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The black circle, p.6
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       The Black Circle, p.6

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “You got it … Dad! Yo, Dad! This is getting WAY out of hand. Hammer Holt, signing off!”

  The phone went dead and Amy raced across the room for the Russian guidebook.

  “This confirms my suspicions,” said Amy, riffling through pages, searching, searching, searching….

  She lifted gleaming eyes to Dan. “Get the backpack. We’ve got a royal village to visit!”

  CHAPTER 8

  Amy Cahill had been ripped off, bugged, double-crossed, and taken advantage of one too many times. She was through with taking taxicabs.

  “I have a better idea,” said Dan. He put his beatnik goatee and mustache on and walked right up to the hotel bank, flashing a smile along with his passport and Visa gold card.

  “I need a cash advance. Can you dig it?”

  Amy had to stifle a laugh. Did Dan actually think he was going to get real money with a line like that?

  “We have fee of one thousand rubles on American cards,” said the teller. One thousand rubles was about thirty bucks, which sounded like a lot of money to Amy. Then again, it was NRR’s money, not hers, and they’d just racked up more than $2,000 on their bill.

  “That’ll be fine,” Dan replied. “And, ah, tip yourself another thousand while you’re at it. I’ll take a hundred thousand for myself if the card will hold it. Been spending like a sailor on leave. I must be getting close to the limit on that thing.”

  Dan laughed as if he didn’t really care, but Amy knew better. They’d had to count every penny back home.

  “Ahhh, is good for you,” said the man, suddenly Dan’s best friend. “In American dollars you have balance of six thousand. The card has forty-four thousand unused. But you know the limits of your own credit, of course.”

  “FORTY-FOUR THOUSAND!” Dan choked back a cough of surprise, then asked for an additional 100,000 rubles, just in case. He leaned in close to Amy and whispered, “If rubles are anything like marbles, my backpack is going to be really heavy.”

  The teller counted out the bills. The stack, amounting to about 7,500 American dollars, was so tall it teetered back and forth as he reached the final 1,000. Dan’s eyes got huge and he tipped the teller another 1,000.

  “Very kind, sir, very generous. Thank you! I wish you and your young friend a good day.”

  Amy’s jaw dropped as she realized that in disguise, Dan probably looked a lot older than she did.

  “He’s not older than me!” she said without thinking.

  Dan smirked and leaned in close to the teller.

  “You know how sensitive little sisters can be. She’s impossible.”

  “Keep it up, buddy,” Amy said under her breath, “and I’ll tear that fake mustache right off your dumb face.”

  As soon as they got out of the lobby and into the street, Amy hammered Dan with questions. “What in the world do you want with all that money?”

  “I got a plan,” said Dan.

  “A plan? You’re eating way too much candy and it’s turning your head fizzy.” Carrying around gobs of money made her nervous.

  “There, that looks like the perfect fit for our needs,” said Dan.

  Dan was watching a middle-aged man get out of a car. It was the smallest car Amy had ever seen, more like a go-cart, really. And it was blue, which made Amy nervous. Blue was Dan’s favorite color.

  “Time to start my car collection!” said Dan. “Come on. This is going to be awesome.”

  “You’re so much dumber than I thought,” Amy groaned. “And that’s saying something. Do you remember that neither one of us knows how to drive?”

  But Dan bolted across the street and hailed the man. The guy was bald as a potato, with stains on his tie and an attitude of being late for something important.

  “How much for the car?” asked Dan. “I’m in a rush and I’ve got cash.”

  The man glanced at Dan, saw how small he was, and let out a sharp hoot of a laugh. “Stupid Americans! Go home!”

  “See this backpack?” Dan said, trailing after him. “It’s full of cash! I’m serious here!”

  The man couldn’t seem to help himself and turned back. “How much in rucksack? Tiny Tim not cheap,” he said.

  Tiny Tim?! thought Amy. “Wait a sec—”

  “Enough,” said Dan, talking over her. “I’ll give you, um, let’s see … how about twenty thousand rubles for it?”

  Amy coughed up a weird yelping sound, as if there were a hair ball stuck in her throat. The idea of spending twenty thousand anything was outrageous.

