“How hot is that place?” Monk asked, nodding to the town.
Konstantin refolded the map and stood. “We should not stop for a picnic.”
Monk stared back at the boy, appreciating his attempt at levity. But neither of them laughed. Still, Monk hooked an arm around the boy as they marched ahead. He gave Konstantin a reassuring squeeze and earned a silly grin in response. A rare sight.
Pyotr and Kiska followed with Marta in tow.
They had made it this far.
There was no turning back.
Half a mile away, Borsakov watched his targets vanish over a ridgeline. With a silent curse directed at the man who led the children, he knelt beside the beached raft used by the others and slipped his rifle from his shoulder. Before he continued, his weapon needed to be cleaned. After the long swim and slog through the swamp, his rifle was caked with mud and full of water. He broke the weapon down and carefully inspected each section: barrel, bolt assembly, magazine. He rinsed and dried all the parts thoroughly. Satisfied, he reassembled the rifle. The familiar routine returned him to a calm, determined status.
Once done, he stood up and shouldered his weapon.
Having lost his radio, Borsakov was on his own, the only survivor from the airboat crash. The pilot’s arm had been severed by the fan. Another soldier’s head had been caved in, struck by the edge of the flipping boat. The last had been found floating facedown, drowned.
Only Borsakov remained, though he bore a long jagged cut down his calf, sliced to the bone. He had used one of his dead men’s shirts to wrap and bind the injury. He would need medical attention to prevent losing his leg to infection from the muddy water.
But first he had a job to do.
Failure was not an option.
Limping on his bad leg, Borsakov set off after his prey.
September 7, 8:11 A.M.
Gray heard the words, but his brain took another moment to decipher them. A stinging slap cut through his grogginess. Light filled his head then dissolved into watery images.
Luca leaned over him and shook Gray’s shoulders.
Coughing, Gray pushed the man back and rose to an elbow. He stared around the room. He was in a bare cement cell with peeling, blistered paint and a rusted red door. Light came from a single barred window high up on the wall. Beneath the window, Kowalski sat on a moldy thin mattress, his head hanging between his knees, groaning with nausea.
Gray took a deep breath, forced himself to relax, and recalled what had happened. He remembered a hard climb out of the canyon at gunpoint, a short helicopter ride, then a cargo plane on a rain-swept airstrip. He fingered a bruise on his neck. Once aboard the plane, they’d been drugged.
Gray had no idea where they’d been taken.
“Elizabeth…Rosauro…?” he asked hoarsely.
Luca shook his head. He slumped against the wall and sank to his bottom. “I don’t know where they are. Maybe another cell.”
“Any idea where we are?”
Luca shrugged. Kowalski groaned.
Gray gained his feet, waited for the world to stop spinning, then stepped toward the window. It was too high to reach on his own.
Kowalski lifted his head, noted where Gray was staring. “Pierce, you’ve got to be kidding.”
“Get up,” he ordered. “Help me.”
Kowalski held his stomach but rose to his feet. He clenched his fingers together into a stirrup. “What do you think I am? Your personal ladder?”
“Ladders complain a lot less.”
Gray mounted the man’s grip, reached to the lower lip of the window, and with Kowalski’s help, he chinned up to the bars. He gazed across a strange landscape. A town, half consumed by forest, spread outward. The place looked dilapidated and shell-shocked. Roofs were covered in moss or collapsed, windows shattered into broken fangs, fire escapes dripped with icicles of rust, and weeds and bushes sprouted out of cracked asphalt. Across the street, a faded billboard advertised some sort of fair, depicting a Ferris wheel and carnival rides. In the foreground, a stylized version of a strappingly robust family headed toward the amusements.
Across the city, Gray spotted the same Ferris wheel from the billboard outlined against the barren sky. A lonely relic of former glory. Gray’s limbs grew leaden at the sight. He knew where he was. The abandoned amusement ride had become emblematic for the city.
“Chernobyl,” he mumbled and dropped back down to the floor.
But why had they been brought here?
Gray recalled the pathologist’s report on Dr. Polk’s body. The radiation signature suggested the professor had been poisoned here. Though further testing by Malcolm Jennings had clouded this assessment.
What was going on?
Over the next ten minutes, Gray searched the entire cell and tested the door. Though rusted, it remained secure. Gray heard sounds of someone out there: a shuffle of foot, a soft cough. Most likely a guard. He must have heard them talking and radioed his superiors because shortly thereafter a tromping of boots approached the door.
Too many to ambush.
Gray stepped back as the door pulled open. With pistols pointed, soldiers in black-and-gray uniforms stormed into the room. They opened the way for a tall man to step forward, framed in the doorway. His features were not unlike those of the father from the faded billboard outside. His face was all angles and hard corners; a trimmed beard defined a strong chin. He wore a navy blue suit with a red silk tie, tailored handsomely to his physique. Even down to his—
“Nice shoes,” Kowalski commented.
The man glanced to his polished black oxfords and frowned at the unexpected assessment of his wardrobe.
“Well, they are,” Kowalski said with a note of defensiveness.
The newcomer’s eyes shifted to Gray. “Dobraye utro, Commander Pierce. If you’ll come with me, we have some business to discuss and not much time.”
Gray remained where he was. “Not until you tell me where the two women—”
A hand waved dismissively. “Elizabeth Polk and Dr. Shay Rosauro. Both fine, I assure you. In fact, their accommodations are a bit more refined. But we had very little time to prepare. If you’ll come this way, please.”
The six soldiers with pistols diminished the politeness of the invitation. Led out into a hallway, Gray studied his surroundings. Cells lined both sides, plainly an abandoned jail. Through some of the open doors, he spotted standing water, rusted overturned beds, and refuse piled high into corners. It made their cell’s accommodations seem generous in comparison.
The hallway ended at a guard station. It had a view across an overgrown, weedy jail yard. In the distance, off by the horizon, Gray noted the tall ventilation tower that marked the Chernobyl reactor.
Closer at hand, a chair squeaked with an almost nervous sound.
Gray turned. A table stood in the middle of the room. Masterson sat behind it, straightening in his seat, again dressed all in white, looking well rested and smug. Gray had to refrain himself from leaping over and snapping the bastard’s neck. But he needed some answers, and cooperation seemed the best way of obtaining it.
Forced to a chair on the opposite side of the table, Gray sat down. A gun remained pointed at the back of his head.
Another stranger waited in the room. She stood behind the table. Her black hair framed a smoky face, stoic and unmoving. She was also dressed in a black suit, a close match in style to that of the man who had led Gray here. The stranger crossed to the table and sat down, barely acknowledging Masterson.
The man folded his hands atop the table. “My name is Senator Nicolas Solokov. Perhaps you’ve heard of me.”
Gray said nothing, which caused the man’s mouth to quirk with disappointment.
“No? Well, that will be changing,” he responded. He waved to the slim woman. She crossed to Gray, moving with a stiff grace. She sank to a knee beside his chair, tilted her head, and reached toward his hand. Before she touched him, she cocked an eyebrow, inquiring permission.
Gray shrugged. She gently lifted his hand and rested her palm beneath his. Her fingertips tickled the underside of his wrist. Her eyes stared deeply into his.
“We’ve already had a conversation with Elizabeth Polk,” Nicolas said.
“Dr. Polk’s daughter informed us of your discovery in India. Truly amazing. That information alone was worth transporting you all here. It’s fascinating to contemplate that our heritage extends all the way to ancient Greece, to the famous Oracle of Delphi.”
Gray cleared his throat. “Your heritage?”
He waved to the woman. “And Elena’s. We’re all from the same genetic bloodline.”
Gray remembered Luca’s story. “From the lost Gypsies.”
“Yes. Dr. Masterson has informed me that you were told about the unfortunate, but necessary acquisition of those children. In fact, my father was one of those Gypsy children. And I believe you’ve met another of our extended family. Little Sasha. A girl with a special talent.”
Gray knew to whom he must be referring, but he kept his features bland, feigning ignorance.
Elena turned to Nicolas and spoke softly in Russian.
The senator nodded. “So you have met Sasha. Please do not trouble yourself to lie.” He motioned to the woman at his feet. “Elena is quite—well, perceptive, shall we say. Her touch is very sensitive, measuring the heat of your skin, your pulse. She is also keyed into your pupils and breath. Nothing escapes her. She is my personal lie detector.”
Nicolas pointed to his ear. Elena turned, and with her other hand, she parted her hair behind her ear. Gray spotted a familiar curve of surgical steel. The same implant as the girl’s. The woman was the adult equivalent of Sasha, only with a different savant talent.
“She is quite remarkable,” Nicolas growled, his words warmly proud, but with a hint of something darker beneath.
Gray studied the man, noticing something missing. “So then where is your implant?”
Nicolas’s eyes narrowed back upon him. Gray enjoyed the flicker of irritation on his face, plainly a sore point. The man’s fingers combed over his right ear in a self-conscious gesture. “Such a course was not my path, I’m afraid.”