The black circle, p.5

The Black Circle, страница 5


The Black Circle
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  “I’ll check under the table.”

  Amy braced herself and then reached into the thick black robes, her face just inches from Rasputin’s wax head with its bushy beard and fixed, staring eyes.

  A deep Russian voice behind her said, “You have made a grave error in coming here.”

  Dan tried to stand up from under the table and banged his head, sending saucers and cups clinking in the quiet room.

  “Come away from there, both of you.”

  Dan recognized the voice immediately.

  “Irina! What are you doing here?”

  “Children do not outsmart me in my own country.”

  Dan looked at Amy and tried, without much luck, to read her frightened face. Did you get anything?

  “Come, show me what you have found,” said Irina. “I do not plan to hurt you.”

  Even in the shadowy light, Dan could see Irina was in her usual cheerless mood. He didn’t trust her for one second.

  “I think we’ll stay right here if you don’t mind,” said Amy.

  “Suit yourself. But you do not leave without answering a few questions. And you will give me what you have found.”

  Dan didn’t have the map NRR had given them, and he wondered when Amy was going to spring it on Irina. What’s she waiting for?

  “Who is helping you?” asked Irina. She deliberately toyed with her fingernails, and Dan flinched at the reminder of the poison they contained.

  “No one’s helping us. We’re just smarter than you are,” said Dan, his eyes on his frozen sister.

  “You think I didn’t see the snake? You think I didn’t hear everything you said on the train from Volgograd? You’re not so smart, little man.”

  Dan started. She’s tailed us since Volgograd?!

  “You believe someone is trying to help you? Ridiculous!” continued Irina. “It’s a trap! If you persist with this game, it will only lead to disaster. This person you are following? They will kill you once you’ve done their bidding.”

  Like you tried to kill us in Paris? thought Dan. He spotted a butter knife on the table and wondered if it would do any good to grab for it. If only he had real ninja moves.

  “I ask you once more. Who is helping you?”

  “Here,” said Amy, finally emerging from her trance. She held out the map. “This is what we just found. You can have it. I haven’t even looked at it yet. But can we at least share the information?”

  Irina snatched the paper from Amy’s hand and held it open in the soft light of the room. She let out a furious hiss.

  “It is worse than I thought,” she warned, raising her arctic eyes to the children. “You two are in grave danger. You must believe me. Tell me! Who is helping you?!”

  For a second, Dan was almost taken in. He couldn’t possibly trust her, and yet … something in her face registered a different kind of distress.

  The moment passed in a flash, and Irina reverted to her typical grim resolve. She took a step toward Dan and Amy and curved one hand, her fingernail injectors gleaming menace.

  “He didn’t give us a name,” said Dan. “We’re following a lead, that’s all. But if you don’t share that piece of paper with us it’s over. We’ll lose the trail. Just tell us what it says and we’ll go!”

  Irina seemed almost satisfied. “If this person contacts you again, don’t listen to him. He will kill you in the end. You must leave Russia and never come back. If you do not believe me, it is not my fault. But it is your death.”

  Irina backed off, shoving the map into her coat.

  “Let’s go, both of you. March!”

  Dan and Amy hustled out of the exhibit with Irina close behind. She barked out directions until they reached the main entrance. Irina tapped out a code on her phone, held it up to an electronic alarm on the wall, and the huge wooden door clicked. She ushered Dan and Amy out into the cool night.

  Once on the street, Irina hesitated, then seemed to make up her mind. “That map leads to secrets people would kill to protect,” said Irina. She shut the door and started walking away. “Leave now, alive. Someday you’ll thank me.”

  Dan and Amy watched her leave with open mouths, feeling like two small fish that have watched a great white shark swim by. Then they came to their senses and hustled along the canal in the opposite direction. When Dan was sure they’d lost Irina, he put a hand on Amy’s arm.

  “Did you find what NRR wanted us to find?”

  He held his breath. If Amy hadn’t discovered anything hidden on Rasputin, they were at a dead end.

  “I got it,” said Amy. “And that’s not all. There was something about the exhibit that’s got me very curious. I think we’re one step closer to figuring out who NRR is.”

