CARRIER 7: AFTERBURN By Keith Douglass

their protection. .. or because it made it easier for the authorities to

keep an eye on them. Both, probably.

His roommate was lying on the bed reading a guidebook. He was sharing

the room with Greg Whitehead, the other captain in the group. .. and the

place was almost certainly wired for sound. The Federal Bureau of

Security–or whatever the old KGB was calling itself now–would be

interested in any conversations the two of them might have during their


“I’m going downstairs, Greg,” he told Whitehead, picking up his jacket

and shrugging it on. “Maybe stretch my legs.”

“Okay, Matt. Watch out for the roaches.” They’d flushed a few already in

the room’s antiquated bathroom, and they put Florida’s finest to shame.

.. not quite strong enough to take on a healthy cat, they’d decided, but

large enough to require respect.

At least, Tombstone thought as he pulled the door shut behind him, they

had their own bathroom; lots of Russian hotels still believed in

communal toilet facilities down the hall. Outside, the floor concierge,

one of the small army of women hired by Russian hotels apparently for no

other reason than to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the

guests, eyed him narrowly and suspiciously from her chair by the

elevator. He nodded pleasantly, then took the stairs instead of the

elevators, which neither looked nor sounded trustworthy. The stairwells

were dark and filthy, stank with the mingled odors of mildewed rags and

urine, and were lacking fire doors, but at least he didn’t run the risk

of getting stuck in one. The woman barked something in Russian at him as

he started down the worn concrete steps. .. probably something in the

nature of “You’re not allowed to do that!” or “Official use only!” but

he ignored her and kept going. Let her yell. Tombstone could handle

being flung off the bow of an aircraft carrier at 150 knots with

complete aplomb, but Russian hotel elevators were something else.

He was going to be very glad to get back aboard the Jefferson.

“Hey. .. you American? You want fuck?”

The woman was small, blond, and painfully thin, dressed in a tight gown

that tried to display her breasts but succeeded mostly in displaying how

skinny her arms were, while the heavy eye makeup and lipstick emphasized

her hollow cheeks. She stood squarely in the open doorway to the

stairwell, blocking his way.


“You want. .. fuck?” The obscenity was less shocking on her lips than it

was pathetic. “Or do other things. Five dollars?”

“No,” Tombstone said.

“I suck you, two dollars.”

He felt pity, and a moment’s stumbling uncertainty. Should he just brush

past this pathetic creature? Or offer her a few dollar bills as he would

a beggar? Glancing past her shoulder, he saw a crowd of other women

waiting in the corridor just outside the stairwell, all thin to the

point of gauntness, dressed in clothes intended to be provocative, and

wearing what they must imagine was sexy-looking makeup. And they were

all watching his encounter with the first woman with predatory gleams in

their eyes.

Shit. If he tried handing the woman money for no service, that bunch

would descend on him like a wolf pack, targeting him as an easy mark.

Better to shake his head no and shove past the woman without another


And, he told himself, it might be best to avoid situations here where he

was alone and could be cornered somewhere away from the main drag.

Tombstone was under no illusions about his ability to fend off an attack

by a half-dozen desperate women.

It was a sobering encounter. He’d known the Russian economy was bad, but

no written description could have prepared him for the sight of those

pitiful human wrecks accosting men in the hotel’s stairwell. He steeled

himself to walk past the women outside without meeting their watching

eyes. He wished there was something he could do to help them. ..

something other than actually doing business with them, which he knew

would be dangerous on several counts.

But there was nothing he could do, nothing anyone could do.

The Yalta Hotel’s lobby represented an unpleasant compromise between

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