  “Thirty,” said the man, fiddling with his tie and looking at Dan sideways.

  Dan hauled bills out of the backpack.

  “You know how to drive Russian car?” asked the man, beaming. “I show you!”

  Dan beamed right back. “You got yourself a deal.”

  A few minutes later, the potato-headed man had taken his thirty thousand rubles, happy as a clam, and given Dan and Amy a five-minute tour of Tiny Tim. It wasn’t much bigger than a refrigerator, and it only had two gears: slow and fast.

  “Leave stick up until Tiny is twenty-five, then slam it down, like so.” The man grabbed the stick shift and yanked it back about a foot. “No … how you say … clatch?”

  “Clutch,” corrected Amy, sounding more interested in Tiny Tim.

  “Little sister is rude,” said the man.

  “You said it,” offered Dan, running his fingers through the fake goatee. Amy thought she might explode.

  The man pointed to the pedals on the floor in front of the driver’s seat. “That is brake, that is gas. Easy!”

  “Seems simple enough,” said Dan. Amy still couldn’t believe they’d just bought a go-cart masquerading as an automobile.

  “I am late,” said the man, patting his pocket to make sure the money was still there. “Be careful. Tiny is faster than he looks. He will make man out of you. Da svidanya!”

  “Dude, I’m so driving this thing,” said Dan. Amy gritted her teeth. She hated it when he called her dude. It made absolutely no sense.

  Dan grinned. “We’ve got a boatload of money and our own car! This is incredible.”

  “Yeah,” said Amy. “Incredibly stupid.”

  Dan looked wounded. “It’s not stupid. Every time we use the card, NRR can track us. Now we’re like outlaws — cash only and a cool ride of our own. Untraceable.”

  Amy had to concede the point, but there was no way she was letting her eleven-year-old brother drive her around Russia.

  “Move over, Richie Rich. I’ve practically got a learner’s permit already. I can do this.”

  Dan protested until his mustache fell off, but Amy wasn’t budging. She settled into the driver’s seat, her nerves starting to get the best of her.

  Dan hopped back on the offensive. “You absolutely sure you can do this? I’ve got experience on the streets of Russia. Maybe you should let the exp—”

  “Just stop talking and let me concentrate, will you?”

  “Oh, yeah, you sound really ready to drive,” said Dan, strapping a tattered old seat belt across his waist.

  That did it. Amy had had enough. She turned the key and the tailpipe coughed out a plume of smoke. The engine rumbled and popped as if it wanted nothing more than to race through traffic.

  “Okay,” said Amy, taking a deep breath and setting her foot on the pedal. “Here goes thirty thousand rubles.”

  Tiny Tim lurched along the side of the road doing about three miles an hour until Amy caught the hang of it and sped up to ten. Pretty soon she was doing twenty.

  “You like Tiny Tim, don’t you?” said Dan. “Come on, let me drive it. Please?”

  “Eat your heart out, dude,” said Amy. “Just keep the directions coming and don’t distract me.”

  Dan grumbled, but he found the dog-eared map of St. Pete in the guidebook. A smile bloomed on Amy’s face. When the speedometer hit 25, she slammed the stick shift down and Tiny Tim lurched forward with a sharp buzzing sound.

  “Wow! He’s got some
giddyup!” said Amy.

  Tiny Tim swerved back and forth as Amy tried to find the brake pedal.

  “Amy,” said Dan. “You see the telephone pole, right? AMY!”

  Amy jerked the steering wheel hard to the left, narrowly avoiding the sidewalk.

  “C-c-calm down, Tiny Tim!” yelled Amy. She finally found the brake pedal, tapping it softly a few times and bringing the car under control.

  “I think I’m getting the hang of it,” she said.

  Amy glanced at Dan. He looked as miserable as the time Aunt Beatrice confiscated his nunchucks. But he dutifully gave directions, asking questions as they went.

  “Tell me again why we’re going to this village of royals.”

  “The royal village. In Russia they call it Tsarskoye Selo, the Tsar’s Village. It’s where the Romanovs went on holiday.”

  “And why do we care about the Romanovs again?” asked Dan.

  “They were the last royal family in Russia. This is the family Rasputin held so much sway over.”

  Amy had settled onto a long highway doing about forty. As they headed for the Tsar’s Village, she told Dan all about the last Russian royal family. How they’d been overthrown and banished to the village. One day they were the most powerful family in Russia, the next they were prisoners. Amy was especially interested in the young grand duchess Anastasia. Everything Amy had read about her was fantastic. Anastasia was raised as a normal child, not like a royal, and she was exceptionally charming. She was also brilliantly naughty, always playing pranks on her teachers and friends.

  “She liked to play all sorts of tricks, and apparently she was a great climber of tall trees. Once she was up a tree it was hard to get her to come down.”

  “Sounds like my kind of kid,” said Dan.

  “But she came to an awful end. She was murdered, Dan. They all were. Her brother, Alexei, and her three sisters. And her parents. It was a firing squad, bullets flying everywhere, ricocheting off walls. But there’s a bright spot, something I think is connected to all this. There are a lot of people who think Anastasia didn’t die with the rest of her family.”

  “When did she die, then?”

  “Who knows? But some say when they went to examine the grave site years later, her body wasn’t there.”

  “Cool!” said Dan.

  “You know what I think? I think Rasputin was a Cahill. I think he might have tried to save Alexei and Anastasia. Maybe he gave them whatever it was that made him so hard to kill. First Alexei, to cure him of his illness, then Anastasia, to save her from a firing squad. Maybe they couldn’t kill her.”

  Dan was silent, his eyes huge, and Amy knew he was lost in superhero daydreams again.

  Super Dan. That’s all I need.

  They kept driving in silence as St. Petersburg disappeared and the countryside started to take over. Rolling hills on either side marked their way, and with the windows rolled down, they smelled the fresh air.

  “The village was one of the last places where Alexei and Anastasia played. Alexei’s playroom was a favorite place in the palace. And I’ll tell you something else. Right before they took her, at the very end, Anastasia and her sisters hid their most valuable jewels. They sewed them into their clothes so no one could find them.”

  “How’d you know about that?” Dan said, turning toward her with a skeptical look. “Don’t tell me this guidebook has a section on hiding valuables.”

  “Wikipedia,” said Amy. “I checked it out while you were sleeping. They hid a lot of jewels in the hems of their dresses and pants. Hamilton Holt said that at the Dostoevsky statue there was a jewel on the brick along with the words Alexei’s Playroom. I think we should keep our eyes peeled for an article of clothing in this playroom. I bet that’s where we’ll find what we’re looking for.”

  The royal village was coming into view and Amy tapped on the brakes, shifting Tiny Tim into low gear as it spluttered to a crawl.

  “Let’s leave Tiny as far away from the security guards as possible. I’d hate to see him get towed away.”

  They parked the car and walked along a lengthy row of gardens and opulent buildings. Grand white fountains trickled everywhere and the flowing lawns were perfectly trimmed.

  “Pretty nice place to be banished,” said Dan. “It’s not exactly a prison cell.”

  “No kidding,” said Amy. The royal village was even more spectacular than Amy had imagined. She’d seen pictures, but they hadn’t come close to capturing the endless lawns and beautiful buildings.

  “That one is Catherine Palace,” said Amy, pointing to a building that went on for what seemed like a mile.

  “The Russians like their buildings long,” said Dan. Catherine Palace looked to Dan like an extended doll-house. It was bright blue with white accents and gold trim, about fifty feet tall and ten times as long.

  “And that’s our destination,” said Amy, pointing down the long row of gardens in the center of the royal village. “Alexander Palace. Come on, maybe we can get in and out fast.”

  Alexander Palace was completely different from Catherine Palace. Ancient white columns of stone stood before pale yellow walls that seemed to go on forever in a wide U-shape. Behind the circular driveway lay a sprawling green lawn leading to a shimmering pond.

  “I hope you know where we’re going,” said Dan. “This place is gigantic. It could take hours to find one room.”

  “I’ve got it covered,” said Amy. She had taken down notes on a piece of hotel stationery, which she pulled out of her pocket.

  “According to a travel blog I read, Alexei’s Playroom is on the second floor in the children’s wing. We go past the Crimson Room, which will put us in the Marble Hall, then to a Portrait Hall …”

  Amy kept reading off elaborate directions until they arrived at the arched front door and entered the palace. A uniformed tour guide nodded and smiled.

  “Can you point us in the direction of Alexei’s Playroom?” asked Dan.

  “Certainly.” The man turned and pointed to a wide set of stairs. “Up there, down hall, left. Is great room.”

  Amy put away her directions and scowled at Dan. “Show-off.”

  Within minutes, they were standing at the doorway of one of the most incredible playrooms Amy had ever seen.

  “This kid had it good,” said Dan. “I’d never leave unless I had to eat or use the bathroom.”

  Alexei’s Playroom was a vast space filled with handmade toys of every imaginable kind. There was a miniature tepee at the center of the room with two child-size canoes standing by. An elaborate train set with tracks running every which way, a giant stuffed sheepdog, sailing ships, and crates of blocks. The ceiling was hung with airplanes and gliders, and toy houses lined one entire wall.

  “I don’t see any clothes, do you?” asked Amy. The exhibit was designed to allow viewers to walk through the middle of the playroom on a narrow red carpet and exit on the other side.

  “Come on,” said Dan. “Let’s get a closer look.”

  “Your parents are nearby?”

  Amy was on edge already and the voice startled her. When she turned, she saw that the tour guide from downstairs had followed them up.

  “Children are not allowed without parents. Little hands are tempted.”

  Amy wished Dan had left the goatee on, but it was too late now.

  Dan glanced at her, then started talking. “This whole vacation has been the pits. Booooring. Just our luck we finally find something really cool and we can’t go inside.”

  Amy caught on quickly and jumped in. “Our mom and dad are still over at Catherine Palace, looking at paintings. Ugh.”

  The tour guide seemed to understand.

  “My children love this room also.”

  “Can you take us in?” pleaded Dan.

  The tour guide glanced back down the hall. It was early yet and the palace was relatively empty. No one else appeared to be coming.

  “Hands in pockets, please! No touching!”

  Amy and Dan
reluctantly pocketed their hands, and the tour guide entered the room in front of them. He was showing them the ships when a rambunctious set of very young British children appeared in the doorway.

  “Mummy! Look at the toys!” yelled one of them, and they were off on a tear, heading straight for the tepee.

  “Stop! Stop! Stay on red carpet!” protested the tour guide. The parents tried to intervene, but the two children raced from one item to the next, just out of reach of the guide.

  This is my chance, thought Amy, spying a closet door. Dan stood his ground, trying his best to obscure her escape from the chaos in the room. Before the guide could turn around, Amy had slipped into the closet and closed the door.

  It was dark inside but for a sliver of light seeping through the bottom of the doorway. Amy felt around and discovered that the closet was full of hanging clothes. Could these really be items from such a long time ago? Her fingers searched through silky soft and lacy cloth for a jewel along the hems. She reached into a pocket and latched her fingers around something hard. It was small and round, solid and firm, but when she lifted it out and held it close, she felt a fizzy sting in her nose.

  Mothball!

  “Eeeww,” she whispered, dropping the round white ball back in the pocket where she’d found it. Amy dug her fingers into all the pockets she could find: nothing but more mothballs and pieces of fuzz.

  The sound of the tour guide’s muffled voice returned.

  “Where is sister?”

  “She’s gone up ahead. I think I’ll do the same,” said Dan.

  Amy’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness as she kept at it, scrunching each article of clothing between her fingers. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as if the tour guide was still just outside the door, making sure everything was properly in place.

  What’s this? She had reached into the back of the closet to feel along the hem of a child’s dress. Amy got down on her hands and knees and crawled in deeper, keeping a tight grip on the small lump she’d discovered.

  Just then, the handle on the closet door turned and the door opened. Amy stayed perfectly still at the back of the closet, hidden in the forest of coats and dresses. She could see the silhouette of the tour guide.

 
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