The Black Circle, p.4Patrick Carman
“Got it covered,” said Dan, snatching the carving from her and holding it up to the light.
“It’s almost see-through,” he said as Amy riffled through the book. “And there’s something hidden inside.”
“What?” asked Amy, reaching out for the carving.
“Whoa, there! Take it easy. This thing is fragile, remember?”
“What’s in there? What do you see?”
“It’s one of those pop-top games. I’m good at these. There’s a little shoe, then two letters, a V and an A, then a heart.”
“Shoevaheart,” said Dan. “Is that something you’ve heard of?”
Amy shook her head no, but something about the word tugged at her. She thought for a minute, but nothing crystallized, so she showed Dan the picture she’d been looking for in the guidebook.
“It’s Rasputin,” said Amy. “I’m sure of it.”
Dan looked at the photo, a grainy black-and-white of a man with furious eyes.
“Boy, these monk people sure get angry,” he said. Amy knew he was thinking back to the mob of monks who had chased them in Austria. “Why so sure it’s this guy?”
“Rasputin wasn’t any ordinary monk. He was said to be almost impossible to kill. Doesn’t that sound like something a Cahill would be? Un-killable?”
Dan’s eyes widened.
“Rasputin worked his way into the inner circle of the most powerful Russian families ever: the Romanovs. They were royalty, like Princess Diana in England.”
“Keep it coming, but no more princesses. You’re starting to bore me.”
“Rasputin was a real charmer. He convinced the royal family he had supernatural healing powers, and the evidence seems to suggest that he actually did.”
“You’re kidding,” said Dan, looking almost as excited as when he realized his teacher was wearing a toupee.
“He was especially close to the heir to the throne, Alexei, and his sister Anastasia. She was amazing, trust me, but Alexei was constantly sick. He had hemophilia.”
Dan pulled back. “Isn’t that, like, something on your butt?”
“Gross! Not hemorrhoids, Dan! Hemophilia is a blood disorder. If Alexei got even the smallest cut, it wouldn’t stop bleeding. So imagine like, I don’t know … like if you fell off your skateboard and skinned your knee and it just bled and bled and bled until all your blood spilled out.”
“Cool!” said Dan.
“Not cool! If it hadn’t been for Rasputin, Alexei would have bled to death before he was ten. But that’s not the most interesting part. There were a lot of nobles who didn’t like the power Rasputin had over the royals, so they plotted to kill him.”
“Okay, now this is getting good.”
“Wait until you hear this,” said Amy. She scanned the next part of the guidebook and put things into her own words. “On December 16, 1916, Prince Felix Yusupov invited Rasputin to a dinner party. First he fed Rasputin poisoned wine and cake, but that didn’t seem to bother Rasputin at all. Rasputin figured out they were trying to kill him, so he ran for the door. Then Prince Felix shot Rasputin in the back.”
“End of Rasputin. Too bad — I was starting to like the guy.”
“Wrong! Rasputin kept on going, right up the stairs and out of the house. The prince’s men shot him a few more times in the front yard, but Rasputin wouldn’t die. They tied his hands and feet, stuffed him in a bag, and dropped him into an ice hole in a frozen river. And that finally did it. Rasputin suffocated under the ice.” Amy’s eyes gleamed and she lowered her voice. “But they say his fingernails were all worn off when they found him, like he tried to claw his way out for a half hour or more before finally giving up.”
“That’s the best story you’ve told me in your whole life,” said Dan. “I don’t even care if it’s true or not.”
“Dan, I think it is true. We of all people should believe it, even if history buffs don’t buy it. Rasputin was a Cahill! Maybe we’re even from the same branch of the family!”
“Like we could be superheroes!?!” Dan’s eyes bugged out.
“Calm down,” said Amy. “We still have to figure out where we’re supposed to go in St. Petersburg once we get there.”
Dan and Amy stopped talking, both lost in thought. And soon they were fighting sleep. The train had a maddening way of making a tired person even sleepier, the way it rocked and swayed, the clicking noise of the metal wheels on the track. Dan offered one last idea before conking out.
“Maybe we should go where they tried to kill Rasputin.”
Amy batted that idea away. The carvings inside the figurine didn’t match up with anything close to the Yusupov Palace. She stifled a yawn and kept digging, searching her book for anything related to a shoe or a heart. Her fingers floated up to her neck, and she absently rubbed the pendant on Grace’s jade necklace.
Grace, what would you have done if you were me? she thought. Amy’s eyes pooled with tears as Dan slept and the worries she tried to keep from him flooded in. She looked out across a glowing sunset.
I can’t do this alone, she thought, flipping the Rasputin page in the Russian guidebook back and forth. One tear dropped, hitting the paper, and she wiped it away with a finger. Her eyes alighted on a word, and her mind turned it over, not wanting to let it go. And then out of nowhere she understood. It felt like a gift.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” said Amy. Dan jerked awake and jumped to his feet in a ninja pose as Amy wiped the last of her tears away.
“There!” she said, pointing to a picture of the Yusupov Palace. “You were right, Dan!”
“Does this mean I get to go back to sleep?”
“Before the Yusupovs took over the palace, it was owned by someone else. Care to know who it was?”
“Enlighten me,” said Dan, awake but with his eyes closed to the world.
“It was the mansion of Count Pyotr Shuvalov. Count Shoe - VA - Love. Don’t you get it? A shoe, the letters VA, and the heart — Shuvalov.”
“That sounds right,” said Dan. Two seconds later, he bolted upright and turned to his sister with a big grin.
“Hey! You know what this means? You and I are on our way to the scene of a murder!”
Six rows back, Irina Spasky put down the newspaper she was hiding behind and frowned. She had walked past Dan and Amy’s seat, shrouded in dark sunglasses and a low-brimmed hat, and planted a wireless mic. Every word, every stupid, dangerous idea Amy and Dan had discussed came through loud and clear.
The young Kabras are maniacs and the young Cahills are suicidal, she thought. And now I must track them across Russia and protect old secrets instead of hunting down new clues. She clicked her tongue in disgust and reflected on how much she disliked children. But her chest tightened in automatic protest. There was a child, a long, long time ago, she had liked very much.
Sleeping on the train gave Dan and Amy an electric energy when they hit the pavement in St. Petersburg. Why go to a hotel when there were palaces to be broken into?
“We need to go that way,” said Amy, the crisp evening air filling her with new excitement as she made her way down the bustling platform. They had arrived at Moskovsky Station, less than two miles from the palace, and decided to walk rather than risk another cab ride.
“There’s a whole cluster of palaces along the banks of the Moika River. Yusupov is one of them.”
“You should be a tour guide,” said Dan. “Lead the way.”
Soon they were outside following Nevsky Prospekt, an eight-lane avenue. Seventeenth-century pastel buildings and newly constructed stores stood side by side, competing for space in thriving twenty-first-century Russia.
“Dan,” said Amy, jerking her brother’s hand. “I think someone is tailing us.”
Dan glanced over his shoulder.
“The man in black,” he whispered.
It was unquestionably him. The dark coat and hat, the gliding way he moved, the craggy face full of shadows. He was unmistakable.
“Watch where you’re going, you big jerk!” yelled Dan. A lot of people turned to stare at him as the truck sped back into traffic and disappeared around a corner.
“He’s gone,” said Amy, her voice trembling in the night air. Had the man in black made the truck move? Either way, just as mysteriously as he had appeared, the man in black had vanished.
“I think we should keep going,” said Dan. “That dude could be anywhere.”
Amy nodded and they hurried down Nevsky Prospekt. Dan ripped open the envelope as they went.
“What’s it say?” asked Amy.
As Dan read the letter aloud, Amy could almost feel the night getting blacker around them.
“‘Time is running out. You need to move faster. You are being followed, and I don’t mean the Madrigal. When your pursuers show themselves, give them this map to throw them off track and be on your way. You must enter the palace at night and find Rasputin. Follow the orange snake. NRR.’”
“The man in black is a Madrigal! Do you realize what this means? We’re dead. Dead, dead, dead!” Dan yelped.
“At least we got another note from NRR,” said Amy. “We’re hot on the trail of something … I just wish we knew what it was.”
She put her hand on Dan’s shoulder as if to steady both of them.
“I think we should keep going, don’t you? It’s not like we have a lot of choices here. And besides, the man in black is gone,” Amy said.
“Okay, let’s assume he’s actually hit the road, which I doubt. So what? Apparently, there’s someone else tailing us, not just him. It could be anyone, but it’s probably someone who wants to drop a piano on our heads!”
“Chances are it’s another team, that’s all I’m saying. And besides, NRR gave us something to keep them busy.”
“Maybe he wants to get us away from everyone else so we’re an easier target,” Dan argued. “Did you think of that? What if the picture of Mom and Dad is just a trick to get us totally off on our own?”
Amy paused. “Dan, I hate to tell you this, but we’ve been on our own for awhile now.”
The truth of that silenced them both.
Amy took the letter from Dan. Across the bottom there was an elaborate map of St. Petersburg with a dotted line winding through it. It ended across two canals in an entirely different part of the city. Amy tore the map free from the rest of the letter.
“See? It looks like a trail leading somewhere important, but it’s a wild goose chase. All we have to do is give it to whoever is tailing us when they show themselves, then they leave us alone for awhile. Maybe NRR is trying to isolate us, but the photo … I want to know what it means.”
Amy could see Dan had run out of steam. He took a half-empty box of Skittles out of his back pocket and dumped about twenty of them in his mouth, chomping morosely.
“If we can just get inside the palace, I know what NRR means about Rasputin. There’s a reenactment exhibit inside. It’s all about when they tried to kill him, the stuff I was telling you,” Amy coaxed.
“Suppose I gotta see that,” said Dan, getting reluctantly excited again at the thought of an unkillable monk.
Amy smiled. “Okay! Now all we have to do is find a snake to follow.”
It was nearly eleven o’clock by the time Dan and Amy approached Yusupov Palace. Things were starting to wind down along the quiet banks of the Moika, a river that ran along the front of the three-story palace of yellow and white. A few pedestrians strolled here and there along the embankment rail, and the occasional headlights came toward them, but other than that, the area was deserted.
The Yusupov Palace stretched along the river with thirty darkened windows on each level staring out onto the Moika. There was a giant arched entryway at the very center of the building, and three tall white columns on each side of the door.
“Somehow I don’t think the door is going to be open,” said Dan. “Should we try a window?”
Amy walked along the front of the palace, looking for anything that might resemble a snake.
“Amy,” called Dan. He’d crossed the street to get a better look at the narrow river. It was only about sixty feet to the other side, where windowed buildings and houses lined a street similar to the one he stood on.
Amy arrived next to Dan and stared out into the black water.
“Do you see it?” asked Dan.
Dan pointed into the center of the waterway, where a glowing orange snake danced on the shimmering water. It was small, no more than a foot across. Dan followed a laser beam of light up and over the edge on the other side of the river. There, in one of the windows, he found what he was looking for: the shadow of someone in a room high above the water, pointing a laser out the window.
“It’s moving,” said Amy. And sure enough, when Dan looked back down, the orange snake was slithering across the water toward them.
“This is creepy,” said Amy. “But cool. It’s the kind of hint no one else can get. When it’s gone, it’s gone. If we can just follow it and get inside, no one else will know what to look for.”
The orange snake had reached the embankment wall, and Dan and Amy had to lean over the rail to see it rising out of the water along the concrete slabs. As it came closer, they could tell it was no ordinary laser beam. It was moving a thousand times a second, creating a 2-D hologram of a snake as it slid along the stones.
“NRR has some cool toys,” said Dan as the snake cleared the rail and arrived on the palace wall behind them.
“It’s jumped the street!” said Amy. “We’re going to lose it!”
The snake was moving faster now. It flew past the main door, along a row of windows, then crawled up the wall to the second story. When it hit the third window from the end, it slithered back and forth along the sill.
Amy glanced back in the direction of the window across the river. It made her nervous to think that someone was probably watching them through binoculars.
“Come on,” Amy whispered, tearing her attention back to the palace. “I bet that window’s our way inside.”
Dan and Amy stood below the window, which was a good ten feet over their heads. The palace wall was as flat as a pancake.
“Even Spider-Man couldn’t climb this thing,” said Dan.
“Oh, yes he could,” said Amy.
The orange snake had moved up another level, where a third row of windows hung low over a decorative façade. When the snake stopped, they heard a pop from the other side of the river. A split second later, something hit the façade and a spark flew.
“That thing is attached to a gun!” said Amy.
“Not a gun,” Dan corrected her. “A gun would have been way louder. Look!”
A coil of rope was falling from where the snake had been. It rolled all the way down the side of the wall and dangled straight over the window they were to enter.
“Sweet!” said Dan.
“Dan, wait!” said Amy. She could hear a couple talking as they passed by, and a set of headlights was coming toward them.
“Just act casual,” said Amy. “Pretend it’s not there.”
Dan and Amy started walking away from the rope until they passed the couple, nodding hello as they went. The car moved on as well.
“Um, Amy,” said Dan.
“I think NRR wants us to get up that rope right now.”
Dan was staring down at his own heart, where the orange snake had come to rest.
“The coast must be clear. He can see a lot better than we can from up there. Come on!”
Amy went first, holding the rope as she walked up the wall to the wide windowsill.
Amy pushed on the window, and it opened like a door on hinges. She darted through, leaning her head out to watch for cars as Dan pulled himself up.
“Headlights!” she said, grabbing Dan by his hoodie and yanking him inside. Dan lost his balance and toppled inside onto the marble floor, bashing his knee and howling in pain.
“Shhhhh!” said Amy, closing the window behind them. “There might be a security guard in the palace.”
“I can’t help it if you tried to break my neck getting in here!”
Dan stood up and tried to put pressure on his knee. “I’m going to have a monster bruise, but everything’s still working. Where to now?”
“The main floor in the east wing,” said Amy. “This way.”
Amy had already scanned the guidebook and figured out the general location of the Rasputin exhibit. They passed through darkened rooms filled with expensive art and furniture.
“Looks like these royals liked nice stuff,” said Dan.
“The Yusupovs were known for their good taste. They spent millions on redecorating and rebuilding projects.”
As they made their way down a wide flight of purple-velvet-carpeted stairs, Amy heard a thump behind them.
“Did you hear that?” she asked.
“I think someone followed us in here. Hurry!”
Amy and Dan bolted down the stairs and turned a hard right. They passed under a tall archway and hung a left, ending up in front of a roped-off hallway.
“This is it,” said Amy. She ducked under the rope and Dan followed. Another turn to the left and they arrived in an open, dimly lit room.
It was as if they’d stepped back in time to witness a murder. Everything from the night of Rasputin’s death was meticulously re-created. There were sculptures and pictures, and best of all, two rooms with life-size wax figures.
“There he is,” said Amy. In a room behind a yellow rope, Rasputin was sitting down at a table, eating the poisoned cakes that had been set before him.
“Come on, Dan. The trail leads to Rasputin. I’ll check his pockets.”
The Black Circle by Patrick Carman / Mystery & Detective / Actions & Adventure / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes