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The black circle, p.11
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       The Black Circle, p.11

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “Do you see anything that looks like amber?” asked Dan. There were small lights here and there, and all the colors inside the church seemed to melt into the white marble floor.

  “Let’s try up there,” said Amy. She started walking down the middle aisle that separated the pews. It was eerie being in a church at night, especially one with a tomb underneath it, and Amy shuddered at the thought of what might jump out from the shadows. Dan thought the pews looked like rows of black teeth.

  The floor was worn and grooved at the front of the church. Looking down, Dan was the first to see what they’d been looking for.

  “Amber squares.”

  Burnt-orange tiles were beginning to appear every few feet between the marble.

  “It looks like a trail of blood,” said Dan.

  They followed the amber tiles around the altar and down a flight of stone steps. A cold wisp of air brushed Dan’s cheek as he opened the door at the bottom of the stairs and peered down a darkened passageway.

  The underground hallway led twenty feet in one direction and then turned into the shadows. They walked, careful not to make any noise, until they stood at the cross of a T. The walls turned to concrete slab, and Dan had the distinct feeling they were about to enter the restricted area.

  “I think we should go that way,” said Amy, pointing to the left. At the end of a long hallway, a murky bulb shed light on an orange door bolted to the concrete wall with thick iron hinges. It looked like it belonged in a bank, not a church.

  “Why am I so n-n-nervous?” said Amy. The orange key was shaking in her hand.

  “I don’t know, maybe because we’re about to enter a tomb at night in a place called the Church on the Blood?”

  “You’re n-n-not helping,” said Amy.

  “Give me the key. I’ll open it.”

  Dan inserted it into a keyhole to the left of the vault door and turned his hand. A panel slid open and revealed a set of dials. The four symbols from a deck of cards appeared randomly, and Dan quickly turned the dials to diamonds and hearts. The door clicked open.

  “Here we go,” said Amy, taking a deep breath as Dan pulled the heavy door forward just enough for them to sneak through. The air was cool and dank, as if they were walking on packed earth.

  It was dark down there and Dan couldn’t feel a light switch on the wall. He flicked on their one flashlight.

  “Should we close the door behind us?” asked Amy.

  “Better not. What if we get locked in? I don’t want them discovering our bones in ten years.” Dan’s thoughts flashed back to the cave in Korea.

  Cobwebs hung from a low-slung ceiling as they made their way down wide steps. When they reached the bottom, Amy lost it.

  “Dan, I d-d-don’t think I’m — I’m — I’m …”

  Dan grabbed his sister’s hand and pointed the light into the tomb, shooting the beam into every dark corner. It was a big space, and it was filled with dusty old coffins. On the far wall, in the deepest corner of the tomb, sat one final door.

  “This place is awful,” said Amy. “People were gunned down in here, killed in cold blood.”

  She instinctively leaned toward the door they had entered, but Dan wouldn’t budge.

  “Amy, we’re right here. What if it leads to something about Mom and Dad? Just hold my hand and close your eyes if you have to. I’ll get us there. Trust me.”

  Dan cracked a crooked smile, but his eyes were as nervous as Amy’s.

  “C’mon, Amy. A history paper is scary, but this?”

  For once, Amy let her brother lead and followed his instructions without argument. She closed her eyes, shuffling past six coffins filled with brittle bones. Dan kept the flashlight beam focused on the door until he’d managed to crisscross his way around a maze of the dead.

  “Hold the light,” said Dan. He didn’t want to let go of her hand, but he needed to turn the knob on the door. Amy reached out her hand and felt for the flashlight, keeping her eyes sealed tight.

  “Don’t open your eyes yet,” said Dan. But Amy didn’t listen. She peeked and saw that Dan had opened the lid to one of the coffins.

  “Are you crazy! Close that thing right now!”

  “Calm down. Nothing but bones in there.” Dan set the coffin lid down and reached for the final door.

  “You can turn that off now,” said Dan. “We won’t be needing a flashlight in here.”

  Dan slowly stepped inside and found himself surrounded by soft golden light. He closed the door behind him and Amy clicked off the flashlight. It was impossible to say where the light inside the room came from, but it seemed as if its source was everywhere, like a thousand candles were hidden in the walls.

  “The Amber Room,” Amy marveled. “We made it, Dan. We’re in!”

  The ceiling had opened up above them and rose twenty feet in the air. Every part of the room was the deep color of burnt honey shot through with dazzling light.

  “Where’s the light coming from?” asked Dan. “I can’t figure it out.”

  Amy had moved to one of the walls, touching its intricate designs. Panel after panel of glowing orange framed delicately carved amber. The superb craftsmanship must have taken years to achieve. It was like the pyramids in Egypt or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Yet Dan and Amy stood within the golden light of its walls.

  “Here it is,” said Amy. She’d found a table made entirely of amber, upon which sat an outrageously ornate golden clock. Dan crossed through the center of the room, past a massive sculpture of a man on a horse high on a pedestal and a bank of ominous black file cabinets.

  They were standing in a room almost no one had seen since before the Second World War. They’d been pushed and pulled all over Russia, but they’d prevailed. As far as the outside world was concerned, this was a priceless treasure that had long been lost forever. Dan’s heart welled with pride as he looked at Amy.

  “We need to turn the clock dial to midnight,” said Amy. “Then one, then midnight again.”

  Dan crept a little closer to the clock and felt around for a dial that would allow him to change the time.

  “Got it,” he said, spinning the dial until the clock read midnight.

  “Now forward to one o’clock,” said Amy.

  Dan dialed it forward, then back again to midnight, and the face of the clock came open on a single gold hinge.

  Inside, Dan found a bead of amber, inscribed with the words 1 gram melted amber.

  “The clue’s been right under our noses the entire time,” said Amy, marveling at the bead in her hand.

  “I hate it when that happens,” said Dan. But he smiled at his sister. They now had five Clues and were five steps closer to claiming what Grace had called the Cahill destiny. But the Clue was not all they had come for.

  Dan and Amy turned to the row of flat black file cabinets, an ominous absence of color against the softly glowing amber.

  “What do we look for?” Dan asked. “Cahill? Trent? Hope and Arthur?”

  “All of them. You start on that side, and I’ll take the other. And hurry.”

  Dan opened the first drawer and rapidly flicked through the thick manila files. Angola Mission. Arkangelsk. Assassinations. The neatly printed labels concealed a wealth of dirty Lucian secrets.

  “Dan!” called Amy, and he looked up to see Amy holding out a slim file, her face set and scared.

  “Mom and Dad?” he asked.

  “No,” she whispered. “Madrigals.”

  Amy opened the file and reached for the loose papers inside. She riffled through a series of short notes handwritten in Russian. On the back, the letters had been translated into English with a ballpoint pen.

  She read the first aloud:

  “Dan, this is really strange,” said Amy. “I read about these two. Constantine gave up his right to the throne and let his brother Nicholas become Tsar of Russia. But this seems to indicate he did it for a purpose, so he could bring together all the clues.”

  “Does this mean
the Lucians have all the clues?” Dan’s face was pinched with anxiety. “Read the next one.”

  Amy set the yellowed page aside and read the words on the next piece of paper:

  “What if they really do have all the others?” asked Dan. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what was on the last slip of paper. If the Lucians really had won already, then everything he and Amy were doing was for nothing. They’d already lost.

  “Oh, no,” said Amy. She was scanning the last note.

  “They have it, don’t they? The Lucians have already finished us off.”

  Amy looked at her brother and then in a trembling voice read the last note:

  A heavy silence fell over the room.

  “The Madrigals are more powerful than the Lucians! They maybe even had the royal family murdered!”

  Amy nodded, then whispered what was on both of their minds. “And the man in black is a Madrigal.”

  “Let’s get out of here,” said Dan.

  “Wait!” said Amy. “There might be something about Mom and Dad!” The kids rushed back to the files, riffling frantically until Dan found it, a thin manila folder labeled simply CAHILL, HOPE AND TRENT, ARTHUR. His heart thumped against his rib cage.

  Amy looked over. “Dan! What is it?”

  With trembling fingers, they opened the file together. Inside were two Australian passports stamped CONFISCATED. Amy opened one.

  “It can’t be,” said Dan, leaning in for a closer look.

  Amy opened the second. “It’s them,” she said, looking at the two pictures. The names were fake, but the faces were unbearably familiar.

  “Mom and Dad,” said Dan. “They were here.”

  Amy flipped through the passport pages, crammed full with stamps from different countries. Egypt. South Africa. Nepal. Japan. Indonesia. France.

  “They were searching for clues, just like us.”

  “Only they never finished,” said Dan.

  Dan’s whole world narrowed to the two faces staring up at him. His mom and his dad, young and hopeful, taking on the world just as he and his sister were doing now. And failing.

  Tears poured down Amy’s cheeks. “It’s like they’ve come back to help us. Almost like they’re watching over us.”

  “They’re not the only ones watching you.”

  Irina Spasky entered through the vault door.

  “What have you done?”

  Irina’s voice betrayed none of the horror she felt. How could the children have been so stupid? Of all the places in the world they could have tried to break into, a Lucian black circle was the most dangerous. There was only the slimmest chance….

  She advanced on them quickly, crossing the room like a black cat until she had them cornered.

  “Tell me what you have found. Quickly!”

  “Nothing yet. We’re still looking,” said Dan. It was a pathetic attempt. Irina could see he held a hand behind his back and was trying to stuff something in his back pocket.

  Irina surveyed the room, careful to keep them cornered.

  “I see you’ve taken something out of its folder,” she said, spotting the yellowed paper on the floor. “And you’ve opened the face of the clock. Clever. Too clever! Someone has helped you. Tell me who!”

  “We didn’t find anything important,” said Amy. “Just some old papers.”

  “Give them to me at once! Your lives are in danger!”

  Irina glanced toward the door. There are minutes at best, she thought.

  But she was wrong.

  “We’ll take it from here.”

  Irina whirled around. Two men, both with veils of black over their faces, blocked the entrance to the Amber Room. In unison, they pulled back the folds of their gray jackets, revealing the Lucian crest set in a black circle.

  “We are authorized by Mr. Kabra,” one of them growled, holding his position at the door. “What is your clearance?”

  “I created the black circle,” Irina spat out. “I have the highest clearance.”

  The men looked at each other, sizing up the situation. Irina Spasky stared back at them, knowing what their presence meant. She had no choice now. She would have to kill the Cahill children, or these men would do it for her and kill her as well.

  “I was about to clean up this situation,” said Irina. “Cover the door.”

  The two agents retreated into the shadows, but Irina could feel their dark presence.

  She hadn’t thought it would come to this. Two more minutes and I could have dealt with them, taken the secrets, and gotten them safely out. She moved in closer, reaching behind her for the dagger concealed at her back.

  The girl seemed to sense the coldness that was coming. She pressed herself in front of her brother, protectively. “We’ll give you what you want,” said Amy. “Just let us go. Please.”

  “It’s too late,” said Irina. “I tried.”

  When you lose a child, you lose your soul.

  The dagger felt like ice in her hand.

  There was a sharp crack from behind her. Irina turned to see shadows struggling on the wall of the darkened tomb.

  “Behind you!” cried Irina.

  One of the agents screamed. Irina felt a flame of wild hope and barked out to Amy and Dan, “Stay where you are!”

  She crouched like a cat and burst through the doorway. Voices and shadows bounced off the wall, echoing in her brain. At first she wasn’t sure, but then …

  “You?” she gasped, her eyes latched on the wiry figure of a man dressed all in black, lunging for the Lucian agents with the blunt end of a metal pole.

  Dan and Amy didn’t waste any time. The second Irina entered the darkness beyond the door they followed, creeping into the tomb behind her. There was slashing and yelling and the sound of someone hitting the ground, and Dan’s and Amy’s shocked eyes made out the outline of a man in black locked in struggle with Irina Spasky.

  Dan crept low along the first coffin, raised its lid as quietly as he could, and slid inside. Amy hesitated, but Dan took hold of her hand and wouldn’t let go. She climbed in and Dan pulled the lid of the coffin shut. They listened as combatants crashed against walls and howled in pain, one of them falling against the very coffin in which they hid.

  “They’ve escaped!” cried one of the Lucian agents.

  “We have?” whispered Dan.

  “I see them!”

  The gravelly voice was one they hadn’t heard before; it was followed by the sound of someone running from the tomb and back into the church.

  “That had to be the man in black,” whispered Amy. “Is he helping us?”

  “No way,” whispered Dan. He paused until it was silent, then he lifted the coffin lid ever so slightly and peered out into the darkness.

  Everyone was gone.

  Dan carefully lowered the lid and he and Amy waited, quiet as mice, in a coffin filled with the bones of the royal dead.

  CHAPTER 16

  Two hours later, Dan and Amy received a call on Nellie’s phone in the coffin. The phone vibrated in Amy’s pocket, shocking her out of her half slumber. Dan had fallen asleep, unmoved by the glowing green light as Amy held the phone to her eyes.

  Unidentified caller. Perfect.

  She decided to risk a whisper.

  “Hello?”

  The line was barely working underground, and Amy strained to hear the scarcely discernible, staticfilled voice on the other end. All Amy could make out was the word safe, which she took to mean the coast was clear. It was a female voice, so it was probably Nataliya. Or Irina trying to smoke us out. She pushed the thought aside.

  Amy nudged Dan hard enough to wake him and he grumbled, trying to nestle in. The bones beneath them sounded hollow and dry.

  “I just got a call. Someone said it’s safe.”

  “You don’t have to tell me twice,” said Dan, pushing up on the coffin lid without another word of encouragement.

  They both peered into the darkness. The doors had been closed. There was no light at all.

/>   “Here goes,” said Amy.

  She turned on the flashlight and they were blinded by the harsh light of the beam. Amy sent the light dancing from wall to wall, coffin to coffin, until it rested on the door that would lead them out of the tomb and into the church upstairs.

  They got out as quietly as they could, though to Amy’s horror, she heard the sound of bones breaking under her weight.

  “Probably just ribs,” said Dan. “It’s not like he’s using them for anything. Who called?”

  “I’m not sure. I think it was Nataliya.”

  They arrived at the exit. The card deck symbols did not appear from the tomb side of the door. It simply opened, and they were free.

  The next morning, ensconced in a Yekaterinburg hotel with Nellie on her way, Dan made a phone call.

  “You’re not driving a monster truck, are you?” Dan asked Hamilton Holt.

  “Not yet, but the day is young.”

  “Got your clue. Are you ready?”

  “I’ve been ready for two days. Lay it on me.”

  “One gram melted amber.”

  “Dude, that’s gross. Who’s Amber?”

  Dan laughed. He could imagine Hamilton Holt grinning on the other side of the line.

  Eisenhower grabbed the phone and yelled into it.

  “Don’t think this means anything. We’re done partnering! Siberia and back was a raw deal and you know it. You used us!”

  “Okay, Mr. Holt, whatever you say. Game on.”

  “Game on!” Amy agreed.

  The Hunt Is On

  The race for the 39 Clues continues with more dangerous missions, top secret break-ins, and treacherous double-crossings. Stay one step ahead of the competition by following Amy and Dan’s next adventure.

  Turn the page for a sneak peek! (Just make sure none of your enemies are watching …)

  CHAPTER 1

  The sound of rushing water filled Amy Cahill’s ears. If she kept her eyes closed, she could imagine she was standing under a beautiful tropical waterfall. Unfortunately, she was hiding in an airport bathroom.

 
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