Pam Krupin hated leaving work after midnight. Harding General was in the “bad part of town,” according to her parents. While it lacked the pretty, manicured lawns they were used to, it did have a certain demilitarized-zone charm. At least, that was what she told herself in the daylight.
She punched out at 2:30 a.m., on the dot. The swing shifts were killing her. It was almost ridiculous to have her hold office hours after midnight. But what the new administration wanted, they got. She blew out a frustrated breath. She just wanted to go home and fall facedown in her pillow.
Passing through sterile white-tiled halls, Pam nodded at the night crew. She took a shortcut out the side door to get to her car. Pulling her trench coat tighter as a chill blew right through her, she kept her head down and hurried toward the parking lot. The light pole at the end of the alley seemed very far away. The hollow echo of her heels in the otherwise quiet alley made her uneasy. The dark, solitary trek had never bothered her before, but there was something odd in the air tonight. Pam kicked through the trash and crunched over glass. At this hour, an eerie quiet smothered the area around the hospital.
“Hey, lady? Got a dollar?”
Pam bit back a yelp as the bundle of trash in the darkness transformed into a man. She reached into her pocket for her Taser but relaxed when he remained crouched and swaying. Feeling a little ridiculous at her paranoia, she dug into her pocket. Pam handed him a crumpled five and some change.
His hands were like catcher’s mitts. One clenched a tattered brown overcoat together. The other folded over the money. His dungarees were grimy with mud and oil and appeared too thin for this cold weather. An old golfer’s beret was secured tightly on his head It allowed a few unruly strands of blond curls to pop out. He was half in the shadows, so she couldn’t make out most of his features. Only that his jawline was firm and unyielding, but grim and unshaven.
“If you need to stay warm, the hospital’s cafeteria will let you sit for a while.” Pam went a little breathless at his green-eyed stare, but it might have been her lungs reacting to the cold air. She steadied her breathing and hoped her asthma wouldn’t act up.
“Thank you,” he said in a hoarse, strangled voice. “You’re a saint.”
“Yeah, that’s me, Saint Pam. Please, do yourself a favor and get inside.” She touched his arm in concern.
“Yes, ma’am,” the man said, tipping his hat. “Good night.”
Pam brushed the hair out of her eyes as the wind picked up. She could feel his gaze between her shoulder blades, and she lengthened her stride. At the end of the alley, three guys from the parking lot stalked toward her.
“Next time, take the front door,” she muttered to herself. But to be fair, they still would have been waiting for her by her car or at her apartment. They were dressed in long leather dusters. The sleeves, she knew, covered complicated tattoos that told their life stories, marking them as dangerous men. As if she didn’t know that by the way they moved as a unit, like they were the lions and she was a gazelle.
“Hello, moy golubushka
“I’m not your darling, Piotr. Does your mother know you’re out this late?” Pam asked, palming her Taser.
“Leave my mama out of this,” he said.
Piotr was the youngest one. His mother owned a tea shop that Pam spent most of her Sunday mornings in. Pam knew Vera would have done anything to keep him unmarked, out of prison, and in a decent job. Instead, he’d followed his friends and the gang life, where prison was his new home. He was determined to be a made man. Unlike the mafia on television, the Russian mob had been started in Stalin’s gulags and was very hesitant to allow new blood into its ranks. It was likely he’d only be a pawn and die young and stupid.
“We’re just here to escort you to your car,” Gregor said.
Gregor was a knuckle-dragging thug. She had seen him running a line of girls, but couldn’t imagine why he was assigned to harass her. He didn’t care about being the Russian John Gotti. He wanted money and flashy cars.
“And then to Oksana. She’s concerned about what Nikolai has told you in this therapy he does,” the third, a bald man with dead eyes, said. Pam didn’t know him, but he sneered the word therapy
as if it were a synonym for witchcraft. She heard every nightmare she ever had in his accented Russian. He was the bogeyman and, most likely, Oksana’s best enforcer.
That would explain what each of these men had in common. The petty thief with delusions of grandeur, the pimp on the street, and the bald man whose voice made her insides liquefy: they all worked for Oksana.
Oksana was the exception to the male-dominated rule. She had been a mistress of several vory v zakones
over the years. She had buried them all, but not before absorbing their tricks and tips for making a living as a criminal and killing anything that stood in the way. But she had another side. The side that high society knew her by. It wasn’t quite the kindly old grandmother who dabbled in philanthropy in her declining years, but it was close.
