FOUR YOUNG PEOPLE CHASED through the streets of Moscow. Four pairs of shoes pounded on hard pavement, the sound echoed in the narrow street. Four minds focused on one thing, to keep running. To leave their pursuers behind. To reach their safe sanctuary. To survive.
Tatyana tried to look over her shoulder but nearly slipped on the slush of melting snow, her shoes sliding in the dampness. Just ahead, Denis disappeared out of sight as he turned into Poslednij Street. They were nearly home, but how far behind were those men? Tatyana desperately wanted to look, to check, to see if they were safe. But she couldn't, she had to keep running. She saw what happened to Valentin. She didn't know who the men were or why they did it, but she knew they would do the same to her if they caught her. Despite her aching lungs she pushed herself on. Just a step or two behind, she heard Alisa struggling with the effort. She willed her friend to keep up, mentally trying to help Alisa cover these last few metres to safety.
Denis reached the loose sheets of steel; peeling them away and slipping out of sight. Tatyana followed Lyonya through the gap in the fence. In the darkness of the yard she couldn't see much, but she heard Alisa pull the steel into place. Tatyana hoped it would be enough. In the small fenced area, they waited, Tatyana leaning against the wall of the building, listening for those men. But all she heard were the sounds of Moscow at night: never-ending traffic noises, a police siren in the distance.
Once Tatyana's eyes were used to the darkness; she saw the others nearby. Tall dark Lyonya, who had Alisa under his spell in a way that Tatyana had never seen before. Pretty blonde Alisa, with her stylish short hair. She must earn so much, why was she living here? Big, friendly Denis who never seemed to be able to find a girl. Valentin's gang. She shuddered involuntarily before brushing a strand of her long black hair away from her face, suddenly aware that she had lost the feeling in her fingers. She rubbed her hands hard to restore circulation and avoid frostbite. Out in the open at this time of year without a coat and without gloves! Madness! The danger had passed and it was time to go inside and get warm. Wearily, she opened the door and entered the dark stairwell, fumbling for a moment until she found the light switch. Tatyana squinted against the harsh light, and aware of the ache in her legs, she slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor corridor. Part-way along on the left was the door to the abandoned office of the former Next-Gen Internet Company. Tatyana unlocked the door and stepped into to the glorious warmth of their shared home, such that it was. Lyonya and Alisa followed, hugging each other to protect themselves from the cold, while Denis brought up the rear. Tatyana held her hands close to the steam radiator, Lyonya and Alisa sat together on the shabby leather sofa. Denis, as always, looked out of place.
"Tanya, what happened?" Alisa asked.
"How should I know?" Tatyana snapped.
"He's your boyfriend."
"You know what he's into."
"Surely he must have said something."
"He didn't say anything. I'm just glad we got away, those types don't leave witnesses."
"Yeah, I know. Those guns…" Alisa paused. "What're you gonna do?"
Tatyana shrugged her shoulders; she tried to look cool despite her confusion. Her partner was dead and she didn't feel anything, which was strange. She always expected something like this; and maybe she was glad the waiting was over. She sighed. Ever since she became Valentin's lover, her life was nothing but trouble. She was going to leave him and start over, and now this. Everything ruined, no-one would want her now. Although, if she was clever, she still had a chance. A chance indeed.
"You should be upset," Alisa said harshly. "He saved you, he brought you here. This is your home now."
"This, my home, an old office?" Tatyana said, shaking her head in disbelief. "I didn't need saving until he came into my life!"
"He loved you."
"Love, what's this thing called love? Nothing but strife. And you, Alisa, what does your love for Lyonya do for you? You go to the hotel and foreign businessmen pay you for an hour. And then you go to the bar and find another. Yeah, that's love!"
"Tanya...," Lyona began, before Alisa interrupted.
"The businessmen can have my body, but my heart belongs to Lyonya," Alisa said, turning to gaze at her boyfriend sitting beside her.
"Very moving," Tanya replied flatly. "If I sell myself, I'll do it properly. Once for life; to a man who'll pay what I'm really worth."
"What do you mean?"
"I've got my plans," Tatyana said with a strange smile. "I'm sick of living in this old place, hustling drugs and worrying about police or guys like tonight. I know a better way."
"And Valentin; we can't just leave him with those men."
"What can we do about the people he deals for? Four of us against the mafia; we wouldn't stand a chance!"
"She's right," Lyonya said calmly. "We can't do anything on our own, and you know we can't go to the police. I'm sorry but it's over."
Alisa sat stiffly with her arms crossed while Tatyana glared at her smug friend. "Shouldn't you be putting on your makeup and miniskirt for the rich businessmen at the Novotel?" Tatyana asked, leaning against the wall with her hands on her hips. "I know every Western man loves a pretty Russian girl."
"Do you think I can work after what happened to Valentin?" Alisa shouted. "What's wrong with you?" She leapt to her feet, pointing her finger at Tatyana. "Heartless bitch!" Then she stormed from the room, slamming the door of her makeshift bedroom so hard the wall shook.
Lyonya glared at Tatyana before rushing after his girlfriend. Tatyana eyed Denis, silently sitting on his own and trying to avoid her gaze.
"I'm tired Denis. I better sleep. I'm sure it'll seem better in the morning," she said before leaving for her room.
Tatyana's room had once been an office for an important manager. Large, walled by a decades-old wooden partition, painted white a few years ago when the Next-Gen company took over. It was shabby now, with scuff marks on the walls and cables poking from the skirting boards. But at least it was private. Tatyana stripped off her clothes and slipped under the covers of her bed. She drifted off to sleep.