Bitter Hearts: a short story

Sometimes love is cruel. One ex-Russian KGB agent knew that many spurned lovers are eager for revenge. Some are even willing to pay good money for it. 

Shortly after noon on a Thursday, Celia Wallingford was sipping a glass of wine at the Blue Fox Café. She had selected a table for two in the far corner of the room—just as the Russian had instructed her in his email.

The Blue Fox was windowless, as dark as a cave even on a bright summer day. It was a high-class establishment where the waitresses wore black stockings with pleated skirts, crisply pressed white blouses, and little red bowties. A decorative, glass-enclosed candle burned at every table.

Although the bar was crowded at the beginning of the lunch hour, the other patrons paid Celia no attention. They were serious men and women clad in Armani, Albert Nipon, Brooks Brothers, and similar power attire—the uniforms of Chicago’s banking and corporate elite. Their lunches were working lunches.

Celia was able to spot Yuri as soon as he entered the room. The Russian was as finely dressed as any of the banking execs or corporate heavy hitters in the Blue Fox; but he carried himself differently. Yuri had the gait of a boxer approaching the ring. He betrayed himself as a man from the wrong side of the tracks, one who had somehow clawed his way up into respectable society. He was dressed for the Blue Fox; but he did not really fit in here.

What do you expect a Russian gangster to look like? Celia thought. But then she corrected herself: Yuri is not a gangster. No—yes he is. Or maybe he’s something in between.

For the time being, she decided to delay affixing any such labels to him. Yuri was simply a man whom she had summoned to help her with a problem.

Yuri looked to be in his mid-forties; he might have been five-ten or five-eleven. He was stocky but the sleeves of his suit jacket suggested muscles and a degree of physical conditioning. He wore his black hair in a crew cut. There were traces of gray around his temples.

“And you must be Miss Wallingford?” he said in heavily accented English. He sat down in the chair across from her. Celia had sent him a digital photo of herself by email—that was one of the requirements for a preliminary meeting—so he had no trouble recognizing her.

“I’m glad to meet you, Mr.—”

“Yuri will be fine.”

As she had anticipated, the Russian was insisting on secrecy. This conformed to everything she had expected from the proprietor of the Bitter Hearts Club. The organization was the subject of dark suggestions on certain Internet forums and chat rooms. If you had been wronged in love, the Bitter Hearts Club could set things right, or so the rumors said. In fact, most of the online postings that Celia had found stated that the Bitter Hearts Club did not even exist; it was an urban legend, like the albino alligators that supposedly lived beneath the sewers of big cities like Chicago. 

Celia had visited a hundred—perhaps two hundred—websites in search of contact information for the Bitter Hearts Club. Along the way, an innumerable number of people had dismissed her as a crank, or kindly tried to tell her that the Bitter Hearts Club was a total hoax. But Celia had persisted. Persistence had led her to this meeting with Yuri.

“Let us begin,” the Russian said. He removed a small notepad and pen from the inner pocket of his suit jacket and flipped it open on the surface of the table. “Celia Wallingford. Age thirty-three. Occupation: brand manager for a large consumer products manufacturer. You have contacted the Bitter Hearts Club because someone has wronged you. And you wish me to set things right.”

Celia held up her hand. “Yuri. One thing for starters. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. This isn’t about revenge. I’m not like that. You see… ”

Yuri raised his eyebrows. “Go on, Miss Wallingford.”

“I contacted you because I am in love. Sincerely in love.”

Yuri leaned back. With most clients, denial was a standard part of the game. They wanted to make use of Yuri’s methods; but they wanted to preserve the purity of their own motives in the process. It wasn’t enough that they be spared getting their hands dirty. They had to be spared any stains upon their precious self-images as well.

“Of course, Miss Wallingford. You are in love. But I need to know more if I am going to help you solve your problem.”

“And am I going to know anything more about you?” Celia asked. “This is all so—if you’ll pardon me—strange. The Bitter Hearts Club doesn’t even have a website, after all. I have nothing but your email address.”

“What do you really need to know about me, Miss Wallingford?” Yuri smiled as he spoke. “As you have probably figured out by now, I am originally from Russia. And I now have the good fortune to be a businessman in this fine country of yours.”

This was the extent of the information that Yuri—whose full name was Yuri Popov—gave out to clients. If they really pushed, he might also tell them that he had grown up near Moscow and studied philosophy at a university in Russia. But there were plenty of secrets that Popov would never tell this Miss Wallingford—or any of his other clients.

For example, none of them would ever know that he had served with the KGB in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation years of the 1980s. And he would certainly not tell any of them that had once skinned a young Afghan woman alive in order to extract information from her husband. The husband had finally poured out everything he knew; but he was too late to save his wife’s life—or his own, for that matter.

No, these details could not possibly be germane to the problems of any of his clients.

“Alright,” Celia capitulated. “I just want you to understand that this is about love—not about hurting anyone.”   

“I understand. But the reality is that love isn’t fair. Is it Ms. Wallingford? In fact, sometimes love is cruel. That is what I’m here to help you with. Now why don’t you tell me all about your problem?”

No one needed to tell Celia Wallingford that love could be cruel. Not after the enormity of Sean’s betrayal.

Celia had been seeing Sean Bailey for nearly two years. Sean was everything (or well, almost everything) that she could want in a guy. The young investment banker was tall, good-looking, and on the fast track at one of the big investment banks located in Chicago. In recent months their relationship had seemed to be growing more serious. Celia was sure that Sean was going to pop the question any day now.

She had found herself living in a state of constant anticipation—giving in to schoolgirl daydreams even during the workday. In her mind’s eye, she saw the two of them getting married, and then honeymooning in Fiji or Hawaii. The rest of the tale unfolded in her mental vista as well: married life, a nice home in the suburbs, and then a couple of kids. In her most whimsical moments, she had even speculated on the children’s names.

Celia realized that she was jumping the gun, building up her expectations before Sean had actually made a commitment. But she honestly believed that things were headed in that direction. She just felt it. She could tell when he kissed her. This was the real thing. After enduring so many false starts, irresponsible jerks, and immature losers, she seemed to finally have found a solid guy who wanted her, too. The fairy tale was on the verge of coming true.

Until five months ago, when Laurie Stinson had come into the picture.

Laurie Stinson was an aerobics instructor at the downtown gym where Sean habitually worked out during his lunch hour. Celia had sensed that Sean was growing distant for several weeks. She prodded him about his mood change until he admitted that there was someone else. She continued to prod, and finally he poured out the details, like a Catholic schoolboy in the confessional. Devastated and furious, Celia had stormed out of Sean’s condominium in a rage.

She had not spoken to him since.

After the truth came out, Celia had taken a day of vacation from her job and trailed Laurie Stinson from her apartment to the fitness club where she was employed. The Stinson bitch was everything that she had anticipated: blonde, Barbie-doll thin, and beautiful. Sean’s new romantic interest seemed to have stepped out of one of those posters that adorn the walls of fraternity houses, locker rooms, and other temples of raw, unchecked male licentiousness. This was a pin-up chick come to life, a vacuous male fantasy in the flesh.

But this was apparently what Sean wanted—for the moment at least. And this was the realization that really hurt.

She tried to make an honest comparison between herself and Laurie, so as to figure out the source of Sean’s attraction. The other woman’s looks were the obvious factor. Celia was by no means fat—but her fast-track, high-paying job required late nights and occasional weekends in the office. That left her little time to work out. She looked good—damn good, most men would say—but she didn’t have the abs of an aerobics instructor. (And how many women did—unless they were aerobics instructors?)

But how could Sean dump her for another woman based on physical factors alone? What was wrong with men? Did they pay attention to anything but a woman’s body? Did they always think with their little heads?

And so Celia decided that she would save Sean from himself. She did not delude herself into thinking that she was motivated purely by altruism. Her own interests were at stake here as well, no question about it. But correcting this situation would be the right thing to do. She and Sean just fit together. They were meant to be. There was no way that Sean’s interest in this aerobics instructor could be anything but a fading remnant of his adolescent insensibilities. It could not be of any lasting substance. If she let Sean go down this path now, they would both regret it years later.

That decision had led her to a number of “advice for the lovelorn” forums on the Internet. There she found out about the Bitter Hearts Club, and eventually she ferreted out the organization’s contact information.

And here she was with Yuri.

“Just so we are clear, Miss Wallingford. What you want me to do is take Laurie Stinson out of Sean’s life. Am I correct?”

“That’s right.”

“I can manage that for you.”

“But you won’t hurt her—right?”

Yuri flashed a wicked smile. “Do you want me to hurt her, Miss Wallingford?”

Celia put her hand to her chest. “Heavens, no. Nothing like that. I just want that little tramp—Laurie—out of the picture. If she were gone, I know that I would be able to patch things up with Sean. I don’t want her harmed, though. After all, this is more Sean’s fault than hers.”

“But it does take ‘two to tango’, does it not”? Yuri said.

Celia laughed ruefully. “If only they were just tangoing.”

“As one of your country’s former leaders once said, ‘I feel your pain’, Miss Wallingford. I’ll need only about a week to make this right for you. Then Miss Stinson will be out of your life—out of Sean’s life—forever.”

Celia sighed. “That would be wonderful. If things could just go back to the way they were six months ago. That’s all I want.”

“There is, however, one additional matter that we need to discuss. As much as I enjoy helping people solve their personal problems, my work does entail significant expenses. We need to discuss my fees before we more forward.”

“Very well,” Celia said. “How much is this going to cost me?”

Yuri reached across the table and lifted Celia’s wine glass. There were two napkins underneath the glass. Yuri removed the top one and wrote down a five-figure number. He slid the napkin back over to Celia.

“My God, that’s a lot of money.”

“I never said that my service was cheap, Miss Wallingford. Do you want to continue, or do you want Sean to keep spending his nights with this Laurie Stinson?” 

Celia ran a mental tabulation of the money in her various bank accounts. Yuri’s fee would put a major dent in her savings, but she would still have a comfortable reserve left over. And it would be more than worth the money if she could get Sean back.

“No, no. I’ll pay your fee, Mr.—Yuri. Just get Laurie Stinson away from Sean.”

“Miss Wallingford, their relationship is already over.”

***

On Tuesdays Laurie Stinson’s last aerobics class ended at four o’clock. As usual, she headed home before doing any shopping or completing any other errands. Brandi would be expecting her, after all. Laurie parked her car in an open space in front of her apartment building and bounded up the sidewalk to her unit. The whole afternoon and evening stretched out before her. First she would take Brandi for a walk. Then she would grab a quick bite to eat and run some errands.

The dog sometimes started barking when she heard Laurie’s footsteps in the apartment building’s hallway. Brandi was a large mutt that she had adopted from an animal shelter two years ago. The dog’s ancestry was a mixture of German Shepherd and collie. (There might have been a bit of retriever or Lab thrown in as well.) After a day of teaching aerobics and dealing with the internal politics of the fitness center, Laurie looked forward to Brandi’s unfailingly enthusiastic greeting each evening.

Dogs were so much easier than humans—especially humans of the male variety. The guy she had been seeing lately—Sean Bailey the Investment Banker—had been wearing on her nerves.

Sean was not really her type. He had struck her as pretentious from the outset. But Sean had pursued her relentlessly for weeks. You had to give a guy points for persistence. She had finally agreed to go out with him, although she suspected (despite Sean’s assurances to the contrary) that he had another girlfriend, or was in the process of breaking up with another girlfriend.

At first Sean had played the part of the gallant gentleman, impressing her with dinners at fancy restaurants and showering her with gifts of flowers. He did not reveal his true character until he got past the probationary period (in other words, until after she had allowed him access to her bed). Then he began to belittle her in subtle ways.

One day she expressed an interest in completing her bachelor’s degree. Sean suggested that she spare herself the effort—that certain parts of her anatomy obviated the need for brains. When she glared at him he quickly apologized and backpedaled. But that remark had not been the last of its kind. It was clear that Sean desired her—lusted for her—but he had no authentic interest in knowing and appreciating her beyond that.

Maybe it’s time to tell Sean Bailey the Investment Banker to take a hike, she thought as she fumbled for the key to her apartment door.      

*** 

“Brandi?”

The first thing Laurie noticed was a large smear of blood on the cream-colored carpet. Blood? Why blood?

It took a few seconds for her brain to process the rest: Brandi had literally been torn apart in her living room. The dog’s limbs were scattered about, as were Brandi’s entrails. There were tufts of fur everywhere. And blood, lots more blood.

Then, most horribly of all, was the gruesome trophy that had been placed atop her glass-topped coffee table. Brandi’s eyes were closed in death, but her tongue hung from her partially opened mouth.

Laurie’s body convulsed in a frenzy of shudders. She felt a scream welling up from deep within her.

NOOO—” she began.

And then someone grabbed her from behind. She started to put up a fight; but the male presence was too strong and there was more than one of them. They gagged her with a heavy cloth and pulled her hands behind her back, binding her wrists with practiced expertise. A blindfold was tied over her eyes.

They forced her down into a chair.

After a pause, one of the men spoke.

“Miss Stinson, you don’t know me, but I know you. My associates and I are going to have a little talk with you. Do you understand?”

The intruder spoke English fluently but with a pronounced accent. He sounded Eastern European.

She felt the tip of a blade dimple her cheek.

“Miss Stinson, I have a large hunting knife pressed against your cheek. If you do not answer my questions, if you are uncooperative in any way, I will ram this blade through your cheek and into your mouth. Then, you will meet a fate similar to that of your unfortunate pet at the hands of my associates. Do you understand?”

This time she nodded immediately.

“Good, good,” the man said. “Now, you have been keeping company with a young man by the name of Sean Bailey? Have you not?”

Laurie gave three nods in rapid succession. Did this have something to do with Sean?

“It is my desire that you cease this association immediately, as of this very moment. And we are going to help you.”

They removed her blindfold, and she could see them. There were three men. One was short and stocky and the other two were tall and stocky. They were all wearing ski masks.

The short stocky one spoke through his mask.

“We are going to remove the cloth from your mouth so that you can make a final farewell phone call to Mr. Bailey. We have prepared a script for you to read. If you scream, we will kill you. If you attempt to inform Mr. Bailey of our presence, we will kill you. If you deviate from the script in any way, we will kill you. Is that clear?”

Laurie nodded frantically.

One of the tall men removed Laurie’s gag. He held her cell phone in his hand; they had apparently removed it from her purse while she was blindfolded. Her attacker keyed through her cell phone address book until he found Sean’s number. After pushing the speed dial button, he held the phone a few inches from her mouth.

The other “associate” held a sheet of legal paper before her face. Her script for the occasion was written in magic marker, spelled out in large printed letters.

“Sean?” Laurie asked when he answered the phone.

“Laurie?” Sean’s voice was partially obscured by static. “What’s up?”

“Yes. It’s Laurie and I have something to tell you.”

“Okay.”

“You and I are finished, Sean. Over.”

Sean of course interrupted her; but Laurie cut him off.

“No Sean, let me speak. I’ve found someone else and I don’t ever want to see you again.

“Laurie, you’re—“  More static.

The tip of the knife blade dimpled her check again. Laurie continued to read from the sheet of legal paper.

My new boyfriend is a personal trainer, Sean. He has a terribly jealous temper. If you try to contact me or come to my apartment, he will kill you. We’re through. Stay away from me, Sean. Goodbye.

The tall hooded man pushed the call terminate button on the cell phone.

The shorter, stocky man addressed her again in his accented voice: “You are never to speak to Sean Bailey again. You will not return his calls or his emails. And equally important: You will not speak to the police. You will tell no one that we were here.”

He turned over the hunting knife and caressed her neck with one of the flat sides of the blade. It felt cold and smooth against her chin.

“And just in case you are tempted to violate any of these rules, I want you to think about this.”

The man who had handled her cell phone was now holding an open laptop that she had not noticed before. They had kept it out of her view until now. On the laptop’s screen was a video feed of a small suburban house. A digital timer ticked away in the bottom right corner of the screen.

“Do you recognize this house, Miss Stinson?” the short stocky man asked.

“Yes,” Laurie acknowledged in a hoarse whisper. It was her parents’ home in Rockford, a town about an hour northwest of Chicago.

“That’s good, Miss Stinson. If you violate any of our rules—if you speak to anyone about our little chat today—then we are going to do to your parents what we did to your dog. First your father, I think. And then your mother. And finally, your little sister. Her name is Elizabeth, isn’t it?”

Laurie began to sob. “No! Don’t hurt them! I’ll do what you want!”

“That’s the right attitude, Miss Stinson. Remember. No more contact with Mr. Bailey. And not a word to anyone.”

One of the other men removed a box cutter from his pocket. He reached behind Laurie and grabbed her wrists. She could feel him making a few quick cuts on the cords that bound her hands.

“My associate is cutting most of your restraints. You will be able to work your way free after we leave. It should take you no more than about ten minutes. Clean up the remains of your dog by yourself, Miss Stinson. Remember what I said. We will be watching you.”

And then they were gone, leaving her to stare at what they had done to Brandi. She felt her gorge rise, like she was going to vomit. She simultaneously believed that she might pass out.

But there would be time for that later. Right now, the important thing was to free her wrists, to regain control of her body and then—her life.

A realization was settling on her: this incident had somehow changed her. It had shattered her basic assumptions about the world.

Willing herself not to look at the scattered remnants of Brandi, Laurie began to focus on pulling apart the weakened cords that still bound her hands behind her back.

***

Yuri Popov was a careful man. Any violent enterprise required obsessive caution. He had learned this lesson long before he arrived in America. The KGB had taught him the value of caution, as had his years in Afghanistan.

Popov methodically kept tabs on his clients, as well as his past victims that were still alive. Time sometimes loosened people’s lips; and Popov was always ready to reprimand those who were foolish enough to talk.

Three years had passed since Popov had helped Miss Wallingford with her little problem. Popov had no concern that Miss Wallingford would reveal any of his secrets. Less than a year after he had visited Celia’s romantic rival, the nuptials of Mr. Sean James Bailey and Miss Celia Ann Wallingford were announced in the usual places. A year later Mrs. Bailey gave birth to a nine-pound, six-ounce baby girl.

No, the former Miss Wallingford would not be a security risk. In fact, she had probably now convinced herself that the whole business with Popov had never even happened, and that Sean’s temporary fall from grace had merely been a bad dream.

But there was another person who would remember the operation, and this person would recall it in far starker terms. She was the object of Popov’s mission tonight.

Popov parked his Jaguar in the parking lot across from the gentlemen’s club. As he sauntered across the street he surveyed his surroundings with distaste: This was a seedy neighborhood, a landscape of rundown tenements, dilapidated warehouses, and businesses that were not wanted in the more respectable parts of the city. What better place for a strip club like The Brass Angel? Where else could such a tacky establishment hope to exist?

Popov took a seat near the back of the strip bar’s main room, where he would not be constantly badgered by the women. There was only one lady whom he was interested in seeing this evening.

Popov’s sources had told him that she worked by the stage name of Star—a stereotypical stripper’s moniker if ever there was one. A parade of bleach-blondes and past-their-prime hustlers preceded her, each of them gyrating and disrobing onstage over the course of two three-minute songs. Popov had to sit there for almost an hour before her turn finally came.

The blonde woman on stage was still recognizable as the person whom he and his men had roughed up three years ago. Nevertheless, the intervening years had not been kind. Laurie Stinson had apparently stopped exercising. She was still thin; but her muscles sagged. Her hair was unkempt. During her performance, Popov noticed that Laurie’s movements were sluggish. There was a noticeable delay between intention and muscular action. The Russian knew this to be a symptom of narcotics abuse.

After disrobing to the catcalls and whistles of the Brass Angel’s patrons, Laurie Stinson scooped her dollar bills off the stage and began circulating about the club.

It was a slow night, and it didn’t take her long to reach Popov’s table.

“Hello, my name’s Star. Would you like a table dance?” she said with glazed eyes. There was no indication that Stinson recognized him. This was to be expected, since he had worn a ski mask throughout their entire meeting.

Popov smiled and nodded. He removed a ten-dollar note from his wallet and placed it on the surface of his table. If possible, he wanted to avoid speaking to Stinson. He knew that many Americans would remember a voice with a Russian accent.

Laurie Stinson began squirming out a sinuous, absurdly suggestive dance a few feet from Popov’s chair. These performances were the bread-and-butter of a stripper’s income; and she had obviously been through this routine many, many times before. Stinson stared vacantly up at the ceiling as she danced. Popov noticed that her skin bore a number of blemishes. What was she using? Crack? Meth? Hard to say—but Laurie Stinson was now definitely on the road to junkiedom. The frightened young woman whom he had encountered three years earlier had been a health nut, an aerobics instructor. But her newfound habits had undoubtedly resulted in the loss of that job. So she had switched to this work, where the idea of employee drug screening was laughable and the cash flowed like water.

How much of her income is she spending on her habit? Popov thought. Fifty percent? Seventy percent?

Popov never felt guilt. He had never felt guilt for the brutal acts he had committed as a KGB officer—not even for the woman he had skinned alive in Afghanistan. And he didn’t feel guilt over what had happened to Laurie Stinson, either. He did, however, feel that he had somehow overdone this job. His intention had been to frighten her. But Popov and his men had terrified her into a state of shell shock, nudging her into a spiral of self-destructive behavior.

Perhaps what his associate, Ivan, did to her dog was overkill, Popov thought. Yes, most certainly it was. The dismemberment of Stinson’s dog had not been part of the original plan. But the beast had attacked them viciously when they broke into the apartment. The dog gave Ivan a nasty bite. He killed it in a rage, and as usual, his rage had gotten out of control. The nearly ritualistic violation of the dog’s carcass had been a momentary inspiration that had gotten out of hand.

Something to keep in mind for the future, Popov noted. Shake them up but don’t shatter them if it isn’t necessary. Because when things shatter, you have to clean up the pieces later on.

Likewise, Laurie Stinson had now become a liability to him. Junkies were unpredictable. In the depths of their stupors, they often babbled about all sorts of things. Their irresponsible talk was often dismissed as the ramblings of drug-addled minds. Sometimes, however, the wrong person was listening when they spoke, and the wrong people began asking questions.

Popov laid another ten-dollar bill on the table as a tip. Let her enjoy the extra money while she had time. To be safe, he would have to arrange for Laurie Stinson to disappear. In her current state, she was a loose end. And loose ends could be dangerous.

***

Yuri Popov knew that he looked out of place on a college campus in south Florida. As he threaded his way through the crowd of students in front of the engineering college, he occasionally gave one of the gawking youngsters an icy stare. Invariably, they became immediately uncomfortable when they looked into his eyes. They turned quickly away.

He spotted Tim McGrath on a park bench. The bench was located beneath the shade of several trees and McGrath looked comfortable, even in this oppressive heat. He was typing away on the keypad of an open laptop that he held balanced on his knees.

“Yuri,” McGrath said without looking up as the Russian approached.

Popov sat down on the bench beside McGrath.

“Mr. McGrath,” Popov said. “Or do you prefer Doctor McGrath?”

“Actually, Tim is just fine,” the slender young professor said. He looked up from his keyboard. Popov noted that McGrath appeared even more awkward and boyish in person than he did in his photograph. Despite his goatee, he could have passed for a teenager.

McGrath was just twenty-eight years old; but he was already a professor here at the university. A math prodigy, McGrath had graduated from college while still in his teens. After earning his doctorate, he had settled into a comfortable position as a mathematics instructor at the university’s engineering college.

McGrath was also the author of a popular science book, Our Mathematical Universe. He was no Stephen Hawking (though he doubtless fancied himself to be in this league); but he was a minor celebrity in the world of scientific edutainment. His book had been successful enough to land him regular interviews on second-tier entertainment venues like NPR. The young academic also maintained a lucrative sideline as a freelance consultant. His clients included NASA and a notable list of Fortune 500 firms.

Not a bad showing for such a young man. But despite his success, not all was satisfactory in the world of Tim McGrath, Ph.D. And so he had contacted Popov, like all his clients did, in the hope that Popov would set things right.

“So how do you like south Florida, Yuri, my man? A lot warmer than that Ruskie weather you’re used to, huh?”

Popov could have told McGrath that he had killed three men in Florida over the past ten years. He realized now that he had made a mistake in agreeing to meet the professor here, on his own turf. This young pantywaist of a mathematician was cocky to begin with, and he saw the university as his personal fiefdom.

Popov would have to open their relationship by teaching McGrath the facts of life.

Popov leaned back on the bench and stretched out his right arm, the one closest to McGrath. He raised his hand behind the back of the bench, and seized McGrath by the back of his neck. The motion was quick and subtle; and Popov’s hand was hidden from the view of the milling crowds on the university grounds. From a distance, it would have appeared that Popov was simply resting his arm behind the bench.

McGrath gasped, stunned. The professor’s neck was thin, almost feminine. Popov knew that he could easily have snapped the neck if he had wanted to. Hopefully that would not become necessary; McGrath could be a profitable client.

“Mr. McGrath—or Tim—if you prefer: let’s get a few things straight. When you speak to me you will keep your voice down. Your frivolous tone suggests that you do not grasp the seriousness of the business at hand. I am here to help you. But if you ever do anything careless that endangers my enterprise, I will kill you without hesitation. Have I made myself clear?”

“Y—yes,” McGrath squeaked.

“Very well.” Popov released McGrath’s neck and discreetly brought his right arm back to his own body. “Now tell me what I can do for you, Mr. McGrath.”

***

As it turned out, McGrath had brought his laptop to the meeting with Popov for a reason. He began his explanation by showing Popov a digital picture of a woman in her mid-twenties.

“She’s special,” Tim said. “Really special. Isn’t she beautiful?”

Popov let the question pass. To him, the woman McGrath identified as Tracey Barnes was neither beautiful nor special. She was moderately attractive—especially from the perspective of an egghead like McGrath.

Popov could not understand why McGrath would be willing to go to such lengths over her. But he never understood the passions that drove his clients—not at an individual, personal level. It was sufficient for him to understand that they were driven. This understanding was, after all, the business model on which the Bitter Hearts Club was based.

The rest of the story unfolded predictably. McGrath had been dating Tracey Barnes; but Tracey had recently grown distant from him. She had not been returning his calls; and she had been canceling dates with flimsy excuses. Then McGrath discovered that Tracey Barnes had been seeing someone else.

“This is him,” McGrath said, bringing up another digital picture onto his computer screen.  This time it was the face of a thirtyish man with dark eyes, a square jaw, and a prominent chin. “His name is Jay Zubak. He’s a car salesman, of all things!”

For the first time during this conversation, Popov was genuinely amused. “Would it be all right if he did something else for a living?” the Russian asked.

“Yuri, please. It’s not like that. Listen: hey, I’m sorry if we got off on the wrong foot; and I’m not sore at you for nearly breaking my neck. I’ll follow all your rules, if that’s what’s necessary. But you’ve got to understand what Tracey means to me. I’m good with numbers but I’ve never really clicked with women, you know? Tracey is the first serious girlfriend that I’ve ever had. Can you imagine what that’s like?”

Popov shrugged. Women had never been a problem for him.

“It makes me sick to see my Tracey with this guy,” McGrath added.

“I see,” Popov said at length. “You feel helpless and you want to even the odds.”

“Odds?” McGrath asked. “What do you mean by that?”

Then Popov decided to twist the knife a little, to make sure that this somewhat irksome client would be willing to pay an exorbitant fee.

“Here’s what I mean: I can tell by looking at his picture that this Jay Zubak is what would commonly be called an ‘alpha male’. I think you know what I mean. Alpha males have a natural advantage in the game of sex and mating.”

“I never really thought about it that way,” McGrath answered, though Popov suspected that he had thought about it. The young mathematician had probably thought about these matters quite a lot, in fact. “Remember, I’m a math guy, not a biologist or an anthropologist. I guess that makes sense, on some level.”

“Of course it makes sense. Alpha males have a natural advantage in the competition for mates. They exude strength. They make women feel secure.”

McGrath looked away. “So that’s it, huh? I guess I’ve always figured that on some level. At the level of intuition, you might say.”

“Women face a version of the same selection process,” Yuri continued. “Youthful women who have perfectly proportioned hips and clear skin, they have an advantage in the battleground of nature.”

Popov had two versions of this talk—one for men, and one for women. It never hurt to give either sex the same spiel from both perspectives.

“Your explanation doesn’t leave much room for chemistry—romantic attraction. Does it, Yuri?”

“Your society idealizes romantic attraction as some blessed meeting of the souls,” Popov scoffed. “When in reality it is a competition for survival. The survival of one’s genes. The whole thing is actually quite Darwinian in nature.”

McGrath paused to think about this. He nodded. “Yes, I can see that. And where does romantic love fit into this scenario?”

Popov waved his hand dismissively. “Romantic love is a comfortable myth used to justify our biologically driven, superficial preferences. Focus on the laws of nature instead. And if we’re talking about natural selection, why shouldn’t you take some extra steps to even the odds, Mr. McGrath? This is the whole idea behind the Bitter Hearts Club.”

Popov removed a pad and pen from his suit jacket pocket and wrote down a number. “For this amount, Mr. McGrath, I can assure you that Mr. Zubak here will never be tempted to call Tracey again.”

“You mean scare him, right?”

“I can assure, you Mr. McGrath, that my system is very effective.”

McGrath responded with a humorless smile. “No, I’m afraid that won’t be enough. I want to be absolutely sure that Mr. Zubak will never have contact with Tracey again. You know what I mean, don’t you?”

“You mean—”

“Yes. I want him gone. To disappear.”

“I see.”

“And there’s more.”

“Go on.”

“As I said, Tracey is a very special girl to me. I want to take steps to make sure that she will be my girl—and only mine—forever. I want to make certain that no man will ever look at her again like I do. I want to—”

“I can’t have my people follow her around indefinitely, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Popov interrupted. “That would be impractical.”

“No, I don’t mean that. Let me tell you exactly what I have in mind.”

Popov listened to McGrath’s explanation. When the mathematician had finished explaining, the Russian paused and folded his arms. This was a most unusual request—an unprecedented one, in fact. But by no means impossible.

“In that case, Mr. McGrath, you will need to add a zero to the number I just gave you.”

***

Jay Zubak pounded the heavy leather punching bag that hung in his living room with a vengeance. Each time his fist struck the bag, he could feel the day’s frustrations draining out of his body.

He was clad in shorts, athletic socks, and gym shoes. Within fifteen minutes, streaks of perspiration began to run down his chest and back. He punched the bag faster, putting more of his weight into each blow.

His respiration and breathing were accelerated now; but the sensation was pleasant. Jay had been working out for years. He knew that physical exertion released endorphins, the body’s own narcotic. It felt good to push himself like this.

He stopped for a moment to catch his breath. Jay’s gym shorts were soaked.

He liked the workout that the bag gave him. It was almost as good as lifting weights. He flexed his muscles before the mirror erected in his workout area—a corner in the living room of his cramped one-bedroom apartment.

Despite being chained to a desk for most of the day, he was satisfied to note that he remained trim and muscular, even at thirty-two. It would be no exaggeration to say that he had the physique of a collegiate wrestler.

Most of his colleagues at the car dealership were sedentary chain smokers with protruding guts and weak, flabby limbs. He stood out as the lone athlete among them. They had therefore given him the nickname of Rocky, an appellation that secretly pleased him to no end.

Let them laugh at his cans of tuna and lunchtime jogs. Fine. How many of them looked like this in front of a mirror?

And healthfulness was not the only benefit of his lifestyle. His latest girlfriend, Tracey, also seemed to think that he looked good with his shirt off.

Tracey had come into the car dealership a few weeks ago looking for “a fuel-efficient convertible.” Jay had not managed to sell her a car; but he did finagle her phone number before she left.

Several gently assertive phone calls were required before she agreed to go out with him. Tracey had been seeing some math nerd from the university. (The guy’s name—what was it—Tim?)

Tim was apparently an important math nerd at that; Tracey said that he had even published a book. This fact seemed to impress her somewhat (though not enough in the end, sorry Mr. Math Nerd!) Let Tim the Math Nerd mess around with his equations and books; he would take care of messing around with Tracey.

Jay’s thoughts were interrupted by a knock at his front door.

It was already past eleven in the evening, too late for door-to-door salespersons or pamphlet-pushing representatives from the local Southern Baptist or Seventh Day Adventist church. It might be someone with the wrong address or apartment number. That was a frequent annoyance in apartment complexes like this.

Jay pulled the door open, anticipating a teenager or someone in his or her early twenties. But the man on Jay’s front stoop was probably in his early sixties. He was short, with white hair and a pinkish complexion. His moderate case of sunburn made Jay conclude that he was a tourist or a recent arrival to Florida. Only his clothes seemed suited to the climate: white slacks, a thin tropical shirt, and a white blazer.

“Hey,” the man said without an introduction or any sort of a greeting. “Is that your Mustang in the parking lot?”

“You mean the red one?” Jay asked, already filled with foreboding. The Mustang was his prized possession.

“That’s it. Someone’s taken a crowbar or something to it. I thought I’d tell you so you could—”

Son-of-a-bitch!” Jay brushed past his grandfatherly visitor on his way out the front door. (In fact, he practically shoved the man out of the way.) Not the car. Anything but the car.

His apartment was on the ground level. Jay jogged toward the far corner of the parking lot where he kept the Mustang. He habitually parked the Mustang in a secluded spot because this lessened the chances that it would be dinged by the doors of other vehicles. That strategy had kept the Mustang immaculate so far.

Jay’s car was in its usual place at the back of the lot, alone except for a dark Ford Econoline van that Jay had never seen before. The owner of the van had apparently gone out of his way to park right next to the Mustang, almost as if to spite him.

But the damage done to the Mustang had not been the result of a clumsily opened van door. The Mustang’s windshield was completely shattered. Both headlights were broken out, too.

As Jay broke into a run, he could see that the perpetrator had also done a number on the paint job. There were two large gashes on the hood of the trunk.

A pretty nasty and thorough bit of vandalism, overall.

For a moment Jay was beyond speech. Then he pounded his fist on the hood of the all but ruined car.

WHAT THE HELL!?”

“It’s awful, isn’t it?”

Jay whirled to see the grandfatherly man standing there beside him. “Why would anyone do anything like this?” Grandpa asked. “You must have some real enemies, son.”

“None that I know of,” Jay said. Now his heart was pounding again, not with the pleasant exertion of exercise this time—but with rage. Swelling rage. “At least not any who would do anything like this. Damn! Damn! DAMN!” He pounded the hood again.

“Let’s have a look at the back of the car, see if they damaged it back there, too.” Grandpa walked behind Jay, between him and the Ford van.

He knelt down to inspect the back of the car.

Just then a question rose to Jay’s consciousness, one that should have occurred to him from the outset:

“Hey, how did you know this car belonged to me? And where are you from, anyway? For that matter, who are you?”

But Grandpa seemed not to hear him. “Did you look at the rear of this car, son? Look at what they did.”

“What?”

Jay took a step toward the back of the car, where Grandpa was now crouched out of view. He barely noticed the sound made by the side door of the Ford van as it swung open.

He whirled toward the van. The subsequent chain of events unfolded rapidly, almost too quickly for him to process them. Someone pulled a cloth hood over his head, restricting his air intake and plunging him into darkness. Then another person’s fist delivered a short, violent shot to his back.

It was not a random punch, but a precision blow to a pressure point in his back. Jay arched backward as his entire upper body convulsed in pain. Then the same person’s hands were pulling his wrists behind his body. 

The inside of the hood was moist, and it bore a chemical smell. Although Jay had never actually smelled chloroform, a sinking sensation told him that this was the source of the odor. He felt suddenly light-headed.

“Sweet dreams,” a voice in the darkness said. Jay recognized the speaker as Grandpa. As his consciousness faded, Jay put the pieces of the situation together. The whole thing had been a set-up, a carefully planned trap from the very beginning.

Stupid idiot! he thought. That’s what I am!

“Get him inside,” Grandpa said. Now his disarming, almost doddering Grandpa tone was gone. This was the voice of a thug—a sixty-something thug, but a thug nonetheless.

The last words that Jay Zubak heard before he passed out were “swamp” and “drive!”.

