Katrina Madrid, Supernatural Assassin



 The young Russian, Ana Demidova, had not used to her real name for ten years. Tonight it was on her tongue, ready to roar.   
 She stood to leave her seat, but the man sitting next to her was quick enough to grab her by the wrist.  
 “Stay!” he shouted over the entire orchestra. The San Francisco Opera House was full of songs from the stage. 
 Again she stood.
 He pulled her down with an interlocking arm. Through the grit of his teeth he hissed into her ear, “Don’t rush so soon from my love!”
 She sat back. Instead of watching the show, she looked up at the theater roof. 
 The owl was high above her, flying in a circle. 
 She caught sight of the indoor owl before anyone else. 
 The image of the bird skipped frames, so she lost focus of it. For a moment the owl began to flicker, change, as it became a red-tailed hawk. Then, to be clear, it returned to a more constant owl form. This dramatic transformation didn’t register with the young Russian, for she didn’t even blink. But her eyes shuffled in color, switching from brown to blue to green, only to settle on some final blend of all three. Her eyes now possessed a shade so striking they promised to pierce the heart of anyone who made level with them for too long. Also, her head of hair, which was dark and cut sharp, started to move along to the pump of owl wings. Her straight hair tip went slightly into a curl.     
 When the owl made a low swoop, other people took notice. It landed, wings at rest, on a balcony railing. This stirred nearby audience members into a panic. It also got the attention of those seated below. Many actors on stage tried to ignore the chaos, still keep the scene. The audience, however, started racing out for exits. Finally, the actor in the lead role broke character. He addressed anyone in the crowd who would listen.   
 “Please keep calm. You can gather in the lobby while we escort this creature from the building. Refreshments will be served. By chance, are there any pest control officers among you?”
 She stood in the lobby with Doctor Doogenheim. They knocked shoulders with the pack. 
 He began to scold her. With waves of chatter in the crowd, his harsh tone didn’t spike any concern. 
 “What is it, Katrina? The bathroom? Do you need a toilet?”
 Katrina shook her head no. 
 “Then where must you go so suddenly?”
 She didn’t reply. She was too busy scanning the lobby for ways to escape the building. The crowd was too thick.  
 He wiped the lens of his glasses on his sleeve before returning it to the bridge of his nose. Looking at his watch, he said, “How long does it take to wrangle a hawk?” 
 She said, “It’s not a hawk. It’s a Barn Owl.”
 “Who cares what it is?” he snapped. “A goddamn bird.” 
 There was a short silence between them, and then he added, “Besides, owls don’t hunt during the day.”
 She said, “That one does. Besides, the sun is down.” 
 “We’re talking twilight here,” the doctor said. “Besides.”
 A voice came from behind, “Doctor Doogenheim.” 
 A new couple squeezed forward. 
 The doctor prepared himself to turn and shake hands. Katrina thought this moment might be a blessing to slip away and hide. 
 The introductions were done in a tight space. 
 “Katrina, this is Doctor Bell and his wife, Jane. And to you both, this is my soon-to-be bride, Katrina Madrid.” 
 Jane Bell had a way of showing her surprise with a slack jaw. She said, “Marriage? Doctor Scott Doogenheim!” 
 So Katrina said, “This is our first date.” 
 Doctor Frank Bell was eager to jump on the failed logic. 
 “Wait, so, you two are getting married, but this is romantic date number one? How does that work?”
 Doctor Doogenheim rushed to explain, “What Katrina meant to say, this is our first date on American soil. You see, we met in Russia.” 
 Jane squealed in delight. “Oh, love in a foreign land. How rare!” 
 The wrinkles around her squinting eyes said: You’re one of those sneaky mail-order brides, aren’t you, honey? The kind who advertise themselves to men over the internet. You describe a love for cooking and cleaning and family, when all you really want to do is to live in a better country.
 Katrina said, “We met in Moscow, at the International Marriage Agency. I was a translator. He needed my translation at the dating mixer. If you can’t place my English accent, so what, I’ve been many places.”   
 Jane still sounded aroused by a different culture: “Let’s hear you say something in Russian.”
 Katrina Madrid smiled for the first time. She got close to Doctor Doogenheim, wrapping her arm around his waist. Then, in the Slavic tongue, she said, “This man is weak. No muscle. I have killed men three times his size.”  
 Jane said, “I just heard a string of consonants, no vowels, so I wonder what your words mean.”
 There was a void to follow, as they all waited for some type of translation. Katrina offered them nothing, paying more attention to the alarm systems on emergency doors. 
 Doctor Bell cleared his throat. He said, “So, did anyone else see Romeo, in that last scene with Juliet, run off the stage for a towel? He had to wipe the bird poop off his face. Hey, we should do dinner after this, the four of us.”
 Suddenly, there was a shift in the crowd. The doors to the theater opened again. 
 “Looks like the bird is gone,” Jane said. 
 “About time,” said Doctor Doogenheim. “Goodbye hawk.”
 Katrina Madrid was already scouting the pockets of free space around her. Then she saw a clear path.
 “It’s not a hawk,” she said. “It’s a Barn Owl.”
 Doctor Doogenheim spun his head around with fury in his eyes. So Katrina snatched at his glasses, throwing his spectacles to the floor. The doctor was now nearly blind. 
 She ran.
 She ran to the double doors that led her out to streetlights. Then she ran two miles, block after block, until she arrived at Golden Gate Park
 Here, she stopped to regain her wind. And to look at the night sky. 
 Still above her, the owl flew at tree top level.   
 The Common Barn Owl issued a screeching bird call. The screech sounded like a door creaking open on a sharp hinge, but for Katrina, it was familiar music to her little ears. 
 The bird gave her a warning sign by a dip of its wings. The warning was of fire.  
 Katrina left the park. 
 Back on the city grid, she ventured through part of the Richmond District known as Little Russia. When she finally found the street she was looking for, a police officer stopped her at the corner.
 “House fire,” he told her. “Can’t go down that way.”
 “But I have an appointment on that street,” she said. “I must keep it.” 
 He waved her backwards, saying, “Not safe.”
 The night sky, like always, should have been dark. 
 The burning house gave the night a strange illumination and a terrific orange glow. A massive floodlight from a network news van went on the hunt for any last shadow.
 Katrina Madrid ran up the alley. The alley was lit along the way by flames. Her short figure cast a slight shape on the wall. She was fast, but her shadow was faster.   
 She emerged from the alley, only to then slide past a police barricade. She jumped over a fire hose. Just ahead, the main valve on a fire hydrant exploded, sending a burst of water onto the sidewalk. Had Katrina Madrid been closer, the flow would have made her wet from the waist down. Avoiding any splash, she kept running. The heat was still on her backside, but she began to cool with some distance. The coastal wind was sure to carry the blaze to another house and follow her.
 The big house at the end of the street had the same Victorian design as so many other houses did in San Francisco. 
 The Gothic steeples. 
 The gargoyles on guard. 
 There was also a sign. It said: READINGS BY ROXANNA.
 Katrina climbed the porch. On the front door, she rapped the iron-claw knocker. 
 An old gypsy woman soon opened the door. 
 “I’m Katrina Madrid. I’m your eight o’clock.”
 “My last appointment of the evening,” said the gypsy. “Come inside.” 
 Katrina followed the gypsy into the house and down to the basement.
 There were sounds of animals in the next room. 
 The chirp and the bark. 
 The hiss and the squawk. 
 The grunt and the growl.
 As Katrina lifted a hand to split the drape of doorway beads, her eyes went around the room. 
 The animals greeted her with cage rattle. 
 “Please,” the gypsy said. “Join me at the table.”
 So Katrina sat down opposite the old woman. 
 “I didn’t think you would come,” the gypsy said. “There’s a fire down the street. And a roadblock.”
 “I know.”
 “But you still found a way here. You did not cancel, why?”
 Katrina shrugged her shoulders.
 The gypsy tried to show she was wise to the meaning of that shrug. Then she said, “Now. About your fortune. I must tell you, I do not shuffle Tarot cards or read the lines of your palm.”
 “I know how you do it.”
 “You do. Good. Then we can begin. These pets of mine will act like a wild crystal ball.” 
 The gypsy pointed out the animals by their psychic ability.
 “Meet the wild ones. The spider to your right, a Black Widow, her name is Fate. Going clockwise, you will notice the fresh water tank on the bottom has piranhas. They make up the Destiny School of Fish. The top tank has tropical saltwater. The shark you see there, all twenty-one inches of him, his name is Aftermath. Under my chair, a Siamese cat, just purring away. She is Consequence. Behind me is a Black Emperor Scorpion. His name is Domino because he points his stinger at unfolding events. In the cage over there, a parrot. Her name is Lucky, for the lottery numbers she calls out. Those two snakes are King Cobras. They go by the names Cause and Effect, but they look alike, so I never know them apart. That cage holds a Black Howler Monkey. I call him Chance. The rat on my lap, his name is Risk the Rodent, but the two snakes want to call him dinner. Somewhere you might find a butterfly or an odd hornet, a snapping turtle, a python, maybe a Komodo dragon, but they are still in training. We can ignore them. And so, finally, the Doberman Pinscher by your side. His name: Doomsday. Which brings us to you, my darling dear.” 
 The ugly woman, this mole-faced gypsy, now cast a screwed eye onto her guest. Then she addressed her pets: “Wild ones, I ask you to show me a sign. Show me by your supernatural animal instinct. Will Katrina Madrid have a long life of great health? Will she have a rich life of great wealth? Will she find love?”
 The gypsy looked at each beast in the room.  
 To measure how they moved. 
 To gauge what noises they made. 
 To survey what they might predict. 
 But Katrina Madrid could not wait to attack. She tipped the table over. She kicked the old woman in the chest. The gypsy fell backwards from her chair. Katrina then pulled the woman across the floor to the closest cage, where she handcuffed the woman to a metal bar. 
 Katrina said, “Hello, Olena.”
 The old woman was still in a daze when she said, “My name is Roxanna. Why have you done this?”
 “Your name is Olena Kovalenko. You are the last Kovalenko.”
 “Who are you?”
 “I happen to be the last Demidova.”


 Katrina lowered herself to squat, telling the old gypsy woman, “You are the last Kovalenko left in the world, so I will do this different. In the past, when I caught a Kovalenko, I would torture them with two questions: How many Kovalenkos are still alive? Where are they now? They would tell me and I would kill them. But you, Olena, you are the last one. So I don’t need answers from you. You are going to die. And when you do, it will be the end of my stalking your kind. However, before I decide on your death, I should probably consult your little animal kingdom here, since they are such good deciders themselves. I want them to weigh the merits of my revenge.”
 Katrina Madrid stood up, walking slowly from cage to tank, from fish to fowl, from fangs to claws.   
 “Wild ones, let me tell you about Anastasia Demidova. At the age of five, Ana became the last living Demidova. The Kovalenko clan had killed everyone in her family.”
 Then she said, “For the longest time, Ana only knew about two events that caused her loss. One event was a big explosion at a wedding party, a bomb that killed most of the Demidova clan. The second event was the funeral. When the remaining Demidovas went to mourn at the family gravesite, they were ambushed by the Kovalenkos again, shot down by machine guns. Little Ana had been at both events, and yet, only she survived. The next three years that followed in her life went missing from her young memory. She didn’t remember leaving Russia or how she got across Europe. But at the age of eight, she found herself somewhere in Spain. She became a curious case for the locals of each small village she passed through, since it was clear she was too young to be alone, speaking no Spanish, only Russian. So the city of Madrid became her new home. Several professors from the university tried to put together her true origin. They wanted to know how she went from Russia to Spain with no money. With the help of a translator, Ana told them she had simply followed a bird. She said a very nice bird would always be around to guide her. They all dismissed her bird story as the fantasy of a child who was still undergoing shock.” 
 She closed her eyes, saying, “I still remember some expert sitting me down in that empty lecture hall, in front of a large map. He pointed at the border between Russia and Georgia, a small republic to the south. This was the first time I heard him say the word “vendetta”, which he was gentle enough to define as a private war between two families. Then he called it what it was, a blood feud between the Kovalenkos and the Demidovas.” 
 Katrina opened her eyes. She wagged her finger at the gypsy, saying, “He told me blood feuds happen in places with a weak rule of law, places with no police to resolve the fights of neighbors. The country of Georgia, he told me, had been one of those places during a decade of civil unrest.” 
 Katrina shook her small fist. She said, “This expert got real animated over wild justice. About honor. About the duty to make any wrong done against your family right. About settling scores.”  
 “Your aunt started this!” the old gypsy woman interrupted. “She crossed the border to have affair with Boris, a man from my family, a married man!”
 Katrina countered, “Your son killed my aunt for that minor transgression!”  
 The gypsy said, “Both our families were too big. The killing, back and forth, it would have gone on for years, no end. Your father for my son. Your mother for my daughter. Then cousins. Then nephews. We couldn’t dare leave the house. Not even to go to the market. We would have been prisoners in fear. Targets. Targets at the market.” 
 “So there you have it,” Katrina said, turning to the jury of exotic pets. “The Kovalenkos wanted to clean their entire plate with one bite. End the war before it got started. Death to the innocent. Because you thought we’d catch you at the market. Such a risky trip. That marketplace.”  
 Katrina stood for a moment, clenching her fingernails into her palm. 
 Then she said, “I don’t think these animals care. I don’t think they care what it was like tracking each one of you down. You know, Olena, I saved you for last. Not because you’re the grandmother or the matriarch of your rotten family. That would be too dramatic. Too symbolic.”
 Katrina clucked her lips once. She said, “Truth is, I wanted you dead first. But your whole fortune teller act threw me off. Thought you might see me coming in some dream or some vision. Thought there might be something special about all these animals you travel with. But we both know how fake you are. You don’t see the future. Can’t see the future. And these animals are, what the Americans would call, a sideshow gimmick. Took me some time to figure that out.”
 Katrina started a slow march back and forth. She said, “Because, in my life, there’s a bird that leads me when I’m lost. This bird lets me find all the bad people. I was a fool to think, since I have an animal guide, Olena Kovalenko must, too. Funny. I could’ve killed you so many times before tonight.” 
 Katrina stopped her pace. She said, “I’d tell you more about my bird, but I’m afraid the drama I wanted to avoid with you has sprung up. And I’m disgusted by it. Maybe I’ve enjoyed this too much. Now it should end.”    
 And with that, Katrina Madrid, born Ana Demidova, opened the first cage. 


 “What are you going to do?” the old gypsy woman cried out, yanking with full body weight on the handcuff.
 Katrina tilted the glass tank on its side.
 She said, “I’m not going to do anything. These things are going to do it for me. You will be bitten by many things. Many poisonous things. At some point, these things will get hungry. And you will be the only food around. Sure, I can come back later, confirm you dead, but there will be chunks of flesh missing from your cheek or an eyeball sucked out of your empty eye socket. And I have seen enough of you dead Kovalenkos. Right now, the only thing I care about is letting the most dangerous thing out last.” 
 “Please, don’t. There are more of us. Many more. I will tell you where they are. Please.”
 “Not true. The Kovalenko countdown ends with you.”
 Katrina used this lie often. Playing dumb, a tactic to gain more information.
 So the gypsy said, “There are two more. Andre and Oleg. Twin brothers. Two sons of Boris and your aunt. Please, don’t. They exist. They both live in Oakland. Please.” 
 Katrina fake laughed, “Ha! Not true. You would list the friends of your family, even your neighbors, if you thought it would save you. Goodbye, Olena. The Demidova clan has won.” 
 Katrina ran past the old gypsy woman who tried to spit at her. 
 The young Russian bounded up the basement stairs, but the door at the top step was locked. A sudden fright set in. 
 Katrina called down: “Tell me where the key is for this door!”
 The gypsy yelled back up: “I fed it to the rat. The same rat the snake just swallowed.”
 Katrina had to go back down to the basement. She saw a variety of wildlife scurrying along the floor.
 There was a door across the room that she had no other choice but to leap several times to reach. She tested the knob. Thankfully, it turned. The next room was an office with yet another door in the opposite corner. That door opened to a garage, a way out, but a tiger lay there, licking its paw. Right then, Katrina noticed the tiger was not chained down to anything. She froze for a moment. The big cat rose up. 
 Katrina made a sprint back through the office, knowing the tiger would soon chase and pounce. 
 The empty cage that had once housed the Black Howler Monkey was her last resort. She jumped through the cage door and pulled it shut with her fingers. 
 The tiger had not been on her heels as she previously thought, but it did slowly lurch into the room. It investigated the activity of the room with some caution. It made a sudden determination this gypsy was the most popular meal. 
 Safely behind cage bars, Katrina had to decide whether to run now while the tiger was distracted or wait for it to have a full stomach.
 When the big cat put his back to her, Katrina bolted out from the cage.
 She got to the office, shutting the door behind her, frantic and still shaking, almost forgetting to breath. 
 She heard Olena Kovalenko scream. 
 Katrina let go a huge sigh. 
 She could now push the button for the garage door to roll, and just walk down that driveway.
 When she got outside a firefighter jogged up to her, up the front walkway. Katrina kept her head low as she strode past him.
 He said, “Miss, we’re going door to door, having everybody in the neighborhood evacuate, due to a potential gas fire. A possible pipeline explosion. Is there anyone else still in your residence?” 
 Without looking back, Katrina Madrid said, “Nobody.”  
 Katrina was less than one mile away, about to wave down a taxi, when the danger the fireman had warned her about, that gas leak explosion, came true. 
 The sky lit up. 
 The ground shook. 
 She knew instantly that dozens of lives had just ended and that hundreds of homes had been destroyed. She struggled with what she wanted, to help anyone hurt, and her more opposite need, to avoid her most recent crime scene.
 In the taxi, Katrina told the driver where to go. The Bay View Hotel. 
 The driver pushed the gas pedal over the speed limit, slowing only when the house flames were gone from his rear-view mirror.    
 Katrina measured the Asian man at the wheel for any hint he might later link her to murder.
 There was a picture on the backseat divider, a photo of a missing female. Printed below that, reward money for finding her.  
 It struck the young Russian, now almost done with her hunt for Kovalenko blood, that she could use her tracking bird, not for revenge, but for the sake of a good deed. Katrina could find this missing woman. The idea moved her heart.
 But as Katrina Madrid looked up from that cab window, the night sky was still bonfire bright, and she never caught sight of her bird anywhere in flight. With one more Kovalenko gone from the world, she began to fear she would never hunt alongside the eyes of that owl again.
 Just then, the Asian driver interrupted her desperate search. He taunted her with a strange fact, one she’d never forget. 
 Over his shoulder, he said, “After the great earthquake, San Francisco officials decided to install fire hydrants that would never burst for any reason. But here they go now. Water exploding everywhere.” 
 As he turned the wheel, he said, “Look, another one. Following us for miles. Burst.“  


 The owl made a silent move in the night, flying through the trees of a redwood forest.
 It perched on a high limb. Ready to ambush. 
 Hunting alone, the owl could hear a small mammal racing through the grassy undergrowth. It was a mouse. A little white one. Ground prey. 
 So the owl swooped down. Just about to grab the meal, the owl grabbed nothing. The mouse had dipped under a fallen log. 
 The owl started to soar up. But a giant net dropped down from the canopy. Caught under it, wings weighed down, the bird screeched a scary hiss. 
 Two big men. Andre and Oleg Kovalenko.
 They emerged from the dark into that moonlit clearing. 
 They had finally trapped the owl that had once haunted their gypsy campground as children. 
 The mouse poked out from that mossy hole. It climbed on the top of a Kovalenko boot. One of the twins lifted the mouse up by the tail, then he dangled it into his coat pocket.

Babe, I feel for the owl, another hungry day. The mouse that roared for naught.

haha, yeah, another hungry day indeed.

That was just 4 chapters out of 21. I’m wondering if I should share the rest. I might keep it for me.

Anyway, thanks for being a reader. :smiley:

But hunger needs saturation, for apperatives will only lead for more, the main course, and after, there is none, take a feather and like in olde Rome, regurgitate and feast on more, I think you’re a temptress to keep readers on their toes.

Why not distill to code and release by and by? Rejection by far is greater when unread than to the written, for the author and the reader share the same by which they can recognize.



 At the Bay View Hotel, she booked a room. 
 Katrina Madrid almost uttered her real name at the front desk, catching herself, mouth open, just before she did. 
 She paid for her stay with a rare coin she had once stolen from the safe of a dead Kovalenko. She a velvet pouch full of them, ancient coins from the Egyptian Empire. Her silver and bronze collection featured the head of the queen, Cleopatra.
 The hotel manager didn’t want to accept the coin. The coin, he said, needed to be verified as real. But after one phone call to an artifacts dealer, the manager had proof. It was a coin so rare, he changed his face, his tone, his mood, all before hanging up the phone.
 He offered her the most expensive room. The presidential penthouse suite.
 On the top floor, Katrina Madrid went into her next plan. 
 She hovered over the dining room table. 
 She spread flat two pieces of paper on the table surface. The first paper was slightly torn from years of pocket carry. It listed every person in the Kovalenko family tree. Names of the men and women she had killed were crossed out with red ink. Two names remained. Andre and Oleg Kovalenko. Twin brothers. Still alive. And according to the last words of the dead gypsy woman, the twins lived nearby, in Oakland.
 With a new pen, Katrina Madrid scratched a line of red ink through the name of Olena Kovalenko, the dead gypsy woman. 
 The second piece of paper had a fresher look. It mapped out the Red Mafia. The Russian Mob. Some lines were still blank, as she had yet to identify every member in that criminal command structure.
 Her final decision was a troubling one. It wasn’t just about Andre and Oleg anymore. True, the twin Kovalenkos were sizable. Bodybuilders, big with weight-lifting muscle. But that was just the physical side of the problem. What really made things difficult was their connection to the Red Mafia. Out of fear, after seeing most of their family disappear, Andre and Oleg had joined the Russian Mob. 
 As much as she wanted to finish the blood feud, Katrina had to contend with the bigger threat. Her hard decision went, if she killed the twin Kovalenkos, she might kick off an even more dangerous war with the Russian Mob. The twins must’ve known this added protection would thwart her last stroke of death dealing.
 The phone on the bedside table rang. Katrina rushed to it.
 The hotel manager phoned up to get permission for a guest to use the private elevator. Katrina said, yes, then clicked off. 
 Quickly, she folded the table papers in half, tucked them into her pocket.      
 When the elevator opened, a tall woman entered the suite. Wearing a purple kimono, a full-body silk dress that featured a green dragon up the front. A small purse hung from her thin forearm.
 Katrina registered the woman’s eyes as Eastern European.
 The tall woman used her working name, saying, “Hello. It is me. I am Sapphire.”
 “Sapphire,” Katrina said. “Please, have a seat.”
 Katrina stood. Watching the tall woman move closer. 
 The tall woman, in turn, seemed to be inspecting the suite for another person. 
 On the sofa, crossing her legs, Sapphire said, “I was told I’d be servicing a couple. A man and a woman.”
 “Not anymore,” Katrina said. “I’m alone.”
 “I will still charge you the same price we agreed.”
 Katrina said. “I have something else to give you, better than money.”
 The tall woman shifted her position on the couch to show her disbelief, as if anything could beat money.
 So Katrina Madrid made herself loose to flirt. Blushing, she said, “First. A kiss.”
 Katrina tried to do her best seductive walk.
 The tall woman uncrossed her legs, preparing herself to be mounted.
 Katrina climbed atop her guest, both knees sliding along the tall woman’s hips. 
 Katrina brought her mouth within kissing distance, only to whisper, “Let my lips have your neck.”
 Katrina clutched the woman by the chin, lightly, to turn the jaw sideways. Then Katrina pressed her lips on the arc of a very perfumed neck.  
 Eyes still open, Katrina looked at the purse on the couch cushion. When the tall woman let out a series of soft moans, Katrina dipped her left hand inside the purse. The moment her fingers made contact with a gun, her hand lunged deeper into the purse to fully grab the weapon. Suddenly, Katrina pulled away from that scented neck. 


 “A Glock,” Katrina said, rotating the gun on angles. “I did figure you for a nine-millimeter kind of woman. I was right.”
 “It’s only for protection,” Sapphire pleaded, trying to pacify the customer. “I promise.”
 Katrina hollowed the magazine of ten bullets. Then she handed the empty gun back to Sapphire. 
 Keeping all ten bullets from spilling from her fist, Katrina used the back of her free right hand to dry her wet lips. 
 Then she said, “As I began to offer. Something better than money. Peace. I offer peace.”
 Sapphire tilted her head, confused. She re-crossed her legs, bitter about the sexual deception.
 So Katrina said, “I know who your handlers are. My past is dark with them.”
 Sapphire cut in, saying, “My pimps or, my handlers, as you call them, are outside the hotel right now. Parked. Waiting for me to call down to them. So if you don’t any plans to pay me, I will have only bad news to report.”
 Katrina said, “Soon. I’m sending you back down to them soon. You will have my fair offer of peace to report. You will tell them you just entertained a woman named Demidova. You will tell them I’m not a threat to them anymore. If they accept this, I will keep my word. So long as they keep far away from me.”
 Katrina pivoted. She said, “For the sake of their dead father and my dead aunt, I will give them a free pass. After all, we are related. We do share genetics. Cousins, so it goes, caught in the middle, on the wrong side of a family war.” 
 “Demidova?” Sapphire said, seeming slow to understand. 
 “And you’re Nelda Petroyavich.”
 “You know me!” the tall woman exclaimed. Her posture was already straight, but she nearly snapped her spine to correct it even more.
 So Katrina said, “Just like I know you’re not simply an escort. You’re more of a sex slave, aren’t you? Am I right to say that you are property of the Red Mafia?”
 Nelda bowed her head in unwanted shame.
 Katrina let Nelda’s head hang low, until Nelda’s phone jostled them both.
 Katrina said, “For now, tell them you are servicing a couple. Tell them we paid up front.”
 “I can’t lie to them,” Nelda said. “They will slap my face.”
 “For now,” Katrina said. 
 Nelda answered the phone in Russian. She relayed the fake message. Then she hung up. 
 Katrina turned her back on Nelda, about to circle the table, talking over her shoulder. 
 From the corner of her eye, Katrina looked into the long column mirrors. Behind her, Nelda started tracing her fingertips on her forearm, as if to comfort herself. 
 Katrina continued, saying, “I brought you up to this suite for one reason. To demonstrate. You see us here, we’re in the presidential suite, sometimes visited by royals. These windows, they’re constructed with bulletproof glass.”
 “To demonstrate? Nelda asked, crossing her slender legs the opposite way. “To demonstrate what?”
 Katrina wasted no words.
 She walked over to the large window that went from the floor to the ceiling.
 Katrina rubbed the base of her palm. Then, in one swift jab, she thrust her palm against the wide pane of window glass. It cracked, but did not shatter.  
 Nelda recoiled at that sound. 
 The young Russian, this little Demidova girl, had damaged a ballistic shield with only her hand. As if the gods themselves had granted her a super human gift. The ability to make a compressive impact worthy of 18,000 pounds per square inch.
 Walking back, Katrina rubbed the same palm on her thigh, to sooth the sting of contact.
 Katrina bent over to look at the wooden rungs that supported the back of the dining room chair. She closed one eye, like she was lining up a golf shot.
 Then Katrina lowered herself to a half-crouch stance. Her right leg shot out, the heel of her foot snapping the wooden rung of the chair back. The top broke off but the bottom stayed lightly attached. 
 Her leg shot out a second time. The wooden rung flew off the chair, sailing over the table. The wooden shard went out, twirling end over end, striking the vase of flowers on the wall stand. The vase teetered for a moment, then it toppled, dropping to the floor, smash.
 Katrina Madrid turned around to say, “There it is. Just like that.”
 Nelda Petroyavich looked more afraid than impressed.
 Katrina said, “Come on. You. Up now. To the elevator.”
 Nelda stood up, retrieved her purse, followed.
 Katrina pushed the button for the private elevator. While they waited, she told Nelda her demands. She said, “You warn the Kovalenkos what you just saw here. That you witnessed what the Demidova girl is capable of. Describe the palm strike. They are too familiar with that. At that point, advise them of the peace I now offer. Tell them to share my truce. So they can stop curling weights and building up their biceps, from fear the Demidova woman will one day appear and—”
 Nelda had to interrupt. She said, “I need to ask. Strange question. But, do you own a pet owl?”
 Katrina sounded defensive, saying, “No! Why?”
 The elevator doors opened.
 “Because the twins caught an owl. Last night. This morning we took it to a pet shop to buy a cage. Andre asked the vet nurse if the owl was special. Then Oleg asked if the owl had magic powers. Now they have the bird in a cage at a safe house in Oakland. Which is good, because all it did in the backseat of the car was make noise, hiss and screech and drop pellets. I only ask you, because when you were kissing my neck, I could smell you. You smell like animals, like a zoo, like some real barnyard funk.”
 Katrina Madrid thought for a moment about last night, about the basement full of exotic animals, where the tiger ate the gypsy.  
 Katrina did need a shower.
 Tightly gripping the ten bullets in her fist, Katrina yelled, “They took my owl!”
 “Well, now. That sure does change things. Fine. They have one of mine. I’m taking one of theirs. I’m stealing you. Get on the elevator.”
 Katrina grabbed Nelda by the arm.   
 “What makes you think I can just leave with you,” Nelda resisted. “They will kill me if I run.”
 Katrina said, “Have another look at the cracked bulletproof glass. Get on the elevator.”
 Katrina stepped forward. Nelda joined her. 
 Pushing the button for the doors to close, Katrina said, “No peace. No truce. They will get you back when I get my owl back.” 
 Nelda exhaled, saying, “No matter what side I turn . . . danger.”
 The elevator opened at the lobby. Katrina tugged on Nelda’s arm. She  pulled Nelda into a different elevator, this one used for the general public. They went back up, landing on the fourth floor. 
 At room 403, where a maid’s linen cart was stationed, Katrina put her ear to the door. She listened for any sign of an occupied room. The room sounded empty. She listened for the slightest creak in the door frame, where the lock handle was weakest. Hearing it, she backed up. 
 Then she charged the door. Her shoulder barge busted the only place where the door would buckle. Much like her bulletproof glass demonstration, she had the exact sense for how a door should fly off a hinge.
 Katrina entered the room. Nelda waited at the broken threshold. 
 Katrina went to the window. Opened it. Looked down. There, close to the hotel, not far from the valets, parked a black Cadillac. The brute Kovalenko brothers, two hulking figures in the front bucket seat, slumped forward.
 Ten bullets still in hand, Katrina let the wind settle on a direction.
 Then she tossed the ten bullets out the window. She watched the bullets slow-motion fall together, pelt the front windshield of the black Cadillac. She saw the frenzy that caused. How the twin Kovalenkos scrambled out onto the sidewalk. The twins looked up. Katrina twinkled her fingers at them.
 She turned away from the window, somewhat delighted.
 Again, she grabbed Nelda by the forearm, pulling her down the hallway. 
 With her elbow Katrina opened a backdoor fire exit, which triggered an alarm. But they did not take those stairs. Instead, they took the elevator once more to the bottom lobby floor.
 On the way down, Katrina said, “When the twins hear the alarm, they’ll think we’re trying to escape out the back. Two partners, if they were smart, one would take the back, while the other one scouts the front. But those two brothers are brainless. They do everything together. Wouldn’t know what to do alone. They suffer from the terror of separation anxiety, made worse by me. So as they chase each other to the back exit, the front lobby should be clear.”
 “Should be?”
 “And thank you for sharing secrets about my owl.”
 Nelda Petroyavich, the constant hostage, said, “I hope I live long enough to never regret it.”
 Arm-in-arm they crossed the lobby. 
 At the revolving doors, they used the same partition to push the central axis.


 Katrina Madrid looked to her left at the Golden Gate Bridge. 
 Nelda Petroyavich looked right at Alcatraz. 
 They sat together on a bench, waiting for a ferryboat ride at Pier 39.
 Eventually they both turned their sights to the sea lions that lay on the dock, sun basking.
 Nelda broke their silence. She asked, “So this pet owl of yours, does it have a name?” 
 The bird was classified by many names: Death Owl, Demon Owl, Ghost Owl.
 “First off,” Katrina answered, “he’s not a pet. More of a friend. My only friend. But, no, I never gave him a name.”
 That was a lie. She called the owl Cazador, which was Spanish for Hunter. Some details still felt too dangerous to share. 
 Nelda said, “Does this nameless owl friend of yours have special powers? The twins seem to think so. Let me tell you, I have seen your owl. Up close. It has bizarre eyes. Strange hypnotic swirl eyes. Totally transfixed.”
 Katrina hushed all talk for a tourist to take a picture, to move along. She could not afford to have her secret blood feud made public. 
 Most Americans thought blood feuds ended in the 19th century with the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. But this Russian woman, Nelda, had to be aware that murder between families still happened in Caucasus region of the world. Even still, if Nelda let this secret out, Katrina would be sent to prison, in Siberia. 
 Katrina confessed. She wanted the relief that came with confession. Her murder-seeking, lifelong revenge, it spilled out from her now. 
 She revealed the deadly details of her blood feud to Nelda. 
 Katrina described the bomb blast that rocked the wedding hall, how it shook the foundation, lifted the roof. How most of her family fell through a giant hole that had collapsed the dance floor. 
 Then Katrina Madrid said, “Years ago, when I was just a young girl, I watched a strange black car roll into the graveyard. As it rolled past my family funeral, the tinted windows dropped down, the guns leveled out, and the bullets sprayed on. That was the day I pretended to play dead, holding my breath. I lay motionless on the ground. I lay covered in the blood of my mother and my brother. My eyes stayed shut, even when I heard gunfire from a shorter range and the boot steps getting closer.” 
 Katrina looked directly at Nelda. She said, “After the black car was gone, it got quiet again. I opened my eyes to the blue sky. An owl was staring down at me from a tree branch just above grave. Owl eyes wide in the daytime. The moment our eyes met, the sound of a gong clanged in my mind and I shivered. There was no way to understand why the owl was there any more than knowing why my entire family was dead.”
 Nelda had to gasp. 
 Katrina continued, saying, “I went to school in London. Around the age of 16, I started to imagine myself getting revenge on same people who murdered my family. It didn’t seem likely that I’d ever act on that pure fantasy, but it did ease my bitter rage to picture them all dead. There’s the mark of a Kovalenko, a facial mole they all share on their left cheek. I liked the idea of cutting their moles off and keeping them in a jar.” 
 Katrina laughed a short hysterical laugh. She said, “A year later, at an outdoor Russian market, I overheard a hint of Kartvelian words in the crowd. I let my ears perk up to the bits of that conversation. When I saw a man with a Kovalenko mole, my owl swooped down on the lane, between the food vendors.” 
 Katrina extended her arms to mime the flapping of owl wings. She said, “As if the sight of an owl during the day meant the bird was rabid, the screaming crowd had to duck, arms up in a shield. So I followed that man to his home, a campground comprised mainly of gypsies. That’s when my stalking of the Kovalenko clan began.”
 Another tourist passed by.
 Into Nelda’s ear, Katrina whispered the total number of Kovalenko family members she had killed.   
 Katrina said, “Buried my victims far up into the Caucasus mountains. Dumped their dead bodies deep under the Black Sea.”   
 But Katrina didn’t have time to weigh trust with Nelda, because she saw the ferryboat approaching in the distance. 
 She stood up to say, “That boat looks like us. Come on, let’s go.”
 “Where are we going?” Nelda said. 
 Katrina tugged her up by the arm. 
 Nelda said, “Yes, but where?” 
 “Listen to me, Nelda. Don’t think the Red Mafia hasn’t done the math on you. Don’t think they haven’t added up how many clients you can serve before your beauty begins to fade. Sorry to say, but once your face wrinkles, or your breasts sag, you’ll be useless to them. They will kill you. You know that. You know you face a dead end. So if you want to go back to your original captors, leave now. Or, trust me. I will free you. If you help me get my owl back, I will buy your freedom from the Red Mafia.”
 Nelda huffed, saying, “How will you do that? Buy my freedom!”
 Katrina held out her velvet pouch filled with rare ancient coins. She said, “With these.”
 Nelda said, “The money inside that bag won’t be enough. I’m their best girl, their top earning escort. And those damn sea lions back there aren’t magic enough to save me.”
 Katrina said, “If you think you have better way to escape the death that awaits you, the ugly end of your beauty, then go. Leave now.”  
 “I don’t have a choice,” Nelda said. “You already signed my death warrant when you snatched me from the hotel.”
 Katrina said, “I will pay them triple what you would’ve earned them, during your short life as a slave. Do you really see another way out?”
 Nelda winced in emotional pain, a moment of personal grief. Then she shook her head in defeat.  
 Nelda said, “I feel like I’m making a terrible decision. Let’s catch that ferry.”
 “Good. Now give me your phone.”
 Nelda handed her phone over. 
 Katrina tossed it into the low tide of the San Francisco bay. The splash caused a few sea lions to dive in after it.
 They both quickened their pace for the passenger loading station at Pier 41.
 They waited in a large group of people for the boat to dock. 
 Nelda kept asking Katrina about her dark background. More questions about her violent past. Within earshot of everyone else. So Katrina gave her a stick of gum to shut up. By the time Nelda had stopped asking for a complete history of each murder, she had a big wad chewing from cheek to cheek.    
 Nelda popped her gum bubble to say, “Forty-Four dead. Wow.” 
 Other people heard this, started prying in.  
 Katrina Madrid yanked Nelda to the side to say, “I live by a strict code of killing only Kovalenkos. Nobody else.”
 Her tight grip on Nelda’s arm was a warning to keep silent about her bloody confession or else Katrina would break that code.


 I wasn’t always a horse.
 Some animals, here at the ranch, are only that, animals.
 I didn’t always trot. 
 In fact, when I was a human being, I never had the urge to trot once. 
 This tail of mine isn’t just good for swatting off the gadfly. Uh, uh. It waves now with excitement. I get to serve you, a two-legged person. 
 From time to time, you see, this crazy life creates a mix. Not a mix, like a new breed. I don’t want to suggest I’m some ultra brand of horse. Don’t you dare let me hint at such a thing. Or that one kind of horse got the bucking hots for a totally different type of horse. I’m not some new caliber stallion, no. Nothing special.
 I speak of rebirth, that is to say, the soul of a human being, born into the body of a horse. Strange things do occur, you follow? Yes, yes, strange things do take place. I don’t fully understand the weird transfer. But I can admit, I’ve heard it described as the flame of a candle being passed from one wick to the next. The wick is different, but does the flame stay the same? I don’t know. I might’ve swallowed far too many oats in this life to know whether I can answer that riddle. I gather some of you might find this amusing, like funny. I don’t.
 My ranch owners want to make me into glue. They plan to strip off my hide and boil my hooves into a white paste.
 But I will stop this talk of my main problem. No, I don’t want to bother you with my eventual slaughter.
 The real problem, then, involves Katrina Madrid. Demidova, as you have come to know her.
 How she thinks her family war is almost over. It isn’t.
 How she thinks her blood feud is almost done. It’s not.
 The Demidova woman has won nothing, yet. Two more Kovalenkos still breathe the same Earth air.
 That’s the real problem.
 That and her missing owl friend.
 That’s the real concern.
 Lucky for us, birds talk. A lot. Wow, do they yap a good one. I suppose they travel so far, they think they have more to say. Well, I guess, in a situation involving one of their own, the missing owl, I can trust their word.
 This is what the sparrows and the crows and the blue jays chirped along to me. So listen. 
 This is what they said: “The owl used to be a wicked man who got executed in prison by a chair of lightning bolts. At death, he became a bird. This bird helps the woman known as Katrina Madrid, because it thinks good deeds will grant it human form again. The law of good karma.” 
 So, anyway, that’s how their bird beaks went, what the birds told me. And so now, I pass it along to you.      
 I rely on the birds for the their birdsong version of Hindu philosophy. They help me better understand my current situation which doesn’t seem much different than the owl. 
 From what I hear about rebirth, there are six realms of desire that keep us coming back. There is the realm of the Gods. There is the realm of the Titans, who are sometimes at war with the Gods. There is the Hell realm. The Human Being realm. And the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. Ghosts, always hungry and thirsty, who must constantly crave. Ghosts, frustrated by their tiny little sucker mouths. Ghosts, haunted by how unsatisfied they are.   
 Here, right now, is the smelly realm that I dwell in, the Animal realm. 
 I’d be lying if I said I understood the mechanics of it all. How we rotate from realm to realm. This wheel of suffering. But like the owl, I, too, am trying to buy back Heaven by assisting you.   
 This, I need to tell you more of, but I hear the ranchers coming closer.  
 Worry not, I know some people doubt me. Hey, human psychology is still something I remember. You balk at the sudden shift in the story. How the storytelling is now done by a horse. And if I let out the next secret, that I can’t actually talk, that would only add confusion, yes? I do see the mess of it all. Really, I do.
 Because no matter how strange it might seem, I also wear a muzzle.
 Can I really blame you when you tilt your head at this? I shake mine all the time, trying to un-cinch this muzzle from my jaw.
 So, for now, just think of me as the kind of glue that binds the pages at the book spine. Okay?
 That is, after all, what horse glue is used for.
 My real hope is, if I get this story out first, there will be one less book needed in the world. Which, you know, would give me a longer life. One more day on the ranch, at least. 
 Quickly, I return you to the story proper. A version of the story the birds have twined together like a nest.
 One Demidova.
 Two Kovalenkos.
 Still going at it.
 And the owl, a guide bird gone missing. Well, captured, actually. Trapped and held hostage.
 Until you hear from me again, I figure it best to prove that I also know how to sound like a wild horse, too. So here it is. Here I go. 


 Nelda Petroyavich bent over to rest her arms on the ferryboat rail. She had the kind of long arms that would be perfect for apple picking. The kind of long arms that, when not picking fruit, would need to rest on something, dangle.  
 Katrina watched those arms hang above the boat waves below. From time to time, Nelda would trace her fingertips over a small area on her forearm, a nervous habit.
 The ferryboat sailed the bay. 
 “What about these sea gulls?” Nelda toyed. “How about them? They are special, too?”
 “Shut up,” Katrina said between her teeth. “Or I will send you into the sea.”
 Once they reached shore again, they docked at Vallejo. 
 Nelda followed her new captor down the ramp. 
 Katrina pointed her tall hostage to the bus across the parking lot, their next mode of travel. 
 The black bus driver spoke with a broken tongue into his rearview mirror.
 He stuttered, “Hello, everyone. I’ll be your driver. Next stop, wine c-c-country!”
 The other passengers clapped at this.
 The bus rolled down a dirt road, wheeling up dust. 
 Vineyards of aging grapes on each flank. 
 The driver said, “Welcome to p-p-paradise. The Minatoga Resort & Spa. It’s been a pleasure to shuttle you all.”
 Katrina skipped off the bus, waiting for Nelda to make her way from the back. Nelda was still chewing her shut-your-mouth gum when they paired up. 
 Katrina Madrid had a war to fight. The inner tension of this war brought her to a place that sold stress relief. 
 For the young Russian, this place was beautiful, mainly because of the soil. The soil was rich enough to stain thick with Kovalenko blood. Seeping into the ground and soaking. Burgundy dirt red.
 It was a cabin. Rustic, but still sophisticated. It offered two cozy bedrooms and a loft, high above, that one would need a ladder to reach. In the kitchen, an antique firewood stove. Some bundles of chop wood piled nearby. In the living room, a fireplace that seemed more for display than for a chilly season. A bearskin rug lay before it. The furniture was delicate with softly colored cushions. The pottery and the paintings, of clay and oil design. 
 Katrina Madrid rushed straight for the bathroom. She needed a shower in the worse way. She was still wearing that heavy animal cage stink on her body from her night with the dead gypsy woman. 
 If Nelda Petroyavich had any desire to escape, now would be her best chance. Katrina considered this shower to be a test of loyalty. 
 With the cold water going, Katrina braced herself to step under the cold spray. 
 She kept the water freezing. Her old habit of never taking a warm shower had always kept her alert. On guard.
 She had some private words prepared for the day the blood feud was over. For a moment, she pretended like it was over. She played along with that idea, as if the Kovalenko brothers had agreed to a peace deal. 
 Turning the handle for heat, she imagined, “Over and done. That part of your life is over and done. You can do anything now. You can do normal things. Have a normal life. You can have friends. Real friends. People you allow into your life. Without a worry they might get slaughtered in the crossfire by some Kovalenko bastard.”
 She soaped herself.
 “You can have a job. A job you don’t suddenly vanish from just because the next kill is across the globe. You can become a nurse. And care for people. Yes. I will do that. Be a nurse who cares for people. You can even find love. And have a family again. A family that won’t be ripped away by bombs and guns. Yes. Love. And a man to love me. Grant Holt. A wildly attractive man to love me, the nurse who cares.”
 She turned the water completely cold again, to sharpen her senses. Then she thought to herself, “Not all the Kovalenkos have gone to the grave. My mission is not done. Still you let the words of that gypsy haunt you. ‘There are more of us. Many more.’ You fear those words, but you also know they might be true. 
 She hair washed.     
 “Secretly, you want the hunt for the Kovalenkos to go on forever. Not because you enjoy the hunt. You don’t. You hate it. But because your only friend in this world is an owl. Crazy. And right now, you don’t know whether you’ll ever see that owl again. You don’t know what to do or where to go next without that flying guide in the sky above your lost little head. 
 Now she turned the water up so it was hot, almost scolding.  
 The difference in temperature gave her romantic hope. 
 Katrina smiled with wet eyes of joy. For the first time, at age 22, considered an old maid in Russia, she was almost ready to have feelings of lust and love. She had felt something similar to lust earlier that past evening, when firemen ran by her most recent Kovalenko crime scene. Not wanting them to witness her guilty face, she had avoided eye contact. How handsome they might have been, she had not seen. But she had caught a drift of one man wearing cologne. Together, the concepts of sex and death had intermingled in her mind. Before last night, she had only known death.
 Katrina Madrid let herself fantasize that she was finally free of the blood feud, that she was able to be taken in the arms of the very man she’d fallen in love with two years ago. Grant Holt. Her fireman. And that he embraced her with his—” 
 Just then, Katrina heard the front door of the cabin slam shut. She jumped out from the shower, without turning the water off. Threw a robe on, running from the bathroom, expecting to see that her hostage had decided to flee. 
 Instead, she found Nelda Petroyavich standing at the wooden countertop, pouring herself a glass of wine. 
 Hair dripping wet, Katrina said, “What was that? The door slam? For sure I heard a slam.”  
 “Just the resort manager,” Nelda said. “He brought you a bottle of wine, as compliment. Telling me you’re his longest guest.”
 “Oh,” said Katrina, trying to downplay her other fear, the Kovalenkos showing up early. 
 “Free bottle of expensive wine,” said Nelda, looking at the label. “How long have you been here?”
 Not answering that, Katrina clawed into a duffel bag for a fresh set of clothes.
 She told Nelda, “The way I figure it, we only have a few days. A few days before the twin brothers find us. After they realize my owl starts to squawk louder, Demidova near a Kovalenko, they’ll go driving around in circles with my bird. Using my guide in reverse. My owl will narrow it down to this place.”
 Katrina spied Nelda rubbing her forearm again, for a third time, the same spot. Originally, Katrina thought it was just Nelda’s way of touching herself when she was worried. Now Katrina noticed a square lump under the skin of that thin forearm. Katrina hit upon the idea that Russian mafia men had implanted a tracking device in the body of their sex slave, Nelda Petroyavich.
 Katrina was curious how long Nelda would keep the tracking device a secret. Maybe for Nelda, betrayal was in the works to win favor with her previous captors. The Red mob. Her real protectors. 
 For sure, the cabin location was highlighted.   
 Eventually, Katrina Madrid would have to destroy the tracker. She decided she would dig it out with a letter opener or just smash it against the bone.


 Twin brothers. Andre and Oleg Kovalenko.
 Oakland. In the kitchen of their safe house.
 Lifting weights.
 Andre flexed all his muscles in front of the mirror. One arm up, fist pumped out. The other arm surfed, palm flat.
 “My arms are bigger than yours. Look at me, the giant.”
 Oleg stepped ahead of Andre’s reflection, flexing a thigh, saying, “But my trunks. See them. Much bigger than yours. I am more the giant.”
 They squared to face one another, two butting rams, ready to grapple. 
 Like true Greco-Roman wrestlers, they locked up, arms laced together at the shoulders, knocking ear against cauliflowered ear. They gained leverage against each other. Until Andre caught Oleg in an headlock. Forcing blood to rush to the head he was squeezing.
 Finally, Andre let go, telling Oleg to spot him while he worked up the weights of the bench press.
 As Andre lifted hundreds of pounds over his chest, Oleg counted out the reps. When Andre was done with five sets, he exhaled, saying, “You know, Double Trouble, my pectorals are massive.”
 Oleg Kovalenko said, “Fair enough, brother. I give you that.”
 Andre said, “Crunch time. But, before we crunch, big question. Do you think we should feed it?”
 Oleg appeared confused. His eyes shifted to the owl in the cage on the kitchen table. He had to ask, “Food, you mean, for the owl? Or something to eat for that woman in our basement?”
 Andre laughed with a crude rasp in his throat, saying, “Neither. Leave that woman chained to the bed. Not her. Or the owl. I mean food for our little buddy here.”
 Andre motioned to the mouse on the kitchen counter. He then pinched a snack from his shirt pocket. A cracker. 
 The little white mouse stood up on its hind legs, to meet the cracker halfway.
 After that, Oleg Kovalenko savagely shook the cage on the table, telling the owl, “You. Evil bird. So quiet. Not so much noise from you. How come? You fear?”
 Andre agreed with his twin, saying, “He does get quiet. Very quiet. I wonder why.”
 “I wonder, too,” said Oleg. “But I swear to you, brother, we will find out why. Or I will take a blowtorch to his wings.” 
 Oleg eyed the owl up close, mocking it with mean-mug grimace. 
 He turned his sights back to the cracker-fed mouse. Oleg asked the mouse, “You would like that, wouldn’t you, if we burned this bird? Isn’t that right, little buddy?”
 The mouse answered quickly, up again on two feet. He twitched his tiny snout to give a squeak. His black eyes darted across room at the owl. Those beady eyes then changed from a black color to a glowing red. 
 The rodent let bare his whiskered grin of sharp teeth, two yellow blades.


