screamed and clawed at his eyes. People always do that, even though it's the last thing you should do when you're hit with pepper sprayrubbing drives chili oil even deeper into your mucous membranes and makes it worse. I spun to help Ms. Hawk, but she had already snap-kicked her guy in the face. He went, "Oof!" and lay still. I guess some expressions are universal to all languages.
All this left Stanislav Yerin and one last thug standing. And me. Ms. Hawk was still on the ground, eight or ten feet away from Yerin. The last thug grabbed one of the kidsa little girl maybe six years old with brown eyes as big as peanut-butter cupsand aimed a gun at her head. She whimpered like a puppy, and the thug barked something in Russian. I didn't get the words, but his meaning was clear enough. I think he must have figured we had guns somewhere on us, or he would have shot us right off. Or maybe he just panicked and grabbed a hostage without thinking. Good old Stan Yerin backed up a couple of steps with a look of shock on his face. The scar that split his eyebrow looked like a startled stroke of lightning. It had probably freaked the hell out of him when two women popped out of the shadows to take down four of his men in five seconds. The children stared with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
The thug barked in Russian againsame command, I thinkand dug the barrel of his pistol harder into the girl's temple. Tears trickled down her face, and Mama Bear roared inside me. An angry red haze tinged the edges of my vision. Yerin retreated a couple more steps, then stopped to watch, clearly undecided about the situation. I scanned the ground, hoping one of the thugs had dropped a pistol within snatching range. Two guns lay on the floor, but neither was close enough to do me any good.
"How's that in English?" I said, and tapped my belt with a subtle motion. "My Russian's a little rusty."
"You to leave, or she die," he said in a thick accent. I mentally rolled my eyes at his rotten usage. On the other hand, his English was better than my Russian and he had a gun, so I wasn't exactly in a position to complain. "Put up hands!"
I slowly complied. Ms. Hawk didn't move. Thug five waggled the gun again, and she slowly raised her hands. Even in the dim light, her face stood out sharp and beautiful, as if it had been caught in a stone frieze. Ms. Hawk has night-black hair, sky-blue eyes, and the classically beautiful profile of a Greek statue. I think she looks kind of like Artemis, if Artemis ever wore a black jumpsuit and put her hair in a French twist.
"Let the girl go," Ms. Hawk barked in a voice that reminded me of Kathleen Turner. "If that child is harmed, you will die. Hawk Enterprises will see to that."
I noticed with admiration that Ms. Hawk was aiming a pistol at the thug. She must have snatched it up from one of the guys she'd taken down. Stanislav Yerin's gaze flicked from Ms. Hawk to his thug to me. A fair number of Pakhan don't carry guns of their own, disdaining them as something for the hired help. He was probably regretting that decision just now. My boss got to her feet, though her aim never wavered.
The thug hesitated, uncertain about what to do. And then Russian police sirens wailed in the distance.
"Wow," I said as the sirens grew louder. "Frying pan, fire, you. I hear your cell mate's name is Ivan and he keeps a big jar of olive oil under his pillow. Hope you like that hot monkey love."
I don't know how much the thug actually understood, but a panicked look crossed his face, and he snapped his pistol around to aim at me. In that moment, Ms. Hawk lunged. She tackled the girl, wrenching her out of the guy's grip. He fired, but Ms. Hawk had thrown him off balance, and the shot caromed into the darkness. Me, I was already moving. I dove for the floor, stomach-surfed the four or five feet that separated me from my target like Pete Rose sliding into second, and jammed my now-recharged stun gun into the thug's thigh. A choking sound emerged from his throat, and he crumpled like a used Kleenex.
I scrambled to my feet and scanned the visible area. Stan Yerin was gone. I started to swear, then automatically checked myself when I remembered the kids. They were staring at me and Ms. Hawk like frightened kittens.
"You speak English," Andy Maine piped up in a voice that was both relieved and scared. "Are you cops? Are you going to take me home?"
"We're not cops, Andy," I said. "But Ms. Hawk and I are here to help."
"How do you know my name?" he asked.
I ignored the question. The sirens grew louder still, and I tapped the remote clipped to my belt. Above me, the MP3 player fell silent and the sirens stopped. I looked around. Five child stealersthree of them stunned, two of them moaning in pain and clawing at their eyes. These guys would never touch another child, all because of Ms. Hawk. And me. I felt like I'd just gotten off the world's wildest roller coastera little shaky and wanting to go again. Inside me, Mama Bear felt pleased, like someone had given her cub back and a big comb of honey to boot.
Then the pain caught up with me. It drove a chisel into my temple, and my midriff felt tenderized from that little belly-flop on the concrete floor. I knew from experience that I needed to keep moving or I'd stiffen up. The exultation faded a little.
"Are the cops coming?" Andy asked.
"Eventually," Ms. Hawk said in her rich voice. "Terry, let's see what we can do about those chains."
I found a set of keys in a stunned thug's pocket. The other kids shied away from me when I tried to unlock them, so I unchained Andy first. Once they saw that I didn't hurt him, they let me free them as well. I can't describe the mixture of ecstasy and loathing I felt as those horrible chains dropped with clatters and clanks to the ground. How many other kids around the world were having their chains unlocked by someone whose motives were completely different from mine? At least these kids would go free. They clustered around me, and I gave some of them hugs. Three hung back, still not quite trusting us.
I had just unchained the last childa little girl with dark skin and hair that said "Gypsy" to mewhen police sirens, real ones, howled outside.
"I think," Ms. Hawk said, "that we should step outside for some fresh air about now. We'll bring Andy with us."
I didn't want to leave. The girl with the peanut-butter-cup eyes grabbed my hand and chattered at me in Russian, probably begging me to be her new mommy or maybe just show her where the bathroom was. Her hand felt fragile as a little bird, and I ached to hold on, let her know that everything would be fine as long as she stayed with me. But Ms. Hawk was right. It would create a difficult and ultimately unnecessary incident if two American citizens were discovered interfering in a Russian police matter, especially when said women were carrying illegal stun guns.
We quickly cuffed the groaning thugs with the kids' chains, then grabbed Andy and towed him to the little side door we'd first used to enter. The other kids tried to follow us, and Ms. Hawk used emphatic gestures to tell them they had to stay. They didn't want to. Three of the girls and one of the boys burst into tears. I wanted to scoop them into my arms and reassure them, but I didn't know the words and anyway, I didn't have time. I told myself that they'd get the help they needed from the police more quickly than from us, but I didn't feel much better. The sharp chisel in my temple dug a little deeper.
Police burst through the main door just as the three of us slipped out the side. Luckily, the cops hadn't taken the time to establish a perimeter, or we would have been sunk. We hustled Andy away into a damp and chilly night illuminated by spinning red-and-blue police lights. I wondered what the cops would think when they found a flock of thugs trussed up like roasting chickens, and a gaggle of children with a wild story. The thought brought a little glow of satisfaction to my bruised and aching stomach as we jogged away with Andy in tow.