Categories > Original > Drama0 Reviews
Whilst in Venice with a close friend, a young woman tries to seek refuge from her violent life.
Kaworu: Life and death are of equal value to me. Dying of your own will. That is
one and only absolute freedom there is.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion
Episode 24: The Beginning and the End, or "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"
Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not
rude, it is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrong. Love
does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts,
always hopes, always preserves. Love never fails.
- 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8
Elena leant over the balcony, watching the gondola as it sailed down the canal below.
The boatman was singing something, though she couldn't tell what. Her Italian
was...well, it was non-existent. It sounded romantic, at any rate, and the couple curled
up together in front of him certainly agreed. With his song, and his striped shirt and
funny hat, he looked exactly like you always expected Venice to look. Elena
suspected that was the point. She wondered what kind of life the boatman had when
he was off the clock, and what he really thought about the two loved-up tourists he
was piloting. She also wondered whether the couple cared enough to ask themselves
the same questions.
Elena shrugged and turned away from the balcony. They'd just see a boatman,
not the man piloting the boat. She was also, in her own degrading fashion, a part of
the leisure industry, and she knew for a fact that tourists never cared. They got their
theatre, and were happy with it, and carried on with the delusion that it was somehow
reality and had any kind of value at all.
She looked over at the clock, an antique grandfather model in the corner of the
room. 8:09pm, it said. When Tom had rung earlier, they'd agreed to meet at 8:30. It
was time to go.
Elena took her jacket off the bed and put it on, then glanced at the mirror next
to the bathroom door. She usually loathed doing this. She hated looking at herself,
hated her appearance, hated always having to make sure she looked presentable. But
she was willing to make an exception for Tom. Perhaps it was because he didn't seem
to care either way.
The outfit was a black trouser suit, no tie but with the shirt buttons done up all
the way to the top. It didn't look like something you'd go to a restaurant in, but that
didn't bother her much. Dresses were for those who had a figure, and in any case, too
many people had already seen what little she did have.
With the suit and her black bob cut, Tom's treat when they'd arrived a week
ago, what she looked like was a professional. She'd have smiled at that, if she
Elena left the hotel and set off down the narrow sidestreet. It had been a good
choice of lodgings on Tom's part. Expensive but small and discreet, full of old things
that were truly old things, not just confections. Granted, a bed-and-breakfast would've
been paradise compared to her current "home", but she suspected that, for all its
insincerity, she would suffocate in the excess of the full five-star experience. No, the
big lights weren't for her. She'd learnt her lesson on that one a long time ago.
The sun was going down, casting a pale orange glow over the city. Most of the
tourists had gone now, leaving just the locals headed home and those searching for the
romance of Venice at night. Elena was largely undisturbed as she walked the alleys
and bridges, following the route she'd marked on her map in black biro. She found
herself walking slower than usual, trying to absorb a little of the atmosphere. She
might have loathed the tourist experience, but that was a matter of people, not
surroundings. Venice really was a beautiful city, a jewel from a different world, one
that seemed to exist just for itself and not for the relentless human need. This was a
place where the magical could happen.
Growing up in Bychaü, another world in the worst possible sense, London had
always been her dream city. She knew she'd been wrong many years before she came
here. She adored Tom just for taking her somewhere, anywhere that wasn't her
current hellhole, and now she was in this city, she adored him in particular for taking
her somewhere that might just fill that hole in her subconscious. Not every hole, there
were too many now for her to ever be a real girl again, but it helped.
Elena turned a corner. Lost in the ambience, she accidentally brushed against a
couple walked past, tightly wrapped around each other. She stopped dead, abruptly
torn back to reality. Her arm felt like someone had poured ice inside its veins.
She stepped backwards, leaned on the wall behind her. Her chest hurt, and the
ground was beginning to shake. She screwed her eyes tight, remembered what Jana
had taught her a long time ago. Count to ten. Focus only on the numbers. Leave the
world behind. You'll come back when you're ready.
Elena opened her eyes. The world was still. She was still.
She was a little surprised with herself. She hadn't felt like that in a long time.
In the early years, it had been a common reaction, but she had herself under control
now. Or so she believed.
The couple were long gone. She doubted they'd even stopped.
Elena took a deep breath, and pushed herself off the wall. She looked at her
gleaming and expensive watch, another recent gift from Tom. 8:24pm. According to
her map, she was nearly there, so at least things were still going to plan. She carried
The rest of the journey passed without incident. A few minutes later, she
turned another corner and found herself on the Grand Canal. There was only a sliver
of daytime left now, and the many buildings lining the water had already turned on
their lights. Their reflections glittered on the surface of the canal, twinkling like a
fairytale image of the night sky.
The many cafes and restaurants here were into their evening shifts, and the
diners were out in elegantly dressed, loudly chattering force. After the stillness of the
back streets, the canal was beautiful but uncomfortable. Elena took another deep
breath and carried on.
Her destination was just ahead. Like the hotel, the restaurant was small and
discreet, but still undeniably expensive. Outside the door was a bench facing the
canal, and a man in a tuxedo was sat calmly on it. He looked just like every other
suited man in Venice, but Elena could spot him anywhere.
As Elena approached, Tom picked up something from underneath the bench
and stood up. With a smile and a bow, he produced a small bundle of roses, wrapped
in finely decorated tissue paper.
"For you." He said.
Elena gingerly took hold of the bundle. She didn't really know what to do with
it. The men in her life tended to bring fear and loathing, not roses. She gently rubbed
her finger on one of the petals. Very real. Wonderfully real, if she was to be honest
"Thank you." She said, eventually.
"You okay?" Tom asked. From the lack of inflection in his voice, it was a
general query, not a sign of concern about anything in particular.
Tom gestured towards the open door. "Shall we go in?"
Elena nodded. They went inside the restaurant, Tom letting her take the lead.
He didn't hold her. He knew better.
There were only two other couples in the restaurant, so there wasn't much of a
wait, or even a need for a reservation. A young, very Italian-looking waiter guided
them to a table towards the back, next to a window overlooking a side street. Tom
pulled out a seat for Elena, and she took it with the closest she could get to a smile.
She gently placed the roses on the window ledge.
The waiter came back with two menus. Elena didn't have a clue about Italian
food, so she let Tom choose for them both. He looked briefly at the menu, then gave
an order to the waiter before he'd been able to walk away. The name of the dish
meant nothing to Elena, but a look at her own menu told her that it was something
involving pasta and tomato sauce. Not that this narrowed it down much.
The waiter looked genuinely impressed with Tom's speed. He jotted
something down in his little notebook, then gave a bow and left for the kitchen.
Elena usually found that men that direct were trouble, but she was willing to
make an exception for Tom. From what he'd told her of his day job, taking time over
decisions was even bigger trouble.
They were silent for a few minutes. Neither of them were much good at
The waiter returned with a pitcher of water than Tom had requested. They had
been offered a wine list, but they had both declined. In Tom's case, it was because
sobriety was a key skill in his line of work. In Elena's case, it was because she hadn't
been allowed alcohol in many years, and wasn't sure if she had the enthusiasm for it
The intrusion prompted Tom to speak. He gave a small cough.
"You'll be pleased to know," he said, "my meeting with Reuben Oluwagembi
went as planned."
Elena nodded. "Good."
The euphemism was just for those who might overhear. Elena knew full well
how Tom made his living, and what he was in Venice to do. She had no idea who this
Reuben really was, or why he needed to die, and she had no intention of asking. He
wouldn't care about what happened to her, so she was under no obligation to return
the favour. In any case, you didn't go through the effort of hiring an assassin just
because someone spilt your drink.
The idea that Tom killed people for money, and had done so for a number of
years, didn't bother Elena in the slightest. She knew first hand that there were much
worse things you could do to a person.
In a sense, it was how they had met. It had been about six months ago. She had
been a "bonus" for him, apparently, for some person he had removed in an unusually
efficient manner. She had steeled herself for the standard treatment, only to find that
he had no intention of doing anything to her at all. He'd been given a night with her,
and he'd used it, but for nothing more that sitting on a chair in the corner, reading one
of the trashy crime thrillers of which he was so fond. For that, if nothing else, Tom
was already the perfect man.
His work had him abroad a lot, but since that night, he'd made a point of
visiting her at least once every few weeks. They'd spend their time chatting,
sometimes about nothing, sometimes about everything. Well, mostly it was just Tom
who talked. Elena had never really been confident with words, and even if things were
otherwise, she was content just to listen. Unlike nearly everyone else she'd ever met,
Tom had things to say that were worth the effort. He was a man who knew of the
world, of people and places, of times past and present, of the stars above and the
within, and through him she also would know of these things.
Elena had long since forgotten how to live, but her unconventional knight was,
in his own way, helping her to remember. Sadly, she suspected that the knowledge
was lost to her forever, especially in those dark times when she was waiting for him to
return. But he did his best, and that was more than anyone else she knew ever did.
The reason she was in Venice was because, as Tom had put it, "this is the first
place I've been sent in years where I'd want to take someone". He'd paid Audrey for
two weeks of Elena's company, and here they were. They'd been here for ten days so
far, seeing the sights and taking in the atmosphere whilst Tom had waited for Reuben
to turn up. Yesterday he had, and today he was dead. The only thing that saddened
Elena about this was that there were only four days until she had to go back.
The waiter turned up with their plates. They both had the same dish, which
was, indeed, pasta and tomato sauce. Elena still had no idea what it really was, but she
didn't ask Tom to explain. It looked better than the crap she was usually given, and
that was as far as she cared. As the waiter left, she couldn't help but be reminded of
the boatman. She wondered if either of them could afford this dish.
They ate in silence, save for the sounds of cutlery and chewing. Tom went at
his meal with a barely disguised enthusiasm, which was charming in its own childish
way. Elena was more careful, unfortunately not enjoying hers as much as she'd been
hoping. It was nice, no doubts about that, but too much flavour. She concluded with a
sigh that she'd spent too much time eating awful food.
Tom briefly stopped eating. "Is it good?" he asked.
Eventually, they both finished their plates. Tom fiddled with his knife for a
few minutes, clearly searching for some words. Elena decided not to rush him.
"I wasn't sure how to put this," he said after a few minutes, "but something's
come up. I got a phone call a few hours ago. Some multi-national wants to me to deal
with some guy living in a shack in Uruguay, for the usual bullshit reasons. I'll be on
the plane tomorrow morning. I spoke to Audrey about it, and she won't clear you
staying here by yourself. You'll have to go back to London tomorrow. I'm sorry."
Elena felt her arm filling with ice again. She closed her eyes and counted to
ten. It didn't really work, but the feeling didn't get worse.
She knew she'd have to go back, of course she did, but she'd considered it as
something that would happen "later". Tomorrow was too soon. She wasn't ready. She
didn't want to go back. She wouldn't. Couldn't.
Seeing the outside world again had been confusing and uncomfortable, yes,
but it had been too good for her. She'd almost forgotten what it had been like. It
didn't help that Venice was better still than the outside she knew in her previous life.
It wasn't until she met Tom that she learned Belarus was considered an
"outpost of tyranny", in the same league as places like Iran and North Korea. But if
you'd mentioned it to her when she was growing up, she wouldn't have been
surprised. For as long as she could remember, the only thing she'd wanted was to
leave for somewhere bigger and better.
When she was eighteen, she had gotten exactly what she asked for. She had
been introduced to Dragan, who had offered to take her to London. Transport and
visas would cost about £10,000, which was a lot of money, but it wouldn't have to be
paid until she arrived. Dragan was nice, and Elena was stupid, so it was an offer she
It wasn't until she got to London, of course, that Dragan told her how she'd be
paying her fee. Her mind had always refused to accept the term "prostitute", but even
if it had, she wasn't convinced it was entirely relevant. At least prostitutes got paid.
That had been four years ago. Elena wasn't a fool any more. She knew full
well that "paying her fee" was just a cover story. The closest she'd ever come to the
London lifestyle was a rundown room in a rundown house in a rundown corner of
town. Her only possessions were a mattress, a duvet, a lamp, a chair and a tiny
cupboard of clothes she barely had use for. Just like home.
On a rare occasion when she got to talk to the other girls in the house, Elena
realised her story was exactly the same as everyone else's. That in itself was more
humiliation than she could stand.
She hadn't seen Dragan since the nightmare started, and she knew she'd never
see him again. He was too busy dragging other stupid young girls into the sewer. All
business was conducted via her "madam" Audrey, an elderly Brit who seemed to take
no joy in anything whatsoever. Having this in common with her "girls" wasn't a
By the end of the first week, Elena had already been forced to "service"
twenty men, and at that point she'd been too horrified to keep counting. If she had to
guess, it was at least four figures now, if not more. Most of them blended into one
detestable, skin-crawling face, only the occasional freak sticking in the mind. One had
insisted she refer to him as "dad". This was in the early days, when she still had a
little spirit, and she'd taken him to task for that. Audrey and her thugs promptly beat
out that attitude.
And then Tom had arrived, and made her world a little brighter. She thought
she'd begun to accept it. But he'd just shown her that she was wrong.
"I'm sorry." Tom said again. "I want to help you. I really do. But I can't. You
know that, right?"
This was something they'd established at the beginning. Audrey wouldn't sell
Elena's freedom under any circumstances, and given Tom's career, he couldn't just
shop Audrey and her business to the police. He was too well known in criminal circles
to screw with them and avoid notice, but not well known enough to screw with them
and get away with it.
They could always run, of course. Just leave this restaurant and vanish into the
world, never to be seen again. But that was an impossible dream. Everyone answered
to someone, even Audrey, and the people she answered to were not people you could
hide from. They were everywhere, saw everything, or near enough. The only safe
hiding place was the bottom of the Grand Canal.
There really was nothing Tom could do. She understood.
Tom reached across the table and took Elena's hand. She pulled it away
automatically. Her arm burned more than ever.
Tom looked like he'd just slapped her. "I'm really sorry." He said. "I just
thought...no, I didn't think. I don't know."
He paused, then sighed. "I've ruined it, haven't I?"
Elena didn't respond. She didn't have the heart to lie about something that big.
Her reactions confused her. "Love" was another term she couldn't bring
herself to use, but sometimes, she did catch herself applying it to Tom. Was she in
love with him? All signs pointed that way, she supposed. Maybe yes.
So why did she try to run from him?
She knew then. She had to escape her world. But she wouldn't. Couldn't.
Tom sighed again. "I'm sorry. Shall we go back to the hotel?"
"I'm fine." Elena said after a second. "But yes."
Tom called the waiter over and asked for the bill. Even for just two dishes and
a pitcher of water, it was a lot of money. Tom simply handed over his card, but not
before adding on a €20 tip. The waiter practically beamed.
Tom looked back at Elena. "The wonders of expenses." He said with the hints
of a smile.
They left the restaurant, Elena making sure she took the roses from the
window ledge as she got up. Her watch said it was now 22:48. It had gone dark long
ago, but Venice showed no signs of going to bed. The dinner trade was still in full
swing, and was probably even busier than before. It still wasn't exactly raucous,
because frankly, this was Venice, and there were standards.
Tom and Elena ambled back to their hotel, retracing the route they had agreed
earlier in the day. They were both keen, in their own way, to recapture the earlier
promise of the evening, and they were in no mood to rush anything. Nevertheless,
Tom was careful to keep his distance.
The city was, if anything, even more beautiful by night. It looked older, more
mysterious, as if it had sprung direct from the part of the mind that said "yes, this is
how a city should be". As they passed each building, alley and canal, Elena tried to
etch them into her memory, knowing full well that she would never see them again.
She realised that it wasn't just where she was going that saddened her, but also what
she was leaving behind.
"Thank you for bringing me here."
It was a second before Elena realised she was the one who said this. It was
probably the most she'd said in one go all week. Maybe even in the last four years.
Tom looked at her, eyebrow raised, then smiled. "It was my pleasure. I
thought you'd like it."
"I do, yes."
They lapsed back into silence. This was not unusual for them, and it had never
been awkward. They never shared the feeling, but this was something they were both
It was 23:36 by the time they reached the hotel. Once they entered their room,
Tom threw his jacket over the chair by the door. This was where he'd been sleeping
since they'd arrived in the city, at his suggestion. Elena laid her jacket and the roses
on the bed, one she was grateful to not have to share for a change.
Elena sat down on the bed and took off her shoes. Tom walked over to the
balcony and leaned against it. At least ten minutes passed before something happened.
"I know I can't help you," Tom eventually said, "but that doesn't mean I
haven't tried. But Audrey's bureaucracy is even worse than the government. Nothing
works on her. Nothing. I'm not a good person, I know that, but at least I try. I can't
even begin to imagine what made her care so little about anything."
Elena had an inkling, but it wasn't an insight Tom could understand. She
wondered who his little speech was actually meant for.
Tom paused briefly. "You know, once, I thought I had found a way. Maybe
it's not too late to see. I don't know."
He walked over to the minibar and pulled out a glass. "I'm just going to get
some water. Want some?"
Tom pulled out a second glass, then walked into the bathroom and put them
both next to the sink. Just before he closed the door, Elena saw him take out a small
black cylinder from the cupboard underneath.
A few seconds longer than expected later, Tom came out of the bathroom.
"This one's for you." He said, handing her the glass in his left hand.
Tom returned to the balcony with the glass in his right. Elena rubbed her
finger across the side of her glass. It was cold.
She gently lifted it to her nose. The water smelled a little unusual. She
couldn't tell what of, but it definitely wasn't how you'd imagine water to smell. Not
that water ever really smelled of anything, but...well, it was still unusual.
Maybe she was just imagining it. But not likely. She doubted she had the
capacity to do so anymore.
Tom lifted his glass to his lips, then stopped. He put it on the floor by his feet,
leaving the water inside untouched, and turned to face her.
"Reuben Oluwagembi," he said, "before...the end, there was something he
told me. It's been playing on my mind. The kind of guy I am, the things I do...in the
end, I destroy everything I touch. He was right. I mean, I kill people for money,
sometimes not even a lot of money. Even when I'm off the clock, no one's better off
for having met me. Not even you, it seems. I'm sorry for that. But I don't know what
else to do."
Elena's heart was already his, she knew, but in that moment, she would've
happily given it to him all over again.
There was only one way Tom knew how to deal with people. That much was
true. And she didn't care one bit about that.
Elena closed her eyes and counted to ten, just to be sure. No, both the world
and herself were still. She looked at the glass again.
It wasn't a miracle, not by the standards of the city where magic could happen,
but it was close enough.
"You okay?" Tom asked. He seemed to be concerned, not just making a
Elena looked at him, and gave her best attempt at a smile.