Penny Dreadful

Someone is on the hunt for Penny Cain: her mercenary brand of murderous mischief has finally drawn some high-profile attention. Is Penny concerned? Not really. She knows the territory, she knows her enemy and, most of all, she knows her trade. Woe betide those who would try to turn the tables on Penny…

‘Penny Dreadful’ continues the darkly comic adventures of sociopathic assassin Penny Cain.

A pale, bleary shape swam before his eyes and gradually, as the muzz cleared from his head, resolved itself into the frowning face of a young woman. She had a square jaw, a blunt nose that had been broken at least once and a thin, silvery scar that ran right up from her jaw to her hairline, where it stained a lock of her otherwise jet-black hair white. Her eyes were grey and hard. She jabbed a thumb in his eye. “Hey!”

He stifled a yell, remembering his training, and tried to take stock of his surroundings. He moved his hands, and realised he was handcuffed to something. He was on the floor, and his captor was standing, bending over him. He blinked a few times. Grimy walls. Tiled floor. Radiator. Handcuffs. Yes, it was about what he expected. He thought about what he should say. “What are you going to do with me?” he asked.

“Probably torture and kill you, I expect.”

He nodded. “That’s your MO. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

She rolled her eyes. “Right, yeah, I know it doesn’t have to be. If I was doing this stuff out of necessity, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

“I wasn’t sent to kill you.”

Now she stepped back and gave him a sceptical look. “Really?”

“No. Just to talk. My superiors want to know why you killed Rykov.”

“Rykov…Rykov…”

“The Russian diplomat.”

“With the moustache?” she mimed.

“That’s him.”

“I think that hit was…ummm…Russian mafia? Yes, I suppose it must have been. They pay pretty well.”

He shifted in his cuffs, tried to sit up a little, alter the power dynamics in the dingy room. “Is that all it was? An assassination for money?”

“What else would it be?”

She seemed distracted, flighty. Maybe her reputation wasn’t as well-earned as he’d feared. He sensed her vanity, her pride in her work. He could use that. “The Russian mafia’s a big organisation. Who was your contact?”

“Big guy…bald…Ivan something?”

“Ivan Minkin,” he filled in. Another one on the Most Wanted list. A career enforcer, hiding one of the sharpest minds in organised crime beneath three-hundred-odd pounds of solid muscle. A stone-cold killer, implicated in the deaths of over a dozen high-profile members of the Russian oligarchy. They called him the White Bear. And he hired this girl?

She snapped her fingers, nodding. “That’s him. Minkin. Kind of squeamish.”

“It’s Minkin I’m interested in, not you.”

She pouted. “Aw…”

“We know you only care about money. If money’s what you want, Russia’s not the place to find it. A woman with skills like yours could make a lot more going legitimate. I’m empowered to bring you in, if you’ll accept my offer.”

“You aren’t empowered to do shit,” she pointed out. He noticed for the first time that she had a knife in her hands.

“Killing me gets you nothing,” he told her, “except powerful enemies. There’s no payday. Like I said, I wasn’t sent to kill you. We’ve got no reason to do this.”

She walked towards him again and crouched down beside him. “You make some very good points,” she said, “but you’ve missed out one vital piece of the puzzle. You’ve assumed the money is anything but a bonus for me.” She gently ran the blade of the knife down his cheek. “Some people think being involved in organised crime turns people into psychopaths. I think it’s probably the other way around. I don’t think you can make a psychopath.”

He gritted his teeth. “I told you, there’s no mileage here. Kill me, and they’ll just come after you.”

A manic laugh burst from her lips. “Because you were so hard to take down…”

“I wasn’t trying to kill you.”

“Sure. All those fancy punches and kicks were just playfighting. And how about this?” She reached behind her back and pulled out a gun – his gun. “Shame you weren’t quick enough to use this. It might have been fun to try my skills against a proper marksman. Most of the goons I come up against couldn’t hit the wall of a barn if they were standing inside it.” She examined the gun critically. “It’s nice too. No black market shit here. CIA issue, is it?”

He said nothing.

“Okay, so you’re not going to talk. You threaten me with powerful enemies, but won’t say who they are. No ID on your person, not even a passport. But an American accent, and clothes you couldn’t buy in this neck of the woods. How did you get here, through the sewer? No. US agent, clearly. I believe your story though. I think you were sent here to find me and ask me some questions. I think you have a very detailed file on me, and you think you know all my secrets. It’s very cute.” She prodded him on the nose with the muzzle of the gun. “But, see, I have a better way of finding out secrets.” She tucked the gun back into her waistband and pressed the knife against his cheek again. “Let’s assume you are CIA, with all the training that entails. Tell me, CIA, have you been trained to resist torture?”

He set his jaw firmly. “You won’t find anything out from me.”

“Yeah.” She sat down, settling herself beside him against the radiator. “Everyone says that. I mean everyone. You threaten them, you wave a knife around, and they all say ‘I won’t talk, I won’t talk’. But then it starts, and they realise that pain is only the beginning. Anyone can resist pain. Anyone can go to another place, wait it out. First thing all the tough guys learn is how to bite back the screams. How to be Zen. But what they don’t teach you is that, with pain, comes things you can’t run away from. You can go as far away as you like, but you gotta come back some time, and what will you find when you do?” She leaned in, pressing the knife hard beneath his eye. He felt a drop of blood well up against the blade. “There are worse things than pain. There’s realising that your life as you knew it is gone forever. You ever thought what it would be like to lose a finger? Pretty bad, huh? What about a whole hand? What about both hands? What if someone cut off your balls? Stabbed out your eyes? Removed…” she gently traced the knife down to his lips, “…your tongue. Have you any idea how much you take for granted the sense of taste? Have you any idea how horrible it would be to lose it forever? Never enjoy ice cream again, or a strong cup of coffee in the morning. Never taste your lover’s skin, or cotton candy when you take your kiddies to the carnival. And speech! Imagine losing that! You’ll never crack wise with the boys in the bar, never sing in the shower, never impress anyone with your wit and verbosity. No, something like that would blight your life forever.” Abruptly she stood up. His eyes followed her, blankly. She smiled at him and tossed her knife from hand to hand. “There will be one small mercy though,” she reassured him, “‘forever’ for you, is a highly relative term. In a few hours, it’ll all be over. But, before our short time together is ended, you’ll know suffering like you’ve never imagined and, my friend, you will talk.”

*

Agent Trent was ushered into the situation room by an aide and nodded his greeting to Director Hammersmith, who turned smartly on her heel and gave him a grim smile in return. “Thank you for coming, Trent. I’m going to get right to the point here.”

“I figured it must be pretty serious, Director.” He’d be recalled from the field, in the middle of a mission. Not a hugely important one – a low level drug bust, a small part of a much wider operation to destabilise one of the most dangerous Venezuelan cartels, virtually a holiday by his standards – but still it was highly unusual. Hammersmith hated to see a job left undone.

“Serious is the right word,” she said, “and when a situation that requires a skill set as specific as yours is deemed ‘serious’, you know the kind of thing we’re dealing with.”

He nodded again. “I’m ready to do whatever needs to be done, ma’am.”

She smiled. “I know you are. Let me fill you in.” She used a remote to activate the wall display, bringing up an image of a youngish Caucasian woman – early thirties, perhaps, with a fairly unremarkable face except for the scars and the empty look in her eyes. He didn’t recognise her, but Hammersmith was quick to relieve him of his ignorance. “Penny Cain. Heard of her?”

“Nope.”

“Not surprising. She’s been on our radar for years, but we’ve never seen the need to cross paths. She’s an assassin, active mostly in Eastern Europe at the moment, but there are warrants for her arrest in more than thirty countries across Eurasia and North Africa. She’s done work for every large criminal organisation you care to name. Mostly low-profile hits. She charges a lot, but she’s known for being…thorough. Her speciality is making sure her targets are never seen again. No bodies, no forensic evidence, no trace they ever existed at all. She’s clean, and she’s effective.”

Trent frowned. “So why isn’t she in jail?”

