“The Bear and The Snake” – A Merchant of Venice-Inspired Short Story

Anonymous, Contributor

He stared up at the rows and rows of looming apartment buildings. They almost blended in with the dull shade of the grey sky, somehow making the city seem even more bleak than usual. With all the city’s residents off at their factory shifts, it felt like a ghost town. 

He took one last long drag, put out his cigarette, and began walking down the narrow alley. The stray cats peered at him curiously, and then scurried back behind the dumpsters like roaches. “In and out,” he muttered to himself with a thick Eastern European accent, “just like that.” As he entered the courtyard, he gazed up quickly at the towering buildings surrounding him, windows seemingly peering down at him like hundreds of eyes. Uncomfortable at the thought, he quickened his pace.

He slipped his hands into the pockets of his long coat and pulled out the key he was given. It fit perfectly into the door’s substantial lock. Reaching to pull open the heavy steel doors, he was hit with the pungent smell of mold. Unphased, he headed up the stairs to the third floor. He stopped at room 33 and knocked four times, just as he was instructed to. He always did exactly as he was told; in his line of work, it was the only way to stay alive. 

The door swung open to reveal a small man. “You are Artyom,” he said slowly, his voice as steely as his piercing grey eyes. It wasn’t a question. Artyom gave a small nod. The small man grunted. “Come.” He stepped out of the doorway to reveal a narrow hallway covered in tacky wallpaper. Artyom followed the man through, noticing the various suspicious stains on the walls. Trying to ignore it, he pushed on.

Stopping at a door flanked by two large men, the small man said, “He will see you now.” Reluctantly, Artyom pushed open the door. 

Behind it was a smokey room covered in the same tacky wallpaper. At its center were two couches facing each other. The elderly man on the left couch stood up at the sound of the door opening. “Ah, Artyom!” They shook hands. 

“Sergei. Always a pleasure.”

The man was boney and much more frail than the last time they met. Wow, Artyom thought to himself, it’s been a while. His dark suit and neatly combed hair reminded Artyom of a funeral goer. However, there was something about this seemingly feeble man radiated power and authority. There was a reason Igor called him “The Bear.” 

He spoke with a raspy Russian accent, and his eyes moved to the small man standing in the doorway. “You’re dismissed,” he said to him. 

“But sir, I-”, the small man protested.

“I said you’re dismissed,” he cut in, ominously. The smaller man begrudgingly walked away. “I’m sorry you had to see that” he said apologetically, “Dimitri is a good bodyguard, but I can take care of myself.”

Artyom seriously doubted that.

“I have heard you have come regarding the terms of our deal?”

“I have.” 

“Wonderful.” He checked his watch. “Let us discuss over dinner.” He glanced at the door. “In the meantime, make yourself comfortable. I have business to attend to.” Struggling to get up, he reached over to steady himself on his bejeweled cane. He limped out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

Finally alone, Artyom studied the room. It was covered in that same wallpaper, its walls bare except for a small gold light fixture on either side of the couches. A curtained window let in a ray of grey light from outside. He got up off the couch and moved to peek through the curtains. No good for an escape, Artyom thought, too high up. He turned his attention to the white door. He could faintly hear the pitter-patter of the guards’ feet as they shifted positions outside. No good either, he thought to himself, I’ll never get past them. The only furnishing was the two sofas with a small wooden coffee table in the center. Worst case scenario, he grimly joked to himself, I’ll hit him over the head with the ashtray, referring to the glass piece in the center of the table. The still lit cigarettes in it let off a little trail of smoke like miniature chimneys. He just then noticed there was more than one fresh in the tray. Who was here before me? 

Just as Artyom was pondering that, the door creaked open and Dimitri appeared in the doorway. “He will see you now,” he said flatly and then motioned for Artyom to follow. Artyom stepped out of the room and followed Dimitri down the hall and into the dining room. 

The dining room was nothing like the bland sitting room.The table itself was a dark wood, the same mahogany as the paneled walls. On the table was a feast, enough to feed a small army, the head of a pig with an apple in its mouth at the center. The walls were gilded in scenes depicting lush landscapes, the paintings framed in intricate patterns of gold. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, coating the room in a soft yellow light. The Bear was at the head of the table, eating ravenously. He paused for a moment, looking up to notice Artyom.

“Good. You’re here. Please sit,” he said before quickly going back to wolfing down his food with the vigor of his namesake. 

They sat in silence as he finished his meal. Picking at the last piece of bloody meat, Sergei said sternly “Now, I thought the terms of our deal were very clear. Your services in exchange for my goods, no?”

“Yes. But sir, they’re on to me, and I can’t continue much longer without-”

“I’m not interested in excuses,” he said coldly. “I need results. Now, can you deliver or not?”

Artyom knew this question would come, and yet he foolishly hoped it wouldn’t. “Sir, I just need more time, and-” 

The Bear held up his hand for him to stop. Putting down his silverware and staring Artyom down from across the table, his tone became lethal. “You have been on this assignment for years. Every time you come back to me you ask for more money, information, resources. And what do you have to show for it? Had you been as wise as bold, this may have gone differently.”

“Sir, I-”

SPEAK NOT AGAINST MY BOND!” the Bear bellowed. Artyom went white as a sheet. The Bear paused for a moment and took a breath. “Our deal was a simple one: you get me information on Igor’s operation, and in exchange I relieve you of your debt. Do you know what it took for me to free you of that? It has been five years. You have proven yourself incapable of holding up your end. I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.

Just as Artyom was about to reply, there was an eruption of loud cracks and shouting. Dimitri burst through the door, clutching his side and covered in blood. He choked out, “Igor’s men… are here.” His eyes rolled up into his head, and he slumped over. 

Just as Artyom was about to run through the door, two men in black masks appeared in the doorway. Leveling their rifles, they simultaneously fired. The Bear’s chest exploded and he slid out of his chair. Artyom walked over smugly and crouched over him. Breathing labored, The Bear looked up at him.

“You were always on Ivan’s payroll, weren’t you?”

Artyom smiled grimly and nodded. “Of course,” he said, “did you really expect otherwise?”

With that, he looked up at the ceiling, and his eyes slowly unfocused. He was gone.

Artyom stood up to face the two executioners. “Does Ivan want to meet with me now that the Bear is gone?” 

One of them spoke softly, “That will not be necessary. He says ‘the villainy you teach me I will execute.’ Anyways, Ivan does not care for loose ends.” With that, he raised his rifle and pointed it straight at Artyom. “Or snakes,” he added. He fired.

It only took one shot. The Snake was dead before he hit the floor, right next to The Bear. 

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