Chapter 6



Pete didn't show up until her fourth night at the Genie.

"What took you so long?" Marie demanded as she stripped him of his shirt.

"It wasn't as easy as you think to get an appointment with you. You're pretty popular." Pete's cheeks and the tips of his ears were cherry red. He looked everywhere but at her. Not that the rest of the room held safer views but she thought the impressive amount of friendzone boobies probably contributed to his discomfort.

"Popular, huh?"

"Yeah. There's, um, a list that, um, goes about the whole page of, um... um... Marie, can you please stop looking..." He gestured vaguely in the direction of her top.

"Think of it as a uniform. Like the ones our friends wear for their extracurricular activities."

Pete closed his eyes briefly. "Marie, you're my friend, but that's not going to help. I'm sorry. I don't think I'm very good at this."

"You're from out of town, you've had extracurricular training, and you understand Russian," said Marie. "You're perfect. I'll cover up but we'll have to make some convincing noises. Can you go metallic so I can pretend to sexy beat you up?"


"Mistress Liz," she corrected.

Pete's entire face was now tomato red. "I am not calling you Mistress Liz," he bit out. "There has to be another way to do this without you demeaning yourself."

"Then call me ma'am. Now go metal and let me hit you already."

Raising his gaze to the sky and sighing, he transformed. Marie slapped the flogger lightly over his back, using the sound to muffle their conversation.

"Did you find any other rooms downstairs?"

"I was stuck on the east wall. Nothing behind those curtains. I'll try out another wall next time. Do you have anything for me to do?"

"Look up Max and Stefan," Marie said. "They're high up enough to run a place like this instead of being street pimps but someone higher up on wouldn't have to touch the business side of things. They'd just reap the benefits. Stefan definitely has to go places for someone, sometimes in a hurry. Hopefully, they're in the system."

"Maybe they're just prompt businessmen," said Pete. "Prompt immoral businessmen."

"Your naiveté is adorable. No, they act kind of like the executive board of a corporation. Confident but not quite head cheese."

"Do you think the, um, head cheese knows about this place?"

Marie bit her lip. "I can't tell yet. It's too early. At least three people in this place aren't here consensually. They're pumped so full of drugs, they probably don't know up from down."

Pete shuddered. "We need to help them, too."

"Damn straight we will. Yelp."


"Yelp. Like I hit you really hard and you liked it."

The flush returned to Pete's face. "Can we just pretend I'm gagged?"

"Oooh, good idea, you kinky bastard." She pulled the purple handcuffs off their hook. "Drool on that a bit."

Pete held it between the tips of his thumb and forefinger. "Please tell me you disinfect these. One of the men downstairs has an open cold sore and I'm not interested in catching herpes."

"Just spit on it or something."

Pete screwed his face around but produced an acceptable loogie. Marie smacked it against the mirror a few times for effect.

"What's that?" Pete asked.

"What's what?"

Frowning, he pointed to her torso where a sliver of skin showed between her pants and her corset. "That. That bruise."

"Oh. That." She smoothed the corset down on top of it. "Work hazard."

"Did one of these... men hit you?" Pete growled.

"Men come to Mistress Liz to get hit, not the other way around."

"Then who--"

"Nothing for you to worry about."

"No, you don't get to say that to me. Not when you're doing this to help my sister."

Marie put her hands on her hips. "Are you going to be able to stay objective? I won't be able to do shit for your sister unless I keep this cover."

"I... you..." Pete closed his eyes and took three deep breaths. "I can be objective. I just... need to know if you're hurt. As your partner. Is this injury going to be a liability?"

"No," she said flatly. She ran her hands down her corset again. "All pimps need to exert their power over their 'property.' Stefan didn't like how my spikes stung him so he decided to pay me back in turn despite the fact that I warned him."

"He punched you?"

"Kicked. Good thing though. He kicks like a girl."

Pete closed his eyes again. This time, he took five breaths.

"I can take the hits, Pete. Illyana can't."

"I know. I understand. I just... Couldn't you heal yourself with Logan's powers?"

"Seeing the bruise makes him feel like he has a big dick again. Means he won't try to teach Mistress Liz another lesson."

"Marie." He touched her hip. "This is worse than when you worked in the basement at the Masion. At least with us, you were allowed to dodge hits."

"This is nothing," she repeated. "I can handle it. Besides, if your hand was any closer to my ass, I'd have to tell on you to Kitty."

"Brat." Pete shook his head, exasperated but shoved his fists into his pants pockets. He pulled them out again to throw miniature equipment on the bed. "Before I forget, I have a few things for you. Transmitter batteries. Mini maglight. Sleeping pills. They said you had someplace to put this camera?"

Marie plucked a riding crop from the wall and unscrewed the bottom off the handle. The cylindrical camera fit neatly in the hollow handle. "Step back, James Bond."

"You're enjoying this far too much for someone who doesn't want to return to the X-Men."

"I like my current dress code better." She made a face. "Obviously not this dress code. But you know what I mean. You're one to talk. You're barely a member."

"I have a family to take care of. Who'll take care of them if I'm injured on a mission?"

"Xavier's takes care of its own, right?"

Pete nodded slowly. "They do. But there is something to be said for blood family, in the end."

"Maybe Rasputin blood. I'm sure most of the kids who passed through the school would've loved a transfusion of that to dilute the dickwipes who kicked them out. Case in point: me."

"Hey." He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Marie managed a smile. "Take care of yourself. Mom would never forgive me if I let you get hurt."

Nine-thirty in the morning and not a creature was stirring. Marie picked the deadbolt to her room open. She glanced down either side of the hall. Still quiet. She reached out with Logan's hypersenses and picked up nothing but snores. The slow-acting tabs she'd dropped into the water dispenser had done the trick. She hated to do use drugs considering the wide variety of mutant reactions to sedatives. Hopefully no one had a severe anaphylactic allergy to Lunesta.

She padded down the stairs, passing the second floor with with more care. They didn't tend to let those girls out as often; they might not have had as much water, if they had any at all. Logan's powers heard nothing either so Marie continued down. On the main floor, she had to look out for the security. The shift changed every eight hours and they tended to hang watch TV between their bi-hourly rounds. Basher was the guard this morning. According to a conversation she'd overheard three nights ago, Basher was extremely susceptible to eszopiclone.

There he was, sprawled on the couch with ESPN on, the remote control still in his hand. His arm moved. Marie froze. His arm moved again, then his entire body, and Basher turned on the couch to cradle his head in his crooked elbow. A loud snore accompanied the television crowd's cheers.

Transferring her weight quickly and carefully from heel to toe, Marie made little noise crossing the lounge. She'd picked that one up from the X-Men, no thank you very much, Remy Lebeau. Reaching the bar, she pulled a small squeeze tube of cooking oil from her pocket and lubricated the hinges on the rightmost cupboard. Next, she took the lockpicks out from her bun.

Keyways. Plugs. Key pins and driver pins. Springs. Side wards. Scrubbing a lock is the easiest... force pins to line up to the sheer line... one-eighth pick and torque wrench... light torque at first then increase with... rake the rest... vary the torque...

The lockpicking tools felt foreign in her hands but not her brain. Marie continued to let Lebeau's voice take over. Insert the pick. Now the torque wrench. Feel for the dominant plug. Keep twisting, keep twisting. A little more wriggling with the pick, a touch more torque and the lock released. The door opened silently on its greased hinges.

The cupboard was empty, as Marie expected. The decorative paper on the back wall matched the stuff on the bar shelves. A barely visible seam ran from down one corner but she couldn't see any way to open it. She ran her hands over the walls, pressing down every few inches. These always had some sort of catch in the movies but she didn't really expect--

Something clicked. The seamed side slid in by a fraction of a centimetre.

For the love of G&T's, what is this, Scooby-Doo and the Haunted Brothel?

The secrecy made no sense unless they were hiding something big so Marie slid the door open the rest of the way and stepped through, closing the cupboard behind her. Made the place dark as hell but it would give her some protection if anyone woke up early. Snapping her pocket maglight on, she shut the hidden seamed door as well and entered a small, simply furnished office: a fold-out table, two tall filing cabinets, a desk lamp. More incriminatory, a bill counting machine and deposit bags from several different business. Marie pulled her camera out of its hiding place in her riding crop and took pictures.

Now she needed to position the bug. The bareness of the place left few options. She checked under the table. Nothing to block the view except wads of gum and an empty spider egg hatch. The counting machine was too loud, the filing cabinets too far away. That left the lamp. Marie kissed the transmitter before stripping the adhesive backing off and placing it under the base of the lamp.