“Friends – employers anyway – in high places. Oh, they’ve tried to bring her to justice. Police forces have sent entire SWAT teams against her, to no avail.”

“She escapes?”

“No, she kills them. The only bodies of her victims that have ever been unearthed are the ones of the cops sent to bring her down.”

“I’m guessing it wasn’t pretty, from the way you’re talking?”

Another grim smile. Hammersmith pressed a button. “Here are some highlights…” Images popped up on the screen, windows floating by the innocuous face of this Penny Cain.

“Jesus…”

“Quite. She’s merciless and brutal.” The Director made the horrific pictures vanish. “Her past is no secret. She spent most of her childhood in institutions, under psychiatric care. She’s a certified sociopath, with an IQ that makes you and me look like Forrest Gump.”

“She sounds nasty.”

“Nasty isn’t the half of it.” She brought up more images, this time of various men and women, and Trent did recognise them. “These are just some of the murders she’s been implicated in. She’s graduated from low-profile in recent years. Chang, Romero, Jaggard, O’Neil…and most recently Rykov. We think she was responsible for all of them.”

Trent whistled. Criminals, industrialists and now government officials. Unsolved crimes that were quite a bit more than just ‘on the radar’. Something didn’t add up though. “Rykov disappeared months ago,” he said, “so what just happened?”

Hammersmith sighed. “Perez is missing.”

Trent tensed up. “Oscar?”

She nodded grimly. “We sent him to find her and talk to her. She has a residence in Prague, and CCTV put her on the metro that morning. We dropped him in, with no papers, with his only objective to seek her out, gather information and not in any way engage her. We wanted to know who sent her after Rykov and why. If these crimes are connected, we’re looking at something huge – something that could change the balance of power in a continent.”

Trent ran a hand across his jaw. He hadn’t had the chance to shave yet. “They could just be unconnected hits…”

“We thought so too, but they were all too well-placed. Chang and Jaggard were working on a new patent that would have turned the South East Asian economy on its head. O’Neil had controlling shares in five of the companies that would have supplied parts for them if they’d managed to get enough governments on side – something Romero and his lobbyists would have been instrumental in making happen.”

“And Rykov?”

She pressed a button, showing a photograph of two men relaxing on a yacht while women in bikinis lounged around them. “Meet Romero’s new best buddy. This was taken last summer, in a private lagoon. Needless to say, their friendship is not common knowledge.”

“So something big is going on?”

“Exactly, and whoever’s pulling the strings is using Penny Cain to do it.”

“Okay,” Trent said, “and Perez?”

“The prognosis isn’t good.”

“He was never a fighter. You put him out of his depth.”

“We didn’t know what we were dealing with. She’s not just a hired killer.”

“Lucky for you,” Trent smiled, “neither am I.” He turned and walked away. He didn’t need to ask what his mission was. David Trent, veteran CIA agent, black-on-black specialist, was only ever deployed for one reason. He was a precision weapon, and right now, this Penny Cain was in his sights. One of them would not leave Prague alive.

*

Penny was feeling very relaxed. She was in her favourite coffee house, with a warm cappuccino sitting frothily beside her. It was too cold to sit outside, so she had nabbed a window seat and now she looked out at the world over a copy of the local paper. She couldn’t read Czech – there was literally no advantage in learning it when everyone here spoke perfect English – but she enjoyed looking at the pictures, wondering what the hell was going on. Prague was a fascinating city; gloomy in a way that only an Eastern European city could be, but vibrant and drunk enough by night to take some of the bleak edge off. Also the zoo was amazing. Growing bored of her ‘reading’ after a few minutes, she folded the paper and put it back on the table. She noticed with a tut that there was still blood under her fingernails from the other night. The shower in her apartment wasn’t really fit for purpose, and she made a mental note to replace it. Or just get a better apartment. Her recent jobs meant she could more than afford it, but she was a little limited in terms of the banks she could deal with. At the moment, her credit wasn’t much good in anything not controlled by the Russian mafia, and their interest rates were just incredibly uncompetitive. It was a conundrum.

