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Broken Whispers: Chapter 1

Mikhail

Present

My shoes echo in the empty anteroom of the Chicago Opera Theater, mixing with the faint opening notes of Swan Lake coming from the hallway on the left. With the ballet already starting, the entrance is vacated. I nod to the security guy, then turn and follow the long hallway toward the double wooden doors at the far end, where a poster hanging on the wall attracts my attention.

They changed the photo. The previous one showed the whole troupe in the middle of the group jump, taken from afar so the whole stage was visible, but the new one shows only one dancer, the shot zoomed in. I take a step closer until I’m standing right before the image. Without conscious thought, my hand rises and traces the contour of her face—her sharp cheekbones, her cherry blossom mouth, down her slender neck, then back up over the outline of her eyes, which seem to be looking straight at me. The big letters at the top of the poster announce this evening’s show as her last performance. Looks like the season is closing.

Sometimes, I imagine approaching her, maybe after one of her shows. We would exchange a few words and I would invite her to dinner. Nothing fancy, perhaps that cozy tavern downtown. They have the best wine and . . . I catch my reflection visible on the glass covering the poster, and I instantly let my hand fall back, feeling like my touch somehow tainted her. I guess this is as close as someone like me, hideous inside and out, should be allowed near such perfection.

I carefully open the big wooden door and quietly slip inside. With the only source of light coming from the stage, the space is rather obscure, but I still keep myself to the back where the darkness is the thickest. I’ve been extremely careful in pursuing my obsession, always making sure I come after the play starts and leave before it ends. It’s better to keep a low profile. Saying I don’t blend into the crowd would be an understatement.

My looks have never really bothered me. In my line of business, the scarier you look, the easier it is to make people talk. Sometimes, the only thing needed was for me to enter the room and they would spill all they know. My reputation has helped as well.

Finding a suitable fuck was usually tricky, but it had nothing to do with my face. A lot of women from our circle were eager to lure the Bratva’s Butcher into their bed, but they became significantly less eager when I presented them with the rules: only remove enough clothes to get the job done, strictly from behind, and no touching of any kind.

The civilians had different reactions. Most tended to avoid looking directly at me. Others liked to stare. I was perfectly fine with either approach.

So, why the fuck does it bother me now? Why am I hiding in dark corners, stalking this girl I’ve only seen from afar, like a psycho? I’m still debating my sanity when the solo violin theme begins and my eyes snap back to the stage. I know nothing about music, but I haven’t missed any of her shows for months, and by now, I recognize exactly when her part comes. When my gaze finds her gliding toward the center of the stage, I feel my breath catch in my chest.

She’s a vision, spinning along the stage in that long gauzy skirt, and I am mesmerized as I follow each of her moves. Her light blonde hair is twisted at the back of her neck, but instead of making her look stern, the harsh hairstyle only accentuates her perfect doll-like features. She’s like a little bird—gracious and fragile—and God . . . so painfully young. I lean on the wall behind me and shake my head. If I don’t break out of this madness, I’ll go crazy.

After her part is finished, I leave, but instead of going straight to the exit, I make a detour to the big table near the backstage door. It’s packed with flower arrangements visitors have left to be sent to the dancers’ dressing rooms. Strange setup, but it works for me. As always, I leave a single rose and proceed to the exit.

 

Bianca

 

“Your father wants to talk with you,” my mother says from the doorway.

I ignore her and wrap the last of my costumes in thin white paper, tracing the gauzy fabric of the tulle skirt along the way. Then, I pack it into the big white box on my bed, where I already stored the rest of my stage outfits, and secure the lid over it. Everything that remains of my career as a professional dancer, ready to collect dust. I never expected it to end so quickly. The star of the Chicago Opera Theater, who rose to a position of principal dancer in her company at sixteen. Now retired at barely twenty-one years of age. Fifteen years of hard work just gone because of one stupid injury. As I turn to place the box at the bottom of the closet, I want to weep, but I keep the tears from falling. What’s the point anyway?

“He’s in his office,” my mother continues. “Don’t make him wait, Bianca. It’s important.”

I wait for her to leave, then start toward the door only to stop in front of my vanity and look at the crystal vase holding a single yellow rose. Usually, I donate all the flowers I get after a performance to the children’s hospital. This is the only one I kept. I reach out with my hand and trace the long thornless stem wrapped in a yellow silk ribbon with gold details. There has been one left for me after every performance for the past six months. No message. No signature. Nothing. Well, this is the last one I’ll ever get.

I exit my room and head downstairs to the furthest part of the house where my father’s and brother’s offices are situated. The dull pain in my back is almost gone now, but I stopped deluding myself that it was just a passing thing months ago. I will never be able to withstand six-hour practices, five days a week, again.

The door to my father’s office is open, so I go inside without knocking, close the door behind me, and stand in front of his desk. He doesn’t acknowledge me, just keeps scribbling notes in his leather organizer. Bruno Scardoni never acknowledges people he considers beneath him a second sooner than he feels fit. He enjoys seeing them fidget while he practices his might over them. Unfortunately, I never really gave a fuck about his power games, so I sit in the chair opposite him without an invitation and cross my arms over my chest.

