The new venue that Krupin has found last minute for this fight isn’t nearly as well-prepared as before—and that’s saying something, since the old place was just a converted warehouse.
This is a literal slaughterhouse.
Despite what I said to Snow, the sight of it fills me with fear. The smell of old blood is pungent in the air—like rust and rot. Hooks and chains still dangle from the ceiling inside, and the floor is worn from the thousands of hooves of doomed cattle that trod here.
It’s a grim place. There are no bleachers, so the spectators will have to stand. No proper ring, either—just four metal barricades, marking out the square where Snow will have to fight.
The change in location hasn’t deterred the spectators. More people than ever are waiting outside, ready to pack into the empty space, to howl like hyenas around a carcass. But who’s going to fall?
There’s no infirmary this time. It doesn’t matter, because I’m not here as a medic. Stepanov expects me to sit next to him. He called me personally to tell me so.
Of course, there was no call from Yakov like I usually get before a fight. Though I know the reason for that silence, it unnerves me all the same. Does Krupin know he’s missing yet?
I buy a drink at the makeshift bar, gulping it down to calm my nerves. How am I going to sit between Krupin and Stepanov after what I’ve done? I should have taken a Valium before I came. It might have helped me to lie better if they start questioning me.
I see Krupin’s men arrive first, Yakov conspicuously absent. They lead Krupin to the only row of chairs set up next to the ring. He takes a seat in the middle, his men standing behind him.
It’s hard to tell what Krupin’s mood might be. His face is so dark and foreboding under the best of circumstances.
Stepanov arrives shortly after, looking much more cheerful. He stops to chat with several high-status gangsters on his way through the crowd. Then he greets Krupin with exaggerated shaking of hands.
Stepanov sits on one side of Krupin, with an empty chair next to him reserved for me. But there are several open chairs on the opposite side, as if they’re waiting for another guest. It must be someone important, because those seats have the best view of the ring.
I can’t put it off any longer. I have to join them.
With trembling legs, I walk toward the Bratva bosses.
Krupin watches as I approach, his face as stern as stone. His dark eyes glitter at me, keen but uncommunicative.
Stepanov, by contrast, grins at me, baring his straight white teeth.
“There she is,” he says, his voice low and suggestive.
He gestures to the seat next to him.
I sit down, almost collapsing into it because of how weak my knees have become.
“You look excited,” Stepanov says to me. “Why don’t you take off your coat?”
Without waiting for my reply, he helps strip it off me, hanging it over the back of my seat.
I’m wearing a black cocktail dress underneath. I tried for something relatively plain and modest, but nothing is going to stop Stepanov from eyeing my breasts and resting his hand on my bare thigh. Oddly, he doesn’t comment on the bruises on my neck that I’ve unsuccessfully tried to cover with concealer. I think Stepanov is all too used to women with signs of injury on their bodies.
Krupin isn’t looking at me at all. He seems distracted and slightly agitated, glancing around the room. Twice, he leans back to mutter something to Algorin.
He’s asking where Yakov is, I’m sure of it.
“You know my man is fighting tonight?” Stepanov says to me. “Borya. The Beast, as they call him.”
I nod, my mouth too dry to speak.
“He’s never been beaten,” Stepanov says. “The things I’ve seen him do . . . a boxing match is child’s play, by comparison.”
The things you’ve ordered him to do, more like, I think, my stomach rolling over inside of me.
“Will we be betting again tonight?” Stepanov says to Krupin.
Krupin grunts noncommittally. He’s still looking around the room, checking each new entrant as they walk through the doors.
“He’s still sore about the last bet,” Stepanov whispers in my ear, chuckling. His breath is hot and cloying. Even though, ostensibly, he’s a handsome man, his expressions are so ugly. His glances are leering, his smiles mocking or outright cruel. His fingers dig into the soft flesh of my thigh, inching higher.
He’s quite the opposite of Snow, who looked so intimidating the first time I saw him. When Snow flashes one of his rare smiles, it transforms his whole face. Those surprising dimples come into view, and I can see the warmth he tries so hard to keep hidden.
As if my thoughts have summoned him, Snow approaches our group. Krupin scowls, bristling like a bulldog at the sight of him. If looks could kill, Snow would be dead on the spot. But he keeps walking forward, undeterred. He pauses a respectful distance away, saying politely to Krupin, “May I speak to you in private?”
For a moment I think Krupin will refuse, but abruptly he gets to his feet and walks a short distance away with Snow. They converse in mutters for what seems like forever.
I try not to watch them, though my eyes are drawn irresistibly toward Snow. It kills me to be so close to him, unable to communicate by words or even a glance.
When I tear my eyes away, I find Stepanov watching me closely.
“That’s the other fighter, isn’t it?” I say stupidly.
“That’s right,” Stepanov nods. “He has no chance.”
A stubborn flame of revolt flares in my chest. Without thinking, I say, “He’s done well so far in the tournament.”
Stepanov only laughs.
“You don’t know much about boxing,” he says in his most condescending tone. “The Beast will slaughter him.”
When Krupin returns, he has a strange look on his face. I can’t guess what it means. I’m wildly curious to know what Snow said to him.
“You still want that bet?” Krupin says unexpectedly.
Stepanov grins, pleased.
“Of course,” he says. “Haven’t I already taken enough of your money, though?”
Stepanov laughs heartily, causing Krupin to scowl all the more and snap, “You’re very confident. What do you say to double or nothing?”
Stepanov raises his eyebrows. He wasn’t expecting that.
“It’s your funeral,” he says, shrugging.
“Oh, and one other thing,” Krupin says casually.
He leans over and murmurs something in Stepanov’s ear.
Stepanov turns to look at me. His appraising glance makes me feel sicker than ever.
“Alright,” Stepanov says, shrugging once more. “Why not.”
I have no idea what they’ve just agreed to. But I’m fairly certain it has something to do with me.
I feel like I’ve been free-falling for weeks now. Very soon I’m going to hit the bottom.
Krupin is finally smiling. He looks back toward the doorway once more.
He stiffens, as if he’s finally seen the person he’s been looking for.
I whip my head around, thinking it must be Yakov, though I know better than anyone how impossible that would be.
Instead, I see the most stunning couple I’ve ever laid eyes on. The man on the right is Ivan Petrov, the undisputed boss of St. Petersburg. He’s tall, dark-haired, intense and intelligent looking. The woman on his arm is all these things and more. With her black hair, hazel eyes, and lithe figure, she’s beautiful enough to be the ultimate arm-candy. But it’s clear from her keen expression and the way she surveys the room that she’s as much a professional as her husband. She whispers something in his ear, grinning mischievously. He laughs in return, putting his arm around her waist and pulling her close.
This must be his new American wife. I’ve heard wild rumors about her, especially since I started working for Krupin. Some of Krupin’s more superstitious men say that she’s a witch, and her unnatural powers are responsible for Petrov’s seeming invincibility. Others say she’s a CIA spy, infiltrating the heart of the Bratva. But nobody says any of this very loud, because everyone knows that Petrov adores her. He’d cut out the tongue of anyone who gossiped about her.
I’m quite enjoying looking at them from afar.
It’s much less comfortable when they come and take their seats right next to Krupin. I’m only a few chairs away, shrinking back behind Stepanov in the hopes of becoming invisible.
As if she senses this, Petrov’s wife leans forward and looks right down the row at me, saying, “Hello. Who’s this?”
“That’s my private doctor,” Krupin says.
“Does she have a name?” Mrs. Petrov says, smiling at me.
“Sasha,” I say nervously.
I see Mrs. Petrov cast an appraising glance at Stepanov’s hand, gripping my thigh. Her smile fades slightly but brightens when she looks at me once more.
“Do you like boxing, Sasha?”
I think of the way Snow moves in the ring—light as a dancer, ruthless as a panther stalking its prey.
“Yes,” I say.
“Me too,” Mrs. Petrov agrees, sitting back in her chair, with her husband’s arm around her shoulder.
I’m relieved that’s the end of our conversation. It’s a little too intense having her attention fixed on me, like the sun shining down on you at noon in July.
Besides, as the last remaining minutes before the fight tick by, I can’t think of anything but Snow, and the man he’s about to face in the ring.
God, please, I’ll give anything to keep him safe.