The Last Oracle

Page 30

2:35 P.M.

Agra, India

Gray hurried down the street. The closer he got to the major intersection ahead, the worse the traffic snarled. Pedestrians were now packed shoulder to shoulder, slowly flowing through the creeping vehicles. The festival closed off the major thoroughfare. Traffic was diverted to secondary roads.

Horns blared, bicycle bells rang, people yelled and cursed.

Behind them, the scream of the motorcycles had wound down to a deep-throated growl. Even the hunters had become mired in this bog of humanity. Still, Gray made sure to stay low.

Kowalski shoved closer to him, ducking under the nose of a horse-drawn wagon. “Some of ’em are on foot now.”

Gray glanced back. The three black motorcycles had been slowly losing ground. The cycle’s passengers had abandoned the bikes and now followed through the crowd behind them. Two flanked the road, and one came down the center of the street.

Three threats had become six.

“Don’t like those odds,” Gray mumbled. He came up with a fast plan and told Kowalski what to do and where to meet. “I’ll take the high road. You take the low.”

The large man crouched in front of a truck. He stared at the muck of droppings from horse, donkey, and camel underfoot. “How come I have to take the low road?”

“Because I’m wearing white.”

With a shake of his head, Kowalski dropped even lower, one hand on the asphalt. In a crouch, he shuffled back toward the hotel.

Holding the Panama hat atop his head, Gray leaped to the trunk of the taxi ahead and fled across the top of it toward the festival. His boots pounded a timpani across the taxi’s rooftop and hood—then he bounded over to the next car in line and continued down the street, leaping and clambering across the tops of cars, taxis, and wagons. Shouts followed him, and fists shook in his wake. But in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the high road was the faster mode of travel.

Gray glanced over a shoulder. As he’d hoped, the hunters had spotted him. In order not to lose him, the three on foot had mounted the high road, too. They came after him from three different directions, but at least they were too unbalanced to risk a shot at him.

Crouching low, using Masterson’s cane for balance and support, Gray leapfrogged his way toward the noisy, boisterous festival. He had to lure the three footmen away from the motorcycles.

Divide and conquer.

Sliding across the roof of a van, Gray surveyed the congested sea of humanity behind him. Only this sea had a new shark in its waters now. Gray could not spot Kowalski, but he witnessed the man’s handiwork. Farther back, the lead motorcycle edged alongside a truck. When it reached the front, the cyclist suddenly jerked upright, his body shaking. Gray heard a distant pop-pop-pop, like the celebratory firecrackers that echoed from the festival.

The driver and cycle sank into the churning sea.

Kowalski remained hidden. With the hunters’ eyes on Gray’s flight, it was easy for the large man to drop back, lie in wait, then jab his stolen M4 carbine into the rider as he passed. Point-blank, muffled.

But the shark wasn’t done hunting these seas.

Gray left the large man to his bloody work and continued toward the confusion and chaos that was the festival. It sang, danced, cheered, laughed, and screamed. Music blew from horns and rang out with the clash of cymbals. It was the festival of Janmashtami, a celebration of the birth of Krishna.

From his vantage, he spotted patches of folks dancing the Ras Lila, a traditional Manipuri dance representing Krishna’s early, mischievous years when he had dalliances with milkmaids. The packed crowds were also dotted with piles of young men forming human pyramids, striving to reach clay pots strung high across the street. The pots, called dahi-handi, were filled with curd and butter. The game reenacted Krishna’s childish exploits, when he and his boyhood friends used to steal butter from neighbors.

Gray heard the traditional chant of support.

“Govinda! Govinda!”

Another name for Krishna.

Gray raced across the top of vehicles toward the festival. With the road ahead blocked off and traffic diverted, Gray’s high road ended at the street party. He leaped off the hood of the last taxi and into the crowd.

As he landed amid the mass of revelers, he shed the white hat and coat, removing his disguise and blending into the crowd. He kept the cane in one hand and his pistol pressed to his thigh as he pushed through the masses of people. He aimed for the edge of the festival where shops and food wagons crowded with patrons lined the street square.

The plan was to regroup with Kowalski at the northwest corner of the square. They dared not continue to the rendezvous at the fort until they knew they’d shaken their tail. Gray reached a building with a fire escape. The metal ladder was pulled down, the balconies crowded with people enjoying the festival below. Gray climbed to the second floor for a good vantage place to observe the crowds and watch for Kowalski.

Reaching the level, Gray spotted one of his pursuers as he leaped from the hood of a truck into the mass of the festival. His other two compatriots were already in the mix, readily discernible by their black helmets. One bent down and lifted a soiled, trampled white hat. He threw it away in disgust and frustration.

