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In Sheep's Clothing
By Susan Warren
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Susan Warren
All right reserved.
Twenty-four hours earlier Khabarovsk, Siberia
Nickolai Shubnikov knew how to whittle away his son Vicktor's pride with the skill of Michelangelo — one agonizing chip at a time.
"Whoa, Alfred! Slow down." Vicktor Shubnikov wound the leather leash twice around his grip and dug in, hoping to slow his father's Great Dane/Clydesdale. The animal dragged him like a nuisance as he plowed through the row of street vendors, chasing an errant smell.
Two years ago Vicktor might have labeled vet duty sweet revenge. Today he called it atonement.
Vicktor dodged a babushka hawking a bouquet of lilacs, jumped another pedaling sunflower seeds, and skidded to a halt before the metal canister belonging to a wrinkled woman selling peroshke. The fried sandwiches laced the air with the odor of grease and liver. Alfred shoved his wide Dane snout into the sandwich bag.
"Get your beast out of here!" the woman cried. She whacked at Alfred, who didn't even flinch. Vicktor, however, felt her land a hearty blow on his shoulder.
"C'mon, you mutt." Vicktor grabbed Alfred's fraying collar and yanked him away. He thrust the woman a ten-ruble note. She swiped it from his hand.
"Why do you do that to me?" They half trotted down the sidewalk, Vicktor hunched over at the waist and trying to match Alfred's gait. The dog's black jowls flopped and his saggy eyes gave no indication of remorse.
Penance. He cursed the impetuousness that had led to this moment. If only he'd been smarter, faster, wiser, he'd be in Lenin Park on this sunny Sunday, slapping shots against Roman, outscoring the former wing. Or maybe he'd be at Yanna's volleyball game. The Khabarovsk Amur volleyball team didn't need help from their fans to bury their opponents — he went for the pure joy of watching Yanna's power spike.
If only David could see her now.
He checked his watch. Noon. Hopefully Evgeny would be in the office. He hadn't called ahead, but the vet kept normal business hours, and Sunday had been a working day since Stalin outlawed the religious day of rest some sixty years earlier.
He muscled the Dane toward the dirt path that led to Evgeny's office. Vicktor had to admire his friend for carving out his dreams into a private practice. He and Vicktor had chewed away long hours in high school, concocting ways to free the laboratory mice from Tatiana Ivanovka's biology classroom. Between the pranks, however, Evgeny had revealed the love of medicine inherent to true physicians. Why he had gone into animal medicine still baffled Vicktor. Then again, Vicktor had sworn he'd never join the militia, and look where he had ended up.
Evgeny's office, a tiny green log house, sat lopsided and forlorn in the shadowy cover of three nine-story concrete highrises. Vicktor turned up the dirt path and shivered as the sun passed behind a building. He shoved his free hand into his leather jacket pocket, wishing he hadn't taken out the lining. That morning, during his run, the wink of the sun against a cloudless sky and the fresh breeze smelling of lilac had lulled him into believing winter had finally surrendered to spring in Siberia. He'd jogged home, unzipped the wool lining from his jacket, thrown his shopka on the top shelf and kissed winter goodbye. Now, as he approached the office, his lips felt parched from the cold, and a faint musty odor curled his nose, like the smell of moldy clothes sitting in old snow.
The Dane jerked out of Vicktor's grip and he tripped, glared at the animal and picked up his pace. Of course Alfred would be anxious to see Evgeny; the vet had treated him for nearly ten years.
Two paces before the door, Alfred skidded to a halt, sat on his haunches and growled.
"It's just a checkup, pal. Cool it." He patted the dog's head. Still, the way the door hung ajar raised the fine hairs on the back of Vicktor's neck. "What do you see?"
Alfred growled again, a threatening rattle in his ancient throat, and curled his lips, showing canines.
"Tiha. Quiet, boy," Vicktor commanded. He paused, took a step toward the door and pushed. The door groaned, as if in warning.
Vicktor recoiled as the smell of rotting flesh hit him. He covered his nose.
Alfred whined. "Stay," Vicktor rasped, and looped the leash around the door handle. Gulping a breath, he stepped across the threshold. It took all his military training not to gag at the odor that poured from the room.
"Evgeny?" Vicktor surveyed the reception area. Broken glass from the smashed display case crunched under his feet, a cash register lay overturned on a ripped vinyl chair. Whipping out a handkerchief, Vicktor cupped it over his nose and tiptoed around broken vials of animal narcotics on his way to the examination room.
"Evgeny? It's Vicktor."
In the examination room, the leather bench where Evgeny examined Alfred on occasion had been slashed, the stuffing pushing through the cut like a festering wound. A jumble of medical utensils gleamed like weapons of war where the sun licked the wooden floor.
He backed out, a sick feeling welling in his gut. He crept toward Evgeny's office, rueing the creak of floorboards. When he swung the door open, Vicktor's blood ran cold.
Shards from the ruined glass cabinet littered the carpet. An emptied drawer lay upturned over its contents, a foot-size crater in the middle. Notebooks and ledgers, slashed into pieces, were strewn like stripped leaves. The squash-yellow area rug bled with the black and red dye of crushed pens.
Vicktor ducked back into the hall. "Evgeny?" He heard panic in his voice. He purposely kept few friends, but Chief Veterinarian Evgeny Lakarstin was one of them. With the exception of Roman and Yanna, and two Americans he didn't acknowledge to his coworkers, he depended on Evgeny. He counted him as the type of paren with whom he could share a sauna and shed a few secrets while he sweated.
And in Vicktor's world, trust wasn't an easily acquired commodity.
Vicktor headed for the back door leading to the kennels. Even from the hall, the eerie silence gave him chills — no dogs barking, no plaintive mewing.
Two steps before the back entrance, he spied another door to his left. He'd thought it a closet before, had even asked Evgeny about it once. The tall vet had shrugged and said, "Supplies."
Vicktor's eyes narrowed, instincts firing. He grabbed the handle. With a squeak the door opened.
He grabbed the door frame and hung on with a white fist as he tore his gaze away, wincing.
Etched in his mind, however, was the image of Evgeny lying in a pool of his own russet-colored blood.
Three hundred people clapping, cheering, for her, Gracie Benson. It just might have been the worst moment of her life.
How she longed to find a safe place and hide from tomorrow.
Gracie stood on the platform in front of the church, listening to the congregation applaud her for two years of missionary work, and felt like a sham. She was a joke, an embarrassment, a failure, and no amount of applause or kind words from Pastor Yuri Mikhailovich could erase that fact. She swallowed hard. She just hoped God wasn't watching.
Excerpted from In Sheep's Clothing by Susan Warren Copyright © 2005 by Susan Warren. Excerpted by permission.
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