Your Next Breath

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.

He was lying facedown but he saw the brown boots of the man who stopped beside him.

“Venable won’t help you. She won’t help you. You’re a dead man.”

His hand …

Something cold and metal was being wrapped around his hand.

Everything was blurring, but he forced himself to focus. He could see the gleam of the gold chain of the dog tag that had been forced into his hand.

Dog tag?

Yes, and the name …

Catherine Ling …


LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY

“I feel ridiculous.” Catherine Ling scowled at her reflection in the hall mirror. The small hat she was wearing was a confection of scarlet and black chiffon and was the closest she’d been able to come to flattering her long dark hair and golden complexion. But it was still the last thing she would have worn given a choice. “And you’re getting entirely too much enjoyment out of this, Luke.”

Her son Luke’s dark eyes were gleaming with mischief as he stood back and tilted his head critically. “You look beautiful, Catherine,” he said solemnly. “All fluffy and soft. Kind of like that photo I saw of Queen Elizabeth.”

“I’m going to get you for that.”

“And after all, it’s Kentucky Derby Day,” Luke’s tutor, Sam O’Neill said. “I’ve been trying to teach Luke all the cultural ramifications of the different American holiday events. Since this race occurs on our doorstep, he seemed particularly interested. So I went into detail about it.”

“Including these idiotic hats women wear to the race.” She glanced at Luke. “And he jumped on it.”

“You went along with him,” Sam murmured.

Because she was always glad to see Luke full of mischief instead of soberness. It had been a slow road back for both of them this last year. She and Eve Duncan had only recently been able to free Luke from Rakovac, the Russian criminal who had kidnapped him when he was only two and held him captive for nine long years. The violence and horrors Luke had gone through she could only imagine. She was just grateful that Rakovac had failed in his attempt to make Luke hate her and blame her for everything Rakovac had done to him. They were still on tentative ground, as demonstrated by the fact that Luke still called her Catherine, never Mother. But they were growing closer all the time. “I was trying to be a good sport. But I think this is a little too much.”

“On the contrary, no embellishment is ever too much for you, Catherine. You wear everything boldly and with superb style.”

Hu Chang!

She whirled to see him standing in the doorway of the library.

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