She took a sip of her cappuccino and noticed a man enter the shop. He was tall, handsome in a grizzled sort of way, and held himself with the kind of cool confidence that immediately marked him out as someone pretending to be somebody else. Interesting. He walked to the counter and ordered a black coffee. Nothing fancy. Yes, that made sense. No matter how good the disguise, you can’t fake taste in coffee. This was a no-nonsense type, which lent the lie to his bohemian scarf, his patterned gloves and the satchel slung over his shoulder. He thought he looked like an artist; he actually looked like a military man dressed as someone else’s idea of an artist. It was really quite funny, and Penny happily burbled a laugh into her coffee, splashing her face with foam.

She was still smiling to herself as the man sauntered up and looked around the coffee house, as if casting around for a better place to sit. She wondered how long he must have loitered around outside, waiting for the place to get busy enough for this little ruse to work. It really was adorable. There were any number of better options than sitting down next to a woman he didn’t know – a couple looked to be getting ready to leave, an old woman was absorbed in a book just across from her, not taking up any room on the table at all, an inviting chair right opposite. No normal person, least of all an awkward-looking artist type, would have picked her to share a table with. “Do you mind?” he asked, in a vaguely European accent.

“Help yourself,” she said warmly.

He took the seat opposite and put his coffee down. He smiled tightly, as if a bit embarrassed, and took a book out of his satchel. Kafka. Original translation. But brand new. He opened it in the middle and gave the appearance of reading it. He hadn’t marked his page though, and the pages before showed no evidence of being thumbed through. He moved his eyes across the page, up and down, scanning the sentences in the right directions, but his pupils darted too fast. He wasn’t reading. He was just looking at the words. It was likely he understood as little of it as she did the paper. She waited patiently for a few minutes as he turned pages too quickly, studiously not looking up from his pretence of reading, until she realised she would need to make the first move. “What are you reading?” she asked brightly.

He looked up too fast, and she caught his eye directly for just a moment. Ah ha. Now she understood. She knew that look: this man was a killer. Excellent. “It’s Kafka,” he said, as if it was nothing important. She tried to place what accent he was faking and supposed he was keeping it vague on purpose.

“Oh? What Kafka?”

He paused. “The Trial. Have you read it?”

“No. I don’t read much, even in English. Is it better in Czech?”

“I…yes, much better.”

“I’m sure.” The book he was holding was actually written entirely in German, that being the language in which Kafka wrote. “I’ve never really known much about Kafka. What’s The Trail actually about?”

“It’s…well…it’s complicated.”

“I bet. Could you read me a bit of it?”

“In Czech?” His eyes were looking a little wide.

“No, you can translate. I don’t speak it.”

“Well…” He licked his lips. “It doesn’t make much sense out of context.”

“Oh all right then, never mind.” She drained the last of her cappuccino and stood up. “I’ll leave you to it. It was nice meeting you.”

Now he felt he was on firmer ground. “You didn’t.” His smile was open and inviting. He was really quite attractive. A little salt and pepper in his hair. It was almost a pity she was so dead inside. “I’m David.”

He held out a hand, and she took it. His grip was strong and she could feel the muscles tense all the way up his arm. Underneath that goofy duffel coat, he was carved from granite. “Penny.”

“Why don’t you let me buy you another coffee?” he suggested.

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to keep you from your book…”

“It’s fine, really. I don’t often get a chance to practice my English.”

In Prague? Where even the scuzziest out-of-town café had fluent waiters? “Well, I’d be happy to help.” She sat back down. “And I’d love another cappuccino.”

She watched him go back to the counter, saw the roll of koruna he produced from his pocket, way more currency than he should have had on him, noted how he took his satchel with him even though he was less than two metres away from the table and she mused on how she’d eventually kill him. He’d be a screamer, she decided. The killers always were, when it was their own turn.

