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By JEFF JACOBSON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Jeff Jacobson
All rights reserved.
7:13 PM December 27
The change in cabin pressure squeezed Viktor's skull mercilessly, yanking him out of a dreamless void and thrusting him into cold, hard reality as his international flight out of the Koltsovo Airport in Yekaterinburg descended into Chicago. He blinked; the rows of seats ahead of him floated, drifting from side to side in his blurred vision. His heart raced. Saliva filled his mouth and his stomach threatened to erupt. He didn't think he had eaten anything since a rushed breakfast before the flight.
If that was true, he hadn't eaten in over eighteen hours. Had he been asleep the entire flight?
Not sleep, his body insisted. Something worse.
Viktor swallowed. Carefully. Something was very, very wrong. Under everything, even beneath the shakily controlled panic, there was something else.
The sensation was insidious. Awful. Excruciating. He froze. He couldn't put his finger on where he could scratch. It seemed to appear all over and nowhere at once, as if the horrible sensation slithered throughout his body with the speed of thought, stretching out its jagged fingernails to caress just under the skin of his armpit, his face, the center of his back, his scrotum. He reached a trembling hand out and took hold of his water bottle.
The thought of the tepid liquid triggered an eruption of nausea and he let go.
Across the aisle, a middle-aged man in a rumpled suit tucked a paper cross into a Bible and gathered his belongings. Viktor slowly turned to the right. It felt like the bones at the base of his skull were grinding glass between them as he moved his head. The seat next to him was empty, and in the seat nearest the window, an older woman studied her crash-landing instructions, working hard to avoid his stare.
The captain's voice clicked over the whispered hum of air rushing past the fuselage. He spoke for a while in a southern Russian accent. After the announcement, one of the flight attendants translated his announcement into German and then still another gave her best shot at an English version. "This is Captain speaking. Continuation of final approach is fast approaching. If everyone please can sit still, putting seating belt on, remaining calm, we will be landing in Chicago in few short minutes. Home of Cubs footballs and Blackhawk hockey. Ha. Ha. Ha. Also Al Capone."
Viktor unbuckled his seat belt. Struggled to his feet. He hoped he could make it to the bathroom before one of the flight attendants tried to stop him. He wasn't sure what would happen then.
Sweat collected under the illicit cargo hidden carefully along both sides of his chest and stomach. Acutely aware of these small lumps, he knew he had to look truly awful as he found his feet and stood, hitting his head on the overhead bin.
The nice leather jacket, the new jeans, the crisp white shirt were all supposed to convey that he was the lazy son of someone rich. But the new clothes couldn't hide how he felt. He was tall and underfed, and he lurched up the aisle like a scarecrow running from a storm. Passengers flinched when they saw him.
Viktor made it inside the restroom before any of the flight attendants said anything. He sagged inside the plastic door, trying to slow his breathing. He turned on the light above the mirror and saw that he was much worse than he had feared.
His eyes were red and began to weep in the light. His skin had gotten frighteningly pale. It didn't make sense. His heart raced; his face should be red from all the blood surging through his body. He fumbled with the buttons to his crisp white shirt, and lifted the heavy T-shirt underneath.
The cargo was still there. Still quiet. Still unmoving.
"Don't worry. They won't get loose. No. It's the squeaks that will get you caught," Roman had said in his native language. Roman was a man full of nervous laughter and nicotine.
When Viktor stepped into the back room of the vet office outside of Yekaterinburg, he found the tiny cages, each no bigger than a toaster, on the operating table in a neat line. His passport, student visa, two credit cards, a driver's license, and just over three hundred dollars in U.S. currency had been stacked in the opposite corner. Down there, some of the metal surface was still smeared with congealed blood.
Roman held up a wisp of a vest, made from flesh-colored nylon pantyhose. He laughed. "I know, I know. It looks like something a prostitute would wear."
Viktor stripped to his underwear and stepped into it. He slid the straps into place, stretching the nylon from underneath his crotch, knotted it together at the hips, and ran it up the sides of his stomach and chest until it ended in a loop around each shoulder. Roman tied these across his shoulders.
"Trust me, they all wear these. I know a man who carried twenty-four lizards and snakes into Los Angeles not four years ago."
Viktor held up his arms and turned in a slow circle.
Roman said, "These animals? They will have it easier than you, my friend. Nineteen hours without a cigarette! Put on your pants. Walk around. We have ..." He checked his watch. "Forty-three minutes."
"Until the flight?" Viktor asked, confused, trying not to let any panic show.
"No. Until we leave this office." Timing was everything. A difference of an hour in the international flight time could mean life or death for the cargo.
Viktor went to splash water on his face in the cramped airplane bathroom, but the sound of the trickling water wormed into his head and he suddenly spewed bile onto the mirror. His legs buckled and he dropped to his knees, dry-heaving into the metal sink. He hoped the gagging sounds couldn't be heard outside of the bathroom. Reaching up, he managed to pull one of the paper towels out of the dispenser and laid it on the damp bottom of the sink. Using that, he wiped some of the sweat off his face.
It made no sense. Why was he so sick?
One of the pouches along his left side twitched and squirmed. Another, on the right side, started to move. And yet another.
They were waking up.
He clearly remembered the rest of the preparation in the veterinarian hospital, watching closely as the vet placed a syringe on top of each cage. Each syringe held such little medicine they looked almost empty. The man waited patiently, until Roman, checking his watch, gave him a nod. The vet put a heavy leather glove on his left hand and opened the first cage.
He gave an injection every five minutes. Then they would squeeze each animal into yet another nylon pantyhose, twisting the material to trap it. The ends were then tied to straps in the vest. In the end, Viktor carried six on each side, each lump no bigger than a computer mouse.
"Good! Good! You look good!" Roman said, once Viktor had put his shirt back on. "Turn around. Good!" Viktor walked around the tiny operating room, experimentally swinging his arms.
"Try not to sweat," Roman offered.
The vet remained still the entire time, until he spotted movement. It was a tiny bug, venturing out of the sixth cage. The thing was no bigger than the head of the eagle on the old American coins they had given Viktor. The vet squashed it with his thumb and flicked it away.
Viktor could remember the ride to the airport, the perfunctory bribe in customs, a quick toast of ice-cold vodka in the airport bar, then the long walk to the plane. He found his seat, flirted unenthusiastically with one of the ugly attendants, and tried not to think about landing in Chicago.
After that, absolutely nothing.
A sharp rap at the door. "Sir! Sir! We are landing very soon. You must take your seat."
Viktor tried to respond; his voice came out garbled as if his tongue had forgotten how to create words. It must have worked for a moment because the knocking stopped.
He stared at himself in the mirror again. Just land, get through customs, and then outside, where a van is waiting. He sucked in a deep breath and blew it out through his nose.
Everything was going to be fine.
A thin trickle of blood slid out of his left nostril.
Viktor swore and wiped it away. More blood collected on his upper lip. He realized he could use this to his advantage and wound toilet paper around his fist, then pressed it to his nose. He was now just a passenger with a bloody nose because of the dry air in the cabin. That was all.
Something tickled his stomach.
At first, he thought it was just that maddening phantom itch. But this felt different. Something was moving across his skin. He pulled his shirt up, and there, crawling along the sparse black hairs around his belly button, was a tiny bug. Without hesitation, he pinched it between his thumb and forefinger and felt an insignificant, unsatisfying crunch. Examining his fingertips, he found a faint smear of blood.
The attendant knocked on the door again. Louder this time. "Sir! I insist, sir!"
Viktor wiped the remains of the bug on his new jeans, jammed the blood soaked tissue back to his nose, and opened the door. He glared at the attendant over the tissue. The phantom itch crawled across his scalp.
When the plane finally landed, Viktor was afraid he couldn't stand. He waited in his seat until nearly all the passengers had disembarked, effectively trapping the older woman next to him. She didn't make a move to get up, gripping her purse in two tight fists, staring unwaveringly at the perky young starlet skipping through warm surf on the cover of the in-flight magazine stuffed in the pouch on the back of the seat in front.
Viktor didn't care. He wedged his hands under his thighs, anything to hide the shaking. He couldn't stop licking his lips. The vibrations in his head threatened to spin out of control and he fought against the seizures that echoed throughout his body. The shaking built. His feet thrummed against his carryon bag. Drool spilled from quivering lips. A distant burst of his heartbeat.
Abruptly, everything slowed down.
He stopped shaking. Wiped his mouth. The sounds of muttered conversations as the passengers filed past and pulled bags out of the overhead compartments seemed to be coming from underwater.
Viktor took a deep breath. Sweet relief flooded through his body, leaving him dazed and warm. His eyelids slowly slid shut. His breathing slowed.
Now the woman next to him really didn't know what to do. She thought he was asleep. The last of the passengers filed out. She hit the button for one of the attendants. Down at the front of the plane, the group looked back at her. When they saw Viktor, the attendant who had kicked him out of the lavatory started up the aisle, shaking her head.
She stopped a few seats away. "Sir. Please, sir. You are to leave now."
Viktor didn't move. Neither did the woman next to him.
"Sir. Sir." A little louder.
The attendant looked back at her group and shrugged.
Viktor gasped and jolted awake. The woman next to him flinched and let out a hushed yip.
The pain was back with a vengeance, drilling into the nerve cells in his stomach and behind his eyes, sparking agony as it burrowed deeper. He scrambled to his feet, spun, and almost fell back into the seat.
He licked his lips and grabbed his bag as tremors shook his limbs. Despite the loss of control, he still managed to hang on to the handle in one hand and pull himself along with the other. The attendants backed away as he staggered down the aisle.
Someone at the far end of the tunnel spoke into a phone. Viktor didn't like that.
When he got within four feet, he bared his teeth and growled at the flight attendant on the phone.
She flinched and dropped it.
He leaned away and stumbled up the ramp, out into the bright lights of customs, and took three hitching breaths. A bewildering labyrinth of lines that looked like they had been laid out by a couple of drunk government employees waited impatiently, all strung together with fake velvet ropes. Thirty or so passengers stood in line, sneaking glances back at him.
Their eyes crawled across his skin.
One of the pouches squirmed against his left hip and just like that, that furtive itch scrabbled across his back and Viktor couldn't take it anymore. He finally simply surrendered and let the shrieking in his head blot out everything else.
7:24 PM December 27
"Those flowers really bring out the color of your eyes," Sam told his partner.
"Damn. Can't tell you how touched I am that you noticed," Ed said. "Keeps me up at night sometimes, worrying if I'm handsome enough."
Sam tried not to smile and sipped his coffee instead. A snowstorm out over the Rockies had delayed Ed's girlfriend's flight, and the coffee had gotten cold and bitter while they waited.
It was late, and O'Hare was quiet. Bleary-eyed travellers trickled down the escalators from customs upstairs. Below, in the baggage claim area, most of the benches were empty; a few people sat along the snaking conveyer belts, waiting impatiently for the airlines to track down missing bags.
Sam looked back through the double set of glass doors at their unmarked Crown Vic. Calling it unmarked was a joke. Everybody in Chicago knew damn well that nobody drove Crown Vics except cops and those poor deluded schmucks who bought them used for God knew what reason at police auctions. Sam had left it parked illegally right in front of the doors on the lower level, where arriving passengers spilled out of O'Hare. It had been out there long enough to collect a halfhearted, thin layer of snow from a minor snow earlier. He wasn't worried about any tickets though; O'Hare's security, like everybody else, knew enough to leave it alone.
Technically, they were supposed to be supporting the anti-gang units in one of the pointless sweeps of one of the Chicago Housing Authority's worst buildings on the South Side. But that was like spraying a wasp's nest with water. All it did was piss everybody off.
Ed and Sam decided their time was better spent picking up Carolina.
Sam caught sight of his reflection. A wiry guy in his fifties with thinning gray hair glared back at him. The expression on his face caught him off guard. He looked like he might kick a dog for the hell of it. This surprised Sam; he was actually in a decent mood. As decent as his moods could get, anyway.
Ed, a heavyset black man the same age as Sam, waited for his girlfriend with a deep well of patience born of decades of endless stakeouts and too much fast food etched in his crinkled eyes. He held his flowers upright, not upside down, against his leg, like some guys. Not sideways either, held with indifference in crossed arms. Ed stood in a wide, relaxed stance, yet held those flowers as if they were growing out of a northern Illinois meadow at high noon.
Sam checked his watch. 11:47. Carolina's flight was nearly two hours late. They had been hoping to pick her up, drop her off, and be at the sweep for all the paperwork at the end. He was pouring the coffee into the water fountain and thinking of something to tell Commander Mendoza when he heard gunshots at the top of the escalator.
* * *
Ed left the flowers on the floor between the escalators and they stormed up two and three steps at a time. Ed glided into customs, his old .38 Special held with both hands, elbows loose. It carried six hand-loaded .357 caliber shells. Technically, he wasn't supposed to be carrying anything that powerful, but the big revolver had been grandfathered in when they changed the rules.
Sam, on the other hand, preferred a more modern Glock, with a nine-shot clip. He wasn't so much concerned with power as quantity. He'd rather spray lead all over the place than chose his shots carefully. If he had to shoot, then chances were he'd empty the clip, and probably the next one too.
Sam popped up a few steps behind and went right as Ed broke left.
They saw a tall, rail-thin male, standing at the far end of the hall, on the other side of the maze of blue rope lines. The man had a semiautomatic pistol jammed into the soft tissue under his chin.
A security guard, bleeding from his hip, crawled slowly away. The rest of the tourists and passengers huddled against the booths and examination tables.
Viktor's eyes were closed. His shoulders quivered, as if low, vicious jolts of electricity shot along his backbone every few seconds.
It was clear that he had disarmed the guard and fired a few rounds. But that didn't explain why the tall man was bleeding too. Ed and Sam got closer. He appeared to have ragged slashes across his face and neck. Blood collected in the crotch of his jeans.
The detectives got close enough to see the blood seeping into the industrial carpet as it spilled down his shoe.
Sam said, "Put that fucking gun down."
A sob burst out of Viktor. A low, guttural cry.
Sam tried again. "Put—"
Underneath the fresh blood, muscles under Viktor's arm twitched. The pistol started to come down, and the darkness of the muzzle grew larger every second as the detectives came within range.
Viktor's left eye disappeared and his head flopped to one shoulder. His long frame sagged and collapsed. One of the passengers uttered a short, sharp scream, but that was all.
Silence bloomed as gun smoke drifted toward the ceiling.
Excerpted from SLEEP TIGHT by JEFF JACOBSON. Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Jacobson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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