“I’ve already told Oksana that I cannot reveal what my clients tell me during our sessions.” Pam and Oksana went way back. When Pam was young and stupid, she’d idolized the glamorous older woman. Dressed in furs and leaking diamonds, Oksana was the grandmother she’d never had, her fairy godmother. But all the little presents and cookies had stopped when Pam hit high school and started going out with her son Stefan. Oksana had grown meaner toward her and withdrawn.
Stefan and Pam were never meant to be, but they remained friends and still kept in touch. Oksana had never fully warmed back up to her but had wound up giving her a job cleaning office buildings while Pam was working her way through grad school.
Oksana had once told her that she should give up Reiki, because no one could get her toilets as clean as Pam did. It was as if Oksana took it as a personal insult that Pam didn’t want to be a neighborhood girl and marry a nice fellow and settle down. As long as it wasn’t her son, of course.
“You’re not a priest or a lawyer. You can spill your guts to the cops,” Piotr said.
Technically, so could the priest and the lawyer, but Pam didn’t think that would help her case any.
“You’re not even a real doctor.” Gregor laughed, advancing. Pam knew she couldn’t let him get close. He outweighed her by a good hundred pounds.
“My doctorate is real,” she said and shot him with the Taser.
Gregor went down to his knees, his strangled scream echoing through the alley.
The older man pulled out a baseball bat from behind his back. “Only had one shot with that. So stupid to make an enemy of us. Now I’m going to break both your knees.”
Tasered the wrong one, dummy.
“You brought this on yourself. We were trying to be nice,” Piotr said.
“Stay away from me,” she said. Her hands groped for her keys. “I’ll take your eyes out.”
The older man laughed. “I like your spunk, shluha
. I’ve faced men who would be begging me for mercy by now.”
“Do you think anyone will help you?” The older man swung the bat.
Pam turned and ran, but she was wearing a cute pair of heels that wouldn’t let her sprint. Still, she had to try. Her toes protested when she put her weight on them. The thugs’ footsteps thundered after her as they gave chase. The old man was almost on her. She could hear him wheezing Russian curses. He grabbed her coat and yanked her back.
From the shadows, a bulk pushed him off her and drove the bald man into the wall. Freed, Pam saw the man—the one she had helped—slam his meaty fist into her attacker’s face. Piotr jumped him before she could shout a warning, but without a wasted movement, the man rammed his elbow into Piotr’s nose. Bones crushed. Blood gushed, and Piotr was on the ground next to the still-twitching Gregor.
“Run,” her savior said, grabbing the old man’s bat and ripping it out of his hand before he could wind up for another swing. After jabbing it into the old man’s gut, he threw it down the alley.
Pam looked over her shoulder. The side door to the hospital had locked behind her. The problem was, her car was on the other side of the alley. She could go the long way around, but that would give Gregor and Piotr a chance to recover.
Inching her way past the brutal fight, Pam winced as the two men traded vicious blows to the body. Gregor grabbed her leg as she tried to dart over him. She screamed and kicked out at him. When he wouldn’t let go, she reared back with the other foot and stomped on his arm, breaking off her heel. Pam lost her balance and fell on her backside.
The homeless man finally put the old man down with a gut punch and a hard knee to the face. He turned on Pam, who was scuttling away from the sight.
“Don’t you listen? I said to run.”
“He grabbed my leg.” Pam forced herself to get up. Her pantyhose were shredded, and she was covered in debris from the alley. He had saved her, but the gleam in his eyes wasn’t quite sane.
Her breath stuck in her throat when he came closer. She stumbled back as her ankle buckled. Pam was having a hard time breathing. Now was not the time for an asthma attack. Where is my damn inhaler anyway?
Coughing, she batted at her pockets before realizing it was in her purse.
“Aw, honey, I didn’t mean to yell. I’m not going to hurt you.” He spread his hands but continued to walk toward her.
Wheezing for breath, she clamped her hand around her inhaler. “S-s-stay…” away
, she tried to say, but there wasn’t any air. Her purse dropped from her shaking fingers. Makeup, spare change, and business cards spilled out over the alley. Sucking on the inhaler, Pam closed her eyes, only to force them back open when the man grabbed her arm. Panicked, she lashed out with a kick, catching him just below his kneecap.
He let go of her as he went to the ground, roaring in pain.
“S-sorry,” she whispered, her voice hoarse. With her keys in one hand and her inhaler in the other, she fled on pure adrenaline until she reached her car.