David – she felt pretty sure that was his real name from the way he used it so smoothly – was quite talkative after that. It turned out he had a very elaborate backstory. Barely any holes at all. He was Yugoslavian originally, but got out of the country before the wars tore it apart. He lived in America, where he had landed a job in the banking sector. He fell in love, got married, but it didn’t work out. Heartbroken, wanting to reconnect with his European past and his love of art and literature, he had jacked in his career and come back to this part of the world. He had only been here for a few days. He said he rented a small apartment in a part of the city whose name he mispronounced and was trying to sell a few of his paintings. He had some savings he said, what was left from the divorce – she loved the slight tone of bitterness he put into his voice whenever he talked about that – but that wouldn’t last him too long. “Painting was always my first love,” he said wistfully, “in America, I had no time. It’s better for me here. Here I can concentrate on what matters.”

“Oh yeah,” she agreed, “what kind of stuff do you paint?”

“Mostly abstract,” he said vaguely, “cubist.”

“Like Picasso?”

“Yes.”

“I’d love to see some of your work sometime.”

He affected shyness. “Perhaps, one day.”

Penny was starting to get a little bored, so she pushed things a bit further. “Funny you should mention America,” she said, “I bumped into an American the other day.”

His face betrayed nothing. “Oh?”

“Yeah. Hispanic guy. Sort of your height and build, I suppose.”

“Okay…” Was there a slight tightening of his jaw there?

“I’m sure you wouldn’t know him though. America is a big place. Whereabouts did you live?”

“Boston.”

She didn’t think that was a lie either. The first rule of constructing fabrications was to pepper them with true elements, real places, people and events that you’d have no trouble recalling when asked an off-hand question. “Boston, yeah. Where they filmed Cheers?”

“I…I think it was set there yes.”

“Home of the Blue Sox?”

“The Red Sox,” he corrected automatically.

“Right, yeah. Boston, Maine.”

“Massachusetts.”

“Sorry, yes. I get confused about American States sometimes. What are those two I always get mixed up? Idaho and Iowa? Which one is Des Moines the capital of?”

“Iowa,” he said slowly. She could sense his discomfort now.

“So what’s the capital of Idaho?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, Penny.” He smiled disarmingly and shook his head. “I didn’t go on too many road trips.”

“Of course not. Stick to the pavement, right?”

“The…?”

“Sidewalk,” she clarified.

“Right. Yes.” His face was still carefully controlled, but there was just the tiniest hint of tension and confusion around his eyes. He knew she was playing him, but wasn’t sure how or why yet.

“Oh look, I’ve finished my coffee…” she said suddenly.

“Would you like another?”

“No, I think I’ve had enough for one day. I might go and find some lunch.”

“Oh, well, it was nice to…”

“You could join me if you wanted?” she suggested with her most winning smile.

To his credit, he didn’t agree right away, mumbling some excuse about an art exhibition in some other badly-mangled neighbourhood that contained no gallery she’d ever heard of. She made a few vague persuasive noises and he finally, with a show of reluctance, he agreed to accompany her. “C’mon,” she said, linking her arm in his, “you can tell me more about Boise.” He didn’t appear to even notice.

Poor David, Penny reflected. He couldn’t know about the years she’d spent self-medicating with alcohol. When she ordered a large glass of pilsner with her goulash, he’d looked taken aback, but had done the same. She knew from experience that she could drink and drink and drink and not lose a step. She wondered if David was that tough. If he was too drunk later on, it would be no fun at all. She tore apart bread with her hands and talked nonsense to him, dropping in occasional Americanisms that he didn’t react to. She’d never talked about nappies or aluminium so much in her life. When the beer arrived, she drank fast, and watched him sip his more gingerly. The restaurant was dark and traditional. It was only early afternoon, but the weather was overcast, threatening something more severe, and it felt like night already. When the goulash arrived it was thick and spicy, just as she liked it. He had ordered the same as her, acting like it was his favourite thing, but now he frowned at the stodgy dumplings, the stewed cabbage on the side, the inexplicable dollop of cream. Smiling, she dipped her bread into the sauce and bit into it with relish. “I love Eastern-European cuisine,” she said with her mouth still full, “there’s something so unpretentious about it. Grilled meat, sauce, bread. I tried dieting here, but it’s a complete waste of time.”

David nodded his agreement as he cut into his meat, using his cutlery the awkward American way. “It’s good to be back,” he said carefully.

“I bet. I’ve never been to Yugoslavia – or whatever it is now. Did you say you were from Belgrade?”

“That’s right.”

“And that’s in…?”

“Serbia, now.”

“Right, yeah. What’s the food like there?”

David shrugged. “Not so different.”

“No?”

“Not really, no.”

“What was your favourite thing to eat back home?”

He waved his fork. “There was a dish…a lot like this…”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.”

“What was it called?”

“I…”

“Never mind.” She took another big gulp of her beer. “Tell me more about your art.”

“Well…”

“You said cubist, yeah?”

“That’s right.”

“What do you think of Léger’s work?”

“I think he has his merits…”

Penny nodded. “Oh yeah. I mean, so different in his way from what came before.”

“Exactly.”

“Would you say your stuff is more like his quasi-pop art style, or more pre-War?”

“Well,” he said, running a hand across his unshaved jaw, “that’s a little reductive.”

“Obviously. I always preferred the Salon Cubists, personally. Just personal taste.”

“Right…”

“Just their more formalist style, the emphasis on composition rather than colour. I mean, you look at something like Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier n° 2 and it really has the power to take your breath away. The movement, the sweep of it, it’s almost cartoonish – in the most flattering sense – despite being made up of abstract shapes. What do you think you would have thought of it if you’d be there when he unveiled it at the Salon des Indépendants, David?”

The poor man had a sick look in his eyes and she knew he had no idea if what she was saying made any sense at all. She felt genuinely sorry for him at that moment, as he surely began to see that she had the advantage of him. Slowly, he put down his knife and fork. “You know, Penny, I’m actually feeling kind of ill.”

“Ill?”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I had a stomach bug earlier in the week, I thought I was over it, but drinking this beer has made me feel quite queasy. I think I must excuse myself.”

“Oh…well, I hope we can meet again soon sometime. Take my card.”

“Thank you.” She handed it over to him and he gave it a perfunctory look, then did a double-take he tried his hardest to hide. It was probably the job title she’d picked. He looked at her. At the woman who made no secret of the fact that she was an Assassin For Hire.

“Call me,” she said with a sweet smile.

“I will.” His voice was a little strangled, and she kept her eyes on him as he gathered his things and left the restaurant, trying not to hurry. She laughed throatily and then stood up herself and pulled her heavy jacket on. Psycho killer or not, it was bloody cold out there.

“Excuse me,” the waiter said as she strode past, “you have to pay, please…”

“Oh fuck off,” she grinned, shoving a middle finger right in his face and moving him out of the way like he was a troublesome child.

The grey afternoon had really closed in now, and the streetlights had come on. It was too cold to rain, and instead there were a few dancing flakes of snow. The cold was bone-deep, but Penny was used to it now. The street outside was crowded, but she caught sight of David making his way through the throng. Again, his very stance showed his confidence and power. He moved down the middle of the street, letting people get out of his way. Not like an artist at all. As he turned down an alley, she saw him move his head slightly, so he caught her in his peripheral vision. Excellent. She went after him, keeping a discreet distance, but never falling back far enough to lose track of him. They trekked like that, through heaving city streets, as it got darker and darker. He took her on a circuitous route, perhaps trying to throw her off, perhaps leading her somewhere more advantageous. It got darker and colder. Snow started to fall properly now, quickly sticking on the dry ground. People huddled against it, pulling up hoods and pulling down hats, but Penny ignored it, keeping her eyes fixed on her quarry. They moved into the Old Town, with its winding, ancient streets. Here, the shops were open to the pavement, displaying touristy wares, but there were few takers in this weather. They passed through twisting alleyways, she closer on his tail now as he turned more often, then abruptly they came back out into a more modern setting. Traffic trundled past on a main road, and David was forced to stop at a pedestrian crossing, ahead of the looming tower that marked the entrance to Charles Bridge. Its spires were lost in the gathering gloom as the snowfall intensified. She could see him fidgeting in the waiting crowd, desperate for the lights to change, as she closed in on him. He turned slightly then, with a sudden movement, dived out of the group of people by the road and headed south, down the main road. Penny followed him, wondering where he would go.

