The girls move around in their rooms like caged animals. They exercise, they pace, they pound on the walls. Some gesture lewdly to the cameras. Others act pleasant, thinking, perhaps, things will improve things for them.
This I doubt very much.
There are thirty Valhalla virginity auction feeds in all. I track them on nine monitors, most of which are split into multiple screens. I have arranged the monitors on a set of shelves in front of the living room couch in my new home, like nine TVs.
I watch the feeds nonstop, recording them during the few hours that I sleep. I can’t allow myself to miss even the slightest clue. My brother and I need the location of this place.
The laptop in the center shows Tanechka and only Tanechka. She is dressed as a nun. She never turns her face to the camera.
I know it’s her. I’ll always know moya Tanechka—my Tanechka.
Always praying. Tanechka never falters in her one-pointed concentration. She seems to be concentrating on an icon, as a nun would. Such fierce concentration. So very Tanechka.
The nun disguise is brilliant. If this were the old days in Moscow, we would laugh together about such a disguise, relish it like fine vodka. When I imagine this too much, tears leak from my eyes. It’s okay. The pain feels good because the pain connects me to her.
Pain was my only connection to her in those dark months after I killed her. When I wanted to die, too.
I threw her over the steep, rocky side of Dariali Gorge. My mafiya brothers and I killed several traitors in this way while we were down south working with the Georgian gangs. The animals below would eat their corpses and scatter their bones.
That was two years ago.
Now here she is.
My Tanechka survived.
I cannot describe the storm of joy and disbelief that raged inside me upon seeing her for the first time on the virginity auction feed. Even with her back to the camera, I knew it was her.
I didn’t have faith in her two years ago. I should have believed in her, even when all the world and all the evidence told me different.
Now is my second chance to fight for her.
Her real name is Tatiana, but we all called her Tanechka, and I threw her into the gorge, yet here she is, outrageous as the torch lily. I will give her everything. I will turn myself inside out to show her my love, my guilt. I will rip my belly open if she wants it.
Who is she working for now? What is her mission? She’s been there for weeks. Why does she wait? Does she wait for backup?
What are you doing, moya Tanechka?
Tanechka has attracted the attention of many bidders. She has the cheek of an angel and glorious blonde hair—you can see it peek out from under the head scarf that she ties under her chin, traditional for a nun in Ukraine. Numbers on the screen below her webcam feed show the latest bid. The number climbs daily. Everybody wants to have the blonde nun who won’t stop praying. Everybody wants to see her face. To destroy something beautiful.
Turn, Tanechka, I think.
Not that I need to confirm it. This is nobody but Tanechka.
Back home in Moscow, we were so deeply connected to each other we often thought the same things, and when we didn’t, we would read each other with the barest of clues. We would read people and environments in the same way.
Turn. Let me see your face. Let me see your eyes. I think I would understand her mission if only I could see her eyes.
But no, Tanechka stays at her pretense of prayer with her usual unwavering concentration. Back in Russia, she could train her scope on a specific doorway for hours, waiting for a mark to walk through. True as a diamond, Tanechka was. She could watch a doorway all through the night, long after my own eyes drifted closed.
I don’t know why she’d wear a nun’s outfit, pretending to be a captive woman whose virginity is up for auction, a helpless victim. Tanechka is not a virgin and not a victim, aside from the day I killed her.
Though it seems she was not a victim even then. I shouldn’t be surprised she survived.
She’s there undercover, so she must intend to take down the Valhalla brothel, a vile place. Taking down this brothel is precisely what my brother Aleksio and I are working to do.
But who is Tanechka here with? Has she gone vigilante? Or is another gang involved, with Tanechka scouting things? Six weeks she has been in this place, judging from the bidding roster. Tanechka never approved of sex slavery. She would have hated staying in a place like this for so long. It is strange, really, that she stays.
Valhalla is the primary income source of our enemy, Bloody Lazarus. He runs the most powerful crime dynasty in Chicago—a dynasty stolen from my brothers and me. We plan to take much of it back from him, but we want nothing to do with a place like Valhalla. We won’t just destroy it—we’ll reach into the pipeline that feeds it and destroy everybody who has ever been involved with it. We will tear this operation out by the roots so that it can never grow again.
In M-1 Global, our Russian version of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the best fighters know to soften their foes with strikes to the body before going for the knockout. Destroying income sources like the Valhalla brothel is a body blow to Bloody Lazarus. Once he is hurting, we go in for the knockout.
Lazarus helped kill my parents and separate me from my brothers. I wasn’t yet two years old when he helped to rip me from my family in Chicago and dump me in a Moscow orphanage.
I grew up understanding nothing of who I was, with only the vaguest images of my life in America. I thought they were dreams, these images.
My older brother, Aleksio, found me just last year. Kiro, our baby brother—malinky brat—is still out there, lost. In danger.
I focus on Tanechka, so steadfast.
To destroy Valhalla, we must find Valhalla.
My role is to pose as a customer, a man bidding on these poor, trapped girls. Aleksio and I decided that I would win one of the insignificant auctions. We chose a scrawny girl, Nikki, for me to bid on.
When you win an auction at Valhalla, they take you in blindfolded to claim your prize. Some say that Valhalla is not even in this state, that they fly you there, but Aleksio and I believe it is here in Chicago.
Valhalla has thirty auctions running at any one time. There is a feed below the current bid price where you can read the messages that the men type to the laptops in the girls’ rooms. Some girls write back in bad English. Some seem even to be practicing their English through these exchanges. Some ignore the messages.
Tanechka ignores them, but she sees them. They are right there in her field of vision.