The girl who became the Starling had once had a name. She had, just like any other operative, had a number of code names over the years, but this year she was the Starling. In her head, just like Baxter was still Baxter, she would always be The Freak. It was the first name other children had given her, and she had earned it, and so she kept it.
The Freak was born in Brighton Beach, on Long Island. She was the child of recent immigrants, offered asylum from the crumbling USSR in the free and welcoming United States. There was already a Russian community in the area, but as post-Cold War Russia crumbled, more and more immigrants, both legal and otherwise, swelled their numbers. They spoke the language of the home country, served its food, observed its customs, and organized crime continued as usual. Better than usual, even, for this was a land of opportunity, after all.
When The Freak was four, she seized her mother’s diamond stud earring and pulled until it came out. Years later, The Freak thought of the narrow ragged scar left in her mother’s earlobe and would give a small, satisfied smile.
When she was five, her grandfather taught her to play chess. He had learned in the gulag. He had come to the United States after being released from prison in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse. He spent the entire trip from Vladivostok through the Panama Canal to New York in a box little bigger than a coffin. He had nothing with him but a blanket, a bucket, and two gallon jugs of water. He was small, but not frail, wiry and almost secretly powerful. He was covered in tattoos that The Freak loved to run her fingers over. He was missing two fingers, and he even let her stare at the stumps and touch them with fascination. He had learned to play chess in the gulag, where they had to keep the game in their minds, as pleasures were not allowed.
Her grandfather had hoped that by turning her mind to keen mental pursuits, they could stop the madness that he saw in his granddaughter’s eyes. He was not successful. Instead, he just taught The Freak the deeper ways of tactics and strategy.
When she was six, she was caught killing a cat. She had set aside a corner of the basement that no one used and built her own Frankenstein’s lab, filled with tools she had scrounged. It was not the first animal she had victimized, dissected, analyzed, played with. It was just the first time she was caught.
The spanking, from her hulking father, meant nothing. But his words, his face, when he held her ears and looked into her eyes, was still in her memory. “Do not let me catch you doing this again,” he said in his rumbling style of Russian. “Do you understand?”
Of course she understood. He didn’t tell her to stop. He told her not to get caught.
She moved the lab to an abandoned building and would stop there for an hour every day after school. She learned to take her clothes off before her experiments. There was nothing sexual about the experiments, or her nudity, it was just a safety precaution. If someone noticed blood on her, she would eventually get caught, and she could not be caught.
That kept her sated, for the most part, until she was nine. When she was nine, a new boy came to school. He was also of Russian stock, his face so perfectly formed that he looked like a doll. The teachers liked him. He could be much more rough and tumble than he looked, and he was good at soccer, so the boys liked him. And of course the girls liked him, they just had to look at him and he fell into the prince-shaped hole that fairy tales had built into their self-images.
She didn’t hate him, she didn’t have any emotional reaction to him whatsoever, but she knew that he was gifted in a way that he didn’t earn. She was smart because she worked at it. She could climb walls because she had trained at it. She could beat her grandfather at chess because she had gone to the library and read books about it. She got away with something just short of genocide on neighborhood pets because she was smarter than everyone else, because she tried. Everyone liked him because...why? Because he was pretty? Because he looked special? Would they still like him if he looked different? That was the new experiment.
He was bigger than her, and it was hard for her to control him, so the gag came out. People heard his screams and found them. He was tied to a tree, she was standing before him, naked, holding a box cutter.
She never found out the results of her experiment, but the boy was certainly never the same. He was too panicky to ever play soccer again. His scars eventually healed, and his parents had money for very expensive surgeries, but his voice was always scratchy from his screams and his nose never quite looked right.
The Freak was sent away and her parents pretended she had never existed. Her lab was lost when an old building was demolished, and the results of her extensive experiments were lost to science.
It is difficult to control a monster, but if you can, a monster can be very useful. This was what Smith knew when he discovered The Freak. She had dominated her juvenile detention facility, the youngest girl there by several years, in with junior high students, but without committing a single act of violence she was the queenpin of juvie in two months.
One night she was reading a Wolverine comic in the common area when a screw called her name. It had been so long since someone had called her by name that she didn’t realize she was being called. The other girls called her “Mama” with a slight tone of awe.
Instead of calling again, the guard tore the comic out of her hands and gave her detention. She was forced to spend the next day in a small locked cubicle, writing essays on behavior and obedience.
The next day she faked an illness in her room and the guard was sent to investigate. She lived, but she never walked again. The Freak was kept in complete isolation for almost 18 months, until she turned 12.
Then the old man came to see her.