Gray hoped they’d realize the hopelessness of their situation and retreat. But nothing was ever that easy.

Kowalski burst into the crowd. His suit jacket was a rumpled ruin. His hands were empty, his cheek bloody. But his worst feature was his height. The man stood a head and shoulder higher than the average partier. He surveyed the crowd with a hand shielding his eyes against the glare as he pushed through the sea of revelry.

Only this time, Kowalski wasn’t the shark in the waters.

One of the helmeted men pointed in the big man’s direction, recognizing him. They closed in on him from all directions.

Not good.

Gray turned, but the balcony had grown even more crowded, the ladder jammed up with people. He’d never reach the center of the crowd in time.

Twisting back around, Gray mounted the top of the balcony’s railing, then leaped off it—straight up.

Overhead, a thick, oily wire was strung from the balcony above and across the square. Gray swept his arm high and hooked the ivory handle of the cane to the wire. His momentum and swing of his legs sent him skating along the wire, weighted down in the center by one of the large clay dahi-handi pots. He clutched the cane and swung his other arm straight down.

As his heels passed over the head of one of the helmeted hunters, Gray fired between his legs. The impact pounded the man to the ground, the helmet shattering like a walnut shell.

Then Gray hit the top of the human pyramid that was climbing for the clay pot. He knocked the topmost man down a peg and took his place at the top. As he scrabbled to keep from falling, the cane went toppling down the side of the pyramid—along with Gray’s pistol.

Faces stared up at him.

Including the remaining two gunmen.

Weaponless, Gray balanced on the shoulders of the man below him and shoved up. He grabbed the bottom of the large clay pot, unhooked it, and with a silent prayer to Krishna, he lobbed it down at the nearest gunman.

His prayer was answered.

The heavy pot hit the man square in his upraised face, exploding with a wash of shards and butter. He went down hard.

The third gunman lifted his arm, cradling a pistol. As the crowd screamed, he fired two shots at Gray—but Gray was no longer there. The human pyramid crumpled under him. Bullets whined past the top of his head as he fell.

He landed in a tangle of limbs.

Gray struggled around, trying to find a footing. The gunman stalked toward the human dog pile, his gun raised. Before he could fire, a flash of white blurred in front. The man’s head cracked back, struck in the face by the ivory handle of Masterson’s cane. Kowalski had wielded the recovered cane like a batter swinging for the bleachers.

Blood spurted, and the man fell straight-backed to the pavement.

Kowalski snatched up the man’s pistol and extended the cane across the tangle of limbs and men. Gray grabbed the handle, and Kowalski pulled him free.

“Death by butter,” the large man said. “Not bad, Pierce. Puts new meaning to watching your cholesterol.”

All around, the square had erupted in chaos. People fled in all directions. Uniformed police tried to wade against the human tide. Gray and Kowalski, now huddled low, allowed themselves to be dragged by the current out of the square and into the neighboring streets.

After a few harried minutes, the massive bulk of the red sandstone fort rose ahead of them, perched on the banks of the Yamuna River. They crossed toward the ancient walled structure—Akbar’s Fort—a major tourist attraction of the city, second only to the Taj Mahal.

Taxis, vans, and limousines lined the avenue before it.

“Pierce!” a shout called to him.

Shay Rosauro waved from beside one of the limousines, a long white whale. He marched over to her. Luca stood at the open door. Masterson and Elizabeth were already inside.

“Not exactly inconspicuous,” Gray said, eyeing the vehicle.

“Should hold all of us,” Rosauro explained—then offered a sly smile. “Besides, who says we can’t pimp our ride a little?”

“Lady knows what she’s talking about,” Kowalski said and strode toward the front. “Maybe they’ll let me drive it.”

“No!” echoed from both Gray and Rosauro.

With a wounded frown, Kowalski returned and ducked into the back of the limo. Rosauro followed.

Before joining them, Gray searched the sidewalks, the streets. No one seemed to be paying attention. Hopefully they’d shaken their tail completely. He craned around and stared across the curve of the river.

Off in the distance, the white marble of the mausoleum glowed with sunlight, peaceful and eternal, slumbering beside the bright water.

Gray turned his back on the Taj Mahal.

Only the dead slept so peacefully.

As he entered the back of the limousine, Masterson let out a gasp of outrage. “What did you do to my cane?”

Gray fell into his seat. The eighteenth-century ivory handle was bloody. The fine detail of the carved crane had been ground smooth from its ride across the braided wire.

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