Gretel took a seat at the front counter of the diner and set her bag on the floor. She ordered a milkshake and watched people file in for lunchtime. A couple with two young girls fought over a booth while an old man sidestepped them to get to the counter. College kids sat across from businessmen. All sorts of people filled the seats. The diner's radio played a song Gretel had never heard before, but she was comfortable humming the chorus. When her milkshake came out she couldn't wait to try it. For as long as she could remember she had only associated milkshake with other things. It was a surprise to learn it was a drink and not just something people did during sex.
Los Angeles had been an exciting place with no shortage of work. Best of all no one seemed to mind her dark dresses and white hair. People assumed she was an actor, or at least someone trying to break into Hollywood. Young women with stars in their eyes were all over the place. Gretel found fun in telling people that she was auditioning for roles in horror movies or murder mysteries. She even told a group of people that she was a serial killer and got a round of laughs. Stuff like that was entertaining from time to time, but she had other things on her mind. As she drank her milkshake, an old woman in a blue dress sat next to her at the counter. The wrinkled woman gave her a smile before striking up a conversation.
"My, that's a wonderful hat." The old woman pointed. "If you don't mind me asking... where did you get it?"
Gretel adjusted her black sun hat and smiled.
"Thank you. I got it a long time ago in Italy."
"Is that where you're from?"
The woman must have picked up on her accent but she didn't mind.
"Oh no. I'm from Romania."
"Romania..." the old woman mused. "Oh, but your English is so good."
"I was born there, but I've been all over the world with my brother. English is just something we've picked up along with some other things."
"Are you planning on staying? Or just visiting?"
"Just visiting. We don't stay in one place for very long."
The old woman asked more questions as Gretel's attention drifted to a man who just entered the diner. He wore a tan suit and glasses and was easy to pick out with his balding head. The man moved to the booth near the emergency exit in the back of the diner and sat down with a man in black. They started to talk.
"Excuse me." Gretel interrupted the old woman. "I have to take care of something."
She picked up her bag and headed to the back where the balding man was sitting. He was a witness or something but she didn't really care about the specifics. The two men in the booth looked up when she approached their table.
"Hello!" Gretel greeted them with a curtsy. "You're Mr. Washburn right?"
Washburn gripped the table and began to sweat. He gave the man in black a confused look.
"How do you know that?" Washburn stuttered.
"Could you play with me, mister? Please?"
The confusion spread through the rest of the diner as people looked up from their lunch to watch the scene unfolding near the emergency exit.
"Look young lady. We've very busy. We don't have time for games or... whatever you're asking," the man in black told her.
Gretel paused. Sometimes she forgot that she wasn't a child anymore. Now people looked at her as a young woman instead of a little girl. Old habits were hard to break.
"In that case..."
She reached into her bag. The two men watched dumbfounded as she pulled out an FN P90. A small bear doll hung from a clip on the front where the carrying strap would go. The sub-machine gun's odd shape caught the men off guard as she pulled the handle back to chamber a round. The distinct sound of a gun cock snapped them out of their daze.
"Holy shit!" Washburn cried.
The man in black tried to pull a handgun out of his jacket but was too slow. Gretel sprayed down their booth with her P90 until both of them were riddled with bullets. She went through half her magazine with a smile before turning to the other stunned customers. A few of them were already on their feet with their mouths wide open and tried to run. Her smile stayed as she fired again in full auto. Screams of panic were quickly replaced with cries of agony as she went from booth to booth. The couple and their two daughters, the college kids, the businessmen- no one was spared. The old woman who complimented her hat tried to reach the exit and was cut down without a second thought.
Nothing was left in the dining area except shell casings, corpses and pools of blood. Gretel reloaded and climbed over the counter to reach the kitchen. She found the cook fumbling with the phone along with two waitresses. They died with a single sweep of her sub-machine gun. One hundred bullets later everyone in the diner was dead. She had lost count how many she killed as she slipped out the backdoor into an alley. As much as she wanted to take one home to play with, she had a meeting later. Not to mention it was hard to kidnap someone in broad daylight. Especially after all the people she killed earlier in the week.
Before she left the alley she put the P90 in her bag and headed toward the nearest bus stop. She didn't like it as much as her B.A.R. Unfortunately her old rifle had been damaged in Germany when a man came at her with a shotgun. Gun repair wasn't easy and the last gunsmith she paid to fix it tried to kill her. The sub-machine gun she picked up in Belgium was a matter of convenience. It didn't have the range or the sound she had grown to love. But it did have a large magazine good for mowing down groups of people. And even though it was a lot easier to carry around... it wasn't the same. Nothing could truly replace her B.A.R. unless she found another just like it.
The police were out in force by the time the bus visited her stop. The smell of blood and gunpowder was still fresh in her mind as she climbed on and took a seat in the back. After a long week of killing she knew it was time to move on. Police in the United States were no fun. They showed up too quickly to crime scenes and were very persistent. Some didn't even take bribes and she had to kill those types. It wasn't like Roanapur where she could spend a month murdering anyone she wanted and no one batted an eye until the mafia got angry. That was ten long years ago, but the memories of warm blood and terrified screaming made her shiver with excitement. The desire to go back had become irresistible. All she had to do was take care of one last thing and it would be the very next stop.
The bus dropped her off downtown where she walked a few blocks to an empty construction site. Around the back was a neglected alley filled with trash an abandoned tools. She took a seat on a dumpster and waited patiently until a green sedan pulled up. Two men got out. She recognized them as Mel and one of his underlings. He was a gangster or a ringleader or something who wore a lot of white suits. There was a joke about Mel and Moby Dick she didn't remember. Criminals like him ran together after awhile and she found it hard to keep everything straight. He didn't appear to be happy.
"Hey there mister." Gretel waved as she hopped off the dumpster.
"Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ! You crazy bitch! I only wanted you to kill one guy! One! I didn't ask you to massacre a whole diner! What were you thinking?"
"It was better that way. It's not proper to leave behind witnesses. Besides, it will take time for the police to sort through all those bodies." She smiled.
Mel ran his hands up and down his face in a frustrated rage. Gretel kept smiling even though it only seemed to make him angrier.
"Couldn't you have just shot up his house? I... I... I gave you his address! Or caught him on the street! Or shot him on the john? I mean... goddamn it! Do you know how many people you killed?"
"I wasn't counting. But I did go through two magazines. That's a hundred bullets."
Silence fell over the alley as Mel shook his head and ran his hands through his hair. He began to pace back and forth while making angry faces at Gretel. She kept smiling.
"You... you did this on purpose." He realized. "You waited for the biggest crowd you could manage before you killed him. You wanted a mound of bodies..."
"Why not? It would be a shame-"
Mel kicked a rusted bucket to cut her off.
"Shut up! I didn't ask for this kind of heat! You don't cause a massacre like that and sweep it under the rug! I wanted Washburn to go away, not make front page news! I don't know what it was like back in your ass backwards homeland- but LA isn't your private shooting gallery! Romanian bitch!"
Gretel had seen men boil over like this before. It was surprisingly similar from country to country. Italians, Russians, Americans, Spanish- it was all the same. This situation usually ended poorly for them. She held her bag close to her chest as Mel went on.
"I heard plenty of ugly stories about you. Hell, I didn't believe half of it. I never thought one woman could be so damn bloodthirsty. You think the money would be enough."
"Oh, money. Is that all? Money? How silly!"
She started laughing and found it hard to stop. Mel and his friend looked worried. Even after she got herself under control, their expressions did not change. She could hardly contain herself.
"You know what mister? A nice Japanese man once told us the world was about finding happiness. So that's what we do. We find happiness killing people all over the world." Gretel moved closer. "Why settle for one man when we could have hundreds? Why kill people in one country when we could kill them everywhere? A wonderful chorus of screaming in every language. Thousands of lungs choked with blood. The scent of decay and gunpowder around every corner. We wouldn't pass that up for anything."
Mel stumbled backwards, visibly shaken. Gretel didn't even realize she had slipped into her brother's voice. Her smile curled back until her canines shown like fangs. The two gangsters from LA looked desperate.
"We don't care about money. It's only important when we need to get to the next town. Or when we need more bullets. That's the only reason we do jobs like this."