***

He took flowers with him to the hospital—a dozen of the long-stemmed roses that he knew she loved. She was fortunate enough to have a room to herself. They had privacy for their reunion.

When she saw him enter, the bandages hid the expression on her face, but the emotion in her voice was undeniable. It was a mixture of gratitude and rekindled affection. It was an apology, an implicit admission of guilt.

She had forsaken him for another man; and the other man had ended up forsaking her. But still he was here, welcoming her back—almost like the Biblical father greeting his prodigal son.

“Tim.” 

“Tracey. No, wait. Let me put these where you can see them.”

He placed the flowers on the stand beside her bed. Then, while he was still leaning over, she reached out and clutched his hand. Her fingers caressed his palm.

“I was so—stupid!” she said.

“Shhh. We can talk about that later. Look at you. You’re going to rip out your IV.”

He gently guided her hands downward. Then he folded them across her chest.

“You’re not a very good patient, you know. Do you want me to report you to the nurse?”

“Tim, I just can’t believe this. First Jay dumps me like that and leaves town. Then those two men attack me yesterday.”

“Sometimes bad things happen to good people,” he said. “No one knows why.”

Tracey snorted through her bandages. “You think I’m a good person? After the way I treated you?”

“Never mind that.”

She appeared to be genuinely grateful for his kindness. That was to be expected. Before Popov’s men disposed of Jay Zubak, they forced him to give up the passwords to his email accounts. Then they sent Tracey a Dear Jane letter that was calculated to wound, enrage, and humiliate.

But more importantly, the email was meant to ensure that Tracey Barnes would make no attempt to reestablish contact with her erstwhile lover. Nor would she be inclined to ask herself too many questions about his sudden disappearance.

“And now you’re going to take me back?” she asked.

She looked into his face. His expression told her that the answer was obvious.

“And there’s another thing, Tim.” She took a deep breath. When she finally spoke, her voice was unsteady. “Those men cut me up pretty badly. There will be scars. I’m not going to look the same when I get out of these bandages. Do you understand that?”

“You’re still going to be my Tracey. That’s the only thing that matters.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am, and—”

Tim stopped in mid-sentence, having noticed the tall young man who was standing in the doorway of the hospital room. The unwelcome visitor’s eyes, obscured behind Coke-bottle thick glasses, bored into him.

Tracey noticed him as well.

“Adam,” she said. 

She apparently knew him.

The visitor, whose name was apparently Adam, might have purchased all of his clothing from a consignment shop: the legs of his jeans were an inch too short. His warm-up jacket had seen better days. Much better days.

“Tracey. I heard about what happened to you, and I—” Adam’s beaklike nose pointed toward the floor. “I just think it’s awful. I wanted to come see you. To make sure you’re alright.”

Adam paused to glare at Tim again. But when he returned his attention to Tracy, he resembled an adolescent in the flush of his first schoolboy crush.

“Adam,” Tracey’s tone suggested polite gratitude and more than a trace of discomfort. “That’s sweet of you.”

“Did they catch them, Tracey? Did they catch the people who did this to you?”

“No, Adam,” she replied. “The police are looking for them. But from what I gather, we shouldn’t get our hopes up.”

“If they ever find them, Tracey,” Adam took a deep breath. “Or if I ever find out who they are…I’ll kill them.”

“I appreciate your concern, Adam.”

“I’d kill anyone who hurt you, Tracey. You know that, don’t you? Do you believe me?”

“Yes, I believe you. You’ve always been a devoted friend to me, Adam. But let me introduce you to Tim now. Tim is my boyfriend.”

Tim extended his hand but Adam left his own hands crammed into the pockets of his warm-up jacket. His jaw tensed, and Tim suddenly realized that Adam was not just resentful; Adam implacably hated him.

“You’re a lucky guy, Tim,” Adam said simply.

Tim withdrew his hand, now more than a little annoyed with Adam.

“Yes I am. Thanks for stopping by to pay your respects to Tracey. We appreciate your concern and—”

You don’t need to thank me for anything.”

Tim started to reply but checked himself. Nothing could be gained by allowing this encounter to escalate into a full-blown confrontation. Tracey obviously had no interest in Adam. He was no threat.

“Goodbye, Tracey.” Adam said. “I’m sorry again about what happened to you. And remember, I’ll kill anyone who hurts you. That’s a promise.”

“Yes. I’ll remember. Thank you, Adam.”

Without another word, Adam turned and left.

“Well,” Tim said after Adam was safely out of earshot. “Looks like you have many male admirers.”

“Come on, Tim. You know better than that.”

“I don’t know—it looked like true love to me.”

“It is, on Adam’s part,” Tracey explained. “We grew up in the same neighborhood. Next-door neighbors, in fact. Adam’s had a thing for me since we were kids, like twelve or thirteen years old. But it only goes in one direction. Couldn’t you tell? That ought to be obvious.”

“Has Adam ever made his feelings known? I mean, explicitly?” Tim asked.

“Yeah, several times.”

“And let me guess, you let him down easy.”

“Something like that. He’s really not a bad person, you know. A little intense. He’d be a great guy for, well—”

“Somebody else,” Tim finished.

Tracey laughed. Then she winced at a fresh wave of pain as the stitches beneath her facial bandages shifted.

“I guess so.”

Tim leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Don’t worry about anything, my love. You concentrate on getting better. We’ve got the whole future ahead of us.”

***

Popov continued to keep tabs on all of them.

A few weeks later, Laurie Stinson was found was dead in her apartment, the victim of an apparent drug overdose. This brought Popov a measure of relief. He would not have hesitated to eliminate the Stinson woman; but he did not relish the idea, either. As it turned out, she succumbed to her own weaknesses.

Popov also kept an eye on Tim McGrath. A year later he published another science book, this one a layperson’s guide to the theory of relativity. The book brought McGrath more than a little monetary success, and more public attention than would ordinarily be showered on a scientific author.

There was another twist to McGrath’s story as well. His ten minutes of fame delivered him into the arms of one Donna Elbers, a blonde ex-Miss Florida. While searching online, Popov happened upon a photo of the two of them. The photo showed the couple attending a gala ball in Miami. McGrath was clad in a tuxedo and Miss Elbers was wearing a shimmering evening gown. Although Popov had been less than impressed with McGrath’s photograph of Tracey Barnes, he had to admit that Miss Elbers was rather stunning.

I wonder where that leaves Miss Barnes? Popov thought sarcastically. So much for the little mathematician and his one true love.

***

Tim McGrath didn’t give the man in the alleyway his attention until it was too late.

He was leaving his office at the university around seven in the evening. He had decided to keep his teaching job despite the success of his book, though he did plan to talk to the university about a significant pay raise. (He was, after all, now a “celebrity prof”.)

That night the skies had opened up in a typical early summer rainstorm in Florida. Holding a newspaper over his head, Tim McGrath made a run for the parking garage.

As Tim passed a little alleyway near the fringe of the engineering college buildings, he barely noticed the man skulking in the dimly lit space between two brick walls. He saw the hooded figure out of the corner of his eye.

Tim briefly thought that the man’s presence was a bit unusual—maybe even suspicious. Of course, there were any number of perfectly innocent reasons why a student might be standing around this area at seven in the evening. He might have a class. He could be meeting up with friends. Or maybe he had an assignation lined up with a hot coed.

But why would he stand outside in the rain like that? People just didn’t stand around in the rain, unless—

The man darted forward in a sudden movement. Tim barely had time to register a long object in the unknown person’s right hand.

The crowbar grazed Tim’s temple. A full impact would have knocked him out instantly; but even this oblique blow was enough to send him reeling backwards. His briefcase went up into the air, and then fell back to the ground in a flutter of papers that were instantly soaked by the driving rain.

Tim hit the ground himself with an audible thud and a loud “OOOF!

He was aware that he was hurt badly. His head already throbbed with pain, and his body screamed in agony from still forming contusions.

Nevertheless, he attempted to get to his feet. His assailant would be—

Too late. A booted foot drove Tim back to the asphalt, flat on his back. Then the man was upon him; the hooded assailant was holding a pistol in one hand and a crowbar in the other.

“What?” Tim said weakly through a fog of disoriented pain. “You want my wallet? Take it. Want my car keys? You can have those, too.”

“I don’t want your wallet or your car keys.”

The attacker pushed back his hood. His head was a wet tangle of hair in the rain.

“Adam?” Tim asked incredulously. “What the hell do you think you’re—”

Adam pushed the forked end of the crowbar into the soft skin under Tim’s jaw, hard enough to draw blood.

“Shut up!” he hissed. “Didn’t you know it would come to this? After what you did to Tracey?”

“Adam, listen to me. I haven’t seen Tracey in months.”

“No, Mister Famous Author. You haven’t. You were too good for a girlfriend with a messed up face, weren’t you?”

“Adam, someone is going to come along any minute. Then you’ll be sorry.”

Adam laughed, but he did not relax the tension of the pointed tip of the crowbar. “No Tim. Classes are done for the day and it’s raining like the end of the world. No one is coming. It’s you and me.”

So Tim tried another line of reasoning. “Don’t you see, Adam? This is your big chance. I’m out of the picture now. Tracey could be yours.

Adam placed the muzzle of the pistol against Tim’s forehead. “That’s what I’d hoped, Mr. Famous Author. I called Tracey a few weeks ago and she sounded terribly depressed. She told me how you ditched her for a fashion model or something. I spent the whole night listening to her, letting her talk about how you’d dumped her like yesterday’s paper.”

Adam lifted the gun and slammed it into Tim’s forehead.

“OUCH!”

“You know she’s never been the same since those men did that to her face, and then you hurt her like that.”

“So make your play with Tracey, Adam,” Tim said weakly between labored breaths. “Be a man. Forget about me.”

“I’m afraid it isn’t that simple. Tracey killed herself the night before last.”

Adam let the crowbar clatter to the cement. He gripped the pistol with both hands. 

“That means you killed her, McGrath. You killed my Tracey.”

Tim looked into the muzzle of the pistol. Too weak now to dislodge Adam, he took the only course of action available to him.

He screamed.

***

Popov discovered the article online few days later:

Science Author Murdered on South Florida Campus

Adam Cleary (28) of Pomeroy Grove, Florida was charged Wednesday in the shooting death of noted author and South Florida University mathematics professor Timothy McGrath (31).

McGrath is the author of Our Mathematical Universe, and the more recently published Relativity and the Paradox of Numbers, which peaked at #26 on the New York Times bestseller list.

McGrath’s death has saddened his many friends, students, and readers. A large group of South Florida University students gathered yesterday near the place where McGrath was murdered to hold a candlelight vigil in the professor’s honor.

“I’m still in shock,” said Tina Marsh, a student who attended the vigil. “Dr. McGrath was so full of life and energy. He was a great teacher. I can’t understand how anyone could do this.”

Two eyewitnesses observed Adam Cleary fleeing the scene of the murder, and authorities took him into custody within hours of the crime.

Investigators are still trying to establish a link between Cleary and McGrath. “Cleary is not being cooperative during questioning sessions,” said Detective Ron Pierce, of the Miami-Dade Police Department. “We don’t yet know if the two men knew each other. But this does not bear the characteristics of a random crime….”

***

Popov felt sure that it was not a random crime. It did not take him long to discover that Adam Cleary and Tracey Barnes shared the same hometown. The Russian did not believe in coincidence. How could Miss Barnes not be the link between the murdered McGrath and his killer? 

He reflected that at least there would be no loose ends for him to clean up in Florida. Jay Zubak, Tracey Barnes, and Tim McGrath were all dead now. Cleary would disappear into the prison system, where his mind would be destroyed—if not his body as well.

Popov thought of Darwin, of the beasts in the jungle, who will kill each other for food and mates:

Let the poets and the songwriters rhapsodize about the tender side of romantic love. Let them ramble on about first kisses in springtime and moonlight walks.

For I know love’s darker side. I know how quickly passion can turn into disappointment…how easily disappointment can spiral into rage and vindictiveness.

Love is nothing like the cliché that the poets and the songwriters babble about, he thought. Sometimes love is little removed from the jungle. Sometimes love is cruel.

And that factor will keep me in business—forever, or as long as I can stay alive.

THE END

“Bitter Hearts” is included in the collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense