Vices and Virtues: Part 01.
The building had stood on the corner of Denker and Smith for over 70 years. In a city like Los Angeles, that qualified it as ancient. In that time, it had undergone several lives. Apartments, offices, more offices and then back to apartments just before the freeway had been built nearby. When the neighborhood had gone to hell, it seemed only a matter of time before the building took on it's latest incarnation.
On the third floor, in a spacious apartment overlooking the parking lot, Ludmilla sat amongst the girls that had been working there and smoked her third cigarette of the hour. Only the first week in June, the mercury was regularly making an appearance in the over 80 degrees scale and it was starting to drive her crazy. Summers were warm enough in her native Ukraine but they never lasted as long as they did here. There was one redeeming thing to the vast quantities of time she spent in the nicotine stained rooms. The air conditioning was effective enough to cool parts of a brickworks, that much she was sure. There were times that it was too cold but she dared not touch the thermostat. There were plenty of other times that she needed the chill air. They were the times that men heaved their sweaty bodies over her, times that she had come to know all too well in the 6 months she'd been here.
She wondered briefly if that journey had come to an end now, wondered if she would be shipped back to the Ukraine once the policemen in their crisp uniforms and suits found out that she had come to the country illegally. They stood in groups talking amongst each other in casual tones as the belongings of the girls were gone through, the final steps in the raid that had kicked off over an hour ago with the appearance of a dozen phantoms dressed in dark clothing and carrying military style weapons.
She looked around at the other women, some of whom she had come to regard as friends. They'd talked about this time coming. Some of the girls had claimed that for a smile and a blowjob, they'd been let go in raids gone by. Ludmilla could scarcely believe that these imposing men, and some women, would do such a thing.
Hearing a hello in her native tongue surprised her and she looked up in surprise at a man dressed casually in jeans and a loose jacket.
"Priviet." She replied, unsure of what to do. A nervous smile crossed her lips.
The man sighed and sat heavily on the couch beside her, occupying the space left behind as two of the girls were shooed farther down the hall by a couple of uniformed police. He looked at the watercolor print on the wall across from them, someone's misguided attempt to bring some brightness to this drab place. The frame was dusty, the glass cracked. Ludmilla had looked at the picture often, feeling a bit like the bright print that lay imprisoned behind the dust and grime. She watched as the man studied it, as if they were sitting in a fine museum someplace. He sighed again and pulled a tin from his jacket, producing a small cigar that he contemplated in one hand while fishing for a lighter with the other. Almost as an afterthought, he pulled the tin back out and offered it to her.
"Pajolasta." He said as she took one and then deftly lit it for her before sitting back on the couch.
"Your Russian is very good for a policeman. You spent some time there I think. Your accent is strange, though."
"Georgia." Said the man softly as he puffed on the cigar. "I wasn't always a policeman you know. I was a soldier once and spent some time there. And who told you I was a policeman?"
For Ludmilla, the room temperature felt like it had dropped twenty degrees. The man was right. No one had told her he was a policeman and in a lot of ways, he certainly didn't act like one. She was reminded of the people from State Security back home and of tales she'd heard from her Grandparents about the KGB. The man next to her wasn't dressed like the detectives taking statements down the hall, didn't carry himself in the same way. Suddenly, she was very nervous.
"Milla. May I call you that? Good. Milla, I know that you've been here for some time. I know how you got here, where you came from and I'm willing to bet that you really don't want to go back. Say nothing if I'm correct."
Ludmilla's hands began to shake.
"As I thought." The man's Russian wasn't perfect, more like the language as it was spoken by the working class. Factory workers, taxi drivers…soldiers. "Milla, I'm here looking for someone but I need a little help and in return I'm willing to do something for you. Something substantial. But first I need to know if you can help me."
Milla shrank a little on the couch, afraid of what she would have to do despite not having an idea of what it was. On the surface, the man seemed pleasant enough. A nice smile, wonderful blue eyes. She looked at his hands and saw trimmed nails that didn't speak of a manicure. You never saw that in men anymore. His clothes were casual but not unkempt. And yet, inside she began to tremble with fear. Trembled as she realized that it had to do with the way the man had looked at her and was carrying on the conversation. At this moment, at this very second he owned her and there wasn't a thing anyone could do about it.
He held a photo in front of her, grainy and curled. She only needed a moment before nodding.
