1 THE OWNER HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
DR JONATHAN CHASELING – young, bearded and hipsterish-looking – navigated his car around ruts and potholes on a relentlessly straight, orange-red dirt track stretching away to infinity. Up ahead he saw a lone tree, a ghost gum with thin, white branches reaching for the sky like skeletal hands.
A few minutes later, he parked near the tree, which was growing in a hollow beside the track. There was no mobile reception here, so he couldn’t take a GPS fix or use Google Maps, but the tree ghost gum was a landmark that would help him find his way back to the car, a RAV4, normally white but now coated with red dust.
A 26-year-old medical graduate on his way to Alice Springs to start a hospital job, Chaseling had detoured off the main highway to check out this place. It was renowned for marine fossils – a legacy of the time, aeons ago, when this part of Australia was covered by a vast inland sea. He got out of the car and walked into the scrub.
Taking a weaving course round scattered patches of saltbush, he kept his eyes to the ground, which was littered with small pieces of flat, rust-coloured sandstone. Every now and then he stopped to pick up a rock and look at it, turning it over in his hand, hoping to see the form of a trilobite or other long-extinct species.
He’d been walking for about 10 minutes when he saw a flat slab of stone, almost a metre long, distinctive because it was the only large rock he’d seen since leaving the track. Chaseling bent down and gripped the edge of the slab. He gave an experimental tug but it didn’t budge. Then he shifted his right foot forward to give his body some leverage and put his back into the job, hauling upwards with both hands. There was a sucking noise as the slab came away from the damp earth beneath.
Holding the rock on its edge, he looked down at the patch of dirt he’d revealed – and noticed something white and rounded protruding from it. An ancient sea shell, perhaps. He set the slab down off to the side. Then he started scraping away the ochre dirt with a finger-length, sharp-edged piece of flint that had been underneath the rock. He gave a gasp. Staring up at him was the eye socket of a human skull.
His hands shaking, he uncovered the other socket, which like the first was filled with compacted ochre dirt. Next he scratched away the earth over the mouth, revealing a perfect set of teeth. Probably an Aborigine from the times before white settlement, Chaseling thought to himself. The teeth seemed to be grinning at him. He looked down at the piece of flint in his hand. It was a dark tan colour, very different in shade and composition to the other rocks in this area. And the picture became clear. This had been the dead person’s prized knife and it had gone to the grave with him. Or possibly her, although judging by the large size of the skull and teeth, it had most likely been an adult male.
Now he knew what to look for, he could see the shape of a rib cage in the dirt. And his eyes were drawn to something else. A small, disc-shaped object the size of a dried apricot, but thicker. It was caked with earth like chocolate on a Kinder
Surprise egg. He picked it up – it was heavy, some kind of rock – and scratched at the dirt with the piece of flint. There was a flash of phosphorescent colour. Opal! His heart started thumping with excitement.
As he uncovered more of the precious stone, he saw that it had raised, spiral ridges radiating out from its centre. It glittered with a kaleidoscope of hues – now emerald green, now a brilliant magenta morphing into electric blue, each shade burning with a fire from deep within the rock. He uncapped his water bottle and rinsed the stone. He thought how 100 million years ago or even earlier, a marine snail – an ancestor of the modern-day nautilus – had lived and died in a primeval sea bed. Its shell became filled with silica-rich mud and fragments of marine life. And after the sea retreated, the contents of the shell gradually transformed into a gem which shimmered with the green of long extinct seaweeds, the blue of ancient fish scales, the iridescent purple of giant sea urchin spines and the brilliant red and orange of prehistoric jellyfish. It could well be worth of a fortune.
Chaseling put the flint back down where he’d found it. After a few moments’ hesitation, he placed the opal in the pocket of his cargo shorts. It won’t be missed, the voice of his shadowy other self whispered inside his head. The previous owner has left the building. He scooped up some dirt and covered first the grinning mouth, then the eyes and nose socket of the long-buried skull.
February 25, 6:56 a.m. First Basement, Lubyanka Prison, Moscow, Russia
Ann Silbey Sashakovich sat on the ice-cold gray concrete shelf in the prison cell the guards had tossed her into. She had landed as if she were a rag doll, hitting the concrete floor and bouncing against the wall. She rubbed the spot on her left shoulder that had taken the brunt of the landing. The damage was just one big black-and-blue mark, but she was otherwise okay. She was soon shivering, staring into the single bulb’s light, too dim to make it possible to examine the spartan features of the cell.
She could tell that there was no real mattress. She saw only a piece of olive-drab threadbare cloth, draped over what would serve as a cot if she lived long enough to need sleep. The teenager rubbed her shoulder again. She felt a twinge as she remembered how a guard had dragged her body from the lobby down the stone staircase to the first basement. She had bounced off each slab of chipped concrete, and the snorkel parka she had worn was now ripped to shreds where the guard had grabbed her. Ann was five-feet-four inches tall and weighed less than one hundred and twenty pounds.
That wasn’t a fair fight, she thought. And this wasn’t even the worst that had happened to her.
July 20, 2015 – And So It Begins
As she sat and stared out the window of her immaculately kept bedroom, Sophia Donovan studied each raindrop sliding down the glass against a dark sky. The silence around her was overwhelming, but at the same time it was a sound she welcomed more now, more today, than ever in her life. Vivid memories of the last eleven years were etched wildly in every corner of her mind as if a movie projector was going through reels of the story unfolding on a screen. Every flash of desire, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, hope, doubt and realization resurfaced, and she replayed every decision she’d ever made, every motive she’d had for her choices, and she wondered: Am I doing the right thing?
“It’s really quite strange,” she thought silently to herself. “Should I be scared? Or should I feel guilty?” She thought the answers should be obvious, but, oddly, she felt neither of these emotions. What she did feel, looking around the room at the perfectly made bed, the impeccable closet filled with designer shoes, clothes and jewelry, and the beautifully hung art clinging to the walls, was calm. Relieved, even. None of it made sense, but all she could think was: there’s no turning back now. What’s done is done. Sophia wondered suddenly if something was wrong with her. Perhaps she was in shock?
The once-silence that surrounded her suddenly seemed to become loud voices echoing in the darkness, and the giant walls of the luxurious Master seemed to be all of a sudden closing in around her, making it somewhat hard to catch her breath. Sophia stood up quickly from the bench seat overlooking the garden. As she paced back and forth, still gasping for breath, Sophia wondered if she was, in fact, having a nightmare.
She ran to the bathroom and leaned over the sink and started splashing her now-sweaty face with ice-cold water, in hopes that it would somehow wake her. To no avail. She stepped back into the bedroom and frantically circled, like a dog trying to find a comfortable position to sleep. “I’m doing the right thing, I’m doing the right thing,” she repeated over and over. Her pacing brought her to her husband’s side of the bed. As quickly as the panic had come, it was gone again. Calmly, she softly kissed her fingers and placed them on the cold, blood-splattered forehead of the man who, only a half hour earlier, laid peacefully sleeping, unaware that his wife was standing over him, pointing a gun directly at his face.
“I am so sorry, my love, “she whispered softly. “I had no choice.”
Special Agent Gracie Stratis sat up straight in the passenger seat, her hands cold and damp. Her right fingers slowly worked the beads between thumb and pointer. The smooth orbs radiated warmth from the trip in her pocket. She was careful to keep them out of the driver’s line of sight, hidden behind her right leg. Special Agent Charles Davis drove the Ford Crown Vic, and she wanted to keep this little crutch to herself.
“What do you have in your right hand?” Charles said.
Damn, he was observant. “Keepsake.” She held them up for Charles to see. A loop of black woven cotton strung with round beads; one was ornate silver and the rest were glossy olive wood. Dots of red paint still clung to the smooth wood in places.
Charles glanced at her from under his gold-rimmed aviators. “Ah, komboloi. I was in Greece for a while. They love those things there. You Greek?”
Gracie shook her head, watching the road ahead. “No. My dad brought them back with him from Rhodes when I was a girl.”
“Your dad in the foreign service?” Charles said.
Gracie turned her attention to the world outside the passenger window. She watched the strip malls pass by. These had never been things of beauty. After years of use, they were now a refuge for struggling businesses. Peeling paint, signs with missing letters, and a good sprinkling of rust. These were the up-and-comers, wannabes, never-beens, and has-beens. And plenty of parking. The lectric Was land had seen better days. The Pump N Munch got right down to it. Fred’s elf Storage probably couldn’t fulfill on its promise. In big letters, Capital Buffet boasted Always Open, and just below hung a sign that read Closed.
“No, he wasn’t in the service,” Gracie said. She turned back to Charles. “What should we expect when we get to the house?” Gracie’s skin tingled and the dampness on her palms persisted. She flexed her hands. First the left then the right. Grateful for the strength of what was only a fractionally faded youth. Thirty still felt young. She leaned her head back against the headrest, projecting outward calm. A rookie in complete control. Ready to bust some serious trouble right in the mouth.
The day was gonna be piss-awful. As soon as Brandon P Marshall woke up, he could tell. For an eighteen-year-old male with hormones running rampant, that wasn’t exactly new, but this time, the forewarning had seemed a whole order of magnitude different. The headache hadn’t helped either. It had centred on his left temple with the combined tenacity of a thundercloud and a nest of angry bees.
Whichever way he moved, the cloud blackened and the buzzing intensified. An attempted tug on his morning woody had made the bees fucking angry. It was also a Monday, which meant boring classes and jerk teachers who treated him like shit. Even the sunlight hurt. The sound of the Marshall family in the kitchen rattled him, too.
At times like these, he contemplated revenge for being brought into the frigging awful world. He’d devised a wide repertoire to choose from, ranging from the teasingly psychological to the daringly physical. To go downstairs naked with his woody exposed wasn’t something that could be done often, but it was worth it for the look on his mom’s face.
His dad threatened him with a beating but he’d chickened out at the last moment. Such a fucking wimp. And Brandon had a bigger dick than his dad anyway. Another favourite included emptying a box of roaches on the kitchen floor. A plague of locusts was also on his list but that was a tad too biblical.
Higher up the scale, it got seriously messy and terminal. To be brutally honest—as opposed to honestly brutal (hah!)—he still preferred shock and awe rather than shots and gore. After all, with dead people, there was no turning back. Somewhere towards the top was cyanide gas, but getting potassium cyanide out of the chem lab would take a lot of planning. And then there was the hazard of crime labs and toxicology, which would screw his chances once and for all.
But, something about that particular morning made him think a final solution was required. Perhaps it had to do with the noise that came from downstairs; Dwayne, Debra and Rebekah, all aged one, were doing their best to out-screech each other, with the occasional random, futile interjection from his mom. Why the hell had she wanted more kids after so many years? Then, to add insult to injury, out had popped three. And three times loud is FUCKING LOUD. Somehow, his dad just sat through it, as if he’d gone deaf overnight. As usual, he’d be reading the Kansas City Star over his breakfast cereal and pretending it was The New York Times. He was such a fucking jackoff.
Brandon’s cell phone rang with its irritating wake-up call. It wasn’t just your usual cell phone, but a 4G quad core with 2×2 MIMO to ensure maximum coverage. He’d bought that after months as a part-time cook at KFC, during which he’d put on thirty pounds. The phone was said to be ‘state of the art’. Great, he thought, except when he tried saying that out aloud just then, he heard it as ‘fake of the fart’, which wasn’t what he meant at all.
Shit, my brain is getting rambled … no, no, scrambled. What the fuck is going on? Brain humour… tumour… Shit! I’m dying! Nothing to lose, then.
Tehran, Iran – May 28, 2018
“Is this Kasem Ismaili?”
“Yes,” he said as he groggily rubbed his eyes. “Who is this?”
“It’s Nurah Bahar. Do you remember me?”
Kasem sat up abruptly and frowned. “Yes, of course. You’re that friend of Lila’s. Is everything all right?”
“I have a message from her.”
Kasem’s heart started to race. “What is it?”
“We can’t talk about this over the phone. Can you meet me in an hour?”
He reached over to his bedside table to grab his digital alarm clock. He blinked twice in astonishment at the bright red numerals that read 2:04. “In an hour? You mean meet you at three in the morning? Are you crazy?”
“You’re both in danger. Do you want to hear the message or not?”
“Yes, of course! But I have to get to work in a few hours.”
“I’m already breaking the rules by trying to get this message to you. It will all be irrelevant in twenty-four hours.”
“Oh, come on! You have to give me more than that to go on. How do I even know that you’ve spoken to Lila?”
“I have the locket that Lila wore. Will it be proof enough?”
“The locket?” he said and took a deep breath. Lila said that would be the signal. His thoughts began to run toward dark places. “I guess another sleepless night won’t do me any harm,” he finally conceded. “Where should I meet you?”
“The place where we first met. I’ll see you in an hour. Don’t be late.”
The line went dead. Where we first met? It’ll take almost an entire hour to drive there. Kasem groaned as he fumbled around the room to get dressed.
He was en route to his car when he remembered that his friend Jamal was huddled on the couch after locking himself out of his apartment down the hall. He just had to forget his keys tonight. He pulled out his cell phone and typed a hurried text message while stopped at a traffic light.
“Running urgent errand for L on other side of town. See you in few hours.”
Forty minutes later, Kasem pulled up in front of the empty lot where he and Lila had parked the last time they visited this flat on the other side of the city. Choosing the safety of the garage next door instead, he parked his car and walked over to the building.
It was eerily quiet at close to three in the morning. Cars passing by on the nearby highway were few and far between. Kasem shuddered. This had better be an emergency. His thoughts drifted back to Lila and he could feel his stomach tying in knots. He tried to push his mind away from the worst-case scenario to no avail and shuddered once again.
Kasem entered the lobby quietly and walked toward the elevator, which still had a large worn-out sign on it written in Farsi that read, “Elevator out of order.” He pushed open the door to the stairwell and rushed up to the third floor.
He knocked softly when he reached the apartment door. A few moments later, Nurah opened the door a crack.
“Did you come alone?”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Who would I bring with me? It’s three in the morning!”
“I had to be sure. Come in,” she said while opening the door to let him inside the dimly lit apartment.
He stepped past her into the living room and felt something sharp jab him in the neck. “What the h—?” he cried out.
Kasem’s eyes widened as he fought to maintain his vision. In his peripheral vision, he could see two burly men appear from the shadows of the dark room and grab his arms. He tried to lash out, but his muscles refused to respond. His legs started to sway and the room grew even hazier. “Nurah, what are you doing? Who are these men?” He tried to shout, but he could barely hear the whisper that escaped from his throat.
His legs buckled and he fell, first to his knees and then over onto his right side, landing hard on the side of the small couch near the entryway. Without realizing it, his phone slipped out of his pocket.
“I’m so sorry, Kasem. They already knew everything. I have to protect my family.”
In the back of his mind, he could hear the echo of Nurah’s voice.
The room faded as they thrust a dark sack over his head. “Where are you taking me? What do you want with me?” he tried once again to shout.
Then everything went black.