It was fitting that such an event would mark the beginning of the summit to come. A summit that would unfortunately never take place.
The limousine headed toward the stands that lined the south side of the old Sarcophagus. The seats were already filling with the invited VIPs. Speeches had begun on the stage that fronted the stadium seating, leading up to the official joint U.S-Russian statements, picked to coincide with the final seal of Chernobyl. The entire series of events was timed to the clockwork pull of the giant arch.
As was Nicolas’s plan.
A moment of fear flickered through him. Not unlike when he stood on the news podium as an assassin lined up for a fatal shot. Only the risk this morning was a thousandfold worse.
Fingers closed around his hand as it rested on the seat. He turned and found Elena’s hand upon his. She stared out the window, still angry, letting him know this was not over. Her fingernails curled and pressed hard into his palm, a promise that he would be punished later.
He leaned back as she dug deeper.
The pain helped focus him.
Ahead, the arch closed slowly upon Chernobyl.
He knew what was to come.
And he certainly deserved to be punished.
Gray paced the cell when he heard something thud heavily against the door. Kowalski scrambled up, and Luca straightened from where he was leaning against the wall.
“What the hell now?” Kowalski muttered.
The scrape of a metal bar sounded, and the door pulled open.
A figure stepped over the booted legs of a guard on the floor.
“Hurry,” the man said and waved his ivory-handled cane. “We have to get out of here.”
Gray stared in disbelief.
It was Dr. Hayden Masterson.
Confused, Gray remained frozen in place, caught between wanting to slug the man and shake his hand.
Masterson read his shocked expression. “Commander, I work for MI6.”
He nodded with an exasperated sigh. “Explanations will have to wait. We have to go. Now.”
Masterson headed down the hall, dragging them in tow. Gray stopped long enough to collect the guard’s sidearm, a Russian pistol called a Grach or Rook. The man had been knocked out, his nose broken. It seemed Masterson’s cane was more than show.
Gray caught up to Masterson. Suspicion rang in his voice. “You? You’re an operative with MI6?”
Kowalski mumbled behind him, “Not exactly James Bond, is he?”
Masterson continued to hobble along, but he glanced over to Gray. “Retired MI6 actually.” He shrugged. “If you call this retirement.”
Gray remained guarded, but he could think of no upside for this man freeing them from the cell.
Masterson continued in a wheezing rush. “I was recruited after I graduated from Oxford and stationed in India during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. I retired ten years ago, then stumbled into this mess when someone offered me good money to spy on Archibald. It didn’t take long to learn the Russians were behind it. So I contacted MI6 and let them know. It was designated low priority. No one considered Archibald’s work a threat to global security. To tell the truth, I didn’t either. Not until he was kidnapped and ended up dead in D.C. I tried to light a fire under MI6, but who listens to an old man these days? I couldn’t wait. Call it old instinct. I knew something bloody large was afoot. So I’m afraid, after losing Archibald, I had to use all of you to force an introduction.”
“Use us,” Kowalski said. “They killed Abe.”
Masterson winced. “I tried to stop them, but our friend was too quick with that whip-sword of his.” He shook his head sadly. “Maybe this is a younger man’s game after all.”
“But wait!” Kowalski stumbled with a sudden realization. “You were going to shoot me!”
Gray dismissed his concern. “Masterson was putting on an act.”
A nod. “I had to be convincing.”
“You damn well convinced me!”
“And it was lucky I was so successful.” Masterson turned to Gray. “The bloody bastard is planning on taking out half the world’s leaders today.”
Masterson drew them to a stairwell next to the old guard station and lowered his voice. “More men downstairs. They’ve had me holed up here. As much a prisoner as any of you. I’m off to free Elizabeth and Dr. Rosauro.” He waved down the hall past the guard station. “If I could borrow that shapely companion of yours, we’ll try to reach a phone and start an evacuation.”
“Take Luca, too,” Gray said. He wanted the civilians as much out of harm’s way as possible. Plus the Gypsy leader’s presence would go a long way to convincing Rosauro that Masterson was aboveboard.
Luca nodded his agreement.
“Fine. I can use his help,” Masterson said. He pulled a Russian Army walkie-talkie from his jacket and passed it to Gray, so they could communicate. “But in the meantime—”
Gray cut him off. “—I have to stop Senator Solokov.”
Masterson nodded. “You’ve got less than an hour. I don’t know what he’s planning, something to do with the ceremony over at Chernobyl.”
Masterson pulled out a piece of paper from his jacket pocket, unfolded it, and passed it to Gray. “They’re enclosing the old Sarcophagus at Chernobyl,” he said and nodded to the sheet. “Under a large steel hangar.”
As Gray studied the sheet, Masterson listed the dignitaries and leaders who would be in attendance at the event and quickly summarized the morning’s ceremonies. “As to Nicolas’s specific plans, all I could get was the name. Operation Uranus.”
“Operation Your Anus?” Kowalski said. “That sounds painful.”
Gray ignored him and headed for the stairs. “Where’s Solokov now?”
“Headed to Chernobyl.”
As Gray descended with Kowalski, he pictured the towering ventilation shaft. Whatever the bastard was planning, it must involve the reactor. But the name for the offensive—Operation Uranus—why pick that name? While training for the Army Rangers, Gray had learned of its historical context from his strategic studies classes. Operation Uranus was a Russian offense during World War II that ended the bloodiest battle in human history, the Battle of Stalingrad.
So why that name?
Something troubled Gray, something nagging, but the tension locked it away. Ahead, two guards manned the exit to the jailhouse. They had their backs to Gray.
He lifted his stolen Rook pistol.
Worries would have to wait.
September 7, 10:07 A.M.
Southern Ural Mountains
As the sun shone on a crisp morning, Monk crunched along the gravel road that wound through the ghost town. Weeds and bushes grew waist high, making it feel as if they were wading through green water. Konstantin kept abreast of him, while Pyotr and Kiska trailed. Marta followed, too, but she was drowned away in the green sea, parting the grasses as she maneuvered through them.
“There’s little coal in the mountains here,” Konstantin lectured around a bone-cracking yawn. “All the mining in the region is for metal or metallic ores.”
Monk knew the kid was wired between exhaustion and terror. The tall boy spoke quietly to keep himself awake and to combat anxiety.
“Cobalt, nickel, tungsten, vanadium, bauxite, platinum…”
Monk let him prattle as he kept a watch on the town to either side. The buildings looked hastily constructed, made of clapboard with elevated plank sidewalks that bordered the road. They passed a one-room schoolhouse with intact windows and still lined with wooden desks inside. A couple of old trucks, Soviet-era green, sat rusted into the roadbed. The only brick building had Cyrillic lettering along the facade. Monk could not read it, but it appeared from the shelves inside to be a general store and post office. Next to it stood a saloon with dusty bottles still on the shelves.
It was as if one day the townspeople had simply stepped out of their respective doors and left without ever looking back.
Monk did not have to guess why. From this higher vantage point, Lake Karachay spread wide, rimmed by muddy banks and reflecting the sunlight in a sparkling lie that hid its toxic heart. Monk glanced to the badge hanging from his pack. The red hue had grown to a darker crimson. He checked it every few minutes.
Konstantin noted his attention. “We must stay no longer than another hour. It is very dangerous here. We must get underground soon.”
Monk nodded and stared up. The entrance to the mine lay another mile above them. He could make out the steel outbuildings and skeletal derricks that framed a larger structure hugging against the mountain. Two large metal wheels flanked the central building, tailing wheels, used to dredge up debris from the diggings below. The gravel underfoot probably came from that mine.
Monk set a faster pace.
Ahead, the only other substantial structure appeared as the road swung a hard switchback to climb another level up the mountainside. The mill rose three stories high, the tallest building here. It was built of logs with a tin roof. Its wooden waterwheel, green with moss and lichen, had broken off its moorings and lay toppled across the creek. An old flood must have torn it free.
As they headed toward it, Kiska cried out.
Monk swung around and saw Pyotr standing stock still, as upright as a pole, his eyes huge, bright with terror.
Monk’s chest clenched.
Marta loped a circle around the boy, also sensing his distress. Like Monk, she didn’t know where the danger lay or from where it might strike—but they both knew what the boy sensed.
Monk flashed back to the tiger charging at him, one ear gnarled.
The beast shouldn’t have been able to track them, not across all that open water. But tigers were strong swimmers. The hunter must have forded the swamp and waited to ambush its prey here. Monk did not doubt such cunning from Zakhar.
Monk searched the tall grasses, the jumble of buildings. The creature could be hiding anywhere. The hairs along Monk’s arms prickled, almost sensing the feral eyes upon him. They were out in the open, exposed. And without a single weapon. They’d lost their only dagger when Marta had attacked Arkady.