The Last Oracle

Page 42

Either way, they were at an impasse.

“Do we have a deal?” Mapplethorpe asked. “Otherwise, we’ll move on. There are always other children.”

Painter studied his adversary. To cure the child, he had no choice but to get into political bed with him. Painter could not let the girl die. He’d have to deal with the political fallout afterward.

Painter slowly nodded. “When can you be ready?”

McBride spoke up. “I’ll need an hour to collect Dr. Raev’s medicines.”

“We’ll be waiting,” Painter said and stood, ending the summit.

Mapplethorpe followed him up and held out his hand, as if they’d just completed a real estate sale. And maybe they had. Painter was about to sell a part of his soul.

Still, with no choice, he shook the man’s hand.

Mapplethorpe’s palm was cold and dry, his grip firm with certainty.

A part of Painter envied that level of unwavering conviction. But did the man sleep as well at night? As they departed through the wood-paneled restaurant and out under the blue-green awning, Painter was troubled by one statement by Mapplethorpe, a disturbing aside.

There are always other children.

Who was he talking about?

10:42 P.M.

Southern Ural Mountains

He had to get away.

Monk sprinted toward the open water. Behind him, a tiger’s scream sliced through the night, coming from the flaming cabin.


The cat fought to climb through the window.

Monk increased his pace.

Ahead, he spotted a small raft out in the water. Earlier, Monk had hauled the old punt out of the reeds. He’d scraped away most of the moss and found the raft still floated. Unfortunately, there were no oars, so Monk had fashioned a long pole out of the trunk of a sapling.

Out in the deeper water, Konstantin stood in the stern of the raft and leaned hard on the makeshift pole. The raft drifted farther away. At least they had made it.

As planned, the children had crawled out from under the cabin while Monk had distracted the cats. The raft waited for them a yard offshore. They were to hop on board, shove off, and head for the deepest water.

Monk was supposed to have joined them—but his exit from the cabin had not gone as smoothly as he’d hoped.

The delay gave time for the second tiger—Arkady—to tear around the flaming cabin with a hiss of fury and charge straight at Monk.

The drum of heavy pads trampled behind him. Monk fought for the water’s edge. Without a weapon, escape was his only hope.

Gasping, he stretched his stride.

The landscape jittered.

A low growl closed on him.

Footfalls pounded.

No breath.

Heartbeat in his ears.

A sharper hiss…ready to pounce.

The glint of water.

Too far.

Hopeless, he turned and dropped, skidded on his backside.

The cat hunched to spring with its last stride, but—

—out of the high weeds, a dark shadow leaped and struck the cat in the side. Monk caught a flash of silver. Then the shadow hurdled the tiger, hit the ground, and bounded headlong into a thick patch of willows and vanished.


The chimpanzee hadn’t left with the kids.

Arkady, caught off balance in midlunge, had been knocked on his side. The tiger thrashed back to his paws as Monk crabbed backward on hands and feet. Staggering, the tiger yowled a coarse, strangled sound.

Blackness poured down the cat’s throat, erasing stripes into shadow.


Impaled under his jaw, the handle of a knife protruded.

The bowie knife from the cabin.

Monk had lost it when he fell.

The chimpanzee had recovered it, used it, saved his life.

Monk remembered—and he couldn’t say how he remembered—that chimps were natural tool users. With twigs, they fished termites out of nests. With sharpened branches, they stabbed African bush babies out of holes in trunks.

And Marta was no ordinary chimp.

Arkady trembled all over, his yowl drowning in blood.

Another took up his cry.

Zakhar screamed with a violence that set Monk’s jaw to aching.

Monk shoved and fled toward the water. Reaching the muddy bank, he dove straight out and landed on his belly in the shallows. He kicked and lunged for the deeper water.

Zakhar’s howl swelled with outrage.

Monk splashed and paddled far enough to dive completely underwater. The cold cleared the panic, but even underwater, he heard the tiger’s scream. Holding his breath, Monk stroked and frog-kicked out into the deeper water.

As his lungs grew to burning, he surfaced quietly.

Treading water, he stared back toward the cabin. Flames cast high into the darkness. Limned in the firelight, Zakhar circled his brother. The other tiger did not move.

Monk heard Marta sweeping through the trees. He craned and saw her swing free and drop heavily to the raft. It lay ten yards away.

Monk swam to it and hauled himself atop it. He sprawled on his back, out of breath, panting.

On his left, Marta lay curled on her side, tucked tight, rocking slightly. A low moan flowed from her. Pyotr sprawled atop her, comforting her, holding her.

Monk lifted to an elbow, glanced to the cabin, then back to Marta.

As Zakhar continued to scream, Monk reached out a hand and rested it on the chimpanzee’s shoulder. Her body trembled, bent in a posture of grief.

It had to be done, he willed to her.

Arkady had been tortured, abused, driven half mad. The cat had become more a monster than one of God’s creatures.

Death was a blessing.

Still, Marta moaned.

Killing was never easy.

At the stern, Konstantin heaved on the long pole and sent them floating toward the heart of the swamp.

Monk sat up. Something caught his eye. Before they had settled in for the night, he had stored everyone’s packs on the raft. His gaze focused on a badge hanging from a zipper. The radiation monitor.

In the reflected firelight, it was plain to see.

The pink color had grown darker.

And with it, so did their hopes.

4:31 P.M.

Washington, D.C.

Yuri adjusted the flow of the drip line from the I.V. bag. His fingers trembled as he worked. He was too conscious of Sasha in the bed, lost amid the blanket and sheets. She was worse than he’d feared.

He silently cursed the hour he’d lost, waiting on McBride and Mapplethorpe. It was time he could’ve used to initiate Sasha’s treatment. Instead, he’d been locked up at the FBI building while the other two had gone about some private business. McBride finally returned with all of the medications from Yuri’s hotel room.

On foot, they had then crossed the Mall, where they were met outside the Smithsonian Castle and escorted down a private elevator to the secure facility below. They were searched, scanned, and blindfolded. Led by hand, Yuri had quickly lost his bearings in the subterranean maze of the facility. They finally reached a room, a door closed behind them, and the lock clicked.

Only then was his blindfold removed.

Yuri found himself in a small hospital room. One wall was mostly mirrored, surely two-way glass. Two people stood guard over the child: a tall auburn-haired woman who introduced herself as Kat Bryant and Dr. Lisa Cummings, whom he’d met at the restaurant. Lisa held out a stack of medical reports.

“We’re at your service,” Lisa said. “Tell us what must be done.”

Yuri set to work. He read all the reports, reviewed the latest blood chemistries. It took him another ten minutes to calculate the dosages. McBride tried to help, watching over his shoulder.

Yuri had growled at him, “Stay out of my way.”

The Americans did not know the alchemy in preserving the children. Yuri intended to keep it that way, and the method was too complicated to torture out of him. But he could not let Sasha die without trying to save her, so he had to let McBride watch. But once Sasha was safe…

Kat interrupted his reverie, standing behind him. “Will she be okay?”

Yuri tapped the drip. Satisfied with the flow, he turned and found the woman’s eyes upon him. Her hair was braided back from her face, revealing the worry in the hard edges around her eyes and mouth.

He sighed and offered her the truth. “I’ve done all I can. We’ll need hourly renal tests, urine specific gravities. It will give us some idea of the progress, but it will take five or six hours before we know if she’ll survive.”

His voice cracked with his last words. He turned away, embarrassed to show weakness to these strangers. He found McBride staring back at him, a callous glint to his eyes. The man had retreated to a chair by the door. He sat smugly with his legs crossed.

“All we can do is wait,” Yuri mumbled and found a seat beside the bed. A child’s book lay open atop it.

Kat reached down and collected it. “I was reading it to her.”

Yuri nodded. On the plane ride here, Sasha had leaned her head on Yuri’s arm while he quietly read her Russian fables. He smiled softly at the memory. They were trained not to grow attached, but she was special.

His hand drifted to where one of her fingers poked from the sheets. A blood pressure monitor was clamped to it. He ran his finger down the thin digit, so like a porcelain doll’s.

Finally he leaned back into his chair. It would be a long wait. McBride tapped his shoe on the floor. Machines shushed and beeped. After a few minutes, Dr. Cummings slipped from the room to discuss matters with the group’s pathologist. Kat settled into a chair on the opposite side of the bed.

As the first hour slowly passed, Yuri noted a pile of papers on the bedside table. A corner of a sheet caught his eye. It was heavily scribbled with a black marker. Glimpsing just the edge, Yuri recognized Sasha’s work. He shifted through various sheets, not comprehending their meaning. But on the last sheet, Yuri found a familiar face. He stiffened in his seat with surprise.

It was their prisoner back at Chelyabinsk 88.

Yuri kept the picture flat. McBride knew nothing about the capture of the American. He’d never been told. Still, Yuri must have stared too long at the picture.

“My husband.” Kat spoke up from the opposite side of the bed. “Sasha drew it. I think she saw his picture in my wallet.”

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