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The black circle, p.3
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       The Black Circle, p.3

           Patrick Carman
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  Then, with Hamilton looking on, Dan signaled his sister by turning his hand as if he needed a key.

  Hey! Do they think I’m stupid?

  “Looks like someone’s got a key,” yelled Hamilton, turning to Amy as his two-way radio went off.

  “Get moving!” boomed Eisenhower. “We’ve got company!”

  Hamilton, Amy, and Dan all swiveled toward the parking lot in unison. Ian and Natalie Kabra were pulling up in a white stretch limousine, almost as if they couldn’t bother to be inconspicuous. Eisenhower Holt started peppering the limo with meat pies from a huge bag, taking a bite out of each one before letting it fly. From a distance, it looked as if Eisenhower was unpinning hand grenades and throwing them into a bunker.

  “Your dad is a menace. You know that, right?” asked Dan. He’d moved within ten wary feet of Hamilton, motioning Amy to toss him the glass paperweight. Amy dug inside the backpack, but Hamilton took four big steps and cornered her.

  “What’s in the bag? Come on, fork it over!” said Hamilton, looming over Amy. He was just about to rip the backpack out of her hands when Amy said something that shocked him.

  “The K-K-K-Kabras are closing in on us,” said Amy. Hamilton could tell she was desperately trying to get her voice under control. “How many c-c-clues do you have?”

  Hamilton stopped cold. “We’ve got plenty! More than you two losers, I’m sure.”

  “We have ten. You have ten?” said Dan, looking Hamilton straight in the eye. His sister shifted from foot to foot, eyeing both of them warily. Grace had taught Dan how to bluff like a Vegas poker player, and Hamilton didn’t know what to think.

  “You got TEN? No way you got ten!”

  Dad is going to freak out if we’re that behind! he thought.

  Police were beginning to swarm the place, making sure the mischief breaking out in the parking lot didn’t spill over into the park itself.

  “You could be a hero, Hamilton,” said Amy. “You want to come back with something useful, don’t you?”

  That one hit Hamilton right between the eyes. There was nothing he wanted more than to please Eisenhower Holt.

  “What have you got in mind?” he asked, glaring down at them.

  He waited, watching the two Cahills as they stared at each other like each could read the other’s mind.

  Finally, Dan nodded. “Let’s get the show on the road before it’s too late,” he said. “This way!”

  Dan led the three of them around to the back of The Motherland Calls. The base of the statue was about as wide as a skyscraper, and the whole way around, Hamilton wondered if he should clobber Dan and Amy and take the backpack.

  Calm down! Let it play out! If they trick you, then you can clobber ’em!

  “Can you radio your dad?” Amy asked. “Tell him you’ve almost got what we came for and to keep the Kabras away from The Motherland Calls.”

  Hamilton gave Amy a searching look, then pressed the button and yelled into the receiver.

  “Holt here! Mission nearing success. Stay clear!”

  “Roger that!”

  Hamilton turned on Amy and Dan. “Now give me the goods.”

  Dan hesitated, then pointed to one of the stone slabs on The Motherland Calls. “Before you showed up to complicate things, I hit the jackpot,” said Dan.

  Hamilton took a closer look and saw the letters TSV carved into the stone above a small keyhole. Amy saw it, too. She smashed the glass paperweight against the stone pathway.

  “Hey!” yelped Dan. “That was my job!”

  “Got it!” said Amy. The key was free of its round prison, and before Hamilton’s unbelieving eyes, she inserted it into the stone panel. Dan pushed hard against the secret door, but it didn’t budge.

  “Step aside, shrimp,” said Hamilton. He shoved Dan out of the way and smashed his frame against the smooth stone. The panel gave easily, and the three of them dashed inside.

  “Close the door behind you, big guy. We’ve got work to do,” said Dan.

  Hamilton almost shoved Dan to the ground, but he knew it wouldn’t take much to injure the little jerk, and that might complicate things.

  “This better be good,” said Hamilton.

  “Don’t worry,” said Dan. “It will be.”

  With the secret opening firmly shut, Dan was able to breathe a sigh of relief and take stock of his surroundings. It was magnificent inside The Motherland Calls; wide open all the way to the top, with a web of beams and support systems all through the middle. Light trickled in from minute cracks that lined every side of the structure. Dan felt like he’d entered the shadowy realm of a gargantuan spider.

  “Where’s Gandalf when you need him?” asked Dan.

  “You’re a weird kid, you know that?” said Hamilton.

  Amy frowned at both of them. “We have to get to the top, where the eyes are,” she said.

  “Bring it on,” said Hamilton, peering up into the beams for the best place to start. “This will be a piece of cake.”

  Dan had already begun climbing a service ladder that ran two stories up into The Motherland Calls, but Hamilton had a different idea. He went straight for a massive steel beam running up the middle of the statue, with giant rivets on each side.

  “See you at the top, losers!”

  By the time Dan and Amy reached the final rung of the ladder, Hamilton had scaled the steel beam like a lumberjack racing up a redwood. He was way ahead of them, disappearing into the faint light above.

  “We have to get there first!” yelled Amy. “Come on!”

  At the top of the ladder, Dan saw something. The crisscrossing beams were also designed as narrow catwalks. They were a foot wide and flat, and there was a cable running above them for holding on to. But there was no rail.

  “They must clip into the cable for safety when they’re working up here,” said Dan. “We can do this!”

  “A carabiner would have been nice,” said Amy. Looking up reminded her of a long series of rope bridges in an old movie. One where everyone falls into a bottomless canyon.

  Dan grabbed the cable and began walking, first slowly, then faster and faster as he gained confidence. He was standing at the other side of the statue, twenty-five feet higher in the air before he looked back. Amy hadn’t moved, and Hamilton was still fifty feet above them, traveling up the middle of the statue.

  “Come on, Amy! You can do it!”

  Amy took a deep breath and stepped out onto the beam. She wobbled back and forth, then stopped, gripping the cable tighter.

  “Keep moving, Dan! I’ll make it. Just get there first!”

  Dan hesitated, his head pivoting between Hamilton ahead and Amy behind him. It could be Christmas before she reaches the top! he thought.

  “Get moving, Dan!” Amy yelled.

  Dan took off like a monkey, arms and legs working in unison as he raced up another twenty-five feet. He turned at the other side and sped up even more. The switchback routine gave Dan an advantage over Hamilton: It was much easier going up this way than climbing straight up the middle. As Dan crossed the center of the statue for the fourth time, he overtook his larger competitor, who was gasping for air after having climbed over a hundred vertical feet.

  “Nice day for a stroll, wouldn’t you say?” called Dan. He was also totally out of breath, but his path to the top was way easier than Hamilton’s.

  The two-way radio was going off like a dinner bell, Eisenhower Holt screaming about the Kabras and demanding to know why Hamilton had disappeared.

  Dan was only three switchbacks from the head of The Motherland Calls when he looked back. He couldn’t see Amy.

  “Amy! Are you down there?”

  Dan’s voice echoed through the open air. No reply.

  “Amy! Answer me! How far behind are you?”

  “You don’t have to yell. I’m right here.”

  “No way!” said Dan, a huge smile lighting up his face. Amy had quietly caught up! She was only two switchbacks behind Dan and quickly coming even w
ith Hamilton Holt, who had stopped moving.

  “Double no way!” Dan heard Hamilton mutter. Hamilton had clearly had enough of climbing up the center beam. Thin support rods ran twenty feet away from the beam and connected to the catwalks, and Hamilton grabbed one as Amy walked past. The radio was turning to static, and the calls for updates were garbled at best.

  “Hurry, Dan!” said Amy.

  Hamilton swung along the steel support rod, his feet dangling over a hundred and fifty feet of open air. It didn’t take long for him to reach the catwalk and swing his massive frame up and over. The first thing he did when he got there was turn off the two-way radio.

  Dan knew he had to hustle. He raced to the end of the final beam, where the cable ran straight into a ladder leading into the head of The Motherland Calls.

  “I’m heading into the brain!” yelled Dan. “Wish me luck!”

  At the top of the ladder, Dan found a platform big enough for several people to stand on. Two thick streams of light poured into the head from outside. It was eerie, as if Dan really were inside someone’s head, digging around in the dust for a hidden memory.

  “There!” whispered Dan. A small cylinder wrapped in paper and tied with twine was tucked into the corner of one of the eyes. On quick examination, Dan saw that the top of the rough paper was stenciled with three letters: ST. P.

  St. Petersburg!

  Dan jammed the object into his pocket for safekeeping.

  “I’m coming up,” said Amy, reaching the bottom of the ladder.

  “How far back is he?” asked Dan, pulling his gasping sister onto the platform.

  Amy looked down at the catwalks below. “He’s moving pretty slowly. I’d say three or four minutes.”

  “Perfect. I’ve got an idea.”

  It was a full five minutes later before Hamilton arrived in the head of The Motherland Calls and flopped down in the center of the platform. His chest heaved in and out, and a giant ring of sweat surrounded his neck.

  “Dude, you look like a fish out of water,” said Dan. “Speaking of which …”

  Dan dug around in the backpack. Among the smashed candy bars and bags of chips were a few cans of Coke. He pulled one out, popped the top, and fizz shot all over Hamilton.

  “Oops,” said Dan, but Hamilton didn’t seem to care. He sat up and guzzled the whole can, then tossed the empty over the edge. They all listened as the can pinged and echoed all the way to the bottom.

  “We’re way, way up here,” said Amy, her face draining of color as it seemed to dawn on her for the first time that they’d have to get back down.

  “I found a lead,” said Dan, putting his plan into action. “And not only that, I solved it.”

  Hamilton perked up.

  “Lemme see,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow with a swipe of his arm.

  Dan pulled out the piece of parchment they’d gotten from the locker, the one with the scrambled words of all the places they were to visit. Dan had figured out, all on his own, that thirty-six hours wouldn’t be anywhere near enough time to visit all the places on the list, and they only had twenty-nine hours left. He didn’t want to admit it, but they needed help.

  Amy seemed to get what he was doing. “It’s a list of places, see,” said Amy to Hamilton, taking the parchment from Dan. She was careful not to turn it over and reveal the picture of her parents or the note from NRR. “And Dan already unscrambled the letters.”

  Hamilton looked at the parchment suspiciously.

  “Here’s the thing,” said Amy. “We can’t visit all these places alone, and neither can you. What if we were to split them up? You go one way, we’ll go the other, and we’ll share what we find?”

  Hamilton Holt’s gelled slick of blond hair seemed to quiver as the gears in his brain started turning. He propped himself up on his elbow, and the look he gave Amy was almost imploring.

  “And you can trust us,” said Amy. “We’re giving you the next place we’re supposed to go. See that right there?” asked Amy, holding the parchment closer to Hamilton’s face. “That’s where we’ll pick up the trail. In Omsk, Siberia.”

  Right beside the words Dan had added: “Next, at the crossroads of Y and Z.” It made absolutely no sense whatsoever, but it sounded good, and Hamilton fell for it without hesitation. Dan figured he could give Hamilton the real instructions later, after he’d had more time to examine the treasure in his pocket.

  “Here’s what we’re going to do,” said Amy.

  Amy told Hamilton to visit both Siberian outposts while she and Dan focused on the closer places. That left Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and St. Petersburg for Dan and Amy. They exchanged cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

  “We’ll swap information as we go and beat the pants off everyone else!” Dan hooted.

  “That’s if we don’t kill ourselves getting down from here first,” said Amy.

  CHAPTER 5

  Ian Kabra had been in the back of a limousine hundreds of times but never when covered in meat pies.

  “The Holts are barbarians,” he said disgustedly. He was sitting in the backseat, wiping beef stains off his five-thousand-dollar Armani suit.

  “Here comes Hamilton!” said Natalie. She had fared better in the parking lot fight, retreating into the car at the first sign of flying food. She was never one to risk her Gucci.

  “Driver, follow that piece of junk,” said Ian. He pointed to the beat-up white van that Hamilton Holt had just dove into. The van rumbled to life and tore out of the lot.

  Ian dialed his cell phone. The mere mention of the competition heading into Russia at such a sensitive juncture had sent his father into a panic. Now was not the time to take chances.

  “What do you want?” The voice on the other end of the line belonged to Irina Spasky, the only Russian citizen on any of the teams. She, like Ian, was part of the Lucian branch. One rung under Ian and Natalie’s parents, a fact that had long infuriated her.

  “I don’t know how you managed to let everyone into your country,” said Ian. “But it’s making my father nervous. And when he’s nervous, I’m nervous. My father will have both our heads if we let another team capture one of our clues.”

  “They will not get anything!” snapped Irina. “It will be for them a wild geese chase.”

  Ian smirked. He could picture her eye twitching, as it always did when she was angry.

  “I don’t like all this activity so close to some very important secrets. It’s your country. Deal with it.”

  “I suggest you hold your tongue. The line is not secure,” said Irina.

  “You follow Dan and Amy Cahill. I think they’re on to something,” Ian ordered. “We’ll stay with the Holts.”

  “Agreed. You babysit the idiots. I will get the real work done.”

  Irina clicked off her cell phone and brooded in the backseat of a dingy Volkswagen van, the very one Dan and Amy had ridden from the airport. The bearded Russian was on the Lucian payroll, like hundreds of other informants spread across the homeland.

  Who’s helping Dan and Amy Cahill? she wondered. Could there be a double agent within the ranks of the Lucians? The idea had crossed her mind before, but with the death of Grace Cahill, her suspicions had grown. There were secrets in Russia — secrets that had to be protected at all cost. Dan and Amy had stumbled into a hornet’s nest.

  “They’re on the move,” said the bearded Russian in the front seat.

  “Follow them,” ordered Irina.

  The driver merged into traffic and tracked a blinking dot on his screen.

  “He’s pretty good on that bike,” said the driver, laughing despite the ultraserious agent sitting in the backseat of his van.

  “I do not pay you for small talk,” Irina fired back.

  The bearded driver clammed up, and not another word was spoken during the drive through Volgograd. Irina felt the twitch in her eye return, soft at first but growing more violent. Twenty minutes passed before the driver spoke again.

  “They’ve
stopped. We’re near the train station.”

  “Let me out,” said Irina. A wad of bills rolled past the driver and landed at his feet.

  “I may need you again,” said Irina as she opened the door. “Keep your phone on and don’t leave the city.”

  The driver nodded. He leaned down and picked the roll of bills off the floor. When he turned around again, Irina Spasky was gone.

  “Are you positive we’re going to the right place?” asked Amy.

  “Yup,” said Dan. Amy sighed, still not convinced they should have boarded the high-speed train. But Dan had been adamant about keeping the lead he’d found hidden until they were safely out of town. He was learning to be careful about who might be watching.

  “Let’s have a look at it,” said Amy. “You’ve been holding out on me long enough.”

  Dan pulled the object he’d found in The Motherland Calls out of his front pocket. He glanced both ways down the center aisle of the train, then held it out to Amy.

  “You can do the honors,” said Dan. “I’m too tired to open it up.”

  Instead, he fished around in the backpack for some chips and pulled out Amy’s Russian guidebook.

  “This thing is crushing my snacks.”

  He set the book between them, cracked open a bag of pulverized Doritos, and disgusted his sister by tipping his head back and pouring the broken chips into his mouth.

  Amy rolled her eyes and got back to the cylinder. It was wrapped in a tremendous amount of twine, so it was awhile before she finally parted the paper and held the secret object in her hand. It was a tiny statue intricately carved out of a hard orange substance, showing a bearded monk with wild eyes, standing with his arms folded in front of him.

  Amy brightened. “I think I know who this is!”

  “It’s that dude who got us the motorcycle!” said Dan, peering over. He frowned. “Or maybe it’s his brother.”

  Amy wasn’t sure what to do with the precious carving. She was itching to refer to a certain page in the guidebook, but if she gave the carved monk to Dan, she worried he might drop it.

  “Hold this,” she said, succumbing to her desire for information. “And be careful. It’s fragile.”

 
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