The streets were almost deserted now. David moved fast, not running, but walking very briskly. The snow was starting to form heavy drifts, and the traffic was turning to sluggish rush hour. It took only twenty minutes or so to leave Prague’s less prosperous quarters and enter the bleak, Soviet-style neighbourhoods towards the south. They followed the road that ran beside the river, walking past traffic nearly at a standstill, beneath concrete overpasses and then David ducked around a corner. She knew where he was going. She followed him around an apparent dead end, which turned into a road that doubled back the way they had come. Up ahead, he was jogging now, and heading for a series of shallow steps that would take him along a footpath up to Vyšehrad, the most ancient part of the city. The stunning spires of the Church of St Peter and St Paul were completely invisible in the thick snow that now filled the air, but she could make out David, running through the pools of sodium-orange light, his shape dark against the increasingly white backdrop. It was barely four o’clock, but it was essentially night now. The snow was already inches deep underfoot. The whole place was deserted. Vyšehrad was the remnants of a millennium-old fortification, allegedly the foundation of the entire city, a hilltop redoubt surrounded by crumbling walls, enclosing the Basilica, a famous cemetery packed with Czech worthies, and an area of fetching parkland. Penny walked calmly up the hill, following David’s clear trail in the snow, and made her way along the path, between narrowing walls, past a shuttered café, and then out into the open. The trees were totally bare in the park, and the ground was completely white already. Flakes pelted down from the dark sky, filling the air with their austere beauty. There were no lights here, but the layer of snow provided illumination enough. Boldly, Penny walked into the most exposed position on the hilltop, right in the centre of the park, where the paths met. There was no one else around at all, not in this weather. She put her hands in her pockets and waited.

It didn’t take long. In the deadened silence of the snowfall, she heard only the ghost of a crunch behind her, and spun on one foot to drive a knee right into David’s abdomen. He grunted and grabbed her leg, hoping to unbalance her. Instead, she pushed all her weight forward, causing him to topple over. Her elbow was already up, driving hard into his face, and she felt the satisfying crunch as the cartilage in his nose gave way before unforgiving bone. He didn’t yield for a moment, but managed to get a leg beneath her weight and flip her over onto her back. In any other conditions, she’d have been winded by the impact, but the snow broke her fall and she was up quickly. David was on his feet too, blood pouring from his nose and soaking his stubble crimson. He bared his teeth. “When did you realise?” he asked.

“The moment I saw you.”

“You let me hang myself out to dry like that all afternoon?”

“One thing you’ll soon come to realise about me, David,” she said, “is that I’m a merciless sadist.”

He laughed bitterly and charged towards her, trying to take her down with a tackle. She sidestepped, but he was ready for that too and he pirouetted neatly and drove a forearm into her back. She winced and staggered and now he was behind her, wrapping a powerful arm around her neck. She felt his other hand on her head, and realised that his orders were to end this as quickly as possible. Such a shame. She dragged him towards a tree before he could get a good enough grip to break her neck and planted her feet against the bark. He tried to pull her back, but she got her other foot up and then pushed away, sending them both tumbling to the ground again. Penny kept rolling and, as she bounced up to her feet, drew her knife from her belt. The blade gleamed in the snow’s reflected light. She was breathing hard already in the freezing air, her breath steaming before her. David was up too, with only fists. She favoured him with a predatory grin. “I don’t like your odds.”

“We’ll see.” He reached behind him and drew out a pistol, twin to the one she had taken from his colleague a few days ago. “We can do this one of two ways, Penny.”

