The Last Oracle

Page 27

Gray twisted in his seat. “We’ll be at the hotel in another ten minutes,” he called back to them.

The taxi sped to where the road ended at the Yamuna River. Its waters glinted like blue steel in the bright sunlight, lined by palms. To the left rose a massive fort built of red sandstone, with high parapets and thick walls. Reaching the river, they turned away from the fort and followed the curve of the waterway.

Traffic slowed again, but in only a few minutes, the view opened to the left, revealing an expansive parkland of meadows, gardens, reflecting pools, and patches of forest. The greenbelt hugged the banks of the river, but the true wonder seemed to float above it all, a cloud of white marble set against the shimmering blue sky.

The Taj Mahal.

The mausoleum was an engineering wonder and an architectural marvel. But at the moment, it appeared more like a dream, aglow and drifting in the heavens. Built over three centuries ago by the Mughal emperor Shāh Jāhan, to mark the final resting place of his beloved wife, it was to many a testament to the eternity of love.

But it was not their destination.

The taxi van skirted to the side and pulled up to a five-story white building, lined at each level by large arched windows, the Deedar-e-Taj Hotel. It was here they were to meet Dr. Hayden Masterson.

“The restaurant is on the top,” Elizabeth said as they piled out. She checked her watch. They were half an hour late.

Gray paid the driver, and they all crossed past a dancing fountain into the hotel lobby, gloriously air-conditioned.

“Kowalski,” Gray said and pointed to the front desk, “you and Luca secure our rooms. We’ll head up.” He nodded to Elizabeth and Rosauro.

Kowalski sighed heavily, but he mumbled something about a cold shower. He hovered a moment near Elizabeth as Gray turned toward the elevator. “Are you okay?” he mumbled to her.


“Back in the taxi. I thought maybe…you looked sort of…” He shrugged.

“Just the heat…maybe nerves,” she mumbled.

“I have just the ticket.” He leaned conspiratorially over to her and parted his suit jacket enough to reveal two cigars in an inner pocket. “Cubans. From the duty-free shop at the airport.”

She smiled at him. She could almost kiss him right now.

Before she could say anything, the elevator chimed behind her. Gray called for her to hurry.

Kowalski straightened and patted his jacket. He winked at her as he turned away. Actually winked. Who still winked? Still, her smile did linger on her lips as she turned to join Gray and Rosauro.

Gray ushered her inside and punched the button for the top floor. “Is there anything else we should know about Dr. Masterson?” he asked her.

“Just don’t mention Manchester United,” she mumbled.

“The soccer team?”

“Trust me, or you’ll never hear a word about my father or his research. Also, don’t push him. Let him get to the point in his own time.”

The elevator doors whisked open upon a strange sight. A large restaurant filled the roof level, sparsely occupied at this hour. Tables were set with linen and fine china. The smell of curry and garlic lingered tantalizingly in the air.

But what was unusual was that the entire restaurant slowly rotated. It spun through a panoramic view of the city, including the Taj Mahal.

At a table by one of the windows, a tall man unfolded from his seat. He lifted an arm, then lowered it, and tapped at his wristwatch.

Elizabeth smiled and crossed toward him, stepping onto the turning platform. It was a bit disconcerting at first, but she led the others forward through the nests of empty tables. A few servers in gold vests nodded a greeting to them.

It had been several years since she had last seen Dr. Masterson. He still wore his characteristic white suit, formal, colonial, with a wide-brimmed Panama hat that rested on a neighboring table. A cane leaned there, too, with a hooked ivory handle carved in the shape of a white crane. His hair, worn long to the shoulder, had also gone white to match, which she was sure did not entirely displease him. His face was craggy, leathery, tanned to a deep bronze that by now probably never faded.

Elizabeth made formal introductions. Dr. Shay Rosauro expressed what an honor it was to meet him, which went a long way to turning his irritated frown into something that bordered on welcoming. Women were a weakness of Hayden’s, especially the attention of someone as long-limbed and lithe as Dr. Rosauro. Elizabeth’s father had once hinted at why the professor had remained at the University of Mumbai, versus Oxford or Cambridge. It seemed to involve a sticky matter concerning an undergraduate student.

Hayden waved them all to their seats, making sure Dr. Rosauro was positioned next to him. By the time they were situated, the restaurant had rotated to a stunning view of the Taj Mahal.

Hayden noted their attention. “The mausoleum to Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the Shh Jhan!” he said with a bluster. “That dear wife of the emperor extracted four promises from the bloke.” He ticked them off with his fingers. “To build a great tomb to her, of course. Second, that he would marry again. Now that’s a wife! Third, that he’d be forever kind to their children. And lastly, that Jahan would visit her tomb each year on the anniversary of her death. Which he did honor, until the day he was buried in the Taj with his dear wife.”

“True love,” Rosauro said, staring out at the beauty of the mausoleum.

“And what’s a love story without a little spilled blood?” Hayden said and patted Rosauro’s hand. He left his palm resting there. “It is alleged that Jahan had the hands of all his artisans chopped off upon completion of the tomb, to ensure that they could never again build a monument with such grace as the Taj Mahal.”

At Hayden’s other side, Gray stirred, plainly anxious to bring the discussion to bear on the reason they’d all traveled halfway around the globe. Elizabeth brushed her toe against Gray’s, warning him.

His eyes met hers.

Don’t push him, she silently communicated.

As she faced around, Hayden’s right ear blew away with a spray of blood—at the exact time a sharp chime rang out like struck crystal.

Gray and Rosauro both moved while Elizabeth was still frozen in place. Rosauro yanked Hayden down to the floor; Gray tackled into Elizabeth. She caught a glimpse of a perfect hole in the pane of glass behind Hayden, radiating cracks.

As she fell, more holes appeared with ringing cracks—then she hit the floor, Gray on top of her.

“Stay down!”

She cringed flat as a barrage of gunfire ripped through the restaurant, coming from some sniper on a neighboring rooftop. Crystal glassware shattered. One of the servers twisted around, as if kicked, and fell flat. Blood poured out onto the tile floor.

Gray urged her to crawl. But Elizabeth was too afraid to move. The sniper couldn’t shoot her if she remained where she was. Gray corrected her of this misconception.

“He’s pinning us down!” he hollered to both Elizabeth and Hayden, who also seemed unwilling to move. “Trying to hold us here!”

Elizabeth understood what that implied. She gained her hands and knees. They had to move. Now.

More gunmen were on their way here.


September 6, 1:01 P.M.

Southern Ural Mountains

As the bear charged, the large man shoved Pyotr down the steep riverbank. Arms out, he struck hard and rolled. Branches poked, something scraped his cheek. Pyotr tumbled toward the river, scrabbling amid the wet ferns and slippery beds of pine needles. He didn’t know how to swim. Water terrified him.

Sharper screams cut through the bear’s roar.

His friends.

Konstantin and Kiska.

Pyotr’s knee struck a rock with a pain that shot to his spine. He landed flat on the riverbank’s edge. Water swirled past his nose.

He cringed back from his reflection in the dark waters. His image swam and churned, sunlight glinted and sparked as a strong gust stirred the branches overhanging the river.

Pyotr hung there in that scintillating moment of terror, suspended above the dark, dazzling water.

He’d had no warning of the brown bear until it rose up before them. Its gentle heart had been overshadowed by the hunger that hunted them, its steady beat muffled by the strident siren behind them.

Still, Pyotr’s terror spiked higher.

Not because of the water.

Not because of the bear.

Light and dark swirled under him. Oil on water.

Not the bear.

Not the bear.

He panted in dread.

The bear was not the danger.

Something else…

1:02 P.M.

Monk raised his pack, his only weapon, as the bear pounded down upon him. He had shoved Pyotr toward the water and the other two children into the underbrush on the other side. Marta leaped to a low branch and swung down toward Pyotr.

Monk hollered and swung his pack high in the air.

The bear barreled straight at him. Monk flung the pack hard and leaped to the side. Too late. As he flew, the bear struck his legs like a freight train, flipping Monk sideways. The pack bounced uselessly off its furry shoulders.

Monk hit the trunk of a larch tree broadside and crumpled to its base. With the wind knocked from him, he gasped and fought to his feet, his arms up to protect his face and head.

But the bear ignored him and charged onward down the deer track.

Monk stumbled back to the path. Forty yards away, the bear bowled into two shadowy shapes lurking there. Two tall wolves, long limbed and snarling. The bear swatted a massive paw and sent one wolf flying, end over end. The other leaped for the bear’s throat but found only yellow teeth and a fierce bellow of rage. The wolf howled, but still fought.

Monk noticed the cap of steel on the back of the wolves’ skulls. Hunters from the underground city. Scouts. There could be more.

Monk quickly gathered Konstantin and Kiska. Marta appeared, with Pyotr riding her back. Monk collected the boy and pointed.

“Run!” he whispered.

They took off together. If there were other hunters on the trail behind them, they would have to get past the bear. It offered some protection.

Monk glanced back as the battle continued amid roars and howls. The bear had reacted with swift and deadly aggression, responding with a blind hostility that bordered on fury. Did the bear have experience with these wolves? Had the soldiers hunted the woods with them? Or was it something more fundamental, a reaction to an affront against nature. Like a lioness swiftly killing off a deformed cub.

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