by G. Connor Salter
I should have seen this coming, Samuel thought, staring at the gun barrel. Never work for Russians.
He glanced around the small room again. No doors, except the one behind the guard holding the gun and the other one leading to the kitchen. Vlad was in the kitchen with his technician. No good.
One window, locked tight. No good.
Some miscellaneous furniture and gear lying around, including his pack on the nearby table. No good at all, especially since they’d found his extra gun in the pack.
Samuel sighed, cracked his neck and looked at the guard. “You look experienced,” he commented in Russian. The guard didn’t reply.
Great. Samuel went over how he ended up here. He’d met Vlad in Siberia while working for another client. Vlad wanted someone to get an artifact from some soldier’s hometown. A soldier mentioned in a document written when the Soviet Union was still new. The town’s villagers wouldn’t give up the artifact easily, so Samuel would have to steal it. It turned out the artifact was not only considered sacred, it was buried under a church. After considerable effort getting the thing out of said church, he’d thought he was finally out of trouble. Until that night in the hostel, when some peasant had ripped open his trunk. Samuel hoped one of these days, many drinks and many miles away from here, he might forget what he’d seen when he found the peasant.
Vlad’s men had found him the next day, heading for the local river with the artifact in a black sack. They dragged him on the St. Petersburg train, frog-marched him to the apartment, and waited for Vlad. For reasons not gone into, Vlad had waited until late at night to arrive with his technician. Which brought Samuel back to the present.
Samuel checked his watch. Almost one o’clock. Not much longer.
The kitchen door opened. Vlad and the technician entered the room. Samuel glimpsed a computer and scanning device on the kitchen counter before the technician closed the door. Vlad held up the black sack, then placed it on the table. The sack crumpled around the round object inside. Vlad pulled the black fabric away, revealing the grey-green skull.
“So, you weren’t lying,” Vlad stated. “The scans match the photos perfectly.”
Vlad’s hand traced the bullet hole in the skull’s forehead. “Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin’s head. Everyone thought it was burned up with the rest of him. Imagine what people will pay for it now.”
“Yes. Fascinating. Downright mind-blowing if you ask me.” Samuel swallowed and told himself to stop trembling. “Talking of pay…”
Vlad chuckled. “Oh yes. You want to get what’s coming to you.”
Samuel nodded. Vlad cocked his head to one side.
“What’s the matter, Mr. Sam? You seem… skittish.”
Sam tried not to laugh too loudly. “Well, it’s been a tough job. And I’m not much of a gun guy.”
Vlad chuckled and looked to the guard. “That worries you? In my world, it’s a toy.” Vlad sat down and leaned toward Samuel. “Do you know something you’d like to share with us?”
“No, not particularly. I just don’t like being up this late. Or early, as it may be.” Samuel licked his lips. “Can I just get what I’m owed now? I’ve got other clients, you know.”
“Enough,” Vlad snapped. “You were supposed to take the train yourself here, yet we found you heading the opposite direction. What were you going to do? Take it to another buyer, perhaps?”
Samuel’s eyes moved to the skull. The peasant’s face popped back into his mind. The open mouth, the wide eyes. The local priest had thought it was a heart attack, went to great lengths to tell Samuel this sort of thing didn’t happen much in their town. Even gave him a black sack to replace his ruined trunk.
Sam wiped his forehead. “Tell you what. You keep the money, okay? Pro bono, something-”
Vlad smacked his hand on the table. The guard took his gun and held it closer to Samuel’s head.
“Who is the other buyer, Samuel?”
Samuel’s watch beeped. One o’clock. He clenched his hands and looked away from the skull. Vlad followed Samuel’s gaze, then turned toward the skull. Out of the corner of his eye, Samuel saw Vlad lean in and reach out toward the skull’s eyeholes.
A scream. A harsh, guttural scream from the skull.
Everybody jumped. Except Samuel. He knocked the gun from the guard’s hand and dove to the floor. He watched, hands clapped over his ears. The scream grew louder. Vlad crumpled to the floor, his hand still glued to the skull. The technician and the guard tried to reach the door. They didn’t have a chance.
Plaster fell from the ceiling. The window cracked, then shattered inward. The pieces flew into the technician’s face and neck. The guard scrambled to the door and tried to force it open. The hinges snapped and the door crashed on top of him. Huge plaster chunks followed.
Samuel slowly turned to Vlad. The Russian was throwing himself against the table, trying to wrench his hand off the skull. Then Vlad stood, raised his arm and threw it back down. The table rose a few inches into the air, then crashed back down. It split, one piece still attached to the skull. Vlad swung his hand around and the piece of table hit the lightbulb. Black. A figure dove through the window.
More glass broke. The scream faded off.
Samuel slowly stood. He inched across the room and peered through the window. He could make out the crumpled form in a snowbank below. Grey-green chips lay around Vlad’s open hand. They slowly blew away.
Samuel sighed and turned away. Never work for Russians, he thought as he carefully stepped over the guard. Never again.