"That's good, Milla. That's very good. When we're done, I'm going to give you some money and then turn you over to one of those detectives. Listen to me closely. You won't be under arrest and no one is going to send you back to a country you don't want to ever see again, especially since you don't have any family or friends there anymore." How did he know that? She couldn't even think about it as he was talking again. "The detectives are going to help you collect your things and then you're going to the train station. When you're there, you're going to get a ticket to any city in the state you choose. You're going to go there and you're going to forget all about this."
The man paused and looked at the photo himself before putting it in his shirt pocket. "Oh. And there's one more thing. You'll be indebted to me for this fresh start you're getting. Do you understand?"
She nodded and then nearly jumped as the man gave one of her hands a firm squeeze.
"Say it." He said.
"I will be indebted to you and will gladly repay the favor at the hour and place of your choosing."
He released her hand and sat back, puffing away contentedly on the cigar. "The person on the photo. Here, yes?"
Milla took a long drag off the cigar, letting the acrid smoke fill her lungs until she felt like choking. She nodded while exhaling.
"And since we've searched the building, she must be hiding. But we've looked all over the building so the hiding place must be a good one. A hidden room, yes?"
Milla sat quietly, feeling as though her heart would pound right through her chest.
"And you know where the room is, yes?"
She took another drag and nodded.
They went upstairs, wandering across faded carpet and past cracking wallpaper. The man had made a signal to two of the detectives, who followed them now. Milla had the impression that the men would be the ones taking her to the train station when it was over. Up another flight of stairs and through a doorway broken open by a policeman's boot earlier in the raid. The apartment was small and she led them into the living room. She stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do, when the man spoke in his blue collar Russian again.
Such a soft voice, so charming a manner. She wondered if the women in his private life were treated to it without the manipulations that lay beneath.
"Of course." Said the man as he gently put an arm around her shoulder. "A fireplace in a building with no chimney." He kissed her softly on the cheek and Milla suddenly wanted to run from the room as he tucked a roll of cash into her purse and handed it to her.
He found the hidden latch easily and the fireplace swung open to reveal the hide. The space was just big enough to accommodate a small person, in this case a prostitute Milla had only known as Vera. Vera was young and pretty. Vera had come to the building a week ago. Vera didn't really speak to the other women in the building. And Milla was paralyzed with the realization of why the man had been looking for her.
The two detectives pulled Milla back to the doorway as the man stepped forward warily. Vera had turned and was looking at him with wet, dark eyes that pleaded and begged. Her legs tensed as if to rise up out of the crouched position she was in and run. The man, seemingly twenty pounds out of shape, moved with the ease of a tiger and blocked the door. His jacket flipped aside and Milla could see a heavy blaster in his right hand. The man held it behind his right leg but Milla was sure that Vera knew it was there.
"Stand up, Christine." The man's tone was like that of a tired Father about to discipline his unruly child.
The woman Milla knew as Vera took a hesitant step out of the hide and stood. The woman regarded Milla for a moment and then turned her attention back to the man. A plump tear rolled down her cheek and she shook her head.
"You can't." She said. "Not yet. You need to do a test. You need proof."
The man sighed with a mournful tone. "I have all the proof I need and you are in violation of about six statutes of the law, say nothing of what you've done since you escaped two weeks ago. You are an illegal and unlicensed replicant living on Earth. You know it. I know it." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "They know it as well. Now don't move because it'll be difficult for both of us. Do you really want that?"
Vera, or Christine, stood perfectly still and didn't say a word as another tear rolled down her cheek.
The man turned his head slightly towards one of the detectives as he maneuvered, shifting his body and bringing the blaster up into a low carry. "Get her out of here and ask for a uniform to come up. I'm gonna need someone to guard the scene until a crew comes to collect the evidence."
Milla was pulled out into the hall and they paused for a moment as one of the detectives closed the apartment door. She could see the man in profile and heard his voice just before the door closed, still with that soft hypnotic tone.
"Christine, let's not do this. I've got an injection you can have. You'll just sleep. There'll be no pain. Okay? Just turn around now. Let's not do this the hard way."
They were halfway down the hall to the stairs when the noise stopped them. Even through a closed door, the shot was loud enough to make Milla wince. She took two more unsteady steps, stumbled and then fell to her knees before vomiting onto the landing's faded carpet.