FROM FIRE TO FLAME

‘The Vladivostok Kind’ continues. Apologies for the lateness. I’ve been chipping away at this between jobs. Enjoy.

6. FROM FIRE TO FLAME

Yuri kept Sasha trained on the front door.  

It’s a trick, he told himself. The dogs will return – knowing even as he said it they wouldn’t.

But why?

His shoulder ached from shooting and he pulled the rifle stock tight, dug it in to make the pain clear his head. It didn’t, but three details rose to the surface, none of them logical, each disturbing in a different way.    

First was that the dogs were definitely gone. The only evidence they were ever there were mangy corpses on a bloody sidewalk.

Second was that Sokolov sounded like a hyperactive toddler, jabbering loud, fast, and non-stop.

Third was that inside the store smelled of electricity, just like the sizzled air after a lightning storm – which made absolutely no sense at all.   

Why did they stop?

Why is he so loud?

And what the hell is that smell?

His mind scrambled after the answers, but like a weasel in a steel cage – spitting, scratching, gnawing – it got nowhere fast.

Sokolov’s voice broke in again.  “—we fucked those puppies up, apyr!”

Yuri tore his attention away from the door, away from the questions. Focus on now, he told himself.

The job. The tour. The clients.

He forced his body to uncoil, breathed in and out until his tunnel vision widened. Slowly, his other senses returned to full volume and he rebooted his brain.

Check ammo. Secure the area.  

Yuri patted his chest rig and found four full magazines. The front of the store took shape.  

He was crouched behind a worn counter. The ceiling was low and there were a few scattered shelves and display cases nearby, all empty. The floor was oddly clean, free of litter and dirt. The only light came through the grimy front windows so the back of the store was lost in gloom. His charges, the Vladivostoks, were all nearby and somehow, miraculously, still in one piece. 

Kaspar was kneeling by one of the windows, gripping his tiny submachine gun in big fists. His cap had come off at some point and his shaved head was swiveling between the entrance and his boss. Nikolai Sokolov was a few meters further in the store, waving his pistol like a madman, recreating, reinventing the scene from moments ago. Gleb stood beside him, checking for wounds.   

“You OK? You OK?” he kept asking.

“I’m Rambo,” Sokolov crowed, pushing him away.

“They’re gone,” Kaspar said. “Is there a back door? Another way in?”

“Probably.”  Yuri fought off a sudden wave of exhaustion. He jerked his chin toward the cluttered darkness behind Sokolov and Gleb. “Back there.”

“Holy shit,” Kaspar snorted. “It always like this in your Zone?”

Yuri shrugged, nodded.

“That was wild,” Sokolov cackled. “You give good tour, Mr. Best-in-Area. And now this… Ni figa sebe, if it isn’t perfect.”

“What’s perfect?” Yuri turned around and frowned.  

The accountant spread his arms to encompass the store’s interior. “This building. It’s big, lots of space. Near a main road. I knew you could do it.”  

“Do what? What do you mean?”

“This is premium real estate.”

When Yuri shook his head, still not understanding, the accountant brushed off Gleb’s hands and spun him around. “Don’t worry. I’ll show you,” Sokolov tutted, and began to dig through the bodyguard’s backpack.  

After a moment, the accountant pulled out a long, black MagLite and raised it like an Olympic Torch. “A ha! Now we will be Tomb Raider and explore our new find.”

He thumbed the switch and blinded Yuri with white light. All at once Sokolov’s voice became very serious.  “You know, that game was very influential. Every girl now wants tits like Lara Croft.”

“Wait — What?” Yuri blinked. “Hold on.”

But Nikolai Sokolov was already walking away, waving the flashlight beam, probing the darkened space. “This is so much better than the peasant village.  My father will buy this one, I am sure. I have a nose for these things, you know.”

Kaspar moved from the window and joined Yuri behind the counter. He reloaded his ugly little gun and muttered something to Gleb, who sighed and dutifully followed their boss. Yuri stayed where he was, rubbing his eyes with Sokolov’s comment ringing in his ears.

Tits like who? What is this idiot talking about?

Vision cleared, Yuri tracked the flashlight beam as it flicked from floor to wall, played across aisles of crooked shelves. “Excellent. Most excellent,” Sokolov was saying.

A circle of white light darted across faded advertisements and tilted sale signs, lingered on a patch of ceiling deeper in the store where a hunk of broken duct work sagged from water-stained tiles.

Yuri did a double take; the air there was distorted. Throbbing like a heart.

“Stop, Mr. Sokolov,” he called. “Wait. Wait until we all –“

The accountant’s voice chided him from the semi-dark store. “Mr. Best-in-Area, didn’t I say you could call me Nik? We’re buddies now. Brothers in arms.”

Yuri heard a low, breathy rasp like a motor under Sokolov’s voice, felt the sound in his chest.

A growl.

He managed to get Sasha up just as a long, feline shape leapt through the cone of light.

There was a yelp of surprise followed by a long burst of submachine gun fire. A tongue of bright muzzle flash licked at the dark, answered by a roar and a wet, tearing sound.

Gleb started screaming.

Yuri and Kaspar charged forward to find the aisle blocked by tipped shelves. They could see Sokolov a few meters away, up against a glass display case holding the MagLite stiff-armed out in front of him. There was a dark stain on the front of his pants and his eyes were wide and white in terror. Whatever was happening was happening right in front of him.

Grisly shadows flailed on a nearby wall.   

“Get it off me,” Gleb was shouting.

All at once there was a loud crunch and the bodyguard’s shriek raised the hackles on Yuri’s neck. More wet sounds, and Gleb’s agony descended down the scale to whimpering.

“Hold on,” Kaspar yelled. “I’m coming.”

Yuri and Kaspar stumbled and shifted left until they found a clear aisle. Seconds later they reached the scene to find Sokolov still rooted in place, watching his bodyguard being mauled by what looked like a lion – only larger, hairless, and with two heads. One had Gleb’s arm clamped in its jaws. The other head turned at their approach.

When he saw Yuri and Kaspar, Nikolai Sokolov clawed for his pistol. He yanked it out and pointed it at them, at the beast, frantically pulling the trigger.

Click, click, click, click, click…

He hadn’t reloaded.

“Shoot it,” he squealed. “Why aren’t you shooting?”

The creature had its back to the accountant. It growled at the pistol noise with the same subsonic menace but didn’t turn around. One huge paw was planted on Gleb’s chest while a head thrashed at his arm. The other fixed Yuri and Kaspar with glittering eyes. That one snarled, baring fangs as long as Yuri’s finger.  

“Shoot it. Shoot it!”

Yuri sucked in a deep breath, shifted his weight fractionally and aimed. The lion-thing released Gleb even as he began to squeeze the trigger. It leaped out of the light soundlessly and flowed into the shadows. Kaspar’s little gun farted after it, but it vanished.

One part of Yuri tracked where it went. Another tried to remember any Zone rumors about two-headed lions and how to kill them. He came up empty on both.

Sokolov still had the flashlight fixed on Gleb who moaned and staggered to his feet. One arm was hanging down, shredded from shoulder to wrist, dripping blood.

“Get down,” Kaspar urged. “Don’t draw attention.”

Gleb was swaying like a drunk. He turned, dazed and dull-eyed with pain, to Sokolov  to Kaspar, then back to Sokolov. All at once, he spied his weapon and bent to pick it up.

“Stay down,” Kaspar hissed, and stepped into the aisle in front of Yuri. “I’m coming.”

“It’s right there,” Sokolov said. “I can see it moving.”

He swung the flashlight to Yuri’s left and elicited another gravelly roar. Before Kaspar could take another step, the creature pounced again and took Gleb’s head off in one swipe. A blink, and darkness swallowed the beast once more.  

Kaspar swore. Gleb remained upright for another few seconds, silhouetted in the MagLite’s spotlight like a gruesome prop on a stage. Arterial blood arced from the neck stump, three, four, five pumps before the body dropped out of sight like falling through a trap door.

Sokolov backed into a glass display, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. “Oh, oh, oh…“  He started waving the flashlight. “Where is it? Do you see it? Where did it go? Is it gone?”

 Yuri wanted to shout for him to stop, to scream there was no way he could see it with all that idiotic flailing, but it didn’t matter; the rising itch in his bones said it was nearby, watching them.    

Kaspar yanked a road flare out of a vest pocket, struck the head and threw it toward the rear of the store.  A jet of crimson flame burst to life. He did another, then a third and fourth, until the three of them were surrounded by sputtering red-tinged shadows.  

“There!” He started firing tight, controlled bursts to Yuri’s right. There was a crash of shattered glass and a snarl-roar.

Nikolai Sokolov squealed, dropped the flashlight and ran.  

“Stop, Mr. Sokolov.” Yuri called over the gunfire. 

But he was gone.

Yuri grabbed Kaspar’s shoulder. “Cease fire,” he yelled. “Cease Fire.”

 Kaspar stopped. “What?”

“Your boss,” Yuri pointed.  

They could hear the accountant tripping in the dark, a panicked clatter and crash moving deeper into the store.

“Proklyat’ye,” Kaspar spit. He slammed a fresh magazine into the grip, racked the bolt and went after him. 

Yuri hesitated. Chased by blind dogs straight into the dark lair of a two headed monster. Blood-red light, lurid shadows, a rich, idiot prince…  I jumped from fire to flame here. I’m stuck in an ancient myth, he thought. Or a really bad horror movie.

This trip had been a bad idea from the start, no matter how much money was at stake. He should have listened to his better judgment, to Zakhar, to his wife.

His wife’s voice popped into his head. But you didn’t listen, did you? So what? You’re going to leave them now? Do you think they stand any chance without you? You’re the Zone guide. So guide them. 

The only thing Yuri hated more than his wife being wrong was when she was right. Kaspar’s broad back was fading in the darkened interior with every step.

“Saint Strelok, preserve me,” Yuri prayed, and scooped up the MagLite and followed.

***

Thanks for reading.

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