(Content note: sexual assault.)
When she was a girl, Vasilisa wanted to be a sniper. She’d grown up listening to tales of the valiant Stalingrad sharpshooters who had bolstered the city’s resistance to the German invasion in the Second World War. She enlisted in the army as soon as she was old enough, and trained hard with her rifle, but when she applied for specialty training, that career track was closed. Instead, she was recruited for a new program.
Vasilisa learned seduction from a lithe Uzbek of slippery gender, who taught classes in three cramped trailers along the shores of the Caspian Sea. The trailers were welded into a row and doorways had been sliced though the metal sides, allowing the instructor to stalk back and forth between the three sex stations like a parade marshal.
If she could learn to be alluring under those conditions, she could seduce anyone, anywhere.
“Desire. You will use it like a weapon,” her instructor said.
“Yes, comrade instructor,” Vasilisa answered in concert with her classmates.
Vasilisa buried herself in her studies. Explored her five classmates’ orifices with eyes, fingers, tongue. Learned what made them keen with pleasure, sob, weep. And she lusted after her instructor. They all did.
“You will embody desire. Use it. Wield it. Exude it from every hole. But you will never feel it.”
“No, comrade instructor.”
“The hand goes like this,” the instructor said, with a sly glance. They held their fist high, closed into a cone, index finger knuckle protruding like a mountain’s apex. “The knuckle is key. When you are inside, rotate your hand by bending at the wrist until you find the spot that makes them scream.”
The lone man among them stared at his closed fist, puzzled.
“Not you, child. Your hands are too large.” The instructor lowered their plush, plummy lips to Axel’s knuckle and kissed the air above it. Vasilisa nearly swooned.
The instructor’s head snapped up.
“Desire controls others,” they said. “It will never control you.”
“Never, comrade instructor.”
That was the point of all their lessons: rejection of desire. Vasilisa and her classmates satiated their lust for their instructor by banging each other raw. By the end of the six months, all six had learned to master themselves. Desire was nothing. Control was everything. And love? Love didn’t exist.
Upon graduation, she changed her name to Claudia and forgot Vasilisa had ever existed.
Her classmates chose similarly seductive names—Valentina, Monique, Silke, Axel, Erika. Vasilisa would never know them the names their mothers had given them. The six of them were so intimate she could recognize each of them blindfolded, using just the tip of one finger. She’d made them shiver and shake, and had been shaken in her turn, but she didn’t know them—not really. And then they were parted, so she never would.
Claudia, the fresh new girl in Vasilisa’s head, sulked on the long, hot train to Sofia. The danger of the border crossing into Turkey couldn’t lift her mood, and by the time she boarded the passenger liner in Istanbul’s thronging port, she was truly melancholy.
“A beautiful girl like you shouldn’t look so sad.”
Claudia raised the wide brim of her hat. The man who spoke was Canadian, his military background obvious from his posture. Canadians were inconsequential, but still, she allowed him to amuse her on the three-day trip to Naples, let him try to lift the sadness from her eyes. Then on the last night of their trip, she fucked his wife three times, in the first officer’s empty cabin, deploying comrade instructor’s knuckle trick to thunderous effect.
When she stepped onto Italian soil at six in the morning, she set her small bag at her feet, lifted her fingers to her mouth and licked them, savoring the woman’s scent. It smelled like desire satiated. Like power. Like winning.
Come north, the breeze whispered. Everything you want is here.
A week of pasta put an exclamation point on Claudia’s décolletage. American men had simple tastes; Claudia’s breasts would attract them like bears—well, like bears to honey. She bought new clothes, semi-fashionable, from stalls in the back streets of the Vomero. And scent, mysterious iris and cedar. Then she caught a slow train north.
After the bustle of Naples, Stuttgart was grey, bleak, and joyless. The frigid winds of autumn came early; only a few leaves jittered on the boughs of the city’s tortured trees. Every third building lay in rubble, and bland civic buildings punctuated pitted thoroughfares colorless as a Moscow dawn.
Her first instinct was to stalk the city until she found an American with stars on his epaulettes, then drag him into an alley and leave him with his eyes rolling and his trousers around his ankles, but no, that would be a disaster. She restrained herself.
She found an attic apartment, a source for nylon stockings, and a job as a hostess at the Kiss Club. Slow nights, Monday to Wednesday to start.
Her first night at the Kiss Club, she saved a young American captain from falling downstairs. Just a discreet hand on his elbow. He didn’t even realize he’d stumbled, but he certainly noticed her touch.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Just a girl from Obersdorf, come to make my way in the big city.” She used her most gentle seductive glance, but he didn’t even notice. He was too busy making a grab for her left ass cheek.
Claudia dodged his grip and let him go unmolested. She could have hauled him into an alcove and made him scream, but he had no stars on his shoulders, and her mission was too new to compromise on a whim.
The Kiss Club was Stuttgart’s most notorious gathering place, but Claudia soon learned it was staid as a neighborhood coffee house. The club’s steamy atmosphere, dark corners, and steady trickle of uninformed foreigners might overwhelm an innocent small-town girl. But Claudia had higher standards. She was a talented soldier with sharp eyes, keen reflexes, and a flexible mind. Those qualities made her an effective seductress, but she wasn’t patient.
Three weeks later, when her handler found her, she begged him to give her some work.
“I have skills. Talents. And I’m forgetting them all. Let me do an information drop. Equipment transfer. Anything.”
“Hush,” he commanded.
Her handler told her to call him grandpa, and he did look the part. A kindly little old man, squat and skinny, with short suspenders that held his baggy trousers up to his armpits.
“All you have to do is work, sleep, and watch for opportunities. Is that so hard?”
“No, Opa,” she said softly and dropped her eyes.
“Ah.” He pulled a flask from his breast pocket and unscrewed the cap. “Nerves. Liquor helps. Drink.”
Claudia let him think she was nervous, and that a sip of schnapps helped. She knew what happened to troublesome operatives. Managing her handler was just as important as managing her marks, and she would not fail at either. But still, she was uneasy. At night, the wind skittered over the attic’s roof. The loose terracotta tiles rattled like broken teeth.
North, it said. You miss them. Come north.
Claudia rose to the rank of senior Kiss Club hostess just in time for the club’s winter lull. Early snowfall muffled Stuttgart. The Americans stayed in their barracks, officers straying from their compounds only on Friday and Saturday nights, and then junior officers, only. Callow young men with little access to secrets, and useless to Claudia. The senior officers rarely left their compounds, and when they did, they brought their wives and children with them.
As the weeks piled up, the highest she got was a pathetically romantic signals officer from Texas, who would kiss but not fuck her.
“I’m waiting for my wedding night,” he drawled. “Just like Jesus did.”
“That’s lovely,” Claudia said, gazing up into his thick glasses.
He invited her to worship with him, and when she walked onto the base, Claudia grinned in triumph. Church was held in the concrete basement of the administration building. From there, all the base’s secrets would fall into her lap. Three Sundays later, she had the combinations to the general’s safe (his daughter’s birthdate), and had stolen a list of codes from a young airman’s pocket.
Opa pocketed the safe combination, but he wasn’t impressed with the codes.
“These aren’t encryption keys, they’re guitar chords.”
Claudia was embarrassed. “My mistake, Opa.”
“It doesn’t matter. Don’t risk yourself. Just marry him, and wait.”
Claudia hadn’t realized marriage was on the table. She swallowed carefully, mastering herself.
“But he’s only a captain.”
“He will rise.”
“That could take years.”
“It will take as long as it takes.” He offered her a sip from his flash. She pushed it away, but gently, like a good, obedient girl would.
The next day, she boarded a northbound train to Frankfurt and wandered through the city. She listened to the whisper in the air—north, north—and when it quieted, she found herself in a dirty, dangerous club—the kind of place the Kiss Club wanted to be—where shadowed pairs writhed on the dance floor, their movements bearing no relation to the discordant music served up by a quartet of blade-faced jazz musicians.
There, in the club’s north corner, she found three of her classmates. Claudia nearly launched herself into their laps.
“Is it what you thought it would be?” Silke asked.
“Not at all,” Claudia blurted. “It’s so boring.”
Axel laughed. “At least you’re in a city. Ramstein is this big.” He showed her the polished nail of his smallest finger.
“In Grafenwoehr, sheep block traffic daily,” Silke said.
“Did you think your life would be enjoyable?” Valentina’s voice carried over the din. Axel and Silke snapped to attention, automatically. “We are tools. We wield ourselves like weapons.”
“And how many Americans have succumbed to your weapon so far, Valentina?” Claudia asked.
Valentina pursed her lips. “I have one in my sights.”
“We were made for sex. Drugs. Parties. American decadence, not church and chastity,” Claudia said. “Opa wants me to marry my American. Can you believe it?”
“Obey him. What do you care?” Valentina snapped. “You have no needs or desires. None.”
Claudia nodded her head in time with the music, feigning agreement. Valentina would never understand the agony of a restless mind. In bed, Valentina was the softest, most scrumptious morsel, delicious from eyebrows to toes. Upright, she was a rigid pedant.
“Have you seen Monique and Erika?” Claudia squinted into the murky depths of the club, expecting the last two members of their cohort to appear.
Axel looked sad. “Not yet, but they’ll find us.”
Silke slid her long, delicate hand up Claudia’s inner thigh and nuzzled her ear.
“Perhaps if we make enough noise, they’ll hear,” she breathed.
One trip to Frankfurt every two weeks or so. That’s all Claudia allowed herself. It was so little. But still, Opa didn’t like it.
“Don’t give the American any reason to doubt you’re a good Christian.”
“No, Opa. I won’t.”
Claudia didn’t mind spending time with the signals officer. He was boring but not stupid; turned out the Jesus comment had been a joke. And she enjoyed the church services, which were heavy on music and light on preaching.
An energetic trio played the hymns—a Black master sergeant singing and playing guitar, with two stocky airmen on drums and double bass. The church band made the hymns energetic, rakish, even wicked—the kind of music you could dance to, fuck to, turn into a religion and lose yourself in.
Could she do what Opa wanted? Marry the American, live on the base, cook his meals, have his babies? Occasionally root out small pieces of information that, if not useless, were likely redundant?
If so, at least she was guaranteed some up-tempo church music every Sunday.
Monique found them soon after New Year’s. Five of them together again, every two weeks at Frankfurt club. Only Erika was still missing.
“If all they wanted were good little American wives, they should have chosen people more suited to it,” Monique said. “It’s like hitching a racehorse to a plow.”
“Where would you rather be?” Valentina snapped. “Digging the Bratsk Reservoir? Guarding a Mongolian border crossing?”
“Hush, Valentina,” Silke said.
Valentina’s mouth snapped shut. Silke had landed a Major General, which gave her automatic status and authority. But Silke hated him.
“It’s like milking a cow. Thirty minutes of steady work, and when he falls asleep, I drink half a bottle of whiskey and masturbate on the sofa.” Silke’s eyes glittered. “I used to be a soldier.”
Valentina squared her delicate shoulders and drew in a deep breath, clearly gearing up to deliver some more well-used platitudes. Monique stopped her with an elbow to the ribs.
“Turn on the radio before you start,” she suggested gently. “You’ll have something to listen to.”
Claudia tipped the last drops of her beer onto the table’s filthy, pitted surface. She drew wet spirals with her finger.
“My American gives chaste little kisses and moons at me through his glasses. He’ll propose soon and then I’ll be stuck. I know I shouldn’t complain. I’m not soft—I can take almost anything, but it’s too dreary.”
“You could drink,” said Monique.
“If I get married, I might have to.”
“Pawn him off on a new girl,” Silke suggested. “A little frau to turn his head.”
“I’ve tried. He loves me. Who knows why? I’ve barely given him a reason.”
“Should I visit?” Axel slapped his chest. “Maybe he’d prefer some of this.”
Claudia grinned. “I’d like to see that.”
“When you are married, you’ll be content,” Valentina said. “Marriage is what women are for. It’s our duty.”
Axel sipped his beer contentedly. Of course he did. For him, it was self-evident that a woman wanted to be married. But Monique and Silke stared into the club’s shadows, frowning. Even Valentina looked unconvinced.
On Monday morning, she woke to find Opa perched on her one rickety chair.
“I have a problem,” he said, and dropped a train ticket on her table. “You wanted a job. Take care of it.”
It was a return trip to Hamburg.
“Does the problem have a name?” she asked.
“Erika,” he said. “Find her and kill her. If you do well, I may give you other jobs.”
Erika. She had the tiniest wrists Claudia had ever seen, easily circleable with her thumb and forefinger with room to spare. Her ankles were delicately boned, and her baby toe fit between Claudia’s lips like a nipple. When that toe was sucked, Erika seemed to float off the bed.
“Certainly,” Claudia said. “I’ll need a weapon.” With a rifle, even a rusted relic, it would be the work of a moment. Death at a distance—her childhood dream. Anonymous. Efficient. Final.
“You’re a smart girl.” He rose from the chair, so old and creaky his joints groaned. “Improvise.”
On the train north to Hamburg, Claudia had no questions, no doubts. She didn’t need a rifle to kill Erika. Any weapon would do. When the train pulled into Hamburg, she transferred a razor from her purse to her pocket, stepped out onto the platform, calmed her breathing, and listened.
Erika. With her little cleft chin and sensual gap between her front teeth. Breath that tasted of cinnamon and fresh snow, and nipples that turned tomato-red with arousal.
Nothing at first, no wind, just the chug and huff of trains. And then, gently: West.
West of central Hamburg lay the red light district of St. Pauli. It only took three hours to find Erika in a noisy club. The dim room had a low stage at the end, no bigger than a bed. Five skinny boys crowded on it, attacking their instruments with more passion than skill, their heads skimming the ceiling.
Erika bounced by the side of the stage, her back to the crowd, completely vulnerable. Claudia drifted through the room, let herself be gently pushed across by the ebb and flow of bodies until she was standing right behind Erika.
It would have been so quick, so easy to slice that razor through her classmate’s throat and disappear in the press and confusion. Instead, she put her arms around Erika and squeezed tight. Erika squealed, bounced against her, and covered her face with little kisses.
“I knew you were coming!” Erika shouted in Claudia’s ear to make herself heard over the din. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“No, you’re not. They sent me to kill you.”
Erika grinned and turned back to the stage. Claudia pulled her close.
“Did you hear me? They want you dead. You have to run. Find a new life somewhere.”
“I can’t do that, kitten,” Erika yelled back.
Erika bounced in time to the music. It wasn’t good music—the church band was better—but the beat was insistent. Soon, Claudia was bouncing, too.
“They’ll send someone else,” she yelled.
“I know. They sent Silke last week. I don’t care. I’m staying here.”
When the song ended, Erika jumped and screamed. The band grinned in appreciation and swung into another song.
Hours later, in the dim light of morning, Claudia broke into the Hamburg morgue. She razored the littlest finger from the corpse of a young woman, wrapped the bloodless member in a handkerchief, and ran to catch a southbound train. In the train toilet, she polished and filed the fingernail. Would it satisfy Opa? Likely not, but it was the best she could do.
Silke turned up at Claudia’s apartment on Sunday morning, just as she was about to leave for church.
“I heard you killed Erika,” she whispered. “Is it true?”
“Yes, of course,” Claudia answered loudly.
Silke drooped. Claudia bundled her out the door, downstairs, and onto the streetcar. At the gate, she told the military policeman Silke was her sister. He signed them in with a smile.
“No, I didn’t,” she said when the first hymn was in full strain. “I told her to cut and dye her hair, gain some weight, try to be inconspicuous.”
“You’re smarter than me. I came back and told my opa I couldn’t do it,” Silke said. “I said if he wanted to find another girl to milk the Major General, he should just slit my throat right then.”
“Why would they send us to kill her?”
“It could be a message. Do your duty and don’t complain or…” Silke drew a manicured finger across her throat. Up in front, the drummer caught the movement and blinked at them, startled. Claudia threw him a sunny smile and patted Silke’s hand.
“Will your ruse work, do you think?” Silke asked before they parted at the railway station.
“I don’t know. I hope so,” she said. “But one thing’s for sure, I’m not bored anymore.”
The next time Claudia visited Frankfurt, Silke hauled Valentina off to the toilet, giving Claudia time to tell the other two about Erika.
“What if my opa sends me to Hamburg?” Axel asked. “What do I do?”
“Don’t kill her, that’s what.” Claudia rapped her knuckle on Axel’s sternum for emphasis. He batted her hand away.
“Stop. You just want to touch me.”
“Everyone does, dear.” Monique patted the boy’s beefy shoulder. “I wonder why she won’t leave. She could have a lover, I suppose.”
“Maybe you should go ask her.” Claudia meant it as a joke, but Monique’s eyes brightened with purpose.
“She’s obsessed with the music,” Monique said the next week, her breath hot in Claudia’s ear. “Did you notice?”
Claudia nodded. The Hamburg songs were similar enough to the church band for Claudia to see the appeal, with riffs, backbeats, and harmonies, sly bent pitches, noisy timbres, and sudden clear tones that echoed in Claudia’s skull from Sunday to Sunday.
“Is she being sensible?” Claudia asked.
“She did what you said. Cropped her hair and bleached it blonde. But she’s noticeable. The short hair makes her eyes this big.” Monique circled her thumbs and forefingers and raised them to her eyes like goggles.
“Let’s hope nobody looks for her.”
That hope lasted only until midnight, when Claudia spotted the corner of a train ticket peeking from between the lips of Valentina’s velvet clutch.
“Angel, darling,” Claudia purred. “Why are you sitting so far away?” She slid her knee between Valentina’s thighs and moved in close, gently forcing her classmate against the padded seat. After a moment of resistance, Valentina melted into her arms. She lowered her lips to the silken skin under Valentina’s ear, reached behind, and slid the clutch over to Monique.
Twenty minutes later, when Valentina reached for it, her clutch was right at hand. She clicked it open, retrieved her powder and lipstick, and discreetly repaired her smeared complexion.
At the end of the night, Claudia, Silke, and Monique were far back in the coat-check queue. Axel had escorted Valentina to the front of the line, like the gallant boy he was.
“It’s what you thought,” Monique said later. “Return to Hamburg.”
“Oh no,” Silke groaned. “Valentina will never let her get away.”
“It’s worse than that,” Monique whispered. “They’ve given her a pistol.”
Erika had been warned twice; she knew the risks. If she wouldn’t save herself, what could any of them do? The four of them agreed to go home, not interfere, let Valentina complete her mission. In the dark of early morning, they kissed and hugged and pretended to go their separate ways, but they all got on the north-bound train anyway. Valentina in first-class, the others squished into the third-class car.
Claudia slid into the seat beside Silke.
“We are ridiculous,” she said.
“We have the advantage. We know where she’s going. Perhaps we can help.”
“Help do what? Save Erika, or kill her?”
“Save them both. If Valentina goes through with this, she’ll never forgive herself.”
Claudia shook her head grimly.
“It’s true,” Silke insisted. “I know her true nature.”
“That’s pure romance.” Claudia took Silke’s hand between both of hers. “You can never know what’s in a person’s heart.”
“When a person is at their most unguarded, their most passionate, that’s who they really are. I’ve seen that side of Valentina a hundred times. So have you. She’s a darling.”
Claudia grimaced. “No, she’s a rigid survivor with a pistol in her purse.”
In Hamburg, they scrounged disguises from the station’s lost items kiosk—hats, scarves, a widow’s veil for Silke, a knit cap with ear flaps for Axel. Claudia tugged it over his hair and pulled the narrow brim down to his eyebrows. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his woolen coat and tried to look inconspicuous. It didn’t work.
“You’re too big to hide,” Monique said. “You’ll have to stay here.”
“I will not,” he said, stubborn as a child.
They followed Valentina at a discreet distance. Valentina gripped her clutch so tightly, she’d poked her fingers through the tips of her knit gloves.
“You see, she’s nervous,” Silke said. They were stopped at a busy street corner, cowering together against the frigid North Sea wind that scoured the intersection. “She won’t be able to do it.”
“If she doesn’t kill Erika, we’ll have to,” Claudia said.
The other three stared at her in horror. When the traffic cleared, Claudia led them across the street.
“Think about it. The opas don’t need us for this. Erika could have been dead weeks ago. They want to see where our training went wrong, and whether it can be put right. It’s an experiment. A test. Silke failed it. I failed it. How many more chances will they give us?”
They’d come to a four lane road thick with industrial traffic from the port. Valentina was far ahead, just a speck in the distance. Claudia stepped off the curb, raised her hands to stop the trucks, and then shooed her classmates across the road.
“If we want to live, we have to kill Erika,” she said when they had all reached the sidewalk safely.
“No,” said Silke.
“No,” said Axel.
“Absolutely not,” said Monique.
“Then we have to let Valentina kill her.” That didn’t fly with her classmates either. “Do you have a better suggestion?”
“We could go home and kill our opas,” Silke said. “It would be easy.”
“I’m not killing anyone,” Monique said. “I was made for love, not murder.”
Axel nodded. “Me too.”
“It wouldn’t work, anyway,” Claudia said. “There’s always more opas.”
If Opa had given her had a rifle, Claudia would have killed Erika the first time. Death at a distance, like a Stalingrad sniper. Her failure to complete the mission was Opa’s fault. If he hadn’t played games with her, this all could have been over weeks ago.
A pistol. That’s what Claudia needed. She’d leave the others to distract Valentina, sneak into the club and kill Erika. It was the only option. But first, she’d have to find one.
It was possible. Hamburg’s red light district was notorious. She could find a pistol tucked into the belt of a pimp or loan shark, or even just a scared country boy come into the big city for a night on the town, bringing his daddy’s Luger along for protection.
As they entered St. Pauli, Claudia began assessing the men they passed, guessing which ones might be carrying weapons, and trying to spot any tell-tale lumps under their coats.
When they got to the club, a bass riff leaked from the door, punctuated by the rhythmic thump of a low-pitched drum. Valentina slipped inside and the other three followed close behind. Claudia paused for a moment, looking around, trying to make her best guess at a likely mark. She chose a short, thin man. He wore a thickly padded jacket and looked like the kind who would need a pistol for confidence. She glided past him and pretended to catch her heel. When he reached to catch her, she slid her fingers along his belt. Nothing. He scowled and pushed her away, then checked for his wallet. She gave him an innocent smile.
Her clumsy attempt didn’t dishearten her. Inside would be better, where every sense was deadened by the press of bodies jouncing to the beat.
Silke, Axel, and Monique had intercepted Valentina and hauled her off into a corner of the foyer. Inside Valentina’s purse, clutched in her arms, was the one weapon Claudia could locate with certainty. She could join them, take the clutch from Valentina. If she moved fast, they might not even have a chance to stop her. But she didn’t even know if Erika was in the club. So instead of joining her friends, she made her way to the bar and positioned herself at the end, where she could survey the people jostling for drinks.
When a thick-necked man waved to get the bartender’s attention, Claudia caught a glint of metal under his jacket, and the leather strap of a shoulder holster against his white shirt. The bartender passed him a foaming pint. He drained half of it in two gulps, then held the glass high as he moved through the press toward the stage. Claudia followed.
If she could be slick enough, quick enough, he wouldn’t know who had taken his pistol. He would make a scene but that was fine—she could use it for cover while she did her job, because there was Erika, at the side of the stage. Her bleached hair caught the light like a target.
One smooth movement, perfectly timed. She slid her hand inside the thick-necked man’s jacket just as a young woman swung her ample hips into his thigh. As he reached out to steady himself on the shoulder of a friend, Claudia palmed the pistol. Then she ducked low and moved through the crowd, deer-swift and graceful.
Claudia knelt under a table, checked the ammunition; thumbed the safety. The weapon was heavy, its grip cold on her palm. Seconds now, only seconds. If the thick-necked man was as competent as he looked, he’d soon notice soon the missing weight. She stood, raised the pistol, and framed Erika’s bright head in her deadly sights.
The music, the band, the crowd, the thick-necked man—they all disappeared. All that was left was Erika, the pistol, and her four dear friends arguing in the foyer. If she killed Erika, she’d be gone forever—and then she’d lose more. Silke, Monika, Axel, and even Valentina, gone from her life, leaving her with Opa and a future she couldn’t face.
She lowered the pistol and flipped the safety lever. She shouldered her way across the floor and dropped the weapon on the thick-necked man’s foot.
“Keep it,” she told him. And then she grabbed Monika’s elbow. She pulled her across the dance floor and out to the foyer, where the others were still huddled in a corner, arguing in whispers.
“Let’s go,” she told them. “We’ve delayed long enough.”
“Delayed?” Silke repeated.
“Delayed what?” Monique asked.
“Our lives.” Claudia grinned. “No opas. No Americans. Just the six of us, and the whole wide world. It’s all waiting.”
(Editors’ Note: “So You Want to Be a Honeypot” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 33A.)
© 2020 Kelly Robson