It all went along with his political plan to be seen as the bold reformer, while simultaneously harkening back to the former czarist glory of the old Russian Empire. Even his namesake, Nicolas II, the last czar of the Romanov dynasty, had been imprisoned and killed in Yekaterinburg, where Nicolas was born. While the czar had been a failed leader during his life, after his death he had been canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. The bishops built the gold-domed Cathedral of the Blood over the home where the family had been murdered. The construction marked a symbolic rebirth of the Romanovs.
Some claimed the forty-one-year-old Senator Nicolas Solokov, with his lankish black hair and curled short beard, was the czar himself reborn.
He encouraged such comparisons.
As Russia sought to rise again on shaky legs—burdened by debt and poverty, rife with graft and corruption—it needed a new leader for this new millennium.
Nicolas intended to be that leader.
And much more.
He allowed Elena to pinch away the ring of tissue paper from around his neck. She looked him up and down, then nodded her approval.
Nicolas stepped toward the lights waiting for him outside.
He pushed through the doors, followed circumspectly by Elena. The podium sat up at the top of the stairs, framed with the name of the orphanage behind him.
He marched to the bristle of microphones at the podium and held an arm high against the barrage of questions. He heard one reporter shout a question about his former ties to the KGB, another about his family’s financial connections to the vast mining operations out in the Ural Mountains. As he rose in power, so did the voices of those who sought to pull him down.
Ignoring the questions, he set his own agenda.
Leaning toward the microphones, he let his voice boom out over the nattering questions. “It is time to shut these doors!” he shouted, pointing back toward the entrance to the orphanage behind him. “The children of the Ukraine, of Belarus, of all of Mother Russia, have suffered from the sins of our past. Never again!”
Nicolas let his anger ring out. He knew how it looked on camera. The hard face of reform and outrage. He continued his impassioned plea for a new vision of Russia, a call for action, a call to look forward while not forgetting the past.
“Two days from now, the number four reactor at Chernobyl will be sealed under a new steel dome. The new Sarcophagus will mark the end of a tragedy and be forever a memorial to all the men and women who gave their lives to protect not only our Motherland, but also the world. Firemen who stood firm with their hoses while radiation burned away their futures. Pilots who risked the toxic plume to haul in concrete and supplies. Miners who came from across the country to help build the first shield to entomb the reactor. These glorious men and women, fierce with nationalistic pride, are the true heart of Russia! Let us never forget them, nor their sacrifice!”
The crowd behind the reporters had grown as Nicolas spoke. He was heartened by the cheers and claps as he paused.
This was the first of many speeches he would be giving, leading up to the ceremony at Chernobyl itself, where the new Sarcophagus would be rolled over the toxic core of the dead reactor. The original concrete shield was already crumbling, meant only as a short-term fix, and that was twenty years ago. The new Sarcophagus weighed eighteen thousand tons and stood half as tall as the Eiffel Tower. It was the largest movable structure on the planet.
Other politicians were already capitalizing on the event with similar events and speeches. But Nicolas had been the loudest and most vocal, a champion for nuclear reform, for cleaning up the radiological hotbeds around the country. Many sought to stifle his rhetoric due to the extreme cost. Members of his own parliament ridiculed and lambasted him in the press.
But Nicolas knew he was right.
As they all would see one day.
“And mark my words!” he continued. “While we put an end to one chapter of our history, I fear we’ve only put our finger in a hole in the dike. Our nuclear past is not done with us yet…nor the world. When such a time comes, I hope we all prove to have the same stout hearts as those brave men and women who gave up their futures on that tragic day. So let us not squander the gift they’ve given us. Let us bring about a new Renaissance! From fire, a new world can be born.”
He knew his eyes glinted as he spoke these last words. It was the slogan of his reform.
A new Renaissance.
A Russian Renaissance.
All it needed was a little push in the right direction.
Elena leaned toward him, touched his elbow, wanting a word. He tilted toward her as the crack of a rifle blasted from the park across the street. From the corner of his eye, he caught the flash of muzzle fire a fraction of a second before something ripped past his ear.
Elena pulled him down behind the podium as cries and screams erupted from the crowd. Chaos ruled for a breath. Nicolas used the moment to brush his lips across Elena’s. His hand combed through her long hair; one finger traced the curve of cold surgical steel that hugged the back of her ear.
He whispered into their kiss.
“That went well.”
Painter joined Gray near the front entry and stared at the video feed. He studied the guards held at gunpoint.
The shadowy man on the stoop called through the door, as if sensing their presence. “We mean no harm,” he said, his accent sharp, marking him as Eastern European.
Painter stared at the stranger on the screen. Then to the girl who stood beside him, holding the stranger’s hand. She was staring straight into the hidden camera.
The man called again. “We are allies of Archibald Polk!” He sounded unsure of himself, as if he didn’t know if those in the house would know what that meant. “We don’t have much time!”
Elizabeth hovered behind Painter. They shared a look. If there were to be any answers about the fate of her father, a risk had to be taken. But not too large of a risk. Painter hit the intercom button and spoke into it.
“If you are allies, then you’ll free our men and drop your weapons.”
The man on the porch shook his head. “Not until you prove you can be trusted. We have risked much to bring the girl here. Exposed ourselves.”
Painter glanced to Gray. He shrugged.
“We’ll let you inside,” Painter said. “But only you and the girl.”
“And I will keep your men out here to ensure our safety.”
Kowalski grumbled next to them. “One big happy family.”
Painter motioned Gray to take Elizabeth around the corner.
Painter kept his body to the side of the door. Kowalski flanked the other side, standing in his stockings. The large man raised his only weapon: the shoe in his hand.
That would have to do.
Painter undid the bolt and cracked the door open. The stranger lifted his palm to show it was empty. The girl held his other hand. She appeared no older than ten, dark-haired in a checkered gray-and-black dress. The man had an olive complexion with a heavy five-o’clock shadow. Maybe Egyptian or Arabic. His eyes, so brown they appeared black in the porch light, smoldered with wary threat. He wore jeans and a dark crimson Windbreaker.
The stranger turned his head, but his gaze never wavered from the open doorway. He barked to his men. Painter didn’t understand the language, but from the tones it sounded like a command to stay alert.
“He’s a Gypsy,” Kowalski mumbled.
Painter glanced to the large man.
“Had a family down the street from mine.” Kowalski thumbed at the stranger. “That was Romani he was speaking.”
“He is right,” the stranger said. “My name is Luca Hearn.”
Painter pulled the doorway wider and motioned the man inside.
The stranger stepped across the threshold cautiously, but he nodded a greeting to Painter and Kowalski. “Sastimos.”
“Nais tuke,” Kowalski answered. “But just so you know, that’s about all the Romani language I remember.”
Painter led Luca and the child back to the main living room. She moved with a slight tremble to her limbs. Her face gleamed with a feverish cast to it.
Luca noted Gray to the side, holding a pistol.
Painter waved for Gray to holster the weapon. He sensed no direct threat from the man. Only an unwavering caution.
Elizabeth stepped forward. “You mentioned my father.”
Luca crinkled his brow, not understanding.
Painter explained, “She is Archibald Polk’s daughter.”
His eyes widened. He bowed his head in her direction. “I am sorry for your loss. He was a great man.”
“What do you know about my father?” she asked. “Who is this girl?”
The child pulled free of the man’s hand and crossed to the table. She sat down on her knees next to it and rocked back and forth.
“The girl?” Luca said. “I don’t know. A mystery. I received a message from your father. A frantic voice mail. It was chaotic, spoken in a rush. He ordered us to buy a dozen Cobra Marine receivers from Radio Shack and to tune them to a certain wavelength. He sounded crazy, babbling off numbers. He wanted us to stake out the national Mall. To watch for a package that set off the receivers.”
“Package?” Painter asked.
Luca glanced down to the child. “Her.”
“The girl?” Elizabeth asked, shocked. “Why?”
Luca shook his head. “We owed your father. We did as he asked. We were even on the Mall when he was shot, though we didn’t know it was your father until later. But we did pick up the trail of the child.”
Painter studied the girl. There must be a bug, a microtransmitter somewhere on her person.
“We followed her to the zoo, where we were able to collect her without anyone knowing.”
“You kidnapped her?” Painter asked.
He shrugged. “The last words on the message were to steal the package and bring it to something or someone named Sigma.”
His words jolted Painter.
“The message cut off abruptly,” the Gypsy said, “with no further direction or explanation. Once we had the girl, we had to move fast. We feared others would come looking for her. Someone able to track her like we did. Especially with an Amber Alert raised across the district. But we had no idea what the professor meant by Sigma. As we raced around, trying to figure it out, the girl began to draw furiously.”