The Black Circle, p.9Patrick Carman
“You little monster!” she said, turning beet red and forgetting for a moment that she was visiting one of the more opulent concert halls in Europe, disguised as an adult.
When she got up, the man was wearing a cramped smile, trying not to laugh. He mumbled something in Russian that Amy felt sure meant “hopeless klutz,” then wandered down the long corridor, shaking his head.
Amy looked every which way, straightening her ridiculous wig and glasses, but there was no sign of her brother.
“Pssst. Over here,” said Dan.
Amy turned around and saw that a door to the theater was open just far enough for Dan’s goatee to poke out at her.
“Get in here before someone sees you.”
Amy backed up slowly as a group of women walked past, chatting quietly in Russian. By the time they’d disappeared, Amy had her back against one of the two doors. Dan grabbed her by the arm and yanked her inside.
“What’s taking you so long?”
Amy scowled at her brother. First he pushes me, then he pulls me. Now he gets all over my case.
“You’re starting to annoy me,” she said, gearing up for an epic brother-sister argument. But when she turned toward the stage, her anger melted away. Amy loved the theater almost as much as she loved books, and the State Kremlin Palace was a stunner if ever she’d seen one. The stage was set with blue lights shining down as night descended on the scene. There were scale model buildings and a Russian-style church deep in the background. It was breathtaking from where they stood, like a scene from a fairy tale in which Anastasia came back to life and Rasputin roamed the woods.
Long rows of seats lined the middle of the theater, all of them empty, awaiting theatergoers who wouldn’t arrive until evening.
Dan led the way into the darkness along the back wall of the theater. “The balcony’s up there, so the stairs can’t be too far. This place is gigantic. It must hold at least six thousand people.”
They could hear a door opening as they crept onto the stairs, which were hidden behind a curtain. Amy put her finger to her lips, then looked back to see that a security guard had entered. And what was worse, he had a giant German shepherd on a leash.
Dan waved Amy along and soon they were at the top of the gilded stairway, down a short hall, and standing in Balcony Box 4. Dan began searching for row number 3, then tried to imagine what D1 meant. He hadn’t got that far in his thinking before Amy could tell he was stumped. She crouched down low, peering over the edge of the balcony. The dog was guiding the guard closer toward the stairs.
“He’s coming this way!” said Amy.
She crept over to Dan, and they both looked at the scribble of numbers and letters on the piece of paper again.
“There are three Ds — D1, D2, D3. Maybe they refer to doors?”
“Could be,” said Dan. He whispered all the letters and numbers again. Sometimes it helped to say things out loud. “SKP BAL BOX4 R3 D1 45231 D2 45102 D3 NRR.”
“Hurry, Dan! That dog is serious business. It looks angry and hungry. You know what that means—”
Dan walked along Row 3 and sat down.
“What are you doing? This is no time to sit around! Do something!”
“I am,” said Dan. “I think I got this.”
“You think you got what?” Amy said nervously. She was searching on the floor for a button or a lock, anything that might get them away from the approaching guard dog. “Look for some dials or a hidden panel. Make yourself useful!”
Dan calmly got up and sat in the next seat over, seat number 5 in the row. He’d been in seat number 4. Then he got up again and sat in seat number 2.
“Seriously, Dan, you’ve lost your marbles.”
“I don’t think so,” he whispered. “45231 might be the order in which a person has to sit in the seats in Row 3. Let me finish.”
He sat in seat number 3, then moved right up next to Amy.
“If something doesn’t happen when I sit down, we’re in big trouble.”
He took a deep breath and plopped down in the seat. There was a soft snick behind a curtained wall at the rear of the balcony.
“I think you did something,” whispered Amy. She could hear the German shepherd sniffing at the top of the stairs now.
Dan and Amy moved quietly to the rear of the balcony and pulled back the red curtain. One of the panels had slid open an inch, revealing a black seam of darkness behind.
Amy nearly jumped out of the balcony at the sound of the guard’s voice. He was right outside, about to enter, as Dan slid the panel open just enough to glide through. Amy followed and the curtain dropped. She slid the panel shut.
The German shepherd whined and sniffed, searching everything in the balcony, including the curtain. But the dog didn’t find anything. Dan and Amy had vanished.
“I guess we follow the lights,” said Amy.
They were in a long, narrow corridor with runway lights embedded in the center of the floor. The walls and ceiling were black, so that it felt like walking in the midnight sky along a line of stars. They snaked back and forth for fifty feet and came to the end.
“Looks like an elevator,” said Dan. “D2 — door number two.”
Amy nodded her agreement in the darkness. A row of five elevator buttons, each round and circled in red, glowed softly against the black wall.
“Remember the order?” asked Amy. Dan stepped up to the bank of buttons and began pushing them one at a time. First the 4, then the 5, then the 1, 0, and 2.
The doors opened with surprising speed and Dan jumped back, accidentally clocking Amy in the arm with his elbow. The entire back wall of the elevator was covered with a giant portrait of the Kabra family. Ian looked particularly smug.
“They really think a lot of themselves, don’t they?” said Dan.
“You said it,” agreed Amy.
They glanced at each other, and Dan could see that Amy’s hands were trembling again. She had a lot on her plate, being the older of the two, always having to be the responsible one. Dan felt an unexpected twinge of guilt. “We’re doing okay, you know,” he said.
Amy started to smile, but just then the elevator began to plummet. She grabbed a rail and held on for dear life. Dan wasn’t so lucky. He rolled around on the floor of the elevator until it came to an abrupt stop, the doors opening once more.
“I’m starting to think this place is haunted,” said Dan. There was something about being way underground that scared Dan, like he was trapped in a mine shaft and the air was running out. “How far belowground do you think we are?”
Amy didn’t answer. Her eyes were locked on the monstrous Gothic door that stood twenty feet in front of them down a cavelike passageway.
“This is so Dungeons and Dragons,” said Dan.
“It’s D3, the last door. Dan, I think we found him. We found NRR.”
“We’ve discovered a lot more than that. I think we just found some sort of old stronghold.”
Amy walked out of the elevator and Dan followed until they stood before a door of iron and wood with an ancient set of dials set into its surface. There was only one problem. The writing on the dials was in Russian.
“Give me the guidebook,” said Amy. Dan unzipped the backpack and handed the book to Amy. She thumbed through the pages, trying to remember….
“Here! This is it. It’s zero to ten written out in Russian and English.”
Dan leaned over and glanced at the page. The passage was dimly lit at best, but he could see the strange Russian letters.
“Are we sure about this?” asked Dan.
Everything about their Russian journey had smelled like a trap, and now they’d entered some sort of secret lair from which they might not be able to escape. But none of that mattered to Amy, and she was pretty sure it didn’t matter to Dan, either. Come alone, as your parents did. The words thrummed in her mind, driving her forward.
“What if Mom and Dad were here?” she wh
“That’s exactly how I feel,” he said.
“You want to do the honors?” asked Amy.
“You bet I do,” said Dan. He scanned the list for a few seconds and went to work on the dials.
“Four … Five … One … Zero … Two.”
When the last dial was turned, the lock clicked open and the door slid back on its hinges with a grinding sound of old metal. A female voice echoed quietly from behind the door.
“Come in. I have been expecting you.”
“This place gives me the serious creeps,” Dan whispered.
“You’re not k-k-kidding,” stammered Amy. No one was waiting for them. They’d entered a small, round room with an elaborate painting that covered all the walls and the domed ceiling. There were no doors except the one that had closed behind them.
“Where’d she go?” asked Dan. “And how the heck are we getting out of here?”
Amy shrugged her shoulders nervously, gazing at the intricately painted walls around her.
“It looks like something Michelangelo would have done.”
“Hey!” said Dan. “I know some of these people. That’s Ben Franklin!”
Sure enough, the bespectacled figure was towering over their heads, holding the string for a kite and smiling into the sky.
“And I’m pretty sure that’s Napoleon. He’s definitely small enough,” said Amy.
“That’s gotta be Churchill,” said Dan, spying a round man making the V sign.
“Dan,” said Amy, her eyes huge in her face. “They’re all Lucians. Every one of them.”
Dan’s stomach sank. It could only mean one thing. “We’re in a Lucian stronghold,” he whispered.
“Bad,” said Amy. “Very bad! Let’s get out of here!”
She ran her hands frantically over the great surface of the door, searching for a latch or a dial that would set them free.
“Come on, Dan!”
There was a fast sliding sound from one of the walls, and Dan turned around to see that a panel on the far wall had opened. The painted form of Sir Isaac Newton stood next to the door and seemed to beckon them forward.
The voice returned, confident and smooth as silk.
“There is no need to be afraid. Follow the lights. Quickly now, before you’re caught!”
A runway of lights directed them down an endless hall, just as they had upstairs. These lights were orange, not white as the others had been, and they seemed to go on forever.
“Follow the lights until you reach the twelfth door on the left. And hurry! These halls never stay empty for long.”
“The voice must be coming from a speaker in this room,” said Amy. “She’s not in here.”
Dan and Amy took one last look at each other and nodded. They had no choice. Not two steps in, the panel slid shut and it was more dark than light.
“How many doors is that?” said Dan, trying to figure out just how imprisoned they’d become. “We’re never getting out of here.”
They counted the doors until at last they came to the twelfth. They stood for a long, silent moment. A door opened somewhere in the distance and they stood perfectly still. Dan turned his head and saw a figure seven or eight doors back walking away. The panel opened just long enough for the person to slip through and then it closed again.
“An agent of some k-k-kind, no doubt,” whispered Amy.
“Let’s do this,” said Dan.
He lifted his hand to the knob, then hesitated.
“Are you absolutely sure we went twelve doors on the left side?” asked Dan. “It would be a real bummer if we were knocking on the wrong door.”
The last thing Dan wanted to do was barge in on a meeting between dark-suited secret agents.
Amy hesitated. Dan could tell she wanted to go back and recount, just to be sure, but the panel at the far end of the hall opened again.
Dan turned the knob and the two of them darted inside the room, slamming the door behind them.
They were in what appeared to be a rather run-of-the mill office. There was a big oak desk, a rug over a wooden floor, and a freestanding globe of the world. A long white coat hung on an equally white coatrack, and the Lucian crest filled one entire wall. The only thing at all remarkable about the room was the person sitting behind the desk.
She wore a suit of white, which was all the more striking against her black hair. And she was, in a word, ageless. Dan couldn’t have said whether she was forty or sixty, for there was something very old about her eyes, and yet her face was unlined. She was beautiful in a classic Russian way. Amy stared at her as if the woman were a queen.
“You do make things interesting. I like that about you. Please, come, sit down,” the woman said.
There were two chairs before her desk, and Dan and Amy promptly did what they were told.
“You may dispense with the disguises. They do you no good here.”
Dan had set the backpack on the floor. He was happy to tear the mustache and goatee off his face and drop them in the backpack, glancing at his watch as he did. We made it! he thought. Only minutes to spare, but Amy and I did it!
Amy’s hair tumbled down as she took off the black wig and dropped it in the backpack.
“You’re very pretty, young lady,” said the woman in white. “I hope Grace was kind enough to tell you that when she was alive.”
“You knew Grace?”
The woman nodded, her eyes brimming with secrets.
“You might say our families go way back. I never met Grace Cahill personally. My mother did. They were both remarkable women — my mother and your grandmother. Remarkable women have a way of finding one another.”
I hope this remarkable woman doesn’t kill us, thought Dan.
Amy seemed to have no reservations. Her cheeks turned pink and she asked, “Are you the grand duchess Anastasia?”
The moment Amy said the words, NRR burst out laughing.
A light flashed on her desk and she resumed her air of dignity.
“If you’ll excuse me a moment,” she said. “Very bad timing, but I’m afraid it can’t be helped.”
She turned in her chair, away from Dan and Amy, and drew open the doors on a wooden credenza to reveal a bank of monitors. One of them was receiving a feed from the painted room Dan and Amy had just left.
“If you would be so kind, could you hide behind the desk? A call is coming in from someone who would find it very curious to see the two of you here.”
It was getting stranger by the minute, but Dan and Amy felt they had no choice, so down on the floor they went. A few seconds later, a familiar voice filled the room.
“Hello, Nataliya Ruslanovna Radova. You’re looking picture-perfect as usual.”
“You’re too kind, Irina Nikolaievna Spaskaya. What do you need?”
Dan couldn’t believe his ears. Irina Spasky was calling in. Every muscle in his body tensed as it now seemed positive they were trapped.
“I need you to send a team to the room. There’s a lot of activity going on and I want to make sure it’s well guarded.”
“Funny you should call. Ian Kabra made the same request only an hour ago. We’re already building a black circle.”
“Excellent. Did he tell you he was in Siberia, chasing the Holts down the Road of Bones? He’s got himself into quite a mess.”
“His father was not pleased, as you might imagine.”
“Maybe Vikram will finally come to his senses and put them both back in school, where they belong.”
“Would you like me to send the Shark to pick you up?” asked Nataliya.
“That’s an excellent idea. I’ve had some complications of my own, but I think I can get to the room before nightfall. Bring the Shark to me, I’ll bring it back. We can have that cup of tea you’ve been promising me.”
There was a pause in the room and then Nataliya told Amy and Dan they could come out.
“I’ve never heard Irina so … I don’t know … talkative,” said Amy.
“We have been friends a long, long time,” said the woman in white. She placed her elbows on the desk. “I understand her, so she talks.”
“Let me get one thing straight,” said Dan. “Are you NRR?”
The woman in white smiled thinly without showing her teeth. “You were expecting a man, I suppose.”
“Uh … well … not exactly,” said Dan. “Okay, you got me. I was expecting a dude.”
The woman in white chuckled and shook her head. “I am NRR. Sorry to disappoint you.”
Dan tried to offer an apology, but NRR put her hand up so authoritatively it clammed him right up.
“We’ve got enough time for a few more questions, but the call from Irina changes things. Your access to the room grows perilously small.”
“I don’t understand,” said Amy. She sounded frustrated and maybe even a little bit angry. “Are you a Lucian or not? Why are you helping us? Who are you?”
The woman in white sighed deeply, folded her fingers together, and tried to explain.
“I am not the grand duchess Anastasia, though I must thank you for the compliment. You’re not far off the mark. Anastasia Nikolaievna Romanova was my mother.”
“Your mother?!” said Dan, dumbstruck by what Nataliya was saying. “You’re Anastasia’s daughter? That’s insane!”
“Her only child, yes.”
“And she knew Grace Cahill?” asked Amy. “You expect us to believe our grandmother knew the grand duchess Anastasia?”
“Oh, yes, they were quite close, actually. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors about my mother. They’re true. She was not killed with the rest of her family. She escaped. And as I said, remarkable women have a way of finding one another.”
Amy was struck silent, but Dan was happy to fill the void.
“So everything we’ve imagined actually happened! Rasputin had some serious death-defying ninja skills and he passed them on to Anastasia!”
The Black Circle by Patrick Carman / Mystery & Detective / Actions & Adventure / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes