“Back,” Monk said, pointing to the brick building. “Move slowly. Toward the store.”
Despite all the windows, it would make the stoutest stronghold. They might find something they could use for defense among its shelves. Monk pulled Pyotr to his side. The boy quaked under him. As a tight group, they retreated along the path they’d forged through the grass.
Monk kept an eye behind him, mostly because Pyotr did the same. He trusted the boy’s intuition. Where the road curved toward the mining station, the mill house towered across the creek. Monk knew tigers often sought the highest ground: a tall boulder, a lofty tree branch, a mountain ledge, someplace where they could leap upon their prey.
As if sensing it had been discovered, a shadowy striped shape slid like a flow of oil from one of the upper-story windows near the back of the mill. If Monk hadn’t been concentrating, he would’ve missed it. The tiger vanished into the tall grasses.
“Run,” he urged Konstantin and Kiska.
Monk pulled Pyotr up into his arms with one tug.
The two children ahead of him shot forward, stung by terror and fueled by adrenaline. Monk followed, with Marta racing beside him.
Behind Monk, a heavy crack of board sounded as something heavy bounded off the waterwheel and across the creek. The general store’s door was open, only thirty yards away. It would be close. He prayed for a walk-in freezer, somewhere they could barricade.
The crack of a rifle split through his terror.
Gravel exploded with a bright spark at his toes.
Monk dove to the side, rolling through the high grass, cradling and cushioning Pyotr with his own body. He kept rolling until he ended up behind one of the rusted hulks of an old truck.
The sniper had shot from the lower half of the street.
It had to be one of the Russian soldiers.
Turning, Monk spotted Konstantin and Kiska leaping like frightened deer across the planked sidewalk and through the open door of the store. Marta followed them with one bound. One of the windows shattered as a rifle shot echoed. But the trio had made it inside safely.
Monk sheltered behind the truck and hunkered down. He could not reach the store without crossing open ground.
He glanced up the street.
There was no sign of the tiger. Not a blade of grass moved. No rasp of gravel under heavy paw. The sudden shot must have dropped Zakhar low, startling the cat as much as them. It lay hidden out there.
Monk crouched, trapped between the tiger and a sniper. But that was not the only danger. Another hazard smothered over them all. Beyond the town’s edge, Lake Karachay shone brightly, radiating outward with its toxic pall. Even standing still here was death.
As an alarm klaxon continued to sound, Yuri stood alongside Sasha’s bed, shielding her with his body from McBride. The child had snugged into her sheets, hands over her ears, hypersensitive to the bells and shouts. Across the bed, Kat Bryant went to Sasha, consoling her with a palm atop her head. Behind the woman stood the pathologist Malcolm Jennings and a guard.
Yuri faced McBride. The man crouched a few steps away, his back to the corner of the room, his hand twisted in the blond braid of his hostage, Dr. Lisa Cummings. He held his cell phone pistol against her neck.
They were at an impasse.
And Mapplethorpe was already pounding his way down here with commandos. Yuri’s blood burned with the thought of the bastard getting his oily hands on Sasha. He could not let that happen.
Yuri shifted to the stainless-steel instrument table and picked up a syringe from among the vials of drugs used to treat Sasha.
“Yuri!” McBride snapped at him with warning.
He answered in Russian, knowing McBride understood. “I will not let you have Sasha,” he said and stabbed the needle into her intravenous line.
As he pushed the plunger, he saw McBride shift his gun away from his hostage and toward him. The syringe just contained saline, a ruse. Yuri whipped around and flew straight at the man. At the same time, Lisa stamped her heel on the man’s instep and smashed her head back into his face.
The pistol fired, explosive in the small space.
Struck in the shoulder, Yuri spun half a step. He barely noted the pain. He crashed into McBride, knocking Lisa out of his grip. Yuri slashed at McBride’s throat and jammed the second syringe he had palmed off the instrument table, popping into the jugular. The syringe contained a non-diluted concentration of Sasha’s medications. At full strength, it was a toxic pharmacology of chemotherapeutics, epinephrine, and steroids.
Tangled together, McBride emptied his clip into Yuri’s stomach. Muffled by his body, it sounded like loud claps and felt as if someone were punching him in the gut. Still, Yuri slammed the plunger home, sending the poisonous slurry straight for the heart.
Yuri fell with the man to the floor. He knew what McBride was feeling: flames shooting through his veins, pressure detonating in his head, heart squeezing with agony. Hands pulled Yuri off McBride and rolled him to the floor. He spotted Kat draped over Sasha, protecting her from the gunfire, keeping the child’s head turned away.
At his side, McBride writhed up into a convulsive seizure, spittle flying, turning bloody as he bit through his tongue. The body would live, but not his mind. The drugs would burn through his brain, leaving him a hollowed husk.
Lisa leaned over Yuri. “Help me!”
More hands appeared, applying pressure to his belly. Blood spread across the floor. Kat joined him, cradling his head. He coughed. More blood. He reached a hand, knowing she would help.
“Sasha…,” he gasped out.
“We’ll protect her,” Kat said.
He shook his head. He knew this already, did not doubt her heart. “More…more rebyonka.”
He had trouble focusing—mind and vision. The world darkened, and the pain sank into coldness.
He tried to speak, to tell her where. “Chela…insk…” His hand scrabbled to the floor, drew two numbers in his own blood: 88.
Her hand closed over his. “Hold on, Yuri.”
He wished he could, for Sasha, for all of them.
Darkness clouded over; voices drifted away down a long tunnel. He offered the only thing he could with his last breath.
He clenched Kat’s hand and forced out one final message.
Stunned, Kat sat with Yuri’s head in her lap. Had she heard him correctly? She stared down into his open eyes, now lifeless and glassy. He had been frantic at the end, as if seeking some last penance, even slipping into Russian. Fluent in the language from her former days with Naval Intelligence, Kat had understood some of it,
She stared at the girl in the bed, now guarded by Malcolm.
Yuri had babbled after that, tried to write something, but it was garbled nonsense. But what about what he’d said at the very end?
Kat turned to Lisa.
Her friend knelt in a pool of the man’s blood. “He saved my life,” she mumbled and placed a hand on Yuri’s chest. Busy with her ministrations, Lisa had not heard his last words.
Beyond Lisa, McBride’s body had stopped convulsing. His eyes were open, staring, just as lifeless and glassy, but his chest rose and fell.
Kat sat, unable to stand, her gaze focusing back to Sasha, to the pile of drawings.
Yuri’s words filled her world.
His fingers had clamped onto her hand.
A message for her alone.
She knew whom he meant, but that was impossible.
Still, his last words loosened something inside her, stoked what had never fully gone cold. Her breathing grew heavier. With each breath, the fire grew stronger inside her, burning away doubt, blazing light into the dark places in her heart. A part of her dreaded to let go of that darkness; there was security in the shadows. But she refused to staunch these new flames.
Instead, the fire propelled her to her feet.
She grabbed the guard’s abandoned gun from the floor. Straightening, she spoke in a rush to the entire room. “It’s not secure here. We’ll strike for an exit…if not, we’ll find someplace we can fortify.”
As Lisa unhooked the girl’s I.V. line, Kat spotted the coloring book, still open on the bedside table, scribbled in green crayon, a man on a raft.
Impossible, but Kat knew it to be true.
Southern Ural Mountains
The American should be dead.
Borsakov cursed his missed shot. He lay flat in the shadow of a mining shack. The rifle stretched out in front of him, his cheek resting against the stock of his weapon.
He had not expected the sudden bolt of his targets—straight back toward him. It had required repositioning and firing before being fully set. Plus he suspected his sights were incrementally out of alignment after the abuse in the swamp. He had not been able to test-fire the weapon and calibrate its sights. The shots would have warned the targets of his approach.
Still, he had them all pinned down.
Two children and the chimpanzee hid in the brick building. The American and the boy behind the truck. Borsakov slid backward, keeping to the grasses. All he had to do was cross the street, and he’d have the American within his sight line again.
This time he would not miss.
He moved stealthily and low across the road, keeping to shadows for as long as possible. He reached the far side and crouched behind an overturned barrel. He leaned out, ready with his rifle.
Down the street, he had a clear view behind the truck now.
Borsakov’s fingers clenched on his rifle in fury and confusion.
No one was there.
The American and the boy had vanished.
Pyotr huddled inside the truck, curled in the footwell. Monk had lifted him and shoved him through the half-open window, then disappeared between the two buildings behind the truck. Before he left, he had motioned Pyotr to remain low and duck far into the space in front of the seat. Leaves and beetles shared his hiding place. He clutched his arms around his knees.
Somewhere in the dark places in his mind, where he feared to look, he remembered hiding like this: cramped, breathless, hunted. Another life. Not his. Stone had encased him then, rather than rusty steel.