 Still at the cabin, Katrina Madrid and Nelda Petroyavich started to argue.
 Nelda was saying, “The Kovalenkos might come any second and you want me to try a cooking class?”
 Katrina said, “Look at the resort brochure. It will put you at ease, until they show up.”
 “All I see is golf, swimming, tennis, polo.”
 “You need something to do while I’m gone. Look for the spa stuff. You can do yoga. Get a massage. A full body clay mask. Lotus flower oils. New skin glow.”
 Nelda said, “A massage sounds nice.”
 “I’m telling you, this place is great if you need to dull your edge. The tension of waiting to kill men.”
 There was a knock at the cabin door. 
 Katrina Madrid sprung over to answer it. 
 A bellhop came to let Katrina know her rental truck was ready. Her off-road rental, a four-wheeler, was also good to go.
 As Katrina moved halfway out the door, keys in hand, Nelda said, “Where are you going? Why are you leaving me? What if the twins come and you’re not here? What will I do then?”
 Katrina Madrid turned around to say, “There are those who fight in response to danger. Or those who run. But also, those who freeze.”
 Katrina took a final look inside the cabin. 
 That lasting image of Nelda Petroyavich. That expression of worry on her face, sealed by a throat gulp. How the tall woman had rooted herself to the couch. Frozen to the seat.  
 Katrina had to let go of that image. 
 She grabbed a sharp axe from the cabin deck. 
 She needed to prepare for the arrival of the bodybuilding twins. It was time. Time to make a trap for the two big brothers.   
 She jumped on the four wheeler. Axe on her lap.
 She gave the engine gas. 
 On her way to a rare lake in Napa Valley, down a narrow path of dirt and gravel, she rode. 
 At the base of the lake, she continued on foot. If she found a rope swing tied to a tree, she’d climb that tree, then cut that rope down with her axe.
 She collected more than a dozen ropes.
 The ropes were too thick to coil on the back of the four-wheeler, so she dragged them, full stretch. The ropes made a sound on the gravel as she pulled them along. Hiss.
 Her cabin was near the hills of a deep forest. For Katrina, that was always the plan, to have quick access to the higher woodlands. 
 She entered those woods, rolling on four wheels, towing the ropes behind her. She made it through easy enough, as there many hiking trails.
 Finally, she met a part of the woods where the elevated terrain began to level out. 
 Here, she laid the ropes on the ground, in a spider web configuration.
 She looked at her watch. She was late for her supply run. She’d have to return here later to set the trap. 
 The pawn shop would be closing soon and she still needed serious items, like more ammo for her two guns.
 Driving the rental truck, she rushed down to Oakland.
 She turned into the parking lot of Dogtown Pistol & Pawn. 
 When she entered the store, she heard the shop owner say, “Welcome back, Jessica. How did those handcuffs work out?”
 “So good I need another pair,” said Katrina, responding to the fake name. 
 Her rare ancient coins did wonders in a place like this. 
 She listed the other things she had to buy. The shop owner noted: A silencer for her Glock weapon. Ammo for that Glock. Bullets for a revolver. A shovel. A saw. A hammer. Twelve inch nails. A crowbar. And a samurai sword. 
 Then she inquired, “I see you have a TV repair section. Do you sell video recorders over there?”
 The owner said, “Sure do. If you have any questions, Roger handles that department. I’ll fish out those extra cuffs from the back, if you wanna go have a look.”
 She walked over a few aisles to a wall of televisions. Some of the TVs were playing too loudly. But it that special someone on a mute TV that caught her eye immediately. Grant Holt. The American firefighter.
 She hurried to raise the volume of that TV.
 Outside, the sky began to pour rain. But Katrina didn’t even notice those wet windows. She was too busy staring at Grant Holt, the most handsome man she’d ever had the pleasure to embrace. 
 Grant was in the middle of an interview with a female reporter on a Hollywood gossip show.
 The reporter helped him promote his calendar, one which featured the most attractive fireman of New York. Bachelor’s edition. The calendar was created to raise money for charity. This was the second year that Grant appeared as a shirtless man of the month. Grant Holt was Mr. July. 
 And the reporter was saying, “In the fall, you’re filming your first movie role. Think you can pull it off?”
 He said, “Small role. I play a fireman.” Then, with a sly grin, he said, “Big leap from my real life. Really expanding my horizons.”
 The reporter laughed, only to say, “You have a cool story, how you became a fireman. Would you care to share that with our audience?”
 Grant said, “I was just at home, when this fire started across the street, at my neighbor’s house. I ran across to help out, before emergency crews could get there. Everyone was already out safe, thankfully. So I just ended up saving a cat. After that, I decided I have what it takes to run into burning buildings. So I went down to the firehouse the next day and signed up. Hello, to all my brothers over at station 212.”
 “So cool,” the reporter gushed. Then she said, “And the cat’s name?”
 “A cat with stripes. His name is Nemo.”
 So the reporter said, “Now Grant, you’re still single, but you say in your calendar bio that you’re not available to date. And I even heard something else, that you turned down Reality TV, a few dating shows. Can you give us an idea why Mr. July is so off-limits?”
 “Someone has my heart,” he said. “I mean, obviously, this calendar is for a great cause. And I’m honored to be here. But I also here to look for someone who went missing two years ago. My hope is, I can use this opportunity on live TV. To hype the cause, yes. But also to find her.”
 “Tell everyone who she is,” the reporter said. “Who’s the mystery girl who really pops your fireworks on the fourth?”
 “Thanks. Her name is Jessica Prentiss. I met her in the emergency room the day I rescued that cat. She was a CNA and I was being treated for smoke inhalation. And I just fell in love with her straight away. So I sent her flowers, delivered to her work the next day. But Jessica had quit her job and—”
 Right then, Katrina turned the television sound off. She couldn’t have anyone in the pawn shop hear the references to the name Jessica.  
 Instead, she tried to read his lips. 
 By the end of the interview, Grant held up her old hospital badge to the camera, which had her face pictured on it. 
 Katrina whispered, “No. No. No. Don’t do that.”
 She mashed all six buttons on the TV with her palm for the screen to go black.
 She made quick work of the coin exchange, paying for everything she came for. Then she made an even quicker exit of the pawn shop. 
 Outside, the rain didn’t surprise her much. She had felt it coming on the wind hours ago. But she did almost step in a puddle by accident.
 She drove the truck over to MacArthur Boulevard, where the Kovalenko twins had a safe house. Less than a week ago, she had trailed the brothers from the San Francisco airport to this little white bungalow. 
 Now she parked directly across the street from this house. And waited.
 She was tempted to load her guns, kick open the front door, shoot both brothers. But she didn’t. That type of direct action might put her owl at risk. Then again, that was exactly what those twins deserved, a brute and senseless death. An unfair death that storms their front door, so fast it’s over. 
 Taking such a close position to stalk them caused her heart to thump in her ears.
 She waited. 
 Her preference for how they died, it was very personal. She had reasons right now for becoming murder shy. She wanted to kill them a certain way. She often thought, It must end in grand style. I must enjoy it.
 Today she delayed their eventual death. Plainly kicking down their door would not be satisfying for long. She wouldn’t be able to look back on it fondly. 
 So she waited there, parked at the curb. The brothers must’ve been slow to realize that her owl was probably making a hell of a racket. Death was stationed just outside, just twenty feet from their doorbell. Her owl would let them know about it.    
 The rain continued to hit her windshield. 
 In her rear-view mirror, she watched a trio of black boys dancing on the street corner. She heard that type of pantomime dance was called Turfing. Dancing as a way to resolve gang disputes in the community. The irony of the peace-makers was not lost on Katrina. The way the boys made their feet glide across the slick pavement, Katrina didn’t even need music to admire.
 Maybe it was the ugliness of her family war, or the beauty of that rain dance, or even the jaw line of a gorgeous Grant Holt. But it all overwhelmed her at once. She almost started to cry. The family war was the very thing that prevented her from having any close friends, from knowing the love of Grant Holt. But the family war also brought her to this curb where three boys moved with the most divine grace.
 Just then, the front door of the safe house opened. Only one Kovalenko stuck his head out. 
 She wasn’t sure which twin it was, Andre or Oleg. But it didn’t matter, because she had just sent him the clue. To follow her by the noise of her screeching owl. 
 The twin at the door squinted, blinked his eyes hard at her truck. It was the first time this Kovalenko had witnessed more than just her side profile. 
 When the door answering twin suddenly went back inside for a gun, Katrina sped off.    
 She drove again to the woods behind the resort. Climbed the hillside with the truck, steering and weaving around trees. Parking beside her trap site. 
 The more elaborate the trap, the better the Kovalenko family would cease to be.      
 One of the few childhood memories she had with her family before they all died was of watching American movies with Russian subtitles. In one of those movies she watched with her grandmother a Hollywood character made a swinging log trap.   
 Now the Demidova girl was in America making a tripwire snare for that same type of trap. 
 With her axe she cut down a tree. She sawed that tree into heavy logs. Through one of the logs she hammered twelve inch nails, to function as spikes. Then she knotted rope swings around each log. Finally, she tied the other end of those ropes to the back of the truck. 
 Truck wheels spinning out, she drove forward to hoist up the first log.
 Into her rear-view mirror, she said, “I bring the pain.”


 Katrina Madrid slept through the next day.
 She had a reason to be tired. She had been in the United States for less than a week, on a reverse bed schedule. With the eleven hour time-zone difference, an afternoon on the California coastline felt like the morning in Moscow.
 When she awoke, she looked out the window of the loft. The sun was about to set around the cabin. 
 Katrina climbed backwards down the ladder of the loft.  
 Nelda Petroyavich was legs crossed at the kitchen table, foot tapping. She looked worried sick.
 Katrina said, “Dinner?”
 Nelda perked up to say, “Yes! I’m starving.”
 They took a table in the restaurant in the main lodge. 
 Katrina drew a map of where the exit doors were on her napkin.
 There were three small candles on every table. 
 A man wearing a tuxedo in the corner played piano. The notes of the piano keys brought the crowd conversations into harmony.
 Waiting for her food order, Nelda sipped both red and white wine, glass after glass, until she verged on intoxication. 
 Nelda asked Katrina why she wasn’t eating. Then Nelda said, “We should make code names for the twins.”
 This was another case of Nelda using reckless talk in public, but Katrina allowed it. 
 Nelda cut into her steak, clumsy with the knife, scraping the plate. Chewing, swallowing. Then saying, “We should call them, I don’t know, the two Frankensteins. The big dummies. Block heads. Two stupid bozos. With their big square foreheads. Part muscle, part moron.”
 Katrina laughed a little, saying, “Two Frankensteins. That’s rich. Eat up.” 
 Nelda said, “The light air feels great. Not like the fires you keep making in the cabin.”
 “I need to sweat. I need to make weight for my opponents.”
 “I don’t see why.”
 “You never will.”   
 After dinner they both went over to the lounge on the opposite side of the reception lobby. 
 The lounge was called the Jungle Room, decorated with an all tropical theme. The corners of this room were strung up with vines and hanging over with other dense palms. 
 This exotic backdrop reminded Katrina of the basement where the tiger gnawed on the gypsy. The memory of that night put her in a bittersweet mood. 
 It was the bar room Nelda came for but it was the dance hall she tried to pull Katrina towards. 
 Katrina said, “I don’t dance. Can’t dance. The way I feel right now, if anyone bumped into me on the dance floor, I’d pull them apart like a Matryoshka.”
 She was referring to a Russian nesting doll, which Nelda understood. 
 Below the heavy thud of that drum beat, Nelda said, “Have a drink, then come dance.”
 Katrina said, “Never drank alcohol. Never. Always had to keep my wits about me. The way I feel right now, if I drank one beer, I’d climb on top of a table and scream ‘Death to the Kovalenkos’. So I better not.”
 “Oh, come on,” Nelda coaxed. “There are men on the dance floor.”
 “No. You go. Have fun. This is the freedom I promised you. If I told you I’m a kissless virgin, you wouldn’t understand my lack of men. Nevermind me. I’ll be at that barstool. Go. Shake. Shake.”
 The bass on the dance floor was a stressful trigger for Katrina Madrid. It gave her a flashback of the bomb blast, how the wedding floor collapsed, when she watched her family members get sucked down into that hole. 
 Now Katrina took a seat at the bar. She watched Nelda put her long arms up in drunk celebration. 
 Only a minute into that song, someone approached Katrina. A man wearing a cowboy hat introduced himself using a Texas southern accent. 
 She looked his face over for a Kovalenko mole. 
 The cowboy asked her name. 
 Then he followed her answer up with, “What kind of name is that, anyhow? Katrina Madrid?”
 She lied, “My last name is different, because I come from a long line of Russian Jews. When my family was faced with religious persecution in Russia, we all fled to Spain. It was safer to hide our heritage by changing our last name to whatever city we adopted as our new home. Madrid.”
 Twice he tried to buy her a drink.
 She wouldn’t accept. 
 Still watching Nelda twist her thin hips, Katrina told the cowboy, “I’m here in the States on a K1 visa. That type of visit means I must get married within three months, or get deported back to Russia. A marriage deadline. Just some photo evidence of our relationship and the wedding papers that sign me into American citizenship. That’s all I ask of you.”
 The cowboy couldn’t excuse himself quicker. When he walked away, Katrina smiled. 
 Outside, on the way back to the cabin, Nelda half-staggered. When Nelda almost fell into a water fountain, Katrina offered an arm for balance. At the lean of body contact, Katrina put her thumb on that forearm tracking device. Katrina absorbed the invisible frequency into her skin. As suspected, she felt a pulse that emitted a signal, likely to the Russian Mob. 
 Up a torch lit path, they both made it back to the cabin.
 Inside, Katrina thought about adding kindling to the fire. Then she considered how to break the forearm tracker. She pulled clothing out of her duffle bag. She told Nelda the sweatshirt was for the tall woman to cover the bare arms of her kimono dress. 
 “Russian tourist that I am,” said Katrina, “I bought it from a street vendor. Thinking to myself, Nelda keeps touching her arms. She must be cold. So here. Have it.”  
 It was a black hoody. It had a lithograph of that rocky island prison, under the catch phrase: ESCAPED FROM ALCATRAZ.
 Nelda Petroyavich accepted the gift with slurry voice of gratitude. She struggled to put the hooded sweatshirt on, then she went into the bathroom to model herself in the mirror.
 While Nelda was gone, Katrina removed another item from her bag. It was the new calendar that featured Grant Holt. She pinned the calendar on the roof supporting wood beam. Nelda re-entered the living room. 
 “Who is that?” Nelda asked, as planned. “Who is that man?”
 “I will tell you many things Nelda gal. But he is not one of them.”      
 So Nelda moved toward the beam for a closer look. 
 Grant Holt posed without a shirt, just a firefighter jacket slung over his shoulder. 
 “I’m too drunk to read his hunky name,” said Nelda. “Let me touch his tight ab muscles.”
 As Nelda raised her arm to slide a finger down the photo, she said, “Mr. July. So sexy. But why show July? Today is only April.”
 That arm stayed up straight, chest level, still stroking the abdominals.
 Katrina slammed down hard on Nelda’s arm. With a hand chop. A wicked slap shot, fingers curled at the knuckles to slice a vicious arc.  
 Her hand chop did not follow through as full as it could have. To avoid bone fracture. Leave only a bruise. But it did crack the tracker. There was a distinct snap, followed by the metallic crunch of the transmitter. 
 Nelda retracted her arm suddenly to shield herself from another blow. 
 Katrina took a step back. 
 After one moment, some distance was established between the two women.  
 It was now safe enough for Nelda Petroyavich to look up to the cabin rafters and yowl in pain. 


 The next morning, Katrina Madrid stood before a tree stump used for splitting firewood.
 Nelda Petroyavich looked on from the cabin deck, arms crossed.
 Katrina heaved up the axe that had been hanging from the cut. She had just put a wheel barrel into position a few feet away.
 She then told Nelda to remember the letter K. 
 Katrina placed a chunk of wood on the stump. 
 With the axe, she swung down against the wood, striking a split. She did this three times. Each time, a different wood slice flew off, landing in the wheel barrel.
 Katrina put her axe to rest, back in the cut. 
 Then she lifted the wheel barrel to show her hostage how the three pieces of wood had fallen in a tight wedge shape to form the letter K.
 This caused no change in the grumpy face that Nelda started the day hungover with. 
 So Katrina said, “It seems like my little tricks don’t work the same magic on you. Bottle up some water. Grab some towels. Let’s go for a steam bath. Where we can talk. In private. Who knows, maybe flush your body of that toxic attitude.”
 They went with white linens to the steam room.
 The smooth tiles began to bubble.
 Nelda, who was much taller, needed an extra towel to wrap around the body of her longer frame.
 The steam generated mist. 
 Katrina waited for Nelda to speak first. 
 Nelda only tipped her head back for a sip of bottled water.
 So Katrina said, “I can tell you’re still upset with me for bashing your arm. But it needed to be done. I can’t have the mafia show up before the twins.” 
 Katrina paused. 
 Then she said, “You know, Nelda, we share the same enemy. All that time you rode around with the twins, in the backseat of their Cadillac, with a gun in your purse, you never just shot them both. Don’t worry. I fully understand why. You shoot the twins, then you’ve got the Red Mob chasing you for the rest of your scared life.”
  Katrina toweled her chin. She said, “Nelda, I live that same nightmare scenario. Really you must believe I do. Because those Russian gangsters are about to chase me down, too. Once I kill the twins, two of their biggest and most loyal foot-soldiers, then I’m hunted. Once I kill their best two gambling debt collectors, the order is out for me to be a dead woman.” 
 Nelda Petroyavich spoke half in English, half in Russian. “Why should I believe that little you can do all this big fighting?” 
 Katrina wouldn’t answer to such doubt.
 Nelda said, “Explain. Explain those weird amazing physical things you do. Magic punches and mystical kicks. Go ahead. Go. I’ll listen.”
 Katrina Madrid said, “I can’t explain. I just know if I could trade my lucky owl or my fighting skill to see my family members just one my time, I would. In a damn heartbeat.”
 Nelda said, “You claim you’ve killed forty-four Kovalenkos. With what? Your bare fists? Prove it. Give proof. Make me believe you can protect me.”
 “Fine,” said Katrina. “You still doubt me. I will tell you. This is my kill list. So get your counting fingers ready for the bloody facts.”
 Into the humid air, Katrina gave out her murder list: “Alexei. Crossbow. Anton. Palm strike. Pavel. Drowned him in sewage water. Boris. Roundhouse kicked him off a roof. Ivan. Spiked baseball bat. Sophia. Dagger. Darla. Hit with a hammer, claw end.” 
 Katrina toweled her upper lip. 
 She said, “Dmitry. Palm strike. Fyodor. Palm strike. Aleksandr. Palm strike. Irina. Flame thrower. Igor. Catapulted him off a bridge. Petr. Bullet between the eyes. Ivana. Poison dart. Daniella. Spear. Natalia. Axe. Isabella. Sickle. Dasha. Clubbed with a nightstick. Mischa. Bricks. Stepan. Knife to his carotid artery.” 
 Katrina toweled her forehead. 
 She said, “Bogdan. Snapped his neck. Konstantin. Severed him in half. Leonid. Ran him over with a trailer truck. Mikhail. Stifled him with a pillow. Sergei. Car bomb. Nadia. Too gruesome to say. Let’s leave it at torture.” 
 Katrina took a sip of Nelda’s water. 
 Then she said, “Stanislav. Tossed him into the mouth of a volcano. Shot him in the gut a few times first. Had to learn how to fly a helicopter for that one. He gave me a lot of information about where to find the rest of his family. Wait. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Viktor. Dragged him, pulled apart by horses. Vlad or Vladimir. Electrocuted him in the bathtub. Yakov. Strangled with, yes, by my bare hands. Stasik. Boiled him alive. Anya. Cut the cords on the elevator.” 
 Katrina adjusted the steam room dial. 
 She said, “Katya. Shotgun. Milena. Sniper rifle. Nadezhda. Decapitated with a machete. Fedora. Starved to death, made her ear her own waste. Made her tell me where to find Sonia. Sonia. Trash Compactor. Tamara. Melted. Polina. Grenade.” 
 Katrina playfully snapped her towel at Nelda. 
 Then she said, “Marissa. My favorite. Tied her to a tree, rolled a boulder rock down a hilly path to squash her. Tanya. Rocket launcher. Sasha. Broken beer bottle to her throat. Nicholai. The one who told me where to find those in America. Burned him at the bonfire stake. Olena Kovalenko. Eaten alive, by wild animals.”
 Nelda, trying to suppress a dry cough, said, “I think I heard palm strike a few times. What’s that about?”
 “Right, the palm strike. I’ve killed four Kovalenkos that way. First, a palm strike to break their nose sideways. Then a second palm strike to send the broken cartilage of their nose into their brain, rendering them dead.” 
 As they walked together back to the cabin, Nelda said, “Ever since you hit my arm, I can’t make a fist.”
 Katrina said, “I need to finalize my preparations for the twins. Lock the cabin door while I’m gone. I judge the twins will be here soon. If not tonight, then tomorrow. At the very latest, tomorrow night. No matter what, soon. Bunker down. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
 The four wheeler was a free rental. But the cost of gas to run it was an expense the guest was responsible for.
 From the basement under the cabin, Katrina retrieved some empty gasoline canisters. 
 Then she drove the truck into town.
 At the gas station, filling the cans with fuel, Katrina saw a man approach her from the opposite pump. 
 “Hey,” he said. “Hey, it’s you. The woman from the TV. The missing woman. Jessica Prentiss.”
 “You have the wrong person,” Katrina said with no eye contact, just a glance for Kovalenko mole inspection. 
 “Wow, I can’t believe it’s you,” he said, calling his wife over. “Hey, can we take a picture? Maybe get an autograph.”
 His wife said, “What’s he like? Is he good in bed? The fireman, I bet he’s good in bed.”
 Katrina said, “Who?”
 Katrina Madrid now realized she had forgotten to bring her two guns, the Glock and the revolver. 
 The husband answered, “Grant Holt. Mr. Stud himself.”
 “Don’t know him,” Katrina said, maybe a little too quickly.
 The wife then said, “You should really give the guy a call. America is looking for you. Looking for you both to become a couple. Make it official. So why did you run from him, anyway, huh? Come on, already. Tell us. Tell the world.”
 Capping the tank, slotting the nozzle back on the pump island, Katrina said, “You’ve got the wrong person. This Jennifer Prescott person.”
 As she drove off, Katrina looked back at the couple through her rear window. The wife took a picture with the camera on her phone.


 I wasn’t always a horse.
 I didn’t always eat grass.
 Anyway, I do have to admit, from what these birds tell me about Katrina Madrid, she is something of a fighter. But I refuse to admire her little display of fairness. That little peace offer between her and the Kovalenko twins. What a joke that was. What a smokescreen. Anyone can see through that. She just wants avoid the Russian mob, the real heavy hitters. So all that talk of peace for the sake of a Demidova aunt and a Kovalenko dad can take a long walk off a San Francisco pier. 
 Then again, I can’t fully blame Katrina for using that excuse. For trying to smooth things out. There’s nothing worse than running a marathon, crossing the finish line, only to be told, you need to run a longer race. 
 I should know. My so-called glory days were spent at the track, as a racehorse. A Kentucky Derby losing bet. My race name: Special Delight. You see, back then, I never cared if I got first place or third. Those are strictly human rider ambitions. The light weight of a jockey wasn’t doing me any favors. 
 I only cared about slowing down my insane hoof speed. It only mattered to me that I stop my crazy damn gallop.
 I mean, what exactly was I fleeing? 
So, just like the desire Katrina has to end the blood feud, live a normal life, I just want to graze on hay. Instead, she’s in a real pickle. About to kill two bodyguards of Russian mobsters. Not to mention she’s already hijacked their sex slave money maker. Nelda Petroyavich. Yes, indeed. A real pickle of a dandy. 
 Ok, fine, I can identify Katrina to a small degree. Her trying for peace. She’s so close to killing the last two Kovalenkos, why must her family duty extend to killing an entire criminal enterprise? Hey, she tried to cut a deal. It just seems that deal went sour pretty quick.
 What a pig on this same ranch has to say about Katrina, if I’m willing to listen to a pig, is all this jazz about how special loss equals special gain. 
 The way he tells it, snorting while he talks, it goes something like this: “With the death of the Demidova family, the young Russian lost a huge amount. But with every downside comes an upside.” 
 The pig squeals, “Katrina gained a guide bird and a very destructive power. Kinetic energy. Try this example. Compare her life to a bow and arrow. Remember those? Picture a bow. When you pull the string back, the top bends down just as the bottom bends up, to compensate. It accounts for excess and shortage. It takes from what is too much and gives to what isn’t enough. The life of Katrina Madrid is in total balance.”
 Even the birds agree on this, to some extent, with obvious avian bias. Special loss of her entire family. Special gain of a guide bird to seek revenge. 
 Let me add more, though, about her other special gain. Her warrior spirit. Kinetic energy, the pig called it. Some people, even some animals, have this. 
 The way I remember it, kinetic people, they can dance to a song they’ve never heard before. Katrina can’t dance worth a single shimmy. But she can touch the enemy to feel their tendons and their ligaments detach from their joints. 
 Kinetic people, some of them can walk into the room, make heads swivel. You can feel the air pressure change a degree from their pure magnetism. Katrina isn’t like that. Her dark presence is heavy. But she can feel how the bones of an enemy should shatter in a ribcage, pushing those same bones inward to penetrate the heart. Again to hog’s point. Special loss. Special gain.
 Even still, I don’t mean to promote her heroics or her terrible plight. I still intend to persuade readers from ever fully wanting to know what happens to Katrina Madrid. I can’t have book glue be the end of me. I can’t.     
 If you recall, my ranch owners still plan to boil me down, glue factory style. Then slap me on the spine of a book. Yup, good old me, just some book-binding paste. 
 Oh, bless my keen ears for hearing. Those school bus wheels, I can hear them now, crunching gravel, coming down the road.
 A bus, full of bad kids. Punk little boys. Rude little girls. All of them, trouble.
 Oh, how the sing song voices of their foul mouths do carry from a distance. I can almost feel their sticky candy fingers already.
 My horse tail now twirls with sarcastic excitement.
 For now, I must entertain the awful youth who shove each other to exit that hot bus.
 Oh, how my horse nose loves the smell of their dirty hands. A distinct cherry scent that rides the wind. Getting me ready for a flavor that will tear at the short hairs of my coat.
 I’m not just any horse, you see. I’m a therapy horse. Used in the healing of these emotionally disturbed children. They rub me and ride me, to feel all good natured about themselves. Which is fine, until they yank my mane. One always does.
 I forgot to tell you something. Yikes! How could I forget?
 I’m on a ranch in upstate New York, surrounded by farms. 
 Every Sunday the troubled kids come from the inner city to this ranch. Every Sunday. And every Sunday the young ones come with same guardian. The same handsome man. But who that man is and what affect he has on Katrina Madrid, I won’t tell you. Not yet. 
 Grant Holt. And his love for Katrina.
 No, I won’t spoil that for you right away. I want you to get more invested in the bird-told version of this story, before I ruin that mystery. 
 Grant Holt. And his semi-fame.
 Guess I did. Guess I did just ruin it.   
 Maybe now, you won’t run out to a bookstore to buy the horse glue stuck pages. In serious truth, I hope this story never sees the printing press. 
 Plus, more than all of it, I hope I’m not too old to jump that fence.


 When the Kovalenko twins finally attacked the cabin, the sun was about to set.
 Katrina Madrid had been sitting in front of the fireplace. With a black iron poker, she shuffled the ash of a dying fire, trying to determine if some last ember would re-ignite the charred wood. 
 Nelda Petroyavich was away. About to bring fruit drinks back from the juice bar.
 Katrina suddenly felt something move across the top of her foot, then bite her ankle. She looked down to see a white mouse staring back up from her toes. 
 Katrina heard her owl screech. Then she heard boots outside, creaking along the wooden planks of the deck.
 One of the twins walked by the kitchen window. When the second twin walked by, he cupped his hand to peer inside.
 Katrina went for her guns on the table. She grabbed the Glock pistol and her revolver. Then she climbed the ladder of the loft. Here, she uncovered a pillow of its white casing.
 The twins started to ram the front door.
 There was no time to put shoes on. Katrina had to use her bare feet to kick open the screen window. 
 She wiggled out the small window frame, jumping to the ground from a second floor height. 
 When she rounded the corner of the cabin, one of the twins pointed his gun at her. She waved the white pillow case at him, a sign of surrender, which confused him enough to alter his more precise aim. So he didn’t pull the trigger.
 She ran for the woods. 
 Up the tree-lined hillside, she made a direct attempt to reach the trap site. 
 Once there, she pulled herself up a tree that gave her a leafy hiding spot.
 She had three heavy logs suspended high above, tied to sturdy branches. The logs were poised to swing down across a dirt bike trail. The first log was to be activated by a tripwire on the ground, when a walking foot crossed it. The snare would let the timber loose. That first log would come from behind. Take out the legs. 
 The second log, if needed, would come from the front, but only if Katrina chopped a nearby rope with her axe. A lot could go wrong. She knew that. So the third log was her final security measure. It came from a wide angle and it had nails for spikes. The third log was sure to catch any twin who thought he could dodge or jump the first two swipes. The timber was heavy. It would swing low. And it would swing fast. 
 For the big Kovalenko brothers, however, Katrina had to wait. 
 She had waited many times like this in the past. It used to be in parts of Europe, she’d watch a member of the rival family enjoy his or her lunch. Then, when the Kovalenko had full belly, about to take a nap, the Demidova girl would catch them satisfied in the gut, but less alert in the mind. She often thought of stalking as the real art. Sometimes it was more fun than the actual fight. 
 As the twins now entered the woods, Katrina was surprised by how closely they did walk shoulder to shoulder. 
 One of the twins held the owl cage out before him, like a lantern light. The other twin swayed a gun from his hip.
 More of a problem than the gun, Katrina thought, was the front swinging log that might injure her bird.
 The owl was hissing so much, it meant the twins were narrowing their search. They continued to move along the dirt bike trail.
 As Andre and Oleg were about to pass under her branch, Katrina almost fired both her guns down upon them. But they didn’t look up. 
 Just then, they tripped the ankle level wire. The snare sent a thick log into motion. The strain of the rope on the branch made the tree ache with the weight. The log came from the behind. Clipped both brothers at the knees. The brother with the gun pulled the trigger by accident, before the gun fumbled from his hand. The twins fell forward, not backward, as she had expected. Now they had to shrug the lumber off their backside. 
 Two guns in her waistline, rappelling barefoot down the bark of that tree, Katrina landed on the ground. 
 While the twins were still working to unpin themselves, Katrina introduced a different rope. This rope she wrapped around the necks of Andre and Oleg. 
 Then, with the Glock and the revolver pointed at the twins, Katrina kicked the Kovalenko weapon over the sandy trail bank.   
 The bird cage was dented, partially crushed, but the owl inside appeared to go unscathed. She stood the cage upright. 
 Then she addressed the two Kovalenko men with a snarl.
 “Get on your feet.”
 She continued to point both guns at them, the Glock with the silencer, and the western style revolver. 
 The twins were slow to follow her demand, not from stubborn refusal, but from leg pain. 
 The rope around their necks was loose, but they didn’t remove it. It was a thick rope that went from one neck, over a high middle branch, to the other neck. 
 In Russian, she said, “You know what your family did to mine.”
 Andre answered, “We kill you.”
 Training her double aim, she said, “But now, you kill each other.” 
 For the first time, both twins directed their attention away from her gun barrels to look at their noose situation.
 She said, “You will pull each other in the opposite directions. One of you will hang dead. The stronger twin who survives, he is the winner. I will spare your life. Yes, mercy from me. For the sake of your father and my aunt, I will let the winning brother live on.”
 Andre looked at Oleg. Oleg looked over sheepishly at his twin. Neither of them started to peel away, yet.
 So Katrina pointed her revolver with a firmer grip, then she clicked the hammer back. 
 She said, “I have no problem shooting the both of you. My mercy for the stronger one is a limited to right now, not to be bargained with.”
 Andre was the first to suddenly pull on the rope, which tightened the noose on both necks. 
 Oleg bent down hard the moment the rope cinched. It was his only chance to resist the surprise tug on his neck. 
 Since the men shared a similar size and strength level, it was the first yank by Andre that became his most important advantage. 
 Oleg started to go up on his steel-toe boots.
 Katrina stood in the middle, arms extended wide, full wingspan, guns aimed in opposite directions.
 Oleg started to lift, dangle, come back down for a moment, then rise again. 
 Andre dug his boots into the ground, pulling the rope slack with his shoulder.
 The friction of the rope on the branch above sent twine shavings down into the final rays of the day. 
 Andre had raised his brother several feet off the ground, enough to choke him. 
 Katrina watched Oleg battle for his last breath, legs scissor kicking the air, body twirling, fingers trying to wedge the rope away from his throat. 
 Then she looked over at Andre.
 Andre still pulled with that hungry sense of a near victory, snatching at the grassy floor for more leverage, ripping the grass up from the roots, then grabbing for that next handful.
 So Katrina abandoned her neutral spot in the middle.
 She stepped a few feet over to the winning Andre. She put a bullet in his brain with the silenced weapon. As Andre went totally limp, sliding backwards towards his brother, Oleg was released to the floor. 
 Oleg, still alive, had to re-deliver oxygen to his lungs. 


 Katrina Madrid walked over to stand next to the still wheezing Oleg Kovalenko. 
 She said, “I didn’t change my mind about the stronger one. I lied. I’d be a fool to let the stronger one go. The weaker one gets my mercy.”
 Oleg looked up from his knees. The rope had made a welted rash under his chin. 
 “I’m letting you go. For the sake of your father, Boris. And for my aunt. You have my pardon.”
 “Thank you much!” Oleg said. “Thank you much, cousin!”
 He smiled from submission and fear.
 She said, “Now go. Run. Run before I realize my mistake.”
 Oleg got up to his feet, tilted from injury, braced himself against a tree, then started hobbling away.
 Katrina watched Oleg disappear far into the woods.
 Walking in reverse, with caution, she picked up the caged owl and the Kovalenko gun.   
 Back inside the cabin, Nelda was there asking questions but getting no replies. Nelda spoke fast from panic, saying she heard men grunting in the woods. 
 Katrina put the damaged cage on the table. She looked into the eyes of that owl. Katrina had never been this close to her bird in all their worldly travels together.
 But the owl turned its sights to the mouse, still present, still sneaking between the spaces of the wood pile. That mouse made a number of darting runs along the kitchen counter. 
 Just like the trap she had set for members of the Kovalenko family, she’d now set a trap for their guide mouse.
 With a empty paper towel roll, Katrina put a curtain rod through the center of it. Then she smeared peanut butter on the top of the roll. She placed the curtain rod across the sink. A sink filled with boiling hot water. If the mouse climbed over the bridge, the cardboard tube would spin like a rolling log on a river. 
 Enough time had passed. By now Oleg had probably stopped running. He had been alive for twenty minutes as the last Kovalenko. A long twenty minutes. He probably felt what Katrina had wanted him to feel. That empty soul-wrenching despair. What she felt for over a decade. Hollow. His brother was dead, his entire family gone, alone. Just like her. 
 She consumed that feeling with her nose, a deep intake of air through her nostrils, then out through her mouth.
 Now Katrina grabbed the samurai sword off the fireplace mantle. 
 She went outside, jumped on the four wheeler, popped it up on two tires and sped into the forest. To chase down Oleg. For one final hunt. 
 Racing through the woods, she experienced a peak amount of body tingle. So electric. The feeling made her detach from herself, to remotely view herself from a different angle. As if she were riding alongside herself. 
 When she finally caught up to Oleg, he was sitting on crumbling rock wall. But once he took notice of her sword, he bolted up again, to run. 
 He was no match for her pursuit. Twice, he looked over his shoulder.
 Her crimson face, it appeared to be possessed by one hell of a mad obsession.  
 Only a few feet behind him, she put her sword out like a lance or a spear. Pole sharp, she tried to pierce him through the heart. She missed, catching his triceps instead.  
 So Katrina made the four wheeler brake to a stop. When she got off, she flung the sword into the ground. The javelin stuck. 
 Oleg Kovalenko assumed a boxing stance. He hopped on his right foot, then on his left. His rage came out as, “You kill my brother!” Then he charged the Demidova woman who erased his clan.
 Katrina ducked his first punch, a meaty hook. Stepped around his straight jab, seeing it quiver with anger an inch from her nose.
 He looked like was about to slip his nerve, like he could only contemplate or ponder throwing a third fist. So he rushed forward to grab her. 
 She latched on to the ring finger of his weaker left hand, broke it. Pulling hard on his dominant right arm, she mangled the crook, to dislocate his elbow. 
 When she tried to hip toss him, his weight shifted in a way that informed her, Oleg would not land they way she wanted. So she mule kicked his mid-section. Confident that she ruptured several of his lower organs with a heel, she gave him a bonus throat chop.
 Oleg dropped to a knee. His panting tongue wagged out for second to show itself red with the early signs of blood. 
 Katrina plucked up the samurai sword. Walked over to his kneeling position. 
 With the sword she carved the tip into his cheek to dislodge the mole from his skin. He whimpered at the mole removal. She put the fleshy mole inside her pocket. 
 She clutched him from beneath the jaw. She grilled him, “Are you the last Kovalenko left in my world of complete revenge?”
 He shook his confused head, no, but then corrected himself, nodding, yes. His bowels had just given out. 
 She didn’t hesitate any longer. She put her palm through his face. His cheekbones collapsed. His eye cavities sunk. His ears gushed fluid.
 He toppled from the knees, landing chest first on the ground. 
 She spit on him once. Then a second wad. 
 Katrina Madrid put the sword on her back. Mounted the off-road vehicle.   
 As she coasted down the hillside, she licked her upper lip free of the salty sweat. 
 Back at the cabin, sure enough, the mouse was swimming circles in the hot water of the kitchen sink. 
 Katrina picked the mouse up by its tail. 
 Even then, the little thing squeaked, trying to bend up to nip at her.
 Katrina opened the dented cage door. Tossing the mouse inside for her owl to eat. The owl hissed a screech of thanks. Talons out to crush the mouse, to knead the tiny body. 
 When the bird was done feeding, Katrina’s next move was to free the owl from those bent cage bars. The owl flew straight up, up from the cabin deck to the sky.
 Later, as Katrina was about to get rid of the cage, she noticed something on the cage floor. It was an owl pellet, part of the undigested bird food. In the grey part of the regurgitated meal, Katrina saw the exoskeleton of the mouse, more specifically, the bony skull.
 Nelda wanted to know what was happening, if were still they in danger.
 Katrina Madrid told her to grab the shovel to bury the two Frankensteins.


 “Time to come to a new understanding between me and you,” Katrina told the tall woman two hours later.
 Nelda Petroyavich sat on the floor, handcuffed to the claw foot of the firewood stove. 
 Katrina held a steel iron poker in the fire, heating the tip. 
 The fire made it too hot in the cabin, even with the windows open at night. Both women were already drenched in sweat from digging graves.  
 On the table, a glass jar of Kovalenko moles.     
 Katrina carried on, saying, “You must never tell anybody what we did, or anything else I confessed to you about my past. You helped me bury the bodies. You’re my accomplice.”   
 “I won’t talk.”
 “Let me finish. I’m going to video tape you. When I turn that recorder on, you’re going to make my case to the Russian mob. Tell them any way you want. But don’t use my name. Tell them I had to kill the twins. It was the result of a blood feud back in the homeland. Don’t use my name.”
 “I won’t. Promise.”
 “Let me finish. Make it clear, I am fully capable of defending myself if they choose to avenge the twins. I’m even more capable of stomping them out. The same way I wiped out an entire family of my rival enemies. You got it?”
 “Then, lay it out for them. Say the twins took my property. Don’t say owl. Just property. So I took you against your will. Their property. Tell them your hostage taker is ready to buy you for triple what you would’ve earned them doing sex work.”
 “Fine. I will.”
 “You can handle all that? 
 Nelda nodded yes, then she rubbed the sweat out of her eyes with her shoulder sleeve.
 Katrina turned the video recorder on. The red light signaled Nelda to start. 
 The tall woman said, “Beware, a very bad and mean and terrible woman has taken me against me will.”
 Katrina turned the camera off. 
 She said, “No. Do it again. That was weak. You don’t sound scared of me at all.”
 Camera back on, Nelda tried again. But she sounded more like she had made a friend these past few days, like she doing Katrina a favor.
 So Katrina shut it off for the same reason. This time, the camera stayed off. 
 She told Nelda, “Time to come to a new understanding between me and you. I never explained all of what happened with that rival clan. Some it will never see the light of day. But, listen, this is how the dark stuff went down. The first ten Kovalenkos I killed. Easy. I took them one by one. When they were alone. The rival family struggled to grasp why some of their own members were disappearing. Then they caught on, somewhat. Someone was intentionally killing their family.”
 Katrina stuck the poker deeper into the stove. 
 She said, “The next twenty Kovalenkos, they loaded up on weapons. Didn’t matter. I still got the better of them with my own. It was much harder, though. They stuck together. And, yet, there were still cracks in that team. I was able to slowly pull them apart. Get them individually where I wanted them. Twenty more dead. You know, Nelly Nel, I averaged about seven kills a year for six years straight. Constant work, if you ask me.”
 Katrina rotated the iron poker to heat each side. 
 She said, “Listen up. This is how the dark stuff unraveled. The last group of Kovalenkos, they were the hardest. They had weapons, yes, like the others before them. But they were smart enough to scatter. Scattering all over Europe, far and wide, even here, to the States. I had search and travel and hunt, just to find them, with my wise old owl.”
 Katrina sprayed accelerant into the stove fire.
 She said, “I’m sick of talking about them. The Kovalenkos. But let me tell you about last one specifically. The day I pretended to play dead at the graveyard, I opened my eye a sliver. I saw one girl, a little older than me, sitting in that black car. Marissa Kovalenko. And she was beaming with a smile. Just thrilled that her uncles were shooting down my family. And I remember her face. I remember it real good. She had a mole just like the rest of them. On her left cheek. The only difference is, when I found her years later she didn’t have the mole. It seems a maid of hers suggested she remove it. Get a surgical, you know, procedure.”
 Katrina finally pulled the poker away from the flames. 
 She said, “When Marissa scattered, she married a wealthy man in Sweden. She thought money would protect her. The kind of money that hires maids, butlers, cooks, drivers, bodyguards. The maid, the one who suggested the mole surgery, that maid almost got me killed. No mole. No Kovalenko. Or so I thought. Had a close call. Too close. Almost cost me my life.”    
 Katrina raised hot poker up, blew on the tip of it. The tip glowed red. 
 She bent down in front of Nelda to say, “You know, Nelda Petroyavich, I think you were the maid.” 
 Nelda grew alarmed. “It wasn’t me. I mean, I’m not her. I’ve never been to Sweden in my life. What are you doing? I wasn’t the maid! Don’t!”
 Katrina held the poker near Nelda’s face, at the level of where a Kovalenko mole should sprout. Saying, “Yes, I realize now. You all along. This new understanding between me and you.” 
 Nelda looked petrified, eyes narrowed to focus on the poker tip. 
 Katrina then hand chopped the pressure point behind Nelda’s ear. The tall woman instantly passed out. 
 Katrina went at Nelda by searing the poker into the left side of her face. The poker sizzled the skin, branded a red mark into the flesh. 
 Nelda screamed herself awake. 
 Katrina threw the poker down. Turned the camera back, waved Nelda on to speak.
 Nelda yelled, “Beware! A very bad! And mean! And terrible woman has taken me against me will! She destroys those who dare cross her! She has killed many, many times before and. . . ”
 When Nelda was done filming her negotiation with the Red Mob, Katrina said, “Good job. You went a little off script. But it all sounded believable.”
 “Good job? You burned my face!”
 “No, I saved your life. And if the Reds heed the warning in that video, I bought your freedom, too. That scar will knock down your price.”
 “Maid!” Nelda Petroyavich huffed. “Some maid story that is. Get these metal cuffs off me.”
 “There. A new understanding between me and you,” Katrina said. “We must go our separate ways. Good luck to you, Nelda gal.”
 Katrina Madrid tossed the velvet pouch of ancient coins over to Nelda Petroyavich, walking out of the cabin, leaving the door wide open.


 Dawn light advanced on her. 
 Katrina Madrid kept her head cocked to the sky. She walked along the wharf in the San Francisco fishing district. 
 Still, there was no sign of her bird. 
 No sight of his flapping wings. Or his heart-shaped, flat face.
 No black owl eyes.
 Only the screech of his beak. 
 Katrina waited for her partner, the Common Barn Owl, to swoop into view. 
 She could hear the repeated screech of the bird calling, but did not see where it came from. Trying to locate the sound, she walked the pier, bending her ear in every direction.    
 The bird screech became lower in volume each time, less high pitch. There was less of a pierce to it, as it continued to fade. 
 Katrina understood it to be a goodbye from the bird world. She fought to hear it over street traffic. Then it went silent. Then it was gone.
 A moment later, she saw an owl feather blow by. 
 The feather had the same color as her bird, light brown. 
 Up the sidewalk, the feather would tumble, rise, tumble, float, then sweep over a trolley car. So Katrina followed it with the wind, away from the pier. 
 The feather eventually came to rest again on the street, but one more gust put it in the storm drain. That was not a place she was willing to go. Standing over the gutter, she had to step back from a bus that came to bully the curb space.
 She boarded the bus.
 She spent the day doing fun things, just to forget that her owl was gone. She even went bowling for the first time, as a way to ignore the overall loss of her animal friend. But really, it never escaped her mind. The family blood feud had ended, so her special connection to the bird had been severed. 
 At night, she bicycled onto the walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge. 
 The walkway was lit down the side by street lamps. 
 There was a breeze on the night air and the windy whoosh of passing cars.
 She couldn’t put the Russian gang out of her thoughts, pretend it didn’t exist. Her lifelong path of her revenge wasn’t over. Worse than that, it felt like it never would be over. 
 Soon she’d have start planning evasive moves, as men, far more dangerous than anyone in the Kovalenko family, chased after her. Soon she’d have start plotting how to counter the onslaught. Fighting back waves of attacks.
 For the first time, her life of revenge became tiresome. The only thing that made her less tired was the warmth of the street lamps. They had a comforting glow. Not cone light, but here in orange bars. 
 She worshiped the street lamps the same way some folks pray to guardian angels. And right now, she needed those lamps to arch over her head. She heard the lamp buzz as the chorus of an all-female church choir, open mouth humming a wordless song—Wah-Oooh-Oooh-Oooooh! 
 On that chilly bridge, she ditched the bike. 
 She got the feeling she might jump off the bridge. The fall would break her bones on the surface of the water, leaving her unable to swim.
 But the angels intervened. And shone down. And they bathed her in a glowing warmth, from lamp to lamp.
 She never expected her life would lose so much purpose once the Kovalenko family numbered zero. Owl gone. Dear friend, Cazador. Gone forever.
 Victory, after all, was something to celebrate, and for years she had anticipated that celebration. But tonight, the cheer never came. Instead, only sadness. She had seen too much gore at hands of her own violence. And if she was to go on living, that violence would need to escalate. The Russian Mob had ordered a bounty on her head.
 It was the future prospect of more blood that depressed her. 
 It had her inwardly calling for those guardian angels of lamp light. She wished for the heavenly stars to come down and hover like fog at the urban street level. Mix a little. If not, she’d dive off that bridge to her death.
 Apart from all that, she desired to be with Grant Holt. To love him. But her love was prevented by his sudden rise in the public eye. His local notoriety became regional, which, too recently, turned national. They idea of fans wanting to know what darkness lurked behind the young lady on his arm at some award show, it made Katrina Madrid shiver. 
 She hung on now to the bridge cable, looking down, about to plummet.
 The lamp lights kicked up a notch to intensify. 
 She couldn’t start picking off gangsters around San Francisco, they’d be ready for her. 
 To go to war with Russian mobsters, that meant the larger criminal outfit in New York would quickly get word of it. She decided, right then, that she’d travel across the country. She’d target the New York gang first. They wouldn’t know who hit them or what for.
 She’d also be closer to Grant Holt, who lived in the Empire state. His hunky time in the spotlight would, she wished, shorten rapidly.  
 Solving two problems at once made her heart leap. She did a little ballerina tap dance under the full moon.    
 The leader of the Red Mafia in New York, the top Thief-In-Law, his name was Yuri Gorich.
 She needed to kill him next.   


 Three months later, she lay on Brighton Beach, in New York.
 Each day at noon, Katrina watched the ocean for boats. 
 Always carrying the same things: a beach towel, a beach umbrella, a glossy paperback book, a sniper rifle, and a pack of sandwiches in a picnic basket.    
 She hid the sniper rifle in a yellow kayak that sat next to her in the sand. 
 Yuri Gorich took his yacht out every day, but only once did she see him anchor within shooting distance.
 Yesterday, he was a half-mile out of reach. 
 Taking the gun out in public, even if she did hide it under beach towel, would lead to disaster. Too many eye witnesses. 
 But she became increasingly impatient with the landlord of the Shoreline Tower Apartments behind her. If her rental application went though, she’d have a view of the boardwalk, the beach, and the ocean water that Yuri Gorich cruised daily. A perfect little sniper nest.
 Her problems were not limited to where he anchored down. There was also the chance that he had bulletproof windows installed across his yacht. Many Russian oligarchs used that type of window protection, so it was probably just as true of a rich gangster with more overt enemies.  
 Right on schedule, just after noontime, Yuri Gorich sailed from the docking inlet at Sheepshead Bay, across the face of Brighton Beach. 
 Katrina suspected the closer he anchored down, the more secure he felt that day about his influence in the Brighton community. Or maybe he’d want put his big ship on display for Russian beach goers, to intimidate them with his wealth.
 Today he anchored close. But still not close enough. 
 Frustrated, she packed up her beach gear, placed it all in her van. 
 She decided she’d need to take different approach. 
 Tomorrow, she would swim out to the yacht, grab one of the female stewards, knock her out, steal her uniform, then serve Yuri Gorich a poisoned meal. If things got messy, shoot everyone on the yacht.
 She realized two facts about her plan. One was, if she did assassinate the boss, she’d probably be worthy of killing anyone else in the Russian mob organization. Second fact, however, striking the highest profile member would commit her to a current estimate of 256 more kills, give or take a power vacuum. That would become quite a lifelong obligation for her. She’d have to completely kiss her future with Grant Holt goodbye. 
 She needed a night to sleep on the correct methods. 
 Tomorrow was the hot middle of Mr. July month. 


 I wasn’t always a horse.
 By now, I should probably just accept it, huh? That I’m a black Stallion. A real bucking bronco.   
 Let me tell you, I can sum this story up nice and neat. But would you believe me, how I wrap it? 
 Can you find it in yourself to take it directly from the horse’s mouth, straight up and down? That expression, if you haven’t heard, means I’m the trusted authority round these ranch parts. Take the best tip from anyone, anyone in the honest inner circle, and, yeah, that’d have to be from me. So watch me break it down.
 This morning Katrina Madrid wakes up to make her deadly decision. Whether to swim out to Yuri Gorich, kill him or not. 
 But hold on.
 This appears to be the same morning she finds her name scrolling across the bottom of a television screen in her hotel room. 
 Turns out, Miss Nelda Petroyavich, her cabin acquaintance, does have a thing for betrayal. Those rare ancient coins, meant to buy her freedom, went plunk, right down into her bra. And today, Nelda’s on the news, giving details about her hostage ordeal with the cross-continental killer, Katrina Madrid. Born a Demidova. Also known as Jessica Prentiss. So then a press conference. And the police chief. The FBI. The hotline to call if you spot the killer. You know, a manhunt, the absolute freaking works.
 Katrina Madrid, operating for years in the shadows, is now a most wanted criminal in over a dozen countries.
 Talk about sugar for your morning coffee. Her worst fear. Worse than semi-famous Grant Holt drawing too much attention to her. It was the total exposure of her secret life. Her secret life of revenge and murder. Just blown wide open to the world of scandal magazines.
 Oh, and you guessed it, Nelda, that opportunist, is book dealing, itching to write a book about it. So it looks like my horse days are numbered, I feel.  
 Right now, as I chew the cud, telling you this, Little Miss Madrid is over in the bushes, just three hundred yards from the fence of this ranch.
 No doubt she’s enthralled with Grant Holt. 
 Grant Holt, who stands here, watching over the children, chatting with the other guardians, during his routine Sunday visit.
 She’s been watching him intently for ten minutes now. About the time it takes me to gallop five races.    
 Katrina starts her open journey across the fields, toward the ranch. She wears a bikini. I’m not great on colors, so forgive me. Most likely it’s the same bathing suit she planned to wear on her swim to kill Yuri Gorich. Since that didn’t happen, her murder record did stick. Her code of killing only Kovalenko men and woman, she never broke it. Honor in that, I suppose. But I sometimes wonder if the twin brothers, those two Kovalenkos, Oleg and Andre, didn’t deserve to get payback on Katrina themselves.
 Once Katrina gets within sight of Grant Holt, he waves a hand to urge her on faster. She starts to jog. So, yes, he jogs over to her. Drama, yes, but I swear a two year wait does that.
 Then a special moment.   
 If I can describe how they meet in those fields, how powerfully they kiss, if I can even convey that for one moment, then you’ll understand the courage I suddenly get to jump this ranch fence. Which I do, using the very last of my steroid reserves. 
 My hind legs almost catch me up. But I make it over the rails by a carrot length.
 I know how you now wonder with great curiosity. Yes, I Iet them ride me. I sure do. Ride me as far away from that ranch as I can go, into the western slant of sunshine. 
 I can’t explain enough how much I’m thanking my horsey heaven that I just avoided the slaughterhouse. A rather fine equine like myself, I’m free. I’m wild again, baby!
 So, yeah, I’m sorta in the area when Grant lays Katrina down on the small grass. Now, I don’t exactly watch, but you already know what sex is. Just imagine that . . . 
 I’m so in love with you, but I’m about to go to jail for a long time sex. 
 They undress with that kind of passion. 
 For sure, these two are about to go-on-the-run, escape the justice of a very public trial.
  You know, I know a bird, who knows a bird, who knows a parrot in the speech pathology lab, in the hospital where these two met. And word is, that whole soulmate thing is for real, ya’ll. The way the parrot tells it, when these two linked at the eyes, time slowed down to a moment, just like the humans in the movies. 
 While they make intense love somewhere over there, I’d like to add my final goodbye. 
 Who I was before I became horse, my name was Martin Wilkinson. Good old Marty Wilks. I was British. How I died, I went to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. When Argentina won the final, two fans thought there was no better way to die than to watch their country lift the cup, so they better commit suicide by jumping off the top of the stadium. Well, terrific. They landed on lucky me. Next thing I know, I’m being born in a barn. 
 At the time of my death, well, before it, I used to be a narrator for a wild outback animal series. You know the type. The type of show that had me watching animals, using my voiceover to describe what the animals are really doing, what they are really thinking, and so on. You’d be on point to call my current situation a touch ironic. 
 But I will say this. Human narrators get it all wrong. Apart from the animal motivation for food and sex, humans don’t know a thing about animal ideas. So next time you hear a person telling you about alpha gorilla dominance or the ladder-climbing politics of a lion pride, keep in mind, it reveals a lot more about person telling it.


 The most criminally wanted woman in the world and her Hollywood boyfriend went on-the-run. To Rome, New York, in Oneida County.   
 It was more than a first date. It was a symbolic date, meant to represent the time they spent apart. Two years.
 Driving a cherry red corvette, Grant Holt kept his right hand on the thigh of his passenger, Katrina Madrid, listening to her practice her birth name safely in his company. 
 Anastasia Demidova.  
 She leaned over to softly nibble on his ear.
“You know, Ana,” he said with his husky voice. “I had always planned, envisioned actually, a different date. For us to go see Celtic women, instead, singing in harmony at some grand hall. Fast violins. Tribal drums. Then a nice dinner after that.”
  “This will have to do,” she consoled. “We can’t risk being sighted. I look like a villain on those wanted posters.”
 He pulled up to the Rome Free Academy, a high school on the campus of a retired air force base. Soon his private jet would land, but for now, they would watch a stage play in the school.
 The school auditorium had more empty seats than full ones, probably only a dress rehearsal, so they sat together in a vacant back row. 
 It was a modern version of a play by Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. The young actors were in a war over their forbidden romance, but Ana Demidova had lived it. Real people now fought to stop her true love.          
 The theater was cool in temperature, almost cold, so Grant let Ana wear his bomber leather jacket. He told her the inside pocket had an alcohol nip bottle, if she wanted to test her very first sip of spirits. To hail the end of the Kovalenko clan.
 She twisted off the cap, tasted the fire of the peppermint. Felt the sting in her nose. 
 Riding the buzz, she watched the kids who stood curtain-side, kids about to project their voices to deliver their lines. 
 This new couple, however, had to leave the play much too early, while the lights were still dim. To avoid detection.
 On their way out, they passed by some students who were fitting themselves into costumes, off-stage. 
 One of the high schoolers said, “Hey, Martha, what was your favorite line in that Petroyavich video?”
 Martha said, “She destroys those who dare cross her!”
 “You’re so corny, Martha,” said another student. “Oh, my God, is that Katrina Madrid and Grant Holt. Am I even seeing this right now?”    
 The young Russian and the American firefighter then joined hands to sprint down the school hallway. They rang with jitters, which came out as the echo of laughter. They rounded the locker bend.
 A teacher recognized the running pair. She was, at the moment, using scissors on construction paper, cutting letters to spell, WHEN-IN-ROME. She pointed her shears at the accused, screaming, “I know you! Blood feud!”
 The couple increased their speed. They both slid on their bottoms down railing of the central staircase, excitement in the air.     
 Relief came when a janitor didn’t know Grant’s gorgeous face or, worse yet, her murderous past. The janitor simply stopped squeezing the mop in his bucket to open the exit doors for them. 
 Soon, somewhere secluded, they’d need to find permanent cover. 
 Maybe they’d take his private jet to a mansion or a castle in a different part of the world, and hide together for as long as possible. 
 Maybe they’d retreat to a bomb shelter or an underground bunker, filled with jugs of fresh water, canned fruits and vegetables.  
 For as long as their legendary love made it possible.
 Outside, she offered the promise to send him letters from a Siberian prison if she ever was caught by authorities.
  She said in those letters she would address him: My Dearest Grant.
  The private jet touched down that night on the runway strip. 
  She said in those letters she’d sign off the same way each time: As Always, Ana.


Yes! Yes! Yes! said the temptress.

I dress to impress nothing less, said the temptress.