Luca nodded. “It is a tradition among our people, going back centuries, but Dr. Polk didn’t want anyone who was performing hokkani boro—the great trick.”
“Fakers,” Kowalski added. “Tricksters.”
“Dr. Polk knew there were those among our clans who we ourselves respected for their skill in this art. The rare ones. True chovihanis. Those with the gift. Those were who he sought.”
Elizabeth shifted straighter. “My father was doing the same with yogis of India. Taking DNA samples, looking for some commonality.”
Gray remembered how her father sought out those rare cases of documented yogis and mystics, those who demonstrated heightened abilities of intuition or instinct. The fortune-telling and tarot-card reading of the Gypsies would fit that mold. But the genetic angle was new.
It raised another question in Gray’s mind. “Why the sudden switch from studying yogis to Gypsies? What’s the connection?”
Luca stared at him as if he were dense. “Where do you think the Romani clans come from?”
Now it was Gray’s turn to be baffled. He actually didn’t know much about the nomadic Gypsy clans, certainly not their origins.
Luca noted his confusion. “Not many know our story. When our clans first moved into Europe, we were thought to have come from Egypt.” He rubbed the back of his hand across his burnished face. “Because of our dark skin, dark eyes. We were called aigyptoi or Gyptians, which later became the word Gypsies. Until only recently, even our clans were unsure of our origins. But linguists recently discovered that the Romani tongue has its roots in Sanskrit.”
“The language of ancient India,” Gray said, surprised, but he was beginning to understand the connection now.
“We arose from India. That is amaro baro them, our ancestral homeland. Northern India, to be precise, the Punjab region.”
“But why did you migrate away?” Elizabeth asked. “From what I understand of your history, you had a hard time in Europe.”
“Hard time? We were persecuted, hunted, killed.” Fire entered his voice. “We died by the hundreds of thousands at the hands of the Nazis, forced to wear the Black Triangle. Bengesko niamso!” This last was plainly a curse at the Nazis.
Elizabeth glanced away from his vehemence.
Luca shook his head, calming himself. “Not much is known about our early past. Even historians can’t say for certain why the clans left India. From old records, we know the Romani clans fled India sometime in the tenth century, passing through Persia to the empire of Byzantium and beyond. War plagued northwest India during that time. Also India had come to adopt a strict caste system. Those left at the bottom, classified as casteless, were deemed untouchable. These included thieves, musicians, dishonored warriors, but also magicians, those whose abilities were considered heretical by the local religions.”
“Your chovihanis,” Gray said.
Luca nodded. “Life became unbearable, unsafe. So the casteless banded together into clans and left India, headed west, for more welcoming lands.” He snorted bitterly. “We are still searching.”
“Let’s get back to Dr. Polk,” Gray said, redirecting the conversation. “Did you cooperate with the professor’s request? Did you supply him with those samples?”
“We did. A payment in blood. In exchange for his help.”
Gray studied the man. “Help in doing what?”
His voice fired up again. “To find something stolen most brutally from us. The very heart of our people. We—”
The plane bumped violently. Glasses rose in the air, as did Kowalski. He scrabbled from his blanket with a shout of surprise. Gray, belted in his seat, felt his stomach climb into his throat. They lost elevation fast.
The pilot came on over the intercom. “Sorry about that, folks. Hard air ahead.”
The whole plane shook.
“Buckle in tight,” the pilot continued. “We’ll have you on the ground in another hour. And, Commander Pierce, we have a land-to-air call for you coming from Director Crowe. I’ll patch it back to you.”
Gray motioned everyone into their seats. Kowalski had raised his seat back and was already snugging his belt tight.
Swiveling his own chair away from the others, Gray removed the phone from his armrest and lifted it to his ear.
“Commander Pierce here.”
“Gray, I thought I’d brief you on what Lisa and Malcolm learned about the device attached to the skull.”
As Gray listened to the director explain about microelectrodes and autistic savants, he stared out the window. He watched the sun settle to the west as the jet screamed to the east. He pictured the girl’s small face, her fragility, her innocence.
At least she was safe.
But a question nagged at Gray.
Are there others like her out there?
Southern Ural Mountains
Monk ran with Pyotr in his arms alongside the streambed. The boy clung to him. His eyes were still glassy, his face damp with both sweat and tears. Kiska raced ahead, following the long lope of Marta, who knuckled with both arms. Konstantin kept to Monk’s side.
“How do we know what Pyotr saw was real?” Monk gasped out to Konstantin. “Tigers? Maybe it was just a daydream, a waking nightmare.”
The older boy turned slightly and pulled his wool cap up. He combed back his hair to reveal a shiny curve of steel behind his ear. “You were not the only one operated on.” He pulled down his cap and nodded to Pyotr. “What he saw was no dream.”
Monk struggled to comprehend. Konstantin had already explained how Monk had ended up here, rescued from a sinking cruise ship, based on a drawing done by Pyotr’s sister. It made no sense.
Maybe he was the one dreaming.
Konstantin continued, “There are two Siberian tigers kept at the Menagerie. Arkady and Zakhar. The soldiers sometimes hunt with them in the deep forest. Wild boar and elk. They are very smart. Not easy to fool.”
“How far away?” Monk asked.
Konstantin spoke in Russian to the boy.
Pyotr answered in the same tongue. As he spoke, his voice grew firmer, coming more fully out of his trance.
Konstantin finally nodded. “He does not know. Only that they are coming. He can taste their hunger.”
Monk hurried them down the stream to where it emptied into a wider river. He heard the rush of water before seeing the course. It dug a deep channel. If they could get across—
Something screamed into the air. High overhead and farther back up the narrow valley. It kept on wailing, piercing like a siren. It made his teeth ache and vibrated his bones. The children dropped flat to the ground, covering their heads and rolling in agony. Marta hooted and trotted a protective ring around them.
Cringing against the noise, Monk peered up between spruce branches. Something wafted down into the back half of the valley. It drifted on a red parachute, like a flare, but it carried a round metal object the size of a baseball. The piercing wail came from it. Some sort of sonic flare. Climbing on a boulder, Monk spotted other red pinpricks in the distance. More flares.
He hopped down.
They must be blindly strafing in all directions.
A frantic crashing erupted on the far side of the stream.
Monk caught a flash of tawny fur. His heart thudded in panic.
Instead, two roe deer smashed into view, and with a flash of dancing hooves, they darted away. Monk forced his heart out of his throat and crossed to the children. The sonic blast had flattened them. The hunters knew of the kids’ hypersensitivity and were trying to immobilize them.
Monk scooped Pyotr up with his stumped arm and tossed him across his shoulder. He dragged Kiska to her feet and supported her around the waist, hiking her up. Burdened, Monk crossed to Konstantin, intending to kick the boy into action.
They dared not stop.
Marta intervened. She nosed under Konstantin’s chest and pulled one of his arms over her back. Supporting him with her shoulders, she sidled down toward the river below. The boy’s legs dragged behind her.
Monk followed with the other two children. While deafened by the sonic flare, Monk still felt the boy’s trembling moans of agony. He hobbled faster and reached the river’s course.
The water flowed through a steep-banked channel, a full four meters wide. It churned and gurgled, loud enough to dull the sharper ranges of the sonic flare.
Monk waved to Marta. He pointed downriver. She swung in that direction. They continued, following the twisting course. After a few turns, the steep ridges blocked more and more of the wailing.
Kiska stirred first. She knocked free of Monk’s arm and gained her own feet. She still covered her ears with her hands. Konstantin soon followed, freeing Marta, who panted and gasped, knuckling on both arms.
As they fled from the screams, Monk kept a watch behind him.
Expecting at any moment to see a pair of tigers loping after them.
Distracted, he ran into Kiska, who had stopped. Tangled, he toppled to his knees, dropping the boy to the ground.
Konstantin had also halted at his sister’s side, frozen in place with Marta. It seemed they had more to fear than just the hunters behind them.
Beyond the pair, a massive brown bear rose up from the riverbank. It had to weigh six hundred pounds, damp from the river and plainly tense from the caterwauling of the flares. Black eyes stared back at their party. It rose up on its hind limbs, stretching eight feet tall, bristling, growling, baring yellow teeth.
The Russian grizzly.
The symbol of Mother Russia.
With a roar, it fell and charged straight at them.
The old man woke into brightness. It stung his eyes and pounded into his skull. He groaned and turned his head away. Nausea spilled burning gorge up into his throat. He choked it back down with a gasp.
He blinked away the glare and found himself strapped to a bed. Though a sheet covered him, he knew he was naked. The room was stark white, clinical, sterile. No windows. A single door with a small barred window. Closed.
A figure sat in a chair beside the bed, in a suit, the jacket hung on the seat back, sleeves rolled up. His legs were crossed, his hands folded primly on his lap.