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"I don't give a shit," said the Ukrainian, glaring at me over blue-tinted glasses.
I snorted the blood dripping from my nose and glared back. Being five foot four, it wasn't something I could generally do. But since he had strung me up to a metal scaffold in some grungy, vacant building, and stretched to the tips of my running shoes, I was now as tall as him.
"I've never shared that story with anyone," I said. "You should feel privileged."
I meant it. I had spent the last fifteen minutes telling him a tale I had kept locked in a mental dungeon for years, hidden away from friends, family, even the police. The only reason I had shared the truth now was because I didn't expect the Ukrainian to live long enough to repeat it.
He should feel downright honored.
He backhanded me across the face. "Yeah? Well, I don't."
I took the blow. Fresh blood pooled in my mouth. If I lost a tooth over this, I was not going to be happy.
Once again, he tipped his head down so he could stare at me over his round, retro glasses. "Where are they?"
I spit the blood at his face, or rather I tried to. Most of it just trickled down my chin. "You're boring. You know that, right?"
He took a breath and exhaled as he flicked his hand and whipped the heavy knot of braided rope into the soft pocket beneath my breast bone. My lungs forgot how to breathe — a shot to the solar plexus could do that to a person.
Surprising, subtle, and devastating. The last time I had experienced this particular kind of pain had been from my teacher's palm. That lesson had been offered with a higher purpose, not out of anger. Sensei didn't lose himself to such emotions. But regardless of the intent, the result felt the same — every part of me tried to clench around the pain. Lucky for me, my current posture wouldn't allow it. The Ukrainian had unwittingly bound me in the best possible position for solar plexus recovery: arms up, chest open. Who knew hanging from the base of a platform with a metal cross support pressed against my back could be so helpful?
Still, it was hard to feel appreciative as I sucked air.
The Ukrainian spit and cursed.
He had been saying that a lot, more so in the last hour. I didn't speak his language, but I had a pretty good idea what it meant. I didn't mind. He wasn't my favorite person, either.
"Crazy bitch. You want to keep this up? Fine."
He flicked the knot against the side of my bare thigh.
I forced a grin. I wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of knowing he had hurt me, not after hours of denying it. But when he headed back to his table of toys, I wished I had buried my pride and given him what he had expected to see.
That's what Sensei would have done.
Sensei had been teaching me the ninja arts since I was twelve, when I discovered him in my neighborhood park tossing grownups like confetti. By then, I had seven years of competitive Wushu training behind me. Even so, I had never seen anything so elegantly efficient as the Japanese art of the ninja.
I continued to practice Chinese Wushu in public, but I trained to become a kunoichi — female ninja — in secret. The first discipline rooted me in my Chinese heritage and gave me athleticism and grace. The latter gave me purpose. Unfortunately, as fully as I had assimilated some of my ninja lessons, others refused to stick, like burying my pride.
I had underestimated the benign-looking weapon and the capability of this ridiculous-looking man to wield it, and, as a result, had been unprepared. He didn't seem like the type who would spend hours honing a skill. And with forearms the size of my calves, I didn't see why he'd bothered.
"I'm sorry. Okay?" My words spurted out between gasps of pain.
He snorted and turned back to his table.
"Wait." Talking hurt, but at least I had gotten him to stop swinging the rope. Maybe if I engaged him in conversation, he'd forget about choosing another weapon. I could live with the rope. At least, I thought I could.
"I want to cooperate. Really. I'll tell you whatever you want to know." It was surprising how the words flowed when your life was at stake.
He took a deep breath that expanded his slinky disco shirt across his back. Then he turned around to face me.
I didn't know what kind of childhood this guy had, but I could imagine a two-by-four to the head on numerous occasions. He had that kind of attitude. The kind that begged to be beaten out of him. It was in the way he stood, with his stocky legs spread apart and his hands held low and out in expressive fists. The way he rolled his shoulders forward around a hairy chest, proudly displayed by that open-collared shirt some designer had bastardized modern art to create.
Even if he had not hung me from a hook, I would have wanted to kill him.
"Bet you watch a lot of old TV shows. Am I right?" This wasn't the time for my snarky attitude, but I gave it anyway. "Or cheesy action films? Because you've done a bang-up job with the whole sexploitation thing."
"What are you talking about?"
"You know this is a cliché, right?"
I was gambling, but I needed time to coax my muscles into action.
Most people would never know the pain of prolonged traction. It began with resistance. The body tensed, the muscles flexed, the mind rebelled. Then came acceptance and relaxation as the vertebrae separated. Shoulders and hips released. Even the knees got a welcome break from their daily compression. It felt kind of good. But it didn't last. The human body was meant to be supported from the ground up, not hung from delicate wrists. The only factor that kept my predicament from feeling truly horrible was that I could ease some of the tension by standing on my toes.
Suffice it to say I had a new and profound appreciation for ballerinas.
The Ukrainian turned back to the weapons table and got sidetracked by a jar of peanuts. Apparently, capturing women who were trying to break into his employer's mansion and using them to recreate movie scenes while wearing '70s reject clothing made a guy hungry. I took advantage of his inattention to raise my legs. No such luck. My sore muscles wouldn't cooperate.
Once again, I thought of my teacher. "Let your pain flow like water around river rocks — touching, moving, and, ultimately, passing."
As my pain ebbed and my resolve strengthened, I knew the Ukrainian had failed. He had thought I would feel embarrassed to be displayed like a piece of meat; I wasn't. He had thought I would feel helpless hanging from a hook; I didn't. He had thought I would do anything to stop the pain and humiliation.
That time, he was correct.CHAPTER 2
I couldn't blame the Ukrainian for what he was doing to me. Not really. I had been a monumental pain in his ass. At first, he had assumed I was a burglar breaking into his employer's house. But sometime between knocking me unconscious on the patio and thirty minutes ago, he had learned of Kateryna's and Ilya's disappearance. That's when my crime elevated from burglary to kidnapping. I knew this because I had heard Dmitry Romanko yelling it through the Ukrainian's cellphone. Ilya had not arrived at kindergarten this morning, and Romanko was killing mad.
That's when the Ukrainian began whipping me with the knotted rope. It wasn't sexual. It was more like a two-year-old's temper tantrum. He had gotten reprimanded by his boss and was taking it out on the only person within reach.
But like most tantrums, the Ukrainian's had erupted and passed too suddenly for me to capitalize on it. So when I saw him grip the edge of the wooden table and squeeze it as though he wanted to crush it, I was glad. I needed him angry. I needed him to stop playing games. And when his ugly shirt stretched against flexed muscles, I knew I had succeeded. He didn't want me to give up. I had resisted for too long, disrespected his manhood, injured his fragile Ukrainian pride. He wanted satisfaction.
I needed him to do something reckless, like grab the hilt of the Fox 599 Karambit. Of all the weapons laid out on his table — pipe, brass knuckles, combat dagger, hatchet — the Ukrainian had chosen the most precise tool of the bunch. I knew because it was mine. I also knew it did not suit him.
I feigned a frightened expression as he swiped back and forth like a batter warming up for the plate. "Where are they?"
I looked away and muttered something I hoped was unintelligible.
"What's that? Speak up."
He had chosen the talon-like blade — my blade — to make a point. Bad pun? Sure. But hey, at least I had learned to accept new realities — like hanging from a hook while a sadist threatened me with my own blade.
The Ukrainian smirked. "Maybe I cut out little pieces. What do you think?"
What did I think? I thought he was ready. He had just begun shifting his weight to his left foot, freeing his right for the step that would bring the hooked blade to my chest. I didn't need to watch the knife; I got all the information I needed from the angle of his hips.
I raised my face, so he could see the terror he wanted to see, and waited for him to pause and breathe — the way he had before every previous attack. Then together, we inhaled. Only, this time, mine was a second shorter than his.
I clenched my abs, brought my knee to my chest, and snapped my leg out to the side. The edge of my shoe caught the nerve on the inside of his right wrist. The shock of the strike loosened his grip and knocked the knife from his hand while the friction of my skin against his tugged him forward.
As one leg finished its job, the other sailed over his head in opposition.
I arced my leg's descent just a bit, hooked his neck with my foot, and rotated him, face up. The Ukrainian's larynx crunched between my rising knee and my descending heel.
He wouldn't be calling me kurva blyat any time soon.
As he crumpled to the cement floor, with what I hoped was a fractured larynx, I grabbed the rope above me and began to swing. In spite of the metal cross support jamming my back, I managed enough momentum to pull my legs over my head and onto the platform above me. This should have knocked the rope off the hook, but it hadn't. So there I was, balanced on the edge of the platform like a pencil on a finger, with the wood digging into my hips, my back straining to hold its arch, my arms extended to their limits, and my fingers fiddling with the rope. If I allowed my chest to drop, even an inch, the balance would tip and down I would go.
Objects clattered below me as the Ukrainian struggled with his own dilemma. Maybe he'd suffocate before my back seized and I fell off the platform. Then again, maybe not. I tried not to risk my life on maybes.
By the time I untangled the rope from the hook, the trembling in my muscles had become a seismic event, which turned my neat gymnast dismount into a free-falling tumble. No ninja landing for me. Instead, I got caught in an awkward tripod of feet and bound hands.
The Ukrainian grabbed my hair and yanked me to my feet then stuffed my head under his arm and clenched. I tucked my chin like a turtle to protect my carotid artery and trachea, and to buy myself some time. If my wrists hadn't been tied, I could have snuck a hand around his arm and dropped him with the pressure of a single finger under his nose. However, since this elegant defense was not an option, I slammed my fists into his testicles.
Crude but effective.
I followed this up with a shot to his jaw, the force of which — unfortunately — caused him to fall back onto his table of toys.
This time, he went for the hatchet.
With only a second to decide, I moved in, down, and out — a combination of movements that would keep me safe from a downward, diagonal, or horizontal cut — then I slipped behind him, tossed my bound wrists over his head, and ground my forehead into the back of his neck.
Once again, I had his throat jammed between two precise and deadly forces.
I pulled until my wrists burned and the hatchet clanked to the floor. I pressed until my forehead molded into the back of his neck. I pulled and pressed until his heart stopped beating and his nasty soul skittered off to Hell. And then, I gave the rope one final yank.
He sank to the floor, and I collapsed over his sweaty corpse like an exhausted lover. My long dark hair clung to his pale dead skin. It was gross, no other way to describe it. I wanted to roll away, but I couldn't move. My back throbbed. My cuts stung. And sometime in the fight my tank top had ripped and I had begun to shiver — a clear sign of muscle failure.
I crawled off his chest and dragged myself forward like an inchworm to where the hatchet had fallen. By then, I was shaking so badly I nearly cut off my toes trying to secure the blade between my feet.
If I had grown up in North Dakota, like my Norwegian father, I might have had an easier time with the cold. But as a California girl? Not so much.
I visualized a hot sidewalk warming my bottom and legs and radiating heat up through my torso. It took longer than the river rock imagery had taken to rid me pain, but it did the trick. My hands stopped shaking, and I was able to saw through the nylon without shedding anymore blood.
I crawled back to the corpse. The sports bra I wore underneath my tattered tank top wasn't going to cut it. I needed something warmer. Even if it was butt-ugly and rank, it would not be the worst indignity I had suffered this day. I kept that in mind as I undid the buttons of the Ukrainian's shirt and freed a forest of curly black chest hair. The slinky fabric of his shirt stank of sweat, deodorant, and cologne.
"Suck it up, Lily."
I held my breath and slid my arms into the clinging sleeves and buttoned every button past my shorts and down to my knees. It had been ninety degrees in the shade earlier this afternoon. Where was that heat now?
My fatigued legs felt cold and stiff. I considered taking the Ukrainian's pants but was afraid of what I might find underneath. Hot pink briefs? A leopard skin thong? Nothing? Just imagining the possibilities made me want to vomit, which reminded me of what else I needed.
The Ukrainian had supplied himself with water, nuts, and a box of glazed donut holes, the remnants of which still sat on the table. I picked up the bottle and sniffed. The water smelled vaguely of donuts. I drank it anyway, backwash and all. The effects were instantaneous. My mind cleared. My energy boosted. The shivering stopped.
I had clothes, food, water, and a dead Ukrainian.
My situation had vastly improved.CHAPTER 3
The Ukrainian had imprisoned me in a stalled renovation project in the Mid-Wilshire district about four miles from where I had left Dmitry Romanko's wife and son. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have used the dead man's cellphone to call a taxi. But the only thing working at full capacity were my feet. So once I took care of my physical needs, collected my karambit, and wiped down everything I could remember touching, I ran.
It wasn't fast, and it wasn't pretty. God only knew what I looked like, running down the sidewalk in an oversized disco shirt and my hair plastered against my face. But I made it to Aleisha's Refuge, staggered up the front step, and fell against the door. I didn't have energy left to knock. I was done.
A stern but polite voice commanded me to step away from the door. Aleisha Reiner was a compassionate and welcoming woman, but running a refuge for battered women had made her cautious. I did as she commanded and tried my best not to fall off the step. I heard a squeal through the door, followed by the rattling of a security chain, and the clank of a bolt sliding open.
"Oh sweet Jesus. What happened to you, child? Are you hurt?" Aleisha's smooth, dark skin wrinkled into deep furrows as her generous mouth, so quick to smile, hung slack with concern. She rubbed her hands along my arms and around my head, checking for injury, then pulled me into a hug. "You're gonna be the death of me, girl. Do you hear?" I jostled against her bosom as she shook. "How you gonna help anyone if you get yourself killed?"
I muttered a response, lost in the pillows of her shirt, then pried myself away. "I'm fine. Honest. I just need to speak with Kateryna."
Aleisha shook her head. "She's gone."
"What do you mean? Did someone take her?" I pictured a gang of Ukrainians dragging Kateryna and Ilya out the door. Then something worse occurred to me. "What about the other women?" I pushed Aleisha away so I could examine her for injury. "Are you okay?"
Aleisha rubbed my arms as if she was calming a new arrival. "Hush. I'm okay. The women are okay. Everybody is just fine." The low hum of her voice and the soft stroke of her hands took the edge off my anxiety, but I still needed answers.
Aleisha shrugged. "She just took the boy and left."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Ninja Daughter"
Copyright © 2019 Tori Eldridge.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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