At fourteen Vlad escaped his violent father and the criminal soup of Brighton Beach. Now, twenty years later, he will reclaim his father’s place in the Russian mafia if he can survive. Vlad plans to ingratiate himself with his father’s former partner, Artur, learn the “business,” and commit a hostile takeover. But Artur is no rough gangster like Vlad’s father. A Russian operative and master strategist, he intends to use Vlad as a pawn in his own intricate plan. Secretly pitted against one another, the two men share a common weakness—their feelings for Artur’s lovely daughter, Inna.
Everything changes the night Inna is discovered in her brother’s own nightclub, raped and drugged, with a gun in her hand and a dead mobster sprawled on top of her. The dead man’s comrades are intent on retribution, blood for blood, but Vlad and Artur both know Inna’s innocent of murder. They will need to work together if they hope to keep her safe and solve the mystery of who has set her up—all while keeping secrets from Inna and each other that threaten to destroy them all.
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“Shuster wastes no time embroiling readers in the ensemble-cast-driven drama and tension that make up the seedy underworld of Brighton Beach. The settings are clear, the characters vivid, and the action peppered with authentic Russian dialogue …. Kings of Brighton Beach is a well-written, exciting read full of jealousy, revenge, retribution, redemption and love.” Read the whole review from BlueInk Review.
GET ALL THREE EPISODES OF GANGSTERS WITH GUNS
INNA LAY ON something cold and hard, and a steady beat thumped beneath her. Far away, she heard the din of voices and the rhythmic swell of techno music. Closer, there was quiet, save for an intermittent drip drop, drip drop, like a faucet with a slow leak when water has pooled in the sink basin.
Where was she? Why was she so wet and cold? Her heart beat sluggishly, and she strained for consciousness. Behind her eyelids, she sensed light. She shivered with cold, felt a strange wetness under her shoulder. She struggled to open her eyes, but the effort seemed so great. Lethargy sucked at her, and she sank down into a quiet haze before again trying to fight her way to the surface.
Drip. Drop. Drip… drop.
Familiar scents teased her nose. She tried to inhale, but something large and heavy crushed her ribcage. What was it? She smelled laundry detergent and men’s cologne. These scents mingled with others, familiar, but not pleasant—the stench of sweat and fear and something else, something distinct and metallic.
Her limbs seemed far away, her head fuzzy. She tried to move her legs, her hands, but, like her eyelids, they didn’t quite obey. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she move?
Drip. Drop. Drip… drop.
Her thoughts tangled and drifted. Unfocused images played behind her eyes. The lacy hem of a short red dress against her thighs. A sparkling drink with a wedge of lime. The dizzying glitter of the chandeliers at Troika.
Troika. She remembered accepting a drink from the bartender at her brother’s nightclub. Then what? Her memory was blank.
Drip… drop… drip… drop.
She recognized the coppery smell now. Blood. It was blood. And the scent was all around her.
Panic knifed through her stupor. She opened her eyes. She was on the floor. Light from a chandelier stabbed at her eyes, and she turned her head away.
Near her shoulder, she saw a long-fingered hand with wisps of black hair over olive skin, palm spread against the familiar tiles of the nightclub she had decorated. A man’s hand.
Dread jolted her system, coursed through her limbs. He was on top of her, his groin against hers, his leg thrown over hers. She thrashed underneath him, trying to heave him off, but he didn’t budge.
He didn’t resist her efforts. He didn’t move at all.
Drip… drop… drip… drop.
Who was he? She craned her neck, felt slick, sticky wetness under her cheek and the skin of her bare shoulder. She angled her head to look at him, but couldn’t see his face. His chin was cradled against her shoulder, and his arm had pinioned hers. All she could see was the blood pooled on the floor.
Something was in her hand. She managed to wiggle and flex her fingers. They curled around something hard and cold and heavy. A gun.
There was a gun in her hand! Her body started to shake uncontrollably. Had she killed him?
Inna squeezed her eyes closed, prayed she was hallucinating. When she opened them again, the horror was still there. Someone started screaming, a shrill keening.
Only when she felt the raw pain in her throat did she realize the screams were hers.
Muscles tensed, Vlad watched the Georgian representative, Dato Dzhugashvili, push an oiled black curl off of his face with the barrel of his gun then place it on the table in front of him. The weapon was too close within Dato’s reach for Vlad’s taste, especially when Vlad’s palms itched with the sure knowledge of an impending skirmish.
Artur did not speak. He crossed his arms, leaned his trim body back in his chair, and frowned. With high cheekbones and a full head of silver hair that swept back from his forehead, he looked like a displeased monarch.
All Artur had told Vlad about tonight’s meeting with the Georgians was, “Come. I want your reflexes. Shoot at the slightest provocation.” Vlad’s presence tonight as Artur’s bodyguard could be a testament to how far he had advanced in Artur’s inner circle. Or it could be a test.
Pass or die.
Artur had strategically set up tonight’s meeting here on the third floor of Troika, where no one was likely to hear them or interrupt. The area was secluded from the rest of the nightclub with rooms for private parties, although oddly there were none tonight, even though it was Friday. Artur had selected a small, intimate room with rich wood paneling and framed mirrors—the better, Vlad thought, to watch every move and feint.
With a sheepish shrug, Dato hiked up his pant leg and pulled a long knife out of his silver-toed boot. He held it up, let the sharp blade catch the light, sliced the air with it as if to show how dangerous he could be. He cradled the knife in both hands and placed it on the white tablecloth with a flourish and a bow. The bravado and staged capitulation only made Vlad suspicious and twitchy. He flexed his fingers, ready to draw his own weapon.
No doubt the bodyguard Dato had brought was packing, just like Vlad. So why the show? The leathery man at Dato’s shoulder, Goga, was unfamiliar, not the “associate” that Vlad had met previously, and he wondered where Zviad was tonight and why he wasn’t here.
Vlad sized up Goga. The man was wiry and slight, tough but small, no match in a test of brawn. Hopefully not in a test of brains either.
Anxiety pinched Vlad’s nerves, cut his edgy anticipation with an undercurrent of pain. He hadn’t been honest with Artur about his purpose or motives. He had traded on history and goodwill from more than two decades ago. He had blended the lies so seamlessly with the truth that he couldn’t tell which was which, who he was, where his allegiances truly lay if—no, when—the situation got bloody.
He liked Artur, respected him, perhaps more than anyone he had ever met. But men like Vlad were supposed to be cold-hearted bastards. Do the job and move on to the next one. Never get attached.
As Dato placed the knife on the table, his sharkskin suit jacket pulled back at the wrists to reveal blue tattoos, the kind Vlad’s father had all over his body, the sign of a Thief in Law, vor v zakone, the old-time Soviet mafia. The Thieves’ Law had guided his father’s life, had provided a marker of who could be trusted and who could not, who would help and who might hinder. Vlad sometimes wished his own life were so simple.
In his head, Vlad could hear his father, Ivan, cursing. Fucking Georgians. They buy their way in to the Vory. They don’t earn it in the prisons. I spit on them all. Useless fucking bastards. Vlad wasn’t sure whether his father’s decades-old warning or his own finely honed instincts put his guard up, but his gut rippled with an intense dislike.
Dzhugashvili was likely not Dato’s real name but an attempt at self-importance, likening himself to Stalin by adopting his surname. Dato was known to have a hair-trigger temper and a disregard for discretion. He and his crew preferred to broadcast their violence as a warning to others and prided themselves on their brutality. In Vlad’s opinion, their methods made them no better than dirt beneath Artur’s shoe. Artur was everything Dato and his crew were not—smart, subtle, patient, refined. People didn’t cross to the other side of the street if they saw Artur coming, but this fact only made him infinitely more dangerous.
Even now, poor Dato imagined he had the upper hand. His smug smile flashed with gold teeth, but they were on Artur’s turf.
“You’re a gentleman, Artur, and so I come to speak to you as a gentleman,” Dato said. He smoothed his shiny suit and flicked at the lapel. He tugged at his cuffs in a motion that served, no doubt intentionally, to showcase his ink.
Artur bestowed on him the mildest of smiles.
“I hear things,” Dato said. “I hear Troika is the place to come for drugs. And women. And this doesn’t make me happy.” There was more than a hint of challenge in his words.
Artur steepled his hands. “I don’t know what you’ve heard or who you’re talking to. I’m a businessman,” Artur said. “Not a dealer or a pimp.” The unspoken words, “Like you,” hung in the air.
Goading and evasive, Artur toyed with Dato. Was he hoping for a gunfight? Artur didn’t even own the club. His son, Aleksei, did. Friday night, prime time, and the party rooms on the third floor were all empty. Dato’s information had to be right. Business couldn’t be nearly as good as Aleksei boasted. Aleksei’s ostentatious signs of success had to come from other, less legitimate, sources of income. Like father, like son. Nothing on Brighton Beach was ever what it appeared at first glance.