With the primary objective accomplished, she turned her attention to the filing cabinets. A glance at her watch told her ten minutes had passed. She gauged the sedatives would last an hour tops for the sedatives, even mixed with whatever drugs the other girls had taken. Basher would be out for three and probably get beaten to hell for it. Cue the world's smallest violin. She couldn't possibly go through all the files and take pictures in an hour. She had to be smart about it.

Stepping back, she studied the cabinets. The third drawer of the first set had the most smudges around the handle. The second drawer on the second set was the shiniest. Marie went for that one. Someone had taken the time to clean fingerprints on that drawer to hide something important.

The lock on this one was a little harder to jimmy; the angle was awkward. It took a full three minutes of finessing instead of her usual ninety seconds, and that was time she couldn't afford to lost

The files were indexed in a different language, using a foreign alphabet. Marie accessed a few different memories before settling on Pete's: Cyrillic. The alphabet was Cyrillic, used for Russian. But Pete only spoke Russian, and the more informal, conversational Russian at that. He recognized the alphabet from his childhood, when his mother had taught him using nursery rhymes and books made of thick card. He couldn't read it and, therefore, neither could she. Oh well. MacTac could get a translator. She shone the light on the files and snapped away.

She yanked out the thickest folder. It was full of business transactions from an electronics recycling business, all on very official-looking letterhead. Marie spread the papers in order from top to bottom across the table and took pictures of each one. She did that three times with other papers in the folder, not reaching the end of the pile, before deciding to go for another file.

She pulled out seven different file folders in total, claiming to be salons, diners, tailors, automotive parts resalers, computer repairs, movers-- none of which she recognized. Savvy move on their part; New York City required thousands of just such businesses. Some could be work-at-home. The city wouldn't even have to do an inspection. Perfect for moving money around. Money that came from illegitimate sources like, say, a brothel.

Marie looked at her watch again. Seven minutes left. What the hell. She opened the third drawer on the first filing cabinet, the one with all the finger smudges. Banded stacks of tens, twenties, and fifties slid around the drawer in orderly lines. There had to be upwards of half a million dollars in there. Marie took a few more pictures, snapped the camera shut, and shoved it back in the handle of her riding crop.

Two more minutes. She shut the drawer and jimmied the tumblers back in place. A quick sweep of the place showed nothing out of place. She turned her maglight off and opened the sliding door. She slipped the maglight down her pants and opened the cupboard door. A quick look over the shoulder to check on Basher indicated he was still out. She couldn't hear anyone else moving around but she didn't have time to access Logan's powers. She had to relock the cupboard. Hard to concentrate on Lebeau's memories when she had a clock ticking.

Steps shuffled down the second landing. The last tumbler dropped in place. Marie shoved her lock pics into her bun, grabbed a glass off the bar shelf, and poured herself a generous serving of scotch.

Big Kahuna Stacey, came into view, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. Seeing Marie with the glass, she said, "Breakfast of champions."

Marie raised the glass. "Rough fucking night."

"Thought it was just me. What the hell?"

"Maybe the take-out went bad."

"Fuck. Throw it all out. I hate getting the shits."

A week passed before the rest of the girls acknowledged her outside of work. Understandable considering the way she had introduced herself by punching Stacey out. Marie learned to just go with the odd disconnect between dry-humping with someone at night on the dance floor and ignoring them the next day. At least two of the mutants here looked like teenagers; she noted their rooms and johns who asked for them so she could ID them once she set up a video feed in the second floor hallway.

She also familiarised herself with the more distinct personalities in the house. Blitzen represented the majority of the workers who existed only to earn enough money to buy food, drugs, or alcohol. Sometimes, they even forgot about the food. The only requirement of second floor prostitutes like her alter-ego, Liz, was to look like a mutant. Fur, purple skin, tails, leaves for hair, gelatinous flesh, tentacles, horns-- all were free game.

The superstars, if ever there were ones in the sex trade industry, lived in the big rooms on the third floor. There was Marilyn, blonde and doll-lipped, and apparently over one thousand pounds. Marie could believe it. Marilyn rarely left her room. She had special doors installed to accommodate her girth but with the effort she and everyone else had to expend to make room for her as she moved around-- Marilyn just outfitted her room with every comfort needed including a bar full of whisky.

Gemini referred to herself as one person although she had two torsos, four arms, and two heads. The torso on the right didn't speak, the one of the left wouldn't shut up. The right one shot up all the heroin, the left one complained about the lack of certified organic food. Gemini's right torso was white like chalk from her hair to her eyes, her left was black like asphalt except for her teeth. Her pelvis and legs were grey.

Masque could manipulate her appearance and anyone else's by touch, like a sculptor with clay. Bright orange clay specifically, she couldn't change her own pigmentation. Marie had no idea what Masque really looked like. During off-hours, she went around looking like short, blonde, tangerine-skinned Angelina Jolie. She didn't have the teeth of a meth-user but that was likely due to her mutation.

The acknowledged queen of the hive was Stacey X. Stacey's physical mutations were common: diamond-shaped facial ridges, most prominent on her forehead and cheeks, snake-like eyes, pointed ears, talonned fingers and toes, blue hair. More important than her appearance, was her power. Stacey exuded sex pheromones. At a low-level, natural concentration, the pheromones gave her the charismatic air of a movie star at an opening gala. When she cranked it up to eleven, her johns orgasmed just from breathing. Max and Stefan could send a new customer up to her room every fifteen minutes, charging each of them seven hundred dollars a pop. Stacey once boasted about getting an entire room, upwards of twenty people, to go off at once. She went through enough cocaine a day to make a rhino cuddly.

Marie blamed the lack of information on Stacey. The woman held a grudge and wielded her power well. Very few people dared talk to Marie when Stacey clearly had her in her bad books. Still, Stacey's influence played second fiddle to income. Mistress Liz increasingly drew in more and more regulars. Marie didn't quite know how to play the popularity. Illyana's life depended on it. Staying on the second floor allowed her more anonymity, a safer position which also allowed her to disappear into the background and eavesdrop on conversations between involving Stefan or Max. However, second-floor hookers had fewer freedoms than the superstars. She couldn't hear eavesdrop if she wasn't allowed out of her room

Marie zipped her mask up. Almost two weeks constantly in this form and it was getting harder and harder to shift out of. Maybe there was something to that saying about your face freezing if you held it a particular way when the North Wind blew. Or maybe Sauron's powers had worked their way semi-permanently into her genes, the same way Logan's and Magneto's had. Dr. MacTaggert had warned her about that fun side effect of her Novomane abuse. At the time, she'd found nothing wrong with having super-fast healing and the ability to fly. Green scaly skin, she wasn't a huge fan of. She wondered if that was baseline beauty prejudice.

Her next customer knocked.

"Come in."

In walked an especially scruffy Remy Lebeau. He leaned back on the door to shut it. One hand reached behind to lock it. "I can't tell you how honoured I am to serve you, Mistress Liz."

"What are you doing here?" Marie hissed.

"I'm a naughty boy and must be punished." He caught sight of his handcuffs on the wall. "Aww, you kept them. I'm touched."

Groaning, she sat down on the bed. "Lebeau, I'm too exhausted to play your games. Just tell me already."

"This is a pretty important investigation. You should have more than one contact on the outside."

"And you're offering your services."

Lebeau bowed to the waist.

"What's the catch?" Marie wanted to know.

"No catch. Just a concerned citizen wanting to help catch a killer."

She gave him a withering look.

"Fine. Same deal as always, sha; these guys are the competition. I'm checking them out."

"Thanks for the honesty."

Lebeau sat on the bed behind her. "The boy you chose as contact is sticking out like a squashed thumb. He's uncomfortable and huge. You want someone who fades better in the background."

"So now you're a master thief and a master of disguise."

"The hardest part of the job is the getaway. Do the disguise right and you leave right under their nose."

"I'm awfully touched but I really don't need your help," said Marie.

"You do. Just don't realise it yet." Clapping his hands together, he said, "For example, did you know this place has a basement?"

"Of course I do. I know what a hollow floor sounds like."

"Do you know where the stairs are to this basement?" He waited for her reply and when none came, he beamed. "I know how you can find out."

"So do I. It's all in the architectural history. The style of the building looks about 1950s and they loved their cookie-cutters in those days. If I take any building on this block built around the same time, it'll be the same design. All I need is a man on the outside check out the insides of the dummy house and I'll get the location of the basement stairs here."

Lebeau nodded. "Smart."

"Don't look too surprised. I do know what the hell I'm doing. So if you're offering to help, that's one thing you can do for me."

"Can I at least enjoy my five hundred dollars an hour? I paid for you already."

"They're charging five hundred an hour for me?" Marie felt a spark of pride which she quickly squashed. "I only see a fifty an hour and they take half of it for living expenses."

"Corporate bastards. Unionise!" Lebeau stretched out on the bed. "Can't really expect much from the bratva though. How do you stay on with all this satin?"

"Velcro. Who said anything about the bratva?"


"You'd know. Lebeau, the bratva?"

"Brighton Beach. Bratva territory. Ain't saying nothing you don't know, sha. "

"C'mon, Lebeau, are you holding out on me?"

He winked. "I thought you knew; I left it all on the floor during our lessons."

Marie smacked her own forehead. "I'm never going to live this down, am I?"

"Not a chance, sha. One of my few real good pieces of blackmail --" Lebeau stopped, an untranslatable expression flashed over his face. "It's good material anyway. You should really rethink the Betty Page haircut though. Damn cliche."

"Well, you should really rethink those chin pubes."

"I heard soul patches were on their way back. Figured a customer of this fine establishment would want to be at the height of fashion."

"Really? 'Cause it looks like you ate someone out at a waxing salon."

Lebeau clutched his chest. "You are positively filthy, sha. Don't mean that in a sexy way. You say things that'd make Tarantino want to wash your mouth out with soap."

She had to haul him back on topic. "You said bratva. Who're we talking about here? The Solntsevskaya? The Vostochevskaya? Izmailovskaya?"

"Like a dog on a bone, you." He patted a spot on the bed beside him. "Give an old man a bit of sugar and I might dangle a bit more meat."

"Ew." But Marie sat. Lebeau took her left hand, the one closest to him, and started to tug her gloves off. "You don't want to do that," she said.

He held his hands up, covered in transparent, vinyl gloves. "I got this. You take a load off this time. Ever had a hand massage?"

Marie wiggled her hand out from between his, sighing, "I don't have time for--"

He caught her elbow. "Are you clinically incapable of accepting a gift?"

"Yes," she said sulkily.

"Tough. I'm being nice to you." He pulled her glove off completely, leaving her skin bare to the elbow. Turning her hand palm side up, he rotated her thumb gently around its knuckle, then her index finger, moving down the row to her pinkie. He pinched each flesh section of each finger, hard enough to be just this side of painful. The motions released tension she didn't know she held between her shoulder blades. "Andrei Semyonov and the Vostochevskaya owned this territory for coming onto forty years. He owns businesses above board, too."

"We know. That's what makes him so slippery."

"He might be slipping a bit more than that." He rubbed between the bones her her palm, firm, circular motions that send electricity up her wrists. "His captains are out more often than he is. He keeps himself pretty holed up in his castle and just commands everyone from there. Some say he ain't even doing that anymore; the captains are the ones running the town."

"Not everyone can be as hands on as you," said Marie. "Are Max or Stefan captains?"

He flashed her a grin. "That would be telling. And telling would mean you ain't gonna be earning your paycheque."

Translation: He wasn't sure himself and needed her to dig around for him. "What the hell am I going to do with you, Lebeau?"

"Got a list. Left it in my other mesh t-shirt."

On day ten, by her estimate, Marie finally caught a break just before the happy hour rush. She was sitting on the lap of one of the second-floor regulars, whispering all sorts of filthy and medically improbable things, when Stefan came in.

"Liz! My best girl." he folded her into a cologne-drenched embrace. "How would you like to make a killing?"

"Do you even have to ask?"

"A friend of ours-- a family friend-- is throwing a party. It's a business party so he wants to make sure everyone's happy. I've been telling him what a hit you are--"

"Shucks, sugar, you're gonna go and make me blush."

"Nothing but the truth, baby. This--" he gestured up and down her body-- "works. I don't know why, I don't care. You're one of our biggest money makers."

Marie slid a claw down Stefan's tie. "Does that make you happy, sugar? I like making you happy."

"Lizzy baby, I am ecstatic. I could kiss you but I need to start the party off sober. God knows, everyone else will show up drunk." Stefan winked again and goosed her. Marie kept her simper plastered on. One day, she'd break his fingers.

Less than an hour later, a black SUV pulled up in the alley behind The Genie. Marie and seven other second-floor girls piled into it. The windows were tinted from the inside as well, keeping passengers from looking out. Marie's heart rate escalated. Tinted cars and mystery places never boded well in organized crime. Dumping this many bodies would be difficult but not impossible. She tensed for a fight.

The ride went on for half an hour. To her surprise and relief, the door opened to Turtle Bay, an affluent but not as ostentatious an area as other Upper East Side neighourhoods. Luxury cars dropped guests off discretely, waiting for three or four vehicles to pass by before stopping at the house. Security led her and the other girls around the back entrance; they were, after all, here to work. Marie clutched her cape tighter around her body.

While intimate, a mafiya party like this one was all about making connections and showing power. Power brokers, legal and not, rubbed elbows here. If the mutant prostitution ring went all the way to the top, MacTac could RICO this whole outfit. If Stefan and Max did, in fact, work under Andrei Semyonov, that was a good half of the Russian Mafiya in the east coast cobbled.

Once inside, Marie and the other girls split up to work the room. Marie scanned the floor for the likeliest candidates. Stefan was nowhere to be seen but Max stood beside a man in his late sixties or early seventies, stooped and leaning on a cane. By Max's deferential manner, this old man was pretty important. Could this be Andrei Semyonov? He didn't seem like the submissive type who'd go for her act but that was okay. She only needed to be close enough to the conversation.

Shrugging her cape back, Marie made a beeline for Max. He raised his chin, brows arched in question. When she got close enough, she laid her riding crop on his cheek. "I got a bone to pick with you."

"Business can wait until we return to the Genie," said Max.

"Nuh-uh. Nothing to do with money. This is about me." She leaned forward, near enough for her breath to warm his face. "You ain't ever visited me, Max. I don't take well to being ignored." She slid the end of the riding crop from his cheek, down his neck, then suddenly smacked his rear.

Max's nostrils flared. "I never taste the wares, Liz. I'm sorry, sir, would you like to continue our conversation elsewhere?"

The old man nodded, not even acknowledging her. Max followed him. Marie ducked behind a pair of servers. They passed her by without a second glance. She waited a few seconds more, waiting for them to forget about her. They took a panelled hallway as she circled the room. Each of the Genie girls had a john. Some johns had human or human-looking prostitutes on their laps. Some had one of each. Marie made a big show of dragging one of the men into the bathroom, worked him over a bit, and left him hogtied with a warning to be a good boy until she came back to end his punishment. He'd quivered as he nodded.

Alibi created, Marie relaxed her Liz shape slightly. After a count of ten, Max, the old man, and the closest security guards were out of view. She turned her cape inside-out and drew out some sleeves hidden in the seam. The cape now looked like a three-quarter length coat. Pulling it on, she snuck around the edges of the party until she came to the hallway Max and the old man had taken. She peered around the corner before heading down the hall as well.

There were doors on all the north side's walls. Marie tried the first one. Locked. The second. Also locked. Ditto the third and final door. The house had a second floor but the staircase banded the main living room. No way she'd get up there without being noticed. No way the old man could have gone upstairs without Marie seeing him.

She stood back. The second and third door had slivers of light leaking from underneath each of them. The first door was dark but she could hear faint mutterings coming from behind it. She couldn't listen in without security spotting her. She had to get into the room behind Door Number Three. She hoped it was a bathroom. An unoccupied one.

Closing her eyes, Marie accessed one of Lebeau's memories to pick the door lock. Using Lebeau's memories was coming easier and easier these days. Almost as easy as Logan and Magneto. She didn't know if his personality was that strong or if she manipulated absorbed powers so much that her body retained them more and more, like a mixed martial artist adding new skills to her repertoire.

The lock clicked. Marie pushed the door. It opened. Light from the street illuminated the furniture closest to the windows. Music stands, some with sheet music, waited for attention. String instruments in their cases lined one wall. Two rows of antique chairs stood across from the stands, empty of an audience. A credenza near the door held a clutter of picture frames. Marie closed the door behind her and turned on a lamp.

There was no rhyme or reason to the order of the pictures. Faded black and whites mingled with blue-tinged late-century pictures, sharp digital images, and yellowed fifties prints. There were formal school pictures, candid family gatherings, a couple wedding portraits. At front row centre was a family portrait, a posed composition in a 1980s soft-focus style with fake smiles from both parents. The weary boys in the picture didn't bother to fake their smiles. The mother was dark-haired with high, rosy cheekbones, and a vaguely Asian look to her eyes. The dad wore a close-clipped beard and was slighter than his wife. The older of the two boys had inherited his father's lean build. The younger one wasn't pudgy, not exactly, but he had bulk to his frame. He'd probably make a great linebacker. Or, since these guys were Russian, a great defenseman on a hockey team.