A terrible silence hung over the alley. Mel and his friend were frozen under Gretel's sadistic stare. Her brother's voice and the words she said had shaken them to the core. It was an eternity until Mel made a gesture over his shoulder. His friend went to the car and brought out an open duffel bag. They threw it at Gretel's feet and she could see the stacks of cash inside.
"Take your goddamn money. I don't ever want to see you again... freak."
She picked up the bag without breaking eye contact.
"Thanks mister. It was nice working with you. Good luck with the trial."
She slung the duffel bag over her shoulder as Mel and his friend got back in their car and drove off without another word. It was time to go home. Tomorrow she would go to the airport. Roanapur was her next destination.
The sun went down over the horizon as Gretel returned to her apartment complex. It was a five story middle-of-the-road place with plain tan walls, balconies, and a parking lot out front. Her room was on the ground floor. It used to belong to a drug dealer before she chopped him up and fed him to stray dogs across the street. It was a one bed apartment with a kitchen and a washer dryer. It was a lot nicer than some of the cheap motels she used in the past. After the fancy glass entrance her room was the third door on the left, just past the stairwell. But as she prepared to go inside she caught the scent of smoke. It reminded her of cigars. A warm feeling ran up and down her body as she turned the knob.
The lights were off, but she liked coming home to darkness. She could still make out the shadows of chairs and the sofa in the living room. But something was off. She dropped the duffel bag of Mel's money and flipped on the light switch. Like she expected, there was a visitor waiting in the blackness. It was a scarred woman in a business suit. She sat comfortably on the sofa while smoking a cigar. That was all Gretel needed to bring up old memories from a crooked city by the sea. It was impossible not to smile.
"You're that Russian lady from Roanapur." She paused for a name. "Miss Balalaika, right?"
"So you remember after all. I see you've become quite the young lady." Balalaika took a puff on her cigar.
"And you've gotten so old. Your hair is turning gray."
It had been ten years. The boss of Hotel Moscow looked similar to what Gretel remembered, just much older. Her skin was wrinkled, her long blond hair had streaks of gray, and her eyes looked so tired. But it was her. The rest was close enough. Same low cut business suit, only black. Same old gray military overcoat worn like a cape. The woman Gretel and her brother had been told to kill so long ago was in her apartment just a few feet away.
"You look really tired Miss Balalaika. I read that stress contributes to premature aging. They say a positive attitude can really help with that."
Gretel took a seat across from the Russian mob boss with nothing but a table between them. She kept her bag in her lap with her hidden P90 pointed toward Balalaika.
"Wow. How did you find me? Los Angeles is a long way from Roanapur."
"Melville, your last employer, gave you up. At the very least he can tell the difference between a killer and a real monster. He didn't want to end up like other people who hired you."
"I thought he might. So I let him. You know why, miss?" Gretel slipped into her brother's voice. "We really missed you."
Balalaika was unmoved as she took a puff on her cigar.
"Is that so?"
"After Roanapur we killed people all over the world. Chinese, Germans, Spanish, Australians, Americans, Canadians... more Russians. All kinds. Even a few of them were soldiers. But no one lasted as long as that man my sister and I played with in Roanapur. That's how we knew. You were special. We wanted to go back for a long time. We thought about finishing the job. But really, we just want to play with you again."
"I see." Balalaika flicked ash off the end of her cigar. "I suspected you could impersonate your brother. So I wasn't just chasing ghosts after hearing reports of a white haired Romanian boy long after his death. You really think he's still alive."
Gretel laughed liked her brother.
"Die? We can't die. As long as we keep killing we'll live forever. You can't change that. No one can."
Balalaika was stoic. Gretel eventually slipped back to her own voice without realizing it. A quiet fell over the room.
"Well that answers my questions. Now, let me tell you something." Balalaika leaned forward. "For ten years I've thought about nothing but avenging my comrade's deaths. You should have died as soon as you took one step on dry land, but you had the benefit of Lagoon Company ferrying you to safety. That's the only reason you're still alive."
Gretel frowned. "Oh? I hope you didn't kill them. I still wanted to have a picnic with that nice Japanese man."
