Ptichka uletyela

Morning comes. He's awake. An acrid sensation of evaporated whiskey in his mouth. What would his old friends back at the Committee, parallel universe, think if they knew of his habits? But, he would apologise, finding decent vodka in this city is impossible. Last night, he had overplayed his hand again, ever so slightly. The whiskey consumed him. He opened an eye and looked around the familiar dimly-lit stairwell that had become a second home. As the waves of morning amnesia receded, the events of last night slowly approached him. The devil be damned! The heiress! Was she safe? Yes, remember, she spent the night in the hospital. She would be sought soon enough, and he had to ensure that it could be him before that slave Kluv did it himself. She was important, and this was something that not even Grigori Yefimovich understood completely.

Storozhev smiled through impossibly pearly teeth. He preferred to call the old man Grisha. He was almost like an old acquaintance, a national treasure from by-gone times much as Storozhev was himself. New Russians like Kluv could not understand mystics like Grisha with the same understanding that years of pursuit brought to Storozhev. It was an old ritual inherited from his days at the Committee. He would almost be sorry the day when he finally ensnared Grisha. Just like the residents of this City would feel if they ever turned on their televisions to discover the coyote feasting on the roadrunner.

He stood up, shaking off the last remnants of weariness. Mr Jack Daniels did not make him weary. Playing his role according to the Stanislavsky technique did not make him weary. Living in the stairwell for five months did not make him weary, nor even his soiled beard or dirty rags made him weary. But being forced to simply watch the Katie for so long without action could exhaust any agent. Katie, or Katherine, according to Storozhev's affectation of always using the proper honourifics, had a powerful and tenacious patience. That's why he hadn't intervened directly when that maggot junkie Webb lost it last night. He trusted Katherine's unseen force. If the heiress feared for her life, she knew how to fight for it. Her full strength, when unleashed, would even take her off-guard. If last night she had barely so much as grunted during the attack, it was because she knew or felt that there is strength in passivity too. So Storozhev, her knight in rusty armour, her White Guard, had not been invoked and did not intervene directly. She could manage by herself, he reasoned.

He could not prevent himself later though, when Webb went on a leadflinging holiday, and he tracked down the rabid dog across the snowstorm. The ethanol in his blood demanded by character sheltered his mind from the frost, and also steadied his grip on the trusty Makarov he always kept near his ribcage. Left coat pocket, opposite to his bottle, always ready. The junkie had already hit four people, and howled like a hyena when Storozhev's aim found his left leg. That's for laying a finger on Miss Reeves, asshole. Letting you soak the snow crimson until the ambulance and Alvarez's crew finds you is for me and the other times you gave Miss Reeves a hard time.

When Storozhev came back to his stairwell lair, he was not surprised to hear that Katherine was still in her room, making smalltalk with the idiot boy. Miss Reeves, he thought, I respect your decisions, but someone has to take a look at those cuts and bruises. Storozhev was the one who anonymously called the ambulance, mostly for his own reassurance, and partly for Grigori Yefimovich. Grisha, he grinned to himself, you old bear, you owe me one. I know you need the girl like you needed that bleeding boy ages ago. And I need Miss Reeves because it is my solemn duty to guard her, because I swore I would, and because she is my nearest lead to you.

Thus satisfied, he settled in for the night. And that's when morning found him. Now he had to switch roles, clean-up, find the heiress, and pluck a few strings that would place her in a better, safer home. Moribund Italians, screaming couples, raving junkies, idiot serbs, stairwell drunkards; that's no place for the heiress. And he could not present himself to her in this state either. Time to go to his aparment, his base of operations, and get a makeover.

He stepped outside, a grey morning amplified by the snow's cool reflection. The City was perfectly soulless. He enjoyed these moments of quite solitude when the snow muffled all human motion. It almost made it seem like home, and it helped him think. Through dimly white streets he walked for a few blocks until he got to his flat. Inside, old Kalashnikovs-47 from his earlier days, neatly-folded charts of the city, filed away and never used; black suits that had been mothballed for years. He only slept in his flat once a week, if even that. The rest of the time he'd be in character, watching, waiting, guarding. He took his job seriously, if perhaps sometimes too seriously. Within twenty minutes, he had showered, shaved, gulped glasses of water, and donned one of his old business suits. The Makarov never felt awkward in its holster inside his jacket, always on his left. Welcome home, baby. He looked at his reflection in still smoky mirror. With the black beard gone and the renewed glint in his blue eyes, he was irrecognisable. Also gone was the familiar ache from many mornings, an insisten pulse in his temples. Excellent. He drove in his black Buick towards the hospital.

After he managed to convince the receptionist with falsified identifications of his kinship to Katherine, despite his slight accent, he was not fully prepared to hear that she had been moved again. I'm sorry sir, I understand your concern, but her father has already taken her home. Perhaps you should call him? If you are her uncle, surely you have your brother's contact information, Mr. Kluv, he added through narrowed eyes.

Shit! Kluv had taken her, to his residence probably, or perhaps the pawn moved the queen elsewhere under instructions from the old mystic. He had been too late, and had lost that which matters most. Idiot! Storazhev phoned Alvarez, his only friend and colleague in the city, a man who could sometimes aid him, but Alvarez had his hands full with lowlife hooligans, loan sharks, and dealers. And with sweeping his tracks clean. To every soul a battle, it seems. Kluv was out of Alvarez's league anyway; Storozhev knew it. Sometimes, however, a knight needs to consult with his squire.

His chat with Alvarez did serve one purpose, to confirm what Storozhev already suspected. Nolan Danielson, Katherine's anonymous benefactor, had disappeared. Someone had found an empty wallet with his driver's license and turned it in to the police. Looks like Kluv had gotten to him too. So that tip-off earlier yesterday hadn't worked. Storozhev cursed himself for taking his role too seriously, again. He could have stopped that. The cogs were starting to turn, and no one knows how to operate the machine.

Storozhev mounted his steed. The Buick roared towards Kluv's mansion. A housecall on the pawn. The time has come to talk of many things.

†This bird has flown