“Ill-behaving, as ever, I see,” he says without lifting his head from the organizer. “I’m glad your disobedience will soon become someone else’s problem.”

My heartbeat speeds up at his words, but I school my features not to show any reaction. Father is like a predator, just waiting for his prey to show weakness so he can attack, aiming for the jugular.

“We’re signing a truce with the Russians,” he says and looks up at me. “And you’re getting married to one of Petrov’s men next week.”

It takes me a few seconds to collect myself from the shock, then I look my father right in the eyes and mouth “No.”

“It wasn’t a question, Bianca. Everything is already agreed upon—a daughter of a capo for one of his men. Congratulations, cara mia.” A poisonous smile spreads across his face.

I grab a paper and a pen from his desk, quickly write the words and pass it toward him. He looks down at the note and grinds his teeth.

“I can’t make you?” He sneers.

I start to stand up, but he leans toward me, grabs my arm, and slaps me across my face with his other hand so hard my head snaps to the side. My ears are ringing, but I take a deep breath, turn toward my father again, and slowly take the paper from where he threw it on the other side of the desk. I straighten the edges of the paper, place it on the desk in front of him, point my finger to the words written there, and turn to leave. I won’t be married off, especially to some Russian brute.

“If you don’t do it, I’ll give them Milene.”

His words stop me in my tracks. He wouldn’t dare. My little sister is only eighteen. She’s still a child. I turn around, look my father in the eyes, and I see it. He would.

“I see that got your attention. Good.” He points to the chair I just vacated. “Get back here.”

The five steps I take to that chair are probably the second hardest thing I’ve done in my life. My feet feel like they are made of lead the whole way back.

“Now, since that’s settled, a few things. You will be a docile, dutiful wife to your husband. I still don’t know who it’ll be, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that he will be someone from Petrov’s inner circle.”

I watch him as he leans back in his chair and takes a cigar from the box in front of him.

“You’ll rein in your temper, let him fuck you as much as he wants, and make sure he trusts you. He will probably underestimate you, as people usually do when they find out you can’t speak, and he’ll start opening up, babbling about business.” He points his cigar in my direction. “You will remember everything he says, every single detail about how they are organized, what routes they use for distribution, everything he might mention.”

Opening a drawer in his desk, he takes out a burner phone, and slides it across the desk toward me. “You will message me everything you learn. Every single thing. Do you understand, Bianca?”

Everything makes more sense now. What a perfect setup he has made: get rid of his problematic child, and get into good graces with the don by sacrificing one of his daughters to the Bratva, all while making sure he’ll be the one getting the inside information on the Russians. Brilliant, really.

“I asked you a question!” He snarls.

I tilt my head to the side and regard him, wishing I had a gun and imagining pointing it between his eyes and pulling the trigger. I wouldn’t miss. Over the years, my brother made sure my aim is impeccable by secretly taking me with him on his shooting practices. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to kill my father, but imagining it definitely felt good.

I nod, collect the phone from the desk, and leave the office, catching the sight of his satisfied smile from the corner of my eye. Let him believe whatever he wants. I might be marrying into the Bratva, but I’m doing it for my sister, not because he ordered me. And I am not playing his spy. I am not dying because of him, again.

 

Mikhail

 

When Roman Petrov, Bratva’s pakhan, enters the dining room, everybody stands and keeps standing until he takes a seat at the head of the table. He leans his cane on his chair and nods for us to sit back down. The first chair on his right remains empty. His wife probably feels unwell again. I thought pregnant women only had sickness in the morning, but based on what I heard in the kitchen, Nina Petrova has been vomiting nonstop for weeks.

Roman turns to the maid and motions with his head toward the door. “Leave and close the door, Valentina. I’ll call you when we are done.”

She nods quickly and rushes out of the room, closing the double doors behind her. It looks like we’ll be discussing business before dinner. Roman leans back in his chair, and I wonder what kind of bomb he’ll be dropping on us today. The last time he called us all in, he informed us that he secretly got married two days after meeting his wife.

“As you already know, we’re calling a truce with the Italians,” he says. “They agreed to my terms, I agreed to theirs, and the only thing left is to organize a wedding to seal the deal.” He raises his eyebrows. “So, who would like to volunteer to be the lucky groom?”

Nobody says a word. We don’t do arranged marriages in the Bratva. That was always an Italian thing, and nobody wants to be saddled with a Trojan horse. That’s what that woman would be, and everybody knows it. I wonder who he’ll pick. It won’t be me, because Roman knows my issues too well. It won’t be Sergei, either. No one in his right state of mind would trust that lunatic with a toaster, let alone a human being. Maxim is too old, so I’m betting on Kostya or Ivan.

“What, no one wants a pretty Italian girl? Maybe this will help change your mind.” He reaches into the pocket of his jacket, takes out a photo, and passes it to Maxim. “Bianca Scardoni, the middle daughter of Italian capo Bruno Scardoni, and up until recently, the prima ballerina of the Chicago Opera Theatre.”

I feel my body go stone-still. Not possible.

“They really want this alliance.” Roman smiles. “The most beautiful woman of the Italian mafia is up for grabs.”

Maxim passes the picture to Kostya, crosses his arms over his chest, and looks at Roman. “What’s the catch?”

“Why do you think there would be a catch?”

“The Italians would never give up a capo’s daughter, especially one who looks like that, to the Bratva. No matter how much they want an alliance. There must be something wrong with her.”

“Well, there is one small catch, but I would rather call it a bonus.” Roman smirks.

I take the photo Kostya passes me and look down at it. She’s even more beautiful with her loose hair  framing her perfect face, while her light brown eyes are smiling into the camera. Grinding my teeth, I pass the picture to Ivan. Just thinking about one of my comrades getting her makes a wave of rage come over me, and I grab the arms of the chair with all my might so I won’t end up hitting something.

Ivan looks at the image, his eyebrows raised, then nudges Dimitri with his elbow and passes him the photo.

“She doesn’t look . . . extremely Italian.” Dimitri nods at the photo in his hands “I thought all Italian girls had dark hair. Was she adopted?”

“Nope. Maternal grandmother was Norwegian,” Roman throws in.

Sergei is next, but he just passes the photo to Pavel without even looking at it.

“Fuck me, she’s hot.” Pavel whistles and shakes his head. “Do you have another photo? Preferably with fewer clothes.”

Focusing on the wall across from me, I squeeze the chair even harder, trying to control the urge to get up and punch Pavel in the face or do something worse, like claim her for myself. Pavel keeps looking at the photo, and for a moment, I imagine him placing his hands on her and my control disintegrates in a fraction of a second.

“I’ll take her,” I say.

The absolute silence fills the room as all eyes focus on me, surprise and disbelief visible on every face. I turn to Roman who regards me with his eyebrows raised.

“An interesting development,” he says. “I was planning to give her to Kostya if no one volunteered. He’s closest to her age.”

“Well, he’s not getting her.”

“You still haven’t heard the catch, Mikhail. You may change your mind.”

“I won’t change my mind.”

“Well.” Roman shrugs and takes a sip of his drink. “That’s settled then.”

The dinner passes in silence, which is unusual. Instead of business talk and a laugh here and there, tonight, everyone seems preoccupied with their meal, but I notice the guys throwing looks in my direction from time to time. They probably wonder what has gotten into me to claim the Italian girl for myself, but I don’t care what they think. She’s mine, no matter what.

After the meal is over, Roman gives me a nod, and I follow him down the long corridor into his office. He sits down on the recliner in the corner while I remain standing and lean on the wall behind me.

“She is twenty-one. You are too old for her, Mikhail.”

“Ten years is not much. You are eleven years older than your wife.”

“I have an extremely youthful personality,” he says and smiles.

“Sure.”

“Eloquent as ever.” He shakes his head. “She’s barely an adult. What will you do when she starts pestering you about going out every night? What if she wants to go partying, and you have to tell her you need to work? You will have to take her to watch teen movies every week. Even Nina loves that crap. I can ask her to send you some recommendations, you know.”

“Thank you. I’ll pass.”

Roman sighs and leans back. “Girls her age want a man who will speak more than five sentences a day, Mikhail. They expect kisses, cuddling. Did you think about that?”

“We will work it out.”

Silence. He’s just watching me with his head tilted to the side, and I know exactly what he’s pondering.

“She’s not one of your regular fucks. How do you expect a twenty-one-year-old girl to deal with your . . . issues?”

“She won’t have to. I’ll deal with my issues myself.”

“Oh? When was the last time you voluntarily touched someone other than Lena?”

I stare at him without answering. Not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t remember. “I’ll deal with it, Roman.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Alright then.” He sighs and continues, “You know she will likely be spying on us and reporting to the Italians. You are in charge of most of our drug operations, so I need you to be very careful about what you say in front of her. Also, make sure you remove all sensitive information from your office in case she decides to snoop around when you’re not there.”

“I will.”

“There is one more thing you need to know about her, and if you decide to change your mind, I’ll saddle Kostya with her.”

“I won’t change my mind.”

“She doesn’t speak, Mikhail.”

I stiffen and look at Roman, not sure if I heard him right.

“She can’t be deaf,” I say. “She’s a dancer.”

“She isn’t deaf. There was a car accident when she was a teenager. I don’t have any details. It’s all Scardoni shared.”

“How does she communicate?”

“I have no idea. Writes in a notebook or sign language, I suppose. Are you still in?”

“Yes.”

Roman raises an eyebrow but doesn’t comment on my decision. “Do you want me to set up a meeting before we do the wedding?”

I feel myself go still. “No.”

“Why?” he asks, like he doesn’t already know the answer to that question. “She can’t say no. Everything is already settled.”

“No meeting.”

Roman watches me, then shakes his head. “Let’s organize the wedding then.”


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