Katja watches as the white panel van makes the arc of the circular driveway, coming to a stop in front of the large double doors of Zygmund Dervishi’s modest 8,200 square foot mansion. Sitting on nearly twenty acres of land, the compound is secured behind large gates and walls, every inch viewable by a state-of-the-art system that includes cameras and biosensor alarms. This was in addition to the dozen guards on patrol – mostly Albanian thugs with thick arms and thicker heads, each armed with H&K MP7s or Sig Sauer P226 depending on their post. When Vilmar Tarchaj, a mid-level Rudaj officer, came down from New York for a little fun and sun, two dozen more guards were made available with a phone call.
When Katja sees her brother manhandle the lithe woman out from the back of the panel van, hands bound with a pillowcase over her head, she knew that her father would be making that call. Junior pulls the linen case from the woman’s head, and her hair falls away and reveals younger features than Katja had expected. The woman – not much more than a girl – couldn’t be older than twenty. Junior says something to the girl, she spits in his face and attempts to drive a boot heel into his foot.
Good for you, Katja thinks.
Junior wipes the spit from his face, looks at his hand incredulously before bringing the palm across the girl’s face. Katja sees blood erupt from her mouth as the girl collapses to her knees on the concrete drive. Two-steps at a time, Katja takes the stairs to the front entranceway, pulling open the doors to see her 76-year-old father, though shrunken to a mere 5’11”, verbally tower over her 6’8” mountain of a brother.
Zygmund turns, flashes his pearly dentures. “Katja, my girl, where are you off to in such a rush?”
“I…” Katja starts to huff, catching her breath, “I saw the van pull up and Junior….”
Her father pulls her attention completely, as he often does when he engages people in conversation. He has an evocative quality. People need to listen when he speaks. Those glimmering and seemingly oversized dentures, dentures that replaced healthy rooted teeth 25 years prior when he became Zygmund Dervishi, were captivating.
Zygmund waves Junior past and Katja sees her lumbering brother carry the bound and bloodied girl through the doors into the large foyer. Transfixed by her father, she does not watch where they went. “Dear, you seem to be worked up?”
“I saw Junior hit her. Why is she here? You said you were out of that business?”
The dentures flash again, “That was a misunderstanding. I’ve talked with your brother. We are of the same mind. He won’t hit her again. I promise.”
He pats her on both shoulders. “Okay?”
“No!” Katja pulls away, the trance is broken for a moment. “You can’t trust Junior with anyone, especially women. Who is she?”
“Do you remember ‘Uncle’ Nicky?”
Katja nods. He had come to her sixteenth birthday nine years ago, and the two were quick friends. ‘Uncle’ Nicky was a kind man, who always brought presents when he visited. He told Katja that she reminded him of his daughter. Both were smart, strong, and too independent for their own good. His daughter and he were estranged, but through friends he had kept tabs on her, and he would regale Katja with second-hand stories of his daughter’s adventures.
“Our new guest is his granddaughter, April.”
“She’s Joyce’s daughter?”
Katja never really knew how old Joyce was, or even if Joyce was real. But she imagined that Joyce was always that young girl who ran away and joined the military. Katja wished she could run away, but the best she could do was sneak out where the compound met wetlands at the back of the property. If she stays out overnight, one of her father’s men would find her and bring her home.
“Yes, Joyce’s daughter. I didn’t know that you knew about her? But how could you not? Nick was always going on about his daughter, the war hero.”
He guides Katja into the house. “And you are right, I can’t trust Zygmund Jr. He has appetites that well… he can’t control. But you, my favorite daughter, I think I could trust you with this job?”
Favorite daughter? Only daughter, thought Katja. Zygmund Dervishi had been blessed with eight children among three wives, and a mistress. Katja was the sixth, and her mother had been wife number three. Junior was the youngest, born to her nursemaid, and – as a bastard – should have no rights to the family name, but their older siblings, all boys, along with wife number two perished in a fire before they were born. Katja’s mother drank herself to death, and Junior’s mother had been replaced multiple times over. Such are Zygmund Dervishi’s blessings.
Katja has so many questions, but she feels the answers would be more truthful from the girl, than from her father. She suspects extortion of some kind. Or a power play, maybe. She knew ‘Uncle’ Nicky was criminal of some sort, otherwise he wouldn’t have dealt with her honorable father. She also knew, despite the many gifts, that he wasn’t a man of means either. The girl would have the answers.
“Yes,” Katja says.
The smile widens, and those dentures gleam again.
“This pleases me,” Zygmund says and pulls his daughter into his embrace. “You won’t fail me.”
Katja knocks on the door before entering the large bedroom, one of eight in the main house for family and guests. The bed is empty and Katja tries to scan the room before she is knocked sideways by the door, the handle catching her in the side. She rolls back into a crouched position with a full view of the room. April had been hiding behind the door. Knocking was a poor choice, but Katja hadn’t expected the girl to be combative or trained in any way. She barely blocked a forward kick and then Katja tried a sweep to catch April’s stable leg. It wasn’t enough to knock the girl down, but it did put her off balance. Just enough for Katja to plow forward into the smaller girl.
Shoulders pinned, Katja looks down at April. “I don’t want to hurt you. I want to…”
April rams her knee into Katja’s pubis, and Katja reels back, thankful she wasn’t a man, hurting nonetheless.
“Wait!” Katja yelled.
April was already to her feet and heading for the door.
“Stop!” Katja reiterates. “You go out that door, you’ll never see your grandfather again.”
April turns, and Katja couldn’t read the expression on the younger girl’s face. It was part confusion, part sadness, part anger… mostly anger.
“I can help you escape,” Katja offers.
April’s right fist goes white-knuckled and pulls back.
Pho King Vietnamese Restaurant
Pompano Beach, FL
“You’re not what I expected.”
“You think I care about your expectations?” Joyce tells the man in the black suit.
The restaurant is empty except for the two of them and a sad-looking young lady staring into a steaming bowl of noodles. The octogenarian hostess leans against the back counter reading a magazine. When Joyce comes in, she just points toward the man in black. It seems odd to be meeting a Chinese gangster in a Vietnamese restaurant but maybe Xu’s captain just likes the food?
“I’m Zhang. Sit down and have something to eat.”
Joyce sets the briefcase on the table.
“I’m in kind of a hurry.”
“Best Pho in all of Florida.”
When Joyce doesn’t respond, he pulls back his sport coat to show the twin Glocks holstered under his arms.
Joyce is considering whether to tell the man to go fuck himself – or pistol whip him and then tell him to go fuck himself – when the hostess shouts something in a language Joyce doesn’t speak, and reaches under the counter.
The old lady comes up with a sawed-off shotgun, just in time to see the front window explode. Her head disintegrates as the sound of machine-gun fire fills the air.
Joyce hits the floor, drawing her pistol as the wall behind her is stitched with bullet holes. She figures Zhang met the same fate as the old lady but he is on the floor next to her with his guns drawn. One is pointed at the front of the restaurant and the other is pointed at Joyce’s head. He’s a lot quicker than she anticipated. Either he is that good, or she is getting old.
Joyce keeps one eye on the barrel of the gun in her face and the other on the front of the restaurant. She sees two masked men step inside holding assault rifles. They sweep the room, but neither one looks down.
“Friends of yours?” Zhang asks.
Joyce double-tapped the one in front in the chest without taking her eye off Zhang.
The second man brings his eyes to the floor, only to take bullets from three guns, as Zhang decides Joyce might not be his enemy.
They both roll to their feet as two more gunmen come in through the kitchen. Joyce takes out the one on the right with a headshot while the gunman on the left is shredded by Zhang’s twin pistols. Other than the bleach blonde cowering under her table the dining room is clear. They move into the kitchen.
There are two dead bodies inside. One has a bandana and dark sunglasses, the other a chef’s hat. The chef took a bullet. The other guy had a cleaver embedded in his forehead.
They both reluctantly lower their guns.
“Shame, he really was the Pho King.”
“No, he made the best Pho, he was like the king of it.”
“So, if they weren’t your friends. Who are they?”
“This is your town, you tell me,” Joyce says as she heads back into the dining room.
The young woman who’d been eating in the corner is standing by the briefcase. She sees Joyce and raises her hands like she is about to be arrested.
“Why are you still here?” Joyce asks her.
“To tell you they’re Barry’s people,” she says.
Zhang raises one of his guns.
“Yeah? So are you. You’re Krystie or some shit. I saw you dancing the last time I was there.”
“It’s Sarah now. Barry fired me this morning.”
Joyce grabs the briefcase and opens it up. She isn’t surprised to see it is empty.
“I should have known he would hold a grudge,” Joyce says.
“So, the fat bastard set us both up,” Zhang says as he lowers his pistol.
“I take it you guys might want some payback,” the woman says.
“I’ve got more pressing matters,” Joyce replies.
“The reason I’m asking is, I have a way to do it that will benefit us all.”
Zhang holds up his guns.
“I have my own way, thanks.”
“Will you shooting his fat ass make you a millionaire?”
Joyce stops and looks at the young woman.
“Talk fast,” April says, her fist still cocked. The way she has shifted her stance tells Katja everything she needs to know. This girl has been well trained.
“I saw what you did to my brother in the driveway,” Katja says. “That took courage. But courage won’t help if he gets his hands on you again. Not even our father can stop him when he is angry.”
April’s eyes narrow. “That caveman is your brother? And the disgusting old man is your father?” She looks Katja up and down. “You certainly got a monopoly on the good genes.”
Katja shakes her head. “Americans. You think this is a time for jokes?”
“Okay, no jokes. Why would I trust you to help me get away from your own family?”
“Because I need your help as much as you need mine. More. I’ve been wanting to get away for years.” Katja takes two steps to her right and sits down, holding up her hands in a placating gesture. “I know Nicky. Your grandfather.”
“That puts you one up on me,” April says. “Shame you couldn’t make his funeral this morning.”
The shock on Katja’s face seems genuine. “He’s dead?”
April waves this away, but the fact that Katja is surprised does a lot to convince her that the girl is, at least, not part of the Dervishi inner circle. “Later. Tell me what we’re up against if we try to get away.”
“A great deal,” Katja says. “State of the art security systems and cameras. A dozen heavily armed guards.”
April sags a bit. “What makes you think we can get past that?”
“Two things,” Katja says. “First, the guards’ shift change is in thirty minutes. There will be a few minutes of opportunity to slip between them. Second, the back of the property adjoins wetlands, an offshoot of the Everglades. There’s still a wall to get over, but it’s not electrified, because of the water. I’ve gone out that way before, but they always find me and bring me back. You have training. You must have friends, resources. You can help me get away for good.”
April bites her lip, thinking. “Sounds risky. I could just wait for my mother. Sooner or later she’ll be showing up here, and she’ll have either what your father wants or a small army. Probably both.”
“Your mother,” Katja says. “The legendary Joyce.”
April had begun to relax, but now she tenses visibly. “How do you know that?”
“Nicky,” Katja says. “He told me many stories of her exploits. Her heroism. It was she who trained you, yes?”
“Tell me,” Katja says. “Did she train you to await rescue, like a princess in a tower? Because this was not a part of the training I was given.”
“Fair point,” April concedes. “All right. When do we move?”
“Now,” Katja says, standing. “We can be at the back of the house when the shifts change. I’ll guide you past the outbuildings. With luck we can disable one of the guards and arm ourselves. Then we’ll have to run.”
“Running I can do,” April says. “Let’s go.”
In a room in the basement that Katja has never seen, Zygmund Dervishi watches on a monitor as his wayward daughter and the DeWitt girl slip out of the bedroom. Another screen immediately picks them up in the upstairs hallway, sliding along the wall as they make their way to a staircase.
Dervishi pushes himself back from the desk, sighing heavily but congratulating himself on his instincts. He was right to never let his daughter know that the security measures outside the house extended inside its walls as well. He swivels in his chair to face his monstrous son, standing against the door with his arms folded and a grim smile on his face.
“I told you not to trust her,” Junior says. “She has betrayed us. The penalty is death.”
Dervishi grunts. “No. I have plans for your sister. The Dervishi line must be strong. I need the grandchildren she can give me.”
“I can give you grandchildren,” Junior says. “Strong, healthy.”
With lightning speed Dervishi stands and backhands his son viciously across the face. “Are you questioning me, boy?” He seizes the younger man’s chin and stares into his eyes. “What if you die, like your brothers, eh? What if you are sterile? No.” He releases the boy and turns back to the screens. The women, he sees, are now in the kitchen, and have armed themselves with knives. Clever little bitches, but being clever will not save them.
“Katja must live,” he saiys. “But she does not need hands or feet to serve my purposes. As for the DeWitt girl, she’ll die soon enough alongside her whore of a mother.”
“Good,” Junior says. He pushes himself off the wall. “I will go and stop them.”
“The guards can do that,” his father says. “I have another task for you. The fool Paradise has betrayed us. He tried to kill DeWitt himself, and even worse, he drew the attention of the Chinese. Go and demonstrate to him the error of his ways.”
Junior looks longingly at the screen. “But the girl.”
“She will be here when you return.” Dervishi’s voice tightens. “Do you remember what happens when I have to repeat an order, boy?”
Without another word, Junior turns, opens the door and leaves. Now alone, Dervishi picks up a phone from the desk and presses a single button. As he waits for a response, he watches on separate screens as his son goes out the front door and his daughter and the DeWitt girl go out the back.
“Things have gotten complicated,” he says to the voice on the other end of his call. “I need to speak to Souterrain.”
To be continued…