“You’re right about that. I hope you’re a better shot than your friend was.” She was already diving to one side as he pulled the trigger. The two gunshots rang out in the cotton wool air, thunderclaps in the too-early night. He wouldn’t have long to finish this now – even though there was no one around in the immediate vicinity, that would have been heard by someone. She could use his desperation against him. She ghosted through the trees, keeping to the shadows. He tracked her with the gun, never quite sure where she was in the shifting contrasts of light and dark as the snow got heavier and heavier and the branches moved in a stiff wind. His eyes were half-closed, trying to peer through the falling flakes. He wouldn’t want to attract any more attention, or waste a bullet, so only a clean shot would do now. She didn’t intend to give him one. He started moving towards her, holding the gun before him in a two-handed grip. She made a mad lunge to one side and he fixed on her. Another clap of thunder and a blaze of orange lightning and this time she felt the bullet skim past her, the movement of the air stirring the strand of hair that she kept loose to draw attention away from her scar. She went down, letting him think she’d slipped in the snow, and made a loud “oof” as she landed. He closed, a shark sensing blood, and the pistol was pointed right at her head now. She opened her mouth in shock, then sheepishly dropped her knife and raised her hands as she lay there on the ground. “Okay,” she said, “let’s do this your way.”

“Up,” he said, gesturing with his gun.

She did as she was told. “You don’t want to do this here,” she told him, “too open. Police will already be on the way.”

“I have a warrant. We have an extradition agreement.”

“You could still do without the negative press. This is the information age. Do you want someone tweeting a picture of a CIA agent standing over a woman’s corpse in a public park?”

David grunted something inaudible, but jerked his gun again, motioning her towards the walls on the south side of the park. She kept her hands in the air, walking in front of him. He pointed her down to a walled section of path on the edge of the hill that was designed as a viewpoint. There was a metal disc on one side, showing a stylised map of the area of the city visible from this height. At the moment, it was all cloaked with grey, but out there beyond the hillside was the Vltava, the river, and beyond it the picturesque hills and buildings of suburban Prague. “Get up there,” David ordered. It took her a second to realise what he meant. Then she nodded and clambered up onto the wall. It was only a few feet tall on this side but behind her was a considerable drop down to the busy road below. Her body would fall and be mangled in traffic, or roll to a halt on the hillside and be quickly covered with snow, undiscovered, possibly for weeks. “Perez was only sent to get information,” he said, and now the full bitterness, the towering rage he had been hiding, came out, “he just needed to know who paid you to kill Rykov.”

“Maybe he should have pretended to be a painter and asked me nicely over coffee?”

“You killed him. We had no argument with you.”

“Then you’re not much of a law enforcement agency, are you?”

“You’re getting involved with things you don’t understand, Penny Cain,” he said. “International espionage is no place for a sociopathic sadist. When someone like you starts playing in our ball pit, we tend to remove them as soon as possible. You’re an unstable element, and the CIA doesn’t like things it can’t control.”

“Ah, so you are CIA. Your friend – Perez? – wouldn’t tell me, no matter how much I cut him up.”

David shook his head. “You tortured a man to death just for the hell of it. You’re a sick creature. I thought I’d get some satisfaction from doing this with my hands, but the best thing for you is a bullet in the head. You don’t deserve a clean kill – you need to be put down.”

She smiled at him. “Funny, I feel the same way. About doing things with my hands I mean. It’s always better that way. And, like you, I do try to stick to my principles. For example, I don’t want to use this gun I stole at all, but I don’t have a lot of choice.” Before he could react, she’d slipped Perez’s gun from the sleeve of her heavy coat and into her hand and was firing a shot that blew away half his ankle and knocked him off his feet with a cry of pain. His own gun went skittering across the flagstones, out of his reach. Desperately, he clawed after it, trying to haul himself along the floor, but he was bleeding copiously. Penny loomed over him, levelling the stolen pistol at his head. “Don’t you dare fucking bleed out on me,” she sneered, “we’ve got a long night ahead of us.”

*

Afterwards, back in the same blood-soaked room in which she had killed Perez, Penny reflected on her strange day. She picked up David’s head and moved the lolling jaw with her hand. “If I was there when Duchamp unveiled the Nu descendant un escalier n° 2 in 1912,” she said in a fake, nasally American accent, “I’d have been completely out of my depth and would have made a fool of myself by pretending to know anything at all about cubism. Pathetic,” she added in her own voice as she tossed the decapitated head, bereft of tongue and eyes now, to one side with the rest of the body parts then stood up, wiped her hands on her jeans and shook her head ruefully. “I knew you’d be a screamer too.”

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