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The black circle, p.2
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       The Black Circle, p.2

           Patrick Carman
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  “It looks like someone spent a lot of time misspelling words,” said Dan. Something about the way the letters were grouped looked oddly familiar to Dan, but he couldn’t pinpoint what. Especially with his stomach grumbling.

  “Is there any food in that locker? I have got to get something to eat. Brain … needs … candy.”

  Amy ignored her brother and reached one last time into the small space. At the very back of the locker there was a ten-inch-square box.

  “I hope it’s full of Rice Krispies Treats,” said Dan, yanking the box out of Amy’s hands.

  “Hey! Be careful with that.”

  Dan looked like he wanted to give Amy a wedgie, but she was quick to calm him down.

  “Sorry, okay? I’m just nervous. Open it up.”

  Dan removed the lid, riffled through the contents, and then busted out laughing.

  “Check me out! I’m a nineteen-year-old beatnik from San Francisco!”

  Dan held out the first of two passports, expertly forged with Dan’s name. The photo showed Dan with a goatee and mustache, along with John Lennon glasses.

  “Let me see the other one,” Amy said. Dan flipped open the second passport and nearly fell over.

  “You really need to fire whoever’s cutting your hair.”

  Amy grabbed the passport from Dan. In it, she was wearing a short black wig and stylish red-rimmed glasses.

  “I’m twenty!”

  Dan had already pulled out each of the parts to make his disguise and begun putting them on, setting Amy’s wig and glasses aside as he went.

  At the bottom of the box, under the wig, Amy spied an inch-thick paperback. Dan knew it was love at first sight.

  “A Russian guidebook! And it’s well worn, like someone already used it on a long trip,” Amy exclaimed.

  “Looks like dullsville to me.”

  “What if it’s another guidebook Grace used?”

  Dan knew better than to get his hopes up.

  “Still dullsville.”

  But Amy was instantly captivated. It was her favorite kind of book: weathered so she didn’t need to take special care of it, with a story of its own because it had been in the possession of who knew how many travelers before her. As she flipped through, she came upon two tickets tucked between the pages about a certain city.

  “Two airline tickets for Volgograd, Russia, with our names on them,” she said. Amy looked at her watch. “Leaving in one hour. Why would anyone think we’re stupid enough just to hop on a plane to Russia?”

  “Check this out!” said Dan. There was one more thing at the bottom of the box, and as far as Dan was concerned, it was the best item of all.

  He held up a shiny new Visa gold card with his name on it.

  “Peace, love, and a Visa card! YES! It’s GOLD! Let’s go get some doughnuts! Let’s go get some video games! Let’s go get some computers!”

  “Calm down, Dan! You’re scaring me.”

  Amy put on her dark wig and tucked in her natural reddish-brown hair. She stuck out her tongue. With the red glasses on, she was virtually unrecognizable.

  “You look weird,” said Dan.

  “Speak for yourself.” Amy laughed. “You’ve achieved total dweebdom in that getup.”

  “Thank you.”

  Dan had the piece of parchment in his hand and turned it over. His heart flipped. He looked up, no longer goofy and excited.

  “Amy …”

  “Dan? What is it?”

  Amy reached for the parchment, but Dan instinctively pulled it close. This was a treasure he never intended to let go. He looked at his sister.

  “We have to catch that plane.”

  CHAPTER 3

  When Amy Cahill dreamed of traveling the world, she’d never pictured herself sitting next to a pint-sized John Lennon.

  “I don’t think we’re going to find doughnuts in Russia,” she muttered, staring at her brother’s goofy round glasses.

  “Not to worry! We’re covered,” Dan answered. He was staring into a bottomless pit of snacks. Their backpack was loaded down with candy bars and bags of chips, purchased by Dan with help from his new best friend, the Visa gold card. Dan opened a bag of Doritos and leaned back in his seat.

