I t seemed as though the weather was always at its worse when death was on the horizon. At least for Dmitry Medlov. Every time he heard the rumble of angry thunder in the distance, he wondered what trouble was lurking around the corner for him. Unfortunately, tonight was no different.
Near midnight as heavy rain beat against the red brick walls of Vladimir Central and strong winds shook the power lines to the point of constant flickering, while the vicious prison dogs slept soundly in their metal cages, and the guards played cards and turned their attention from the festivities, a battle of epic proportions was preparing to unfold.
The testosterone-filled collective roar that boomed through the empty, underground halls of Korpus 3 was deafening. Pure pandemonium had erupted in anticipation of a break from the normal tedium of prison life.
Alas, blood sport was on the menu, stoking the ever-palpable tensions between the Russian underworld hierarchy and the plebs forced to serve sentences among them.
Tonight, the designated gladiators were an unlikely pair - Dmitry Medlov, an 18-year-old soldier of the Vory v Zakone was opposite Yuri Orlov, a 34-year-old dock worker. Both had been convicted of murder, thus their current sentence in one of the country’s most notorious prisons, but there was only one-real killer of the two.
Involuntary manslaughter had led Yuri Orlov to prison after his temper got the best of him one night in an alcohol-induced rage. In a fit, he killed two co-workers at a local bar during an argument. The next morning when he woke, he did not even remember the fight, only that he was in jail, covered in blood and accused of a heinous crime that left two families without providers, two wives without husbands and six children without their fathers.
However, murder-for-hire was the only profession Dmitry Medlov had ever known outside of being an involuntary pimp for his mother.
While other boys his age were busy with school and girls, he had lorded over an entire district with brute force and unforgiving discipline working for the Russian mafia as a henchman of sorts. It did not take intimate feelings for the teenager to use his blade – only opportunity. In fact, even at this point in his life, he had never killed for personal reasons, just money, power and respect.
Now the two men found themselves in a make-shift arena of crumbling, white tile, leaky shower stalls filled with mold, unflushed toilets, and thick steel bars surrounded by a mob of sweaty, stinky inmates in a preordained fight to the death because of inflammatory words exchanged over the lunch hour in the convict mess hall.
But the words had not been spoken by or to Dmitry, nor had he even been present during the exchange. In fact, Dmitry had been in another Korpus altogether, getting stitches from an unrelated debacle from the previous day, when Yuri had spoken out of turn against a highly respected underworld boss of the Vory v Zakone brotherhood, Alexander Popov.
Yuri had called the old man a has-been, suggested Alexander and his brother, Peter, were relics with no real power, except that which had been given to them by the child-like prisoners, who naively held the two old men in a regard akin to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
Even as Yuri spoke, loud and taunting, hoping Alexander would hear him at the table across from him, other more sensible prisoners warned Yuri to tone it down, let it go, stop before his words took root and his fate was sealed.
But Yuri was angry after seeing the old man get preferential treatment by the cafeteria staff. While other convicts ate non-descript slop from silver trays like animals, Alexander and his brother were served choice-cut steaks and fresh vegetables on real plates.
“This is shit!” Yuri had exclaimed, face reddening. “We’re all convicts. That old fuck is no better than me!” he had shouted, beating his meaty chest to add weight to his already heavy words. “You all treat him like he’s a king, when he’s going to die in here like the rest of us. His power is only what you give him. But you’re all too foolish to understand he’s been stripped of his life like we’ve been stripped of ours. Fuck him and his brother! I am a man too! Bring me a fucking steak!”
Alexander Popov didn’t like to be taunted, and he didn’t like to be questioned, especially by a dock worker with no tattoos, no history, and no place. So as men did in his position, he sent a message – one that could be heard loud and clear. He’d show not only Yuri Orlov how much power he held within these walls, but also anyone else who might be thinking of rebelling against the Vory.
With a word, Korpus 3 was transformed into a pop-up fight club - the guards deaf to the sounds coming from it - and Yuri was left to stand on his own two feet, facing the brotherhood with one chance to not only save his honor but his life. If he won, he would never be bothered again. If he lost, he wouldn’t have to worry about Alexander’s steak and vegetables or anything else for that matter, because he’d be dead.
True, there had been other avenues that could have been taken to resolve the matter. One of the Vory soldiers could have simply slit Yuri’s throat; one of the prison guards could have shot him for trying to flee or set the dogs on him and offered him up as a late afternoon snack. However, by having the over-confident Yuri assassinated, Alexander would have martyred him.
In a fight to the death, however, Yuri would be a tool, a public service announcement for the rest of the prison, reiterating the fact that the Popov brothers were not only the underground lords in the streets of Moscow, but also the true rulers of Vladimir Central.
And to add insult to injury, because of the jibe about Alexander’s age, he sent a boy to fight Yuri, the youngest in the prison and the deadliest of all the convicts.
Alexander had handpicked a Vor of superior competence in the arena of death, a man who had lived up to the nickname he had earned on the streets – the butcher. The boy had served under him for three years, learning how to lead instead of following and how to kill smarter, quicker, more effectively.
And Dmitry had been a loyal pupil to his liege. He served Alexander faithfully and without question. When he was told that he would face Yuri Orlov tonight, he only nodded his head – no words needed after his orders were dispatched.
One would have thought that news of his skilled adversary would have scared Yuri or at least sobered his thinking. But he was a man who held his own council and felt himself an equal to all men. With hands laden with calluses from working the docks at a local fishery and muscles in his arms the size of boulders, his reputation preceded him not only as a murderer, but a street fighter, ready to brawl when his limited education prevented him from using his words. And because of his vanity, he found it laughable that he’d have to face a mere child in the arena instead of someone more seasoned and worthy.
In contrast, Dmitry Medlov was a quiet young man, never one for many words or boisterous theatrics. He killed as quietly as he spoke. With swift, powerful movements, he had already dispatched well over 20 men since he had arrived at Vladimir Central. Some had been beaten to a bloody pulp by his massive hands by the decree of his captains, but others had been neutralized with a simple neck snap or the crushing of a man’s fragile larynx with an aggressive squeeze. He didn’t like to kill gruesomely, feeling it allowed the act to become too personal. Instead, he made it as painless as possible – quick and to the point.
Most were taken aback when they saw Dmitry for the first time. He was nearly seven feet tall without shoes, packed from neck to ankles with hard, lean muscle and was as agile as a lion. But it wasn’t just his gigantic size that was intimidating.
The boy was unnaturally beautiful, angelic even. His skin was kissed with a glowing tan, his hair a mass of feathery golden strands before it was shaved off, his eyes a startling diamond-like blue hue. He had a full, lush, wide-set pink mouth, high cheek bones, a perfect nose – unbroken amazingly even after all his fights, a dimple in his chin, and squared jaw line that looked to have been carved by God himself. His voice was a deep baritone that captured everyone’s attention when he spoke, and he had a serpentine grace that was noticeable even when he was led through the prison halls blind-folded and bent in a stress position as he was escorted by guards with weapons and dogs.
But even as powerful and skilled as he was, Dmitry never underestimated an opponent – he gave each of them respect, even when he killed them. After all, he might have been just a gutter rat, but he didn’t have to behave like one.
Now at the behest of Alexander Popov, Dmitry stood barefoot in the corner of the shower stalls of Korpus 3, naked from the waist up, wearing only his black-and-white striped pajama bottoms below, donning all the hard-earned tattoos that spoke to his impeccable underworld pedigree with a pointy shiv in his right hand, eyeing Yuri Orlov with one thing in mind – evisceration.
All the halogen lights hanging above the stalls had been unscrewed except for the small ones that dangled from a wire in the middle of the room, creating an ominous ambience for the fight. With everyone else in the background, hidden by shadows and darkness, one man emerged into the illuminated center to set the stage.
He licked his dry, cracked lips and took a deep breath. “You know the rules, gentlemen,” the appointed referee, an older trustee with a twice-broken nose said, extending his hands to calm the excess chatter as the fighters approached from their designated corners. He stood, frail and bony, in between the two hulking warriors.
The tension was thick enough to cut with a knife – common man against Vory – principles against precept. All it would take was one wrong move for all to erupt in a bloody fight to the death among them. But none would move just yet. They all waited, watching each other with untrusted glares.
For a second, there was complete silence with only the sound of water dripping from the faucets. The old man’s voice echoed with a raspy, authoritative boom as he elevated it so that all who fell under the sound of his words could hear. “You, Yuri Orlov and Dmitry Medlov, have been selected to fight for the honor of our home. This fight will be recorded for the valor of one side or the other. No men are allowed to fight tonight in this place but you two. Anyone who aids either man or creates unapproved violence will be killed immediately and fed to the dogs.” He glanced around the room at all the eyes planted on him. Those who were selected to keep the order flexed their muscles and revealed their weapons – knives, shivs, pipes and chains. When the trustee was sure that he had secured everyone’s attention, he continued, “In this fight, everything is fair, except running. You must stand; you must fight; one of you must die. First man to die…loses. First man to kill…wins,” he said in Russian.
Dmitry knew the prison rules well. He had been in more than his fair share of fights in this room before – and none had been lost. A wicked half-grin was painted across his face, but his enchanting eyes were hollow, void of emotion. He felt nothing inside. There was no excitement, no urgency, no nervousness. He had no thoughts on the matter that had caused this. All he focused on was winning.
The trustee cast a quick glare up to Dmitry, who stood in a trance, and then over to Yuri, who was sucking his stained front teeth and mocking the young boy with a contemptuous smirk.
“Nod if you understand these rules,” the trustee ordered, taking his job very seriously.
Both men nodded at the same time, and as the referee stepped back and dropped the white rag to the floor, he shouted a thunderous declaration. “FIGHT!”
Immediately, the crowd exploded again, chanting, clapping and waving their fists. Crawling over each other like rats spilling out of a barrel, they jabbed and elbowed to get a better view.
Some hoped that Yuri, the underdog, would prevail for the common man. While the Vor in the room screamed for Dmitry’s success and the continued reign of their Czar.
Right out of the gate, Dmitry swung, his blade making a swishing sound through the air as its shiny tip aimed toward Yuri’s bald, sweaty head. But Yuri dodged the swing and countered with one of his own, barely missing Dmitry’s exposed abdomen with his knife.
Seeing the move before the man could even make it, Dmitry jumped back, sucking in his abdomen, feeling the heat of the crowded bodies behind him and the missed blade in front of him.
As he moved away from the weapon, Dmitry relaxed his lithe body, used his narrow hips to generate enough force and then swung a powerful, perfect right hook, connecting with Yuri’s leather-like, most-unattractive face. His rigid knuckles shattered the brawler’s glass jaw, breaking bones and creating permanent damage as he followed through with his sculpted right arm.
The crowd gave a collective moan. That had to hurt!
Yuri’s head suddenly spun around, brain rattling around in his skull from the trauma. Fighting his body’s natural urge to go into a temporary state of paralysis, he tried to push back the doubts that suddenly emerged in himself about his chances of winning. After all, fortune favored the bold!
But the young Dmitry had seen the same response a thousand times in his adversaries when he unleashed the fury - denial. They all ignored the hemorrhaging of their brains and the concussions he had caused, all ignored the physical warning signs their bodies gave before he mentally broke them and finally killed them. No one wanted to accept that a boy of his age was capable of such treachery. But it wasn’t his fault that they were foolish. One should never underestimate the person standing in front of them. It wasn’t a new concept – Master Sun had taught that. ‘He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.’
Consider yourself captured…
Dmitry’s evil smirk widened in satisfaction, even as he bobbed and weaved like a seasoned boxer, awaiting Yuri’s next amateur move. What next? Scratching? Such an inexperienced brawler used to other inexperienced opponents should not have talked so loud to Boss Popov, a man whose life’s work had been to perfect the act of violence.
In the sparsely lit room drowning with stench and noise, Dmitry diamond blue eyes sparkled like a wolf stalking his prey. In this place, he was truly at home – in his element, comfortable and relaxed. He could have pounced right then, or he could have landed a temple blow just a few seconds before to knock the desperate man out before he dispatched him forever, but Dmitry felt it would be poor sportsmanship to end the bout in the first two minutes. His audience deserved a show courtesy of the Vory v Zakone. So, he’d give them one they’d never forget.
Knocked backwards a few feet, Yuri spit out two bloody molars and shook off the pain as best he could. Fucker! He quickly squared his shoulders again, fists up in front of him in a protective stance and vision tunneled on the giant. His adrenaline spiked as he planted his feet, determined not to look like an ass in front of all his peers. Death would be better than that.
“That all you got boy?” Yuri taunted in mock indignation, biting down on his bruised bottom lip.
Men huddled body-against-body in the small space, excited for the fight that many had bet on throughout the day, waiting to see who would reign as the victor. But tonight was not an underdog success story in the making. Most came knowing who would win before the towel dropped. Others would soon learn.
I have to get in his head, Yuri strategized, realizing the boy’s strength was beyond his own. His dark brows furrowed in thought. “How does it feel to know that you’re going to die for a feeble old man who isn’t strong enough to fight for himself?” Yuri spit another mouth-full of blood on the floor. Blade tight in his hand, neck muscles protruding out, he tried made another unsuccessful swing. Still, he continued with his taunting. “I bet you’ve never even had your first nut, and you’re going to die for a man who has no balls!”
Dmitry’s right eye twitched, but he didn’t bother with words. The energy he would spend to form a complete sentence to insult Yuri would be better spent killing him.
“Back up!” the trustee screamed at the crowd, pushing men away from the fighters. “Give them some fucking room, or I’ll run every one of you through!” he screamed, pulling a knife from his pants.
Yuri had already sized Dmitry up. He was a tall boy, still growing even though he was already obscene and because of that, awkward in his movements. He knew it was impossible because of Dmitry’s size to reach his face with a lucky jab, but the boy’s long, carved core was another thing all together. There, he could put in work and possibly break the giant down.
With each unsuccessful punch that was not landed in front of the dick measuring crowd who commentated from only a few feet behind him, Yuri learned Dmitry’s unorthodox fighting style. There was no rhythm to the teen’s madness. He was a Southpaw, quick on his feet, even quicker with his hands. His weight didn’t hold him back, and he seemed to have no fear. In all, it was best to take him by surprise.
Yuri hated the boy, hated him for his beauty, for his youth and his allegiance to Alexander Popov and all his kind. He hated being here in this infested, disease-ridden hell hole away from his family. Hated the food he was forced to suck down along with his pride. Hated the oppression not only by the guards but by the gangs. Hated not being able to smell the wind off the shore, hated not being able to make an honest day’s wages, hated not being able to breathe in fresh air, free air. Hated the control he had lost because of ONE FUCKING NIGHT!
Killing Dmitry would be the ultimate victory. Killing this symbol would prove that he and the other men were no less than the Vory v Zakone brotherhood. Emotions consuming him, Yuri’s face reddened more as his thoughts assailed him. Snarling like a dog, he lunged wildly toward Dmitry, knife pointed, ready for anything.
“Aghhh!” Yuri screamed as he barreled toward Dmitry in a sprint. His battle cry rumbled like the thunder outside beating at the walls of the prison, mingling with the jarring cheer of the men.
Dmitry’s eyes widened, realizing he would have to take the impact of the man’s blow. His body tensed, making his muscles more elastic has he planted one foot forward, the other squarely behind him.
Yuri crashed into Dmitry with the force of three men – determined to take him out quickly. “Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch!”
Dmitry looked down, watching Yuri’s wild eyes, his teeth clenched together, sweat pouring from his bald head as they fell backward. Still, he did not say a word. Although, they both grunted loudly in the struggle.
The crowd parted, afraid of the retaliation from the trustee and his men. No one dared touch the pair.
With all his barbaric strength, Yuri pushed Dmitry into the wall behind them, knocking the air from Dmitry’s lungs. Pinning the boy against the shower, he tried to press his knife into Dmitry’s tender flesh in between his muscled abs and his belly button. If he could just get him there, he’d own his ass.
Trembling as he held Yuri’s weapon at bay only inches from his stomach, Dmitry caught Yuri’s wrist before he could follow through and pulled the man’s knifed hand away from his belly out into the air, extending Yuri’s arm and rendering him useless until he was forced to drop the weapon.
Seeing an opportunity, Dmitry buried his mouth into the column of Yuri’s exposed neck. No rules. No mercy. His teeth clenched down as hard as he could on Yuri’s sweaty skin. Hearing the man scream out in broken agony, he took a large chunk from the man’s flesh and snatched it away. Spitting the mass on the floor, disgusted by the rank taste of hot blood and iron that mingled on his tongue, Dmitry watched as Yuri’s eyes, as big as grapefruits, flitted in surprise.
Instinctively, Yuri stepped back with blurred vision, putting his hand over his gaping wound. Blood from his injury dripped from the young boy’s mouth as he advanced. Suddenly, Dmitry took on his true form, a killer without restraint.
What kind of monster is this? Yuri thought to himself.
Quickly, Dmitry raised his right leg and kicked Yuri squarely in his chest, sending him backward onto the hard, dirty floor. The thud was audible, even above the men’s cheers.
Yuri slid across the slick tiles, blood gushing from his neck. He could see the faces of men above him who screamed for him to get up and others who screamed for Dmitry to finish him off. His hands were covered in his own blood, drenched the warmth of his life as it exited his body. Oh God, I’m going to die, he thought to himself in fear.
With eyes intense and lips pursed, Dmitry strode over to the man, his heavy foot falls echoing. He picked up Yuri’s knife, grabbed Yuri by his bare foot, raising him to a 90-degree angle like a pig for slaughter. And in one quick motion, without the slightest hesitation, he swiped the serrated blade across Yuri’s Achilles heel, cutting through tendons and flesh and preventing him from standing. The blood from the wound spirted out over Dmitry’s chest.
“Mercy!” Yuri screamed out, realizing for the first time, that he was truly unmatched. Bile rushed up from his empty stomach, grasping that in all the chaos that he had not heard the killer’s voice even once. It was a horrid thing to die in such a way, to be defeated by someone so cold. And in that moment, he was regretful of killing the two men at the bar. He was regretful of everything. He just wanted to go home, he wanted a do-over. He wanted to take back the words he had said to Alexander Popov.
Yuri choked on his blood and at the same time looked up at the boy who held him in his clutches. Pushing a palm against the cold surface, he fought to get free, but Dmitry used his injured foot to flip him over on his chest.
It was clear that the fight was nearly over before it could start. The crowd’s roar lowered to an uncomfortable grumble as Dmitry planted a knee in Yuri’s wide, meaty back. Without theatrics, he gripped the man’s bald head with one hand and pulled it back.
Eyes averted to the men who stood only feet from him, Yuri accepted his fate, but begged again. “Have mercy…” he managed to gurgle. He wondered if the men he had killed had begged for the same.
But Dmitry was as numb to the man’s words as he was to his own actions. This was his job – nothing more. He leaned into Yuri’s ear allowing him to hear his voice for the first time.
“You mean like you were going to have mercy on me?” he asked Yuri. Mechanically raising his right hand up in the air, he came down and planted the sharp blade in the back of Yuri’s neck where his spinal cord started and where Yuri’s pain ended once and for all. Just to make sure the deed was done per the rules, he pulled the knife from Yuri’s back and sliced his throat. Blood splattered on the floor, making a crimson mess.
The small room fell completely silent as Dmitry rose from the corpse. He cast a glare out at the spectators, face and body covered in his chaotic sin. As far as he was concerned, they were as guilty as he by bearing witness. His blue eyes blazing with years of fury. His chest swelled with each heaved breath. Stepping away from Yuri’s body, he wiped the blood from his hands and nodded toward the other Vory in the room. They could get word now to Popov that his will was now done.
The referee emerged from the corner and called the fight. One man had died. One man had lived. “The butcher has won again!” he screamed.
Everyone cheered, except Dmitry. He looked down at the limp body on the floor and felt bored. He had been killing for years now, and not once had it brought him any joy. This was simply the work that he had been forced to do, because he had no other skills.
The referee raised Dmitry’s bloody hand like they were in an arena fit for gladiators and to many, this was the closest they would ever get to the real thing. They cheered him on while Dmitry thought to himself that, yet another man had met his untimely fate at his hands, not because of the conflict between them, but because he was the best the brotherhood had to offer. That grim reminder was slowly killing him inside. He didn’t want to be this for the rest of his life. He was more than just THE BUTCHER.
News arrived to Alexander Popov and his younger brother, Peter, of their newest success before Yuri Orlov’s mangled body could be properly disposed of – a process which included hacking up the remains into tiny pieces and feeding them to the guard dogs in a special gravy stew.
Dmitry Medlov, in all his glory, had won yet another bout in the name of the bratva, and he had done so flawlessly – with barely a scratch on him. Right now, his name was on every convict’s lips in the prison, and their stories would elevate his rank even higher than it already was. It was a dubious distinction to be exalted, especially when the act that led to that praise was commissioned by such high-ranking officers of the Vory.
After the guards had left upon delivering their message, the two brothers sat quietly, relishing in the fact that they remained on top of the prison food chain uncontested by the larger mass of commoners who outnumbered them.
Both men were pleased. It was hard enough to manage their own men, but to lose the favor of the commoners and thereby their collective fear, would place the older members of the Vory in a compromised position. However, they had little time to enjoy their triumph.
Along with the news of the fight had come word of a more disturbing development outside of the prison walls. The Popov territory in Kopotnya, one of the poorest areas but most profitable of their Moscow purview, was being poached by another crime family. If something was not done soon, all they had worked for would be threatened, and all the money that they still depended on would be gone.
It was what every imprisoned crime lord feared – to be dethroned by absence of presence. And a war over territory was never good. It pulled too many soldiers off their posts on the street and disrupted normal business, thus impacting cash flow, which was why the Vory v Zakone looked down on internal conflict. Plus, few men would enlist to fight for the Popov empire now that they were incarcerated. What would be the incentive?
Alexander had sent a communication to his men in Moscow via the guards to expect orders soon, but he knew that his message would have to be just as powerful as the one he had sent to Yuri Orlov – maybe more powerful – in order to keep his respect. Weakness could not be tolerated – not at any rank, not at any time.
In an overcrowded prison filled with cells packed with double occupants forced to sleep on the floor or makeshift cots, the Popov men were assigned a clean, quiet cell to themselves. Listening to the radio, they mulled over their situation and shared a tray of mini-breads and pickles, nearly immune from the horrific treatment and rigors of prison life.
“I have an idea,” Alexander said to his brother as he clipped his toenails. How he wished for a pedicure after so many years inside this place. The sound of thick alpha-keratin cracking under the pressure of the stainless-steel clipper filled through the room with its distinctive clicks. He wiggled his toes and curled his legs inward to get a better view of his feet. “About that situation we have with Sacha.” He clipped again, this time releasing a sigh when the middle nail appeared jagged. There was a time he had a girl to do this. She would handle all his hygiene needs, among other things if so ordered, but now he was relegated to doing his own tasks; and the older he got, the harder it was.
“I’m listening, brat,” the salt-and-pepper haired Peter answered in a serene voice from the top bunk as he inwardly snarled at a picture on the front page of Gorbachev kissing the German hardliner Erick Honecker at the 40th anniversary celebrations for the G.D.R.
It was heresy as far as Peter was concerned. The Popov men had always been old school. They still remembered World War II and Nazis soldiers trying to storm the country. Time had not healed that wound. The Germans were mad dogs in need of muzzles, and Mother Russia was falling apart under its premier’s leadership.
The only reason he and his brother were here in this rathole was because of the KGB – fucking government, fucking police. The KGB had first offered the Popov brothers a chance to leave the country with exit visas to Israel under the guise of releasing Jews (even though they were not), which then would allow them to immigrate the U.S. – a land of milk and honey unprepared for the likes of their brotherhood.
It was all part of Gorbachev’s scheme to rid the Soviet Union of their organized crime element. The deal would allow them to start anew as long as they allowed a Soviet spy to go with them, pretending to be a cousin, in order to advance the country’s other pursuits.
But neither of the men wanted to leave their country or the businesses that they had built. And neither of them wanted a spy embedded with them for the rest of their lives – reporting back to the Kremlin like the snakes that they were. It violated their very principles and more than anything else, their code.
After all else failed, the KGB found a way to bring them up on charges, ironically convicted for the same practices that had helped keep the country viable for years. Alexander was sentenced to life for his part in the organization. Peter received twenty years. Ten were still left on his bid.
Clueless to his brother’s silent agitation, Alexander continued with his hygiene regimen, even as a discarded toenail shot across the room and landed on the floor. He grunted. “What we need is a real show of power, something that others think to be impossible,” Alexander said, a grin tugging at his lips. “It’s clear that some of our brothers and most of our enemies feel we are out of sight, out of mind. But if our name is to ever carry the power it once did, we cannot allow this to happen.”
No shit. Peter was not in the mood to hear the obvious stated and prayed his brother had more to offer.
“Tonight’s victory has given me great revelation,” Alexander said with hope.
With sudden animation, Peter sat up against his pillow and closed his paper. “Go on,” he urged, giving his full attention.
“It’s clear that Dmitry Medlov has promise, but if he does every year that the Kremlin has given him, he’ll be an old, used up man by the time he sees anything outside of these bars. And let’s be clear, by then, he won’t be of use to anyone – not even himself.” Alexander stopped cutting his nails and averted his eyes toward the top bunk. “What if we arranged for him to get an early release and go take care of problem in Kopotnya. We would prove to those who might question our authority that we still have the power to rule and to those who would move against us…”
Peter raised a brow and finished his brother’s sentence, “we still have the power to reach them.” The idea was genius.
“Exactly,” Alexander said, proud of himself. “Now, this could be our only play, but it’s a powerful one, if done right. There is no possible way that prison board would confuse either one of our cases. I’m here for life, and you’re here for another 10 years. But if we were to arrange for someone else to be accidentally released, it wouldn’t garner the attention of the Kremlin.”
“Dmitry is useful, but if he is released accidentally, he cannot stay here to do our bidding,” Peter warned. “A man like that won’t stay under the radar for long. He can’t help himself. He’s too ambitious.”
“Then, let us use the wisdom of our captors. We get him a ticket out of Moscow…out of Russia, but first we have him fix our problem.” Alexander stood up and stretched his legs. Leaning against the top metal cot, he smiled at his brother. “Dmitry’s talents are wasted here. We have a hundred men willing to die for us, but he has a particular set of skills that could be very useful on the outside.”
“Especially since I am to be released in 10 years. I would hate to come out to receive a kingdom that was more fit for a popper than a king,” Peter said, weaving his fingers together into a steeple. “Yes, brat. Your idea is clever. You’ve found a way to keep us in play after all.”
Alexander raised a brow. It felt good to be in charge again of something more than what happened behind bars. It made him feel young and relevant. “And put a workhorse out on the streets. He’ll be a great earner. I can feel it. Wherever his feet land, his allegiance will be our success.” He was certain of it, and even more certain now that Dmitry had killed Yuri in such sublime fashion. A man like that could be useful. A man like that could be Czar!
A few days after Dmitry’s fight, he was finally summoned to meet with Boss Popov and his brother in a face-to-face meeting. After cleaning himself up in the same shower that he had killed Yuri, he followed three guards, known for doing the Vory’s bidding, down a quiet hall to the last cell on the block that housed his bosses.
He had met with the Popov brothers before, but only a few times and never in their cell. In those brief meetings, he had been given strict instructions and then ordered away, but this time, the atmosphere was much different.
The tall boy with blonde golden locks, piercing blue eyes and an angelic face emerged around the corner with his hands in iron cuffs wearing a black and white uniform that itched his skin and irritated the back of his neck. Lowering his body to fit into the cell, he took a seat in the corner and sat on while the guards uncuffed him and left him alone with two older men.
He looked around, impressed. Their cell was bigger than the others and while no one else could have so much as a picture from their former life, these two men had real goose-down comforters on their cots, Persian rugs on the floor, leather-bound books and real bookshelves, a radio and television and other amenities that spoke to their power.
Rubbing his wrists absently, Dmitry waited quietly out of respect for one of the men to speak to him first. He knew that they were appreciative of his deed, but it wasn’t like it hadn’t been done before, which led him to surmise that he was not here for a congratulatory pat but a new assignment.
Alexander Popov, a man used to effect he had on his inferiors was the first to speak. “You did well the other night,” he said, sitting on his lower bunk. Being in the room with the butcher, even though he controlled him, was a bit intimidating. The young man took up room, sucked all the air from space, just by walking into it.
“Thank you,” Dmitry said, eyes still cast low.
Alexander looked at the tattoos on Dmitry’s hands. They were new, still reddened and puffy. “How many men have you killed for me since you arrived at Vladimir Central?” Alexander asked, scrubbing a hand across his silver beard.
“Seven…teen,” Dmitry answered, a barrage of faces flashing through his mind. He tried not to think of them – his ghosts - but every once in a while, they escaped from their entrapment and ran amuck, haunted his memory.
“How many have you killed for yourself?” Peter asked, feet dangling off the top bunk.
Dmitry took a deep breath before answering that question, having to make a quick mental tally. “Three.”
“You’ve served the brotherhood well.” Alexander used the point as a Segway. “Things can be hard, damn near impossible when you have to do them on your own here, but this is true of life in general. When you have the brotherhood behind you, nothing is impossible. But it comes with a cost. The other side of the coin is that you’re always a target.”
“I am,” Dmitry answered truthfully. Since he had arrived, he had been the target of many altercations. Some wanted to test his reputation. Others simply did not like such a young man in their presence. Still, he had bested all of them – their reasons were inconsequential.
“If you stay here, you’ll be fighting for the rest of your life. And eventually, even though you are quite the specimen, someone will outsmart you, outmuscle you – kill you. What if I could offer you something more than just a fight in a bathroom stall?” Alexander asked. “What if I could offer you freedom? Not special treatment with the guards or extra food with the servers but real freedom, a chance to do it all over again?”
Dmitry’s head popped up. Making eye contact with Alexander, a pronounced frown line danced over the top of his blonde brows. He didn’t speak, but his face spoke volumes. In all his time here, three years to be exact, living in the dark recesses of the forgotten, he had never imagined a chance to escape his most vivid nightmare.
But the idea of a second chance sent chills up his spine. He had a brother waiting on him, who needed him, who would not survive without him. He had made a promise to his dead mother to raise Ivan and to be there with him until his last day. That promise haunted him at night.
“He’d like that,” Peter said, voice humming. “Very much.”
Dmitry blinked fast but kept his wide-set mouth closed. Swallowing hard, he made his beating heart calm in order to keep his ears focused on their next words.
“We’d like to offer that to you,” Alexander said, getting up from his cot. These were not words meant to be said from a seated position. “Not many men will ever get the opportunity. I know I won’t. I’m serving a life sentence on the back of that suka Gorbachev and his promises to eliminate the Vory v Zakone. My brother won’t see the light of day for another ten years. But you…” His mouth quirked. “You might just see the world before it has time to change.”
“Anything,” Dmitry whispered. He couldn’t hold the words. They leapt from him before he could think.
Alexander knew that he had the young boy right in the palm of his hands. He could see the desperation lingering behind his mesmerizing eyes. Hope was a thing that drove men to do the impossible and right now he needed a man capable of just that. With two strides he made his way over to Dmitry and put a hand on the top of his head as if to knight a villager into his cause.
Dmitry’s eyes closed. Clinging on with faint hope, he waited for Alexander to speak, to tell him what he needed to do to make that dream of freedom a reality.
“I need you to kill again,” Alexander said, gripping Dmitry’s head. “I need you to send a message to anyone who might question my authority on my streets, just like you did with Yuri.”
“Anyone,” Dmitry promised without the slightest expression. He looked up at his ward and felt a kinship to him at that moment that he had never felt with a man before him.
Alexander stated his case. “Sacha Karpenko is moving in on our territory. Since my conviction, he has been very busy usurping me, and in my absence, he stands to be the most powerful man in the Moscow underworld. My brother and I have never believed in using women or drugs to advance our cause, but he is using both, destroying our women, destroying our families, destroying our legacy. If we cut him down, we will be doing more than protecting our territory. We will be protecting what our brotherhood has stood for since its inception.”
Peter jumped down from his cot and walked over to Dmitry as well. His charismatic hubris was starting to show. “We want you to kill him, Dmitry. You worked for Kirill many years before your conviction. He has been loyal to us for many years. Work for him again on this job. Fulfill our wishes. He’ll handle the logistics, but you’ll need a second man for the hit. Do you have one?”
Dmitry thought of his young brother – a wild, impulsive hooligan who was always ready for anything. “I do,” he said emphatically. “Someone I can trust.” He and his brother had done a hundred deals together since they were kids. Many had ended in blood; all had ended in success. If it was a hit that Alexander and Peter wanted, he and his little brother could pull it off.
“Can you trust this person with your life and this mission?” Alexander asked.
Dmitry looked between Alexander and Peter, admiring how cohesive they were. He hoped in the years to come he and his brother would be not only as powerful as these two but as loyal to each other. “My baby brother, Ivan. I can trust him with anything.”
“As I can trust my brother,” Alexander said proudly. “Do this thing for us and you will have your freedom. I may not have a chance to get out of here, but my brother does, and I need him out there not only protecting my interest but also my two sons. One day, they will lead the brotherhood, and a way must be paved for them.”
“I’ll do it. You have my word,” Dmitry promised.
Peter put his hand on Alexander’s shoulder and nodded. They had picked the right man for the job. “Well, little butcher, pack your things. You’re about to go on an adventure of a lifetime.”