Everybody knew that John and Winston had history. There were no such thing as secrets in their world, and neither of them made any effort to downplay the extent of their association. It had gotten them both in trouble on more than one occasion, each one roped into the disagreements of the other. Friends were a liability in their line of work, emotion a sign of weakness. The Adjudicator had made it perfectly clear during their investigation that Winston’s death sentence was a direct result of his sentimentality. He had afforded the goals a friend a higher importance than those of the High Table, and had only managed to escape his fate through a risky combination of bravado and brutality. The Adjudicator had been openly impressed with Winston’s callous cunning as he shot the man he had gone so far to protect, sending him crashing to the pavement to demonstrate his fealty to the Table. He couldn’t help but feel a little badly that there hadn’t really been time to warn John of that part of his plan. He was a smart man, though, and the King could help him put two and two together. Winston only hoped that John’s inevitable grudge would wear off before his bones were set again.
While the fact of their friendship was common knowledge, very few people were aware of just how long Winston and John had been acquainted. He had first encountered little Jardani Jovanovic in the fall of 1987, nearly six years after he had been instated as the manager of the New York Continental. The Director of the Tarkovsky Theatre paid a visit him a visit one October morning with a sullen, dark-haired teen in tow, asking for a meeting. Winston was surprised to hear from her so soon. She had come to him a few weeks prior asking for assistance in a matter involving an unaffiliated Chechen school, but that transaction had been completed a few days since. Regardless, he led her through the door behind the front desk and into his office. The boy did not follow, stepping off to one side. Winston shut the door and strode to the far end of the room.
“It is always a pleasure to see you,” he began, pouring himself and the Director each a glass of Armagnac and gesturing for her to sit down, “However, I had thought our business was concluded for the moment.” The Director nodded, taking a shallow sip of brandy,
“It is,” she replied, flatly, “and I thank you again for your help. I have come to deliver your renumeration.” Winston quirked an eyebrow. “Jardani, idite syuda” she called. The boy stepped into the room and she continued, “as previously mentioned, the funds of the Ruska Roma are currently spread quite thinly and are largely not liquid. However, we are not eager to be indebted.” She looked at Jardani and jerked her head toward Winston. He lifted a small, wooden case onto Winston’s desk and opened it, revealing two horizontal rows of gold coins. Winston drew the case closer to himself and gave the contents a cursory count. All in all it added up to about half of what she owed. He gave her a skeptical look, but allowed her to continue,
“This is what money we are able to offer at this time,” she said, “however, I would like to suggest a barter in addition.”
“A barter,” Winston asked. He looked from the Director to the boy, “him?”
“He is one of my best pupils,” she explained. “I would require him to be returned at night and on Sundays, but he would not take a wage.” Winston was dubious. He scoffed,
“Forgive me, but I’m in no need of a ballerina,” he noticed Jardani bristling in the corner of his eye, “or a wrestler, for that matter.”
“He has other skills,” the Director replied, coldly, “obedient, strong back, and he is very well versed in the tools of our trade. Ask him, if you wish.” Winston turned back toward the boy. He was thin and pale, with close-cropped hair and black eyes weighed down at the bottom by heavy bags. He wore street clothes; a grey t-shirt, sneakers, and jeans which were beginning to fray at the cuffs. Winston could have mistaken him for any kid off the street, so average as to be invisible, had he not plainly displayed several trademarks of their profession. He held himself like a dancer, for one thing, his posture upright but limber, and there was a vigilance in his gaze that gave him away to anyone who knew what to look for.
“You know a bit about weapons, do you?” He asked, hopeful but not expectant. Jardani nodded. “Alright, then, if I were in the market for something light but impactful for urban outdoor use, would you recommend the WA 2000 or the FAL 50?” Jardani stayed silent for a moment, presumably considering his answer, though it was difficult to tell from his stony expression whether he had even heard a word Winston had said. Finally, he answered, his voice soft but sure, the last vestiges of a Slavic accent clinging to his vowels,
“The WA is a rare gun, but that’s about the only thing it’s got going for it. If those were my only two options, I’d tell you to pick the FAL.” Coming from anyone else, it would have sounded cocky or churlish, but Winston heard no ego in his tone, and there was no hint of confrontation in his eyes. Intrigued, he asked,
“And what if those weren’t your only two options?” Jardani thought for another second,
“Dragunov,” he asnwered, definitively, “it’s around the same weight and size and can handle more modification, plus it’s Soviet-made, so it’s more reliable in cold weather.” Winston cocked his head, trying to determine whether the boy had just made a joke. The Director was grinning archly when he looked to her again and she gave a satisfied shrug. Winston sighed, a smile appearing at the corner of his mouth,
“Welcome to the Continental, my dear boy,” he said, adding to the Director, “what size waistcoat does he wear?”
Jardani was apprenticed to Mariya, the hotel’s sommelier. She had been complaining of being short staffed for months now, since her last assistant had up and disappeared a few weeks before. Winston led the boy down into the cellar and found her taking a tea break. She stood up when he entered, but he stayed her with a hand,
“Please,” he said, “I’m not staying long.” She sat back down, at which point she noticed Winston’s shadow,
“He’s not yours, is he?” She demanded. Winston laughed,
“No, no,” he assured her, “in a sense, I suppose he’s yours.” Mariya made no effort to hide her confusion. Winston explained, “the Director has graciously loaned us one of her pupils, and I know you’ve been in the market for a new assistant since Jorge’s departure.”
“And he’s it, is he?” Mariya looked almost queasy.
“I’ve heard he can lift a crate like no one else,” Winston replied, “anyway, don’t let me keep you,” without another word, he turned on his heel and began to climb the grey stone steps back up to the hotel lobby. Jardani glanced around the cellar. There wasn’t much light, a row of pot lights alone illuminating the pathway from the stairs to the counter. The display cases were all individually lit, however, boasting an enormous variety of weapons against rich, red velvet. Mariya was ignoring his presence, slowly sipping her cup of tea and eating a plate of small sandwiches. She only acknowledged him once she had finished, standing up and brushing a couple of stray crumbs off of her impeccable black suit. She was about half a foot taller than Jardani, though he noted that a reasonable proportion of that discrepancy could be accounted for by her shoes. She had straight, black hair tied back in an ornate bun at the back of her head and upturned, darkly-lined brown eyes. She asked him his name and gave him hers in return, after which she abandoned pleasantries,
“Do you know how to use a pallet jack?” Jardani nodded, “Great, there’s an inventory shipment coming in about an hour. Meet the truck out by the loading dock and bring it into the storeroom.” She offered no further instructions except to point in the general direction of the loading dock. He began to head that way when she stopped him, a look of wry befuddlement on her face,
“What, are you going there now?” Jardani looked up at her, his face guarded, unsure what he had misunderstood about their interaction. He glanced this way and that before nodding slowly. Mariya laughed in disbelief, “for God’s sake, you’re not going to wait around out there for an hour. Here,” she poured tea into her old cup and slid it toward him, pointing to the chair next to hers, “pretend I’m a reasonable person and have a cup of tea.” Hesitantly, he sat down and took a sip. She nodded approvingly and produced a pack of cigarettes from the purse slung over the back of her chair. She lit one, then offered the box to Jardani. He politely declined, explaining that students of the Ruska Roma were forbidden to smoke or drink while they were in training. She nodded and offered him instead a tangerine from deeper inside the purse. He took it and thanked her, but it remained untouched for the remainder of their break. If Mariya noticed, she said nothing, and for that Jardani was grateful.
The Tarkovsky theatre was more than just a front. When the Director had moved their operation in, the place had been falling apart, taking on water and hosting innumerable mould colonies. They had restored it over the course of five years, and by the time Jardani came to live there it had largely been returned to its former splendour. The theatre housed close to a hundred students at a time, boys and girls, as young as six years old. Jardani himself had been barely eight when he had arrived. For the last five years, he had adhered to the same strictly regimented schedule. He woke at four, ate a breakfast of fruit and grains, and by five was expected to be in either the studio or the gymnasium for the remainder of the morning, switching from one to the other for six hours in the afternoon. Supper was served over a one hour break, after which there were chores and other duties to be performed before their ten o’clock curfew. It was the same every day, an endless cycle of hunger, exhaustion, blood, sweat and tears. Jardani’s secondment to the Continental had complicating things, however. His work hours at the hotel and his cohort’s class schedule were in contradiction with one another. As such, he had been regrouped. Starting today, he would work from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon, then return to the theatre to train from six until midnight. He had been placed into an older group, with boys of sixteen and seventeen. Jardani felt exposed and extremely small as he walked into the studio that evening. One or two wolfish glances turned into five, then six, until he felt every eye in the room burning his skin. These boys would eat him alive, he thought, if he made a single misstep. He had never exactly been popular among the student body. He was too quiet, too unpredictable, impossible to get a read on. He attracted violence. Two boys walked over to the corner of the room where he was stretching. Neither said anything, but the three of them made eye contact in the mirror as they warmed up, each daring the other to make a play. Fortunately for them, it never came to that. The instructor’s voice rang through the room, drawing their focus away from him,
“Vnimaniye!” She pounded the heavy tip of her cane against the floor. “First position,” she demanded. They obeyed, and she began to outline the sequence they would be drilling. Sauté, chassé, grand jeté, et cetera. It was simple enough, and Jardani didn’t have much trouble keeping up, until one of the boys who had been eyeing him earlier deliberately tripped him. He crashed to the floor and everyone turned to look at him. The instructor ordered him back up and the class was forced to begin the exercise again. It happened twice more. The instructor would turn her back to observe the other students and someone would trip or jostle or outright shove him to the ground, then make some comment loud enough for the rest of the class to hear about how a little kid like Jardani wasn’t cut out to train with them. They were trying to get a rise out of him. Jardani understood that. He also understood, even if the other boys didn’t, that they wouldn’t enjoy the result if they did. He clenched his jaw, picked himself up off the ground, and breathed deeply to keep control. There was a time and a place for violence, and it would come soon enough.
He soaked his feet after practice, as he always did, in a bucket of ice water at his bedside. The water, already red from the rust in the pipes, turned a murky brown when he dipped his bloody feet in. He hissed as the water seeped into the wounds, creeping under his blackened toenails. Soon, however, he began to feel relief. The icy water took the edge off of some of his aches and pains, giving him the opportunity to bandage his ravaged limbs and fall into an uneasy sleep, plagued with restless dreams.
Winston took Jardani to the tailor the next day to have him fitted for his uniform. Ordinarily he would have left this sort of administration to the service manager, but for an unusual custom order he felt he should be more directly involved. Thomasz greeted him warmly upon their entry, then smirked down at Jardani,
“This must be the young gypsy,” he remarked, “what are we in the market for today?” The roll of Winston’s eyes was nearly imperceptible, but Thomasz’s cheeks nonetheless began to flush.
“Custom uniform,” he replied, icily, “assistant sommelier.” Thomasz nodded,
“Of course,” he said, suitably cowed, “this way, please.”
There was a large fitting room at the back of the shop, accessible only through a door which was camouflaged as a rack of jackets. In contrast to the modest, even spartan decor of the vestibule, the fitting room was more akin to the Continental. Dark wood, Persian rugs and tastefully dimmed wall sconces; it reminded Jardani of the main hall at the theatre. He stood in his underwear on a small riser at one end of the room. He was draped in brown paper in front of a tri-fold mirror, arms outstretched as Thomasz took his measurements. He set his jaw and stared straight ahead into the reflection of his own eyes, pointedly ignoring every sarcastic comment at his expense. Winston stood behind, observing the whole process carefully and occasionally making one or two suggestions about the fit and hang of the jacket,
“Make sure he doesn’t drown in it. He’s a professional, not a bar mitzvah boy.” Thomasz agreed, making a number of small chalk lines on Jardani’s back before moving on to measure his legs. Jardani inhaled sharply as the tailor ran the measuring tape up his inseam. He accidentally caught Tomasz’s eye in the mirror and instantly regretted it. The look on his face - superior, presumptuous and vaguely sinister - made Jardani want to break his nose. When it was over, he simply walked out of the shop, allowing Winston to hash out the rest of the details. Winston exited a few moments later, casting a look that managed to be disapproving, yet somehow understanding. Even so, Jardani walked two steps behind him all the way back to the Continental.
Winston kept a close eye on their little urchin over the next few weeks. He was far from the most social, but Winston noted gladly that the Director had not overstated his work ethic. Every morning, Jardani arrived at the Continental at 6:30, making his way into the cellar through the loading docks and getting down to work immediately. His days mostly consisted of the menial tasks Mariya didn’t wish to do herself: unpacking and preparing inventory for display, sweeping the floor, dusting the cases, and putting up fresh targets in the test range. He was occasionally customer-facing, but only in the capacity of a waiter, filling orders for hot drinks, spirits and sparkling water. He was, by all appearances, an ideal employee, but Winston found himself unable to shake off the last dustings of distrust from his opinion of the boy. It would not be below the Director to send a spy, though she would be aware of the severity of the consequences she would face if her espionage were discovered. No, it was far more likely that Jardani was exactly what she had said: a means by which the Ruska Roma could pay their debts. Of course, that didn’t sit exceptionally well with Winston either. What little he knew of Jardani Jovanovic suggested to him that the boy would some day make for a powerful ally, and an even more powerful enemy. Winston wished to do everything in his power to avoid finding himself on the wrong side of that equation. As such, he did his best to treat Jardani well, as he hoped he treated all of his employees. He didn’t seem to be making inroads, however. Jardani never spoke unless spoken to, and even then he kept his answers short. He never accepted gifts food or drink, either. When Winston asked Mariya if he had been any more forthcoming with her, she merely shrugged,
“I haven’t really pressed him on it,” she said, wiping down the glass top of the showcase one night after Jardani had gone home, “he comes in on time and does good work, which is enough as far as I’m concerned.” Winston sighed,
“He’s a bit of a slippery trout,” he said, “I don’t know that I’ll ever get a handle on him.” Mariya laughed,
“And yet I’m sure you’re going to keep trying. He’s certainly a puzzle.” Winston chuckled in return,
“I’ve never met one I couldn’t solve,” he said with a wave of his hand. He bid Mariya goodnight and made his way back upstairs. He completed his evening rounds, checking in with the restaurant managers, barbers and health centre attendants before retiring to his suite for the night.
Jardani ran from the subway to the theatre, checking his watch every few steps. He was expected at 6:00, and the consequences for tardiness could be extreme. Despite his efforts, it was 6:02 by the time he burst into the gym, still not changed into his wrestling gear. Ivan stood in the centre of the room, arms crossed over his chest. His head whipped around when Jardani opened the door.
“Ah, so Jardani is joining us after all,” he said, “where is your uniform?” Jardani did not reply, looking down toward the mats instead. Ivan walked across the room to where he was standing, towering over him and blocking out the light from the ceiling. He repeated the question, his voice low and menacing,
“I didn’t have time,” Jardani replied, finally. He swallowed hard. Ivan took him by the back of the head and turned his face upward to meet his eyes.
“You know it is not permitted to train in your street clothes,” he murmured.
“But—” Ivan’s grip on Jardani’s scruff tightened. He hissed, screwing shut his eyes against the pain,
“Look at me,” Ivan demanded, slapping Jardani when he did not open his eyes, “when will you arrive tomorrow?”
“Six—” Jardani began, but Ivan slapped him again.
“Try again,” he said.
“Five-thirty?” Ivan let go of Jardani’s hair and crossed his arms again,
“See that you are prepared.” He said nothing further, but remained standing in front of Jardani, an expectant look in his eye.
“Thank you…” Jardani offered, tentatively making for the door to the change room.
“There is no time for that,” Ivan insisted, “we have already been delayed enough.”
“You said I can’t wear these,” Jardani pointed out, impatiently.
“You may remove them,” Ivan said. Jardani ground his molars together, creasing his brow in a way which he hoped would come across as willful, but gave him the air of a wounded animal about to make a vain strike at its captor. Ivan made to raise his hand again and Jardani flinched. The big man laughed and ordered him to strip down and get on the mat. Jardani did as he was told, tossing his t-shirt and jeans aside and padding barefoot to the centre of the room in nothing but his undershirt and briefs. Ivan followed, addressing the rest of the class,
“Jardani has kindly volunteered to demonstrate the next manoeuvre,” he bellowed, “who would like to match him?” Around a dozen hands rose instantly. Ivan grinned as he selected Jardani’s opponent. Peter, a boy three years older and double Jardani’s size was picked. He stood, round shoulders rolling forwards as he sauntered over. Ivan explained the manoeuvre and walked Peter through it a couple of times before setting him loose. With no warning, ge picked up Jardani and slammed him down onto the mat. Jardani wheezed as the air was knocked out of his lungs. Ivan laughed, along with several other boys.
“Again,” he shouted, “on your feet!” Jardani hauled himself back to a standing position, trying to brace himself for the next hit, but Peter came at him too suddenly and he was on his back again. Ivan yelled at them again and Jardani could feel his entire body grow taut, vibrating with anger. He was on his feet and ready this time, blood and adrenaline screaming in his ears as Peter charged him for a third time. He dodged to the side. Peter tried to pivot, but Jardani went for his waist, knocking them both down onto the mat. Peter flipped them, pinning Jardani on his stomach. Blind with rage, Jardani screamed. He turned his head and clamped his jaw down on Peter’s forearm, sinking his teeth into his ruddy flesh until he tasted copper. Peter cried out and jumped off of him, recoiling as blood streamed down his arm and dripped onto the floor. Jardani jumped to his feet and made to lunge for Peter again, but Ivan clotheslined him back down onto the floor. His head missed the mat and hit the marble floor, making a wet cracking sound against the stone. His vision turned hazy for a moment, but soon began to clear. When he came back to his senses, the room was silent. Peter was still clutching his arm to his chest, staring daggers at Jardani. He rubbed the back of his head and felt his gut clench when his hand came away bloody. Ivan pulled him to his feet and dragged him by his arm out of the room. Jardani struggled against his captor’s grip, but Ivan simply pulled harder, threatening to rip the boy’s arm out of his socket if he didn’t comply. He marched him down through the dormitory until they reached the back closet. Jardani was thrown inside and when he tried to clamber out, Ivan kicked him and locked the door. He pounded his fists against the wood, screaming and cursing in Russian until he accepted that it was futile and surrendered. The room was tiny, too small to stand up or fully lie down. Jardani sat, knees pulled to his chest. Alone, trapped in the dark, he felt the rage drain from him, leaving exhaustion and pain in its wake. The smell and taste of blood filled the tiny space, and he began to feel dizzy. Concussion, he thought, sickening dread pooling in his stomach, don’t pass out. Pass out and you’re fucking dead. He repeated it to himself over and over again like a prayer, even as his eyes began to droop. He refused to die, even if it meant staying locked in here all night, wide awake.
Mid-morning sun streamed through the stained glass window which overlooked the mezzanine, casting colourful rays across Winston’s crossword page. He twirled a fountain pen in his right hand, mostly ignoring the puzzle in favour of observing the comings and goings of the people in the lobby below. He took a dainty sip from a small china cup of espresso, his eyes lazily following various guests, bellhops and cleaners as they went about their business. He noticed Jardani emerge from the cellar door, balancing a tray in his arms as he made his way toward the lobby bar. Winston could see how tired he looked, even from his distant vantage. The boy’s eyes were even more sunken than usual, his cheeks particularly gaunt, and he seemed to be having difficulty focusing, nearly dropping the bottles of gin and whisky Armand handed to him. He righted himself well enough and was on his way back to the cellar when he suddenly stopped. Winston saw him waver for a moment before he came crashing to the ground. He didn’t even catch himself, falling flat on his face and sending his tray flying. The sound of shattering glass echoed deafeningly through the lobby and before he knew it, Winston was on his feet, rushing down the steps to where Jardani lay.
“I’m calling for the doctor,” the concierge informed him, cradling the receiver of the designated line between her ear and his shoulder. Winston knelt down and took the boy’s wrist in his hand, reflexively feeling for a pulse, which he thankfully found. Jardani began to stir after a few seconds, a groan squeezing its way past his lips as he tried to lift himself on his hands.
“This way,” Winston said, softly, guiding him to his feet and bringing him toward his office door.
Winston observed the doctor’s examination carefully. Jardani sat in one of the plush armchairs in Winston’s office, a blanket around his shoulders and a cup of tea clasped in his hands. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot, his face grey.
“I don’t think this is because you hit your head,” he said, checking Jardani’s pupils, “though I’m sure it didn’t help. Here, follow my hand,” he waved a finger in front of Jardani’s face, first from side to side, then up, then down. Jardani’s eyes tracked it without difficulty. He sighed, “It’s looking like anemia,” he said to Winston. Turning back to Jardani, he continued, “have you been getting enough to eat?” Jardani didn’t answer, casting his eyes down at his shoes. Winston raised his eyebrows, sharing a concerned look with the doctor. He asked again and Jardani let out a long, ragged sigh,
“Restricted nutrition,” he explained, “reduced training hours.” The doctor nodded again,
“I see,” he glanced at Winston, then lowered his voice, “have you started your period yet?” Winston did a double-take, eyes widening in shock. Jardani glared up at him, then nodded. The doctor closed his bag and stood up, “no wonder,” he said. To Winston, “I’ll come back and look at his head in a few days. Until then, he needs to rest and he needs to eat. Call me if he faints again, or if he starts to get nauseous.” He gabbed his jacket from the coat rack and made his exit. Winston looked down at Jardani, staring into the steam from his mug, and for the first time saw a child. He considered his words for a long time, mulling over a dozen options before settling on the simple,
“Stay here until you feel a little stronger,” he said, “I’ll let Mariya know you’ll be back later.” Jardani nodded microscopically, but said nothing. Winston left him alone, locking the door from the outside so as to ensure his privacy. Or was it her privacy? Winston shook his head. He made a mental note to talk to the doctor when he returned.