She recognized the mother in many of the other frames. The youngest recognizable image of her was at a church, wearing an ornately lacy dress. The pictures of a baby girl from the fifties could be her. As Marie traced the timeline of the woman's life in pictures, the mother went from a carefree child with her head tilted back against the wind rushing into a swing to a stubborn-chinned teenager looking up from a book to a sad-eyed adult posing stiffly in a designer dress. There she was seated beside a piano, partially silhouetted by sunshine streaming from a tall window. Marie turned. The mother had sat at the piano in this room, she realised, with light streaming from a window now covered in heavy drapes.

The picture shelf was obviously important but was the room itself worth bugging? It was dust-free but that didn't mean it was used often. The owner probably had cleaners. She needed to get into that first room. Marie walked to the wall shared by the first and second room. She pressed her ear against it and only got muffled voices. Once again, she pulled up Logan's powers, this time to use his sense of hearing.

"--think we should do something about it," Max was saying.

The old man said something Marie couldn't make out. It seemed like another language. Probably Russian. She tried to use Pete's working knowledge of Russian and Logan's hearing at the same time, but failed. Apparently, she still couldn't multi-task all her absorbed powers. Better to glean what she could of Max's side of the conversation in this case.

"I understand your concerns, sir--"

"Nyet!" barked the old man. "You do not." He went off in a spiel of Russian, sounding like he was ripping Max a new one. Marie wished she'd absorbed someone with x-ray vision. She wanted to see Max's expression in the face of this dressing down. Now more than ever, she was convinced the old man was Andrei Semyonov. His age and the neighbourhood within which the Genie was built fit into Semyonov's known territory. She had to get a bug into that room.

Max's voice rose, to Marie's surprise. She didn't think butter could melt in that man's mouth. "Respectfully, sir, I don't believe you do Aleksandra any honour with this decision. They will call you weak and past your prime--"

The unmistakable sound of someone's palm smacking a cheek cracked through the wall, making Marie start a little. Max's tirade was cut short. The old man murmured, the power behind his threat clear even without translation.

The old man ended the threat with "Do you understand me, boy?"

In his usual icy tone, Max said, "Whatever you say, sir. I'll tell the men."

"Good. Go now. I wish to be alone."

Marie listened for any indication that Max was headed her way but his footsteps receded back to the party. She let out a sigh of relief. Turning her attention back to the other room, Marie overheard the laboured taps of an older generation on a keyboard. What she'd give for a snake-mounted camera right now. To her surprise, piano music began playing. The sound was tinny, nothing like professional recording equipment. A steady murmur of indistinguishable conversation and static hisses muffled the music now and again. It was a recording, Marie realised. Probably a home video from a VHS reel converted into digital form. The loudest voices were, again, in another language. Russian. Dammit, she needed a bug in that room.

More than that, she needed to get close to Andrei Semyonov. She swept the room with a more thoughtful eye. Despite the many pictures, the music room lacked traditionally feminine touches. No flowers, no lacy decorations, no fruity or flowery scents. So Semyonov was divorced, widowed, or lived away from his wife. Marie bet on the second option. The mafiya, as with most gangs and organized crime syndicates, were hopelessly stuck in the fifties when it came to women. They were trophies, admired for their beauty, thought of as brainless. Wives and daughters were virginal princesses; mistresses were sexual objects. Either would have left some sort of mark on a man's house. Going by Semyonov's attitude towards the party, he had no interest in a mistress or a wife right now.

But there was a woman who roused his emotions. Aleksandra. Marie bet she was his daughter. For some reason, she wasn't here and he missed her. Maybe she was dead; Max had said something about honouring Aleksandra's memory. She played the piano. Pete's memories filled her in on the piece's name: Hungarian Rhapsody by Rachmaninoff. He'd had to practice it, too, as a child. If she was the apple of the mafiya boss' eye, she must've been everything that a proper lady should be. But the pictures on the shelves indicated a quiet sort of rebellion to Aleksandra, in the tilt of her teenaged chin, and the mulishness with which she wore her designer wardrobe. Maybe Semyonov loved her best because she could stand up to him instead of sucking up.

It was precious little to go on but she had to make a move. Marie hurried to the piano, pulled the bench out, and let Pete's memories loose. The notes stuttered out of the instrument at first as Pete's old memories warred with hands and feet that had never touched a piano. But slowly, like a glove pulled taut, his muscle memory took over and the movements began to fit. She heard Anne coaching her, coaching Pete. Without raising her voice, she still made her commands take on the strength of steel. Marie revelled in the memories for its own sake. She had so few functional family memories from her personal experience and the people she absorbed. The Rasputin family felt like a hot cup of soup on a bitterly cold winter day.

The door slammed open and the lights snapped on. Marie quickly shifted back into full Liz form and turned around. The old man glared at her from behind bushy silver eyebrows.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded.

"The party was getting boring," she said.

"You're not here to be entertained; you are the entertainment. Get out of here. Before I order Maksim to throw you out."

Maksim. Max's full name? Marie tried a different tack. She walked to a liquor table and filled a small tumbler with vodka. "Sorry. Your piano's gorgeous and I... You have a great family." She gestured to the shelf of photographs with the tumbler.

"They are none of your business."

She gave him the drink. "I know. Just saying. It's nice. Seeing family pictures."

"I suppose this is where you cry and weasel more money out of me for your starving, crippled baby brother."

"Hell no," said Marie. "My parents ditched me in a park when I was three and my scales started coming in. My foster parents can die in a fire. If I have any brothers or sisters, I got too many of my own problems and try to solve theirs. Don't mean I can't appreciate a functional family when I see one. It's like reality TV."

That made the old man crack a smile. "You chose your gimmick well. You have a lot of attitude to go with that outfit."

"Pick on people before they can pick on you."

"Budem." The old man emptied the tumbler. Marie refilled it. "Family. Family is very rarely functional, devchonku. My family, they look good in pictures."


"This is my girl." He pointed to the mother in the family portrait. "My only girl, my middle child. Boys on either side of her but, bah, they were not half as bright. A parent should not have favourites but she is mine."

"Where is she now?"

"Far away. For work."

"That's too bad," said Marie. "But you got your boys."

"My Nikolai is dead, many years ago. The eldest. Ruslan is also gone for business reasons. He thinks he needs no help from his feeble old father. So, you see, not functioning very well, are we?"

"I guess not."

He held his tumbler out for more and Marie filled it.

"My Aleksandra, she is bright, hard-working. Not beautiful like her mother. Her mother modelled many times for public art works in Russia. I brought her here and she modelled in magazines. But Aleksandra made beautiful babies, eh?" He pointed to the little pouting boys.

"They're gonna be lady-killers," Marie agreed. Inwardly, she winced at her own wording. Were those boys Stefan and Max? They didn't look alike but that didn't have to mean anything. Max certainly seemed to know the old man well enough to stay at his side all night.

Speak of the devil. Max strode in, his usual frown even more pronounced this time, especially when he saw her. "You. What are you doing here? What were you thinking leaving a guest tied up?"

"Which guest?" asked the old man.

"One of the Cuban contingent, sir."

Languidly, Marie shrugged. "He was a bad, bad boy."

The old man burst out laughing as Max began to say, "I'm sorry she disturbed you, sir."

"You should be," said the old man. "You know I dislike these things."

"A necessary evil, we agreed. Next time, I'll make sure to hire more obedient workers. I assure you, this one will never attend another party."

Shit. Marie would have to do some serious work to stay at the Genie at this rate. She had enough to get them on prostitution and trafficking charges but she wanted a murder charge that stuck. She wouldn't be able to make that arrest if she had a bad case of dead.

"Leave her," said the old man. "She's snoopy and uppity but she made me laugh today of all days. Bring her next time. I might actually enjoy the party."

Max smoothed his frown out. "Whatever you desire, dyadya Andrei."

Score! Theory confirmed. Marie barely maintained her composure.

"And you, girl." Andrei kissed her hand. "Untie that man. Make sure he does not like it too much."

"Is he dysfunctional, too?" Marie asked.

"He will be."

"Whatever you desire, dyadya Andrei. C'mon, Max. I have a Cuban to smoke." She bussed Andrei's cheek then smacked Max's butt with her riding crop on the way out.

She made it all the way to the main room's entrance before Max caught up with her. He curled an arm around her, sliding his hand up and down her spine in a seemingly affectionate manner. He finally rested his hand on her nape, working his fingers around the muscles and tendons through the high collar. Coming from anyone else, it would've been a good massage. Marie was all too aware of his thumb and middle fingers pressing against her carotid arteries.

"You're pretty smart for a whore," he said. "Butter up Andrei all you want if you think that'll get you higher up. But remember, he's old and on his way out. When he does, I'll be the one calling the shots. And unlike that senile old has-been, I'm going to remember every good and bad turn you've done me."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," said Marie.

"Right. Don't try to play politics in this shark tank, girl. You haven't got a chance in hell."

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