The Black Circle, p.10Patrick Carman
“Does he always talk this way?” NRR asked Amy, clearly amused.
“He does. It’s a problem.”
“He’ll grow out of it.”
Dan’s head swiveled back and forth. They had formed some sort of girl alliance! “I’m sitting right here! Stop talking about me,” said Dan.
NRR made a calming motion with her hands, glanced at her watch, and gave Dan and Amy a look that said time was running very short.
“You’re a grand duchess, like your mom,” said Amy. “Grand Duchess Nataliya.”
Dan frowned. Amy looked like she was about to bow or something.
“I’m afraid those days are long gone, Amy. We’re not like the British, with their kings and queens. The age of royalty has passed in Russia. But what I do today honors my mother’s memory.”
“How?” Dan asked. “You want to help us find this secret because …?” He wasn’t about to be taken in by this woman just because she was pretty and had an awesome accent. Had James Bond taught him nothing?
“What I tell you now must never leave this room. My life and the lives of others would be compromised. You understand?”
Dan and Amy nodded.
“My mother, my grandmother — all of them were Lucians. I, too, am a Lucian. But like so many who are born into one branch or another, most of my family was never actively involved in … what is Grace calling it? The clue hunt. In fact, for a very long time, my mother was unaware of her Lucian heritage at all. Then came my father, who my mother met much later in life. He was one of the most powerful Lucians of the past fifty years. Before the Kabras, it was my father in charge. It’s why I hold such a sensitive position, why we got involved to begin with. So you see, I am a Lucian, a very powerful one at that. But I am first and foremost myself.”
Nataliya brushed a dark strand of hair away from her face. She was so elegant and poised, but she had inherited that mischievous Anastasia flair Amy had talked so much about.
“Why are you helping us?” Dan persisted. He still didn’t understand what Nataliya’s story had to do with them. Why would an heir to the Romanov throne care about two kids?
Nataliya looked at her gold watch again, then tapped her desk phone.
“Irina has requested backup. Prepare the Shark for departure in fifteen minutes.”
Nataliya turned her gaze to Amy. “I sent you on this chase for many reasons,” said Nataliya. “The first was to distract my Lucian counterparts, to confuse them. The Kabras are thousands of miles away in Siberia, and Irina has been frustrated at every turn. Mission accomplished. The second reason was to discover what you are made of. You’ve been tested all along, no? You knew right away that it would take more than yourselves to find the room. I would never have guessed that anyone could bring the Holts under control, but you did it. It is imperative that you learn to work with others to achieve a greater good.”
“Okay, so we passed this test and outsmarted the Lucians,” said Amy. “I still don’t see why you’re helping us.”
“Or if you’re helping us at all,” Dan muttered. Nothing Nataliya had said so far led him to believe their dangerous hunt all over Russia would even lead to a Clue.
“I will guide you to what you are looking for,” said Nataliya. “Both in this ridiculous contest and beyond.” She gave them a meaningful look.
Dan’s throat tightened. “You’re talking about our parents, aren’t you?”
Nataliya tapped an index finger on the desk. She was extremely quiet. It was as if ninety-nine percent of her body had turned to stone, leaving just the finger. Tap, tap, tap.
Finally, after Dan had popped every knuckle on both hands, Nataliya spoke. “Certain information, when you find it, changes you forever. You wish you could go back, but you can’t. And still we go searching after secrets. I never wanted any part of this madness about clues, and yet here we all are.” She paused. “The Amber Room is hidden in a vault of Lucian secrets. There you will find the Lucian clue and also information about your parents.”
Nataliya shook her head. “Grace was very fond of pulling strings, even from the grave. I counsel you to walk away from all this. But if you will not, I will help you. I warn you, you might not thank me for it later.”
Nataliya looked at Amy, then turned her mesmerizing eyes to Dan. “I help you because it is what Anastasia Romanova would have wanted. I help you because it is right. But I cannot say if you will like what you find.”
Amy was openly crying, and Dan could feel his own eyes fill with tears. It was too much, help that was not help, an ally that fed them riddles and unsavory hints about their parents and Grace. Dan could feel the earth shifting beneath his feet. Again. There was no safe place for them, no one to trust. And no home to go back to.
He looked at Amy and they both nodded.
“We want to go to the Amber Room,” said Amy.
Nataliya tipped her head to them and stood up, taking the long white coat in her hand.
“We must hurry, then,” she said. “It won’t be easy if Irina arrives before you.”
Nataliya slid open a desk drawer and removed a small tin canister. Opening it, she took out two small keys and placed them in a pocket of her white coat.
“Do you know where my ancestors were massacred?”
“Yekaterinburg,” Amy said. “In a house there.”
“Where the Church on the Blood now stands. A terrible name, but sadly appropriate. The church was built much later, but underneath … it was there, in the basement, where all of them were shot. Only my mother survived.”
“And you’re taking us there in this thing called the Shark?” asked Dan, brightening for the first time.
Nataliya went to the door. She opened it and peered down the long, dark hallway.
“The Shark is the quickest way. Now we go.”
Dan and Amy followed Nataliya into the hallway. They arrived at an elevator and boarded. Dan had imagined some sort of high-speed watercraft, so he was surprised when the elevator went up instead of down. It opened on the roof of the State Kremlin Palace.
“Here we are,” said Nataliya.
“That’s the Shark?” asked Amy, but Dan was already running toward it.
“It is the fastest helicopter in Russia. She will do three hundred.”
The Shark was twice the size of a normal copter, completely black, with a rudder that looked like a shark fin.
“No way!” said Dan. “Three hundred miles per hour? That’s, like, a world record!”
“Many world records such as these have long been broken.” Nataliya smiled. “We Lucians keep the best toys for ourselves.”
Dan ran a circle around the Shark and tried to pry open one of the doors.
“He’s excitable, isn’t he?” asked Nataliya.
“You don’t know the half of it,” said Amy.
Nataliya put her arm around Amy and drew her close. “You show great promise. Grace would have been proud of you.”
Amy gave her a watery smile.
“Now you must go,” Nataliya said.
“What? I don’t understand,” said Amy. “Aren’t you coming with us?”
“But … why n-n-not? And how are we supposed to fly this thing? We’re not pilots!”
“I will fly you by remote control. I’ll get you there safely. But I can’t go with you.”
“No way!” yelled Dan, bounding over next to them. “It’s like the best video game ever!”
“I don’t understand!” Amy protested.
“If I could, I might hunt the clues myself. But you read about my uncle. You know the struggles he faced.”
Amy nodded. Alexei Romanov had been a hemophiliac. The slightest cut would leave him bleeding for weeks.
“I suffer the same fate,” said Nataliya. She put her hand in the white pocket and Dan imagined a red stain of blood appearing on Nataliya’s snowy jacket.
“A skinned knee or elbow, a bloody nose or a simple cut — if I start bleeding, it does
“I’ll be in constant communication,” said Nataliya. She smiled. “Put on the headphones and get ready for the ride of your life.”
It was time to head into the Lucian black circle.
Riding in the Shark made Amy scream with terror. Dan, she assumed, was screaming with joy.
“Wait until Hamilton hears about this! It’s untoppable!”
The Shark was stunningly loud at top speed, and Nataliya was pushing it as fast as it would go from her location beneath the Kremlin.
“I love flying the Shark,” Amy heard Nataliya say into her headset.
“But you’re not really flying it,” yelled Amy, trying to be heard over the sound of the blades. It was a scary sensation, flying in a helicopter without a pilot.
“You don’t have to yell, I can hear you perfectly,” said Nataliya. “From where I’m sitting I might as well be flying the Shark. My control room for the Shark is quite amazing. It’s a replica down to the leather on the seats, with wraparound monitors on every side. Front, back, bottom, top — it looks and feels as if I’m really flying the Shark. The only thing missing is the wind and the noise.”
“You’re lucky,” said Amy. “It’s rough up here, and loud, and s-s-scary.”
“No need to be the slightest bit afraid, Amy. The Shark knows I am its boss.”
“What’s up, sis?” screamed Dan, bouncing up and down in his seat. “No throwing up in the Shark or we throw you overboard!”
“Close your eyes,” said Nataliya. Amy obeyed and tried to calm down while Nataliya spoke softly to her.
“I rarely leave the Lucian surveillance center. It’s like being trapped underground, but flying the Shark feels like I’ve escaped my cage. I’ve never been to where you’ll be going tonight. I’ve only heard about it. You’re going to the place where my ancestors were gunned down in the upheaval of history. What you find there, I fear, will not be pretty.”
Nataliya fell silent, letting the words sink in as Amy tried to keep from getting sick.
“I read all about the Amber Room,” said Amy. “Can you believe it’s been hidden here in Russia all along? There are a lot of people searching for it.”
“We Lucians are good at hiding things. And now we’ve put a black circle around the Church on the Blood.”’
“What’s a black circle?”
“It means no Lucians except those given direct permission expressly from Vikram Kabra are allowed to enter.”
“How will we know what to look for?” asked Amy.
“There is but one clock inside the room. Set the time for midnight, then one, then midnight again. The face of the clock will open.”
“I can remember that.”
“You’re a smart girl. I’m sure you can.”
The rest of the trip passed in silence as everyone watched the sun setting in the western sky. The closer it came to the horizon, the faster Nataliya pushed the Shark toward the Church on the Blood. The noise in the cockpit became almost deafening as the great helicopter struggled to maintain speeds approaching three hundred miles per hour.
The church was located on a small hill of grass in an otherwise sleepy section of town. At this hour, there were few people walking and even fewer cars to contend with. Nataliya announced that given the lateness of their arrival, she would land them directly in front of the church itself. It would be quite a spectacle, but at least there wouldn’t be very many people to see it.
“We may be too late,” Nataliya said into her microphone. “There’s a door in the floor between your feet. You and your brother, get in there and hide. Quickly!”
They were over the church now, descending toward the empty parking lot as the darkness approached.
“You’ll need to enter the church through the door at the back using the gold key. Once inside, look for the trail of amber on the floor. The orange key will reveal a set of seven dials. Set them all to amber, with alternating diamonds and hearts. This will open the last door and you’ll be inside. Don’t be alarmed by what you see. As I have been told, you must first pass through the tomb. Beyond the tomb you’ll find the Amber Room.”
Dan and Amy didn’t comment on what had just been said. There was only one tomb Nataliya could be referring to, the resting place of the six executed Romanovs. Amy’s guidebook said they had been moved to the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. But the Lucians were powerful, especially in Russia. They must have decided to honor their dead more privately.
“Do you see Irina anywhere?” asked Dan.
“The monitors don’t show anything,” said Nataliya. “But that doesn’t mean she isn’t here. Irina isn’t the type to stand in plain view.”
“We’re getting inside the hatch,” yelled Dan.
“You’ll find a flashlight you can use,” said Nataliya. “But don’t turn it on until you’re under the church or someone might see you. There’s a monitor down there. Turn it on and you’ll see the parking lot. Keep an eye out for a moment when you can escape. Good luck!”
Nothing more could be heard above the noise of the massive black propeller as the Shark came down.
Night had arrived at the Church on the Blood.
“Set a perimeter at a quarter of a mile, Braslov,” Nataliya said. She had called Braslov, a surveillance technician who worked three doors down from her own, in the Lucian headquarters. “I’ve come in a little fast and landed in the parking lot of the church.”
“So I noticed,” Braslov answered. “I already made the calls.”
Nataliya was so immersed in the images of the Church on the Blood she couldn’t help feeling like she was sitting in the Shark instead of the safety of a Lucian stronghold.
“Irina saw you and contacted me a few minutes ago,” Braslov continued. “The area will be secured.”
“Thank you, Braslov.”
“You’re in the hottest Lucian spot on earth. Don’t get burned.”
The lights of an approaching police car came into view even before Braslov was through warning Nataliya. A second car followed. The Lucians controlled every level of security in Russia. The agents were fond of sitting around a big table at the Lucian headquarters, coming up with reasons for keeping people out of sensitive areas. The most effective tended to be hazardous spill alerts, which kept people out of designated areas and were often used in black circle situations. They’d been even more careful than usual with the Church on the Blood, which they had just designated a radioactive zone. The police cars were a backup, just in case anyone was curious enough to take a closer look at a giant helicopter.
Nataliya panned her cameras around the lot and saw the dark figure of Irina emerge from a stand of trees. She walked with a stiff confidence, hands in her coat pockets, a woman in charge of her surroundings. A moment later, Irina was standing at the cockpit door, staring into the dark interior of the Shark.
“You couldn’t land somewhere a little less conspicuous?” asked Irina. “This kind of event makes problems for us.”
Anyone else would have thought Irina was talking to herself, but Nataliya heard the message loud and clear.
“I apologize, Irina. But I thought it was necessary to get here as quickly as possible. I’ve never pushed the Shark quite so hard.”
“She is a lovely beast, no? I look forward to flying her again.”
Nataliya watched as Irina peered into the Shark, then back at the church.
“Why so focused on two American brats?” asked Nataliya. “They seem hardly a threat. I’ve been tracking them from the start, just like all the other teams, and I don’t see anything special. They’re hopelessly behind.”
“Don’t underestimate them,” said Irina. “They’ve outsmarted me before.”
Irina turned back toward the Shark.
“Let me have a look inside. I haven’t taken her for a ride in months.”
“Keep an eye out with all those cameras of yours, won’t you?” said Irina.
Nataliya switched to the inside camera and watched as Irina studied the inside of the Shark for anything suspicious. Everything appeared to be in order, so she moved to the back and examined the seats. Still nothing.
“I hope I didn’t break something,” said Nataliya. “I pushed the Shark getting here so fast.”
Without warning, Irina disappeared from view. Nataliya swung the inside camera from side to side, then down to the floor, where she saw Irina lifting the trapdoor. Nataliya’s heart thrummed like a hummingbird. It’s over! We’re caught!
But nothing happened. Irina dropped the trapdoor and stepped out of the Shark without a word.
“I’m going inside. You keep a watch out here.”
Nataliya breathed a short-lived sigh of relief. At least Dan and Amy hadn’t been discovered. She could only assume they’d used what little time they’d had to escape into the church unseen. But they were anything but safe.
Irina Spasky was about to join them in the Church on the Blood.
Dan was rubbing a sore shoulder as they stumbled through the interior of the church.
“Still hurts, huh?” whispered Amy.
“Falling out of a helicopter and being crushed by your big sister will do that to a guy. I’m just glad I didn’t land on my head.”
“That makes two of us. Next time, think twice before pressing the red button.”
“It got us out of there!” Dan protested.
Two seconds after the trapdoor in the Shark had shut, Dan had pressed a glowing red button that dropped the floor out, sending them both tumbling out onto the pavement before Irina got close enough to see them.
“Let’s just find the Amber Room and get out of here as fast as we can,” said Amy. “We don’t want to come face-to-face with Irina again.”
The Black Circle by Patrick Carman / Mystery & Detective / Actions & Adventure / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes