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The black circle, p.8
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       The Black Circle, p.8

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Mary-Todd Holt pulled out a well-worn pocket-size journal and made a notation.

  “You’re falling behind in the standings, sugar maple. You can do better.”

  Eisenhower had flopped down on all fours, his usual move when he’d lost the flag. Hamilton, Reagan, and Madison jumped on board. When Eisenhower stood up again, he shook with all his might until his children fell off in a pile at his feet.

  “I keep telling you,” fumed Reagan, “you need to be quieter. We’ll never catch up if you can’t learn to stalk like a cat.”

  “Look at the size of these guns!” yelled Eisenhower, pointing to his preposterously bulging biceps. “It ain’t easy keeping these guys still. They like to fight.”

  “My dad is a dork,” said Reagan. “Someone help me, please.”

  Eisenhower pulled Hamilton aside, threw an arm around him, and began walking. The father and son were like two buildings, big and solid.

  “Did you hear from them yet?” asked Eisenhower. He knew it was past time for a father-son chat, but somehow they never went quite as planned.

  “Just a few minutes ago,” said Hamilton. Already the boy was looking defensive. “They told me where to go. I think we’re getting close.”

  “We’re putting an awful lot of trust in you on this deal. It would be a monumental disappointment if they were tricking us.”

  “No way, Dad. This is the real deal. I’m sure of it.”

  “You better be. You fail, the whole family fails. And you know how I feel about failure.”

  They walked a little farther and Eisenhower slapped his son on the back.

  “You do realize we’ll have to double-cross them in the end. We can’t risk falling behind here. If a clue comes our way, we need to keep it for ourselves. And don’t think for a second they won’t do the same to us given the chance. They’re no better than their parents were in that department.”

  “Dad … I was thinking. We’ve got a lot more stuff to find before this is over,” said Hamilton, tension visible in his shoulders. “Maybe a partnership makes sense?”

  “You going soft on me?” asked Eisenhower. “This is a competition, not a playdate. When the time comes, we cut the cord and leave them behind. End of discussion.”

  “But, Dad—”

  “I said END OF DISCUSSION! Don’t overstep your pay grade, young man. Just get the job done and leave the rest to me.”

  Hamilton’s shoulders slumped, and deep in Eisenhower’s chest, his heart squeezed. But there was a chain of command that had to be followed. Or else people got hurt. Even killed.

  “My dad was bigger than me,” said Eisenhower, his eyes on his own family. “A mountain of a man.”

  Eisenhower fell silent as they walked back toward the twins, thinking about his father. Eisenhower’s mother had died really young and it had been just the two guys living together. A lot of sports. Not a lot of anything else. And that had been fine. Just fine.

  “Fall in, team!” cried Eisenhower. “New orders!”

  “We can’t seem to shake those Kabras,” said Mary-Todd, thumbing her hand behind her. A black Land Rover had pulled into an alley, where it sat idling, spewing exhaust.

  “We’ll deal with them soon enough,” said Eisenhower. He looked at his son with a mix of admiration and concern, which was the closest thing to praise he knew how to give.

  “Tell us where we’re going, Ham. And make it snappy!”

  “I have a hunch about something else,” said Amy. “Do you want to hear it?”

  They were sitting in the St. Petersburg airport, awaiting instructions, and Dan was itching to hit the magazine stand for some junk food.

  “Can it wait until I refill the backpack with provisions?”

  Amy rolled her eyes.

  As they walked, Amy laid out her idea.“Everything we’ve found has been carved or sculpted, right? First it was the little room in the paperweight, then the Rasputin figurine, then the coat of arms carved into wood and painted, and finally the stone with the broken bones. They’re all intricately made pieces of art.”

  They entered the store and Dan started perusing the shelves.

  “And we keep getting this recurring color — orange, like honey,” said Amy. “The paperweight was a murky orange. Rasputin’s model, it’s the same. The snake was orange, the stone is orange. At first I thought it was just a Russian thing, but I’m starting to think it means something else.”

  “Uh-huh,” said Dan, barely paying attention as he grabbed a handful of candy bars. “So what’s it mean?”

  His arms were overflowing with bags of chips, gum, and candy, which he dumped onto the counter.

  Amy leaned in to whisper, “I think when NRR talks about ‘the room,’ he’s talking about the Amber Room.”

  “What’s that?” asked Dan.

  “Nine hundred rubles,” said the lady at the cash register.

  They paid, dropped most of the snacks in the backpack, and continued walking. Amy started into a chocolate square while Dan devoured a Kit Kat bar. “It’s a room made out of amber.”

  Dan looked blank, so Amy continued. “You know, that stuff they got the dinosaur DNA from in Jurassic Park. This room was absolutely amazing. Wall after wall of intricately carved images. It’s a priceless treasure. And guess where it was? At Catherine Palace in the royal village.”

  Half the Whoppers crammed into Dan’s mouth sprayed out. “We were just there! Why didn’t you tell me? We could have stopped in and found something important.”

  “It would have been a waste of time. The Amber Room was stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. And then it disappeared. No one knows where it ended up, but some think it secretly made its way back into Russia after the war.”

  “How do you lose a room?”

  “It’s over a hundred and fifty feet of walls, to be precise. And they used six tons of amber,” said Amy, switching over to the bossy teacher voice that grated on Dan’s ears.

  “I’m guessing the Amber Room, if that really is the room we’re after, is either in Moscow or Yakville,” said Dan.

  “Yekaterinburg,” corrected Amy, popping another square of chocolate into her mouth.

  “Whatever. Let’s just hope it’s not in Siberia with the Holts.”

  Bzzzzzzzzzz. Bzzzzzzzzz. Bzzzzzzzzzz.

  Amy and Dan had both fallen asleep in the airport while Nellie’s phone vibrated. On the fourth vibration, Dan woke up. The phone sat between them on the backpack.

  “Hello? That you, Hamilton?”

  “Wooooooohoooooooo!” sounded a voice from the other end. Dan held the phone away from his ear and Amy stirred awake, rubbing her eyes.

  “We fell asleep,” she said.

  “No, duh,” said Dan. “I think I’ve got Hammerhead on the line. He’s in high spirits.”

  “Hamilton here! My dad just took the wheel. We’re taking turns with this thing. It’s amazing!”

  “What are you talking about?” said Dan.

  “Dude, we’re driving a KAMAZ truck down the Road of Bones! This thing is like a tank!”

  “NO WAY!” howled Dan. “A KAMAZ truck? Are you kidding? That’s a classic!”

  “What’s a KAMAZ truck?” asked Amy, listening in.

  “It’s the Godzilla of all Hummers! The Russian Monster Truck! Plus, it’s a Transformer … sort of … I mean, they use the same giant mother of a chassis and build a monster anything on top — dump trucks, army trucks, all-terrain buses — the KAMAZ is an all-weather, twelve-gear hunk of metal! How could you not know about this?!”

  “Okaaaaaaaaay,” said Amy.

  “That should be me driving!” Dan yelled into the phone.

  “Eat your heart out,” said Hamilton. Amy grabbed the phone. “What’s going on? Where are you?”

  “We’re heading back. Already made it to mile fifty-two WAY ahead of the Kabras. They bottomed out ten miles back. Reagan wanted to help ’em out when we passed by, but Dad said, ‘Let ’em call a tow truck.’ Dude! It’s a KAMAZ!”
>
  Dan plugged his ears. He couldn’t stand the sound of Hamilton Holt having so much fun while he sat bored in an airport. Amy grabbed the phone.

  “What did you find? Hamilton? Are you there?”

  The line was loaded with static, cutting in and out as the truck passed over the Road of Bones.

  “Hamilton, listen to me. I can barely hear you. What did you find? We’re running out of time here!”

  “Oh, yeah, I almost forgot! It wasn’t hard to see once we got there, I’ll tell you that. The thing was just sitting there on the side of the road.”

  Dan could tell Amy was about to blow a gasket while Hamilton stalled.

  “WHAT was sitting on the side of the road?”

  “Uh-oh,” said Hamilton. “There’s the Kabras. They are NOT happy. What the—? No way!”

  A loud crunching noise filled the cell phone speaker. Even Dan could hear it.

  “My dad just drove over the Land Rover! This is incredible! You GOTTA try this! What’s … oh, no … hey!”

  “WHAT … DID … YOU … FIND?” Amy yelled. She looked at Dan. “What’s oh, no? Why the oh, no?”

  The line crackled and popped, then Mary-Todd Holt got on the line.

  “Hello, Amy, how are you? Hamilton and his father are … well they’re having a little skirmish with a couple of very big — oh, my, that had to hurt — PUNCH HIM BACK, EISENHOWER! … Sorry, dear. I can tell you what we found. There was a stake in the ground on the side of the road at mile marker fifty-two. It was in there really deep, but my strongman Mr. Holt got it out. Yanked it until his back seized up — that’s why Hamilton got to drive the truck. They’ve been taking turns. Anyway, it was attached to the strangest thing. The bottom wasn’t what you’d think, like a big block of concrete, it was a — well … it was a head. Not a real one, mind you — wouldn’t that be unpleasant? — I mean it was a sculpted head — NICE SHOT, HAMILTON! SHOW ’EM WHAT YOU GOT! — Pardon me, but my boy just clobbered one of these bodyguards right over the head with … um … the head. He’s doing a fine job out there. Where was I? Oh, yes, the head. It appears I’m going to have to get back to you on that. GET ’EM, HOLTS! HIT ’EM WHERE IT HURTS!” The line went dead.

  “You have got to be kidding me,” said Amy.

  Four minutes passed before the phone buzzed back to life.

  “We got ’em on the run!”

  It was Dan who picked up, and this time Hamilton was calling.

  “My dad is hobbled,” said Hamilton. “But he’s as tough as they come. Mom and the twins are out there bringing him in. Listen, I’m about to go a little rogue here. My dad’s not too big on me telling you what we found. Dude, can I trust you? I mean really trust you? If you double-cross me, my dad will go totally ballistic.”

  “You can trust me — I promise.”

  And the funny thing was, Dan was telling the truth. Something in his gut told him he wouldn’t be able to hold out after Hamilton had helped them so much.

  “Here’s the deal,” Hamilton started. “I’m no history nerd, but I know this head. Even my dad knew this head, after being here for awhile. It’s that Lenin guy, the one who started the Russian Revolution.”

  “The guy with the pointy goatee?”

  Hamilton started in about the driving and the cool head again, but he didn’t have long before Amy ripped the phone out of Dan’s hand.

  “Fork over the information, Hamilton! We’re running out of time!”

  “Oh, great,” Hamilton groaned. “It’s the bossy one. Get a pen and I’ll tell you what’s written across Lenin’s head.”

  “I’m ready,” said Amy, already poised with a pad and pencil, ready to write down whatever came out of Hamilton’s mouth.

  “SKP BAL BOX4 R3 D1 45231 D2 45102 D3 NRR.”

  “Are you sure you got it right?” asked Amy.

  “It’s right! Stop bugging me. What do we do now?”

  Amy looked at Dan, who shrugged.

  “Um … you’ve done a great job helping us. Head back to Moscow. We’ll be in touch as soon as we know something.”

  “Over and out,” said Hamilton.

  Amy turned to Dan.

  “Are you ready? You and I are going to break into the Kremlin.”

  CHAPTER 11

  Ian Kabra couldn’t decide what was worse: being stranded on a road of bones, or having to put up with his little sister.

  “Look at me! This is a disaster!” she howled.

  Ian quirked his lip at that. Natalie’s leggings were torn, her Prada shoes were scuffed beyond repair, and her normally sleek hair looked like it had been gone over with an eggbeater. Ian knew he hadn’t fared much better, bruised and battered after an all-out rumble with the Holts.

  “This clue hunt is stupid. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Natalie said, her voice particularly shrill in the small backseat of the busted-up Land Rover. The driver was on the phone trying to reach a tow company and gingerly feeling his broken nose.

  “The big guy is quicker than he looks,” said Ian, trying to lighten the mood. “I’d hate to take him on when his back is working properly.”

  “Face it, Ian, we’ve hit bottom. They trashed the car. We’re sitting on a road of peasant bones, and we’re stuck in Siberia. It’s a nightmare. I WANT TO GO HOME!”

  That was it. Ian couldn’t take one more second confined in a small space with Natalie. He stepped out of the car and paced, dialing his phone. Five rings later, he hung up, unable to reach his father. As usual. He dialed again. This time, after three rings, Irina Spasky answered.

  “I’m busy,” she snapped.

  “Our day isn’t going as well as I’d expected. I hope you have better news for me.”

  “Couldn’t handle the Holts? Why am I not surprised?”

  Ian refused to be distracted by the sniping. He gathered himself, took a very deep breath, and put in the order.

  “You have to get rid of them. They’re working with the Holts, and I’m pretty certain they’ve relayed another message. Dan and Amy are too close.”

  For some reason, Amy’s face and her stupid stutter flashed into his mind. He paused. “Get them out of Russia.”

  He had chosen his words carefully. It was not officially a kill order. And yet he knew Irina would go to any extreme to remove the risk.

  “Agreed,” Irina finally answered.

  “Relay the details when you’ve accomplished your task.”

  Irina clicked off her phone.

  It was done.

  The one-hour flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow gave Amy and Dan the time they needed to decipher the riddle and formulate a plan. They were back in their disguises, and this time they decided to leave them on until they were finished exploring the Kremlin. It didn’t seem like a good idea to visit the Russian center of power looking like two kids who’d gotten separated from their parents.

  Lenin, Amy had immediately assumed, was a reference to the Kremlin, where the preserved body of the leader of the Russian Revolution was still on display, decades after his death.

  This time, the rest of the riddle required the skills of both Dan and Amy. Amy was quick to put the first part together: SKP, she was sure, stood for State Kremlin Palace, a prestigious concert hall on the sprawling grounds of the Kremlin. Dan was first to suggest the meaning of the rest of the numbers and letters.

  “BAL BOX4 R3 must be a row of seats. Balcony Box Four, third row, to be exact,” Dan said.

  Amy nodded approvingly. “I don’t always think you were switched at birth with my real brother. The rest of the numbers must be some sort of combination or code. I bet we can figure it out when we get there.”

  A dash through the airport and a quick cab ride later, Dan and Amy stood squarely in front of the State Kremlin Palace, the guidebook open. They were down to a couple of hours, and a sense of heightened urgency crackled in their voices.

  “We’ll need to get to the upper section,” said Amy. They were looking at a seating chart for the State Kremlin Palace, where Am
y had circled Row 3 in one of the balcony boxes.

  Amy checked her watch again.

  “Two hours and counting. I don’t think we’re going to make it.”

  “We’ll make it,” said Dan, heading for the entrance of the looming white theater.

  There was a hallway outside the main seating area, with doors leading inside and lots of ornate artwork on the walls. Tourists were perusing the space, waiting for a chance to get inside and look around. The next tour didn’t start for another twenty minutes.

  “This is our chance,” whispered Amy. “Come on, we’ll sneak in while everyone is milling around.”

  Somewhere in the deep recesses of the very building in which Dan and Amy searched, a person tracked their every move.

  Very resourceful, these two, NRR thought. They might make the deadline after all.

  NRR dialed a phone and let it ring several times before the call was picked up.

  “Is this a secure line?”

  “I will not dignify that with an answer,” NRR answered.

  “Okay, okay. Just make it quick.”

  “I will be seeing them shortly. Do you still want me to go through with it?”

  A pause ensued on the line. NRR was used to this. The contact was a thinker who liked to weigh every option.

  “They are extraordinary, aren’t they? No one can say they haven’t proven themselves.”

  “They understood from the start it could not be done alone,” NRR responded.

  “And recruiting a team like the Holts? Simply remarkable. I didn’t think it was possible.”

  “So we go ahead, then?” asked NRR.

  “We’re a go. If they make it to your desk, take them to the room. I think they’re ready.”

  The line went dead and NRR turned back to the bank of video screens.

  CHAPTER 12

  All the doors into the theater were locked, but it was only a few minutes before a maintenance worker emerged, pushing a garbage can on wheels. Dan saw the opportunity they needed and shoved Amy into the man’s path. When she hit the cart, Amy caught her foot on the metal wheel and flew forward onto the marble floor.

 
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