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Your Next Breath
Author:Iris Johansen

Your Next Breath by Iris Johansen

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER

 

1

 

BOSKAR, RUSSIA

 

 

 

The woman’s throat had been slashed.

 

She must have been killed at least twelve to fourteen hours ago. The expression frozen on her face was one of horror and bewilderment as she stared up at the ceiling of this little house that she’d worked so hard to make home.

 

There was a name scrawled in blood on the stone floor beside her body.

 

“I thought you would want to know, Hu Chang,” Ivan Lagoff said to the man standing beside him, staring down at the corpse. “No one else has seen the body. I’ll have to notify the police, but you’re the one who helped Catherine Ling set up Olena Petrov in our village.” He added hesitantly, “It could be troublesome for your friend Catherine?”

 

“Yes. Very troublesome. You were right to call me.” He reached down and touched the gold chain with Catherine Ling’s name on the ID plaque shining against Olena Petrov’s gray sweater. “The police might not understand and ask Catherine awkward questions. Neither of us would want that to happen.” He gently took the chain from around the woman’s neck. “So we will make sure that it will not. You did not see this chain, Ivan. You found the body and you assumed it was a burglary.”

 

Ivan’s eyes widened. “That would be a lie. I could get into trouble. I checked the house and it appears nothing was taken.”

 

“Then it might be wise to cause a little disarray and not be sure that nothing was stolen.” He paused. “And when I leave, you should get soap and water and scrub out that name written in blood on the stones.”

 

“I cannot do that.” Ivan’s eyes were fixed on the gold chain. “And you should not take that chain. The police would say that it’s evidence.”

 

Hu Chang nodded. “But evidence of what? So often the obvious turns out to be false and causes only confusion. You did not see this chain.” He turned toward the door. “You did not see me. You do not mention Catherine Ling’s ever having had anything to do with Olena Petrov. Do you understand?”

 

Ivan nodded slowly. “I understand. But I’m the head of this village, the Lurah. I have a duty. You ask a lot of me, Hu Chang.”

 

“But I also gave a lot to you, Ivan,” Hu Chang said softly. “Do you remember the night you promised me anything if I’d only keep your son on this Earth? I asked nothing at the time. I’m asking now. The life of your son surely has more worth than this simple favor?”

 

“It’s not simple.” But Ivan did remember that night. The local doctor had given up on his Niki, but there had been rumors about the powerful properties of the brews and medicines created by the physician, Hu Chang, who was visiting him. Hu Chang had only come to their village because of the rare herbs found in the nearby forest, but Ivan had thought he might be a gift from God. He had gone to Hu Chang on his knees. And by morning, his Niki was on his way back to health. “Perhaps for you, not for me.”

 

“After you’ve done what I wish, it will seem much simpler. A small gift in exchange for a gift beyond price.”

 

For a moment, Ivan looked down at the dead woman. Then he went to the sink and got a bucket of water and a brush. “I’ll do it.” He knelt on the floor beside Olena’s body. “I … liked her, Hu Chang. In the years she was here in our village, she was always cheerful, always helping with the neighborhood children. She never talked about herself, but I thought she might have once been a teacher. Was I right?”

 

“No. You were wrong. She was a whore.” Hu Chang shrugged as he saw Ivan’s shocked expression. “But that was another life, and you should remember the life she chose, not the one that was chosen for her.”

 

“I will try.” He moistened his lips. “That chain with Catherine Ling’s name must be some kind of gift or present. It’s strange looking, isn’t it? Sort of like a military dog tag. I never saw Olena wear it.” He avoided Hu Chang’s eyes as he started to wash the name scrawled in blood off the stones. “And Olena could have been the one to write this name…”

 

Ling.

 

The name was already beginning to blur with the vigorous use of soap and water. He scrubbed harder, avoiding Hu Chang’s eyes.

 

“I’ve heard Catherine Ling can be quite deadly. She would not have reason to be angry with Olena?”

 

“You see, you are asking questions.” Hu Chang opened the door, his voice was none the less lethal for its softness. “Which causes me to be most unhappy. Make sure no one else has reason to question my friend Catherine, Ivan.”

 

 

SANTIAGO, CHILE

 

Pain!

 

It was a trap!

 

Robert Jantzen felt the blood pouring from the wound in his chest as he started to run.

 

Footsteps behind him. Not in a hurry. They knew he was going down.

 

The hell he was.

 

He reached in his pocket and pulled out his phone.

 

Venable. Get to Venable.

 

His hand was shaking as he dialed.

 

Venable picked up immediately. “Jantzen?”

 

“Trap. They were waiting for me. I’m at the dock. Chest wound—bleeding.”

 

Venable cursed. “Try to find cover. I’ll get someone there to help you. Don’t hang up. We’ll trace your location.”

 

Cover?

 

Jantzen looked around: warehouses, boats at the piers, bars in the distance … He knew he’d never make it to any of them. He wasn’t running any longer, he was barely staggering.

 

And those footsteps were getting closer.

 

But Venable knew where he was and wouldn’t let him down. Venable never left an agent in jeopardy or considered him expendable. Jantzen still had his gun. Maybe he could manage to get behind some of those crates up ahead and hold out until Venable came through for him.

 

He forced himself to break into a run again, this time toward the crates.

 

He heard a laugh.

 

Three shots.

 

He pitched forward as the bullets tore into his upper back and lungs.

 

Dying. He was dying.