The accusation made the leader of Hotel Moscow scoff.
"And why should they pay for your mischief? They are professionals. You are nothing but a damaged little girl, rotten to the core with no manners. You're no better than a rabid dog. You should have been put down long ago."
Gretel had been called worse. It was a new insult every time someone hired her. Gangsters and rapists, thieves and liars, they were always disgusted when she came to collect her money. They shouted and cursed and went on and on. But hearing Balalaika calmly compare her to a crazed animal was exciting. The scarred Russian woman wasn't like the others.
"Wow, miss. You're like that song I heard on the radio. You're as cold as ice."
Balalaika took a long puff on her cigar and let out a heavy sigh. Gretel clutched her bag and felt for the trigger on her P90.
"This is where it ends, young lady. My only regret is that it should have been sooner. Sakharov and Menshov deserved better. I thought about torturing you like I almost did to your brother... in these ten years I've done worse for less. But my comrade's souls must be put to rest. I owe them that."
Balalaika shifted in her seat to reveal her Stechkin in her other hand and fired a burst of three rounds. Gretel wasn't worried even as the bullets hit her clean in the chest. After a man with a gun up his sleeve shot her in France, she always wore a bulletproof vest under her dress. The impact still hurt but she survived to shoot back with her P90, tearing her bag to shreds in the process. It was surprising how fast the old Russian lady rolled behind the couch as she headed for the kitchen. She sprayed down the living room while Balalaika returned fire with controlled bursts of her Stechkin. The apartment was ripped apart in the process. Lamps shattered and bullet holes dotted the walls.
The room fell into darkness as the lights were shot out between the exchange of gunfire. Gretel took the opportunity to run for the front door while firing without a care in the world. She made it out into the hallway to find no one was waiting for her. There were no plainclothes soldiers standing ready with Kalashnikovs. A moment of disappointment passed before she ran to the stairwell doorway and used it for cover. A grin spread across her face as she waited for Balalaika to stick her head out. Instead the old Russian lady popped out her arm and fired blindly down the hallway. Gretel nearly took a bullet to the face and laughed.
"I hope you're not too old to keep up with me!"
She ran outside to the dark parking lot. Surely Balalaika had her men standing by outside. Trucks, compacts, vans and sports cars... Gretel fired her sub-machine gun at everything to flush them out. She fired under cars and at tires until car alarms went off all over the place. But there was no one. By the time she turned back to the apartment Balalaika was already outside and heading right for her.
"Think you can catch me before your soldiers do?" Gretel called out.
The car alarms died down and there was silence. The police would be on their way soon if they weren't already. Gretel darted from car to car, peering under the vehicles for Balalaika's feet. The chase was exhilarating. The last time she felt something like this was in Roanapur when the entire city was after her. In the rush she climbed into the back of a truck and stood on the bed to get a good look of the lot. Balalaika fired on her without a moments hesitation. She ducked down before returning to blast away with her sub-machine gun. The glass on a row of cars shattered in short order.
It came time to reload, but Gretel put away her P90 and pulled an ax out of her jacket. The thought of sinking her blade into Balalaika until the old woman could no longer breathe made her giddy with excitement. She ducked low and crept from one car to the next looking for the familiar silhouette of her target. The long hair, the jacket, anything that would give Balalaika away. She peered around the corner of a van and noticed the gray military coat flapping in the wind. Gretel's smile nearly became permanent as she moved forward and readied her ax. Without a sound she swung around the corner as hard as she could.
Instead of a scream of agony she was treated to the sound of metal on metal as her ax sunk harmlessly into the van. The coat was hanging loosely from a ladder on the back door. Shock spread across Gretel's face as she tried to wrench her ax loose. Before she could move something crashed into the back of her skull and smashed her face into the van. A pair of arms wrapped around her neck and clamped down tighter than anything she had ever felt before. Through the reflection on the glass she saw that Balalaika had her in a choke hold. Gretel began to flail wildly in a desperate attempt to break free.
The old Russian lady she planned to murder didn't hesitate for a second and put on more pressure. Gretel couldn't breathe. The hold had her arms in such a position she couldn't grab behind her. She couldn't reach her ax. She couldn't do anything but gasp for air. Her throat closed off as she kicked her legs and wrenched her body. It was useless. No matter how she fought, the choke hold only got tighter. Her lungs screamed for air. Her arms became heavy. She could feel her eyes start to roll upward. All sound faded away as the world turned white. The parking lot was gone. She could hear her brother calling her name in the distance. After all those years, the world of midnight was exactly how she imagined it.
And then Gretel felt nothing.
Balalaika fought the urge to snap Gretel's neck. The risk that she would break free and start the fight all over again was too great. The young woman was stronger than she looked. It was safer to kill her as fast as possible and leave before the police showed up. But despite her training and better judgement, she wanted to choke the life out of her. She held on until Gretel's arms and legs went limp and the miserable choking sound stopped. And just as she hoped, it ended in the parking lot. She let go and Gretel's dead body tumbled to the asphalt in a heap. But the satisfaction of making up for ten years of long delayed revenge was interrupted.
Gretel's wig had fallen off in the struggle, and looking at her now it was like Balalaika had killed Hansel for a second time. It wasn't just a part of their act they picked up from their days in child pornography. They were twins through and through. Balalaika wasted precious time looking on in disgust until she managed to break away. She retrieved her coat and headed to the street where a car pulled up for her. The rear passenger door opened up and she climbed in the back to meet Boris. Two of her men sat up front ready to head out on her command.
"It's done," Balalaika said flatly.
She found it an appropriate time to light another cigar as they drove away from Gretel's apartment. It was close, but they made it out before police sirens sounded in the distance.
"That was reckless, captain. Going in there alone like that." Boris stated.
She turned to the window. The reminder was unnecessary.
"She expected us to corner her. The last thing I wanted to do was entertain her in her final moments."
Gretel's wild gunfire had managed to hit her in the hand and nearly destroy her Stechkin. She had tied it off with a part of her suit. After everything that happened, the gunshot wound felt more like a bee sting.
"It can wait. The only thing that matters is that Sakharov and Menshov can finally rest in peace. Ten years long overdue."
They had worked together long enough that it only took a glance or a gesture to communicate volumes. Boris could have said more but didn't need to. She was in no mood for a discussion but grudgingly addressed his worried expression.
"I would have never guessed I could bury so much pain in one city, comrade Sergeant. To think my first visit here would be a mission to close up an old wound. And yet, nothing I do will ever change where we are today." Balalaika turned to Boris. "When we killed the boy years ago, you said it was hard to watch. It gave you chills."
Boris nodded. "Yes captain."
"Was it because we used our training and resources to methodically execute the shadow of a child? Or something else?"
The streetlights flashed by the window as they pulled onto the highway. Boris turned to look his superior in the eyes.
"No matter how hard, the mission will always come first. But to leave you in the park as bait, captain... Just as we left you alone in that apartment... We are all prepared to die in battle."
Balalaika took a long drag on her cigar. Then she took a deep breath.
"That is exactly my point. I wanted to preserve what is left of us as soldiers. We should not have to lower ourselves to hunt children like they were animals. Sakharov and Menshov did not deserve to die in a slum, chopped to pieces while performing lowly mafia work. They should have been at our side until the day our final battle arrives and we die as soldiers. Together. That little brat... no, that young woman back there was nothing but trash. A stain that needed to be removed from the world. I could not stand to see our company dirtied by that burden again. Not a second time."
"It took a long time to find her," Boris said. "I know you spent every moment you could trying to pick up her trail. Maybe during all those years you forgot, captain, some things are too heavy to carry alone."
Balalaika felt struck for some reason. She bit down on her cigar and stared at her second-in-command. He did not look away.
"We are soldiers. But that's not all we are. You can always count on us for more than operational support."
She turned to the window and stared outside. The full moon reflected off the water was they neared the harbor. They would soon be at their destination. Balalaika felt exhausted and slumped in her seat. After ten years she felt like she could relax, if only for a fleeting moment.
"I will take care to keep that in mind. Thank you... Boris."
Balalaika was ready to leave Los Angeles behind forever.