  Amy was more focused on what they should be doing than stuffing her face with junk food. She’d finally convinced Dan to let her hold the parchment so he wouldn’t cover it in Doritos dust, but staring at it only heightened her concern. The telegram they’d gotten that morning was from someone who called himself NRR, which meant nothing to Amy or Dan. Worse was the fact that Nellie’s phone was dead, so they couldn’t reach her.

  “Do you think we can trust NRR? I mean, we’re on our own here. Nellie can’t protect us this time. This whole thing could be an elaborate setup.”

  “All I know is four hours on a plane with this mustache is going to kill me. It itches like crazy.”

  “Can’t you be serious for one minute? We’re on our way to Russia. Russia, Dan. Do you get that? Without Nellie or Saladin.”

  Amy knew Dan loved Saladin and couldn’t bear the idea of being away from him for very long. And no Nellie? She wasn’t their mom, not even close, but she was a pretty good stand-in given the crazy situation they were in.

  “Let me see that thing again,” said Dan, snatching the note from Amy’s fingers.

  He held the parchment in his hand and looked at the scrambled letters, then he reverently turned it over. Amy knew it was the photo on that side that most intrigued him. She watched as he looked at it, his attention riveted on the black-and-white image of a couple, young and clearly in love, standing in front of the American embassy in Russia.

  “It’s really them, isn’t it?” asked Dan.

  “You bet it is,” Amy answered.

  In Paris, Dan had lost his only picture of their parents and Amy knew what having a new one meant to him. But it had also sent them both into a tailspin.

  Mom, Dad, what were you doing in Russia?

  Amy hesitated. “It’s amazing seeing them like this, so young and happy. I mean, it’s the perfect bait. How horrible would it be if someone was using this picture to manipulate us?”

  “I get what you’re saying,” said Dan. He ran his finger along the edge of the photo, touched his mom’s face, gazed into the eyes of a dad he could barely remember. “But if there’s a chance to find something out …”

  Amy knew how Dan felt because she felt exactly the same way.

  There was a message in script below the picture, and Dan read it aloud for about the hundredth time, trying to make sense of it:

  Dan flipped over the parchment to look at the scrambled letters again. He stared at them all the way through takeoff while he munched through a second monster bag of Doritos. It wasn’t until the beverage cart arrived and he guzzled an entire Coke that Amy could see things were starting to click.

  “Where did you say we were flying to again? Volvoflurb?”

  “Volgograd,” Amy replied.

  “Riiiiight. Give me that envelope the bellboy handed you this morning. I have an idea.”

  Amy was using the envelope as a bookmark. She pulled it out and gave it to Dan, curious about what he was up to.

  “This should do it,” said Dan. He ripped a page out of an in-flight magazine and pulled out a pen, writing down one of the word combinations.

  RGOLGOVAD

  “That was the problem, the missing letters. It was confusing me. But they come from the envelope — this one’s VOLGOGRAD, see?”

  Dan took the underlined L from the envelope into the mix and unscrambled all the letters. Amy flipped to a page in the guidebook listing cities in Russia, and a few minutes later Dan and Amy were staring at a list of six.

  “Yekaterinburg,” said Dan. “Sounds like a place where they throw up a lot. Can we skip that one?”

  Amy didn’t bother commenting. She had already figured out something else.

  “We have a leftover X and a 2 with the St. Petersburg one,” said Amy. “I bet
that means X2. St. Petersburg, times two. It must mean there are two things we have to discover there.”

  Dan nodded. “Now we just have to figure out what we’re supposed to do in all these places.”

  “Volgograd is where this plane is headed, so it has to be the first place we’re supposed to search. It’s also shown in this paperweight,” said Amy.

  “How do you figure?” asked Dan.

  She held the heavy glass ball out where Dan could better see it.

  “The letters on the wall — TSV — those stand for Tsaritsyn, Stalingrad, and Volgograd. According to the guidebook, they’ve renamed the city twice.”

  “The Russians can’t make up their minds?” asked Dan.

  Amy ignored her brother’s question and leaned in closer. “I think I know what we’re looking for once we land.”

  “You’ve been holding out on me!” said Dan, wiping his salty fingers on his goatee.

  Amy tapped the cover of the book she’d found in the locker. “These things are full of answers. You just have to open one up once in a while.”

  When Dan saw Russia for the first time, he choked on a corn chip and coughed it up onto the airport sidewalk.

  “Ew! Seriously, you will never have a girlfriend,” said Amy.

  “Like I’d want one!”

  Dan considered a sneak attack on his sister, but just then all his senses fired. Every sign was a collection of strange and swirly letters, impossible to read. The air was thick with flavors yet to be tried, red-and-yellow buses lumbered by, and everywhere Dan heard the sound of a new, exotic language.

  They glanced back and forth outside the Volgograd airport terminal looking at the jumbled lines of dirty taxicabs. Neither one of them was sure someone else could be trusted driving them, especially after the GPS snafu in Cairo.

  “What about that guy?” Dan asked through a mouthful of Kit Kat. It was his third candy bar in as many hours, and his voice was coming out a little jittery.

  “Don’t let him catch your eye,” said Amy. “He’ll never leave us alone.”

  But it was too late. The driver was already blasting across four lanes toward them. Dan had a feeling about the bearded Russian with the Volkswagen van. It suited his beatnik style to ride around in a vintage 1960s peacemobile.

  “No worries. I speak this guy’s language.”

  “Is wearing that mustache making you dumber or something?” Amy asked.

  The van veered wildly across the road and skidded to a stop in front of Dan and Amy.

  “We want to rent our own ride,” said Dan. “Can you help us out?”

  What?! Amy mouthed. Rent a car? Who was going to drive it?

  “You want car of your own? I know guy. Best deal in Volgograd.”

  Dan had never driven a car, but he was pretty good on a dirt bike. He flashed the Visa gold card, then slid it back into his pocket.

  “Can you get us a motorcycle? We like the open air.”

  The bearded Russian winked, and less than an hour later, Dan was pulling out of a back alley with Amy jammed into a sidecar beside him. It was a vintage Russian military bike, army green with a kick start.

  “Are you sure you can handle this thing?” asked Amy, clutching her guidebook.

  “Hold on! This is going to be a bumpy ride,” said Dan. The grill of a delivery truck blasted by, then Dan veered out of the alley and gunned it.

  “Slow down, you maniac!” Amy howled, but Dan was having the time of his life. It took him several tries to get out of first gear and the engine redlined. Horns honked and pedestrians glared as the bike swerved all over the road. Dan finally got ahold of second gear and headed into oncoming traffic, nearly letting go of the handlebars as the bike careened out of control.

  “D-D-D-D-Da …” spluttered Amy, pointing to an oncoming slew of honking traffic. Dan slammed into third gear and raced back into his own lane.

  “I’m really getting the hang of this,” he yelled, zipping along in traffic with a grin as wide as a monster truck. Amy tore off her wig and red glasses, stowing them in the backpack.

  “You’re going to get us killed is more like it!”

  “Don’t worry about a thing. I got this!”

  Amy pulled on a beat-up old helmet she’d found rolling around on the floor of the sidecar. Then she grabbed the guidebook and turned to the back page, where the bearded Russian had scribbled directions.

  “We take the third left,” she yelled, glancing up in search of directions. Every sign she saw was written in Russian, and they were just about to pass the turn they needed.

  “Right here!” Amy screamed, white-knuckling the sidecar as Dan slammed on the brakes and swung the bike into a hard left.

  “This is awesome!” howled Dan, leaving a black streak of burned rubber behind the bike. “Eat your heart out, Hamilton Holt!”

  It was twenty hair-raising minutes until the bike came to a stop in a football-field-size parking lot.

  Dan tore off his helmet, mustache, and goatee and gazed up over the sprawling grassy knoll. On the far end there stood a massive statue of a woman holding a sword over her head, rising like a skyscraper into the cloudy horizon. They’d seen it in the distance as they raced across the city, but up close it was a frightening spectacle.

  “The Motherland Calls,” said Amy. “It’s twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty. Do you know what it commemorates?”

  “Don’t have a clue, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

  “The Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, and it’s nothing to make jokes about. Over a million people died right here.”

  Parents had died here, leaving children to grieve in the care of others. Dan knew how awful that felt. All the unanswered questions, the frustration, the terrible sense that you’d lost your place in the world. Amy reached for her jade necklace, the one from Grace, and rubbed the pendant.

  “Better get the show on the road. Never know who might be following us,” Dan said, starting up the pathway toward The Motherland Calls.

  There were people everywhere — families, old couples with canes, sightseers galore, and uniformed guards.

  “I was hoping we wouldn’t run into anyone here,” said Amy. “This place is crawling with police and tourists. Take it slow and easy, okay, Dan? Better safe than sorry.”

  Dan nodded and suggested they split up to cover more ground. Amy had figured out that the mother sitting in a chair in the little glass paperweight was a reference to the enormous statue. One of the walls in the tiny room also had an eye on it, and this is where things got a little scary. If Amy was right about this being a reference to one of the eyes on the face of The Motherland Calls, it would mean climbing all the way to the top of a statue that was almost as tall as a mountain.

  Dan looked up. And up, and up. How are we going to get up there? And what are we going to find?

  CHAPTER 4

  Hamilton Holt was the first to hit the pavement, followed by his sisters, who tumbled out in big-time wrestling mode, beating the tar out of each other. The Holts had tracked Dan and Amy all the way from Cairo in search of Clues, hotwiring a 1970s Eastern European van the moment they touched down in Russia. Landing at the Volgograd airport, they’d had no idea where to turn next, but the Holts were nothing if not conspicuously American. The same Russian who had picked up Amy and Dan smelled money and moved in for the kill. It didn’t take long to put two and two together. Ten minutes later, the Russian was a hundred dollars richer and the Holts knew right where to go.

  Gazing up at The Motherland Calls, Hamilton could tell that he’d finally arrived in a foreign land that might actually appreciate his size and strength.

  “Gather round, troops!” howled Eisenhower Holt, the kingpin of the sweat-suited band of Neanderthals.

  “Hamilton, front and center!”

  Hamilton, the biggest and brawniest of the three Holt kids, darted to within three inches of his father’s face and screamed, “SIR, YES SIR!”

  “Son, you’ve got protei
n-bar breath and you’re spraying spit again. Get it under control!”

  Hamilton’s face fell. It was hard to scream those Ss without showering someone.

  “Won’t happen again, SIR!”

  Eisenhower nodded in stern approval.

  “You’re on point. It’s our most important task. Figure out what those nitwits are up to and report back. Drag ’em back to the van if you have to. Got your two-way?”

  Hamilton pulled a two-way radio out of his pocket, hit the call button, and screamed into it.

  “SIR, YES SIR!”

  Eisenhower pulled out his own radio and screamed right back.

  “GO GET ’EM, BOY!”

  Hamilton bolted toward the towering statue, proud to be at the center of the action. He glanced back at his family. His younger sisters, Reagan and Madison, were already duct-taping a GPS under the sidecar on Dan’s motorbike. They complained bitterly about being hungry, and then Madison punched Reagan in the shoulder, which seemed to make her feel a little better. Mary-Todd, their mom, was on surveillance in the van, keeping an eye out for other teams.

  “Must eat!” bellowed Eisenhower. The last thing Hamilton heard was his dad yelling something about spying a food cart loaded down with Russian meat pies.

  It didn’t take Hamilton long to spot Amy lurking around the front of The Motherland Calls. She was running her fingers along the stone, peering carefully at every seam and corner.

  What’s that scrawny geek up to, and where’s that stupid little brother of hers?

  He turned and saw Dan approaching from the other side of the statue. One was standing thirty feet to his left, the other ten feet to his right, and he didn’t know which one to go after. The thought of disappointing his dad, again, put him in a cold sweat.

  “Hey, Hamilton!” yelled Dan. “Did you see me on that motorcycle? Better than that donkey you were riding in Cairo!”

  “It was a Vespa, you moron! And come say that to my face!”

 
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