A fugitive hiding in the quiet anonymity of the American suburbs was the last thing that Corinne Lewis ever thought her unflappable classmate, Nicholas Kenyon, could be - until his mother and sister are violently kidnapped and she is unwittingly caught in the crossfire.
Unable to return home, Cori is swept into a spine-chilling race against the time to save them from a ruthless powerbroker, who holds the means to unveil a secret that Nick's family has been struggling to conceal for centuries. A secret that will place the fate of the world's largest nation on the unsteady shoulders of a single man.
DedicationsTo Catie McNamara - Who taught me that you don't always have to be really smart to make a difference. I hope you've realized that nerds can be pretty damn cool though, once you get to know them
And to Katie O'Brien - Who taught me that keeping it together in the face of death is the bravest thing a person can do. Rest in Peace.
Saint Petersburg, Russia.
November 25, 1995
Maxim Krichevstov sat shivering under the glare of the shadeless lamp. A dark scrap of cloth was tied around his eyes and his hands were shackled to the wooden chair in which he sat. A musty smell assaulted his nostrils and the cold air stung each time he inhaled.
The room was silent, save for the rasp of his own pained breathing. He could feel the bruises forming on his chest, and a cut on the side of his cheek bled freely, warm blood trickling down his neck and soaking into the shoulder of his shirt. It didn't take much to imagine the growing semi-circular stain on the blue fabric, a wet patch numbed by the draft.
Inwardly, he raged. He had been taken from behind, struck over the head while he walked home, hunched against the brutal wind that scoured the city. What he had thought were street vandals turned into something even more terrifying. Before he could even react, he had been tackled and blindfolded without so much as a word from his attackers. It was then he realized that the bastards knew.
Now he was sitting in this godforsaken icebox that masqueraded as a room, contemplating his fate. Innumerable minutes passed as he felt the creepings of doubt that he knew would surface. It had been six years since he had last heard from anyone in the trappings of his old life. Their verdict had been clear. He was not to return. He would never be accepted back among their number and neither would his family.
So why would they seek him out now? It didn't make sense. He may have been an exemplary member once, but all that had changed the instant he had met Ira. The soft-spoken woman had known him for what he was and said nothing, her simple discretion saving his life and ensured that he would be drawn back like to her home over the following years several times by the simple pull of an Ariadnean thread, grateful for the escape from the hell that was his life in the service.
By the time he had obtained the permissions to bring her home with him, things had begun changing. The Community, so long an unwilling tool of the government, was fading into the woodwork as the reforms filtered through the country, grateful to return to the rural commune they had once been, undisturbed by politics and crude scientific probes. They hadn't appreciated him bringing an outsider into the fold, let alone one from Leningrad, as far removed from their village as one could get without leaving the country.
The sound of the door slamming open jerked Max's mind back into the present, its echoes distracting from the footsteps that entered, making them seem like they were coming from all around him. Max recognized the tactic.
"What do you want from me?" he asked loudly as he shifted uncomfortably in his chair, struggling to keep the waver out of his voice. "You obviously know how I track those around me."
The door swung shut with another crash and for a moment all was still. Then a cold voice echoed out of the void that surrounded him, as unmerciful as the winds that battered the steppe east of where Max had lived as a boy. "Of course I know how you track, Max."
Max felt a stab of alarm. He knew this voice well, and he could picture the man who used it. A thin and distinctly round-shouldered man, Grigory Iakovich Rezanov resembled a starved mosquito at his best moments - which always seemed to be when he knew that your blood was his.
"G-Grisha?" he stammered, his eyes going wide under his blindfold. "What are you doing here?"
A cruel laugh made every hair on Max's neck stand on end. "Don't play stupid with me, Max. It doesn't suit you."
"Then what do you want with me?" demanded Max, edging sideways on his seat as far as the shackles would allow. "I thought you said we were dead to you."
"You are," replied Rezanov smugly. "And you will be to everyone else soon enough, but not before you help me."
Max was silent for a moment before speaking, his voice wary. "Help you?"
"Yes, you will help me Max," said Rezanov, letting out another bark of laughter. "It'd be a shame if that extraordinary talent of yours was wasted on a man who quietly spends his days commuting to and from the university and playing the part of the domesticated husband."
"What about yours Grigory?" growled Max in reply. "You, seem to have done quite well for yourself. Last time I checked the papers; you had enough money to buy a small country if you wanted. Why are you bothering with me? I'm nothing more than a professor's assistant."
"And Andrei is no more than a school teacher," finished Rezanov, his voice light. Max stiffened, his face going pale. "What do you know about my brother?"
"I know he has been missing for more than a month, Max," replied Rezanov, his glee clear in his voice. "I'm sure you, of all people, would have realized what was going on."
Max felt himself go numb and his fingers curled into fists as comprehension dawned. "You have him!" he snarled, jerking at his restraints.
"Had," hissed Rezanov, no longer amused. "Your sanctimonious brother forced me to kill him."
Max felt a sharp pain explode out of the knot of anxiety that had been tightening ever since Andrusha had vanished in late September after leaving work.
"He had nothing to lose and that was where I realized my mistake," continued Rezanov softly, circling Max. "I should have gone after you first. It was your fault in the first place and you have… materials I can use."
"Materials…" repeated Max thickly. Rezanov's smile was evident in his voice. "Why, there's Ira, your lovely wife. And then the new little baby… and then your boy, who started this mess with his mere existence. Your brother had none of those things to live for and chose to die."
Max stiffened and his eyebrows knit together. He shook his head forcefully, causing his dark brown hair to fall over his forehead. Rage coloured his face and made him tremble for several moments, before it suddenly vanished.
"I'll gladly follow him in death then…" he said quietly, his voice hoarse, as though his honour, but not his heart bound him to his words. Rezanov laughed. It echoed through the room, reverberating off the concrete walls and distorting painfully.
"Save it Max, we know you don't want to die like Andrei did. A bullet to his skull was all it took – Ironic isn't it? He couldn't stop what he couldn't see after so many years of being so watchful," said Rezanov, his voice saccharine. Max felt his teeth grinding against each other.
"I haven't really got a goddamned choice! I'll burn in hell before I let you take advantage of my abilities Grigory!" he snapped, jerking violently at his restraints. From somewhere in the room, he heard the rustle of fabric and then sharp footsteps that echoed off the concrete floor, creating a chaotic well of noise.
"You will bend and you will break," said Rezanov callously, his voice now coming from where he stood behind the bound man. "There is nothing you can do to stop me."
"Like hell…" growled Max, his fists curling as he yanked once again at the ropes that imprisoned him. He wished he could just rip the blindfold away, but they knew his tricks far to well. An intricate knot that could not be simply pulled apart by thought secured the blindfold around his head.
In distance, he could hear Rezanov speaking, but the rage and self-loathing of being used by someone he had once thought of as a friend kept him from listening. His anger made his blood steam and his limbs shiver. He was helpless and unable to tip the scales in any way. He didn't think to pay attention until his mind latched onto the trailing end of Rezanov's words.
"-But then Max, there is always your son."
Max froze, his throat closing as the paralysing fear that he had been struggling to suppress took hold of him and held him with tighter bonds than the ropes that bound his body to the chair. His pulse shot heavenwards, making him almost dizzy and he felt his face grow moist with sweat, despite the freezing temperature of the little room.
"Kolya…" he whispered fearfully. The thought of his seven-year-old son at the hands of these monsters was beyond comprehension.
"Finally caught your attention now, eh Max?" he drawled. Max felt his heart miss several beats. His bound hands shook violently as he fought to keep from screaming.
"Your boy is just like you isn't he, despite his mother? He's young too, malleable - A perfect target. What was his name again?"
Max was silent, his hands still shaking.
"Ah… I remember now," said Rezanov suddenly, snapping his fingers lightly. "He was born on December 6th wasn't he? Feast day of Saint Nicholas. Ira named him after the bloody saint. Nikolai."
Max said nothing, but the chair that he sat in rattled from his shivering.
"Well, since you're not going to help me, I suppose I can go to someone who will. He might not be as powerful as the rest. But he's just a boy and boys are much easier to mold into something useful than men," said Rezanov, his voice sinisterly jovial.
Max's mind was on the brink of insanity. Every cell of his being cried out to fight back, to destroy the bastard who thought nothing of tearing apart families to satisfy his own revenge. The image of his son, grinning as they trained with several small objects, flitted through his mind.
"Make sure you always look…Make sure you always know where things are…" he remembered himself saying as Kolya concentrated on a small top that sat on a table across the room and pulled it towards himself. "Never guess. You'll regret it."
Even as he strained his hearing, Max couldn't pinpoint anyone or anything in the room. After so many years of being so nearly invincible because his abilities, nothing shook him more than the fact that now they were useless in this room of whispers and echoes. If only he could make Rezanov take a step that didn't echo and distort….
"You won't find him," said Max suddenly, inspiration striking him. He willed himself to sound confident as he fought his trembling limbs. "You won't find my son."
"I found you," said Rezanov, obviously amused. Max could hear his voice moving as light footsteps prowled around him. He waited, listening carefully for a clear one. One that could tell him exactly where the man was. Then it came. A little too much heel brought forth a soft click that was just loud enough for Max's trained ear. He felt a surge of adrenaline. He'd have only seconds.
"We will find him. It may take a year. It may take two or even ten. That boy is worth it. He's everything his father isn't. Gullible, easily influenced and he has one of the greatest gifts that humanity ever- what the – Ooof! " Rezanov's voice took on a panicked note as he was slammed backwards by the mental equivalent of a battering ram and the sound of flesh hitting solid concrete reverberated throughout the room.
The click of a safety met Max's ears he set to work on the handcuffs that bound him the chair. His mind worked as fast as it could, guessing where the mechanisms were until he heard the first crash of a gun. Instantly, his attention refocused. The bullet clattered as it fell to the floor and rolled. A second was dealt with in the same way, but the third came too quickly. Max jerked as it entered his skull. His body instantly went limp, as though he were a marionette with its strings cut.
He was dead.