---- Deadass Street
She stood in the scant shade of a crumbling, gratify covered brick wall, one eye on the house in front of her and one on the street. A hot breeze stirred eddies of sand, rattled chimes and fluttered laundry strung on lines, sending the reek of garbage, mold, chemicals and death into her nostrils, but couldn't cool the air. Heat-shimmer rose from the rooftops; the sky was a hard ceramic blue, kiln-baked. She clenched her tingling hands at her sides, uttering profanities under her breath. The longer she stood here like a fool, the greater the chance that she'd be seen, and that wouldn't do. She had searched too long to lose her quarry now.
The building was one of dozens of its kind in this neighborhood: gray and ochre-colored concrete, walls tilting on their foundations, the windows boarded up. Unlike its neighbors, which might shelter three or more families in such a space, this house held only one heartbeat. An unlooked-for convenience. She wasn't sure that she trusted it. The door was not locked, someone had destroyed the electronics in the lock ages ago, still burnt patches adorned it. She remembered Fleck's craft as intricate and convoluted, lovely in its complexity and her throat tightened under the ghost of the collar she no longer wore. These memories were too knotted to pick apart, so he simply stored them beneath her own. Fleck wouldn't need them again.
Inside, the tiny flat stank of urine and opium. The front rooms were curtained and shuttered, and the drone of flies carried through dim, fetid air. For three and a half years had she searched for Jaunusz Fleck, the last of a cadre of the old Don minions to escape her. One last piece of vengeance. Fleck had stayed just beyond her reach, running from city to city, hiding in all manner of unlikely places, vanishing for months at a time. She had grown so used to the chase that she nearly hadn't noticed when Fleck had slunk back into Beijing again, settling in Feng Tai. Or what was left of it. Who'd would expect one of Don Janazeck's triad men in a tenement slum, nevertheless?
Yet she knew better. She was one who'd survived habitually because no one expected to find an escaped slave in the former imperial palace. And once Fleck was dead, no one else should ever deliberate to.
Pulling her trusted Colt, she hit the door open with her chest, and slithered inside, like a lightning in a bottle, and with the weapon lifted in rock steady hands she darted around a corner, then another one.
The ground floor was empty save for filth-soaked mattresses lumped in corners and food moldering in the kitchen. And a dead cat in a black puddle which was obviously blood. The cat had been dead for a while now, the eyes were gone and worms crawled all over the grimy thing. She pulled a corner of her scarf across mouth and nostrils to lessen the reek of waste and decay and pungent sweetness. She could go longer without breath than anyone else she knew, but breathing was a dangerous habit to fall out of.
A black cloud of flies followed her toward the stairs. Over their buzzing she heard slow breathing from the next floor, unchanging in its rhythm. The stench changed as she climbed, trading rot for stale sweat and unwashed flesh. The opium sweetness thickened, crawling into her mouth and nose and the heat worsened. There was also a scraping, electronic sound, something like hissing and crackling static, some broken, out of tune receiver of some kind no doubt
In the upstairs room, sunlight slanted through a broken shutter, thick with lazy spirals of dust. The molten light touched the side of a thin pallet, limned the bones of the bare foot hanging off the edge. Metal and porcelain gleamed on the tiles beside the bed, a discarded pipe. Just past the sun's reach, Fleck curled against the wall. Watching him, she waited for a shout, an attack, an attempt to flee, anything. However, the triad man lay still, with only the glitter of heavy-lidded eyes to show that he was conscious at all.
She remembered Fleck as handsome and laughing, shining with health and power. Now his dough-pale skin was dry and sallow, unshaved and blemished as it stretched over fine bones, his eyes bruised and sunken in their orbits. His graying hair was hacked unevenly to his scalp, a remedy for lice, or heat, or care. A fly crawled over the ridges of his instep, and he made no move to shake it off. The spark of hate she'd nursed for so long stuttered as she looked at the crumpled form on the bed.
"Ah, Fleck," the whisper sank in the stifling air, lost beneath the low drone of insects. "What's happened to you?"
Fleck stirred as she knelt beside him, golden-brown eyes widening for a heartbeat. One hand rose, in greeting or warding, she wasn't sure. There was that cut-off little finger, the sign of the old Triads, the one thing to show that this man was genuine. Or had been at least. Her jaw tightened as she watched the stump, recalling what it meant to her, and anger burning bright as a nuclear furnace once more. She remembered those hands well; all over her body, molesting her, doing the things she hated, but had to endure just because that thing in her head and the collar around her neck.
"It took you longer than I thought," Fleck murmured, not lifting his head from the sweat-darkened pillow.
"Time doesn't mean as much to me anymore," she lied. Her neck itched. Would she be free of the phantom collar when the last of her old owners was dead? She wished she could believe that.
Fleck smiled as his hand twitched toward the pipe. "Nor to me. But I'm glad you're here, prettyface. The poppy doesn't stop the dreams anymore."
"Dreams?" It wasn't her place to unburden a man's conscience before death, but curiosity jolted her. She hadn't realized that it would be a mercy killing.
"Of the black place. The hungry place." Fleck's eyes squeezed shut, creases like dry riverbeds fanning over his brow. "The storm is coming. The ghost wind, the poison wind. Kill me before it comes, please! I cannot bear to see that darkness again."
Nightmares. The ravings of an opium addict.
"The Undoing." His voice was fading, or was it the insects worsening? "The quiet men showed me." Skeletal hands closed on her wrist. "Kill me now! The storm is nearly here."
"Say what? " The buzzing drowned Fleck's voice now. Not insects, the sound came from the outside. from all around. The room dimmed as a shadow passed over the sun.
"No!" Fleck shouted as she stood again. "Don't leave me for it! Kill me first! Please!" But she was already hurtling down the stairs, through the swarm of flies and out through the door.
The black helicopters came from the north as so many times before. The Mongolians, taking out their ancient old hate for the Chinese in fast and furious attacks. Then the storm was on her, and the world shrank to a fury of slaying. As she dove behind an iron container she heard the staccato cracklings of the machine guns and the bullets spray the surroundings like black, lethal hail, she felt the heat of transformed velocity, she smelled the furnaces and the death, the tormenting agony filling the air. She heard Fleck cry out and fall silent.
Then the guns stopped and the motors faded and after that the silence was so prominent that it screamed in her ears, high-pitched needles of something alike a TV when the transmission was over. Sand sluiced off her coat as she rose, glittering with tiny green-black fragments. Glass fallen from the window behind her, blood welled in tiny cuts across her hands. More blood trickled from her nose, coating her tongue with copper as she swallowed.
Remembering Fleck's cry, cut abruptly short, she doubled back to the house. Her abused sinuses hardly cared about the stink now. The floor crunched beneath her ankle boots, there were more glass here, the last window had given in, and there were bullet holes dotting the wall like messages written in Braille. Halfway up the stairs, she recognized the depth of silence, and she realized that couldn't hear Fleck breathing. Her chest tightened with a curious loss. She had come to kill the man, but felt now as though she'd failed him.
She froze at the top of the steps. Fleck had died in fear, yes. The well-known stench of panic was unmistakable over voided bowels, but not alone. The triad man sprawled supine across the floor, the mattress kicked aside. One hand clutched at his throat, the other lay outstretched. His face was no longer sunken and pale, but purple and swollen. Brown eyes bulged, bloodshot, drug-shrunken pupils locked tight in death.
Dragged from his bed and garroted. Blood seeped from the wire-slice around his neck. The house was empty to her outstretched senses. No tracks, no opened windows. Shaking her head, she forcing herself to absorb the details.
"The Russian?" she frowned to herself. "Did he beat me to it, when the helicopters came?"
Then she shrugged it off. The Russian had beaten her to her revenge, probably it had been him following her all the time, sneaking in after her and hiding in the room with the dead cat when she went up to see Fleck. And when the helicopters had arrived, he'd taken his chance, the room was after all on the far side of the attack.
But she didn't care. One more dead at Deadass Street, and who would remember Fleck after half a century. Or her. Uncocking her gun, she churned it back in its holster and turned around and left, wondering idly if the Russian would keep up his cat and mouse game or tire now when he'd got Fleck. She had no idea if he wanted anything more after all. If he wanted her or not.