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Stolen Heir
Author: Sophie Lark

Ten Years Ago



* * *


On my way home from work, I stop and buy a bag of fresh chrusciki for Anna. Little spots of grease seep through the paper bag from the egg and cream pastries, dusted with powdered sugar to suit their name of “Angel Wings.” She’s writing her university entrance exams today. I already know we’ll have something to celebrate. Anna is brilliant. I’m sure she’ll pass with top marks.

We may be twins, but you’d never guess it. She has brown hair, while I’m blond as corn silk. She devours every book she can get her hands on, while I left school at fourteen.

I didn’t have much choice about that. Someone had to pay the rent on our dismal little flat.

Our father had a good job at the Huta Warszawa Steel Works. He was a maintenance technician, bringing home a salary of almost six thousand zloty a month. Enough to keep us all in new shoes with a full fridge.

Until he was cooked like a lobster in a pot while working on a blast furnace. He isn’t dead. Just so badly burned that he can barely work the buttons on the remote while he watches television all day long, holed up in his room.

Our mother left. I heard she married an accountant and moved to Krakow. I haven’t heard from her since.

It doesn’t matter. I make enough at the deli to keep us going for now. Someday Anna will be a professor of literature. Then we’ll buy a little house, somewhere other than here.

We’ve lived our whole lives in the Praga District, on the right bank of the Vistula River. Across the water, you can see the prosperous centers of business and finance. We live in a slum. Tall, rectangular, filthy brick buildings blocking out the sun. Empty factories from the communist era, when this was the center of state-run industry. Now their windows are smashed and doors chained shut. Addicts break in to sleep on piles of rags, injecting themselves with flesh-rotting Russian krokodil.

Anna and I will have a proper house with a garden, and nobody above or below us, banging and shouting at all hours of the night.

I don’t expect my sister home for several hours, so when I open the door to our flat and spot her school bag on the floor, I’m confused and surprised.

Anna is scrupulously tidy. She doesn’t dump her backpack on the floor, letting the books spill out. Some of her textbooks are muddy and wet. The same with her shoes, abandoned next to the bag.

I can hear water running in the bathroom. Also strange—Anna doesn’t shower at night.

I drop the bag of pastries on the kitchen table and run to our one and only bathroom. I knock on the door, calling out for my sister.

There’s no answer.

When I press my ear against the door, I hear her sobbing over the sound of the shower.

I ram my shoulder against the door, hearing the cheap wood splinter as the lock gives way. I force myself into the tiny bathroom.

Anna is sitting down in the shower, still wearing her school clothes. Her blouse is almost torn off her body. The thin material only clings to her arms and waist.

She’s covered in cuts and welts—all over her shoulders, arms, and back. I see dark bruises around her neck and the tops of her breasts. Even what looks like bite marks.

Her face is worse. She has a long gash down her right cheek, and a black eye. Blood leaks from her nose, dripping down into the water pooled around her legs, diffusing like watercolor paint.

She can’t look at me. After the first glance up, she buries her face in her arms, sobbing.

“Who did this to you?” I demand, my voice shaking.

She presses her lips together and shakes her head, not wanting to tell me.

It isn’t true that twins can read each other’s minds. But I do know my sister. I know her very well.

And I know who did this. I’ve seen the way they look at her, whenever she leaves our flat to go to school. I see them leaning against their expensive cars, arms folded, their sunglasses failing to conceal how they leer at her. Sometimes they even shout things at her, though she never turns her head or answers.

It was the Braterstwo. The Polish Mafia.

They think they can have whatever they want—expensive watches, gold chains, phones that cost more than I make in a month. Apparently, they decided that they wanted my sister.

She doesn’t want to tell me, because she’s afraid of what will happen.

I grab her by the shoulder and make her look at me.

Her eyes are red, swollen, terrified.

“Which ones did it?” I hiss. “The one with the shaved head?”

She hesitates, then nods.

“The one with the dark beard?”

Another nod.

“The one with the leather jacket?”

Her face crumples up.

He’s the ringleader. I’ve seen how the others defer to him. I’ve seen how he stares at Anna most of all.

“I’ll get them, Anna. Every last one of them will pay,” I promise her.

Anna shakes her head, silent tears sliding down her battered cheeks.

“No, Miko,” she sobs. “They’ll kill you.”

“Not if I kill them first,” I say grimly.

I leave her there in the shower. I go into my bedroom and pry up the floorboard, under which I’ve hidden my metal lockbox. It has all my savings in it—the money intended to send Anna to school. She missed her exams. She won’t be going this year.

I fold the bills into a wad and stuff them in my pocket. Then I leave the flat, running through the rain over to the pawnshop on Brzeska Street.

Jakub sits behind the counter, as he always does, reading a paperback with one half of its cover torn off. Stoop-shouldered, balding, with coke-bottle glasses in thick plastic frames, Jakub blinks at me like an owl that woke up too early.

“How can I help you, Mikolaj?” he says in his raspy voice.

“I need a gun,” I tell him.

He gives a hoarse chuckle.

“That would be illegal, my boy. What about a guitar, or an Xbox instead?”

I fling the wad of bills down on his countertop.

“Cut the shit,” I tell him. “Show me what you have.”

He looks down at the money, not touching it. Then, after a moment, he comes out from around the counter, shuffling over to the front door. He turns the latch, locking it. Then he shuffles toward the back.

“This way,” he says, without turning his head.

I follow him into the back of the store. This is where he lives—I see an old couch with stuffing coming out of the holes in the upholstery. A square television set. A tiny kitchen with a hot plate, which smells of burned coffee and cigarettes.

Jakub leads me over to a chest of drawers. He pulls open the top drawer, revealing a small selection of handguns.

“Which one do you want?” he says.

I don’t know anything about guns. I’ve never held one in my life.

I look at the jumble of weapons: some carbon, some steel, some sleek, some practically ancient.

One is all black, medium in size, modern and simple looking. It reminds me of the gun James Bond carries. I pick it up, surprised by how heavy it is in my hand.

“That’s a Glock,” Jakub says.

“I know,” I reply, though I actually don’t.

“It’s a .45. You need ammo, too?” he says.

“And a knife,” I tell him.

I see the look of amusement on his face. He thinks I’m playing commando. It doesn’t matter—I don’t want him to take me seriously. I don’t want him warning anyone.

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