  Amy reached into her pocket and pulled out the next piece of the puzzle.


  Amy was fine with a little bit of luxury if the opportunity presented itself, but the Russians took decadence to a whole new level.

  “How did I ever let you talk me into this?” she asked, staring at a grand piano in the middle of their hotel suite. They’d taken the risk of hailing a cab, after which Dan had held up his Visa gold card and said, “Take us to the best hotel in St. Pete’s.”

  They’d arrived at the Grand Hotel Europe, one of the fanciest hotels in all of Russia. But as they entered the $2,000-a-night suite, Dan decided it wasn’t up to snuff.

  “What a rip-off!” said Dan. “Sixty-eight thousand rubles and there’s no pinball machine?”

  Dan raced from room to room, past all the expensive furniture and paintings.

  “They don’t even have a big-screen TV or a Coke machine!”

  “It has two nice big beds and unlimited room service. Works for me,” said Amy, rubbing a small item between her fingers. It was the object she’d discovered in Rasputin’s pocket at the palace: an oblong wooden token painted with a coat of arms and a set of words:

  She’d understood the words right away, a reference to one of her favorite books. Criminals be not punished here had to mean Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. Amy loved her books big and sprawling, and this thing was a doorstop.

  It was Dan, with his keen eye and incredible memory, who had recognized the coat of arms. The Russian guidebook had a whole section on heraldry. He’d correctly identified this one as belonging to Omsk, the very place the Holts were headed. Too bad they were being tailed by the Kabras.

  Amy pulled out Nellie’s phone and charger and searched for an outlet. They’d been too busy to contact Nellie, and the growing guilt had been knotting Amy’s stomach for hours.

  “I can’t believe we let her worry about us for the entire day and night. For all she knows, we’re still out looking for doughnuts in Cairo.”

  When she glanced over, she saw that Dan was on the hotel phone dialing room service. He had a giant English-Russian menu spread across his lap. Amy shook her head as she plugged in the phone and watched the little screen do its start-up dance.

  “You don’t have PB and J on the menu, either? Rich people food is no fun!” said Dan. He’d also asked for orange soda, chocolate chip cookies, and onion rings.

  “I’m calling Nellie,” Amy interrupted. “Do you want to listen in?”

  “Hang on,” said Dan. He hung up, grabbed his laptop and the power cord, and joined Amy on the floor. The two of them sat next to each other, the wall outlet between them.

  “All this beautiful furniture and we’re sitting on the floor. What’s wrong with us?” asked Amy.

  “I guess we’re not too good at living the high life. Good thing. Wouldn’t want to end up like the Cobras.”

  Amy couldn’t help thinking Dan had fallen under the spell of a Visa gold card pretty quickly.

  “Dan, look at this. She’s got messages.”

  The voice mail light blinked green on Nellie’s phone. Amy pressed the RETRIEVE button and activated the tiny speakerphone.

  “You have seven new messages,” a female voice offered.

  Amy p
ressed the 7 key and the first message came through, although it was a bad connection and they couldn’t catch the entire thing.

  “If you guys … CALL ME! It’s taking a long … get those doughnuts. The hotel number is …” The message crackled so badly at the end they couldn’t decipher the rest.

  Five more messages were of equally lousy quality, all from Nellie, her voice becoming more concerned with each effort to reach them.

  “She’s going to kill us,” said Dan.

  “You got that right,” Amy agreed.

  She clicked to retrieve the last message. It wasn’t from Nellie.

  “Call in for a status report,” said a man’s whispery voice. “We haven’t heard from you.”

  Dan and Amy stared at each other.

  “Do you know who that was?” asked Amy. “It’s not a voice I’ve ever heard, have you?”

  “No,” Dan said, and shook his head hard, as if trying to knock a bad thought out of it. They stared at each other for a second, and then Amy deliberately changed the subject.

  “I hope Nellie is okay. I’m worried about her.”

  “I wonder how Saladin is doing,” said Dan, a glint of concern rising in his voice.

  “Let’s e-mail her instead of calling,” said Amy. “Just let her know we’re okay. That way we don’t have to worry about her freaking out on us. I’m not sure I could handle that right now.”

  “And we’ll tell her to take good care of Saladin,” said Dan.

  They jumped online and found a string of e-mails from Nellie that sounded a lot like the phone messages she’d left. She was careful to let them know that Saladin was doing just fine, dining on fresh fish from a Cairo marketplace and taking long naps in the hotel room.

  “You see there?” said Amy. “Saladin is doing great.”

  Amy took the laptop and banged out a short message.

  Dear Nellie, We stumbled onto a trail we couldn’t turn back from. Before we knew it, we were on our way out of Cairo and into Russia. It all happened really fast. We know you probably can’t come get us, but don’t worry — we’re okay. No problems so far. Please take good care of Saladin. We promise to check back in tomorrow morning. Please don’t worry — we’re fine! Amy and Dan.

  “How’s that?” asked Amy.

  “I think it’ll do the trick. Send it.”

  Amy clicked the SEND button. At least Nellie would know they weren’t dead.

  “We should send something to Hamilton, too, don’t you think?” asked Dan.

  Amy had almost forgotten. Of course! The trail led into Siberia next, right where Hamilton Holt would arrive by early morning on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She started typing out a message as Dan retrieved Hamilton’s e-mail address from their backpack.

  Hamilton – Your turn. We’ve found the next item and it leads right to where you’re going. When you get to Omsk, look for a statue of Dostoevsky. He’s a famous Russian writer, so if you ask around you shouldn’t have any trouble locating him. Here’s the important thing: You have to figure out what Dostoevsky is looking at. Follow his eyes. Whatever he’s staring at is the next thing on our hunt. Our guess is it will lead back toward us. Let’s stay ahead of the competition! Call our cell when you figure this out. Amy and Dan.

  “It’s ringing,” said Dan. Nellie’s phone was vibrating softly on the carpeted floor. Dan looked at the screen.

  “It must be Nellie. She must have been sitting by a computer just waiting for us to contact her. That’s good, right?”

  But Amy wasn’t so sure. She was exhausted, and the man’s whispering voice from Nellie’s phone seemed to reach for her. Call in for a status report. We haven’t heard from you.

  “Let it ring,” she said. “Let’s get some sleep.”

  When Dan woke up, Amy was gone. For a split second he freaked out, running back and forth between rooms until he saw the note stuck to the post of his bed.

  Gone out to find us some new clothes in the hotel lobby. Ours are getting gross. Back in a flash. Order breakfast, sleepyhead.

  Dan breathed a huge sigh of relief. Looking at the clock, he saw that it was already after nine in the morning. He did a quick mental calculation. If NRR was to be trusted, they only had ten hours left before “the room” would close, whatever that meant.

  By the time Amy returned from the lobby carrying two shopping bags, Dan had already taken a shower and called in a colossal order from room service. He emerged from the bathroom in a fog of steam, wearing a plush white bathrobe and slippers.

  “Just once we should get to keep these,” said Dan. His words were garbled with foam as he brushed his teeth with a complimentary toothbrush.

  “If only we had room in our backpack. See if Hamilton Holt sent us an e-mail.”

  “You mean Hamilton Dolt, don’t you?” Dan laughed.

  “Well, we’re stuck with him now,” said Amy, digging into the bags in search of something to wear. “Better make the best of it.”

  Dan tossed his toothbrush into the sink and joined Amy at the bags of clothes.

  “They’ve got some nice stores down there. I charged it all to the room.” Amy grinned. “I’m starting to get the hang of this.”

  Everything from new underwear to jeans and shirts came tumbling out of the bags. They retreated to their own rooms, dressed quickly, and met at the entrance to the suite as room service arrived.

  “You get the laptop,” said Dan, “I’ll get the food.”

  They devoured piles of steaming hot pancakes with cups of hot chocolate, and a feeling of good fortune rolled over them. They were well rested, well fed, newly clothed. Could they be any more ready for ten hours of adventure? While they ate, Dan checked their e-mail. He laughed so hard a chunk of pancake shot out of his mouth and landed on Amy’s plate.

  “Gross!” she yelled, but she laughed, too. She flicked the chewed-up gob of pancake onto the table and asked Dan what was so funny.

  “We got an e-mail from Hamilton. Check this out.”

  Dan slid the laptop over where Amy could see the screen. There was a picture of the Holts standing in front of the Omsk train station. They were all wearing gigantic parkas and grinning from ear to ear. They looked like an oversize team of gymnasts about to hit the slopes in the dead of winter—except the sun was shining and everyone else around them was dressed in thin sweaters. Below the picture was Hamilton’s reply to their e-mail of the night before:

  My mom made us put these stupid things on for a family picture. She said it would make the perfect Christmas card. Whatever. Not exactly cold in Siberia this time of year, so we ditched the jackets. Dad’s off looking for meat pies, Mom and the twins are looking for a bathroom. I just got service on my laptop again — spotty out here in the tundra, har-har, but I got your message. I’m at an Internet café. Had no trouble getting directions to this Dostrovinsky statue. Dude’s got a weird name, but that helped, because someone here at the café already told me where to find it. Lucky me, it’s right around the corner. I’ll check out where the guy is looking and get right back to you. Cell phone service is choppy, but I might get a bar or two once I’m out in the open air again. On the hunt – Hammer.

  “Hammer?” said Dan. “He’s kidding, right?”

  “It must be a family nickname.”

  Dan stuffed a wad of pancake in his mouth and held his fork high in the air.

  “Beware fellow contestants — the Hammer is on the case!”

  They were both giggling when they heard Nellie’s phone vibrating again.

  “I think we better answer it this time,” said Dan, all the wind gone out of his sails.

  Amy walked to the phone and picked it up. Unknown caller ID. She decided it was time to do some talking.

  “Hello?” said Amy, picking up the phone.

  “Amy? Is that you, Amy?” Nellie’s excited voice flooded across the line. She sounded overjoyed.

  “It’s me, we’re okay!” said Amy.

  “Yes, yes, YES! Is Dan there? IS HE SAFE?”
br />   “Dan’s okay, as long as he doesn’t explode from eating too many pancakes.”

  “I was worried SICK about you two,” said Nellie. “And Saladin won’t stop crying. He misses you guys. Russia? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! How COULD you let this happen?”

  “How’s Saladin?” asked Dan.

  Amy waved him off as Nellie continued to rant.

  “I don’t know what’s gotten into you two! STAY PUT until I get there. I’ve already grabbed a flight to Moscow. Where are you exactly?”

  Amy tried to do the math in her head … Moscow to St. Petersburg … probably an overnight train. It was a long time to wait.

  “We’re in St. Petersburg, but we have to keep moving, Nellie,” said Amy. “This hunt we’re on is time sensitive. I don’t think we can sit here and do nothing all day.”

  Another call was trying to break in. It was Hamilton Holt.

  “Listen, Nellie, I’ve got to go. Come to Moscow and we’ll call you as soon as we can. Hold tight.”

  “NO WAY! Stay where you a—”

  Amy clicked the phone and switched calls. Hamilton started yelling into the phone so loudly Dan could hear it from across the room.

  “I see it! I see what that author dude is staring at!”

  “Good job, Hamilton! What is it? What’s he looking at?”

  Dan sidled up next to Amy so he could listen in.

  “Dad! I got this!”

  It sounded like Eisenhower Holt was trying to grab the phone. Amy heard Mary-Todd yell something in the background.

  “Hey! Let go of that parka!”

  Reagan and Madison were howling somewhere close by.

  “He’s looking at the ground!” Hamilton yelled. “It’s all bricks, and one of them says something on it. It says—”

  “Hamilton? What’s it say?”

  “It says ‘Alexei’s Playroom,’ and there’s a little symbol here, looks like a six-sided gem.”

  “You didn’t tell the Kabras, did you?”

  “Those losers? No way,” said Hamilton.

  “Great job, Hamilton! You did it! Um … await further instructions.”

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