The car hummed under her feet, the van bulleting down the uneven road. The engine, old but sturdy, seemed to rattle the floor, beyond what the road was doing to the van. Her eyes were fixed on the wall, on a rusty spot between the heads of two men who refused to look at her.
“Why did they bring the Widow along?” whispered one of the men to another, thinking she couldn’t hear him.
“She has something special in store for them,” the other man replied in a whisper.
Natasha felt the van lurch and reached for a hand-hold. The van squealed to a stop. She grabbed her rifle, cocking it and checking the chamber. It was a matter of seconds. The men in the van followed suit, lining up to exit the rear.
“Go!” came a voice and the door flew open—
A second vehicle was coming to clean up the bodies. Until then, they were laid in a row, their faces covered, in what had been a grand foyer. Their organization had believed they were being covert, hiding in a rundown mansion, somewhere in the countryside. But they had found them.
This was a sight she was used to. The body in the red shirt, and another in yellow, had been hers. The others had killed more, but those were hers. The colors of their shirts seemed to glow in the darkened foyer. When she blinked, she saw them behind her eyelids.
A drop in the bucket, a mark towards her debts.
“Widow,” a sharp voice intruded.
The team leader pointed up the stairs with his thumb. Whatever was upstairs, he wanted it taken care of quickly. She could oblige, knowing a little what awaited her upstairs. There had been thirteen people reported in the building. Twelve corpses lined the floor.
Each footstep on each stair was like a drumbeat in the quiet, secluded old mansion. Graffiti in Russian lined the walls as it wrapped around and rose, from stencils to artwork to simple tags. Whatever this place had been before, the previous squatters had enough respect to make way for the new owners. Not enough respect not to give them away, but still.
She followed the soldier that was waiting at the top of the stairs. Down the long hallway, the door to the master bedroom was ajar. She could hear the blubbering before she even got there. The begging, the pleading. The sharp sound that could only be the skin on skin of a hard slap.
They were making a mess of things.
The door creaked open. The display was a mess. They’d tied him up so fast that the only thing keeping him down was his own fear. A soldier stood intimately close to him, violating the man’s personal space. Shaking and crying, the prisoner could only stare directly at the soldier’s shiny, perfect boots.
“Out, all of you,” Natasha said.
The soldier standing in front of the prisoner sneered at her. He looked petulant, like a boy who cannot wait until he’d grown enough to defy his parents. He waved to the other two men in the room and they departed. Natasha waited until they were gone, moved down the hall, and out of earshot.
She rushed to the side of the man in the chair, skidding to a stop. Her hands were nearly shaking when she pulled the loose gag out of his mouth.
“It’s okay,” Natasha said. “It’s okay. It’s okay, okay? I’m here to help.”
“No—,” he said. “One of them, you’re—”
“Look, we don’t have a lot of time. I can help, but you gotta trust me, alright? I’m one of the good guys. They just don’t know it, yet. Where’s the package?”
“I’m not telling you people anything.”
Natasha’s heart twisted in her chest. It was going to be hard to convince him. He had no reason to trust her, and time was balanced on a tight wire. She pushed his glasses back up on his face, trying to give him the dignity of his better eyesight, pushing his hair out of his face.
“SHIELD knows about this operation,” Natasha said. “I couldn’t save the others, but I can get the assets out of here.”
“SHIELD?” the man whispered. “My god. If SHIELD knows—there’s no time, is there?”
“’Fraid not. Come on, you gotta help me out here. I can’t promise I can get you out, but the assets still have a chance.”
“You don’t know what they are, do you?”
“The KGB wants them, so I’m guessing whatever they are, it’s best they don’t get them. SHIELD has an exit plan for them, and I can get them there. I can’t promise they can extract you, but—”
She could read his face as he searched every corner of his brain. Distrust dissipated and he nodded, looking Natasha in the eye.
“They’re below the cellar,” he whispered. “It used to be a safe room for dissidents, but we converted it into a lab. She’s down there. Please, get her out. She doesn’t deserve this.”
Natasha felt her face shift. The desperation and fear was gone. It was a relief, not to have to act any longer and let her expression go cold. There was an apology on her face, but not much else.
“No,” he whispered. “No, no, no, no—”
Natasha stood up, deadened eyes catching the face of the man who was watching from behind the crack in the door. He strode in next to the now-blubbering man in the chair.
“She’s in the basement, under the cellar,” Natasha said. “Take a team, look for passageways and hidden compartments. There might be more down there.”
“Please, you can’t,” the man cried. “She’s—”
Natasha didn’t flinch when the soldier shot him in the head.
His body slumped in the chair, his glasses falling off his face to chink on the hardwood of the floor. The massive hole in the head left no subtleties about what his chances of survival had been.
She gave the soldier nothing. He sneered at her, as if she’d been the cause of the inconvenience of the prisoner before stalking out of the room. He shouted in sharp Russian and there was a flurry of activity. Heavy sets of boots stomped down the stairs and into the cellar, where the search began.
She stayed with the prisoner, for a while, his drooping body stuck in the position the ropes and chair forced on a body without muscle resistance. Saliva dripped out of his mouth, the blood around his temples dripping along with it. He began to smell.
In her bones, Natasha knew this didn’t have to happen.
But it had.
No use crying, and on and on—
By the time Natasha made it to the basement, they had already uncovered the secret room. They wouldn’t have found it without the dead man upstairs, uncovering a deeper level to the already deep cellar. They had to remove the boiler, an ancient, dead thing that blocked off the entrance to a cavern that stretched further under the house. She peered around the crowd of men, craning her neck to get a better view down the long corridor, and into the lighted room at the end of it.
A hand went up between her and the safe room before she could walk any further.
“Your job’s done here,” said the soldier that had shot the prisoner in the head.
Natasha cocked her head at him. Her mouth tilted and she looked him up and down.
He was too relaxed. His rifle was positioned lazily across his chest, but not held to standard procedure. His cockiness did not extend to being prepared for anything sudden. She could kill him in five seconds, and it would be his own fault. She knew he saw the judgmental flick of her eyes and she sized him up and made himself taller, getting a better, but still not professional, grip on his gun.
She turned her back on him, marching up the stairs.
# Natasha watched the perimeter, waiting to pile back into the van with the soldiers and the asset. She scanned the farmland around her. Little white flowers peeked through tall grass, and birds fluttered around a tree nearby. The beauty of it stretched out into the horizon, nothing of cities or their pollution in sight. She saw mountains beyond, hugging the land like a curving arm. Even the air smelled honeyed and fresh. Her mouth turned up at the corner, though they could not banish the heaviness in her eyes.
“Pretty,” Natasha said to herself.
There was a scuffle and the steps of boots behind her. They had something with them—a figure in white and blue. A hospital gown. It had been a lab, she remembered. Also, burlap, covering her face. It was a girl, though she couldn’t see her face, her feet dangling when the soldiers let her sag too much. If she wasn’t unconscious, she was close enough that she couldn’t properly use her legs.
The team leader made a motion with his hand. Natasha came forward and piled into the back of the van with the rest of the soldiers. And the asset.
She was drugged, after all. She was swaying and humming with unease, but she was conscious enough to stay upright. Not quite on her own. Strong hands in tac gloves gripped her hard enough to bruise.
It hadn’t been the first asset Natasha had brought in. She wished she hadn’t had to do it again. The fact remained that she would have been brought in no matter what. They would have found that lab, even without her. She’d just expedited the transaction between victim and killers.
She looked the faceless girl up and down again, preparing for the long drive with the specter of guilt in the van with them.
It was like a dozen missions she’d been a part of before. Natasha had decided that this girl sitting there, not knowing where she was, scared and alone—this would be the last ounce of debt she would own.