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Tormentor Mine(2)

By:Anna Zaires

Tomorrow, I have to face the ugliness of my world, but tonight, I’m happy.

Tonight, I can love and be loved.

* * *

“Don’t leave, Papa.” Pasha’s chin quivers as he struggles not to cry. Tamila told him a few weeks ago that big boys don’t cry, and he’s been trying his hardest to be a big boy. “Please, Papa. Can’t you stay a little longer?”

“I’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” I promise, crouching to be at his eye level. “I have to go to work, you see.”

“You always have to go to work.” His chin quivers harder, and his big brown eyes overflow with tears. “Why can’t I come with you to work?”

Images of the terrorist I tortured last week invade my mind, and it’s all I can do to keep my voice even as I say, “I’m sorry, Pashen’ka. My work is no place for children.” Or for adults, for that matter, but I don’t say that. Tamila knows some of what I do as part of a special unit of Spetsnaz, the Russian Special Forces, but even she is ignorant of the dark realities of my world.

“But I would be good.” He’s full-on crying now. “I promise, Papa. I would be good.”

“I know you would be.” I pull him against me and hug him tight, feeling his small body shaking with sobs. “You’re my good boy, and you have to be good for Mama while I’m gone, okay? You have to take care of her, like the big boy you are.”

Those appear to be the magic words, because he sniffles and pulls away. “I will.” His nose is running and his cheeks are wet, but his little chin is firm as he meets my gaze. “I will take care of Mama, I promise.”

“He’s so smart,” Tamila says, kneeling next to me to pull Pasha into her embrace. “It’s like he’s five, not almost three.”

“I know.” My chest swells with pride. “He’s amazing.”

She smiles and meets my gaze again, her big brown eyes so much like Pasha’s. “Be safe, and come back to us soon, okay?”

“I will.” I lean in and kiss her forehead, then ruffle Pasha’s silky hair. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

* * *

I’m in Grozny, Chechnya, chasing down a lead on a new radical insurgency group, when I get the news. It’s Ivan Polonsky, my superior in Moscow, who calls me.

“Peter.” His voice is unusually grave as I pick up the phone. “There’s been an incident in Daryevo.”

My insides turn to ice. “What kind of incident?”

“There was an operation we weren’t notified about. NATO was involved. There were… casualties.”

The ice inside me expands, shredding me with its jagged edges, and it’s all I can do to force the words through my closing throat. “Tamila and Pasha?”

“I’m sorry, Peter. Some villagers were killed in the crossfire, and”—he swallows audibly—“the preliminary reports are that Tamila was among them.”

My fingers nearly crush the phone. “What about Pasha?”

“We don’t know yet. There were several explosions, and—”

“I’m on my way.”

“Peter, wait—”

I hang up and rush out the door.

* * *

Please, please, please, let him be alive. Please let him be alive. Please, I’ll do anything, just let him be alive.

I’ve never been religious, but as the military helicopter makes its way through the mountains, I find myself praying, pleading and bargaining with whatever is up there for one small miracle, one small mercy. A child’s life is meaningless in the big scheme of things, but it means everything to me.

My son is my life, my reason for existing.

The roar of the helicopter blades is deafening, but it’s nothing compared to the clamor inside my head. I can’t breathe, can’t think through the rage and fear choking me from within. I don’t know how Tamila died, but I’ve seen enough corpses to picture her body in my mind, to imagine with stark precision how her beautiful eyes appear blank and unseeing, her mouth slack and crusted with blood. And Pasha—

No. I can’t think about it now. Not until I know for sure.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Daryevo is nowhere near the known hotspots in Dagestan. It’s a small, peaceful settlement with no ties to any insurgent groups. They were supposed to be safe there, far away from my violent world.

Please let him be alive. Please let him be alive.

The ride seems to take forever, but finally, we break through the cloud cover, and I see the village. My throat closes up, cutting off my breath.

Smoke is rising from several buildings in the center, and armed soldiers are milling around.