The black circle, p.7

The Black Circle, страница 7


The Black Circle

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  “Any chance you could let me have a closer look at the train? I’m big into railroads.”

  It was Dan, who’d come back into the room in the nick of time.

  “Oh. Yes,” said the tour guide. “But then I must find others. Bad children should be kept on leash!”

  The closet door closed once more and Amy breathed a sigh of relief. She tore at the hem of the dress, feeling terrible for having to damage such a precious item. For all she knew, it had actually been worn by the grand duchess Anastasia herself. The mere thought of it made her hands shake.

  “Got it!” she whispered, feeling the smooth stone between her fingers. She placed it in her pocket, returned to the door, and listened for voices. It sounded as if they’d gone.

  “Dan?” she whispered, opening the closet door a tiny crack and peering into the room. The door burst open and Amy fell forward, landing hard on the floor and nearly crushing a toy playhouse filled with miniature figurines.

  “I knew it!” said the tour guide.

  Dan sprang into action, jumping on the stuffed sheepdog. “Ride ’em!” he called. Amy’s eyes bugged out. Her brother was always ready to humiliate himself for a cause.

  The tour guide marched toward Dan, his jaw clenched. Amy bolted for the exit, running as fast as she could. “C’mon, Dan!”

  She didn’t have to wait long.

  “Run!” Dan howled. “He’s right on my tail!”

  Amy and Dan shot down the staircase with the tour guide close behind.

  “Don’t stop, Amy! Just keep going!” said Dan. Tour guides were converging from three directions now, but Dan and Amy were just fast enough to reach the front door of the palace first. They dashed out into the bright light of the sunny Russian morning and kept right on going.

  “Do not come back!” yelled the tour guide they’d tricked. He stood fuming between his two coworkers. “Children! They will kill me!”

  Amy and Dan slowed to a walk and caught their breath. Before long, they were convulsed with laughter.

  “I found some candy in there,” said Amy. “Kept it for you.”

  She held out a round white mothball, but Dan wasn’t taking the bait.

  “You first!”

  Amy wound up and threw the mothball toward the pond. She’d driven a car for the first time, touched the clothes of a princess, and found their next lead — it was a great morning by anyone’s standards.


  Irina Spasky’s thumb hovered over the SEND button on her phone. She couldn’t seem to bring herself to make the call. She took a deep breath and put the phone back in the pocket of her thin black coat. The Kabras can wait, she thought, turning away from Alexander Palace. Irina began to walk, alone as usual, toward the pond at the other side of the palace grounds.

  She had watched Dan and Amy enter the palace, seen them run out toward that wreck of a car they’d purchased. They had been laughing. That bothered her. They were happy, these two. They would get into their tiny automobile and continue on until, eventually, they would lead Irina to trouble of the worst kind. A Lucian double agent. Perhaps a Madrigal.

  They’d found something in the palace, this much was obvious. They were in deeper trouble than they realized.

  It doesn’t have to end badly, she tried to convince herself. Another child flashed before her eyes, younger, blonder. Why do I remember him best as a toddler?

  She remembered little of the last days, and almost nothing about the funeral. Almost everything had faded away but the weather. She would never forget the low, oppressive clouds and soft snow as they lowered the casket into the ground. Since then, there had been too many days and nights alone, too much time to think, and far too much compromised. Lose a child, and you lose your soul.

  Irina took the phone in her hand again and this time she didn’t hesitate to press the button.

  “Finally,” snapped Ian Kabra. “Have we got anything to worry about?”

  “Yes,” said Irina. She’d arrived at the pond and stood staring into the algae-covered water. “Someone helps them. Someone high up in the Lucian branch. It must be.”

  “What makes you think so?” Ian asked.

  “They’ve just left Alexei’s Playroom. They must know about the Lucian connection to the Romanovs.”

  “Make sure they don’t find themselves in possession of sensitive material. You know what’s at stake. One step closer and you’ll have to remove them.”

  “I know.”

  Irina paused, but the temptation to goad was too strong.

  “It won’t be just me your father punishes,” she warned softly, and clicked off her phone.

  At least she wasn’t being asked to do anything too drastic to the children yet. She took a device out of her pocket and turned it on. A small screen came to life.

  “Where are you off to now, Dan and Amy Cahill?” she said.

  Irina had already placed the coordinates from the parking lot into the device. A distant satellite beamed images onto her screen, zooming in closer and closer until the top of a blue car came into view.

  “Not bad,” Irina said, pleased with the clever device the Lucians had only recently put into use in the field. The car was blurry and lacking detail on the screen, but the tiny blue top was unmistakable.

  This will be easier than I thought.

  Irina got in her own car, keeping the blue on-screen as she took chase. Two minutes later, the small car turned right.

  “Off the main road,” she mumbled, seeing Dan and Amy turn off the highway. “You two are full of surprises.”

  A few minutes later, Irina had unexpectedly caught up, finding herself on a one-lane dirt road. She no longer needed the satellite viewer because she was quickly overtaking the small car. She hadn’t intended to get so close to Amy and Dan, and she certainly didn’t want them spotting her. But the road was narrow, with plowed-over fields on both sides, and she had a big car. What was worse, the blue car had stopped and was turning around.

  This will be complicated, thought Irina as the little car zoomed closer. It was going way too fast, as if the driver was planning to slam right into her front grill. Irina threw her car into reverse and began backing down the dirt road.

  “Stop, you maniacs!” she screamed. Her car fish-tailed violently, caught the edge of a big rock, and spun out into the thick, tilled farmland.

  The blue car buzzed up to Irina and screeched to a halt. Its driver was a gray-bearded man whose smile revealed a missing front tooth.

  “Who gave you this car? Where did they go?” Irina screeched in Russian, rolling down her window.

  The man nodded with some enthusiasm, which made Irina wonder if he had understood her questions. She peered into the empty backseat.

  “Tell me, you idiot!” Irina screamed.

  The name-calling seemed to upset the driver and his smile evaporated. “Americans,” he began. “Gave me ten thousand rubles plus the car in exchange.”

  “Exchange for what?” yelled Irina.

  “My truck,” said the man.

  “What color was the truck? Which way did they go? Skazhi!”

  Irina should have known better than to hound an old Russian farmer. He was not amused by her angry tone, and he stared into the farmland as if he were made of iron.

  Irina reached into her pocket and pulled out a small revolver. Her eye was twitching furiously, but when she turned back to the car it widened in shock. The old farmer had slammed his foot down on the gas pedal, shooting a plume of dust and mud through her open window.

  Chunks of farm road flew into Irina’s face. She threw her car into gear and hit the gas, but the soft tilled earth she’d backed into gave way and her rear wheels dug in.

  She was stuck.

  Irina coughed and spit, trying to clear all the mud from her mouth. The gunk in her eyes and mouth wasn’t nearly as bad as the awful truth.

  I’ve lost them.

  “Do you think we’ve lost her for good?” asked Dan. It had been his idea to enlist
the help of the farmer walking along the dirt road. Dan’s backpack full of money was coming in handy in more ways than he could have imagined.

  “I have no idea, but I don’t think I can stay in here much longer. Tiny Tim’s trunk is like a mailbox and your feet stink.”

  “I hate to break the news, but it’s your feet that stink, not mine,” said Dan.

  Amy sniffed.

  “Actually, I think it’s the farmer. He needs a bath.”

  Tiny Tim slowed to a crawl and turned a hard right. A few seconds later it stopped and the trunk popped open.

  “You pay now?” asked the farmer.

  “We pay now,” answered Dan, crawling out of the trunk and peering around him. Amy came out next and ran for the driver’s seat before Dan could beat her to it. She caught his eye in the rearview mirror and stuck out her tongue.

  When Dan got in the car after paying the farmer, he made his broccoli face.

  “Next time, let’s get help from someone who hasn’t been walking around in cow manure all day,” said Amy. They rolled down the windows and Amy hit the gas as the old man wandered into the open farmland, counting his rubles.

  Amy was pushing Tiny Tim as fast as it would go, straight for the airport in St. Petersburg. She assumed they’d need to visit one of the two non-Siberian places left on their hunt: Moscow or Yekaterinburg.

  As the little car strained along, Dan juddered in his seat, holding the honey-colored stone Amy had discovered in Alexei’s closet. It was an oval, about two inches around and flat like a skipping rock.

  “No way this thing was missed all those years,” said Dan. “NRR had to put it there for us.”

  “I agree. I just wish what was inscribed made more sense. He’s not making it easy on us.”

  “No kidding.”

  Dan looked carefully at each of the elements on the stone and tried to piece them together. It was just the kind of thing he should be able to figure out.

  “A pile of bones, the number fifty-two, an arrow, and the letters M and S separated by a comma. Cryptic to say the least.”

  “Is the arrow pointing toward the M and the S or away from them?” asked Amy.

  “Away from them,” answered Dan. “And the bones, now that I get a better look at them, are cracked. These are broken bones.”

  Amy slammed on the brakes way too hard and Tiny Tim swerved along the shoulder of the road. Cars honked from behind and Dan came inches from smacking his head against the windshield.

  Drivers passed by, screaming abuse and honking their horns. Amy tried to catch her breath; the near accident had really shaken her up.

  “You almost sent me through the windshield!” Dan yelled.

  Then his eyes lit up and he turned to his sister. “My turn to drive?”

  Fifty yards up was a tree-lined side road that looked much more calm than the two-lane highway. Amy put Tiny Tim into low gear, crawled to the turn, and drove another hundred yards before swinging a U-turn and parking on the side of the road. She’d finally calmed down enough to talk.

  “S-s-sorry about that. Obviously, I’m not ready for prime time behind the wheel. We need to retire this thing before someone gets hurt. But here’s the good news — I know what the message means. Where’s the guidebook?”

  “Can I drive now?” Dan asked again.

  “Not a chance.”

  “Come on! Let me drive! Please!”

  Within the space of thirty seconds, Dan asked if he could drive nine more times before finally handing over the guidebook. Amy flipped to Siberia, to a picture she’d seen with a caption that had interested her.

  “Okay, check this out. A long time ago, back when they had labor camps in these Siberian outposts, they put a lot of the political prisoners to work on this one road. It was long. I mean really long, and it was a grueling job. Sometimes, when prisoners dropped dead on the job, they’d use their bones in the road itself.”

  “The Road of Bones,” said Dan. “That’s a little bit unpleasant even by my standards.”

  “And totally real. See?”

  Amy held out the picture, which showed men with shovels and spades standing in the middle of nowhere with a long white road sprawling out behind them.

  “Hamilton is going to love this. The Road of Bones! You can’t make that sort of thing up.”

  “The M and the S in the stone, that has to refer to Magadan, Siberia. It’s one of the three places we have left to go.”

  “And the arrow points away, toward the pile of bones. So if someone were to start in Magadan and drive, what, fifty-two miles down the Road of Bones, they might find something?”

  “Precisely,” said Amy.

  Dan held the stone in the light once more and looked at all the parts inscribed. It added up. Broken bones, the number fifty-two, the arrow pointing away from M, S.

  “We better call Hamilton,” said Dan.

  Amy dialed Nellie’s cell phone and hoped Hamilton would be standing by, not goofing off or having a big brawl with the Kabras. He answered on the first ring.

  “That you, Amy?” Hamilton answered. “I hope you have something for us to do. My dad is getting so bored he’s throwing rocks at the birds. He thinks we’re on a wild goose chase.”

  “Not even close!” said Amy. “And you’re doing a great job. We’ve got to get you to Magadan as fast as we can.”

  “Well, then, you’re in luck,” said Hamilton. “What do you mean?”

  “We had to clear out of Omsk. That place was un-Holt friendly in the extreme. So I figured what the heck, chances are I’m probably needed in Magadan next anyway. It was the only other place you gave me to go. We hopped a plane last night and we’re already here. The Kabras followed us, though. Those guys are like a wad of gum on your shoe. They keep getting a free ride.”

  “Hamilton! You’re a genius!” said Amy.

  “Finally someone noticed.”

  Amy put Hamilton on the speakerphone.

  “So where am I going? Give me the news,” Hamilton said.

  Dan did the honors, after which Hamilton just about blew a gasket.

  “No way! This thing is real? The Road of Bones? Sweet! Dan, you are SO jealous. Don’t even pretend like you’re not.”

  Dan was so frustrated he wanted to jump out of his underwear. He couldn’t drive Tiny Tim, he couldn’t go to the Road of Bones. He was being iced out!

  “Get to work, Hamilton,” said Amy. “We’ll be standing by for your next lead. And don’t take the Kabras lightly. They’re ruthless — they’ll do anything to stop you.”

  “The Hammer is on the job. I’ll be back in touch.” The line went dead.

  Dan stewed in the front seat while Amy tried to get up enough nerve to start Tiny Tim again. They were either going to Moscow or Yekaterinburg. Either way, they were getting very close to the end of the hunt, and not a minute too soon. The clock was down to eight hours and counting.

  Amy jumped as the phone vibrated in her hand. Number unknown.


  “Hi, Amy. It’s Ian. Been thinking about me?” Ian with the silky voice that sent chills down her spine.

  “What do you want? Wait — how did you get this number?”

  “I’m worried about you. You’re in way over your head, love. You should be careful who you trust.”

  “I can check you and your sister off my list! And don’t call me love!”

  “Look, Amy, I’ve been trying to play nice. You and Dan are fun to chase, but there’s something you should know.”

  “What’s that?” said Amy. She covered the mouthpiece and told Dan who it was. Dan stuck his finger down his throat and started fake puking.

  “You’re hopelessly behind,” said Ian. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but lots of clues have already been found, including the one you’re looking for.”

  “You’re lying!” said Amy. “You don’t even know where we’re going. Yeah, I know all about it. You’re stuck out in Siberia somewhere. Well, here’s a little surprise
for you, Ian. You’re three thousand miles from where you need to be.”

  There was a slight pause on the line, then a classic Kabra laugh, sly and almost imperceptible.

  “Oh, Amy. If only you knew the truth. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

  The phone clicked off, and Amy started up Tiny Tim. She was so angry she jammed on the gas and spun the tires, her fear of driving a distant memory.

  “He’s lying. They don’t have any more clues than we do, right, Dan?”

  But Dan wouldn’t meet her eyes. For the rest of the drive they were both completely silent.


  “This way,” whispered Reagan Holt, “stay low or they’ll see us coming.”

  Against all his natural tendencies, Eisenhower Holt crept along as quietly as a mouse. His huge frame was much more suited to tackling someone from behind and beating the tar out of him.

  “Do you see anyone?” he asked.

  “No. I think they went this way.”

  Reagan was peering around the corner of an aqua concrete building that hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in fifty years. She and her father were tracking two people down a potholed street lined with decaying buildings.

  “Where did they go?” boomed Eisenhower Holt. “They’re like cats, those two!”

  “Dad, will you please keep it down? Don’t you know the meaning of the word whisper?”

  Eisenhower Holt was about to retort when he and Reagan were jumped from behind. The bigger of the two attackers landed on Eisenhower’s back, put an arm around his neck, and wouldn’t let go. Reagan and a smaller assailant rolled around in the dirt while Eisenhower spun in a great circle, his captor’s legs swinging in the air behind him.

  “Sneak attack! I told you to zip it!” yelled Reagan. She was in a serious fight, punching and kicking from below a girl her exact same size.

  “I’ll save you!” said Eisenhower.

  “Too late,” said the person on his back. “I got it!”

  “And that’s the game!” said Mary-Todd, throwing her hands up as she appeared from out of nowhere. “This round goes to Hamilton and Madison. Nice job on the switchback.”

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