After the Russian people vote to bring back the Tsar, to be chosen from the distant relatives of Nicholas II, attorney Miles Lord heads for Moscow to perform a background check on one of the candidates, but his assignment turns unexpectedly dangerous.
Steve Berry is the author of The Amber Room. He is a trial lawyer with more than twenty years of courtroom experience who has traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, and Russia. He lives with his wife and daughter in Camden County, Georgia, and is currently at work on his next novel.
Visit the author's Web site at www.steveberry.org.
The fate of Mother Russia ups the ante for Berry's formula: historically based international intrigue, swashbuckling action, indestructible hero from the American South (The Amber Room, 2003).Now that they've tried Bolshevism, Communism, the New World Order, and de facto rule by the mafiya, the Russians are ready for-what else?-a new tsar. Miles Lord has been sent to Moscow with Taylor Hayes, a senior partner from his Atlanta law firm, to serve as a member of the commission charged with picking the best candidate and to confirm the Romanov credentials of Stefan Baklanov. An assassination attempt doesn't alert Lord to the danger that obviously awaits him, but the same two functionaries keep on trying to kill him so often, and with such a uniform lack of success, that eventually he realizes his problems run deeper than Russians' suspicious condescension toward African-Americans. What he doesn't realize is that Hayes is in on the plot to catapult Baklanov over the competition by bribing the commission members, insuring his own secret cabal's control over the pliant new tsar. After calling Hayes to report every failed attempt on his life, Lord finally picks up the trail of a story so big he can't even phone home to discuss it: the existence of a direct descendant of Nicholas II, a son of one of the tsar's children whose bones were missing from the collective 1991 exhumation because the family wasn't all killed in Ekaterinburg after all. Joining forces with a lovely Russian acrobat-fated, according to the murdered Gregorii Rasputin's prophecy, to become his partner in the search-Lord takes off on a wild hunt for the true heir, pursued closely by the same ineffectual killers. The sanguinary finale, in which Hayes exhorts his hapless henchmen to "do what you do best," is not to be missed.History remade as action screenplay. You can smell the popcorn.Agent: Pamela Ahearn/Ahearn Agency Copyright Kirkus 2004 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
moscow, the present
tuesday, october 12
In fifteen seconds Miles Lord’s life changed forever.
He first saw the sedan. A dark blue Volvo station wagon, the tint so deep that it appeared black in the bright midday sun. He next noticed the front tires cutting right, weaving a path around traffic on busy Nikolskaya Prospekt. Then the rear window, reflective as a mirror, descended, and a distorted reflection of the surrounding buildings was replaced by a dark rectangle pierced by the barrel of a gun.
Bullets exploded from the gun.
He dived flat. Screams arose around him as he slammed onto the oily pavement. The sidewalk was packed with afternoon shoppers, tourists, and workers, all now lunging for cover as lead raked a trail across the weathered stone of Stalinist-era buildings.
He rolled over and looked up at Artemy Bely, his lunch companion. He’d met the Russian two days back and taken him to be an amicable young lawyer with the Justice Ministry. Lawyer to lawyer they’d eaten dinner last night and breakfast this morning, talking of the new Russia and the great changes coming, both marveling at being part of history. His mouth opened to shout a warning, but before he could utter a sound Bely’s chest erupted and blood and sinew splattered on the plate-glass window beyond.
The automatic fire came with a constant rat-tat-tat that reminded him of old gangster movies. The plate glass gave way and jagged shards crashed to the sidewalk. Bely’s body crumpled on top of him. A coppery stench rose from the gaping wounds. He shoved the lifeless Russian off, worried about the red tide soaking into his suit and dripping from his hands. He hardly knew Bely. Was he HIV-positive?
The Volvo screeched to a stop.
He looked to his left.
Car doors popped open and two men sprang out, both armed with automatic weapons. They wore the blue-and-gray uniforms with red lapels of the militsya—the police. Neither, though, sported the regulation gray caps with red brim. The man from the front seat had the sloped forehead, bushy hair, and bulbous nose of a Cro-Magnon. The man who slid from the rear was stocky with a pockmarked face and dark, slicked-back hair. The man’s right eye caught Lord’s attention. The space between the pupil and eyebrow was wide, creating a noticeable droop—as if one eye was closed, the other open—and provided the only indication of emotion on an otherwise expressionless face.
Droopy said to Cro-Magnon in Russian, “The damn chornye survived.”
Did he hear right?
The Russian equivalent for nigger.
His was the only black face he’d seen since arriving in Moscow eight weeks ago, so he knew he had a problem. He recalled something from a Russian travel book he’d read a few months back. Anyone dark-skinned can expect to arouse a certain amount of curiosity. What an understatement.
Cro-Magnon acknowledged the comment with a nod. The two men stood thirty yards away, and Lord wasn’t about to wait around to find out what they wanted. He sprang to his feet and raced in the opposite direction. With a quick glance over his shoulder he saw the two calmly crouch and ready themselves to shoot. An intersection loomed ahead, and he leaped the remaining distance just as gunfire blasted from behind.
Bullets strafed the stone, puffing cloud bursts into the chilly air.
More people dived for cover.
He sprang from the sidewalk and faced a tolkuchki—street market—lining the curb as far as he could see.
“Gunmen. Run,” he screamed in Russian.
A bobushka peddling dolls understood instantly and shuffled to a nearby doorway, jerking tight a scarf around her weathered face. Half a dozen children hawking newspapers and Pepsis darted into a grocery. Vendors abandoned their kiosks and scattered like roaches. The appearance of the mafiya was not uncommon. He knew that a hundred or more gangs operated throughout Moscow. People being shot, knifed, or blown up had become as common as traffic jams, simply the risk of doing business on the streets.
He bolted ahead into the crowded prospekt, traffic merely inching along and starting to congeal in the mayhem. A horn blared and a braking taxi stopped just short of him. His bloodied hands came down hard on the hood. The driver continued to lean on the horn. He looked back and saw the two men with guns round the corner. The crowd parted, which provided a clear shot. He dived behind the taxi as bullets obliterated the driver’s side.
The horn stopped blaring.
He raised himself up and stared into the driver’s bloodied face, smushed against the passenger’s-side window, one eye cocked open, the pane stained crimson. The men were now fifty yards away, on the other side of the congested prospekt. He studied the storefronts on both sides of the street and registered a men’s fashion salon, children’s clothing boutique, and several antiques galleries. He searched for someplace in which to disappear and chose McDonald’s. For some reason the golden arches harked of safety.
He raced down the sidewalk and shoved open its glass doors. Several hundred people packed the chest-high tables and booths. More stood in line. He recalled that this was at one point the busiest restaurant in the world.
He was gulping air fast and a scent of grilled burgers, fries, and cigarettes accompanied each breath. His hands and clothes were still bloody. Several women started to scream that he’d been shot. A panic overtook the young crowds and there was a mad push for the doors. He shouldered forward, deeper into the throng, and quickly realized this was a mistake. He pushed through the dining room toward stairs that led down to bathrooms. He slipped out of the panicked mob and skipped down the stairs three at a time, his bloodied right hand gliding across a slick iron rail.
“Back. Away. Back,” deep voices ordered in Russian from above.
More screams and rushed footsteps.
He found the bottom of the stairs and faced three closed doors. One led to the ladies’ room, the other to the men’s. He opened the third. A large storage room spanned before him, its walls shiny white tile like the rest of the restaurant. In one corner three people huddled around a table smoking. He noticed their T-shirts—Lenin’s face superimposed over McDonald’s golden arches. Their gazes met his.
“Gunmen. Hide,” he said in Russian.
Without a word, all three bolted from the table and shot toward the far end of the brightly lit room. The lead man flung open a door, and they disappeared outside. Lord stopped only an instant to slam shut the door from which he’d entered and lock it from the inside, then he followed.
He dashed out into the chilly afternoon and stood in an alley behind the multistory building that accommodated the restaurant. He half expected Gypsies or bemedaled war veterans to be in residence. Every nook and cranny of Moscow seemed to provide shelter to one or another dispossessed social group.
Dingy buildings surrounded him, the coarsely hewn stone blackened and scarred from decades of unregulated auto emissions. He’d often wondered what those same fumes did to lungs. He tried to get his bearings. He was about a hundred yards north of Red Square. Where was the nearest Metro station? That could be his best means of escape. There were always policemen in the stations. But policemen were chasing him. Or were they? He’d read how the mafiya many times donned police uniforms. Most times the streets were littered with police—too damn many—all sporting nightsticks and automatic weapons. Yet today he’d seen not one.
A thud came from inside the building.
His head whipped around.
The door at the far end of the storage room leading from the bathrooms was being forced. He started running in the direction of the main street, just as gunfire echoed from inside.
He found the sidewalk and turned right, running as fast as his suit would allow. He reached up, unbuttoned his collar, and yanked down his tie. Now at least he could breathe. It would only be a few moments before his pursuers rounded the corner from behind. He quickly swerved right and vaulted a waist-high, chain-link fence encircling one of the innumerable parking lots dotting Moscow’s inner ring.
He slowed to a trot and let his eyes shoot left and right. The lot was full of Ladas, Chaikas, and Volgas. Some Fords. A few German sedans. Most filthy with soot and dented from abuse. He looked back. The two men had cleared the corner a hundred yards back and were now racing in his direction.
He rushed forward down the center of the grassy lot. Bullets ricocheted off the cars to his right. He dived behind a dark Mitsubishi and peered around its rear bumper. The two men were positioned on the other side of the fence, Cro-Magnon standing, his gun aimed forward, Droopy still trotting toward the fence.
A car engine revved.
Smoke poured from the exhaust. Brake lights lit.
It was a cream-colored Lada that had been parked to the opposite side of the center lane. The car quickly backed out of its space. He saw fear on the driver’s face. He’d most likely heard the bullets and decided to leave fast.
Droopy jumped the fence.
Lord rushed from his hiding place and vaulted onto the Lada’s hood, his hands clasping the windshield wipers. Thank heaven the damn thing had wipers. He knew most drivers kept them locked in the glove compartment to thwart thieves. The Lada’s driver gave him a startled look but kept rolling forward toward the busy boulevard. Through the rear window Lord saw Droopy, fifty yards behind, crouching to fire and Cro-Magnon scaling the fence. He thought of the taxi driver and decided it wasn’t right to involve this man. As the Lada exited onto the six-lane boulevard, he rolled off the hood and onto the sidewalk.
Bullets arrived in the next second.
The Lada whipped left and sped away.
Lord continued to roll until he was in the street, hoping a slight depression below the curb would be enough to block Droopy’s firing angle. The earth and concrete churned as bullets dug in.
A crowd waiting for a bus scattered.
He glanced to his left. A bus was no more than fifty feet away and rolling toward him. Air brakes engaged. Tires squealed. The scent of sulfur exhaust was nearly suffocating. He twirled his body into the street as the bus screeched to a stop. The vehicle was now between him and the gunmen. Thank God no cars were using the boulevard’s outermost lane.
He stood and darted across the six-lane road. Traffic all came one way, from the north. He crisscrossed the lanes and made a point of staying perpendicular with the bus. Halfway, he was forced to pause and wait for a line of cars to pass. There’d only be a few moments more until the gunmen rounded the bus. He took advantage of a break in traffic and ran across the final two lanes, onto the sidewalk, jumping the curb.
Ahead was a busy construction site. Bare girders rose four stories into a rapidly clouding afternoon sky. He’d still not seen one policeman other than the two on his tail. Over the whirl of traffic came the roar of cranes and cement mixers. Unlike back home in Atlanta, no fences of any kind delineated the unsafe zone.
He trotted onto the work site and glanced back to see the gunmen starting their own bisection of the crowded boulevard, dodging cars, horns protesting their progress. Workers milled about the construction site, paying him little attention. He wondered how many black men dressed in bloody suits ran onto the job site every day. But it was all part of the new Moscow. The safest course was surely to stay out of the way.
Behind, the two gunmen found the sidewalk. They were now less than fifty yards away.
Ahead, a cement mixer churned gray mortar into a steel trough as a helmeted worker monitored the progress. The trough rested on a large wooden platform chained to a cable that ran four stories up to a roof crane. The worker tending the mixture backed away and the entire assembly rose.
Lord decided up was as good a place as any and raced for the ascending platform, leaping forward, gripping the platform’s bottom edge. Crusted concrete caked on the surface made it difficult to maintain a hold, but thoughts of Droopy and his pal kept his fingers secure.
The platform rose, and he swung himself upward.
The unbalanced movement caused a sway, chains groaning from the added weight, but he managed to climb up and flatten his body against the trough. The added weight and movement tipped everything his way, and mortar sloshed onto him.
He glanced over the side.
The two gunmen had seen what he did. He was fifty feet in the air and climbing. They stopped their advance and took aim. He felt the mortar-encrusted wood beneath him and stared at the steel trough.
He quickly rolled into the trough, sending wet mortar oozing over the side. Cold mud enveloped him and sent a chill through his already shaking body.
Bullets ripped the wooden underside and pelted the trough. He shrank into the cement and heard the recoil of lead off steel.
The shooting stopped.
He peered out toward the boulevard and saw three police cars speeding south, his way. Apparently the gunmen had heard the sirens, too, and hastily retreated. He then saw the dark blue Volvo that had started everything appear from the north and speed down the boulevard. The two gunmen backed toward it, but seemed unable to resist a few parting shots.
He watched as they finally climbed into the Volvo and roared away.
Only then did he raise up on his knees and release a sigh of relief.