The vein at Dato’s temple pulsed. Vlad flexed his fingers. He was attuned to the man’s every breath and twitch. He only wished he had his gun in his hand instead of in its holster.
Vlad didn’t intend to let himself get shot, and he sure as hell hadn’t spent the past few months reuniting with Artur and earning his way into his good graces so that he could lose either the man or his hard-won trust in a shootout with trigger-happy thugs. Vlad decided he would take out the bodyguard first, then bull’s-eye his soft-bellied boss. He had a full clip of ammo, but he’d only need one bullet for each. Vlad never missed.
“I’m a businessman, too,” Dato said with a defensive sniff. “And you’re stepping on my turf.”
His words were lost in the sound of a blood-curdling shriek. The terrible screams had Vlad reaching for his gun. Artur sprang to his feet.
“It’s coming from the next room,” Vlad said, and Artur gave him the signal to go.
Gun drawn, Vlad rushed across the hall to the room with the screams. He jiggled the handle of one of the wide, gilded double doors. Locked.
The screams grew shriller, a chilling sound of distress and terror, of imminent danger. Vlad didn’t hesitate. He kicked the doors open.
The sight before him stopped him in his tracks.
Artur’s daughter, Inna, lay on the floor, screaming hysterically. Her short red dress was rucked up around her waist. A man, bare-assed, powerfully built, and far larger than she, lay on top of her, his pants around his ankles, his hands spread on the floor by her head, and a pool of blood collecting under his forehead. She had a gun in her hand.
Her slender limbs flailed wildly, but to no avail. Inna had killed her attacker, but she was still trapped beneath him, helpless and terrified.
Vlad had seen plenty of ugly scenes before, but this one broke something inside him, stole the last tiny shred of faith he harbored in humanity, and made him want to drop to his knees and weep.
He rolled the dead man off of her and spoke to her in soothing tones, but she was still screaming, beyond hearing or comfort. Looking her over for injuries, he pulled out his cell phone to call for an ambulance. Gun in one hand, phone in the other, he hesitated.
Artur might prefer to keep this all quiet, cover it up. If Vlad made the wrong choice now, there would be serious repercussions.
Pass or die.
He slipped the phone back into his pocket, just as Artur and the Georgians appeared in the doorway. Vlad pulled the hem of Inna’s dress down over her thighs, protecting her dignity. His eyes locked with Artur’s, and the man’s pain was palpable, even greater and deeper than Vlad’s.
Vlad remembered Inna as a young girl. More than twenty years ago, she had been about five or six, with a red smudge on her cheek. She had climbed up on the sofa, stuffed bunny in hand, to sit beside him in Artur’s living room, where he, fourteen years old, had sat dejected and betrayed by his entire world, waiting for Artur to send him away. Aleksei, her brother, had worshiped Vlad and chided Inna for bothering them, but she hadn’t been a bother. She had curled up close to him, her chubby body warm against his arm, a welcome presence when no one had held or comforted him, when, perhaps because of his tough-guy act, no one had thought he would accept a soft touch or sympathy. She hadn’t wanted anything from him, other than to be close. “Don’t be lonely,” she had said. She had smelled of strawberry jam and wax crayons, and she had stared up at him with solemn eyes. “You can take Zayats on your trip, and he’ll keep you company.” With that, she had handed him her prized doll, a scraggly, gray bunny with plastic eyes and long, floppy ears. He had tried to give it back, but she wouldn’t take it. She had said Zayats wanted to be with him to be his friend, and Vlad had accepted the enormity of her gift, the only one like it he had ever received—given freely with no expectation of something in return.
Little Inna might have been the only exposure Vlad had ever had to innocence. And now she was broken and violated by the evil all around them. His rage exploded to an intolerable level. The violent fire burned so hot it might incinerate him and everyone around him.
Artur fell to his knees by Inna’s side. He tenderly cradled her head in his arms. Sirens wailed in the background, growing closer. Perhaps someone else had heard Inna’s screams and called the cops.
Dato shouted over Inna’s blind hysteria and the wail of the emergency vehicles. “Zviad’s dead! What the hell happened?”
“Your man raped her and got exactly what he deserved,” Artur said.
“You can’t rape a whore,” Goga said, and Vlad’s rage burned hotter. It would feel so good to smoke these assholes.
Goga’s eyes darted toward Inna, and in a flash he pulled his gun and targeted her. Vlad’s reflexes were faster. He grabbed his second gun from his shoulder holster and now had one in each hand, one trained on Dato and the other on the bodyguard. He fingered the triggers, ready for any excuse to discharge some of his smoldering fury.